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Mar 2011 Journal

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Germans and Jewish refugees: Some observations

Analyses of relations between the Jewish refugees from Germany and the Germans - a highly sensitive topic - often result merely in the restatement of entrenched positions. Historians and other scholars painstakingly demonstrate that there is a wide spectrum of attitudes among the former refugees, ranging from those who hate Germans and will never forgive the crimes of the Nazi period to those who have largely reconciled themselves to their former homeland and (re-)established friendly relations with Germans, with a huge variety of intermediate positions. (The attitudes of camp survivors are, for obvious reasons, far more uniformly hostile, as letters like that by Frank Bright in our January 2011 issue show.)

The conclusions reached by such investigations depend on the evidence they cite, which may be weighted towards one or other of the two extremes outlined above, according to the investigator’s selection. That evidence in turn depends on the refugee witnesses who provide it, on their particular experiences, their backgrounds, personalities and temperaments, and the often random factors of luck and chance that shaped their lives at crucial junctures. Such studies of refugee attitudes towards Germany and the Germans can be valuable: for example, the chapter on the relations with the Heimat by Charmian Brinson in the book Changing Countries (edited by Marian Malet and myself). But they take us only so far.

The attitudes of individual refugees to Germany (and for that matter to Britain or Israel) are often determined to a very considerable extent by a refugee’s sense of his or her communal identity, the identity that people develop through their identification with a certain defined group and its values, attitudes, customs and practices. It is clear, for example, that the attitudes of strictly observant Jewish refugees towards Germany tend to differ very sharply from those of highly assimilated, secularised refugees, even when their experiences of Nazism and emigration are broadly similar.

Arguably, this relates to their differing social identities: a strictly orthodox Jew will tend to focus on National Socialism as an attempt to exterminate Jews, and, since his/her identity is predominantly defined by its Jewishness, he/she will often adopt an uncompromisingly hostile attitude to Germans, considering them the source of a mortal threat to the essence of his/her being. Assimilated Jews from Germany, by contrast, have often integrated substantial elements of German or German-Jewish social culture into their identity, having abandoned the religiously-based identity of their ancestors. Consequently, they are more likely to acknowledge what they see as the positive elements within the German tradition and to reconcile themselves to the bearers of that tradition and their descendants.

One strictly orthodox Jew interviewed for the AJR’s ‘Refugee Voices’ project declared: ‘I will never set foot on German soil. I don’t want to know them - their country is full of blood. Not only Jewish blood. They didn’t kill only Jews, they killed the gypsies and they killed everybody that isn’t an Aryan. I don’t want to know them; it hurts me whenever I have to buy anything that is made in Germany.’ This total rejection of all things German derives from an almost Manichaean division of the world between Jewry and its enemies, good and evil, Jews and Germans.

Interestingly, this interviewee never actually encountered Germans. He was born in Vienna, went to live at a yeshiva in Slovakia in 1936, and travelled from there to Britain by air in 1938. He did not experience the Anschluss in Austria, did not see a German Nazi and, as he never set foot in Germany, quite likely never has. Neither of his parents died in the Holocaust. But the rabbi he revered was killed by the Nazis, and the entire tradition of orthodox Judaism in Central Europe was wiped out. The interviewee’s attitude to Germans developed, quite logically, from his overriding awareness of Germany as the state that tried to exterminate orthodox Jewry, the group around which his life has revolved and with which he almost exclusively identifies.

Assimilated AJR members like Herbert Sulzbach and Dr Eva G. Reichmann, on the other hand, could not be separated from their identity as German Jews. Sulzbach, who was born into a prominent Frankfurt Jewish family and served with distinction in the German army in the First World War, had been an intensely patriotic German who loved his country. Forced to flee to Britain in 1937, he volunteered for the British forces in the Second World War and became involved in the British programme of re-educating German prisoners of war, as described in our issue of February 2007.

Sulzbach’s attitude to the prisoners in his charge was predicated on the assumption that there was a core of goodness in the majority of Germans that had not been contaminated by National Socialism. As he put it in a memorandum to his camp commandant in autumn 1945: ‘We have the chance of a lifetime to re-educate all POWs. They are willing to learn, willing to abandon all Nazi and even Prussian ideologies. The soil is prepared for the adoption of a new way of German life. If we organise re-education all over this country and wherever POW camps exist, we can turn the Germans into a peace-loving people.’

Sulzbach believed in ‘das andere Deutschland’, the ‘other Germany’ represented between 1933 and 1945 by those Germans who resisted Hitler. When the AJR Information of January 1958 published a book review by Lucie Schachne in which she dismissed the German resistance as insignificant, Sulzbach responded with a heated letter to the editor, published the following month, reminding readers of the many thousands of often anonymous Germans who had helped Jews to survive. He singled out Fräulein Sarre of Neubabelsberg, a forgotten heroine who smuggled a number of Jews across the Swiss frontier by car and ended up in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Eva G. Reichmann, author of one of the earliest scholarly studies of Nazi anti-Semitism, Hostages of Civilization: The Social Sources of National Socialist Anti-Semitism (1950), and a leading historian at the Wiener Library, took a different line in refuting Schachne. While acknowledging that the large majority of Germans had failed to oppose the Nazi regime, she urged refugees not to ignore the minority who had stood by their principles: ‘Strongly though we all feel that we would have liked the whole German people to rise in revolt against the onslaught of barbarism, we should not allow ourselves to air indiscriminate resentments against the failure of the many when dealing with the gallantry of the few.’

Reichmann’s letter conveys the emotional conflict that Nazism had triggered in the hearts of the patriotic, secularised German Jews who before 1933 had integrated into German society, admiring its culture and adopting in part a German identity. That assimilated identity had been torn asunder by the Hitler years, but its memory remained dear to many German-Jewish hearts: ‘To those among us whose former identification with Germany was abruptly and painfully severed by Nazism and all it implied, the story of the German resistance has since come to enshrine at least some of the images of our youth.’ Reichmann had become the spokesperson for those assimilated Jews whose sense of their German-Jewish identity had been shattered by the Holocaust.

In early 1960, Reichmann was invited to speak in Bonn, in the framework of the ‘Woche der Brüderlichkeit’ (Brotherhood Week) that was held annually in West Germany. Shortly before, in late 1959, an outbreak of anti-Semitic graffiti, the so-called ‘Schmier-Epidemie’, had spread across Germany and was interpreted (wrongly) as the work of a large and dangerous neo-Nazi network operating across the country. On what basis, asked Reichmann, could she speak about the situation in Germany? ‘I am no longer a German; I will never be an Englishwoman, for all that England gave me the right to live when my native land denied me it.’ She defined herself as a Jew, formerly German, now British by nationality, and thus with three competing layers of identity. The German and the Jewish components of her identity, however, could never be reunited.

When Hans Reichmann, Eva Reichmann’s husband and chairman of the AJR in 1953-63, died in 1964, a German friend, Franz Böhm, recalled a conversation in which the Reichmanns had participated after Brotherhood Week in 1960. (Böhm had played a key part in the negotiations that led to the institution of restitution payments by the Adenauer government in the early 1950s.) Eugen Gerstenmaier, president of the Bundestag, had maintained that the only options open to Jews after the Shoah were to emigrate to Israel or to become religious Jews; other, assimilated forms of Jewish life were no longer possible.

For the Reichmanns, who held to the assimilated German-Jewish identity with which they had grown up even after settling in Britain, this represented a painful, even insoluble dilemma. As Böhm, deeply moved, noted, Gerstenmaier’s denial of the possibility of an assimilated German-Jewish existence appeared to the Reichmanns to be a denial of their very identity. Unlike orthodox Jews, they had no other anchor to which to attach themselves.

Anthony Grenville

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