Nov 2005 Journal

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A loyal and patriotic German Jew (book review)

by Moses Goldschmidt
ed. Raymond Fromm
Ellert & Richter Verlag GmbH, Hamburg 2004, 208 pp., price unknown

This is a retrospective, autobiographical account of Moses Goldschmidt's life up to his emigration from Hamburg to Brazil, belatedly edited by his granddaughter's husband. Goldschmidt came from an orthodox family and the young Moses was required to attend synagogue twice a day. Although he asked for a Jewish funeral, it is not clear whether his religious beliefs survived into adult life. Indeed, there are some curious gaps: although, for example, we are told of his marriage in 1907 to Anita Friedmann, who predeceased him, and we learn quite a lot about his beloved three children, his wife remains a shadowy figure.

For anyone who loves Hamburg, the early chapters describing the history and life of this city, with its international connections and liberal tradition, will make for interesting reading. Goldschmidt gives us a charming and detailed description of his childhood years there, and his love of, and pride in, the city of his birth is evident. He became a doctor and we learn of his student life in Wurzburg, where he developed a circle of good friends and was very happy. These were the good old days, at the turn of the century, when antisemitism did not seem to intrude into the life of educated German Jews.

Back in Hamburg, Goldschmidt became a much sought-after doctor and his medical experiences are described in detail, as are his medical friends and colleagues, many of them not Jewish. At one point, he became the resident doctor of the steamer Itaparica and this took him to Brazil, a country to which both his sons gravitated when economic conditions in Germany became problematic. His medical practice in Hamburg flourished until the Nazi period took its toll in the late 1930s. Because of his profession, he escaped military service in the First World War but Goldschmidt was a loyal and patriotic German Jew, as were so many others.

We hear a great deal about his illnesses, his house purchases, his professional life and his children. His older son had the good sense to emigrate to Brazil, via Shanghai, as early as 1933, where he was later joined by his brother, who proved to be a not very successful businessman and gave his father considerable cause for concern. Ellen, his daughter, secured a job in Paris with a German firm and later married an Englishman, whose passport enabled them to leave France after the Germans had overrun it. It is striking that Goldshmidt himself did not consider leaving his beloved Hamburg for safety abroad until late in the day in 1939, when he joined his sons in Brazil.

As the author was of my father's generation, I had hoped to discover more about the life of Jews in the Nazi era but, although several interrogations by members of the Gestapo, in which he stood his ground courageously, are described, especially in connection with his proposed emigration, anyone keen to discover how the Nazis impinged on Jewish life, and how German Jews had to suffer increasing indignities and loss of liberty, will have to return to the brutally honest diaries of Viktor Klemperer. Although Goldschmidt does, of course, touch on this topic, it would seem that he did not feel especially oppressed by Hitler's racial laws, restrictions and humiliations. Perhaps he was partly shielded by his professional status and the more liberal, laissez-faire attitude prevalent in Hamburg.

His few years in Brazil - he died in 1943 - were depressing for him even though he developed great affection for his grandsons; he never came to terms with his rejection by the country he loved and he grieved at the loss of much of his wealth. His autobiography was never completed for it ends with his departure from Germany in 1939. Although he was extremely fortunate compared with the majority of his Jewish compatriots, he died, it would seem, a disappointed man.

The book, which is written in elegant, old-fashioned German, has a scholarly introduction by the historian Ortwin Pelc on Jewish life in Germany between the time of the Kaiser and the National Socialists.

Leslie Baruch Brent

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