Breaking the Jewish Taboo on Germany

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

I never expected to travel to Germany at all, let alone five separate times.  And the idea of enjoying myself there and making German friends would have struck me as implausible–if not crazy–ten years ago.  Why?  Because I grew up the son of Holocaust survivors and Germany always seemed to me the apotheosis of evil.  I feared and loathed it.

Letting go of those feelings prompted me to write My Germany, a combination of mystery, travelogue, and memoir.  Weaving together my story with my parents’ stories, it charts my unusual journey from hatred to reconciliation.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to be invited to speak about it across the US and Canada at Jewish book fairs, colleges and universities, libraries, churches and synagogues, the Library of Congress, and German cultural institutions.  The response has been profoundly accepting and sometimes–it embarrasses me to say–even rapturous. I’ve often had crowds of over one hundred people attend my events.

I’ve also done two book tours in Germany sponsored by the American Embassy in Berlin and the American Consulate in Frankfurt.  And I’ve been interviewed by Der Spiegel International.  And, amazingly, a German TV producer has expressed interest in documenting my next tour.

But American Jewish newspapers and magazines (print and on-line), even ones I’ve published reviews in over the years, have ignored the book.  That’s despite the fact that I’ve been publishing Jewish-American fiction and creative non-fiction for over thirty years, and that the book is published by the University of Wisconsin Press, highly respected for its Judaica and memoirs.

So why the virtual blackout?

I haven’t written the book to urge anyone to like or visit Germany.  It’s a description of how I emerged from my horror of Germany as an idea and then came to terms with it as a reality.  But even that’s apparently too much for many Jewish gatekeepers, who still seem to be suffering from collective PTSD over sixty years past the Holocaust.  Or they think their audiences are.

It’s not just editors who have problems. One prominent professor of Jewish Studies who resisted a visit of mine to his school accused me of offering Germans “forgiveness,” even though my book specifically says nothing of the sort.  But he couldn’t even cope with the word “reconciliation.”  He said that was just “code.”  You’d expect a professor to be more up-to-date: recent anthologies about post-Holocaust relations between Jews and Germans specifically distinguish between the two terms.

Reconciliation doesn’t remotely mean forgetting or even ignoring the past.  It’s acknowledging the historic chasm can never be filled in, but embracing the fact that one can reach across it in compassion and strive for mutual understanding.

A Jewish student at a major university said that when he told friends at Hillel, the school’s Jewish student center, that he was going to my reading, they asked why he’d bother.  (They were already furious at him for wanting to work in the automotive industry in Germany.)  Another college student at one of my readings said her father refused to speak to her about her majoring in German.  I’ve heard many more stories like this.

Even in-laws have asked me how I could possibly go to Germany under any circumstances whatsoever, and say they would never dream of doing what I’ve done.

How can I return to Germany?  Because of all the people I’ve met there who are deeply involved in Holocaust education, whether through teaching, writing, publishing, or community work.  Because when I met individuals agonizing over their parents’ or grandparents’ Nazi past, I realized how much better off I was to be the son of victims as opposed to perpetrators.

Of course, you could argue that My Germany wasn’t widely covered by Jewish media because it lacks worth or substance.  But you know what?  Disliking one of my books hasn’t stopped Jewish reviewers in the past from expressing their opinions in print, going all the way back to my first collection of stories in 1990, Dancing on Tisha B’Av.

That book was controversial for mixing stories about gay Jews and children of Holocaust survivors, and there were many Jewish Book Fairs where I would never be invited to speak about the book.  Attitudes among American Jews about gay issues have changed for the better. But when it comes to Germany, our community seems, for the most part, frozen in time.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty-two books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.comHe blogs on books for The Huffington Post and reviews for the on-line literary magazine Bibliobuffet.com.

You can check out his latest book, the Jewish historical novel Rosedale in Love, at http://www.levraphael.com/rosedale.html

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4 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

4 responses to “Breaking the Jewish Taboo on Germany

  1. heidi

    It is precisely those taboo, “don’t speak of it” topics that we SHOULD be thinking about and discussing. Thank you, Lev, for your wonderful writing and for daring to look beyond.

  2. I agree with Heidi, and I so appreciate thoughtful discourse on this issue. I was struck, however, by the phrase “I realized how much better off I was to be the son of victims rather than perpetrators.” Lev, is this a use of hyperbole to make the point about speaking of the taboo? Or do you mean this statement literally? Just wondering…
    B’virkat Shalom, Pamela Gottfried

  3. An absolute and compelling read that needed to be written. Thank you for that. A closed mind is a dangerous thing. A closed heart is even more so. There are atrocities in our lifetime that we could or should never forgive. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand it, to move on from it, to give lives a chance to live without it’s darkness. Thank you for the light. It’s been my pleasure to read you.

  4. Dorothee in Germany

    Just read the lecture “Second Generation” Edgar Keret gave at Syracuse University in 2009, published by SUPress. His literature is esteemed outside of Israel most in Poland and Germany. His mother, a survivor from Poland, joined him in Berlin for a book reading!

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