Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Germans and Jews – a film review

Three Germans at dinner: an immigrant artist from Israel; Mrs. Gop;
a non-Jewish German citizen who used to prefer the identity "European"
to "German" but is becoming more comfortable with German pride
I saw a first-rate documentary at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival yesterday, titled Germans and Jews.  A collaboration by two New Yorkers, director Janina Quint, who grew up as a non-Jew in Germany, and producer Tal Recanati, who grew up Jewish in the U.S. and in Israel, it is a face-on encounter with the effect of the Holocaust on Jewish attitudes toward Germany and Germans, and a close-up view of Jews living in Germany today.  Ken Jaworowsky of The New York Times has called it “part psychology seminar and part sociology course…a real cause for hope, despite history.”  

I worked for the French Railroads years ago, during the 60s, helping travel agencies and individuals in San Francisco get tickets and reservations on European trains (i.e., not just in France).  I remember a conversation on the phone with a customer who wanted to get from Paris to Vienna but didn’t want to travel through Germany.  “Why not?” I asked, suspecting the answer.  Sure enough.  “Because I’m Jewish,” she answered, without hesitation.

I’ve known Jews who wouldn’t be caught dead buying a German car, or even a German washing machine.

The thing is, though, I’m in my 70s and was alive from 1940 to 1945 and remember the end of the war. And that means my Germans vs. Jews notions were formed some time ago.  It's hard to keep up with changes, and this film was enlightening indeed.  I realized as I watched how much I was in need of the update the film provided.

I remember getting to know concentration camp survivors in the 50s and 60s, and seeing the tattoos on their arms.  I remember distinctly how awkward it was getting Germans, even in my own family, to talk of the war.  The most common attitude seemed to be, “Some things are best forgotten.  I think we should focus on the future, not on the past.”  The people I grew up with had direct personal knowledge of the war from a variety of perspectives, German, non-German, Jewish, non-Jewish, including overlapping perspectives, and the burden of memory was simply too much for some of them.

I was a student in Munich, in 1960, and I saw an announcement one time that there would be a showing of concentration camp films in a large auditorium at the university.  I was taking a course in the history of the Nazi period at the time and was curious about how much they would actually show.  They showed it all, the kids with the tattooed arms, the “Kauft nicht bei Juden (Don’t buy from Jews)” signs, right down to the bulldozers pushing corpses into ditches for burial.  Several people got sick and many went running out of the room.  It was an unforgettable moment, particularly since I had built up the conviction that I would never get a German to talk about what really happened.  It made clear to me that even if the majority of people were shunning the memory, some were not.  Some were facing their country’s immediate history and trying to figure out what to do with that confrontation.

Over the years I met more people who spoke of asking, “What did you do during the war, Papa?”  and then as the years went by, “What did you do during the war, Grandpa?” and of either getting no answer at all, or the protest that their people were never “Mitmacher” – people who went along. 

Other histories of the early post-war period, beyond the scope of this documentary but relevant to its conclusions, reveal just how long the de-nazification process took to unfold.  One example is the fight by Fritz Bauer to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice.  That story is told in The People vs. Fritz Bauer, also playing at the SF Jewish Film Festival this year.  And in Labyrinth of Lies, which I reviewed last October.  The American decision to pursue the Cold War led them to drag their feet on bringing Nazi crimes into the public view, and that only furthered the “focus on the future” argument.

But in all this time, I realized that I was getting a look at this question entirely from the non-Jewish German perspective.  I didn’t know a single German Jew living in Germany today.  And for that reason, the film had an impact on me beyond the obvious.

For one thing, I was working with the assumption that the majority of Germans still remained ignorant of the Holocaust, or perhaps had a superficial understanding, something akin to Americans’ knowledge of their cowboy-and-Indian history.

The American TV mini-series, The Holocaust, was shown on German television in 1978 and was viewed by half the German population.  Despite some criticism - Elie Wiesel called it soap opera and a trivialization - it had, from most reports, a profound impact on Germans.  Since then the topic has been opened wide, and one of the people interviewed claimed that Germans are better informed on the topic than other Europeans. Whether that's true doesn't matter much - it's not a competition.  What matters is that German history no longer stops with Charlemagne, as another interviewee said of his school experience.  There is now extensive coverage in school of the time of the Third Reich, and a large number of documentaries, including some featuring the children of Nazis, including Nazis who ran the concentration camps, are now widely available for viewing.  History of the Third Reich is no longer a taboo subject and information once shunned is now out in the open.  Whether and to what degree reconciliation takes place, at least the ground is better prepared for it than in previous decades. A sea change has taken place from the attitude in the first decade or two after the war, where anti-Semitism was still in the air as part of the cultural baggage, like smoke in the floors and walls of a building which had suffered a major fire.  

Today, if anything, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction.  Anti-Semitism has largely been replaced by philo-Semitism, the desire on the part of Germans to bend over backwards to be kind to Jews on the personal level and speak kindly of anything Jewish.  As Thorsten Wagner points out, many Germans are only too happy to point out to you how smart the Jews are, how musical, how talented this way and that.  He worries that they sometimes spill over – how good at business, for example – into praise that could turn to anti-Semitism in an instant.  Wagner is the Danish academic director of a program called Fellowships at Auschwitz, affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and an example of somebody with a Nazi background who has made a career in Jewish, particularly holocaust, history.  German historian, Fritz Stern, who also figures prominently in the documentary, worries that the desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive has a downside – he’d like for Jews to be known for something besides their history as victims.

What puts this documentary a cut above most is the brilliant selection of voices chosen to tell the story.  Besides Thorsten Wagner and Fritz Stern, there is a Russian couple, the Gops, two of a great many Russian Jews who have left the Soviet Union for Germany.  The husband speaks freely and openly.  He’s very happy with his choice.  Not that he has become a patriot, but because, he says, it’s a great place to live and raise his children.  His wife has many of the same attitudes – used to have, that is – of her parents’ generation – “How could a Jew ever live in Germany again?”  One of the Germans in the film declares that he doesn’t want to identify as German, but as European, expressing an attitude that until recently was common among Germans.  A German woman wonders if she's mistaken for Jewish because she has a big nose.  A jarring note, but one which gives the film a sense of authenticity.

Neue Synagoge, Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin
The filmmakers put on a dinner and invited all the participants to share their thoughts around the table.  Their conversation is interspersed with talking head commentary and scenes of normal life in Berlin today.  What comes of this is a remarkably positive image of life in Berlin today, with the assumption that this applies to rest of the country, as well.  Particularly striking is the number of Israelis who have emigrated to Berlin.  Partly because it’s a thriving in-place to be, with a lively cultural and night life, partly, as one Israeli confesses, “because it’s safer than Israel.”

Menorah before the Brandenburg Gate
The positive image of Germany portrayed in the film is not a whitewash.  
There are still neo-Nazis to contend with.  And even more troubling are a number of immigrants from Turkey and other Muslim-culture nations who have brought anti-Semitism with them as part of their cultural inheritance.  And then there is the fact that this place called Germany, which once had as many as half a million Jews today has fewer than 120,000, or .2% of the German population, a constant reminder of genocide.  The point though, is that that number is rising faster in Germany than anywhere else, and there are some stunning iconic images to represent that change – the rebuilt Oranienburger Strasse New Synagogue, for example and the image of the 30-foot menorah in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

The desire for remembrance is inevitably in conflict with the desire of people to focus on the positive.  Elie Wiesel spent his life telling the holocaust story, and was plagued by people complaining of his beating a dead horse.  Like Bernie Sanders, who was put down by opponents for his johnny-one-note focus on economic disparity in the U.S., Wiesel’s vow that “they shall not be forgotten” came with a cost.  Simon Wiesenthal hunted Nazis all his life and had to contend with charges that he was dredging up bad memories and hounding people who had moved on and built new productive lives, to no good end.

I believe there is wisdom in the George Santayana line, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” And for me, the challenge when faced with an either/or proposition is to turn it into a both/and proposition.  How do we both remember the war and its victims and use that memory as a jumping off point for positive change?  That this can be done is illustrated by the Stolpersteine phenomenon.

“Stolpern” is “stumble” in German, and in 1992 Cologne artist Gunter Demnig came up with the idea of placing cobblestones with brass plates in the road for people to “stumble across.”  They are put there by people who want to remember that "a Jew once lived here" or worked here or was otherwise associated with a particular place nearby.  In Germans and Jews a woman, reflecting the guilt many Germans feel toward Jews, spoke of going out and polishing the plaques in front of her building.  She then located relatives of the people on the plaque and let them know their loved ones were being remembered.  Call it schmalzy, if you will.  I call it reconciliation.

Another important issue taken up in the documentary is how differently anti-semitism and Nazism are remembered by those who grew up in the Federal Republic (West Germany) and in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  The East Germans put all their emphasis on building socialism and claimed all the Nazis had left for the West, thus enabling them to claim Nazism was a strictly West German phenomenon.  A remarkable fiction, one with effects still felt in the difficulty East Germans have coming to terms with the seeds of fascism and anti-semitism still extant in modern life.  It’s hard to root something out you don’t believe was there in the first place.

Time seems to be healing even something as brutal and inhuman as the Holocaust and the devastation inflicted by the Third Reich.  Germans and Jews speaks not only to those interested in Jewish and German history.  But to all of us who surrender at times to despair and cynicism.  Of the many dramatic moments in this story of reconciliation in Germans and Jews, the most memorable one, I think, is the story of the Russian couple, the Gops.  The husband represents those who argue for forgetting history.  The wife, those who for one reason or another cannot forget or who will themselves not to forget.  In the end, Mrs. Gop comes around to embracing this new Germany they have emigrated to.  The moment came, she says, when she saw her son playing with the German team in the international Maccabiah games, which some like to refer to as the “Jewish Olympics,”   in Israel.  There they were, Jewish kids in Israel, rooting for their home team.  “Deutschland!  Deutschland!  Deutschland!” they were shouting.

I guess I can call Germany home now, said Mrs. Gop.

Germans and Jews
Released by First Run Features
English and German with English subtitles

USA. 76 min. Not rated

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