“Germans and Jews never mixed well.”
This was spat during one of my ten trips to Germany throughout my lifetime — each of which was accompanied by my family’s mini travel Shabbat set. The quote is a declaration of hatred that was earnestly felt by millions some 70 years ago, and one that is wholeheartedly feared to be true by many more today. The question of whether or not Germans and Jews “mix well” is omnipresent; it looms over the shoulder of Germany as the country seeks to make reparations for its past atrocities, and over the shoulders of Jews around the world who feel Europe’s walls of hostility closing in.
So, do they? Hillel at UCLA set out to answer this question with Jan. 21st’s “Jewish Life in Germany Today,” a 25-photo gallery depicting past and present Jews living in Germany. Hillel’s second-floor lobby was filled with everything I had expected of an event geared towards German guests — a constant hum of murmured German, formal and frequent introductions (none of which were directed at me, since none of the black-tie-attired guests seemed to be interested in the 18-year-old with the washed-out maroon pullover from a thrift store, worn black Adidas classics, and a notepad), and a tub filled to the brim with ice and Beck’s beer.
The exhibit celebrated the success of Jewish individuals in Germany — ranging from the turn of the 18th to the 19th century until modern day — and highlighted the accomplishments of rabbis, musicians and playwrights. Following the presentation of the photo gallery, guests were welcomed upstairs for the opening remarks from Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. Rabbi Chaim praised his personal experiences in Germany, and later went on to introduce the main speaker for the evening, German Consul General Dr. Bernd Fischer.
Amid the uproarious applause for Rabbi Chaim, Fischer settled in front of the microphone. In short, Fischer’s main points emphasized the massive steps that the German government has taken to protect Jewish culture, citing the country’s legislature — specifically the free speech claus, which permits all forms of expression except for denying the Holocaust. He also stressed the emphasis that the German educational system places on teaching about the Holocaust. While his speech garnered an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the audience, Fischer’s points seemed generic and lacked the nuance needed to truly delve into the subject. In order to question him further after the presentation, I elected to endure the German Kulturgut (something defined as having cultural value), which included 25 grueling minutes that can only be bluntly described as operatic torture.
In a one-on-one interview after his speech, Fischer said, “Comparatively, the life of a Jewish person and a young Jew in Germany, especially in big cities like Berlin, is very good.”
While the official German perspective would agree with Fischer — and as the Jewish Virtual Library cites, there is a 118,000 person-strong Jewish population in Germany today — personal experience and anecdotal evidence lend themselves to a different conclusion. While the German government has been taking clear and progressive steps toward improving the quality of life for Jews within the country (as seen in German Judge Gauri Sastry conviction of 24-year-old Taylan Can for incitement against an ethnic minority, effectively ruling that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism), the German population as a whole is leaps and bounds behind.
“Oh G-d, what are these psychotic Jews doing here?” said a German observer (and Berlin resident) at a 4th of July parade. Her comments were directed at the float on which the local Chabad danced.
Perhaps the most worrisome discrepancy between the government’s perception and reality lies in what the officials pride themselves most on: Holocaust education. While Fischer made sure to heap praise unto the nation’s quality in this field, personal experiences with German youth and scholars tell a tale that serves as more of an embarrassment to the education system.
“The SS was voluntary?” said a prospective German university student.
“Had I been alive during WWII, I would have been in the SS. After all, for a time I was an unemployed university student,” said a former German university professor, misunderstanding the purpose and intentions of the SS.
When prompted for an explanation as to a lack of knowledge in the youth — namely university-age students — Fischer said, “Well definitely there needs to be done a lot more, and we almost do the utmost.” The interview was then cut short with a curt “thank you” and a reluctant handshake.
I exited the room and trotted down the stairs, wandering by the now empty tub of Beck’s — which had only untouched bottles of red wine and another tub of non-German Heineken for company — and out into Hilgard’s light-polution-laden-starless dynamo. I was transfixed by my contemplations of Fischer’s analysis and how it intersected with that of Jews in Germany, including that of my own.
“You are dead!” a German youth in Berlin screamed at a car sporting an Israeli flag. Andrew Walde, the non-Jewish German driver of the car, filmed himself driving through the city during Israel’s Operation “Protective Edge” in Gaza over the summer.
According to a study by the BBC World Service, the percentage of Germans that view Israel in a positive light has dropped from 16% to 11% in the last three years alone. Clearly, despite the German government’s best efforts — as evidenced by the constant reiteration of the mutually beneficial relationship between Germany and Israel — the majority of the people do not share the same empathetic feelings towards Jews and the only Jewish state. The BBC World Service reports that the percentage of Germans that view Israel in a negative light has stayed relatively consistent at 67% as of last year.
Walde, the exception to this statistic, sat down with German early-morning news show Sat.1 Frühstücksfernsehen in order to relay the hatred and bigotry he encountered simply by driving through the nation’s capital with an Israeli flag. Walde’s windshield was spit on by pedestrians. He was threatened with lethal violence. And eventually, the flowing flag of the Jewish State was stolen from his car.
When asked by the interviewer if he was embarrassed of his hometown of Berlin, “the capital of a nation with free speech,” Walde said, “it does not have much to do with embarrassment, but it rather emphasizes what is necessary. Namely clarifying the conflict in Israel, especially in a city like Berlin.”
Walde went on, “I am not dumb for what I did. It is not as if I went to a Palestinian rally or an Arab bar, just like I wouldn’t go to a Nazi demonstration with a [Socialist Democratic Party of Germany] flag. The idea that in my own country, a free democracy, that I am allowed to identify myself with another country [Israel] or another religion [Judaism] is understandable, and it must be defended.”
“Yesterday the victims, today the perpetrators,” read a photo gallery at a German gymnasium (equivalent of high school). The display was in reference to the Jewish people’s suffering during the Holocaust and the alleged actions of the IDF today.
The quote which began my article, and which was spoken by my grandmother some 15 years ago, seems to be steadfastly affirmed by the German people — and while many rightfully remain optimistic of the nation’s future, I urge readers to consider this question:
Are Germans and Jews mixing well?
*Unless otherwise noted, featured quotes were taken from personal experiences.