Post-war paradox

My father refused to own a German car. While his friends drove Mercedes, he had a lifelong aversion to Germany and its consumer products. This attitude, more than a half-century in the making, is reflected in the curiosity, consternation and condemnation that millions of Jews continue to feel about the existence of a Jewish community in post-war Germany.

It is the subject of a fascinating book by Yale archivist Ruth Gay, “Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II.” This is the first full-length book treatment about an astonishing phenomenon: the return of Jews to Germany after the Holocaust.

The concept is counterintuitive and filled with paradox: Why would any Jew desire to live in the nation that systematically murdered millions of our people? How would Jewish life even be contemplated, much less rebuilt, amid the ashes of the Holocaust? The author provides a detailed account of the survival of Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe and the related identity crisis they faced after the war.

Gay actually does a credible job of explaining the motivations of thousands of displaced persons after World War II and in succeeding decades who eventually resettled in Germany. Some managed to survive the war because they had Aryan spouses or fake passports, or they hid their Jewish identity. Others hoped to regain property taken from them by the Nazis.

Still others fled Poland where, amazingly, pogroms continued even after major hostilities had ceased. Then there were those who refused to surrender, who believed that leaving Germany would give Hitler a final triumph. Finally, there have been more than a few intellectuals and idealists who sought the challenge of rebuilding a new and better, democratic Germany.

None of this has made much impression on worldwide Jewry, which to this day likely remains indifferent if not outwardly hostile to Jews in Germany. While many Jews might drive a Mercedes it is reasonable to assume that most would be appalled at the thought of living and raising their families there.

The United Jewish Appeal did not send a delegation until the early 1990s. In 1996 Ezer Weizman, the first president of Israel to visit Germany, outraged his hosts in the German Jewish community by stating that he could not understand how Jews could live there and that they all should go to Israel.

The book chronicles another paradox: the flourishing of the prewar European Jewish culture in the displaced persons camps, where thousands of Jews and others began to reconstruct their lives. The last of the camps closed in the mid-1950s, and with them went the newspapers and magazines, schools and libraries, musical and theater groups that represented the last flowering of Yiddish culture in Germany. Forty years later a wave of immigration from the collapse of the Soviet Union would boost the Jewish population of Germany to more than 100,000, and bring about a resurgence of Jewish culture.

Today a new German Jewish community is taking shape. The country is enjoined to remember the past by Jewish museums, cultural centers and Holocaust memorials throughout the country. It is a generation that feels “safe” in Germany, which has more laws and public support against anti-Semitism than perhaps any other European nation.

In this sense the German Jewish community is not unlike that in America, where young people haven’t known virulent, state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Young German Jews tend to be attracted to a more “cultural Judaism” than their parents’ ethos of strict observance of formal religious ritual.

“Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II” by Ruth Gay (347 pages, Yale University Press, $29.95)