A Jew on display in a Plexiglas box, in Germany of all places, stands as a flagrant provocation. But there he was, surrounded by curious onlookers and a considerable contingent of reporters, photographers and camera crews. Bill Glucroft sat on the white bench with the hot pink cushion in a clear enclosure fielding questions, a living exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.
It was one of many controversies that I covered in my six years as Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. There was the effort to ban circumcision, beaten back by the German Parliament after a similar uproar. Günter Grass wrote his controversial poem attacking Israel and then there was the Jew in a Box.
The display was always meant to be provocative, as were advertisements for the show that played off of anti-Semitic rants, one with a picture of a pothole and the words, “The Jews are to blame for everything.” The motivation by the Jewish curators was obvious: Their exhibition about the everyday lives of Jews, about kosher food and skullcaps, was not the kind of Holocaust-related exhibitions that packed museums.
But it was of the moment and significant in its own way. During my time in Berlin the vibrancy of new Jewish life in Central Europe was surprising and encouraging. When I was researching my book on the concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim at Simon Wiesenthal’s old office in Vienna I stayed in the old Second District, which was filled with Orthodox Jewish families, kosher stores and restaurants. Berlin’s tech scene and electronic dance music clubs lured young American Jews and Israelis to the city. In Poland university students were rediscovering Jewish roots buried during the decades of Communist rule.
I had the chance to cover the opening of a new Jewish museum in Warsaw, part of a broader-based movement there to restore the important role that Jews had played in Polish history and the large role that Poland’s enormous population played in Jewish culture writ large. Museums are moving further from static commemoration toward promoting active dialogue and understanding. Such a move is not without risks in a world still filled with hate.
That’s what makes the fatal shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month so chilling. Police have arrested a man who they believe fought with radical Islamists in Syria. The shooter killed an Israeli couple, a Frenchwoman who worked at the museum, and a 24-year-old who was a receptionist at the museum. But he was also aiming at something larger: The notion that Jews can live openly and without fear as part of the larger community in Europe.
In Hungary I watched the rapid rise of the extreme right party known as Jobbik up close. The recent European Parliament election only added to the sense of anxiety, to the fear that we could be sliding back toward an uglier, more dangerous period. It was encouraging, at least, to see that Germany, where the most effort has been made at education and reconciliation, the voices of extremism were barely heeded.
Writers like Yascha Mounk have spoken eloquently about growing up “German, Jewish and Neither,” experiencing a strange blend of anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism and plain old ignorance. Leeor Engländer, a journalist who spent an afternoon in the Berlin Jewish Museum’s Plexiglas box said that the exhibit turned the figurative into the literal. “As a Jew in Germany you live like an animal at the zoo,” he wrote in his article about the experience.
Mr. Glucroft chose to handle the issue with humor and cheer. Encouraged, the museumgoers began asking more and more questions. The foreignness seemed to dissipate, and with it some of the otherness. Provocative, maybe even inappropriate, but the longer I stood in that museum, the more I realized that it was effective. I hope that the next generation of young Jews born in Europe will find no contradiction between their religion and their nationality.
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German artist Gunter Demnig created these two Stolpersteine in memory of Samuel Sigmar and Alice Berta Gunzburger in 2005. He embedded them in the sidewalk in front of Poststrasse 6, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, the couple’s home until they fled the country with their children in 1938. These “stumbling stones” number among more than 30,000 that Demnig has embedded in countries throughout Europe to memorialize Hitler’s victims — each one individually at the site where he or she had lived before the Holocaust.
In 1989 I accompanied my parents and brother on my mother’s first visit back to her birthplace of Freiburg im Breisgau – a charming medieval city in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. My mother’s family had fled from their home there in August of 1938, just three months before the terrors of Kristallnacht, and her return trip, more than a half-century later, was sparked by news that the city was reaching out to Jewish former citizens. Hosting a series of annual reunions, Freiburg invited Nazi-era refugees to return for a week of meetings and events aimed at reconciliation and remembrance. At the time I was a correspondent for The New York Times and, in writing about our visit for the paper, forged what would become a lasting friendship with the city’s press secretary, Walter Preker.
About fifteen years later, Walter informed me that a German artist,Gunter Demnig, had launched a remarkable nationwide project in which he was embedding memorial markers into the sidewalks of city streets. Demnig was placing so-called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” outside the homes where Jews had lived before the Holocaust so that current residents and passersby would be confronted on a daily basis with stark reminders of Hitler’s victims. Each metal-covered “stone” was engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of the former inhabitants of the locations where the stones were set, and Walter wondered whether I would be interested in arranging for Stolpersteine to be placed in front of my grandparents’ Freiburg home at Poststrasse 6. He suggested it might be necessary to obtain permission from the current owners, still the same family, my grandparents’ former neighbors, who had “purchased” it from them at a grossly undervalued price in 1938.
Through work on my book – Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed – I had developed a good relationship with their grandson, Michael Stock. His family had divided the handsome building into five apartments, such that he continued to live there with his mother, along with several tenants. When I called him to broach the issue of the Stolpersteine, Michael raised no objection, and so in 2005, Gunter Demnig memorialized my grandparents, Samuel Sigmar Günzburger and Alice Berta Günzburger, in the sidewalk before the home from which they’d fled.
The following year, the Stolpersteine proved useful in an entirely unexpected way. A French businessman from Lyon, on an extended stay in Freiburg, stopped in surprise when he noticed a familiar name inscribed on two Stolpersteine on the sidewalk where he was strolling. An avid genealogist, he had dedicated a great deal of time and energy to tracing family history, and he immediately recognized Sigmar Günzburger as a relation. Indeed Sigmar’s father had been the brother of his own great-grandfather, which meant that we were cousins. Thanks to the artist’s representative in Freiburg, my enterprising cousin promptly got in contact with me – reconnecting branches of the family separated in the Diaspora of the Nazi years.
In 2007 he hosted a family reunion in Paris, and he graciously insisted that my son go to visit him in Lyon while studying in France in his senior year of college. Meanwhile, my cousin proved indefatigable in his continuing research. He discovered and financed the publication of Hebrew sermons written by a common ancestor, an esteemed eighteenth-century Alsatian rabbi. He organized a family expedition to Freiburg and its environs. And made a pilgrimage of sorts to Gurs, the French detention camp near the Pyrenees to which the Nazis in 1940 deported all the Jews who still remained in Freiburg and other regions near the Rhine. Supportive of my book research, he generously sent me photographs and documents and details of familial roots and shoots on an almost weekly basis.
Shockingly, I would learn that as children in France, his mother and aunt had been turned over to the Nazis by their own school principal. Both girls had been deported to a camp, my cousin told me, and his aunt had perished. Then came a revelation that, after all our previous discourse, somehow proved more shocking still: as a very young man, he had converted to Christianity. His wife was Christian, as were his sons.
He made this known to us one day when, visiting with my mother in her suburban Washington, D.C. apartment, he asked her for a copy of the Bible and read aloud the verses that predicted the coming of the Messiah. If the Jewish sacred text anticipated His arrival, our cousin challenged us, how was it that we failed to recognize that He had already come?
The moment proved awkward, as I struggled for an answer, and my mother gaped in disbelief. What had led this Holocaust survivor’s son, so devoted to Jewish family history, to spurn the faith of the forebears he revered? Was my newfound cousin, grappling with a painful past as I myself was doing, rejecting an identity that had spelled danger for many centuries? While tracing the branches of our tree, it seemed he was denying our common ground. His question lay between us like another sort of stumbling stone, but because I’d come to love him, I chose to step around it.
For the past ten years I’ve been travelling the world in Moses Montefiore’s footsteps. This was a man who spent much of his (long) life on the road: besides the usual round of European tourist destinations (Paris, Florence, Rome, Frankfurt and Berlin), he visited Jerusalem seven times in total and passed through innumerable Jewish communities as he embarked on politically motivated missions to places like St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Bucharest.
But what does it mean to travel in the footsteps of a man who’s been dead for over 120 years, and why bother? After all, it’s impossible to recreate the nineteenth century travel experience in our world of cars, planes and high-speed trains. (I once met a Reform Rabbi who followed the Montefiores’ route during their first trip abroad; apparently it was very scenic, involving only minor roads.) More to the point, most of the places Montefiore visited have changed beyond all recognition. It’s not just that Bucharest is full of shabby, Ceausescu high-rise flats, or that a whole quarter of Marrakesh is devoted to glitzy hotels. The real problem is more fundamental. The shifting currents of world history mean that places that were once heartlands of the diaspora are now barely Jewish places at all.
And yet, it was worth the trouble. I found no echo of Montefiore’s visit when I travelled through Poland and Lithuania, but the scale of Jewish absence helped me to understand the ways in which twentieth century developments had erased his achievements. Sitting through Shabbat services in Rome’s empty Great Synagogue and the even emptier Choral Temple in Bucharest, I could not fail to notice the ways in which synagogue architecture paid tribute to the aesthetic values of the non-Jewish world. Nothing could have prepared me for the florid extravagance of the former or the delicate, Byzantine beauty of the latter – surely the most beautiful synagogue in which I have ever been privileged to sit. Only retracing the boundaries of Rome’s ancient Ghetto could have shown me how pitifully small it was. Only by visiting the tiny Moroccan sea-port of Essaouira could I appreciate the rocky isolation of this wealthy entrepot that was once home to so many of Moroccan Jewry’s financial and commercial elite.
If anything, then, I regret the places I left unvisited. Damascus and Alexandria are only names to me. But if I close my eyes I can see the golden sands of the beach that is the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira; I can see the crumbling stone fantasies of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; and I can see streets of the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, empty now but in Montefiore’s day teeming with vibrant, impoverished, contentious Jewish life.
Dr. Abigail Green’s new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.
What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context – books like Elisheva Carlebach’s The Pursuit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or Perfecting the World – a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.
A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was
written by the author of The Jewish Enlightenment, a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.
Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.
Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.
Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.
Franz Kafka was a man who struggled with his many contradictions. Although his writing has come to be intensively studied, as a man he is hard to know, even given all the scrutiny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War. He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech. As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: it was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him seven years later at the age of forty.
Of all the contradictions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the modern readers. Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theatre, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
But there are many things “missing” in Kafka’s fiction—often a sense of place, or of time or of historicity—because these did nothing to advance his artistic goals. Kafka was not a realist and we ought not look to the work to understand his problematic relationship to Judaism. Of course, contemporary questions about Kafka’s Jewishness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sisters perish in concentration camps, but his translator and mistress Milena Jesenská did as well. The approach of the Nazis forced his friend and literary executor Max Brod to flee Prague for Jerusalem with a huge collection of Kafka’s papers. Do the terrible realities of the Holocaust affect how we read the work?
Undoubtedly, but this is a problem for us, and not for Kafka. Similarly, there are those who interpret The Trial and The Castle as predictions of the rise of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Kafka, however, was not trying to prophesy some future world order but rather was attempting to engage imaginatively with a society he knew all too well.
Then there is the puzzle of Kafka’s instructions to Max Brod, which was to destroy his unpublished work. Brod claims that he told his friend plainly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explicitly stated that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have executed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kafka burn the papers himself, especially since he knew Brod was unlikely to do the deed? While we have no way to know his thinking in this matter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose financial fortunes had taken a radical turn for the worse.
His modest pension, taken when he retired after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, was nearly worthless in the hyperinflation that plagued the defeated and disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kafka was a depressed and often anxious man. Never a risk taker, he suffered from feelings of inferiority that arose from the high standards to which he held himself as a writer. Frustrated that his reach continued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he struggled with despair.
There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque postscript to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request. Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exactly what this cache contained, although reputedly there were letters, diaries, and manuscripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his secretary and presumed mistress, Esther Hoffe.
But was she intended to be the executor or the beneficiary? Brod’s will is ambiguous, since it also provides that his literary estate be given to a “public archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained possession of the Kafka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daughters in accordance with her will. Possession of these papers is the subject of a lawsuit in Israel, unresolved as we write this. It is likely, however, that in the near future, Kafka readers and scholars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s previously unseen writing.
Perhaps they will help us unravel some of the contradictions that still puzzle readers of
this literary genius.
- James Patrick Kelly