November 21, 2018

New generation shifts Holocaust conversation in ‘Germans & Jews’

There is one line in the documentary film “Germans & Jews” that illustrates, better than statistics or scholarly studies, the difference between Hitler’s Reich and present-day Germany.

Given the Nazis’ racial ideology, the absolutely worst and most unforgivable insult one could level at an “Aryan” German was that he “looked” or “acted” like a Jew.

Discussing such a scenario, but set in the present, Susanne Suermondt, a German Catholic, observes in the film, “The biggest compliment you could give me is to say that I look Jewish.”

This praiseworthy change has another, perhaps more uncomfortable, side. Rebecca Gop, a Jewish journalist and mother in Berlin, tells of her soccer-playing teenager who represented Germany at the 2011 European Maccabi Games in Vienna.

He and his fellow Jewish teammates marched into the stadium behind the German flag, occasionally shouting a lusty “Deutschland, Deutschland.” Gop, perhaps like most Jews of previous generations, could only wince at the image.

The concept and production of “Germans & Jews” grew out of a conversation initiated by Tal Recanati, an American-born Jewish entrepreneur, and her longtime friend Janina Quint, a German gentile.

Both were interested in films and initially thought of doing a documentary about the present Jewish community in Germany. Eventually, though, they decided to focus on a more “dynamic” topic, the relationship between Germans and Jews among the second and third post-Holocaust generations.

Dividing the responsibilities, Quint became director and producer, and Recanati executive producer and producer.

The film’s primary location is a large dinner table in a Berlin home around which sit five German Jews, three non-Jewish Germans, one American Jew and one Israeli, all living or working in Berlin. Their back-and-forth discussions are augmented by a number of individual interviews.

The film’s creators and participants are impelled by different and often complex motivations and backgrounds. For instance, Quint said in an interview with the Journal that her maternal grandfather was an early member of the Nazi Party and was seriously wounded during World War II while fighting against American troops.

By contrast, her paternal grandfather was an early opponent of Hitler and in the mid-1930s left Germany for Spain to fight against the fascist insurgency of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Quint has lived in New York for many years with her Jewish husband. Their three children have been raised with a “dual heritage,” she said.

Some statistics about Jews in Germany are quite precise, while others fall within broad ranges. During the Weimar Republic, Quint said, the national 1925 census counted some 523,000 respondents who identified themselves as Jews (while likely omitting a considerable number of born Jews who converted to Christianity).

Surprisingly, more than 3,000 German Jews survived the Holocaust by living underground, passing as Aryans or being married to gentiles. There are no precise and authoritative figures on how many Jews live in Germany now, though Quint believes the number ranges from 200,000 to 250,000.

Germany’s largest concentration of Jews is in Berlin, now cited as the fastest-growing Jewish community in Europe, followed by such German cities as Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich. Among their Jewish populations, some are descendants of German Jews who left after 1933, but the major increase is due to immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.

Also noticeable has been a considerable influx of Israelis, many of them artists, although their exact number is not known. Rough estimates put their number as between 10,000 and 40,000, although some cite much higher figures.

For the first two decades following the end of World War II in 1945, Germans were largely in a state of denial about their country’s war and Holocaust atrocities. Starting in the early 1960s, German attitudes shifted. Among the factors were the trial of Adolf Eichmann and, five years later, the sentencing by a German court of many of the men and women who ran the Auschwitz death camp.

Adding to the confluence of events were the release of powerful television and movie productions on the Holocaust, and rebellions against the old order throughout Germany and much of Europe, fueled by a new generation.

Young Germans started to question their parents and grandparents about their roles during the Nazi era and the war, and an anti-nationalist wave swept the country, to the point, in the words of one German, “If you were patriotic, you were considered a weirdo.”

Participating in the lively discussions was the recently deceased historian Fritz Stern, author of “Five Germanys I Have Known.” In a not uncommon German-Jewish scenario during the pre-Hitler era, Stern declared, “My grandparents converted, but the Nazis made me a Jew again.”

A renowned historian at New York’s Columbia University, he returned to Germany in 1950, and, at the time, was struck by the citizenry’s “capacity for self-pity, sense of darkness and state of shock.”

Some other illustrative observations in the film, made during discussions and interviews with various people, include the following:

“When my (Jewish) father returned to Germany right after the war, he was not accepted by either the Germans or Diaspora Jews.”

“In 1979, when I was a German boy of 13, I sat in front of the television set, without my father, for hours and hours watching the NBC series ‘Holocaust.’ I was appalled and asked my parents if this really happened.”

“Hitler tightened the vise on German Jews, a little step at a time. One day there was an edict that Jews could buy bread only between 4 and 5 in the afternoon. Then came another order that Jews could sit only on special benches, painted yellow, when visiting a park.”

“Like many young Israelis, I felt repulsed by Israeli politics. As a musician, I was drawn to life in Berlin and came here 20 years ago.”

 “It’s not sexy to be German,” says a young German. “If I say instead that I’m a European, it shows that I’m progressive.”

A Jewish tour guide: “Most Germans never meet a Jew … Jews will never be accepted as Germans.”

In the eyes of many Germans, the fighting and killing in 2014 in the Gaza Strip turned the image of Jews from victims into perpetrators, giving rise to some “unacceptable” anti-Semitism.

“As an Israeli, I feel much safer in Germany than anywhere else.”

And, as a final comment: “As a Jew, I have met quite a few philo-Semites in Germany. … They embrace us so tightly that you can’t breathe.”

Today, it is the rare German who is not reminded of the Holocaust on a daily basis. There are memorials throughout the country, constant articles in newspapers, and, in Berlin, the massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the “Topography of Terror” exhibits at the former Gestapo headquarters.

Across Germany and other European countries, there are some 56,000 stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) embedded into the walkways in front of homes, each inscribed with the names of Jews and other Nazi victims who once lived there, including birth and deportation dates, and the dates and locations of their murder in concentration camps.

The memory of the Holocaust remains so strong that, to this day, it influences aspects of German foreign policy. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently opened her country’s borders to 1 million refugees from Syria and other countries, the underlying message was that Germans are a good people now, as one German academician wrote. There is no way these refugees would be put on death trains and sent back. 

After finishing her film, Quint observed that Germans continue to feel a sense of responsibility for the Holocaust, an “event of biblical scale, whose meaning will never go away,” she said. But, she added, for the third post-Holocaust generation of Germans, the sense of personal responsibility is gone.

She doesn’t know whether the relationship between Germans and Jews ever will become completely “normal,” but the Jewish people need to realize that today’s Germany has shed the legacy of Hitler’s Reich, she said.

In an odd way, Quint added, Germans and Jews are now connected forever by the horror of the Holocaust.

“Germans & Jews” opens Sept. 9 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.