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The “Other” Germany: German Jews and the Enlightenment

Solveig Eggerz
Winter 2001

For the Jews of Eastern Europe, Berlin was the answer to a dream. The city promised freedom from the stifling orthodoxy of the shtetl as well as economic promise. Ironically, Jews looked to Germany more than two hundred years before the Holocaust, as an escape from oppression and an opportunity for the future.  

Germany became a destination for Jewish emigration in the end of the 17th century. In 1671 Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia invited 50 wealthy Jewish families recently expelled from Vienna to come to Berlin. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had depleted his coffers, and he looked to these prosperous Jews to help him rebuild his treasury and reinvigorate the economy. Called “court Jews” because of their close association with the Prussian court, the first Jews in Berlin worked as moneylenders, jewelers and financial advisors.  

These Jews had no rights, but the promise of tolerance and respect for human dignity lay in the air. For this was an age of new ideas when Berlin’s intellectuals read the writings of Enlightenment thinkers such as the English philosopher John Locke and the German writers Immanuel Kant and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Locke was a promoter of England’s bloodless “glorious revolution” of 1688, which put William and Mary on the throne as constitutional monarchs controlled by Parliament. He advocated religious freedom as well as freedom of thought and expression in England as well as in the North American colonies.  

“German Socrates”  

The German Jew Moses Mendelssohn, called the “German Socrates” for championing the ideas of the Enlightenment, transmitted Locke’s ideas of human rights and tolerance to the German Jews of Berlin. Born in 1729 in Dessau, the son of a poor Torah scribe Mendelssohn moved to Berlin in 1743 where he also studied the writings of liberal Germans Gottfried von Leibniz and Christian von Wolff.  

When Mendelssohn arrived in Berlin, the Jews of the city were the product of hundreds of years of restriction, focused in their learning primarily on Torah and Talmud, but they quickly became a dynamic population integral to the life of the city. In 1700 the royal court allowed the Jews of Berlin to build a public synagogue in return for a payment of 3,000 Thalers. Built in the Heidereuterstrasse, the synagogue was opened before the Jewish New Year in 1714 and served as the city’s sole public synagogue for 150 years. By 1750 some 2,000 Jews were living in Berlin, about 500 of them illegally. Those not attached to the court took up the modest occupations of shopkeeping, pawnbroking, or peddling.  

Mendelssohn began his studies with the writings of Moses Maimonides, attributing his curved spine to his intensive readings of the philosopher. “Maimon gave me my hump, but I still dote on him for the many hours of dejection he converted into rapture. He weakened my body, but invigorated my soul.” Stumbling across a work of non-Hebrew philosophy, Mendelssohn developed an interest in ideas beyond the Talmud. In order to gain access to Enlightenment ideas, he studied Latin Greek French, English, Italian, logic, geometry, and mathematics. He changed his name from the Hebrew ben Mendel (the son of Mendel) to the German equivalent, thus demonstrating his acculturation to German tradition. As a pious Jew, Mendelssohn never considered converting from Judaism nor turning his back on Judaic writing. Instead, he sought to interpret Judaism in accordance with his Enlightenment beliefs as a religion of reason free of dogma. To help Jews relate their own religious tradition to German culture and to introduce them to modern secular society, Mendelssohn produced during 1780-83 a version of the Pentateuch that was German but printed in Hebrew characters. Encouraging Jews to contribute to and share in Western civilization while still remaining Jewish, Mendelssohn introduced Jews to the ideas of the European Enlightenment through Haskalah, a Jewish version of the Enlightenment.  


Haskala comes from sekhel, which means “reason” or “intellect.” Despite its origin in the European Enlightenment, Haskala was distinctly Jewish. During the eighteenth century, most Jews lived in places of settlement and areas reserved especially for Jews, following a form of life that had evolved after centuries of segregation and discriminatory legislation. Through a reform of traditional Jewish education and a breakdown of ghetto life Mendelssohn hoped to bring Jews into the mainstream of European culture. This meant adding secular subjects to the school curriculum, replacing Yiddish with German, abandoning traditional Jewish garb, reforming synagogue services and taking up new occupations.  

Although basically rationalistic, Haskalah also contained romantic tendencies such as a desire to return to nature, a high regard for manual work, and an aspiration to revive a glorious and better past. It created values that later merged with those of the Jewish nationalist movement, Zionism. However, Haskala had the effect on most German Jews of bringing them closer to the culture of the host country rather than attracting them to Zionism.  

Yet while the spread of the ideas of Haskala led to an abandonment of Hebrew and an adoption of the ways of German society, it also reawakened an interest in Jewish history and in Judaism in general. But that interest stopped short of Zionism. Orthodox Judaism recognized in Haskala a threat to Jewish tradition and a challenge to rabbinic orthodoxy. By promoting non-Talmudic philosophy, Haskala edged the Talmud from its central position in Jewish education.  

Enlightenment Philosophy  

Mendelssohn’s writings fill seven volumes and include a German translation of the Torah, printed in Hebrew letters, as well as some works in Hebrew. But he also produced some of the major works of Enlightenment philosophy. In Jerusalem or on Religious Power and Judaism (1783), he presents the view that force by the state may be used to control actions only; thoughts are inviolable by both church and state. In On the Civil Improvement of the Jews (1781), he pleads for the emancipation of the Jews while at the same time urging the state to uphold the synagogue’s right to excommunicate its members.  

The arrival of the court Jews in Berlin in the seventeenth century and their success in Germany was an element in the development of Haskala in Germany, for their presence attracted other Jews to a metropolis where ideas of tolerance were under discussion. The fact that court Jews prospered in Berlin also enhanced the development of the German Enlightenment. When Jews began migrating from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to Berlin seeking freedom from the oppressive restrictions of the shtetl as well as of the society at large, these immigrants discovered that the court Jews, not the rabbinate, were the leaders of the Jewish community a fact that shaped the thinking of subsequent generations of German Jews.  

The Orthodox rabbinate’s fear that Haskala would lead to assimilation and a weakening of Jewish identity was well grounded, for once Jews began to participate in German society at large, the pressure to convert was enormous. Although the pious philosopher Mendelssohn remained a Jew throughout his life, of his children all but his eldest son converted to Protestantism. Yet, it must be pointed out that the conversion on the part of many Jews occurred concurrently with a Jewish renaissance, a rebirth of Jewish tradition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  

Religious Tolerance  

The ideas of the German Enlightenment, such as religious tolerance and the unbiased search for truth, were manifest in the writings of German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). His play Nathan the Wise symbolized the ethical equality of the three great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Of the representatives of the three religions only Nathan, the Jew, modeled on Lessing’s friend, Moses Mendelssohn, lives up to the ideal of full humanity. The ultimate outcome of the play, the three protagonists’ discovery that they are blood relatives, underlines the Enlightenment theme of the connectedness of all mankind. The manner in which Mendelssohn’s Haskala coincided with the German Enlightenment is symbolized by the frequency with which German Jews named their children after Lessing.  

As the Jews of Berlin began to form a bourgeois middle class, their confidence grew. This was evidenced by the opening in 1866 of the New Synagogue, a Moorish building designed to reawaken the memory of the Jews’ golden age in Islamic Spain, which seated 3,000. It was built not in a back courtyard like most synagogues but right on the street, the Oranienburgerstrasse. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck attended the dedication. Later the anti-Semitic German historian Heinrich von Treitschke remarked that one knows when one has entered a city when one sees a synagogue. From the synagogue’s Moorish architecture von Treitschke extrapolated what he considered the Jews’ essentially Oriental, and hence “alien,” nature.  

Act of Bravery  

The New Synagogue is today a Jewish cultural center. A curious act of bravery on the part of District Police Chief Wilhelm Krützfeld saved the synagogue from the ravages of Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938. When SA men set fire to the men’s vestibule, Krützfeld appeared on the scene with a drawn pistol and a file of papers declaring the synagogue under police protection because of its artistic and cultural value. After the pogrom, the New Synagogue was one of the few synagogues permitted to reopen. Weekly services were held there until April 12, 1940 when the Nazi government finally shut it down, and in 1943 it was badly damaged in a bombing raid.  

Up until the Nazi period, the story of Jews in German cities is one of growing prosperity, albeit with some setbacks. By the mid nineteenth century Jews ran 30 private banks out of a total of 52 in Berlin. Many of these were long established family businesses such as Mendelssohn and Co. The Jewish banker Gerson Bleichroder was financial advisor to Chancellor Bismarck and to the German government for more than three decades. The flowering of Jewish success in Germany in subsequent centuries is unthinkable without its Enlightenment roots.  

Mendelssohn’s successor was David Friedlander, who in 1778 founded in Berlin the first school to combine secular subjects with traditional Jewish education, the Free School for Jewish Children. As one of the first generation of Jews to turn away from an exclusive focus on Talmud and Torah in favor of including Western culture in general, Friedlander wrote, “The ceremonial laws were observed in our fathers’ houses with the most anxious punctiliousness. These estranged us from the sphere of ordinary life; as empty customs they produced no further effect on our behavior than to make us shy, embarrassed and often uneasy.”  

Promoting Culture  

During subsequent centuries Jews actively promoted an enlightened culture among Jews as well as non-Jews. Jewish women hosted cultural gatherings, known loosely as the Berlin salons and considered the center of intellectual and social life in Berlin. Among these hostesses was Rahel Varnhagen, whom Romantic poet Heinrich Heine called “the wittiest woman in the universe,” and Dorothea Schlegel, the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn.  

Unfortunately, the development of Enlightenment ideals of human rights and liberty did not continue for the German Jews in an unbroken line until the present day. The Jews had welcomed the emancipation in 1806, a consequence of Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia and his subsequent occupation of Berlin. The French installed a reform government in Prussia that transformed into law the revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity” in the form of the Prussian Edict of 1812, which offered the Jews partial enfranchisement and full citizenship. In 1815 the reaction to the French occupation set in and led to armed conflict and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the restoration to the Prussian throne of Friedrich Wilhelm III. The aversion to Napoleon, the foreign dictator, was accompanied in Germany by a growing distaste for all French ideas, especially those associated with the Enlightenment. The Jews were swept up in a violent anti-foreigner sentiment, which culminated in a German nationalism suffused by a glorification of a medieval German history and spirit. The nationalists sought to displace the universal ideals of the Enlightenment with the narrow ideal of a mythical German Volk, rooted in an idealized Christian, Teutonic past, in which the German Jews could not share. Nevertheless, the Jews continued to flourish. In 1933 more than 150,000 Jews lived in Berlin, some 30 percent of the Jews in Germany. Even in the twentieth century the seeds of Enlightenment and nationalism continued to coexist in the German breast, so that when the nationalistic seed bloomed in the form of the Nazis, Enlightenment ideas lay dormant, cherished in the memory of Jew and non-Jew alike.  

“The Other Germany”  

For many Germans, especially for many German Jews, the Germany of Lessing, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Moses Mendelssohn never died. Even while their lives lay in the balance, many Jews retained the memory of “the other Germany.” The memoirs and letters of Jews who clung to a love for Germany in the face of all odds cannot be understood without knowledge of the strong hold that Enlightenment Germany had on the hearts of Holocaust victims.  

At first, Germans, Jews and non-Jews, did not register the sweeping disappearance of individual freedoms under the Nazis. William L. Shirer writes in The Nightmare Years, “What surprised me at first was that most Germans so far as I could see did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism....”  

Compounding the disbelief with which Jews later faced the Holocaust was the degree to which German Jews were assimilated to German society in 1933 when Hitler came to power. By the 1920s and ‘30s most German Jews were middle class. In fact, a disproportionately large number were doctors, lawyers, or bankers. Although Jews comprised less than 1 percent of the population, in 1933 there were 5,500 Jewish doctors in Germany or 11 percent of all physicians. Jews, especially Jewish women, attended German universities far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. By 1932, seven percent of all women university students were Jewish.  

Assimilated Middle Class  

In her study of memoirs, letters, and journals, written by Jewish women during that time, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan stresses the writers’ “Germanness,” the degree to which they were assimilated members of the middle class in Germany and their failure at first to perceive a threat to their German roots. She describes how “normal and varied their lives were, from small town cattle dealers to wealthy business people, from religious stalwarts to atheistic communists, and how ‘German’ their habits and attitudes.”  

Shirer sees the degree to which Jews were assimilated as a barrier to their perceiving the danger which the Hitler regime posed to them: “A rather surprising number we thought, especially among the affluent, believed that somehow things would get better for them. They had their roots and stake in Germany, felt that they were good Germans, and were loath to leave. The virulent anti-Semitism, they thought, would pass.”  

When the Nazis were ascending to power, assimilation was so widespread, Kaplan notes, that “Some Jewish leaders actually feared the complete fusion of their community into German society by the end of the twentieth century.” By 1927, 25 percent of Jewish men and 16 percent of Jewish women were marrying outside their religion. Their children were, more often than not, raised as Christians, and many did not know they were Jews until Hitler told them they were.  

Women Perceived Danger  

When the Nazi noose began to tighten around the Jews, Kaplan discovered that women, in their interest to protect their families, were quicker than their husbands to perceive the danger. More men than women clung to a faith in the “other” Germany. “Generally more educated than their wives, they cherished what they regarded as German culture-the culture of the German Enlightenment. This love for their German liberal intellectual heritage gave men something to hold on to even as it blunted their sense of impending danger.”  

She quotes one of her sources as refusing to reject Germany as such: “We loved the idyllic lakes, romantic rivers and picturesque towns, the ‘other Germany’ of Goethe, Schiller and Lessing.” Kaplan describes young Jewish women doing 10 hours of forced labor a day, keeping their spirits up by singing German folk songs to one another or reciting memorized poetry by Goethe and Schiller.  

Jewish men who had fought in World War I on behalf of the fatherland and their emperor had an intense love for Germany. Sebastian Faulks, in his novel Birdsong, describes the intense patriotism of Lieutenant Levi, a Jewish pediatrician from Hamburg: “He had resisted joining the army for as long as possible, but the heavy loss of life inflicted on his country had made it inevitable. He left the children in the hospital and went home to say good-bye to his wife. ‘I don’t want to fight the French,’ he told her, ‘and I particularly don’t want to fight the English. But this is my country and our home. I must do my duty.”‘ Later, after Levi discovers that his brother has died in battle, he tells his fellow officer, “I love the fatherland. At a time like this, a death in my family, it binds me more than ever to it.”  

Klemperer Diary  

The most famous description of every day life and the Jewish response to it is found in the diary of a university professor in Dresden, Victor Klemperer, a Jew who escaped the Holocaust largely because he was married to an “Aryan.” An admirer of the French Enlightenment, Klemperer, studied the ideas of Voltaire and wrote his dissertation on Friedrich Spielhagen, the nineteenth century novelist, a liberal democratic supporter of the ideals of the 1848 revolution.  

Born in 1881, Klemperer was the son of Wilhelm Klemperer, a rabbi in Landsberg on the Warthe who later became a reform preacher in Berlin in the Reform Synagogue. Wilhelm Klemperer’s sermons were infused with the ethical tradition of the German Enlightenment and his services resembled those of the Protestant church.  

In volume I of his diary, I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941: A Diary of the Nazi Years Klemperer describes his faith in the democratic German humane ideal, which he felt lay in the tireless curiosity, the questioning, the generous standards of debate of his heroes Voltaire, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment writers. After the April 1, 1933 boycott of Jewish shops, Klemperer writes, “Everything I considered un-German, brutality, injustice, hypocrisy, mass suggestion to the point of intoxication all of it flourishes here.”  

Incidentally Jewish  

He abhors the manner in which Germans who were incidentally Jewish become, under Hitler, exclusively Jewish. On April 5, 1934, he writes of his sister, “It was both shocking and characteristic to see in Grete the extent to which everything German has fallen away from her and how she can only, and wants only, to look at the whole situation from a Jewish standpoint... She has become un-German, inwardly degraded and quite resigned. That no doubt is how things stand with very many Jews.”  

As a true follower of the German Enlightenment, Klemperer considers the Nazis un-German. He, however, is German and, therefore, rejects the idea of going to Jerusalem. “I am German forever, German ‘nationalist.”‘ But by 1937 Klemperer begins to lose faith in the German people. He writes on September 20: “Hitler’s speech in Nurnberg about the morally and intellectually inferior Jewish race-no matter how thick my skin has gradually become and how lunatic the accusation (and the assertion that Bolshevism is purely Jewish), I nevertheless find it painful to have to spend the rest of my life here. And I am ever more convinced that Hitler truly speaks for more or less all Germans.”  

By January 18, 1938 his patriotism is definitely waning. “Whatever happens, I shall never again be capable of trust, never again have a sense of belonging. It has been knocked out of me retrospectively so to speak; too much of what, in the past, I took lightly, viewed as an embarrassing minor phenomenon, I now consider to be German and typical.” By February 23 he begins to disassociate himself from the concept of being German: “What would be different for me in the Fourth Reich? Probably I would only then face the very greatest loneliness. Because I could never again trust anyone in Germany, never again feel myself uninhibitedly to be German.”  

Alienation Grows  

In the course of 1938 Klemperer’s alienation only grows stronger, and on August 24 he writes, “How Germany would be if one could still feel German and feel proud as a German.” On October 9: “Whatever may happen politically, inwardly I am definitively changed. No one can take my Germanness away from me, but my nationalism and patriotism are gone forever. My thinking is now completely Voltarean cosmopolitanism. Voltaire and Montesquieu are more than ever my essential guides.”  

Still, Zionism is not the answer. On New Year’s Day 1939 Klemperer writes of his wife: “Eva was intensely annoyed because Fraulein Gump said nothing would get better until we had a Jewish state somewhere in the world. Certainly that is pure Nazism and just as odious to me as it is to her. But as things stand, I would nevertheless like to grant Fraulein Gump extenuating circumstances. She is very attached to German culture and passionately felt herself to be German.”  

On January 10,1939 Klemperer ponders the old issue of the German-Jewish question, i.e., are these mutually exclusive concepts, or is a German-Jewish symbiosis possible? He writes: “There is no German or West European Jewish question. Whoever recognizes one, only adopts or confirms the false thesis of the NSDAP and serves its cause. Until 1933 and for at least a century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else. Proof: the thousands upon thousands of half and quarter, etc. Jews and of Jewish descent, proof that Jews and Germans lived and worked together without friction in all spheres of life. The anti-Semitism, which was always present, is not at all evidence to the contrary. Because the friction between Jews and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers or employees or between East Prussians for example and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation as the French Jews were a part of the French nation, etc. They had their place in German life, and were in no way a burden on the whole. Their place was very rarely that of the worker, still less of the agricultural laborer. They were and remain (even if now they no longer wish to remain so) Germans, in the main intellectuals and educated people.”  

Eastern Jews  

Furthermore, “If the intention is now to expatriate them en masse and to transplant them into agrarian professions, then that will inevitably fail and cause unrest everywhere. Because they will remain Germans and intellectuals everywhere. There is only one solution to the German or west European Jewish question: the defeat of its inventors. What must be treated separately is the matter of the eastern Jews, which again, however, I do not regard as a specifically Jewish question. Because for a long time those who are too poor or hungry for culture, or both, have been pouring from the east into western countries and forming an underclass there, out of which vital forces crowd upward. Which does no harm to any nation, because race, in the sense of pure blood, is a zoological concept, and a concept that long ago ceased to correspond to any reality, is at any rate, even less a reality than the old strict distinction between the spheres of man and wife. The pure or the religious Zionist cause is something for sectarians and of no importance to the majority, very private and backward like all sectarian matters, a kind of open-air museum like the Old Dutch Village near Amsterdam.”  

Zionism is not the answer: “It seems complete madness to me, if specifically Jewish states are now to be set up in Rhodesia or somewhere. That would be letting the Nazis throw us back thousands of years. The German Jews concerned are committing a crime-admittedly one must grant them extenuating circumstances-if they agree to this game. It is part of the Lingua tertii imperii that the expression ‘Jewish People’ appears repeatedly in the Jüdische Nachrichtenblatt, that there are repeated references to Jewish states or Jewish colonies to be founded as dependencies of an ideal, Palestine. And it is absurd and a crime against nature and culture, if the West European emigrants are now to be completely transformed into agricultural laborers. The movement back to nature proves itself contrary to nature a thousand times over, because development is part of nature and turning back is against nature. The solution of the Jewish question can only be found in the deliverance from those who have invented it. And the world, because now this really does concern the world, will be forced to act accordingly.”  

True Germanness  

Patriotic German Jews such as Klemperer (he too fought for the Fatherland in World War I) equated the ideals of the Enlightenment with true Germanness. “What is there that embodies the democratic, the German, the humane ideal?” he asked himself, responding that it lay in the tireless curiosity, the questioning, the generous standards of debate of his heroes, Voltaire and Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment thinkers.  

In response to the suggestion made by a friend in July 1933 that he and Eva go to Palestine, Klemperer writes, “Anyone who goes there exchanges nationalism and narrowness for nationalism and narrowness.” He sympathized with the Arabs whose land was being “bought.” Clearly he envisioned the German obsession with nationalism under the Nazis as a passing phase that did not reflect the real Germany, the enlightened Germany of his ideal vision.  

When the Sebba family, Jews recently arrived from Eastern Europe, announces plans to emigrate to Haifa, Klemperer makes a distinction between Eastern Jews and German Jews a distinction common among assimilated Jews of the period. This distinction between the recently arrived Ostjuden or eastern Jews and the German Jews (the same held true for the assimilated Austrian Jews) firmly rooted in German soil and assimilated to German society is made in Aharon Appelfeld’s novel Badenheim 1939. The book features a group of wealthy Austrian Jews vacationing at a resort just prior to the Holocaust. They ignore all the signs of impending danger to themselves. If there are any problems for Jews, they will be aimed not at them but at the Ostjuden.  

Registration of Jews  

When the Sanitation Department of the town begins an ominous registration of Jews, the vacationers delude themselves that the action is aimed at the newcomers in their midst not at the assimilated Jews who have long since become Austrian, laying bare a rift between the two groups; “A distant dread settled in the eyes of the musicians. ‘What’s there to worry about?’ said Dr. Pappenheim bracingly. ‘Enough of this gloom.’ ‘We’re visitors here, aren’t we? Do we have to register too?’ asked one of the musicians. ‘I should say,’ said Dr. Pappenheim impressively, ‘the Sanitation Department wants to boast of its important guests and is thus writing their names down in its Golden Book. Isn’t that handsome of them?’ ‘Maybe it’s because of the Ostjuden,’ said one of the musicians. At this point Samitzky stood up and proclaimed: ‘What’s the matter, don’t you like me? I’m an Ostjude, in the full sense of the word. Have you got anything against me?’”  

Among those who protest the registration as well as the upcoming transport is Dr. Langmann. After demanding a re-examination of the case against him, he has the following conversation with one of the other Jews: “‘I am an Austrian born and bred and the laws of Austria apply to me as long as I live.’ ‘But you also happen to be a Jew, if I’m not mistaken.’ ‘A Jew. What does that mean?’ Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what it means?’ ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ said Frau Zauberblit, ‘you can renounce the connection any time you like.’”  

­The story of the doomed, deluded Jews ends on the ironic statement of Dr. Pappenheim regarding the four filthy freight cars that await their passengers: “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”  

Growing Doubts  

By July 1937 Klemperer begins to doubt the hold that Enlightenment ideals have on the Germans. He leafs through Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and sees it through fresh eyes. “It was not the questionable philo-Semitism that touched me-questionable because Nathan is emphatically an exception-but the sentence, ‘What does nation mean after all.’ I myself have had too much nationalism inside me and am now punished for it.” By 1938 he reaches the point where he says, “I could never again trust anyone in Germany, never again feel myself uninhibitedly to be German.” Driving in their car soon to be requisitioned by the German government, the Klemperers are moved to exclaim over the German landscape: “How beautiful Germany would be if one could feel proud as a German.”  

Peter Gay (born Peter Frohlich) left Berlin as a teenager with his parents to escape the Nazis. In his book My German Question he describes the life of an assimilated secular family, Jewish by origin but not practice. His parents had him circumcised. His father lit a candle on the anniversaries of his parents’ deaths, and he put his name in an address book of Jewish merchants in Berlin in the 1920s. Therewith ended the Frohlich family’s “Jewishness.” These gestures “did not define my parents,” Peter Gay notes. “They were Germans.”  

He describes his father as “bluff and outspoken,” a man who “left no doubt where he stood in the historic battle between reason and unreason. With his bellicose view of past and present, he was a true son of the Enlightenment.”  

“The Other Germany”  

The Frohlich family and like-minded secular Jews refuted the indictment leveled against German Jewry by Zionist scholar Gershom Scholem that a German-Jewish symbiosis was sheer self-delusion. Here too the “other Germany,” that enlightened place of the Jews’ dreams, had been but temporarily eclipsed by something dark and transient. “My parents and I did not think we were living a delusion. Granted, our Germany had taken refuge in exile or was living underground at home and resistance to Nazi oppression appeared to be impossible.” In the United States the family came under harsh criticism for having, like other German Jews, “sold out to an irresponsible fantasy known as the German-Jewish symbiosis.”  

The Eastern Europeans who emigrated by the thousands to Germany and became the German Jews of subsequent centuries were not, in Peter Gay’s view, deluded. In fact, when they left the eighteenth and nineteenth century shtetls of Eastern Europe, they felt they were making an informed choice.  

“Germany, after all, was the most civilized of countries; it was the country that next to the United States, was the haven of choice for Eastern European Jewish emigrants looking for a tolerant society relatively free of anti-Semitism. France had shown its anti- Jewish leanings in the Dreyfuss case; England seemed an almost impermeable society; the German record was one of a century-long, almost uninterrupted improvement of relations between its Jewish and gentile populations.”  

Secular Jews  

Peter Gay’s parents were the kind of secular German Jews who considered Christmas trees and Easter eggs symbols of German, not Christian, culture, a culture of which they partook. But they never denied their Jewish origins, nor considered converting to Christianity. Peter Gay’s father was in fact convinced that Jesus was not an historical figure but a priestly invention.  

Gay notes, “The idea of attachment to a social community or a common heritage, then was virtually meaningless to my parents. Jewish awareness? Jewish identity? These were empty slogans to them-and hence to me. All that was for theologians. The thought that Judaism could be anything more than a religion entered their minds only glancingly... .When as an adolescent I declared that if I were ever to get married it would be to a gentile, I was only pushing to its limits my parents’ uncompromising rejection of any tribal identification. Of course, we had Jewish friends and relatives more Jewish than we were. But my father found his closest friends in business and in sports and his professional associates and the soccer players and sprinters he knew and liked were nearly all gentiles. And without the help of some of them we would probably have ended up in the gas chambers.”  

Undying Idea  

The German Jews demonstrated the undying nature of an idea that is firmly rooted in the hearts of its adherents. Even the Nazis and their German followers could not shake the German Jews’ belief in the eventual reappearance of the “other Germany,” the Germany where they had put down roots and blossomed. It was only a matter of time. In this sense, it can be said that the German Jews’ unshakable faith in an idea of universal acceptance, tolerance and freedom kept alive a dream that for German non-Jews was entirely destroyed by the Nazis.  

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