Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Jewish Voices, German Words
[An Indispensable Anthology]
AUFBAU 61:19 Sept. 15, 1995 p. 13
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Aug. 29, 1995

Jewish Voices, German Words : Growing Up Jewish in Postwar Germany and Austria. Edited with an introduction by Elena Lappin. English Translation [in all except one selection] by Krishna Winston, 1994, 304 pp. Catbird Press, 16 Windsor Rd., North Haven, CT 06473-3015 Tel. 1-800-360-2391. $23.95

If you want to know what young German-speaking Jews in Europe are thinking these days, you must read this book. It is the best of its kind since Henryk Broder's and Michel Lang's Fremd im eigenen Land, published by Fischerverlag in 1979. That work, on which I based my 1985 cantata Juedische Stimmen in Deutschland (performed in Berlin, Dresden and New York 1986-87) certainly deserved to appear in English, although it never has[: Strangers in Their Own Land : Young Jews in Germany and Austria Today by Peter Sichrovsky (Basic Books, 1986) is an entirely different entity, marred unfortunately by a fictional sensationalizing of some of the interviews - I have been told by some of the interviewees].

The new book under review is a bit of a mishmosh of fiction, poetry and non-fiction[, but at least here the reader is not left to wonder which is which]. All of its contents has been published elsewhere in German, but a great deal of detective work on the part of a lay reader would be needed to find it; some pieces appeared in obscure journals only after this book went to press. In this collection, and only in this collection - in English - all 21 contributions by ten men and four women can be found together in one place. Readers with German connections should write to S. Fischerverlag in Frankfurt-am-Main and urge them to print the work as a book in the original German!

The authors were all born between 1942 and 1962: three in Berlin, three in Poland, two in Austria, and one each in Prague, Heppenheim (BRD), Bitterfeld (DDR), Santiago de Chile, Santa Monica (California), and Israel. Excerpts from seven novels are presented alongside four short stories, 8 essays and two sets of poems. Three poignantly take place in Israel; one in New York. All are concerned with what the editor calls in her introduction the "significant consequences when a Jew chooses to live in post-Holocaust Germany." [As an American Jew who worked in German-speaking theaters in Germany, Austria and Switzerland 1979-86, I can vouch for the authenticity of the emotions depicted therein, having experienced them "am eigenen Leib," so to speak.] Twelve were written after the Wende of November 1989; nine before.

[The most blase and peevish contribution is by the youngest author, Thomas Feibel. In "Gefilte Fish and Pepsi" he complains how "authors who happen to be Jewish are not allowed to concentrate on their own writing" as opposed to Jewish subjects. [He seems to feel no real ties, even an aversion to his own people.]]

The weightiest and longest excerpt is from Peter Stephan Jungk's novel Shabbat: A Rite of Passage in Jerusalem, translated by Arthur S. Wensinger & Richard H. Wood, in which a young Israeli attempts to get a German Jewish visitor to put on tefillin, despite the latter's difficulty believing in it: "'You're not supposed to believe 're supposed to know, you've only forgotten. You must learn, learn, then you'll remember.' I laughed sadly. 'Do you want to keep running away all your life?'" Apologizing for having to communicate in German ("their language"), the narrator nevertheless feels drawn to "two young men with their long-haired and luminous girl friend," and longs "to travel through the night with... to be naked with them...." [FKK? Though many more Germans today practise social nudity than practise Judaism, the only other mention of the subject in this volume is in Broder's sardonic essay, "Our Kampf."]

Another Israel story, Leo Sucharewicz' "The Girl and the Children," about a young man of dual citizenship, torn between (literally) the breasts of his German (non-Jewish) girlfriend and his filial feelings toward serving in the Israeli military, is also particularly affecting, with its fantasies on the creation of a "Roget's International Thesaurus of Fear." In the end he sadly achieves a measure of detachment by viewing the dissolution of his love relationship as a "social experiment."

The New York story, "Finkelstein's Fingers," by Maxim Biller, is formalistically the cleverest of the pieces, in which the emotions and sexuality of a) a German-Jewish writer, b) a young German (non-Jewish) woman student he befriends, and c) a Jewish Columbia University professor, for whose class the writer helps the student write a paper, are all blended together as the story/paper ironically turns back in upon itself.

Biller, the brother of the collection's editor, Elena Lappin, also contributed the essay "See Auschwitz and Die" - a chilling travelogue r eflection on Polish anti-Semitism, past and present. Even more chilling is Chaim Noll's essay, "A Country, A Child, But Not the Country's Child":

        What a strange feeling, to grow up being aware that your 
        existence is not generally      welcome; something in the 
        atmosphere, something extremely powerful opposes it.    
        The majority of people around you, people you have learned 
        to call your fellow countrymen, once did everything in their 
        power to make sure that someone like you would no longer be 
        found in their part of the world. Your birth, your parents'     
        coming together, your first signs of life, even your childish 
        prattling - all constitutes an affront.

Can there be such a thing as a "German Jew" today? Not according to Noll, who lives in Rome, unwilling to put up with "self-denial" and "reconciliation: I feel it should not be up to us to work so hard to achieve it."

Barbara Honigmann, born in East Berlin in 1949, is the other expatriate among the writers, living in Paris since 1988. A character in her A Love Out of Nothing (one of two of her two novels which are excerpted), wonders "how Jews could bring themselves to live in German after everything that had happened to them there." In the quotation from this passage that appears in Elena Lappin's introduction, the word "German" is printed as "Germany." Though probably an editorial error, both concepts seem worthy of thought.

[A few other editorial/translational slips worth noting include the mistranslation of Babel as Babylon (p. 22) and the word "Premiere" as "first performance" (p. 70) when in fact the latter means only the first of a given production; the use of such Britishisms as "half-circle" and "fellows" as opposed to "semi-circle" and "guys" in the excerpts from Rafael Seligmann's sadly moving, slightly Portnoyesque novel, Rubinstein's Auction ; and the failure to adjust German spelling to English in transliteration from the Hebrew ("chaver," not "chawer," p. 273). Also: did the Exodus' forty-year wandering in the desert become a "fortyday wandering" in Broder's "Heimat? No, Thanks!" (p.83) deliberately?]

The holder of either view today (re German or Germany) would not be open to accusations of "Ueberempfindlichkeit" such as one often had to deal with in the 1970s. The growing consciousness of victimhood, especially on the part of women, may thus be counted as progress, at least to some extent. So Katja Behrens can complain in "Crows of God" (the third of the Israel stories) about being propositioned by an Orthodox Jew in Tel Aviv, and throw out the aphorism in her essay, "Perfectly Normal": "To get anywhere in the music world... you have to be Jewish or gay." Given the recent sexual harassment suit brought against the Metropolitan Opera, one would tend to credit the latter more than the former.

The most brilliant of the essayists is undoubtedly Henryk Broder. Whether one agrees with his often deliberately outrageous analogies or not, it is impossible not to admire the deftness of his rhetoric and the skill with which he lambasts the hypocrisy of the German Establishment, including (and often especially) the peace movement during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "To make sure I'm misunderstood correctly," his summary drips with irony in "Our Kampf": "in a quantitatively and qualitatively substantial segment of the peace movement, the unconscious but very pressing desire was at work to see Saddam Hussein exploit the historic opportunity to finish the job the Nazis had been prevented from bringing to a conclusion." Put another way, "If at one time the slogan had been 'The Jews are our misfortune,' this time the peace movement came together around the slogan 'The Jews are to blame for their own misfortune.'" In any case, he paraphrases Yoram Kaniuk: "the Germans love the Jews only as victims, not as strong and active..."

On a deeper level, in "Heimat? No, Thanks!" Broder confronts the German-Jewish Heimat question conceptually as being a threefold choice: "national"/Zionistic, "symbiotic"/assimilationist, and "spiritual" - in the sense of Heine's "portable fatherland" - and clearly opts for the last of these. Theorizing on what the world would now expect in the way of conciliatory acts "if the Jews had subjected the Germans to a holocaust," he searingly demonstrates how Germans have hardly lived up to what might be decently demanded of them in exchange for reconciliation.

An even sharper quote and paraphrase of Broder appears in Lappin's introduction: "'The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.' In two senses: as a reminder of their guilt and as evidence of their failure."

The first and last word of this collection, however, belongs to Benjamin Korn, who, with Katja Behrens, is the oldest of the contributors. His 1988 essay "Shock and Aftershock" describes the beginning of the awakening of Jewish activism in Germany at the Frankfurt demonstration against Fassbinder's Garbage, the City, and Death one decade ago. "Witching Hour," written five years later, ushers in the new era of xenophobia from Rostock to - one might add - America's own Pete Wilson. In Germany, he stresses, the problem is "life-threatening ": "the right-wing terrorist is like a fish in water" and "the petty-bourgeois type... fears and hates foreigners" - the latter also being the case "in England, France, Italy, Spain, Russia" - and America, he might have added - "and among the Jews." Summarizing, he takes on the question of the new post-Wende Germany:

        If German unification does not come about through love, through 
        understanding, through talking with one another, it will come 
        about through hate.  And because the hate cannot be directed at 
        other Germans..., the hate will be directed at others; this hate bears 
        the names racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia.  The hundreds of   
        thousands who have been taking to the streets for weeks now to 
        express their opposition and to hold up an image of brotherhood 
        to counter the images of hatred - in them resides the hope that things 
        may turn out differently.

                                                --Leonard J. Lehrman

© 1998 Back to List of Articles