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The Pity of It All:
A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933

Review by Bonny Fetterman

Among the anecdotes in Amos Elon's richly-textured history of German Jewry, the most telling is attributed to Erich Maria Remarque, the exiled author of All Quiet on the Western Front. Asked whether he missed Germany after his forced departure in the 1930s, he replied, "Why should I? I'm not Jewish."

In this incisive social history, Elon takes a fresh look at the deep attachment that German Jews felt for Germany--a story that he believes has been characterized unfairly. To outsiders, the infatuation of German Jews with a country that despised and ultimately rejected them seems incomprehensible. Elon explains: "Their true home, we now know, was not 'Germany,' but German culture and language. Their true religion was the bourgeois, Goethean ideal of Bildung (high culture)."

Elon opens with the story of the future philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, who in 1743, at the age of 14, entered Berlin through a gate reserved for cattle and Jews; he ends the book with Hannah Arendt's escape from Berlin in 1933. Between these two events, he calls our attention to two hundred years of German Jewish cultural achievement that rival the Renaissance. The story of the Jews of Germany, he argues, should not be judged from the vantage point of hindsight.

"We must see the German Jews in the context of their time and, at the very least, appreciate their authenticity, the way they saw themselves and others, often with reason," Elon writes. "For long periods, they had cause to believe in their ultimate integration, as did most Jews elsewhere in Western Europe, in the United States, and even in czarist Russia. It was touch and go almost to the end."

Elon writes about Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity who were at the forefront of modernity, secularism, science, and art. "The best among them," he writes, "tended to be indifferent to all religion and to view both their Jewish and their German heritage with detached irony." The story unfolds through collective biographies: Rahel Varnhagen and Henriette Herz, hostesses of Berlin's literary salons; the poet Heinrich Heine and journalist Ludwig Börne; the painter Max Liebermann and poet Else Lasker-Schüler; Freud, Marx, and Einstein; literary critic Walter Benjamin and Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem; political leaders Kurt Eisner and Walther Rathenau (both assassinated). Aside from a few references to Buber and Rosenzweig, there is almost no mention of religious Jews or the modern Jewish denominations born in Germany.

To Elon, the German Jewish experience ended badly, but that ending was not inevitable, and therein lies the pity. Still, stories such as the following give us pause: When Victor Klemperer--professor of linguistics, son of a rabbi, and a reluctant convert to Christianity--was put under house arrest by the Gestapo, he exclaimed: "I am German forever, a German 'nationalist'....The Nazis are un-German!" Despite Elon's admonition to appreciate the history of German Jewry on its own terms, it is impossible not to see this story through the lens of hindsight--with both pity and regret.

Amos Elon
The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2002
Euro 13,90


Reprinted with the permission of "Reform Judaism" magazine, published by the Union for Reform Judaism
Copyright 2003 by Bonny V. Fetterman

Jews and Jewish Life in Germany
Jews in Berlin 07-07-04


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