A Boy Named Jew
I was born in 1982 as the citizen of a democratic, forward-looking, peaceful Germany. I’ve lived all over the country, growing up in reasonably idyllic places like Munich, Freiburg, Kassel, Maulbronn, Laupheim, and Karlsruhe, until I left to go to college in England at age eighteen. German is, and will forever remain, the only language I speak without an accent.
My family’s Jewish identity, meanwhile, has never been strong. While the fact that they are Jews shaped the lives of my grandparents, and even those of my parents, in deeply tragic ways, they are neither religious nor traditional. As for me, I never celebrated my bar mitzvah, and feel far more comfortable on a soccer field or at the library than in a synagogue.
Even so, as I grew up, I came to feel more and more Jewish—and less and less German.
In July 1990, when I had just turned eight, Germany faced Argentina in the final of the World Cup. After eighty-four long minutes, Roberto Sensini brought down Rudi Völler, the referee awarded a penalty kick, and Andreas Brehme scored the only goal of the match. Germany took the world championship and I was ecstatic, waving a little German flag, and chanting “Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland” at the television.
But by 2010, when Germany faced Spain in the semifinals of the same tournament, I felt more ambivalent. Yes, Germany’s team was younger, more skilled, even more diverse than ever before. Yet when the chips were down, I found myself rooting for the Spanish team. And the real reason why I was glad, or perhaps relieved, when, in the seventy-third minute of play, Carles Puyol headed the ball into the net for Spain’s winning goal, wasn’t even that I liked the Spanish team. The real reason—I feel embarrassed to admit this, but it is true—was that I simply couldn’t bring myself to support the German team.
At some point in those two decades—somewhere between 1990 and 2010, between the ages of eight and twenty-eight—I had stopped rooting for the German team, or identifying with Germany, or thinking of myself as German.
Until today, I’m not quite sure why this happened.
* * *
When I was fourteen, Klaus, a regular at my chess club, tried to turn me into a Nazi. Klaus wasn’t threatening and he wasn’t a skinhead—he was a middle-aged, middle-class, mid-level manager at BMW. Actually, we were friends, of sorts.
One evening, over a game of speed chess—or Blitz, as it’s called in German—Klaus told me that, some ten years earlier, on a trip to Paris, two black men had mugged him. The experience, he said, had opened his eyes to the moral superiority of the Aryan race. He now realized that politically correct opinions were a bunch of lies. Germans should be proud of their race and country. It was high time for the German nation to assert itself again. So Klaus explained, calmly, taking another sip of his Weissbier.
“You won’t convince me, of all people,” I said.
“Sure I will,” he responded. “Everyone resists at first. It’s not what we’re supposed to think. Goes against all the indoctrination. But it’s obvious Germans are superior to others. If you think about it with an open mind, you’ll agree.”
“You don’t understand,” I said cautiously. “I’m not exactly … well, I’m not … Aryan, you see.”
“You aren’t?” Klaus smiled a good-natured smile at me. “You mean because you’re short and have dark hair? Don’t be silly. Not every Aryan is tall and blond. Just look at Hitler! No, no, you’re Aryan all right.”
There was, I realized, only one way out of this conversation. But I was nervous about it—just as I was nervous anytime I had to tell somebody this simple fact about myself.
Klaus might have expected for me to be any number of things: a Trotskyite, an anarchist, perhaps even a Jehovah’s Witness. The one thing that had never occurred to him—that much was obvious from his frozen face—was that I might be a Jew. He did not know what to say, perhaps because there were too many phrases that could have expressed his disbelief—the kind of phrases I typically heard when I mentioned that I was Jewish. “But … you speak such good German.” Or: “But … you don’t look Jewish.”
Klaus remained sheepish, almost stricken, for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. When he finally began to stutter a reply, I got up and walked away.
* * *
My encounter with Klaus shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In today’s Germany, there is a dark underbelly of lingering, even resurgent, anti-Semitism. Neo-Nazi organizations like the National Democratic Party (NPD) have at times been able to celebrate considerable electoral successes. And most neo-Nazis aren’t as civil as Klaus. In 2011, 811 anti-Semitic crimes, ranging from defaced tombs in Jewish cemeteries to a few violent assaults, were registered in Germany. (Only five arrests were made.)
As former government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye admitted, there are some places those who are visibly non-Aryan do well to avoid. In some areas of contemporary Germany, sporting a yarmulke, or being black, makes trouble likely.
Sociologists suggest that anti-Semitic attitudes are even widespread among seemingly ordinary, law-abiding people—and have been on the rise in recent years. According to a 2012 study, over 40 percent of Germans partly or strongly agree with the notion that Jews “always sow disharmony with their ideas,” or that they have “too much influence” in Germany. Even more give credence to the notion that Jews have too much power on Wall Street. A study commissioned by the German government concluded that, all things considered, about a fifth of Germans can be considered “latently anti-Semitic.”
Hatred of immigrants is even more widespread than anti-Semitism. Thirty-seven percent of Germans either fully or strongly support the notion that Germany is überfremdet, or “over-foreignized”; another 27 percent partially agree and partially disagree with this idea. Worse still, a staggering 58 percent believe that “freedom of religion should be significantly curtailed” for some religious groups, especially Muslims.
Despite all of these glaring facts, German politicians and journalists have long played down the threat posed by Germany’s far right. Between September 2000 and April 2006, nine small-business owners with foreign roots—eight Turkish and one Greek—were murdered in cold blood. Police and the media quickly jumped to a convenient conclusion: it must, they suggested, have been a matter of score-settling among Turkish gangs.
When it turned out that the assassinations had been carried out by a terrorist organization calling itself the National Socialist Underground—an organization whose members had long enjoyed considerable support from German secret service organizations hoping to cultivate them as informers—journalists colored themselves shocked at the revelation. Even so, many of them continued to apply their original name to the attacks. Because two of the murdered businessmen had run Turkish fast-food joints, even highbrow German papers referred to these tragic events as the “Döner-Morde,” or kebab murders.
(In the remainder of Part I, I describe how an eerie silence about the Nazi past reigned supreme in the early postwar years. This helps to explain why xenophobic and anti-Semitic views remain widespread. It also brings to life how difficult it was for those few Jews who, like Leon and Ala, ended up taking refuge in postwar Germany to make the country a true home for themselves.)
* * *
A cavalier attitude toward the radical right remains a real problem in today’s Germany. But, for me at least, the threat of anti-Semitic violence has always remained distant and abstract. When I was growing up, a fear of neo-Nazis came to me in sudden bursts, like on the rare occasions when I saw a group of them milling about. On the whole, though, it no more defined my childhood than the vague fear of being mugged would define the childhood of a kid growing up in an affluent American suburb.
So it wasn’t violence or hatred that made me feel that I would never be a German.
It was benevolence.
Far from being openly anti-Semitic, most Germans I met were so keen to prove to me that they weren’t anti-Semitic that they treated me with the kind of nervous niceness usually reserved for the mentally handicapped or the terminally ill. Driven by misplaced guilt and embarrassment about the unspeakable things their ancestors had done to mine, they ended up feeling limitlessly sorry for me. The effect of their pity and their virtue was to leave both of us with the sense that I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with them.
This was made worse by their understandable, yet deeply alienating, fear of making a misstep.
It is a fear that can make the simplest interaction between Jew and Gentile degenerate into a politically correct comedy of errors. A friend, assuming that I must speak Hebrew at home, goes into panegyrics about how beautiful a language it is. Another friend conspiratorially informs me that her “family people” are “one-seventh” Jewish. And an acquaintance, with genuine empathy, tactfully inquires whether I find the word “Jew” offensive.
At times, this compulsive niceness manifests itself in the least likely situations. Even Klaus, ever since that evening when he’d told me about the superiority of the Aryan race, was strangely friendly to me. Perhaps he was too polite—or perhaps, secretly, he was too ridden by collective guilt—to reiterate his neo-Nazi talking points. In any case, once he was faced with a “real-life Jew,” Klaus, despite claiming to be a virulent anti-Semite, tried to prove to me how tolerant and considerate he was.
As I realized when, at age seventeen, I found myself in the waiting room of a recruitment center of the Bundeswehr, this selfsame fear of offending a Jew now even suffices to scare the German army.
I had been summoned for my Musterung, a compulsory army physical, which, for those unfortunate enough to pass muster, was followed by a year’s military service. I’d only been waiting for five minutes when a fresh-faced soldier in uniform, not more than a few years older than me, marched up to my chair and stiffly extended his hand. “How do you feel about committing to a career in the Bundeswehr, Yascha?”
The young soldier—Thomas, he informed me with imperious friendliness—was good at his job. Before I had a chance to answer, he launched into an account of the advantages of patriotic service.
“You get twelve years of guaranteed employment,” Thomas said. “But that isn’t all. The army will train you. Wouldn’t you love to learn how to fly a bomber?”
I said that I would not. “Actually,” I told him, playing my trump card with a thumping heart, “I would like to apply for an exemption of indeterminate length from compulsory military service.”
Now that it was I who was launching into a prerehearsed little spiel, he seemed less self-assured. “A what?”
“An exemption from compulsory military service.”
“But … why?”
“Article 12a of the Constitution specifies that individuals can be exempted if military service would induce ‘special hardship,’” I recited. “According to an administrative directive issued by the Defense Ministry, such special hardship pertains if a person’s direct ancestors were persecuted by the Third Reich on grounds of their ethnicity. This applies to me. I’m … Jewish.”
Thomas couldn’t have turned whiter if he’d known my family’s history in all its tragic detail. “Oh, of course. Of course. I’m so sorry. I’m just here to recruit people. You’ll have to speak to an administrator. Please, why don’t you just, just sit down and I’ll go get somebody to talk to you as soon as they possibly can…”
Within minutes, Thomas was back. Lost for words, he silently led me to the table of a middle-aged woman, a civilian who looked as though she would have been uncomfortable even under less vexing circumstances.
“I’ve heard about your proble—” Having pronounced all but the last consonant, she decided that the word was vastly inappropriate. “I mean, about your … situation. Could you just explain your request again?”
I did, in greater detail than before. But after listening in silence, my interlocutor told me that she only worked part-time. “Really, unfortunately, sincerely,” she did not know what to do. I was sent to someone yet more senior.
Herr Weiland, another civilian, seemed to feel a little more comfortable in his own skin. As I entered his second-floor office, which was adorned with a poster of Mallorca, a plastic palm tree, and a Bundeswehr calendar featuring soldiers smilingly displaying their latest weaponry, he vigorously shook my hand. Then, sitting me down near his desk, from where I enjoyed a full view of his computer screen, he calmly went about searching his hard drive for a template order that might apply to my case. Special hardship because the potential recruit’s labor is indispensible on the family farm—no. Special hardship because two elder brothers have already served—no. Special hardship because a relative has died in the service of the army—not quite.
Apologetically, he turned to me: “I’d love to give you the official document now, but I’ll have to come up with the right formulation. You could wait around. Or else, I promise we’ll have it sent to you by Christmas.”
Now Herr Weiland, too, turned white. “I mean, by Chanu—” Panicked, he gave up a heroic attempt to remember not only the name but even the pronunciation of Chanukah. “By the twenty-fourth of December. Definitely. I promise.”
Those words, uttered less than thirty minutes after I’d arrived for my Musterung, ended my adventures with the German army. The usually so methodical bureaucrats even forgot to make me take the army physical—in theory a legal requirement, special hardship or no special hardship. On December 24 of that year, the state’s Christmas present duly arrived in the form of a letter officially informing me that, “due to his very special family circumstances, the potential recruit shall be granted an exemption of indeterminate length from compulsory military service.”
* * *
Sometimes, Germany’s philo-Semitism has its advantages. I wouldn’t have liked to waste a year performing the mindless tasks that made up Germany’s compulsory military service even if I weren’t Jewish. Nor would it have been particularly fun to strip naked in front of a military commission so that the Bundeswehr could assess the potential usefulness of my physical constitution for war.
Even so, in my experience, all of these forms of special treatment ultimately add up to an overall feeling of alienation. The very mention of a simple fact about me—a fact I’m not prepared to hide away in shame, however little importance it might have to me in my daily life—now suffices to make me a strange and exotic creature. I fear that so long as this remains the case, I will always feel estranged from my nominal compatriots.
(Part II will trace how, from the 1960s all the way through the 1980s, a younger generation of Germans forced the country to face up to its past. Their radical challenge to their elders helped make Germany more thoroughly democratic. But the ensuing fashion for all things Jewish also led to serious excesses and confusions; in some ways, it had the perverse effect of making Germany’s Jews feel even more like outsiders.)
* * *
When I was growing up, the feeling that, as a Jew, I could never truly be German was further compounded by a spreading sense of resentment against the country’s supposed obsession with the past—a resentment that is voiced especially loudly by younger Germans.
One beautiful Saturday morning in the fall of 2006, at 11:00 a.m., I went to Munich’s Oktoberfest with a large group of friends and acquaintances. We had arrived this early to beat the crowds to one of the coveted tables inside the massive tents. Our first beer—the only acceptable drink, no matter the time of day—had just been served. As is customary, the mugs in front of us contained eine Maß, or just over two pints of freshly brewed Bavarian lager.
“How do you fit two hundred Jews into a small car?” Stephanie, a petite woman in her late thirties, asked us as she peeped over the rim of her giant beer mug.
“Stephanie,” one of her friends chided her, more teasing than angry. “We haven’t even had a sip yet. I propose a toast to—”
As though on command, the oompah band, a jolly brass combo in lederhosen, started playing. It proposed, in song, a traditional Bavarian toast: “Ein Prosit! Ein Prosit! Auf die Gemüt … lich … keit!” (A toast! A toast! To conviviality!) We gathered up our mugs, clinked, put the mugs down again in a nod to local tradition, lifted them up a second time, and finally imbibed. A contented sigh escaped my lips.
“Now that you’ve all had a sip, go ahead and take a guess,” Stephanie said. “How do you fit two hundred Jews into a Volkswagen Beetle?”
“Knock it off, will you. This is not appropriate,” Hans, a big-boned, folksy friend of mine said.
“Why should I?” Stephanie shot back, her earlier guise of provocative playfulness giving way to anger. “Because you tell me to shut up? Because they tell me to shut up? Come on, it’s just a joke!”
“I doubt it’ll be funny,” Hans said.
“Not funny? Have a sense of humor! Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny? It’s 2006. The Holocaust happened sixty years ago. We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”
“Look,” Hans said, “you know as well as I do that Germans have a special responsibility to be sensi—”
“A special responsibility? I’m not even forty! No, no. I won’t stay silent any longer. Here’s how you fit them in. You gas them. You incinerate them. You stuff them in the ashtray. That’s how you do it.”
* * *
Stephanie’s joke was anti-Semitic. But, even as her bad taste and provocative demeanor repelled me, I realized that her reasons for telling it were not anti-Semitic, at least not in a straightforward sense. Stephanie does not hate Jews as such. Rather, she hates standard conceptions of what Jews, and her country’s past, should mean to her. In this sense, Stephanie is not just another neo-Nazi. She is part of a fast-spreading movement.
Unnoticed by much of the outside world, Germany’s attitudes about its past—and about the role that past should play in the present—are changing. Since the 1990s, a mood of “enough is enough” has taken hold of the country. Advocates of the so-called Schlussstrich want to draw a “finish line” underneath Germany’s preoccupation with World War II. After sixty-odd years, they argue, it is time to make remembrance of the crimes committed by the Third Reich a less prominent part of public life.
According to a recent study, a majority of the population endorses these views. More than a third of Germans say that they are “fed up with hearing about Germany’s crimes against the Jews again and again.” Another quarter “partially agrees and partially disagrees” with that sentiment.
I have real sympathy for young Germans who want to move beyond the hysterical philo-Semitism of their elders. In particular, their avowed desire to treat Jews the same as anybody else is commendable.
For all its good intentions, however, I fear that the “finish line” movement now runs the danger of being counterproductive. I’d love nothing more than to be treated as just another German. But many people my age are so determined to demonstrate that they won’t treat me any differently just because I’m a Jew that, all too often, they end up treating me very differently indeed.
(In Part III, I describe how calls for a finish line became increasingly mainstream over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. These changes had an immediate impact on relations between Jews and Gentiles. As my encounter with Stephanie illustrates, German Jews now find themselves cast as extras in the country’s increasingly aggressive attempt to prove that it has finally left the past behind.
As described in Part IV, many Germans have also come to believe that an earlier generation of politicians had been so determined to apologize for the past that they were easily cowed into submission, whether by other nations or by minorities within the country. That’s another respect in which many Germans are now intent on reversing course. This helps to explain Germany’s rapidly changing foreign policy, which has already made Berlin a less reliable partner to both its European neighbors and the United States. It also sheds light on why policies toward the country’s ethnic and religious minorities are becoming increasingly restrictive.)
* * *
All of these different attitudes—the lingering anti-Semitism, the embarrassed philo-Semitism, and of course the growing resentment against Jews—combine to make me feel like a stranger in what should be my own country. Once, there was such a thing as a German Jew. Then the Holocaust happened. Today, there are Jews and then there are Germans. The two categories, in the German even more so than in the Jewish imagination, no longer overlap.
Charlotte Knobloch, a former chairwoman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has a story to tell about this. Knobloch is a German Jew, born and bred. She survived the Holocaust, in hiding, with a Catholic peasant family in Franconia who passed her off as their own daughter, and has never lived outside the country. She even speaks with the jolly, lilting accent of Germany’s south. One day, she was lunching with a friend, a cosmopolitan, philo-Semitic German.
“Are you coming to the reception at the Israeli embassy tonight?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he answered. “Yes, I’ll see you later on at your ambassador’s.”
It is, Knobloch laments, a familiar sort of occurrence.
Her friend meant no harm, of course. But it is not a mistake that would ever happen to a Brit or an American—or has any reasonable American ever thought that Michael Bloomberg or Jerry Seinfeld are really, deep down, Israelis?
If I ask my New York cousins, whose parents have the same background of forced emigration from Poland in the late 1960s as mine do, whether they feel American, they barely understand the question. “What do you mean?” they ask, honestly baffled. “I am American.”
But me, in what should be my own country? I look German enough. I sound German. When I talk to a stranger or a shop assistant, they naturally assume that I am German. I may have an unusual first name, but there are many innocuous explanations for that—most likely, my parents, guilt-ridden about the country’s past, have chosen the most exotic name they could think of. Nothing wrong with that.
The instant I mention a certain fact about myself, however, ordinary human communication becomes difficult. One minute, people are free to like or dislike me; to treat me well or badly; to offer warmth or disdain. But once I pronounce these four letters—J-u-d-e—I become, for all intents and purposes, a boy named Jew. Their attitude toward me turns into a political statement, and a seemingly unbridgeable divide opens up between us.
* * *
Writing this book is my attempt to understand my place within the strange world I was thrown into at birth. It contains copious elements of personal memoir, family saga, and political history. Nonetheless, it is neither a conventional memoir about my childhood, nor a straightforward account of the story of my family, nor even a traditional history of German-Jewish relations since 1945. It is, rather, an attempt to ruminate on the questions I was unable to answer back when I still lived in Germany.
Why do I hesitate to call myself a German? What does my experience say about modern-day relations between Jews and Gentiles? And what light can it shed on the character of modern Germany?
All of these topics, in turn, raise issues that should be of interest well beyond Germany’s borders. To truly come to terms with my own experience, I will have to understand the varied stages in the slow, arduous process of reconciliation between (the descendants of) perpetrators of injustice and (the descendants of) their victims. Perhaps, then, the strange twists and turns in the relationship between Germans and Jews will prove to be of interest to other societies struggling with reconciliation today: to those far afield, in Rwanda or South Africa or Chile; but also to us here in the United States, where we are still trying to understand how best to overcome the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Copyright © 2014 by Yascha Mounk