Toward a History of the German Jews
Year Book of the Leo Baeck Institute.
Vol 1, 446 pp.; Vol. II: The Legacy of German Jewry, 356 pp.; Vol. III: Men and Epochs in German Jewry, 416 pp.; Vol. IV: Evolutions of Ideas in German Jewry, 416 pp.
by Robert Weltsch.
East and West Library.
Aufbau im Untergang.
by Ernst Simon.
J. C. B. Mohr (Tuebingen, West Germany). 108 pp.
Ostjuden in Deutschland, 1880-1940.
by S. Adler-Rudel.
J. C. B. Mohr. 169 pp.
The publications of the Leo Baeck Institute, of which some sixteen have now appeared, have the common purpose of exploring the “spiritual features of German Jewry”—its “inner development in the fields of philosophy, religion, science, economics and art and . . . the external events which affected that development.” These volumes include biography, correspondence, and monographs, as well as the first four in a series of Year Books, each containing about twenty contributions of almost uniform excellence. The aim of the Year Books, as outlined by their editor, Robert Weltsch, is to bring together eyewitness accounts by Jews to serve as the raw material for future historians in their analyses of the fateful encounter between Germany and its Jews. A number of these essays clearly transcend this unpretentious framework: anyone unwilling to wait for the future historians to shed light on why the German-Jewish “symbiosis” miscarried so abominably after it produced such impressive results, will find a good many answers suggested here.
Each of the four Year Books begins with an introduction by Weltsch, who for almost thirty years edited the Berlin Juedische Rundschau, one of the three Jewish weeklies of national circulation that, for all their didacticism, displayed standards of taste and intellectual maturity unknown to the Jewish press of our hemisphere. His contribution to the first volume in particular is a brilliant tour d’horizon. Germany, Weltsch maintains, was the birthplace of modern Judaism, and the pattern of the organized collective established by German Jewry came to exercise a decisive influence on all other Western Jewish communities—even though the peculiar blend of Jewish and European Christian civilization which it produced never appeared anywhere else. But this blend, which so suited the Jews, was distrusted by the Germans; with increasing stridency, they demanded total identification with the nation-state, and by so doing created a profound schism within the Jewish community: assimilationists countered German doubts of the Jews’ Deutschtum with super-patriotism and sterile apologetics, while Zionists and Jewish nationalists called for a ruthless analysis of the Jewish position.
Weltsch—whose weekly was the organ of the German Zionists—is critical of the self-deception shown by both groups: of the way the assimilationists idealized emancipation long after events had exposed its fallacies, and of the way the Zionists exalted the image of a Jewish state which was not yet in existence and which could not possibly live up to their romanticized expectations.
When, finally, the Nazis prohibited Jews from describing themselves as members of the German people, the one refuge left was total identification with the Jewish group. As a result, Weltsch argues, the Nazi period from 1933-38 saw a remarkable revival, both spiritual and institutional, within German Jewry. Foundations had been laid earlier with the attempts to create a “Science of Judaism,” to interpret Judaism in terms of contemporary philosophy, and to establish a pattern of modern Jewish education for both children and adults. But what was new in the Nazi period was the strong spirit of pride and certainty (sustained among young people particularly by the Zionist appeal), the organizational unity which made possible the establishment of an over-all representative body (the Reichsvertretung), and the intense artistic and cultural activity which developed overnight, with the press and publishing houses flourishing as never before.
Weltsch warns against overrating this upsurge. It was German Jewry’s finest hour, he agrees, but it was the “defiant reaction of a deeply hurt mind to its affliction . . . a kind of euphoria before the end.” And it is the end which must give the episode its eerie perspective. The startling outburst of Jewish creativity, the application of all the organizational, cultural, artistic, and educational talent as the community was gradually cut off from the nation’s larger institutions—the reversion, in short, to something resembling the total Jewish community of pre-emancipation times—all this made sense and could happen only because the possibility of an Auschwitz “did not enter anyone’s mind.”
To a small minority of German Jewry—which increased somewhat each year after 1933—the events during that period appeared ominous enough to spur immediate emigration. This group consisted mainly of Zionists, and their migration during the first years of the Nazi regime was predominantly to Palestine. A second, larger group seems to have felt that the Nazis would not last, or that the regime’s anti-Semitism was a temporary aberration. Should their estimate prove wrong, they believed, then emigration would still be possible as a last resort. This position, it appears, was also the official view of the Reichsvertretung: “Die Emigration ist ein Ausweg, aber nicht der Weg”—emigration is a way out, but not the way. The way, as it looked to the majority of German Jews, was a forced retreat from emancipation, a return to the ghetto community, with near autonomy as a recognized minority culture. To this situation the group adjusted itself with astounding rapidity—and docility.
The Nazis, by tightening their grip rather gradually, helped inspire complacency. At a nationwide conference of the Kulturbund in 1935, an official from Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry who was charged with supervising Jewish culture made a friendly speech explaining the efforts of his department much as a U.S. Department of Commerce spokesman might address a Rotary gathering on the government’s attempt to stimulate business. Three years later, after the Crystal Night pogrom, the same Nazi ordered the Kulturbund to resume its “for Jews only” dramatic performances and even obtained the release of the required stage personnel from concentration camps.
The emphasis within the Jewish community was on “spiritual resistance” to the Nazis, and this in turn was mainly promoted by strengthening the individual from within, through adult education. Ernst Simon, who describes this program in one of the monographs of the Baeck Institute, Aufbau im Untergang, is well aware of its inadequacy to the Jewish plight. But he argues convincingly that the conditions which might have made mass physical resistance possible were lacking. He cites the large number of older people in the Jewish population, the emigration of many of the young, the geographical dispersal of Jewish settlements (even within the same city), and the relatively small role of both labor-socialist and Jewish-nationalist trends within German Jewry before 1933. It is also fairly obvious that the Jews as a group were inexperienced in political action; they had neither the organization nor the talent for improvising.
Consequently, German Jews looked for leadership from essentially spiritual rather than political personalities. Rabbi Leo Baeck is an example of the faithful shepherd who remained with his flock until the end. As head of the Reichsvertretung, his saintliness, brilliant intellectual qualities, and quiet dignity were a source of inspiration rather than exhortation. Martin Buber also emerges as a heroic figure: director of the Center for Adult Education, he too remained in Germany until a late hour, even though he was one of the very few who early recognized the Nazi danger for what it was, as well as being, like Simon, a veteran Zionist. His rebuttal of Protestant theologians corrupted by Nazi ideology, his speaking out on the “power of the spirit” to Jews and to Gentiles as well, represents resistance as far as it went.
Even before the Nazi period, German Jews had been made to feel self-conscious about “looking Jewish,” and the reaction of many of them to the presence of the Ostjuden in their midst may be compared to that of the Jewish townspeople to the yeshiva principal in Philip Roth’s story, “Eli, the Fanatic” (COMMENTARY, April 1959). Although few of the Polish Jews who settled in Germany wore ghetto attire, the stereotype of the “ghetto Jew” was alive, and the sensitivity of the German public to any type of foreign-seeming demeanor was extremely high. In the early 20’s, though foreign Jews in Germany never numbered more than 125,000 (in a population of 63 million, of which half a million were Jews), this tiny minority was nevertheless a perennial subject of excited debate in provincial and national parliaments, as though it were about to devour German culture.
Shalom Adler-Rudel’s careful study, Ostjuden in Deutschland, 1880-19401 however, makes the story of this symbiosis within a symbiosis appear somewhat brighter than it usually does in the public consciousness. He points out first that the German Jews, in resisting the influx from Eastern Europe, exemplified a general pattern—thus, when 20,000 Russian Jews were made homeless by a pogrom, there was much undignified dickering among American, Belgian, English, French, Austrian, and German Jews about finding a haven for them.
Though Adler-Rudel does not go into the less tangible aspects of the relationship between German and Eastern Jews after the post-World War I influx of refugees, it is also apparent that the conflict between the world of the East Europeans and the middle-class milieu of which the German Jews formed a part was exacerbated by the effect on German Jews themselves of both German xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
And yet there was another side to the story. The war experience of many German Jews had a profound impact on their attitude to their Eastern coreligionists: Adler-Rudel (himself of East European descent) writes movingly of the idealistic young men who were prompted by their first encounter with the “vital, healthy and rooted Jewishness” they discovered in Polish towns and villages to devote their lives to improving the status of Eastern Jewry in Germany. Among them were David Werner Senator, later vice president of the Hebrew University, and Siegfried Lehman, whose activity among Eastern Jewish youth culminated in the establishment of the well known Children’s Village in Ben-Shemen, Israel. These men, together with others whose names are no longer familiar, first set up a kind of community center (Volksheim) in Berlin, where refugees from the East found a home atmosphere, culture, and social contacts; and later established the Arbeiterfuersorgeamt—Workers’ Social Service Bureau—which for a decade was the refugees center of aid.
In general, then, the Leo Baeck publications provide ample material for a vital and often inspiring account of the five-generation history of German Jewry—from emancipation to annihilation. The significance of this history has been obscured too long by trite and oversimplified notions of German Jewish assimilationism. And as Robert Weltsch trenchantly remarks: “Nothing can help present-day Jewry in its confusion except clear thinking based on the study of the recent past. The history of nineteenth and twentieth century Jewry . . . is the indispensable precondition of Jewish self-analysis from which a more constructive all-Jewish Weltanschauung may grow. . . . While German Jewry is not the only factor worth investigating, in some respects . . . its history reflects perhaps in the purest form the problems from which springs present-day Jewish intellectual perplexity.”
1 Like Professor Simon's monograph, this book was expanded from an article originally contributed to the Year Book, where it appears in an English translation.