Germany: An Outsider’s View Of A Jew – Alex Gordon

I think of my many visits to Germany, which turned out to be emotionally stressful trips, for a Jew cannot come to Germany as an ordinary country. Germany is not easy.

In 1991, I was working at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart. That was my first visit to Germany. There were ten times fewer Jews then than there are now. The Jewish question was asked and answered mostly by Germans. On November 9, I arrived in the East German city of Magdeburg, which reminded me of a Soviet city I had long forgotten, dark in the evenings, with bulky and noisy streetcars and squalid stores. The Elbe greeted me somberly. The Berlin Wall was gone, but there were still Soviet soldiers in Magdeburg. After a long break I saw the soldiers of the Soviet Union, a state that had ceased to exist a month and a half after my meeting with its occupying contingent. I arrived in Magdeburg at the invitation of M. M., a retired professor at the local university, a Jewish woman, a former Muscovite, a former prisoner of Soviet camps, who had lived in Germany for more than thirty years by then. On the day I arrived, M. M. and her husband, retired German professor Martin, took me to the Jewish cemetery. The 53rd anniversary of Kristallnacht was being celebrated. At the mourning ceremony, the young Germans apologized to the Jewish people for the crimes of their fathers and promised to prevent this horror from happening again in Germany. The cemetery was attended by a group of Soviet Jews who had just moved to Germany, brought there by a former member of the Socialist United Party of Germany of the former German Democratic Republic, a newcomer to the Magdeburg Jewish community. When we returned from the cemetery, a neo-Nazi demonstration in the neighboring city of Halle was televised…

A month after visiting Magdeburg, I came to Munich on a working visit. At the local university, my colleague from Germany, Tim Salditt, was finishing his thesis. Tim, a native of Koblenz, had become my student a year and a half before I met him in Germany. He had come to France to do coursework and learn French. He was assigned to me. Then he came to Israel, and we published an article in an American physical journal. In Munich we continued our work and published an article in a British physical journal. Tim, who was drawn to Israel and had written a dedication to me in Hebrew on his thesis, decided to show me Munich. We went to the place where the Jewish head of the Bavarian government, Kurt Eisner, was murdered by a nationalist in 1919 and visited the beer hall where Hitler’s “beer putsch” began in 1923. Tim studied at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, which had not hired Heinrich Heine and deprived Lion Feuchtwanger of his doctorate for his dissertation on Heine’s unfinished work, “The Bacharach Rabbi”. Munich, December 1991. Tim and I are sitting in a cafe; he is painfully talking about Germany’s past, about Munich, about the Bavarian Revolution, about the Nazi beer coup, about the struggle against Hitler’s regime of counted Germans who were trapped in the nearby Dachau death camp. He condemns the Germans for Nazism and asks what I think about the future of German-Jewish ties. Does the head of the group at the Institute for X-Ray Physics, Professor Tim Zalditt of the University of Göttingen, still care about this problem?

I lived in the Büssnau district of Stuttgart, where the Max Planck Institute is located. From my landlord, Mr. Maurer, I learned about his life and service in 1941 in Kiev, where I was born and grew up, and where members of my family had laid down their lives against Nazi bullets. I learned from him about the warm welcome given by the “native” population of Kiev to the occupiers and about the active participation of the locals in the murders of Jews in Babiy Yar. Maurer was a paramedic in Hitler’s air force. He was thirty seven years old in September 1941. He was a newly mobilized nurse and described with shudder the friendly welcome given to the “Nazis” (in quotes, the narrator’s words. ̶ A.G.) by the local population. He heard the sounds of the executioners’ shots in Babiy Yar. Maurer’s wife said that he had nightmares all his life, a consequence of his experiences in Kiev. She recalled how he woke up to the sound of machine gun fire, the screams of Jews marching to their deaths, and the prayers of “Shma Israel!” (“Hear, Israel!”). He was waking up, and my relatives were sleeping soundly there. Germany’s Nazi past suddenly came to me in the story of a “guest” in Kiev, the German soldier Maurer. Germany is not an easy country for a Jew…

The night of December 31, 1991 to January 1, 1992, found me in an activity I had long forgotten during my years in Israel: welcoming the New Year in the “Ambassador” hotel in Frankfurt, on the Mosel street, next to the central railway station. There I met, many years later, a childhood friend of mine, V. F., who had moved from the USSR to Germany a week before I arrived from Stuttgart to Frankfurt. Next to my friend I saw newly arrived Soviet Jews, pioneers of the settlement of Germany. They were confused, unsure of themselves and their future, and full of remorse before me, an Israeli living in the Jewish state from which they had fled to the country of the “final solution of the Jewish question” to solve their Jewish question. I was from the same country as them, spoke the same language as them, but lived in the country of their people, which they avoided “because of climate, wars, and religiosity.” New Year’s Eve became for them a night of confession before me. They were ashamed, confused, and anxious to explain to me why they preferred Germany to Israel. I didn’t ask anyone about anything, I didn’t judge anyone. I listened in silence to stories about the reasons for moving to Germany, the lamentation for the lost country of the Jews, the shame, and the explanations of their love for Israel. Some expressed a desire to move to a Jewish state someday. Zionism beat in their hearts for hours. The New Year came, a new German life began, and they were intensely involved in learning a new language and a new country, which for them would never be their own. I caught them in a moment of truth, in a moment of weakness, and they filled the New Year’s Eve with apologies and excuses.

Seven years passed, and I was working at a research institute in Rhine-Westphalia, the birthplace of Heine. The little town of Jülich is named after Julius Caesar. It is located between Aachen and Cologne. In 1998, while I was working at the Institute for Solid State Physics there, my son Ariel came to visit me. When he arrived, he said, “Dad, to be in Germany and not visit the Bergen-Belsen camp means to miss something very important.” In 1978, before leaving for Israel, I took four-year-old Ariel to Babiy Yar. We came to say goodbye to those who could not leave with us. When Ariel later went to Munich for a conference, he visited the Dachau concentration camp. I followed his example a few years later. After my son told me about wanting to go to Bergen-Belsen, I thought, “Strange upbringing,” and then asked myself: “Is it really mine?” We started looking for Bergen-Belsen at travel agencies. No one knew there was such a tourist attraction. There is the city of Bergen, there is the village of Belsen, there is no such place as Bergen-Belsen. The guidebooks didn’t have this point, but we went there anyway. I told Ariel, “Go to Bonn, go to the Beethoven Museum, and then find out from the Israeli embassy how to get there.” So, he did, and we drove to Hannover. It was a long drive, with many transfers. In Hannover we found traces of Bergen-Belsen: the employee of the local travel agency said that as a child she was taken to this place, but she understood nothing and went there again as an adult. From Hannover we drove to the neighboring town Celle. There we spent the night in a hotel, to which the cab driver brought us.  He didn’t charge us any money. Why?

Germany is not an easy country for Jews, but it is also not an easy country for Germans. If you have arrived from Israel and are on your way to a former concentration camp, amazing things can happen to you. As we got into a cab to go to our hotel, the driver asked where we came from and what we were looking for in such an uninteresting area for tourists? Bergen-Belsen… He was about 50 years old in 1998. From the moment he found out about the purpose of our visit and the place we came from, the dialogue turned into a monologue. It took us an hour to get to the hotel, which was a five-minute drive away. Only the chauffeur spoke: “Those shameful 12 years must be blotted out of German history. Those were terrible years for our nations.” His voice was trembling. He was mixing up words: “The Germans were no longer part of the human race. Everything that existed deep in the Germans’ subconscious came out of some dark abyss and created unprecedented crimes. The illegal became legal, the ugly became beautiful, the counterfeit became valid. When I grew up and learned what had happened, I did not want to live in Germany. I moved to England. I was unable to consider myself a German. I am a European.” All the while the cab was standing still and he was talking. Then he drove us to our hotel and could not part ways: “This is the first time I’ve seen Israelis. I’ve read a lot about your wonderful country. I have not been to Israel, but I am sure that such a wise people must have a wonderful country. It should not only be protected from your environment. Things can go back to the way they were in Germany. Nazism has not been completely defeated. I know that Russian Jews moved to Germany. What for? History is repeating itself.” There were tears in his eyes. He saw Jewish survivors going to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp…

When we entered the hotel, the owner, surprised to see foreign tourists, asked where we were from and where we were going. We told him. He was quiet and, as if continuing a discussion with someone, said: “That’s a moot point.” I tried to determine his age: he was a little boy at the time. The next morning, we drove to the camp, first by bus and then, after checking with the locals, by cab. The memorial is impressive. Materials about the camp in Hebrew are sold and partly given for free. A film is shown in English and German. We walked in a mixed forest through the camp area and after half an hour we came to the grave of Anna Frank. A few days later we arrived in Amsterdam, Ariel was there for the first time. He went to the very house where Anna was hiding and walked there for a long time. He came out tense and gloomy. We walked away from Anna’s grave and continued to wander. We did not meet any tourists. Not far away from us was a group of German police officers. They were listening to the tour guide’s story. As we were leaving in a cab from the memorial to the bus to return to Jülich, the girl chauffeur said to us, “We’ve all been through it.” We didn’t understand. She pointed to the tour of the police officers and repeated: “We’ve all been through it. We need relapse vaccinations.”

After that trip to Jülich, the idea for my books on German Jews was born. It began with the first dual German-Jewish image I encountered in life, that of Heinrich Heine, whose researcher was my father. Heine led a double life as a German and a Jew. In the preface to his poem “Germany. A Winter’s Tale.” (1844) he writes of his “strange love for the fatherland”: “I love the fatherland no less than you do. Because of this love I spent thirteen years in exile, but it is because of this love that I am returning to exile, perhaps forever, without whimpering and crooked mournful grimaces.” In one letter, Heine argued that the main role in his move to France was played “not so much by his passion for wandering the world, as by painful personal circumstances, such as his Jewishness that could not be washed away.” He believed that he had harmed himself by converting to Lutheranism: “As soon as I was baptized I was scolded as a Jew. […] Now I am hated equally by Jews and Christians. I very much regret that I was baptized: not only did it not make my life better, but on the contrary, ̶  since then I have nothing but trouble and misfortune”. Bitterly scoffing at his baptism, Heine told Balzac: “I was sprinkled, but not baptized. Heine criticized the anti-Semitic Jewish crossbaptists: “Among the Jewish crossbaptists there are many who, out of cowardly hypocrisy, speak criminally of Jewry. They behave worse than Jew-haters from birth. […] Famous writers, in order to avoid being reminded of their Jewish origins, harm Jews or silence them. This is a well-known, sad and ludicrous phenomenon.”       In 1851, Heine published Jewish Melodies in his collection Romancero. They consist of three poems: Princess Sabbath, dedicated to the Sabbath, Yehuda ben Halevi and Dispute. The poem Yehuda ben Galevi is an account of the Jewish poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Yehuda Halevi, ibn Ezra, and ibn Gvirol. The Dispute depicts the ideological struggle between Christianity and Judaism. Heine’s poem about the Cordoban poet, physician, philosopher, and rabbi Yehuda Halevi is the quintessential expression of the German poet’s ambivalent attitude toward the Jews. It is an expression of his longing for and detachment from Jewry, his deep knowledge of its sad history, his sympathy for its troubles, and his teasing of it. Unlike the Jewish poet, Heine did not believe in the possibility of a Jewish homeland in the country of Israel. In his Diary (1910–1913) Franz Kafka wrote of him: “Unhappy man. The Germans accused him and accuse him of being a Jew, while he is a German, and a small German in conflict with the Jews. And this is precisely what is typically Jewish about him.”     Two-thirds of the characters in my books are German-speaking Jews. After the publication in 1783 of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s book Jerusalem, it was believed that the solution to the Jewish question lay in the dual life of the people: the Jew must profess Judaism, but belong to the German nation. In this way, according to the philosopher, the Jew is organically integrated into the nation professing Christianity, while retaining the characteristics of his religion and culture. The duality suggested by Mendelssohn was a heavy burden for German Jews, the double burden of belonging to two nations. This modus vivendi pushed them toward a choice that was more often in favor of the dominant nation. The stone that Mendelssohn rolled to the summit of Jewish liberation fell to the foot of the mountain like the stone of Sisyphus. The dual way of life was tried by the Jews of the Diaspora, including the Jews of the USSR. Everywhere it gave bad results. People were mesmerized by the illusion of equality and mentally traumatized by its collapse.     The German Jewish community was destroyed. Individuals emigrated from Germany. No requiem has been written for the outstanding community of the Jewish people. In my books I wanted to remember them, how they lived, created, destroyed, erred, and hoped. I first came to Germany half a century after the disappearance of the Jewish community. I caught a glimpse of the ruins. I turned to the past, to portraits of prominent German-speaking Jews, tracing the manifestations of Jewish duality in the thinking and actions of these remarkable people, the consequences of their rejection of Jewishness. I describe their mental split caused by the desire to be “normal” like everyone else and to remain Jewish, as well as showing the desire of some of the book’s characters to break with Jewishness for the sake of “higher ideals”.

I have spoken many times in German Jewish communities about Israel and presented my books. When I wrote about German Jews of the past, I unintentionally compared them to German Jews of the present, from the Soviet Union. Unlike their predecessors, Germans in language and culture, Soviet Jews in Germany are foreigners and their children are neither Jews nor Germans. The disappeared Jews of Germany had deep roots in the country, but they were ripped out of it along with their roots. The children of today’s Soviet Jews, holders of German passports, have no roots in the country of which they are citizens, but yearn, like their predecessors, to take root, to dissolve in Germany. They lack the intimate, unique connection to the country that German Jews had before the Holocaust. They are lost in identification, wandering among churches to which they have no connection, passing Jewish cemeteries where their families are not buried, reading novels and poems about love for their homeland written by people far removed from them in spirit. They are the desert generation in a land of plentiful rainfall, great rivers and lakes. The German authorities decided to revive the Jewish community, even though it was known that the Jews brought here were thinking, feeling, living concepts learned in Soviet life. Jewish life in Germany ended with the disappearance of the old community in the 1930s and 1940s. Today’s Jews have no German past, on which the continuation of national life rests, and no Jewish future. If they were interested in Jewish values, they would repatriate, to Israel. They were afraid of wars, terrorist attacks, military service. But they were not afraid that the Middle East would come to them in the form of Arab refugees. They were going to Europe, but they ended up in Asia and Africa. Soviet Jews know little of their German predecessors, speak less of their language, use Germany as a comfortable European home with a mild climate away from their people. The Germany of the heroes of my books, a foreign country to Soviet Jews, is not an easy one.


Alex Gordon is a native of Kiev (Soviet Ukraine) and graduate of the Kiev State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Science, 1984). Full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa. Author of 9 books and about 600 articles in 79 journals in 14 countries in Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.

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