Max Hirtz-Wolf had a pretty typical Berkeley Jewish upbringing. He attended Tehiyah Day School, had a bar mitzvah, the usual.
But after graduating from college at the University of Puget Sound in Washington in 2017, his path deviated in a major way when he decided to move to Berlin.
Jews of all ages, Israelis especially, have taken advantage of a 1949 law granting German citizenship to the descendants of Holocaust survivors and Jews who fled Germany. (In 2014, J. published a cover story about some of them.) While there is a large Israeli expat community in Germany now, few others who claim citizenship actually go and live there.
But Hirtz-Wolf did.
The 26-year-old didn’t have to apply for citizenship; his father grew up in Germany, so he’s had a German passport since he was young. With the opportunities it’s afforded him, he calls it one of his most prized possessions. And while English is spoken everywhere in Berlin, Hirtz-Wolf’s father spoke to him in German as a child, and it didn’t take long once he was living in Germany as an adult for the language to begin flowing, giving him an advantage navigating his new surroundings.
Though he had been to Germany plenty of times throughout his life, it was a yearlong service program between high school and college that ultimately led to his decision to return in 2017. During the gap year, he stayed on an organic farm in the former East Germany, where “as an 18-year-old American kid, my mind was blown into pieces,” he said. He was surrounded by art installations, farm-to-table cooking and music. (Hirtz-Wolf is a musician himself.)
“I was finally treated like an adult, and history felt so recent, with the falling of the wall only a few decades earlier,” he said in a recent interview in Berkeley, where he was visiting family. “My German had come out and I was living with other musicians and artists coming from all over Europe. I found my own musical voice there, and since that time I knew I had to go back.”
Both of his parents are academics — Diane Wolf is a sociology professor at UC Davis and was the chair of its Jewish studies program for years, and Hirtz is a senior lecturer emeritus at Davis in human ecology — and both have personal and professional affiliations in Germany. In 2017 they went there on sabbatical and Hirtz-Wolf, who was just out of college, joined them. He lived with his parents for the first few months and then got his own apartment and stayed.
Hirtz-Wolf said there’s no doubt that he absorbed his family’s history and connection to the Holocaust growing up — Wolf’s parents were German refugees who fled the Holocaust as teenagers with their parents, landing in San Francisco, and the Holocaust is one of her academic interests. Hirtz’s mother was Jewish, though he wasn’t raised Jewish.
Like most of his family, Hirtz-Wolf is more of a cultural Jew than a religious one, despite growing up in a very Jewish pocket of North Berkeley and having a Jewish education. It is very much a part of who he is.
I wear this [Magen David] necklace because I’m secure in my Judaism.
While he doesn’t participate in Berlin’s Jewish life, he likes the fact that his Jewish background differentiates him from every other 26-year-old, fair-skinned German he sees on the street (he is also fair-skinned).
“I feel much more strongly about my Jewish identity and that it’s something to hold onto when I’m over there,” he said. “I didn’t quite realize how special or unique it was to be Jewish until I got to Berlin, as nearly all of our family friends in Berkeley are Jewish.”
He also feels connected to his history in a way he doesn’t in the U.S., he said, with memorials to the Holocaust all around Berlin that are impossible to miss. When he sees a Stolperstein, the brass plates installed by an artist in front of former Jewish residences around the city, with the names and deportation dates of those who lived there, he said he feels compelled to stop for a moment.
He wears a tiny Magen David around his neck, something he never did in the States. Many of the people who notice it or show interest in it, he said, have never met a Jew before. “I wear this necklace because I’m secure in my Judaism,” he said, adding, “But I don’t want to be known as Max the German Jew.”
Pre-pandemic, he worked at a café and taught music lessons. (He also is a performer, using the name Tuftyhead.) His college girlfriend lives with him.
There have been practical advantages to living in Berlin. The fact he could escape most of the Trump years was a huge privilege, he said. Also, the rent is cheaper and there is a much better social safety net. For example, a café worker/musician/music teacher living in an American city wouldn’t be able to afford health insurance or have 13 weeks of paid vacation a year as he does now.
Given his parents’ connections to Germany, they fully understand his choice to live there, although the pandemic meant they didn’t see each other for over a year. But Wolf does sometimes find herself explaining her son’s choice to others.
“I do put up with a lot of disbelief, or not understanding, but I find it really fantastic, especially at this stage of his life when he is figuring things out,” she said. “Without the pandemic, it’s a much better place to be and it’s safer and there are no guns, which I really find comforting.”
Hirtz-Wolf said he has been tracking the rise of the far-right AfD party in Germany and sees parallels with the nationalism, antisemitism and extremism he witnessed in the U.S. under Trump. At the same time, he notices young leftists showing up to counter the message at any opportunity.
He plans on living in Germany for the next five to 10 years, though he can’t say whether he’ll stay permanently.
“I feel really OK taking up space there,” he said. “I just have a sense of being connected there that I don’t have here. Living there gives me a sense of belonging.”