Sojourners: The Return of German Jews and the Question of Identity

Sojourners: The Return of German Jews and the Question of Identity

Sojourners: The Return of German Jews and the Question of Identity

Sojourners: The Return of German Jews and the Question of Identity

Synopsis

This absorbing book of interviews takes one to the heart of modern German Jewish history. Of the eleven German Jews interviewed, four are from West Berlin, and seven are from East Berlin. The interviews provide an exceptionally varied and intimate portrait of Jewish experience in twentieth-century Germany. There are first-hand accounts of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, the Holocaust, and the divided Germany of the Cold War era. There are also vivid descriptions of the new united Germany, with its alarming resurgence of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Some of the men and women interviewed affirm their dual German and Jewish identities with vigor. There is the West Berliner, for instance, who proclaims, "I am a German Jew. I want to live here". Others describe the impossibility of being both German and Jewish: "I don't have anything in common with the whole German people". Many confess to profound ambivalence, such as the East Berliner who feels that he is neither a native nor a foreigner in Germany: "If someone asks me, 'Who are you?' then I can only say, 'I am a fish out of water.'"

Excerpt

Intrigued by the possibilities of a German Jewish identity in a divided Berlin, we began research for this study in June 1989. The results are a video documentary and this book, Sojourners: The Return of German Jews and the Question of Identity, comprising eleven life histories and two essays. After over fifty interviews, hundreds of hours of discussion, and four years of work, we have changed as much as the countries that were the sites of our fieldwork and the identities that were the objects of our interest. Our project was begun when there were two Germanies; at its end there was one. Our prejudices about the differences between East and West Berlin German Jews—in terms of their own understanding of Germanness and Jewishness, in relation to life in exile in the United States, England, France, or the Soviet Union, and in political and religious affiliations—also changed. Instead of moving toward a unified point of view, we have tried to maintain some sense of the shifting nature of our project as we completed it over time, of the disagreements we have had, and of the partiality and incompleteness of the ethnographic rendering of experience.

No study exists, to our knowledge, of German Jews who fled, returned, and are now living in Germany. Much of what has been written about the uniqueness of German Jews in history has been written by German Jews living outside of Germany. Peter Gay calls them a 'metaphor for Modernity' (1978, vii). George Mosse says that what marks them is 'the search for a personal identity beyond religion and nationality' (1985a, 2). Sander Gilman writes that more generally 'the negative image of difference of the Jew found in the Gospel [is] the central referent for all definitions of difference in the West' (1991, 19). Despite differences, scholars are agreed that the German Jew has served—before and after the Holocaust—as a screen onto which others, Europeans in particular, have projected their wishes and anxieties. For us, what makes German Jews special is that they are a group of people who have tried to displace, if not transcend, traditional linguistic, religious, tribal, and political forms of identity. Today, given the post-Cold War . . .

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