When Hate Overcomes A Society

 This story appeared around the holidays in 1985 and was a reminder of what can happen when hates overcomes a society. I wrote this as part of my McCloy Fellowship, then administered by Columbia's Journalism School. Unfortunately, it still resonates with today's world.

Dec 04, 1985

The Last of The German Jews

By Thomas J. Maier

Newsday Special Correspondent


      It is in the Jewish nursing homes, serving the aged survivors of the Holocaust, that Alfred Jachmann found his reason to remain. 

FOR KATE RIEGELHAUPT, like nearly every German Jew still living here, this is a city that stirs deeply divided emotions and haunting memories of both beauty and destruction. She can remember the happy times of the early 1930s, her father's prospering business, her brother's pursuit of medicine and her own youthful enjoyment of all the culture Berlin had to offer.

    Only Riegelhaupt's mother seemed to sense the horror that would befall her family with the Nazi rise to power. "She was very clever and afraid from the very beginning," recalled Riegelhaupt. "And then the signs appeared - `Jews not to be admitted here,' not to go there. My father's shop was boycotted. My brother, who was a medical doctor, he and his colleagues who were Jewish were forbidden to practice."

    For almost three years, she and her family waited for visas to escape to the United States. "There were extremely long waiting lists, and I began to think we would never get one," she said. "And then, one day, it came." The visas from the American Consulate enabled Riegelhaupt and her brother to flee. But her parents were not as fortunate. They were forced to stay in Germany and later died in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.

    "After the war, I said to myself I would never consider going back to Germany," said Riegelhaupt, remembering her angry vow. "I hated them all in my insides."

 * * *

  In the harrowing wake of World War II, Riegelhaupt and her husband were among thousands of native-born Jews who came back to Germany. They were the survivors of the Holocaust, people who, by whatever miracle of circumstance or design, avoided the sweeping genocidal hand of Nazi Germany. Unlike most Jews who had taken refuge in other countries or had endured the pain of the concentration camps, they decided to return to "the land of the murderers" after the war.

    They came for many reasons. Some, like the Riegelhaupts, spoke with idealism about helping to create a new German republic free of anti-Semitism. Others expressed the need to mend shattered personal or professional lives in the one place they knew as home. Still others seemed to stay in Germany out of the kind of staggered aimlessness that only war can provoke.

    Now, the German Jews are a fading population in their own homeland. The rich contributions they once made to Germany, and particularly to Berlin, are nothing more than painful reminders of what has been extracted from German life. In the early 1930s, there were 160,000 Jews living in Berlin, and more than 650,000 Jews in all of Germany.

Today, no more than an estimated 8,000 German Jews live in both East and West Germany. The vast majority - more than 90 percent - is over the age of 65, with the number of deaths more than twice the annual birth rate. With great anguish and bitter irony, many Jewish leaders here acknowledge that - 40 years after the Allies defeated Hitler - his murderous "final solution" of eliminating the German Jewish population is slowly being realized.

"The German Jews are dying. German Jews can no longer contribute to cultural, economic or political life as they once did," said Friedo Sachser, editor for the past 25 years of Allgemeine Judische Wochenzeitung, the nationally distributed Jewish weekly. Although there is a total of some 30,000 Jews in Germany, most are recent refugees from Soviet bloc countries who adhere to much more conservative traditions and so far have had little impact on German life. "There is a new kind of Jewry in Germany which in no way resembles Jewish life before the war," said Sachser. "What is left of the German Jewish community can be found mostly in nursing homes." 

* * *

    In the years after the war, Riegelhaupt returned to Germany from New York, her consuming hatred toward the German people tempered by her love for her husband.

    They had met in Manhattan, both refugees from the Nazi regime. She was able to work as a secretary in an uptown office. But her husband, Manek, a well-trained lawyer schooled in Berlin, found it impossible to practice in New York because of his language difficulties. Instead, he was forced to find employment as a busboy, a cashier, a diamond cutter. Manek began to think of going back to Germany, convinced that Jews could help establish a new democratic society.

The Berlin of old was still a fresh and vivid memory for Riegelhaupt. "Berlin was the peak of culture in Europe," she recalled. "The best opera, the best concerts, the most famous artists lived here. Einstein was here. Some of the most appreciated, those with the highest reputations, were Jewish." But she doubted that war-torn Germany would now embrace returning Jews.

    Despite her protests, Manek persuaded her to return with the same passionate voice he had once brought to the courtroom. "Love came first, so I came back with him," Riegelhaupt explained, her smile still sweet and her dark brown eyes deeply alive. The friends of her brother, an ophthalmologist still living in New York, were aghast at her decision. "They say, `You still live in Berlin?' They don't say anything when I tell them that I do. But they make looks like I have no character, like `How could you!' "

In Germany, they also met with subtle but firm resistance. There seemed a new fresh face on the ugly, lingering anti-Semitism of old.

    "German society, from the political view, tried to be liberal with very much self-pity. My husband felt he and his friends, who were liberals like he, they felt they would build Germany up again," Riegelhaupt said, as she gazed out the window of the Jeanette Wolff-Heim Home for the Aged, which is run by the Jewish community here. "But he was disappointed. He wanted to renew a liberal Germany, but you can't form new Germans."

    Unlike her husband, Riegelhaupt said she couldn't help the rage she felt toward older Germans, the ones who could have possibly led her family to the gas chambers. "The nonJews, I like the young ones," she said. "But the older ones, I have to know who they were. I want to know if they were Nazis."

    As a result, for the past 40 years, she has felt like a stranger in her own land. "I have lost the feeling of being at home." Riegelhaupt deliberately chose the Wolff-Heim nursing home for its all-Jewish residents. "I'm not a particularly religious person, but I live in a Jewish home because I could not face someone in another home if they made an antiSemitic remark." 

THROUGH THESE halls, painted in gentle pastels and monitored by attentive nurses in white, the steadfast but lonely survivors of the once vibrant German Jewish community in Berlin walk in slow, careful steps. Outside the comfort of the nursing home is a Berlin they do not recognize.

"I'm living in Germany, but I'm not at home," explained 84-year-old Elise Abarbanell, a frail but energetic woman who was born in Berlin and sought refuge in London during the war. "I feel strange. It's not the Germany I left."

During the war, while Abarbanell worked as a midwife in England, her family in Germany was placed in concentration camps. Her parents and her oldest sister died at Auschwitz. After the war, she decided to return to Berlin only at the urging of her other surviving sister.

"She was of the opinion that she might see her son again," said Abarbanell, who described how she helped in the search. "We later learned he had also died in a concentration camp." The two sisters, who had dreamed of going to Israel, stayed in Germany because of their advanced age. "If I was younger, there was no doubt that I would have gone to Israel," she said.

    Since the war, Ernest Scholem has never seemed really sure what he should do or where he should go. In 1934, he was thrown out of the University of Berlin because he was a Jew. Though most Jewish medical students were banned from the university by 1933, Scholem was allowed to stay an extra year because his father, like many Jews, had served in the German army during World War I. "Many of my friends were baptized because they didn't want any part of Judaism, they didn't want to be known as Jews," said Scholem, who never renounced his faith in order to practice medicine. 

ONE DAY, German soldiers came into his classroom and threw the 20-year- old student down the campus stairs, telling him not to return. Scholem suffered neurological injuries from the fall that cause him now, as a frail and gentle 71-year-old man, to suffer from nervous twitches in his eyes and fingers. "It was a most unpleasant exit," he said, in perfect English with an equal measure of British understatement.

    In 1936, Scholem was able to flee to South Africa, where he spent the war years. In Germany, 37 members of his extended family were killed or died in the concentration camps. After the war, Scholem said he felt caught in a search to go somewhere, anywhere as long as he could forget what had happened to him in Germany. For a time, he served as a soldier with the South African army, then wandered through Europe, and later worked as a businessman in Australia. In the 1970s, after his 60th birthday, Scholem decided to return to Berlin, hoping to recapture the good times of his youth. "I went back to Berlin, not to Germany," Scholem said, making an emphatic distinction between the city and what he feels is a state of mind. "This is my hometown, the only place where I have known happiness. This has never changed. We are the last generation of German Jews. After us, there are no more Jews in Germany except those who are not German."

    Spending his days now in a retirement home, Scholem thinks of his promising medical career ruined by the Nazis and of the aimlessness of his life since. "My father was a doctor, and I wanted to become one, too. It was a very big disappointment, the biggest of my life," Scholem said.

    It is in the Jewish nursing homes, serving the aged survivors of the Holocaust, that Alfred Jachmann found his reason to remain. "There was no question of staying in mind," said Jachmann. "I had no idea of going abroad to the United States. I am a German Jew."

Certainly, Jachmann had more than enough reason to leave. He was 16 years old when his family was marched at gunpoint into the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother and sister were taken immediately to the gas chamber. His father was put to hard labor and later died. When the camp was liberated by the Soviets, Jachmann was found half-frozen and beaten. A doctor in the hospital where Jachmann was to spend the next five months predicted he would never walk again.

    But Jachmann recovered fully and today oversees the largest Jewish nursing home in West Germany, located in Frankfurt. "From the first moment, this was not a job," said Jachmann, whose Auschwitz number, 105105, is still a clear tattoo on his arm. "I wanted to work in a Jewish institution, to serve as an honor to my parents and my family who I had lost." Jachmann, who often accepts invitations from schools to talk about the Holocaust, differentiates between the generations of Germans he meets. "The older generation has blood on their hands; they were guilty of accepting what was done," he said. "I employ the young generation who I know took no part, who are not guilty. They appreciate the traditions and are directly against any anti-Semitic tendencies."

    Since his liberation from Auschwitz, Jachmann said, he has met only about a dozen camp survivors who decided to remain in Germany. "What is remarkable is that they all stayed within the Jewish community, and worked within the Jewish community," he said. "The reason for this, I think, is the lack of trust of the Germans themselves."

 * * *

    Why more German Jews did not repatriate still haunts many religious leaders here.

    "By making contacts with other international groups, you realize the reluctance of many German Jews to come back," said Alexander Ginsburg, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who survived five years in a Nazi camp. "After the war, there were some people who realized, if we go now, we do what Hitler intended - a Germany without Jews."

    Many German Jews, horrified by what occurred in their homeland, remained in other European countries, the United States or South America, if only for months, often with suitcases packed, waiting for the time when a visa and their resources would allow them to leave. The creation of Israel in 1947 also persuaded many ethnically German Jews to stay away and instead help establish the new Jewish state in the Middle East. Indeed, some of the strongest views against returning were voiced by Jews themselves. "After the Holocaust, many Jews felt that no Jew should ever return to Germany. Those who did had a bad feeling," Sachser said.

After the war, Ginsburg said many German Jews hoped, perhaps naively, that they could effect a change as Germany rebuilt itself from the ruins. "We stayed out of the belief that the new society would be different, that the new order would appreciate the Jewish community," said Ginsburg. "Because, after all, this is the land of the murderers, where the whole family of a Jewish person had been killed, so it was a very hard decision to stay."

In 1953, the West German government, at the urging of the Allies, enacted a restitution law, providing approximately $6,000 to German Jews who came back to their native land. Yet few took the offer; many Jewish leaders detected what they believed was an ambivalent attitude toward Jews on the part of the new government. West German leaders, aware of the loss of some of their best minds, made determined efforts to bring back scholars who had fled such places as the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt. The legendary institute, which relocated to New York in 1934 with the rise of the Nazis, nurtured such notable intellectuals as Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and many others. Most of them refused to return, however, save a few, including the head of the institute, Max Horkheimer, who rejoined the University of Frankfurt in a top post.

"No one, not a chancellor or a parliament, has said that the Hitler regime is finally over, with a guarantee of a life not threatened," said Ginsburg, who contends there should have been a stronger official message inviting ordinary Jews to return.

The reasons Jews did not return to Germany also trouble Dr. Uwe D. Adam, the secretary-general of the National Council of Christians and Jews. "No government official ever said the words to Jews: `Come back,' " said Adam. "I don't know why. Perhaps their share of killing the Jews was too great to say to them, `Come back to Germany. ' "

After the war, Adam said that a stronger Jewish repatriation effort by the West German government would have undoubtedly hurt what he said was the broader and more important effort to create a Jewish homeland in Israel. Indeed, if there had been more pressure to attract Jews back to Germany, there may have been a much greater resistance by some anti-Semitic Germans, Adam said.

    "I would say Hitler, he had no success in any of his plans, but he did succeed in one aim: to destroy or minimize the influence of German Jews," said Adam. "We can say it is the truth that for Germans today a Jew is a historical person."

    What is left of the old German Jewish community is being gradually replaced by new, more orthodox emigres from such Eastern bloc countries as Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Most remain largely unassimilated, preferring to stay in their own tight-knit communities. Many Jewish leaders are also worried about the loss of cultural heritage through intermarriage with nonJews.

Some, like professor Pinchas Lapide, a noted scholar on Jewish history and theology, see this new wave of Jewish immigration as a very healthy sign. "German Jewry began through immigration of Jews from Italy and Spain during the Eighth and Ninth Centuries," Lapide said. "Today, it seems the re-beginnings are coming from the East. There is a rebirth."

    But Lapide, Ginsburg and many others also detect a very unhealthy attitude developing among Germans toward Jews. The 40 years of shame felt by many Germans after the crimes of the Holocaust were made known now meet with a certain weariness from a new generation, unwilling to be saddled with the guilt of the previous generation.

    Jewish leaders point to the trip to the graves of members of Hitler's SS at Bitburg by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan last May as one striking example of this attitude. More subtle signs are the growing circulation of a virulent antiJewish weekly published in Munich that has 100,000 readers, and the recent dispute over a scheduled Rainer Werner Fassbinder play in Frankfurt that casts one character as "a rich Jew" grabbing land through shady deals at the expense of fair-haired Germans. Theater owners closed the play last month because of protests about the antiSemitic caricature.

These blatant stereotypes rub raw the wounds of aging German Jews who see their numbers dwindling because of the crimes of another time in which antiSemitism ran rampant. "It is surprising to hear of people singing the `Horst Wessel,' the old Nazi youth song, and about young people joining these new neoNazi groups," said Ginsburg, whose offices on the outskirts of Bonn resemble an army compound with concrete walls and extensive TV security monitors.

    "If I thought for one moment that my anger would bring back any member of my family who died at Auschwitz, I would have to consider it. But my anger cannot bring back the dead."