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Nov 2011 Journal

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On the ruins of Jerusalem (review)

The Cajewitz Foundation runs a number of residences in Berlin for ‘Senioren’, the politically correct German term for old age pensioners. In addition, they have now published Zeitströme, a volume of penetrating interviews with their residents, mainly former East Germans, about their life in the ‘realen Sozialismus’ of the German Democratic Republic.

This reviewer, who as a broadcaster travelled repeatedly in the GDR, was astonished by their nostalgia for that world. I recall 1989, struggling to push my way through jubilant crowds as the Wall was breached and the regime collapsed. But the six witnesses in this volume retain a far more positive view of that other Germany. I will concentrate on the longest interview - and by far the most interesting. It is with a Jewish couple, Henny and Norbert Jacob, interviewed sensitively by their own son, a psychologist.

Both parents came from leftist families. Henny, a Berliner from a poor Polish-Jewish background, managed to escape as the Gestapo pounded on the door to arrest her family. The family perished at Auschwitz, but she found shelter with a succession of non-Jewish Communist Party members who hid her at great risk to themselves.

Henny’s future husband, Norbert, came from an assimilated German-Jewish family of theatre directors/actors. They migrated to Palestine when he was a child. However, as he grew up, he decided to return to build a new Germany: ‘I could never accept that the Nazis could deprive me of my homeland.’ He disliked the attitude of many Jews in Palestine towards their Arab neighbours; to him, it resembled the Nazi attitude to Jews. He joined the Jewish Brigade of the British army. In 1945, stationed in Italy, he was on a course learning to use explosives for demolition. When neither he nor his mates displayed any interest (the war was virtually over), their officer bawled them out: ‘You idiots! Hasn’t it dawned on you that this is not for use in this war but for later - against Arabs and their houses!’ This increased his alienation. When posted to Germany, he and several comrades from the Jewish Brigade deserted and went east.

Norbert and his future wife involved themselves with enthusiasm in what became the GDR. They wanted to ensure, they said, that nothing like the Nazi regime could ever arise again. Conditions were bad. They lived on very meagre rations in bad accommodation but worked long hours. Both were offered an excellent education, which opened careers to them. Their spare time was employed with ‘enttrümmern’ - clearing the rubble of bombed buildings and recycling bricks. Holidays were spent helping with harvesting. They became Communist Party members and worked as educators and later as administrators. In old age, they became somewhat more critical of some of the failings of their state. They disliked the segregated and protected suburbs reserved for high Party officials. On the other hand, they found the Soviet suppression of popular protests in June 1953 fully justified. Similarly, they defend the later building of the Berlin Wall: ‘One had to act to save the achievements of our state.’

In fact, there were considerable achievements: living standards did rise, though never remotely as high as in West Germany. But the West had benefited from American aid and investment. Nevertheless, the GDR performed better than other Warsaw Pact countries. As one of their Czech friends said jocularly: ‘You know, Comrade Jacob, with you Prussians even the worst system will function somehow!’

Norbert and Henny, both obviously intelligent people, harboured private concerns about the suppression of free discussion within the Party. One example: Henny, as a young woman, had volunteered to go to Yugoslavia to help with the building of the Youth Railway, but overnight Tito and Yugoslav comrades (some of whom they had met) were declared criminals and fascists. No explanation was offered. As disciplined Party members, they confined their doubts to themselves.

The 20th Soviet Party Congress, which revealed Stalin’s crimes, shocked them deeply: ‘Yes, we found that difficult to digest.’ However, in 1968, they justified the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia: ‘We had to prevent the country breaking out of the Socialist camp.’ Later, doubts occurred: had they been given true information about Dubcek’s reformist aims?

They raised three children who all received an excellent education funded by the state. Henny had a major role in developing the deep sea fishing industry of East Germany. Later, she worked on co-ordinating food production between the GDR, Bulgaria and Poland. Norbert hoped to join the diplomatic service, but the years he had spent in the West made him suspect and thus ruled him out. He did, however, join the Ministry of Foreign Trade and helped to develop trade with India and the ‘developing world’. Later, he became a university lecturer on international affairs.

Asked about their attitude to Judaism, Henny replied: ‘I share a fate with many. It’s that simple. I‘ve had nothing to do with the religion. I’ve never belonged to a Jewish community. But instinctively I’m interested in Judaism. The problems of Israel don’t leave me cold. Whether I hear good or bad, I prick up my ears. If Jews accomplish something good, I’m proud as if one of my own family had done so. But I also see things that displease me. I’ve not become blind.’

Norbert added: ‘I’ve never felt proud to be a Jew. I did nothing to become one. I was born into it. But being joined by a common fate does definitely play a role. When Jews achieve something positive I’m happy. It gives me joy when a magnificent pianist or violin virtuoso is called Zuckerman or Perlman or Barenboim … Henny and I often laugh about it, but there it is. There has never been a period when we would have wished not to be Jewish.’

On the other hand, as the years passed, their attitude to the GDR became more disenchanted: ‘Our rigid Party discipline was wrong. Decisions have to be debated and worked on.’ Norbert, more than his wife, became critical of the Politburo – but, as he emphasises, never of a socialist society as such. When the collapse came, they said they felt they had lost their Heimat for a second time. ‘When I heard that slogan “Deutschland – einig Vaterland” I knew that meant capitalist Germany. That’s the end of our GDR … We saw the past coming back. For 40 years we had worked to ensure we would never have it back … I hate this world of accountants. The books have to balance. Don’t you think it pains us that one of our sons, who has had a decent education, has to live off the dole? ... that people of 40, 45 or 50 can find no work? … that they’re discarded as scrap metal? I ask myself repeatedly: was all my life in vain? I had hoped to see a little more success from the things for which I gave my strength, my thoughts and my life … Yes, we live here, but it is no longer our world. I speak my opinions only in the limited circle of others who, like us, sit on the ruins of Jerusalem and weep.’

Henny died in 2009. This reviewer, who spent an entire life in the opposite camp (I was responsible for BBC broadcasts to Eastern Europe), nevertheless found this testimony deeply moving.

Peter Fraenkel

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