Academic journal article German Quarterly

Discovering and making memory. Jewish cultural expression in contemporary Europe

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Discovering and making memory. Jewish cultural expression in contemporary Europe

Article excerpt

Sander Gilman argues in Jews in Today's German Culture that the Holocaust is the touchstone of contemporary Jewish identity.1 In the 1930s, National Socialists' "eliminationist anti-Semitism" forced not only recent immigrants, but also emancipated and assimilated Jews, and persons unaware of their Jewish family background, to confront the issue of their Jewishness and their future in German-speaking countries.2 Like the Austrian-born Auschwitz survivor Jean Amery, many German-speaking Jews had considered themselves Austrians or Germans first and foremost, viewing their Jewishness as secondary at best. For them the experience of being Jewish was linked with the experience of persecution.

Existentialist-positivist and stubborn atheist that I am, it doesn't occur to me to convert the Jewish fate into a metaphysical phenomenon. In my eyes the Jews are as little a chosen people as an accursed one. They are nothing but the chance result of historical constellations that were unfavorable to them for two thousand years... no, the Jews and their historical existence are not a metaphysical phenomenon. They are, as I just said, more the victims of chance than of necessity, and also of that indolence of the heart which in the Middle Ages plunged the peasant, and in the heyday of capitalism the proletarian, into unspeakable misery. Indolence of the heart: I choose to employ this old-fashioned formula. For it summarizes the factual situation better than the most sophisticated sociopsychological studies. The older ones among you may still have witnessed how, in the Third Reich, due to indolence of heart, people quickly grew accustomed to their Jewish neighbor being fetched at night and deported.3

Jean Amery knew that his family was considered Jewish. However, he knew next to nothing about Jewish culture or the Yiddish language, and he was not a religious man. He derived the most tangible proof of his Jewishness from anti-Semitism and his deportation to the concentration camp. The issue of identity was particularly problematic for persons of Jewish background who grew up almost assimilated into German or Austrian society. Identifying with their country and language of origin had become nearly impossible, but they also lacked the connection to Jewish culture that would have enabled them to position themselves into a Jewish context and participate in Jewish life. Amery's observations on learning new conceptual patterns reveal some of the difficulties older persons forced into a new reality faced particularly. Amery describes the life of the aging person as the memory of time spent elsewhere; hence the difference between later-life periods and youthful existence, to which the world seems open and the possibilities for expansion almost limitless.4 Amery is primarily concerned with cultural aging as juxtaposed to biological aging processes. Thus he focuses on the intellectual barriers between persons of different age groups, interpreting these barriers as the result of fast-changing cultural and theoretical codes that need to be, and are impossible to be, learned by the aging individual, in order to keep abreast with his or her times (Amery 90). The problem of becoming culturally obsolete was a particular threat to Holocaust survivors trying to convey their experiences to the following generations, and to find modes of expression that, in Adorno's words, are not coopted by the "neutralisierte and zugerichtete" traditional culture which causes "noch das aulBerste BewulBtsein vom Verhangnis [...] zum Geschwatz zu entarten."5

The lives of survivors and exiles, and those of their children, continue to be affected by the Nazi legacy, and there is a vast body of literature reflecting the impact of the Shoah on the memory of those whom the Nazis victimized. Often the attitude and rhetoric ofthe children of survivors are less ambivalent, more rigorous, than those of survivors who remember the prewar era. In her 1987 book Unzugehorig ("Not Belonging"), Ruth Beckermann, the Viennese-born daughter of a Holocaust survivor, writes about her and her peers' relationship to the Shoah:

For the children of the survivors, too, the meaning of their own life is challenged by the memory of the extent and the far-reaching implications of the loss, for the survival of their parents was ultimately accidental. …

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