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- Published on Amazon.com
Once upon a time, the Jews wandered around Europe looking for a home, and settled in Germany. With occasional setbacks, the Jews and Germans flourished. The Germans and Jews, like iron and carbon, created the highest development of art, music, science, medicine, law, politics, finance, journalism and business in the world, from concert halls to department stores. The Jews became loyal Germans, and fought for the Kaiser.
Then the Germans went crazy and killed the Jews. It was unfortunate for the Germans, and even more unfortunate for the Jews, although it was in a sense fortunate for the rest of the world, particularly America that received the Jews.
The Germans soon came back to their senses, but it was too late. Like the Bavarian pine vole, the Jews were almost extinct. The critical mass was gone. It was hard to get a minyan together, let alone a Communist spy cell.
Still, the Jews, and Germans, are trying to recover their old German-Jewish culture, with the encouragement of the German government and well-funded Jewish foundations. And that is the subject of this book, on Berlin, the center of German Jewish life.
Can the old Berlin Jewish culture be recreated? No.
They've recreated something, and it's good, but like a frozen bagel, it's not quite the same.
The 8,000 German Jews who made it through the war and remain are swamped by the Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, Israel, and the U.S. The Russian Jews are politically more conservative, and have voted the Germans out of their leadership in the community (and government-funded) organizations. There are more gay Israelis in Berlin than in Tel Aviv. Every Hanukkah, the Lubavitchers from Brooklyn raise the world's largest and ugliest menorah before the Brandenburg Gate.
One guest missing from the Berlin Jewish table is the Communist Party, which (with occasional setbacks) protected the Jews and treated them pretty well. The few remaining Communists remind us that they liberated Auschwitz and Berlin, gave their lives with the Red Orchestra spy network, and fought Hitler to the death. The East Germans allowed an American rabbi to run a congregation. He had an affair with one of his congregants, married her, and they tried to return to the U.S. They had difficulty because her father was Deputy of the Interior, i.e., head of the secret police. A Jew was running the East German secret police.
Many Berlin Jews of the old generation wanted nothing more to do with Germany. But now, the younger generations of Jews and Germans want their heritage back, and Berlin is a good place to do it. A German Jew from the U.S. married a German woman, and his brother furiously opposed the marriage. But at the wedding, his brother hit it off very well with her father. They shared the culture. How often do you meet someone who can recognize a quote from Goethe?
This paperback is translated from the 2001 German edition and updated with the recent history of the Berlin Jewish community, with typical German and Jewish scholarship and insight. While there are many books on Jews in Berlin, this is a good overview; the introductory chapters are particularly good at highlighting the important ideas among the details.
One weakness is a superficial treatment of science and medicine in Berlin, where half the doctors were Jewish, and which was preeminent in the world. Jewish scientists who studied in Berlin include Friedrich Henle, who named the tubule of Henle in the kidney, and Nobel laureate Fritz Haber, who invented the Haber process for nitrogen fixation that fed the world (and also poison gas in World War I). Some German doctors fought for their Jewish colleagues, and some German doctors betrayed them.
The book was sponsored by several German and Jewish organizations, and is perhaps flawed by a German politeness about sensitive subjects, and an uncharacteristic un-Jewish reluctance to treat the Jewish establishment with our customary Jewish irreverence. There is no mention of the Palestinians.
I read with pleasure of the re-emergence of a Berlin of Jews and Germans, and look forward to satire and libel suits again, this time without the Nazis. As we tell the Palestinians, let's not dwell on what happened 50 years ago.