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In Land of the Murderers
Four men are standing on the street corner. They are archetypes of Aryan perfection: the shortest of them is a strapping six feet, and all have sandy hair so brilliant it seems to reflect the fall sunlight. They are trying hard not to appear the federal policemen that they are. Their elbows rest close to their sides to shield the bulge of guns, their hair is pulled forward to conceal the tiny wires running from their ears. They train their sights on one another, avoiding eye contact with passersby, yet their senses are keenly tuned to the squat white brick building behind them.
At last, a middle-aged man emerges. Slightly stooped and graying, he is as obviously Semitic as they are Nordic. His nose is prominent and slanted, his lips full, his blue-gray eyes at once thoughtful and sad.
In an earlier era, the four men in green sweaters and brown pants would not have hesitated to drag the Jew away to certain imprisonment, probable death. That is precisely what plainclothes policemen like these did half a century beforeto this man's eleven-year-old sister. This time, however, they greet him with an embrace and a joke, helping him into the backseat of one of two idling Mercedeses. Paul Spiegel, top man in the Jewish community of Dusseldorf and vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is their ward. He is their VIP visitor.
The federal police are there--in bulletproof cars, with holes drilled in the doors so they can shoot out without being shot at--to see that Spiegel gets safely from Dusseldorf to nearby Cologne. He will be the star attraction in a panel entitled "Goethe and the Jews: The Jews and Goethe." They will scour the audience much the way U.S. Secret Service agents stand watch during a presidential address. It is not that the government expects trouble; that is rare these days. But it is making a statement--of respect for Spiegel and his offices, of brotherhood with the Jews who live there, and, most of all, of how much Germany has changed, in case the world is not fully convinced. As if to reinforce that goodwill, the bodyguards make an unscheduled stop on the way back to Dusseldorf at the hospital where Spiegel's wife is nursing a broken leg, waiting in the rain until midnight while he pays a visit.
It is almost impossible to believe. Sixty years ago, on these same streets, Jews were compelled to wear star-shaped badges of shame and were slaughtered by the thousands. It was a campaign of terror unlike any other, one that remains the standard against which all human atrocities are measured. It threatened to exterminate not only the Jews of Germany, but of all of Europe and beyond. Now, as one century blends into another, Jews in Germany are displayed as trophies in the very halls where Hitler inaugurated his Third Reich.
Spiegel's royal treatment is part of the fervent embrace in which Jews are held today in the Federal Republic of Germany. Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, with the deluge of Russian Jews during the 1990s swelling its numbers from 27,000 to more than 100,000. While they make up barely .1 percent of the German population, Jews are consulted by the media on everything from politics to the arts, with nearly 200 people turning out to hear Spiegel and others parse the poetry and plays of the revered Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for signs of anti-Semitism. Jewish communities get government funds to rebuild synagogues and schools. Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union are given citizenship along with benefits substantially more generous than they would receive in Israel or America. The rare desecration of a Jewish cemetery or synagogue is treated like a crime against the state. Even non-Jews are naming their children Sarah and Jacob, and they are unearthing Jewish grandmothers who, not so long ago, would have ensured them a spot on a deportation train. Being Jewish is, quite simply, high fashion in today's Deutschland.
That swelling in size and status of the German Jewish community raises questions that resonate with Jews everywhere--about whether Germany can overcome its Nazi past and return to the prewar glory days, when Jews like Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, and Karl Marx were defining figures in science, the arts, and politics. And whether, after the Holocaust, it is safe for Jews there or anywhere to feel as secure, as much like they belong, as German Jews did at the dawn of the last century.
But recent developments in Germany also raise a profound hope--that if Judaism can make a comeback there, in the land of the murderers, it can happen anywhere.
Spiegel witnessed firsthand the horrors of being a Jew in Germany, and the way that identity is now being renewed and refurbished. When he was a toddler, his mother evacuated him and his sister from their tiny town near Dusseldorf to what seemed like a safe haven in Brussels. Mrs. Spiegel had carefully instructed Rosa, who was eleven, that if a man wearing a uniform asked her if she was Jewish, she should deny it. But no one had counted on the girl's Nazi interrogators wearing street clothes and so, when they stopped her, Rosa told the truth. That affirmation of her faith, Spiegel recalls, "was the last word anyone ever heard from her."
There was no time for Ruth Spiegel to mourn her daughter. She whisked Paul away again, this time to the countryside and the care of a Catholic family that raised him as its own for three and a half years. Anticipating an eventual end to the Nazi nightmare, Ruth had once more rehearsed with her child what to tell those in charge, only this time the message was in English and it was the truth. "Tell the British or American soldiers," she said, "that you are a German Jew." He did, and it worked, drawing gifts and kisses from a U.S.G.I. But Paul did not feel at all German. "Everyone during the war told me the Germans are big, big people who are killing us," he remembers. And his mother, with whom he was quickly reunited, already had resolved to "take me to America. She had decided that if my father or sister were alive they would never go back to Germany."
His father was alive, barely. He had spent five years behind barbed wire in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau, and had dropped from 220 pounds to 88. If Paul, who was seven, had difficulty understanding how the Nazis could have snatched his sister, why they brutalized his father and murdered his uncle and cousin, then he was incredulous when his father insisted the family return to its German roots. "I'm sure I wouldn't have come back to Germany. I always discussed with my father how could he come back, I couldn't believe it," he says, looking back from the comfort of his plush living room in the center of Dusseldorf. "After the war my father said to me, 'Listen, I tell you one time what has happened, what I was going through, but not again. I don't want to be in the past. I want to be in the future.'"
Today, Spiegel sounds like his father as he explains his own choice to remain in Germany, to build a thriving talent agency, create a life for his wife and two daughters, and help rekindle Jewish life there. It was not a decision that came easily or quickly. Sixty years are hardly time enough to forget such horrors, or to stop hating the country that transformed his childhood into a nightmare that never will go away. But Germany, he insists, has changed. And so has he.
"If I every day say, 'I hate the Germans,' I couldn't stay here. I trust most of the German people, the generation after the war. Now I am feeling like a German with the Jewish religion," says Spiegel, who at the end of 1999 was elevated from vice president to president of Germany's most influential Jewish organization. "I'm not feeling that I'm here on a part-time basis. Until ten to fifteen years ago the Jews in Germany who had lived here since 1945 said, 'We are here with packed suitcases.' These suitcases have been unpacked in the meantime.
"Compare that with what happened in Spain during the Inquisition, when they sent all the Jews out. For five hundred years no Jews came back to Spain, not one," he adds. "Here in Germany we had the biggest murdering of a people in history, more than six million Jews killed, and already one or two months after the Holocaust they started again to rebuild this Jewish community. Now we have the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world.
"This is one of the miracles of the century."
* * *
To understand that miracle it is necessary to step back into German history, to the time just before the rebuilding began. It also helps to zero in on a single community. Dusseldorf, Spiegel's home and the first big city in Germany to surpass its pre-Holocaust Jewish population, is a compelling place to launch this tour of the Jewish diaspora.
From the tree-shaded promenade along the banks of the Rhine to the medieval tower visible in the distance, it is easy to imagine why Napoleon dubbed the former fishing village "Little Paris." That is how it must have seemed to Jews living there in the early 1930s and sharing in the industrial boom. The official census back then counted 5,000 Jews in Dusseldorf and 500,000 in Germany, or 1 percent of the local and national populations. Add in nearly 500,000 Germans born to marriages between Jews and non-Jews, or with other ties through blood or marriage, and Jews constituted almost as substantial a minority in prewar Germany as they do today in America. And as in America, numbers only begin to reflect their contributions: a Jew drafted the Weimar Republic's constitution, another was foreign minister, and eleven of the thirty-eight Germans awarded the Nobel Prize before 1933 were Jewish. Jews also were overrepresented in influential cities like Dusseldorf, which gave birth to lyrical poet Heinrich Heine, gave an orchestra to classical conductor Felix Mendelssohn, and gave a pulpit to world-famous theologian Rabbi Leo Baeck. Religious ties may have been fraying, but Jewish youth were enlisting in causes from socialism to Zionism while their parents were reaffirming ethnic and cultural connections. The Weimar era truly was a Golden Age for Jews in Dusseldorf and all of Germany--one where a palpable sense of potential, of moving into the mainstream, drowned out warnings by skeptics that age-old anti-Semitism had not really gone away.
World War II made the skeptics into sages. Hundreds of thousands of Germany's 1 million Jews fled in the mid-1930s; most of the rest were deported, with 180,000 choked to death in the gas chambers, starved in slave-labor camps, or shot at the edge of burial pits they had been forced to dig. The situation was equally bleak in Dusseldorf. On November 9, 1938--the infamous Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass--Nazi henchmen fire-bombed Dusseldorf's main synagogue on Kasernenstrasse, destroyed five smaller prayer houses, and systematically ransacked Jewish homes, killing seven and wounding seventy. One local religious leader, finally acknowledging that the threat was real, ordered that his congregation's Torah scrolls be buried in the Jewish cemetery. Mass deportations began in 1941, when Rabbi Siegfried Klein, his wife, Lili, and 1,009 others were shipped out to Lodz in Poland. Dr. Siegried Falk, president of the Jewish community, was due to be deported on December 11 but he and his wife, Edith, killed themselves before the trains departed. Altogether, 2,500 Dusseldorf Jews managed to escape; the 2,500 who did not perished.
At war's end 200,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors from outside Germany found themselves on German soil. The Allied armies of occupation labeled them Displaced Persons (DPs), a sterile-sounding reference to the fact that they had been scattered from their homelands and were being housed in camps set up by U.S., British, French, and Soviet troops. They called themselves Sherit Hapletah, a biblical name meaning "remnant of the saved." Many had been prisoners in extermination camps in Poland who, as Hitler's forces fled west in the last days of the war, were forced to join them, then were deposited in Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and other camps in the German heartland. Still more were survivors who had tried to return to their homes in Poland, Lithuania, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, but were greeted by an anti-Semitism so virulent they had to flee again, this time to the U.S. and British occupation zones in southern Germany. Then there were those who had spent the war in German prisons, hidden in forests in Eastern Europe, or otherwise survived long enough to be liberated by the Allies.
Whatever their reasons for being there, the result was wrenchingly ironic: the only country where those who had survived the death machine could find safe haven was the home of the executioners. Suddenly Bavaria and the rest of southern Germany, where Hitler had hatched his blueprint for making Europe judenrein--free of Jews--had more Jews than ever.
Most concentration camp survivors were depressed by the prospect of being in Germany, in another enclosed camp, and they resented having to live side by side with Nazi collaborators from Ukraine, the Baltic states, and other formerly occupied lands. They had been told the camps would be a short stop-off on the way to Israel or America, but they had to wait until 1948 for Britain to sanction the Jewish state and even longer for countries like the United States and Argentina to open their borders. By 1950, however, nearly all the camps had been closed and more than 90 percent of their occupants had abandoned Germany. The rest were too old, too ill, too poor, or simply too tired of moving to contemplate moving again. So they stayed, this eclectic band of 15,000, and they became two-thirds of the founding fathers of Germany's post-Holocaust Jewish community.
The other third had more reason to feel bound to Germany, since they were born there, but they also had more reason to loathe it, having been betrayed by the nation to which they had pledged their allegiance. These Jews survived the war in Germany itself, evading the most efficient extermination apparatus the world had ever witnessed. Most were sheltered by a non-Jewish spouse, relative, or friend; others managed to secure special status or bribed their way out of the noose. While 7,500 or so of the survivors understandably left as quickly as they could for America or Israel, another 7,500 chose to reclaim what they could of their lives before the Nazis.
How could these Jews remain in the land of their tormenters? The ones from Germany often had non-Jewish wives or husbands and were convinced that they, together with the rest of the "righteous few" who had risked their lives to defy the Nazis, would restore the more tolerant prewar society. The DPs, meanwhile, were so frail and disoriented that they could not conceive where else to go. Whatever the necessity, the decision to make their home in Germany still defines their lives--and bedevils them--more than half a century later.
No one had more reasons to stay away than Helen Israel. When the Nazis stormed through Poland they slaughtered her aunts and uncles, her brother and sister, and her parents. Rather than escaping to Palestine the way many Polish Jews were doing, her father, a deeply religious man, had insisted that true believers should wait where they were for the Messiah. Helen had managed to persuade her husband to flee to the Russian zone in eastern Poland, but he could not bear being separated from his pregnant wife. When the Germans pushed out the Russians he remained in Poland, and was last seen just before German troops raided his home. Then the Nazis took an even more precious possession, her infant son, Lech. Helen was shipped to a work camp and forced to leave the baby behind with her parents, only to hear later that he had perished in Auschwitz at age three and a half. Today, all the eighty-one-year-old Israel has to remember Lech by is a pair of fading photographs, one taken at eleven months, the other not quite a year later. "At least I can see the pictures every day," she says as she takes down from the mantel the snapshots of the toddler with brilliant blond hair. Tears well up as she recalls how proud she was to give the baby his Hebrew name, Shlomo-Arie. And she still insists that, if she could find her son's murderers, "I would kill them right away."
After she was liberated from the last of her nine work and prison camps, Helen went to work for the Red Cross in Holland. Those years seem now like one long stupor, broken only by her meeting and marrying another concentration camp survivor, Kurt Israel, and having another son, Robert Viktor. Four years later, Kurt's clothing shop began to falter and he decided to move his family back to his hometown of Dusseldorf. Helen detested Germany but loved Kurt so she did not resist, although she made him promise they eventually would go back to Holland.
"Day and night I was crying," she recalls. "It was terrible for me. Terrible. Terrible. For two years I held my flat in Amsterdam while I lived in Dusseldorf. I paid rent in Amsterdam and went there sometimes with my child. Then I saw it made no sense, and from two years in Dusseldorf it became four, and six, and now forty-five years."
She tried to leave once, in 1967, two years after her husband died. Robert Viktor enrolled in college in Amsterdam and she joined him there. But she had trouble feeling at home, having been away for a dozen years, and when her son decided a year later to transfer to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Helen decided it would be unfair to both of them to follow him a second time. "I said, 'Okay, you go, but I will go back to Dusseldorf.' I said, 'I have there my friends, my interests, my Yiddish interests.' There's an old saying in Yiddish that you can't plant an old tree in another place."
Her work with the Jewish community helped. She served for a record-setting thirty years as chapter president of the Women's International Zionist Organization, and for thirty-three years she helped restore and run the Jewish community of Dusseldorf, all of which, she says, "helped me to stay in Germany. I was looking for something that would make it lighter to live in Germany."
But she could not erase the nagging sense that she did not belong there, that no Jew did after what had happened. It started with the anguish anyone feels who has lost a cherished parent, sibling, or, worse still, a child. For Helen Israel and other Holocaust survivors in Germany that was just the beginning. What they suffered was so terrible, they never will get over it. They are haunted by knowing the ones they loved died alone and in agony. They are consumed by not being able to identify the murderers or, more precisely, knowing that an entire country was in some sense to blame. They are tormented by having to live shoulder to shoulder with those they suspect were the executioners, wondering whether it is the elderly person they pass on the street, the shopper standing beside them in the market, their neighbor next door.
In the early 1970s the justice minister of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, a Jew named Joseph Neuberger, nominated Helen for the German Cross to honor her work with the Jewish community. "I said, 'Thank you, Joseph, but not for me. I would never take a German medal. How can I have together a concentration camp and a German medal? What do you think of me?'" A decade later a friend proposed it again, but "I said to her, 'You don't know that I have said never. This is the same medal that Hitler had for his heroes, only this time there is no swastika, now there is an eagle there. I have no split existence. It is the same now as it was for me as a child in Poland. I never felt Polish. I was a Jew in Poland.'"
Turning down the medal let her give voice to the frustration and resentment she generally kept bottled up. Robert Viktor knew no such constraints. He never wanted to be in Germany and could not understand why his parents did. He told them that from the time he could talk, making his mother proud while at the same time deepening her shame. "When he was eleven my son said, 'You and Dad are characterless that you live in Germany,'" Helen remembers. "He said, 'You must send me away. If you don't do it voluntarily I will make you.' When he was twelve he said we must send him to a school abroad, an international boarding school in Amsterdam. He stayed there until his graduation six years later."
Germany had robbed her of a second son. Robert Viktor, now a fifty-year-old bank consultant in Holland, had forsaken his parents out of hatred for their country. "He comes to visit me now," Helen says as she sits in the front room of her apartment down the street from the Dusseldorf synagogue. "But he can't forgive me that I live in Germany."
For his part, Robert Viktor says that he very much loves his mother, and always has. But he has not changed his mind about Germany: "I am still of the opinion that it is absolutely absurd for Jews to be living in Germany. It's absurd because, in historical terms, what happened during the Shoah was a very few years ago. Establishing ourselves again in Germany, as Jewish communities, is to start the process of forgiving. As I said once to a very highly placed German, 'Let's try again in a few hundred years, not now.' The boycott of Spain after the Inquisition lasted five or six hundred years, I don't see how we are entitled already to lift such a boycott of Germany. That's giving Germany the chance to act as though we were almost through it, as though it were almost forgiven if not forgotten. I'm not preaching that we should start a war against Germany. I'm just saying we should behave much more honorably in this context."
Paul Spiegel was equally unforgiving of his parents' decision to return to Germany, at least at first. But the more he heard of his father's story, the more he understood. When the gates at Dachau opened, Hugo Spiegel headed for the only place he knew, his hometown of Warendorf, walking there in his prison clothes. On the way he met a non-Jew he knew from the town who invited him home. "That man said to my father, 'Before we start to eat we will go to the cellar,'" Paul recalls. "There was a small curtain. The man opened another door on the floor and went down. He came back with mahzorim, with prayer books, that he had saved from the burned synagogue in their small town. He said to my father, 'Now it's up to you.' He was a neighbor of the old synagogue. He had ten books and the Torah. With these books and the Torah my father founded the Jewish community in Warendorf.
"If my father had thought before whether it was right or not to go back to Germany, that was the last time."
That is not quite the end of the story. Even Hugo Spiegel, who felt himself as German as he was Jewish, hated Germans, or at least some of them. He had returned to his old job of buying and selling cows and horses. While his old customers greeted him warmly, saying it was "fantastic" to see him back, he made it his point to find out how each had treated Jews during the reign of terror. "One time," Paul remembers, "another cow agent said, 'Look, the Jew is back here.' My father gave him the back of his stick, he wanted to kill him. It was only the English military police who kept my father from doing it."
Excerpted from Home Lands by Larry Tye Copyright © 2002 by Larry Tye. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: Charting the Journey||1|
|Ch. 1||Dusseldorf: In the Land of the Murderers||13|
|Ch. 2||Dnepropetrovsk: Lifting the Iron Curtain||59|
|Ch. 3||Boston: Athens and Jerusalem||99|
|Ch. 4||Buenos Aires: An Explosive Awakening||159|
|Ch. 5||Dublin: Who Ever Heard of an Irish Jew?||193|
|Ch. 6||Paris: Getting Along, Getting Ahead||218|
|Ch. 7||Atlanta: Hebrew with a Southern Accent||241|
|Epilogue: Israel: A Partnership of Equals||283|
Posted October 14, 2001
This book is an important contribution to the continual debate which so preoccupies all those who care about the Jewish people , and their future survival and well- being. It takes strong exception to what the plain figures and facts would seem to say about a declining, aging and ultimately dying Jewish diaspora and makes a good case that at least in certain Jewish communities , innovative and creative people are working to sustain and revive Jewish communal life. Tye takes a close look at seven diaspora communities Dusseldorf, Germany, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine , Boston,Buenos Aires,Dublin , Paris and Atlanta , and finds in all of them strong signs of Jewish renewal ,new methods of adaptation to confront the special problems of each community.Tye also in his epilogue explores the Israel ¿ Diaspora relation and how this has changed with Israel¿s increasing prosperity , and self ¿ sufficiency. What gives credibility to Tye¿s thesis is his method of exploring community life. The work involves extensive interviews in which Tye profiles the histories and opinions of a wide variety of people in each community .A first ¿ rate writer with a great power of storytelling one of the outstanding features of the book is his tracing of various individual family stories.In the chapter on Boston he most effectively tells the story of his own extended family . He too in writing of each city gives an overview of that city¿s Jewish history , provides a perspective through which we can better understand present developments. The legwork he has done is very great indeed,and he simply supplies a great deal of information about individual and family lives of the kind the more drab sociological communal studies do not give. This work is not as has been suggested by one critic a one ¿ sided simpleminded public relations gimmick. In opposite Tye is extremely conscious of the fragility of all the positive developments he mentions .He is very honest in exploring for instance the distancing between Israel and the Diaspora which is the product of people concentrating more on individual and family concerns rather than on communal ones. If I have one criticism of the work it is not that Tye so forcefully argues for the viability and even desirability of Jewish diaspora life, but that he does not acknowledge that diaspora communities, however prosperous cannot provide the kind of unique religious meaning and creative possibilities which for the people of Israel only a Jewish state can.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 15, 2001