My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin

My German question: growing up in Nazi Berlin
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Then we turned south to take in cities like Bordeaux, getting slightly drunk at a degustation at Chateau d'Yquem on the sweet local dessert wine, sleeping in double beds guarded by crucifixes overhead. In contrast, our prospects for a German stay seemed far from inviting. The Free University, its very name a calculated provocation to its East Berlin ancestor, was an institution born or, rather, assembled faculty by faculty, department by department, not long after the war. From on, academics from the old University of Berlin began to set up new headquarters in idyllic Dahlem.

The old university was renamed Humboldt University by East Germany's Stalinist masters to exploit the great prestige enjoyed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the humanist who more than anyone had been responsible for the founding of the university in and who, no doubt, would have been among the first to be arrested in the communist regime. Dahlem, a district of broad avenues and once magnificent villas, had been spared the worst of Allied bombings, but like all of Berlin it showed the blemishes left by the war. Its avenues were still largely intact, but the villas had been turned into discreet boarding houses and small hotels.

This had been a Berlin out of my family's reach, but its famous Grunewald, a sizable, carefully cultivated forest, was familiar to me: as a boy, I had ridden my bicycle in its designated paths. The academic experiment in Dahlem was a symptom of the deep clefts that polarized the shattered city; in the Soviet sector, covering the eastern half of the city, Russian tanks and troops, Russian propaganda, and servile German lieutenants had created a totalitarian atmosphere. And their ideology necessarily pervaded the University of Berlin, which the country's rulers turned, most drastically in the social sciences and the humanities, into a haven for conformism and a seedbed of their party line.

There was great uneasiness in the western zones of the city, a fear far from paranoid that the East Germans, willing puppets of their Soviet masters, might one day invade their neighbor. In fact, only two weeks after our short stay the Stalinist state, called, with a nice sense of the magic of names, the German Democratic Republic, threw up the infamous Wall that dramatized the division and, it then seemed, made it permanent.

The irony of a visit to the Free University was not lost on me. More than a decade earlier, the place had been the cause of a memorable little dispute--memorable at least to me. Around , Franz Neumann, a senior colleague in my department at Columbia, announced that he was on his way to Berlin to do some work for the Free University. As I did in my lowly post as instructor our elders in the rather grandly named Department of Public Law and Government kept the junior faculty humble lest we begin to nourish the fantasy that someday there might be a tenured post for us , only on a far more exalted level, Neumann taught a course on the history of political thought.

Among graduate students and the junior faculty he was a highly respected presence: immensely knowledgeable, commanding a bibliographic range that impressed all his devotees, and benevolently interested in those just entering their professional careers. He made a striking figure: compact, with an eagle's nose, hooded eyes, and a bald head, he looked quite like an idealized Roman emperor.

That he needed to wear a hearing aid only seemed to increase his distance from us, but we soon learned that the reserve we perceived was a product of our awe.

Growing Up in Nazi Berlin

In his native Germany, Neumann had been an outspoken trade union lawyer. In May , he barely escaped arrest when a friend who had landed a job with the new regime warned him that he had better leave, the sooner the better. The next morning, he took a plane to London, bringing with him his Marxist Hegelianism, his intimate ties to the Frankfurt School, and his close friend Herbert Marcuse. His bulky study of the Nazi system, Behemoth , written after he had moved to Columbia, was then an important text and cemented his reputation among his enthusiastic following.

And now this active, consistent anti-Nazi was volunteering to set foot on German soil! Like my contemporaries at Columbia, I found this hard to fathom. True, Neumann had gathered some notoriety among us with his inflammatory assertion that the Germans were the least anti-Semitic people in Europe. This sally, of which I have often thought since, irritated me, but I was disposed to write it off as a provocation designed to shake us out of our complacent and categorical judgments.

To assist in the rehabilitation of the Enemy of Civilization, though, was something else. But its very lack of originality was like a line drawn in the sand, as if to say, You have your position and I have mine, and there is no way we can reach a compromise, no point in discussing it further.

Here were two intelligent academics dangerously near a quarrel, both men of goodwill, both German-born, both emigres who had had a close call. We let it drop, though I did not stop thinking about the incident. I did not realize it then, but the episode was evidence that there was no "correct" attitude to take toward the Germans. Individual experiences and private emotions, not all of them directly related to life under the Nazis, justified whatever attitude we took. Some refugees would not buy German cars or appliances, eat in German restaurants, sleep in German hotels, or even concede that the country had ever had a worthwhile culture; a few of them even declined to accept financial restitution offered by the German government from the early s on.

I belonged to this camp for some years; I would not even read German, a vengeful stance from which I was obliged to retreat once I entered graduate school in Many other German Jews who had suffered just as much under the Nazis had no such qualms. My father was of this second party; I remember his Burkean comment--he had never read a word of Burke--that one cannot properly condemn a whole nation.

It still rings in my ears. This was the attitude I would slowly, reluctantly, and never completely make my own. Neumann's taunt pursued me: "How can you be so sentimental? It was a beneficent transformation that I virtually sensed in my bones, as if my American passport made me feel a little taller. The depressing sense of total vulnerability before implacable Nazi officialdom had given way to a certain feeling of power. When my parents and I emigrated, we were literally fleeing for our lives; now I could stay in Germany as long as it pleased me or, if something rubbed me the wrong way, leave without having to pay ransom or endure the chicanery at which the Nazis had proved so inventive.

Now I walked on the Wilhelmstrasse, once the center of government, a street on which in I had been forbidden to set foot. But the moment our rented Dauphine touched German soil on the Rhine Bridge, I regretted my complicity in this adventure, an invitation too casually offered and too hastily accepted. I could have listened to Henry Hatfield's lectures just as easily in New York--in fact, more easily. Apparently my American self-confidence was not solid enough to let me relax among Germans or look forward to seeing the houses where I had spent my earliest years, the parks where I had played, the schools where I had recited, the stadiums where I had cheered.

I had returned to Europe three times before: in , when I spent some six agreeable and productive weeks in Amsterdam doing research on my dissertation, and in and , to visit archives and friends in England and travel in France and Italy with friends. Each time, I had refused to enter Germany, near though it was. After that incident at Kehl, I wished I had listened to my anxiety and my antagonism.

Getting out of the car on the German side to buy marks for dollars in a little kiosk, I had faced a young woman clerk behind a grille ready to serve me. She had looked at me coldly, her eyes registering pure hatred as I handed her my passport. A glance at her had left no doubt in my mind: murderous anti-Semitism was alive and flourishing in my native land.

What had happened? The clerk dealt with me as she dealt with everyone: correctly and impersonally. If there really was any expression in her eyes, it was surely boredom. I did not know the word projection then, nor would it have helped me to thaw out antagonisms so long frozen in my mind. Not even my affectionate travel companion, wrestling with her own feelings, could give me ease. The fact was that this clerk did not hate me; she barely registered my existence. I hated her. Of course I was freer to hate her than I would have been in the s. As we proceeded on our way, there seemed to be so much, so many, to hate.

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In I was thirty-eight, so that the Germans my age had been adolescents under the Nazis, most of the boys enrolled in the Hitler Jugend, most of the girls in the Bund Deutscher Madchen. Those only a little older than I had been adults. Many of them had screamed for Hitler and voted for him, applauded the Nazis' acts of persecution, perhaps cheerfully participated in their killings; many of them had profited from the legalized thievery that had handed over Jewish-owned businesses, Jewish-owned houses, Jewish-owned art collections to "deserving Aryans," had driven musicians, artists, lawyers, physicians, once their fellow citizens, first into isolation and then into exile--always provided that their victims could manage as we called it to "get out.

And they were all speaking German as though nothing had happened, as though their very language had not been permanently contaminated in the Thousand Year Reich. Their overwhelming presence should not have astonished me: who should surround me in Germany but Germans? And what should they be speaking but German? But such sensible questions were not available to me--not yet. I was at an unstable midpoint along a winding road toward answering my German question, a question that I have not yet completely put to rest and probably never will.

Since that first foray in the midsummer of , I have been to Germany many times and for extended visits, made good friends there, done extensive research in libraries and archives, attended conferences, lectured to historians and psychoanalysts and, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, to publishers. Yet even today, when I hear German spoken in an American restaurant or airport, I cannot suppress a slight tensing up and the question, What are they doing here?

Well, I took my German currency from the clerk, climbed back into our Dauphine, and proceeded toward Berlin. A brief stopover in Gottingen to visit a colleague then on leave in Germany only raised the level of tension and fed my paranoia. Rather tactlessly, our host proposed lunch in a large local beer hall, which turned out to be crowded to the walls with elderly fraternity men, many of them wearing their traditional gear. That was bad enough, but when they took to singing their old student drinking songs, Ruth and I had had enough and left.

MY GERMAN QUESTION: GROWING UP IN NAZI BERLIN

It was poor preparation for the ordeal to come: Berlin was waiting in the distance. For Ruth and me, four or five uncomfortable days followed. We did not get on with each other, whether in the car or our hotel room; at one point we even discussed turning back. We snapped at each other, bickered in unaccustomed ways. We had had words before and would have words again, but never for a reason so obviously imposed from the outside.

It is pointless to assign blame: the provocation of Germany all around us was simply too strong, for Ruth as a newcomer, American-born but from a Jewish Eastern European family, as much as for me, the returning native.

My German Question | Yale University Press

Contemporary history raw and ugly had caught up with us. Worst of all, Berlin proved a letdown. Of course, the city was no longer what it had been in the s and s, when I was a growing boy.

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Those only a little older than I had been adults. Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. More than a decade earlier, the place had been the cause of a memorable little dispute — memorable at least to me. Schweidnitzerstrasse was unusual in one respect: it was one block long, with some fifteen apartment houses and a small factory. The award was made in Hitler's name. Read preview Overview.

The Nazis and Allied bombers had taken care of that. It was not so much that the scars of war, which had ended sixteen years before, were still all too visible. The stalwart working-class women, the memorable Trummerfrauen , who drudged to rehabilitate the city literally stone by stone, had elicited widespread admiration, including mine. But their tireless work had not been enough; there were simply too many wrecks to salvage.

After seeing photographs of Berlin in the spring of , a once splendid capital now looking like a gap-toothed derelict, I had expected little else. It was not the physical Berlin of that further dampened my already exasperated spirits, it was my experience of walking through the city. Mindful of Marcel, the protagonist of Proust's great river of a novel, I had anticipated a flood of memories, as though my old neighborhoods would be so many madeleines.

But if for him a madeleine dipped in linden tea opened up the world of a long-forgotten past, there were no madeleines for me. Perhaps nothing illustrates my emotional numbness better than this failure. It reminded me of my inability to weep at my father's death in January I worked on luring memories from their hiding places, hoping that feelings would wash over me at the dramatic moments I tried to conjure up. Inevitably, it was in walking through the streets where I had spent my childhood that my emotions--and my frustration at my lack of emotions--were most intense.

For the first thirteen years of my life, my parents and I lived in one or the other of two apartment houses on the Schweidnitzerstrasse, a street in Halensee. The district, at the western edge of the borough of Wilmersdorf, itself in the western part of Berlin, housed middle-income and lower-middle-income bourgeois only a couple of miles and many thousands of marks from a borough for the gentry like Dahlem.

Schweidnitzerstrasse was unusual in one respect: it was one block long, with some fifteen apartment houses and a small factory. I had played marbles and ball on that street with my contemporaries, for it had little traffic--no buses, no street cars, few automobiles. Right down to the s, few in the middle middle class had cars; my father did have one, an Opel, used largely for business purposes.

There was a pub at one corner and a laundry with a huge mangle that greatly impressed me when I was little. For groceries and household items one turned the corner to the Westfalische Strasse. There was one store not far from us, dark, dank, smelly, that sold only potatoes, with a bewildering array of varieties, each in its bin. Apart from its lilliputian size, our street was of a variety common in the Berlin of my childhood, largely built up before the First World War: its apartment houses were attached side by side, each five stories tall and decorated with an ornate facade; the center segment from the second to the fourth floor jutted forward, giving the living room some added light.

A few had balconies that almost destroyed the harmony of the street picture. Almost, but not quite: the restlessness of each building was neutralized by the identical restlessness of its neighbors. Thus Schweidnitzerstrasse made its unpretentious contribution to Berlin's characteristic style, which I liked so much that I believed it must be the natural face of any city. Like the houses in most other residential districts, those in the Schweidnitzerstrasse were joined at the corners, forming a hollow square in the center, with a spot of grass, on occasion a pitiful misshapen tree, giving the hollow some green, a welcome change from the gray of the stone.

During the Depression, out-of-work amateur singers would stand there, addressing the windows in hope of garnering a few pennies. One of their songs, which I must have heard often enough around , was short and doleful, and I can reproduce its melody as well as its text: Arbeitslosigkeit, Arbeitslosigkeit, Oh, wie bringst du uns so weit!

Meinen Vater kenn ich nich', Meine Mutter liebt mich nich', Und sterben mag ich nich', bin noch so jung-- "Unemployment," it went, "unemployment, Oh, how far you have brought us. My father I don't know, my mother doesn't love me, and I don't want to die: I'm still so young. But I was checked again and again as I strolled--often alone--through my old streets, past my primary school and my Gymnasium. I hunted for landmarks in the neighborhood in which I had grown up. I walked through a park, the Hochmeisterplatz, a two-minute stroll from my first street, to a large, fenced-in playground where at five I had been king of the sandbox and at eight had ridden my bicycle.

Across the street from that playground there was a Lutheran church in the Wilhelminian neo-Gothic design, boasting a faceted slender spire and built in the all too familiar dark red brick--not a touch of the pink tinge that can make brick so attractive--which dated the building to the late nineteenth century. My past, then, was proving to be a mosaic with central pieces missing.

I had not reckoned with the fact that one does not arrange for the magic of the madeleine; it comes uncalled or not at all, where and when and how it lists. I discovered in these dismal few days that the images and aroma that rose for Marcel from his cup of linden tea with all the perfume of lost years cannot be forced or prompted. In short, I found that making my way through familiar quarters and looking at familiar buildings produced only a few anemic fragments from my childhood.

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