My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin

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In this poignant book, a renowned historian tells of his youth as an assimilated, anti-religious Jew in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939. With his customary eloquence and analytic acumen, Gay describes his family, the life they led, and the reasons they did not emigrate sooner, and he explores his own ambivalent feelings -- then and now -- toward Germany and the Germans. Gay's account -- marked by candor, modesty, and insight -- adds an important and curiously neglected perspective to the history of German Jewry.
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Editorial Reviews

Jeffrey Herf
[An] eloquent memoir of [Gay's] Berlin youth in the 1930s, his family's escape and his ambivalence toward Germany and the Germans after 1945.
Wall Street Journal
Jonathan Yardley
[An] honest and revealing book.
The Washington Post
Lucie Prinz
An intensely personal document...[and] a moving testament.
Chicago Tribune
Niall Ferguson
It is a wonderful book, which I devoured in one sitting. -- Literary Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gay is best known for his painstakingly researched series on the Enlightenment and, more recently, on The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. In this memoir of his early life, particularly of the years between Hitler's chancellorship in 1933 and Gay's eventual escape in 1939, one can almost see the evolution of his obsessive concentration in the intense devotion to stamp collecting and sports that helped him block out the increasing din of Nazi racism. But this is not only a memoir, it's also a fierce reply to those who criticized German-Jewish assimilation and the tardiness of many families in leaving Germany. "We were not so stupid, not so deluded, certainly not so treacherous as we have been judged to be." In responding to these often facile charges, Gay is defending his beloved father, who through persistence and risky subterfuges managed to get his son and consumptive wife out of the country. In one episode, he recalls his father desperately doctoring a family certificate: "I can still see him at work committing this crime: using a straight razor, he gently scratched away at the ink, with St. Louis and May 13 growing paler and paler." This smart, funny, personable and resourceful man never adapted to his new life and died prematurely in 1955. Gay does not apologize for his father or other German-Jews, but rather offers an explanation of the mixed signals and the difficulty of escape. Or if it's an apology, it is, as he says "an unapologetic apology." (Oct.)
Library Journal
Gay's many books include an insightful study of Weimar Germany and an acclaimed biography of Sigmund Freud (Freud: A Life for Our Times). His family was fortunate to emigrate from Germany to America shortly after the 1938 Kristallnacht, the 'Night of Broken Glass' when Nazi-sponsored riots destroyed synagogues and Jewish stores. But Gay (Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale) takes issue with the suggestion that German Jews should have fled when Hitler came to power in 1933. He points out that Germany had a tradition of being among the most civilized nations in the world. The Gays themselves were liberal and assimilated, the father a decorated World War I veteran. But the impulse to live with their American relatives grew ever stronger as the Nazi stranglehold increased. The Gays endeavored to live a normal life: the author writes touchingly, for instance, about a passion for stamp collecting he shared with his father that provided some solace and orderly refuge. -- Paul M. Kaplan, Lake Villa District Library, Illinois
Frank Kermode
. . .[O]ne closes his book with the agreeable feeling that he has dwelt more upon the welcome and the opportunities offered him by America that on the foulness of the country that forced him to flee there. -- New York Times Book Review
Gordon Craig
[A] moving book. -- New York Review of Books
Lucie Prinz
An intensely personal document...[and] a moving testament. -- Chicago Tribune
David Cannadine
Unforgettable…a triumphant story of survival in the face of the most barbaric intolerance.
Times Literary Supplement
Frank Kermode
[Gay's] writing is smooth, a sound historian's instrument... Gay's story could hardly be other than interesting.
New York Times Book Review
Lucie Prinz
An intensely personal document... a moving testament.
Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
A disappointingly lackluster memoir focusing on the six boyhood years (1933-39) Gay spent in Nazi Berlin. All the intellectual and stylistic dimensions that make master historian and biographer Gay (author of the five-volume The Bourgeois Experience) such a superb academic writer, a somewhat detached, reflective, intellectually thorough and elegant approach, serve him less well when writing autobiographically. For example, even when describing the November 1938 national pogrom known as Kristallnacht, he gives short shrift to his own observations and reactions. Rather, he spends some time commenting upon psycho-historian Peter Loewenberg's view of the event as a Nazi-organized 'degradation ritual' against the Jews. Perhaps because he was a sometimes doted-upon, only child in an upper-middle-class, highly assimilated Jewish family whose members were able to leave before the 'Final Solution,' Gay was partly insulated from some of the worst anti-Semitic and other horrors of the Third Reich. But there are some passages when his writing does have a certain crisp immediacy, as when he describes a family friend whom Gay encountered a month after the friend was released from a concentration camp: 'he had visibly aged, looked deathly pale, seemed disoriented, I thought almost senile.' He also has some fine mini-profiles of both individuals who betrayed his family and a few who, with considerable courage, assisted them. In general, his writing comes more alive when he describes his experiences as an adolescent refugee, first in Havana, then in Denver. In large part, however, while Gay repeatedly describes Nazism as a 'poison' from which his psyche has not to this day fully detoxified,he doesn't quite succeed in having the reader really understand what the noxious, totalitarian, and ultimately murderous ambience of the Third Reich felt like day-to-day. Perhaps this is because, as Gay states in his acknowledgments, setting down this account proved 'the least exhilarating assignment I have ever given myself or received from others.'
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300080704
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 829,312
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface ix
ONE Return of the Native 1
TWO In Training 21
THREE The Opium of the Masses 48
FOUR Mixed Signals 57
FIVE Hormones Awakening 84
SIX Survival Strategies 92
SEVEN Best-Laid Plans 111
EIGHT Buying Asylum 138
NINE A Long Silence 155
TEN On Good Behavior 185
Acknowledgments 207
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