Commentary Magazine

Post Mortem: The Jews in Germany Today, by Leo Katcher

The Remnant

Post Mortem: The Jews in Germany Today.
by Leo Katcher.
Delacorte. 320 pp. $6.95.

When the federal republic of West Germany came into being, John J. McCloy, Military Governor and first High Commissioner of the fledgling democracy, admonished the German people that the world would judge the degree of their moral improvement by the manner in which they treated the Jews still resident in their country.

Germans ever since have taken this admonition seriously, if not to heart, certainly to mind. In West Germany today, anti-Semitism is a crime punishable by imprisonment; only a few months ago a man was sentenced in Berlin for telling a rather sick anti-Semitic joke. Leaders of the neo-Nazi NPD have for the most part been very careful to stay away from any hint of anti-Semitism, and have seized every opportunity to stress their opposition to racism. Even old Nazis, who still question the truth behind the “tendentious allegations” that six million Jews were exterminated in the camps, will usually admit that one of Hitler's “worst mistakes” was his treatment of the Jews.

In terms of law, the 40,000 Jews living in West Germany today are among the best protected in the world. Twenty years after its establishment, the Bonn republic still persists in its efforts to appear particularly considerate toward Jews. Jewish cultural endeavors, from encyclopedias and memorial exhibitions to research foundations and courses on the Talmud, are almost guaranteed some form of public aid, be it federal, state, or municipal. Government funds have helped to reconstruct dozens of great synagogues for nonexistent Jewish communities throughout Germany. (One of these palatial structures, erected in Bonn at the entrance to West Germany's foreign ministry, is said to have caused one newly-appointed African ambassador to inquire whether Judaism was now the official religion of West Germany.) The federal republic has also paid huge sums in reparations to victims of Nazism and their heirs. Since so few Jews actually live in Germany, an anxious government has undertaken, by paying full travel expenses to Israel, to enable thousands of young people and students to view at close hand the former Untermenschen. In recent years there has sprung up a profusion of societies for Jewish-Christian cooperation; under the auspices of these societies annual brotherhood weeks—with special television and radio programs and solemn ceremonies at town hall-are celebrated in the major cities.

German literature of the postwar period, similarly, has been marked by a philo-Semitism that is often as obsessive as the anti-Semitism of former years. Indeed, until Günther Grass, a member of the younger, more relaxed generation, came out with the superb characterizations of Markus and Fajngold in The Tin Drum, German fiction was peopled with Jewish types invariably so good, so beautiful, and so virtuous that some readers might be led to wonder if Jews did not belong to an angelic order of being.


If, then, the extent to which the Germans have changed were to be judged solely by their current attitude toward Jews, surely they would by now appear to have gained high marks. But although the attitude of Germans toward Jews will always be of great interest, it is necessarily only a part of the general picture. For in fact the Germans under Hitler were at odds not only—if most spectacularly—with the Jews, but with the entire human race. Now that the Jews are a completely marginal group in Germany, officially protected for a variety of reasons (public relations being one of them), it is perhaps more to the point to examine current German attitudes toward minorities in general, dissenters in politics and in intellectual life, or foreign workers (there are over one million Italian, Greek, Spanish, Turkish, and other Gastarbeiter in West Germany today). From this point of view one would look for a change in the traditional authoritarian structures of German society, and a resolution of the age-old tension between unity and liberty which has plagued German nationalism ever since it sprang into birth in reaction to Napoleonic rule. The rejection of France and the Napoleonic Empire led, as Nietzsche saw clearly, to the “enmity of the Germans against the Enlightenment,” with all its horrible consequences in the 20th century.


Leo Katcher's assignment in Germany was specifically to “find out what it is like to be a Jew today in what was Hitler's Germany.” His answer is Post Mortem: The Jews in Germany Today. Few readers will be surprised by his main conclusion, that being a Jew in Germany today is a dismal affair. Post Mortem is a long, somewhat disjointed series of interviews and short portraits—a banker in Hamburg, scion of an old family of Imperial German financiers; a Polish-born taxi driver in Munich, survivor of Auschwitz; a former partisan in the Polish forests, now a movie mogul in West Berlin; an industrialist; a rabbi; a few Israeli repatriates. All evoke images of loneliness, irrevocable bitterness, frustration, and dismay. Some receive anonymous threatening phone calls at night. All of them, or almost all, regard themselves as Jews who are living in Germany, not as German Jews. Many have remained stateless, refusing German citizenship and preferring to travel on refugee passports issued under the auspices of a United Nations agency; others are German citizens, by birth or naturalization. But even these latter, as a rule, refuse to be conscripted into the German army; a special regulation, applied mostly with regard to Jews, permits such refusal without committing those exempted to another form of public service. Stateless or citizens, most Jews in Germany will tell an interviewer that for them, “home is Israel”; yet few, if any, have any practical intention of settling there.


To be human, one would think, is complex enough; how much more so to be a Jew living in Germany—resenting it, even hating it, but sticking to it, damning the Germans while choosing to live among them. The reasons of course are varied, intensely personal, and so complicated as to baffle not only the outsider but a good number of Germans as well. It is a pity that Leo Katcher either was in too great a hurry or tried to press too much material into this book. He writes with much compassion but less empathy; playing with fire, he seems to have escaped unscorched. His collection of two-dimensional portraits makes little attempt at psychological insight, rarely diving deeper than the surface, rarely trying to supply answers to the often appalling questions that it raises. Perhaps there are no answers. But there is a world of difference between what one expects from a newspaper article and what one expects from a specialized book, and this accumulation of short features fails to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon of the Jews in Germany.

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