One of the most distinctive features that the Jewish refugees from Central Europe brought with them to Britain was their culture. This was a legitimate source of pride to them, for the Jewish contribution to the culture of the German-speaking lands had been enormous; one need only cite the names of Heine and Marx, Freud and Einstein to make the point. After 1933, however, the pride that the German-speaking Jews had felt in assimilating into the German-language culture of their native countries turned very sour indeed.
For some, the Nazi years proved that the project of assimilation into German and Austrian society had been foredoomed to failure, that it was a pathetic delusion based on a misunderstanding of the relations between Jews and gentiles. The pride of the assimilated Jews in their community’s cultural achievements was dismissed as mere Yekke pretentiousness, the product of a misconceived attempt to worship at the altar of German Bildung (education or culture). After 1945, many refugees rejected the German past entirely, abhorring a culture so deeply contaminated by Nazism and its crimes.
But others remained loyal to the culture they had inherited, arguing that much of German-speaking high culture had stood in direct opposition to the Nazis, who had banned and burned it. Many refugees were instinctively inclined to preserve the cultural habits with which they had grown up, the German classics that they had read and the German composers whose works they had listened to. Anyone who knew refugee households in the post-war decades will remember shelves stacked with volumes of Schiller, Fontane and Thomas Mann, not to mention Erich Kästner or the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera. The Wigmore Hall in those decades was seldom without its faithful audience of refugees, eager for their fix of Beethoven or Brahms, Schubert or Hugo Wolf.
German-language culture had become a core component of German-Jewish identity. Ever since the emancipation of the Jews of Germany in the eighteenth century, inspired by figures like Moses Mendelssohn, the assimilated German Jews had increasingly abandoned traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices, putting behind them what they saw as the backwardness and superstition of the ghetto. Instead, they embraced the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, tolerance and equal rights. In politics, this led German Jews to support liberalism and constitutional government, in the realm of culture to immerse themselves in the literature, music and art of the German classical canon. It has often been said that they replaced religious observance with high culture – German high culture, associated with names like Kant, Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven.
Pride of place was reserved for Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s drama Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1779), a play with a Jewish hero by a (non-Jewish) founding father of the German theatre. Set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, Nathan makes a powerful dramatic plea for tolerance and the overcoming of religious prejudices. The main character, a wise Jew based on Lessing’s friend Moses Mendelssohn, has learnt to forgive those who murdered his family in a pogrom. With the backing of the enlightened Muslim ruler Saladin, he works towards a reconciliation between the three great religions, a project endangered by the principal representative of Christianity, who relapses all too easily into violent, mindless prejudice.
When the Jüdischer Kulturbund was set up in 1933 to promote Jewish culture inside Nazi Germany, the first play that the Jewish actor-director Fritz Wisten staged was, demonstratively, Nathan; and when he resumed his theatrical career in 1945 it was again with a production of Nathan. For German Jews like Wisten, the play took its place both at the onset of Nazi barbarism - as a symbol of Jewish self-assertion - and at its end - as a token of the survival, amidst the rubble of Hitler’s Reich, of humane, civilised values. In 1954 the Council of Jews from Germany, the organisation representing the German Jews who had been forced to flee abroad, decided to set up the Leo Baeck Institute, dedicated to the preservation of the cultural and intellectual heritage of German Jewry. And when the Institute planned a history of the Jews in Germany, it set 1779, the year of Nathan der Weise, as its starting date.
The German Jews abroad almost came to see themselves as true heirs to the high tradition of German-language culture. A report in AJR Information of December 1960 on the conference of the Council of Jews from Germany expressed their pride in their cultural heritage:
The Jews from Germany have not evaded the historic task imposed on them. They have utilised their organising capacity, their knowledge and their capabilities to the advantage of the countries to which they have emigrated – but they have not been forgetful of their own tradition, nor of their history and the obligations arising therefrom. Their desire is to preserve in its vitality what has been handed down to them, for the service both of the present and the future.
Noble words; but surveying both the high accomplishments of assimilated German Jewry and the catastrophe in which it ended, one is inclined to cite Amos Elon’s epitaph for it: ‘The pity of it all’.