Germans and Jews

Germans and Jews

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Fritz Stern, as seen in “Germans & Jews,” a film by Janina Quint and Tal Recant.
Fritz Stern, as seen in “Germans & Jews,” a film by Janina Quint and Tal Recant.

For many Jews, the thought of buying a German car or German products remains anathema. How could a Jew support Germany after what the Germans did to us?

The thought of ever visiting Germany was the furthest thing from my mind when I was growing up – but then, many years ago, I had to do research at the German Film Institute in Wiesbaden. I went to Germany. As I drove through the streets of Wiesbaden, every chimney or smokestack signaled a visual connection with the not-too-distant past. The director of the institute even pulled me aside and warned that many of the staff were anti-Semitic.

That was then. Could it still be the case today? The film “Germans and Jews” takes a hard look at the question.

As far as cinema goes, my understanding of Germans and Jews changed after seeing “Nowhere in Africa,” the 2001 Academy-Award-winning German film about an upper-middle-class family’s time in exile in Africa during the Holocaust. The film concludes at the war’s end, with the family returning to Germany. How could a Jew possibly go back to Germany after losing parents and siblings in the Shoah? The next shock came when I learned that a Jewish classmate, who had received a graduate Jewish studies degree, married a non-Jewish German. Her parents were German Jews. What was she thinking? What drew her and her husband together? Then, in screening the film “The Flat,” I learned that an Israeli couple who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s returned each year after the war for a visit to Germany. They came back so they could vacation with good friends, one of whom had held a high position in the SS hierarchy. Arnon Goldfinger tells that story about his grandparents in his 2011 film, a documentary where he examines that strange relationship.

What producer Tal Recanati and non-Jewish German director Janina Quint do well in “Germans and Jews” is lay out the facts. What is understandably an awkward relationship between Germans and the Jews who live in Germany today is also quite complex. In the course of the film, we learn much about how postwar Germany initially ignored what had been done to the Jews. Their desire was to put aside the past, move on, and build a new society. Indeed, after the war some Germans, living in a bombed-out country with limited resources, saw themselves, not Jews, as the real victims.

A synagogue in Dresden, in a scene from “Germans & Jews.”
A synagogue in Dresden, in a scene from “Germans & Jews.”

We more fully comprehend how, in order to move forward and regain acceptance among the European nations, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had to offer reparations in 1952 for the carnage done to the Jewish people. We also see how attitudes in Germany changed over the years, particularly in 1968. While young Americans were questioning their military’s presence in Vietnam, young Germans were inquiring about their parents and grandparents’ role in World War II.

The filmmakers approach their subject by introducing us to a number of Jews and their non-Jewish friends and spouses at a Berlin dinner party. Over the course of the film, we gain different perspectives from each on how Jews fare in Germany today. They also construct the film almost as a visitor’s video guide to Jewish sites of interest in the country, which is fascinating for the traveler in each of us. We not only learn about the places of interest, but about the various initiatives that helped catalyze the creation of many of the memory sites. The more than 48,000 memory plaques, stolpersteine, each carrying the names of a victim of the Shoah, that are now in place across Europe, are particularly fascinating. What truly makes the film a must-see are the fine interviews with social psychologists, historians, Jewish educators and museum directors.

The filmmakers chart the history of Jews in postwar Germany. Twenty-seven thousand German Jews returned home, and they were followed by an influx of Russian Jews and more recently by lots of Israelis. The film speaks to the “ambivalence” of German Jews returning after the war to a country many still considered home. It charts the changes in attitude about the Shoah. One historian reflects on how in 1979 a nationwide broadcast of the U.S. mini-series “Shoah” impacted West German life. But in East Germany, where the program was not broadcast, many Germans saw themselves, not Jews, as the real victims, victims of communism.

Recanati and Quint conclude by showing us that today the Shoah is taught as an integral part of German history. However, polls show that there is now so-called “Holocaust fatigue”; 57 percent of the population feeling that Holocaust education is overdone.

Berlin, home to Europe’s fastest growing Jewish population, is a great place to live and has become an exciting and trendy destination to visit. Today, there are roughly 250,000 Jews in Germany, .2 percent of the population. Some estimate that as many as 100,000 of those Jews are Israeli. For a young Israeli, it also is far less expensive to live there than in costly Tel Aviv. And sadly, as one Israeli artist notes, it might be safer to live as a Jew today in Germany than it is in Israel.

Tal Recanati and Janina Quint have created an exceptional documentary, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to see it. The film opens today at the Cinema Village in New York.

Eric Goldman teaches cinema at Yeshiva University. In addition to being founder of Ergo Media, a Jewish film distributor, he writes and lectures about Jewish-related cinema.

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