JEWISH LIFE IN GERMANY
Two Women of the Berlin Jewish Community: Eva Brueck and Salomea Genin
Understanding the Roots of the Present
AUFBAU 64:23 November 6, 1998 p. 13
[original title: Two Strong-Minded Jewish Women of East Berlin: Eva Brueck [substitute u-umlaut for ue] and Salomea Genin]
by Leonard Lehrman with Helene Williams
Copyright 1998 by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Photo of Salomea Genin and Karsten Troyke at Drew University by Helene Williams
What was it really like, working within the Communist Party in East Germany, as a Jew, and as a single mother?
In the spring of 1984, on the occasion of the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin's first concert in East Berlin (or "Berlin-Capital of the GDR" as the officials in charge of visas insisted it be called), I made the acquaintance of two highly articulate, English-speaking Jewish women, both on the board of our host: the Jewish Community of "Gross" (Greater) Berlin. A year later, as Natan Sharansky crossed over into West Berlin, the three of us spent a reflective afternoon together, visiting the tombstone in the East honoring Moses Mendelssohn.
Eva Brueck and Salomea Genin had each fled Hitler as a child in the 1930s, grown up respectively in England and Australia, and returned to their native Berlin to fight fascism, choosing to live in that part of Germany where Nazi judges were not pensioned, and returning exiles were honored and privileged. Each of these strong-minded Jewish women joined the Communist Party, worked as translator and interpreter ("Sprachmittler" was the East German term toencompass both these trades), and has written memoirs well worth reading.
Eva Brueck's In the Shadow of the Swastika and Little East Stories are published by Ahrimar-Verlag in Freiburg and Verlag am Park in Berlin, respectively. The former covers her childhood and youth, 1926-1949; the latter goes on from there, "After the War of Wars," "Under the Red Star," concluding with "Lost Illusions." Neither has appeared in English, yet. Her Through the Wall Into the World is being published in German by Tebbert in Munich, in 4 volumes, and deserves a wider audience, especially among English speakers.
Two of its most delightful anecdotes include her invention of a North Korean speech at an international conference in 1952, interpreting the gestures of a speaker whose language she knew not a word of, and having her speech published in the next day's newspapers(!); and meeting Eleanor Roosevelt in Geneva in 1956: "She asked me which part of England I came from. When I told her I was living in the GDR, in Berlin, she gave a slight start" and "exclaimed in dismay: 'But... but you're CIVILISED!!!'"
Salomea Genin's memoirs, Schaindl und Salomea, published by Fischer in German, by Northwestern University Press in English, deal with her childhood (1932-39), the product of a mixed [this should have read: secular] marriage, for which her Orthodox Jewish maternal grandfather sat shiva.
Unlike Eva, who bicycled from England back to Germany and was present at the birth of the GDR (having been inspired by the radio reports of Gerhart Eisler's reception at the Parliament of German Youth in Leipzig), Salomea was at first refused East German citizenship on her 1951 visit as a Youth Congress delegate from Australia. Only 12 years later was she finally granted it, after having been a willing Stasi informer for 18 months, as she relates in her presentation, "Salomea's Salon," which she performed in the U.S. for the first time this week at Drew University (at a conference called "60 Years After Kristallnacht: German-Jewish Relations in Germany Today), Bard College, in Cleveland, Boston, and Amherst, with the German folksinger/guitarist Karsten Troyke.
Hearing the Yiddish (in a song like "Rifkele") of Mr. Troyke, who is not Jewish, though his grandfather was, must be akin to a black person's hearing white people sing Porgy and Bess. His international reputation is, presumably, not built on the American popular songs in which he accompanied the untrained voices of himself and Salomea with all wrong chords.
Nonetheless, many of the songs are inspiring as well as illustrative of points made in a compelling story of gradual disillusionment and self-discovery[, e.g. the Bertolt Brecht-Hanns Eisler"Song of the United Front," the Chinese "Che lai," Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid," and Pete Seeger's "Talking Union," (mis?)remembered Anglically as "Trade Union Blues."].
A Russian Komsomol song is particularly poignant, and the third verse of an American McCarthy era song is sung a cappella with the request: Does anyone know the first two verses?:
Build high, build wide your prison walls
That there be room enough for all
That hold you in contempt.
Build high, that all the land be locked inside.
Unlike Eva--who journeyed across four continents and reported on them in critical articles, many of which were published, from the officially Jewish Soviet Republic of Birobidjan in the Far East, to Sri Lanka, Japan, Hawaii, throughout North America, Israel, and parts of Africa--Salomea immersed herself in the study of philosophy, and then psychology, trying to come to terms with the emotional tensions in her family, while gradually developing an estrangement from the Communist Party as parental surrogate.
The two were close friends only for a period of about five years, as together they would, in Eva's words, "lobby" one publisher, newspaper, ministry after another, seeking work as Sprachmittlerinnen. Eventually they would each find enough to keep them busy, and comfortable, if not exactly wealthy, financially.
Eva, married for seven years, had a son, who brought her trouble by insisting on emigrating to Israel, which she helped arrange for secretly, but had to deny any knowledge of. He has since returned to be with her. She is currently fighting for her life against lung cancer, at Berlin's Charite Hospital. Salomea also lived with a man for seven years, never married, but had two sons, both of whom left for West Berlin, one of whom is now married and the father of her two grandsons.
While Eva continuously looked for "cracks in the Wall," inviting and encouraging scientists, artists, and writers from the West(including this one[, to approach Aufbau for the first time in 1995])to come visit (and perform for) her and her colleagues, often at her own expense, Salomea was developing a reputation as an "enfant terrible" at Radio Berlin International. In 1968 she had to endure an agonizing session of Party "self-criticism" for having had the temerity to suggest that maybe the Protestant Church (on whom she was spying for the Party) would have provided her with a better vacation place than the Party had. She later learned that the treatment she had been subjected to had been an effort to "shut people's mouths" during the Prague Spring of that year.
Allowed to visit Israel and her 8 cousins there (she had lost 50 relatives in the Holocaust), she found that country "just as provincialas the GDR," but experienced an eye-opener that Israel had not in fact "started" the war when it was invaded on six sides in 1948. Years later, she would recognize, come to terms with, and overcome her longing for the love of Aryans, realizing that "Being Jewish is very much OK."
She was also allowed to visit her family in Australia, alone, and then eventually (with the personal help of Erich Honnecker, who thoughtbeing nice to Jews would bring him a White House invitation) with her sons as well. While watching the 50-year commemoration of Hitler's coming to power in 1933, it suddenly dawned on her that the complicity which had allowed that event to take place was not very different from her own, that she was "living in a very brutal police state that has nothing to do with the socialism" to which she had devoted 40 years of her life. Fascism and socialism differed, but had parallels. The one resulted in "mountains of dead bodies," the other in "millions of deformed lives."
Salomea thus moved from being an outspoken Jewish gadfly that had been tolerated, she felt, only as a kind of "court jester," to a disillusioned confesser and chronicler of the sins of socialism. Leaving the Party officially on May 16, 1989, she was written up in the West Berlin press, but there were no repercussions for her in the East, as the whole edifice came tumbling down just months later. Having worked through her personal crises with therapy, she was now positioned almost ideally to speak out, all over, almost like a prophet whose time had come.
Eva, on the other hand, saw the new day in a much less favorable light, cringing as she read in the press: "We do not need anti-fascists today." Having seen the evils of a West that had destroyed Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the international world movement for peace and co-existence, it was hard for her to see any salvation in the massive unemployment that came with the withdrawal of the blanket of social and financial security that socialism had hitherto provided.
Most of all she was revolted by the experience of "many former anti-fascist resistance fighters and victims of fascism who became inconvenient and undesirable critics" being "discriminated [against] without substantiation as former STASI [agent]s.'" Any GDR citizen who had been allowed to travel abroad had been approached and asked to report to the Stasi. Like Salomea, in Eva's words, "some... who honestly believed that they were morally obliged to serve the state and party by becoming informers, contributing to the fight against the 'imperialist enemies of socialism,'... subsequently bitterly regretted that decision." But unlike Salomea, Eva insists, "the overwhelming majority indignantly rejected all such proposals."
The "overwhelming majority"? "indignantly"? Hardly, asserts Salomea. Who is right? Surely one is asserting what is probably true, the other what she wants to believe is true. Both have made and are making valuable contributions to understanding the roots of the present in the not-so-distant past.
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