Germans and Jews: A Film Review

Germans and Jews: A Film Review

by Kenneth Rayman on December 28, 2019

The paradoxical name begged the mind’s curiosity, but also caution to any sentiment, brash interpretation, and of the history behind it. It was reminiscent of a question I posed when finally getting a reason to visit Germany, “How does a culture with an eternal scarlet letter branded on them live with it?” That thought made the name “Germans and Jews” intriguing even more. Two friends in Germany, one Jewish and the other non, asked each other, “How do these cultures exist amongst each other, with Berlin having the largest European Jewish community today?” and introduced the Scarlet Letter of “being German” as interviews stated “I have a visceral reaction to hearing German spoken, it scares me,” and “When I meet Germans, I’m always in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘well how do you really feel about Jews?’” 

Germany’s moral evolution was showcased as a gradual reckoning of it’s past experienced simultaneously societally and personally. A rebirth, of sorts, was intimated with terms used to separate Nazi Germany and the Germany that emerged in the East and West before reunifying after the Wall fell. Referring to the Nazi period as “the former times,” generations were counted as if time had restarted with “1st, 2nd, and 3rd generations.” I thought this to be hugely symbolic in the current context but recognized it, metaphorically, as the state Germans found themselves in immediately following the war. Germans were being called to account, globally, for the atrocities committed while also grasping a reality with mental and physical scaring only magnified by the destruction of an infrastructure and economy needing complete reconstruction. Trauma was multifaceted, mentally with the impact on the family unit if multiple were called to service or conscripted, the indoctrination, lingering hatred, and the trauma associated with constant aerial bombardment, and physically as soldiers returned to a ruined homeland, maimed from fighting; all while the needs of the family continued unabated. The combined shock of all of this dictated that all one could do was divert energy into providing for the unit itself, silence for the sake of focus on physical survival.

Each successive generation had a catalyst moment forcing a break with the last and an opening to its legacy. The first break came with the reopening of war crimes trials after the Israeli capture and televised trial of Adolph Eichmann. West Germany initiated its own continuation of the Allied Nuremberg trials, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, where Germans were held to violations of West German law in the atrocities. This was followed soon after by student protests which, on the surface, called for an end to the generational silence. The second generation would have their moment of self-discovery in 1979 when the American mini-series “Holocaust” aired in West Germany. Several participants in the documentary marked this as the first time they learned anything about the Holocaust, resulting in true horrified disbelief that also unearthed the personal introspective “skeleton,” questioning what their family had possibly done and where opinions began to form independently between generations. The 1980s were shown as the time when West German society began to advocate to be capable of being open to diversity while able to confront itself openly about it’s past.
It was even more complex culturally, with the Cold War East/West split, having two different approaches to the legacy. While the West progressively dealt with the legacy, the documentary postured the East as having seen itself “eradicated” of it’s fascist past, staying silent. Internationally, East Germany wanted to be looked upon as progressive and uniquely independent within the Iron Curtain, gestured rapprochement by opening its immigration laws to Jewish citizens of lesser tolerant Soviet republics, though internally acted anti-Semitically. When East Germany unified with the West, the culture shift grappled with Eastern desires to highlight the crimes of Communism given the very real East German police-state experience, while the West worried over the wider narrative being mudded or misdirected. The German mentality suddenly had a new arc to accommodate, include, understand, but also work to avoid it overshadowing the cultural legacy.

The personal viewpoint, influenced by the generation they grew up in, conflicted at times with the experience with the previous generation. Perhaps the most prominent example was of the German teacher, Herbert, who began the documentary with the phonetic example of the hard “German” pronunciation vs. a soft, guarded “Juden.” He admitted to grappling with his identity as a family member had died in the war. He wondered if he’s supposed to despise him, whether he can even ask the family history, or if he’s even allowed to feel patriotic as a German. Herbert would be visibly shook by a comment on Jewish dark humor and seemed to remove himself from the conversation by saying, “I can never, as a German, find humor in that” nor could he see the humor, from a human perspective, refusing to talk further. In fact, this would be his next to last on-camera appearance talking about the personal choice of identifying as European with its progressive perception rather than that of a “militarist,” as a German. This was the visual representation of the battle between personal experience and the generational divide, as Herbert talked of growing up a history enthusiast. His father would assist him on this interest by talking about German tanks and planes and then about German war heroes. When Herbert watched the 1978 mini-series, his views were immediately changed about what his father had taught him. The process of learning the truth led him to believe that advocacy for human rights to be the only true patriotic thing a German could claim to do. I sensed the conflicting questions this posed within him throughout the film, as evidenced by similar observations of the non-Jewish group.

The Jewish participants experienced the same generational divide with each successive one having more and more comfort in a German environment. The participant with the most reserve towards Germany remarked that the sight of her son proudly representing Germany, as his own, competitively as the moment she realized prejudice had ruled her life while the outside world evolved without her. The other Jewish participants supported this with claims that for their generation to wear the German national soccer jersey would be unthinkable while it’s completely appropriate for their sons and daughters to do so; that thoughts at meeting an older German on the street continue yet the thought doesn’t carryover toward the younger generations.

The film concluded with brilliant analysis through a mental health narrative, balancing guilt and grief on the one side with reserve and compassion on the other, tottering back and forth constantly. Dr. Sergei Lagodinsky encapsulated this perfectly, “In Germany, I often say it’s like a therapy session. You listen to this patient and you think you know everything about it and you find out there’s another layer and another… and those layers never stop because in every issue and every topic you always find something where Germans are struggling [with themselves, their history and identity], and the same is true also for Jews living here.” Mental health follows this same journey, never having a true endpoint, only continuous work on the self’s relationship to the past to find a way forward. The two cultures seek to understand this journey in the only way they can, as Rudiger von Voss says, “History is the memory of the people and the destiny of a people is determined by how they perceive their own past and how they then pass on this story.” 

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