A Jew Among the Germans
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marian marzynski's conversations with young germans: johannes schwartz

Johannes Schwartz is a German Gentile and one of the authors of Nobody Asked Us, a book written by "third generation" young Germans who have broken with their parents and grandparents over how the war and the Holocaust should be confronted. Schwartz is getting a doctorate in Jewish studies and in his spare time he is a tour guide at Berlin's Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. Schwartz's discussion here with Marzynski and Marzynski's American friend Thomas Mehrel, a Jew born in Germany after World War II, centers on Schwartz's work at the museum and how to teach about the Holocaust. This conversation, parts of which were conducted in German and are translated here, took place in Berlin in 2003.

Marian, you are a filmmaker; you make things seem so easy. Marian, it is little bit more complicated than this. I have a feeling that the younger generation doesn't feel this anti-Semitic mood anymore.

Marian Marzynski: … Both my friend Thomas and I, we have a little obsession. This obsession is called anti-Semitism. When we talk about Jews, we are really talking about anti-Semitism. When we come to Germany to make friends with people, who obviously are not anti-Semites, even love Jews or care about Jews, we worry if this is what they are saying or teaching in schools. Will this remove anti-Semitism?

So when we look at you and all the good which you are doing with your work here at the museum, the question is, when I happen to be in front of the tourists after you tell them about shabbats, etc., and you tell them, "Hey, this is Marian," and I say, "I do not believe in God. I never had shabbat before, and I am Jewish, and I lost my family in the Holocaust because they were completely killed," that is a different story. So what we are raising here is the need to address the issue in a much more general and humanistic way.

Because one of the elements of anti-Semitism was really that Jews [are seen as different] -- they are doing things a different way. That is why we are not deal[ing] with them-- because they eat separately; they don't invite us to their homes. I mean, it was this exotic part. So that is what we are probing with you. We would like to make sure if you are doing it the way we would like to do it, and we don't know, really, about it. Because you have knowledge about Germans. We don't know them really. We associate them with the old Germans, the ones that were bad, and we lost touch with them. Is that what you are feeling also?

Schwartz: I think the task that you are alluding to is enormous, and of course my issue is this, is the human condition. Or [as] you said, the human condition per se motivated me, and this is the issue of the human condition and my tools are the ones that I learned being an historian. My approach to this was scientific. When I ask, "Did you feel ashamed?" I am pulling you on a different level. I am pulling you out of your knowledge of things. I am trying to figure out if there is something that you can teach somebody else, that is independent of many scientific data and knowledge and facts about rituals that drives it. On the other hand, I just wanted to know something about your personal history. …

Marzynski: You told me before that you cannot stand it when you approach children about Jews. The very first thing they want to do is go to the concentration camp. Just explain this to me. This is really the core of the conversation. Your concept is, let's be quiet in the beginning and introduce Jews and their culture first, before we go into difficult subjects. Is that your concept?

Schwartz: I think you misunderstood the story about the concentration camp. This was the thing about authentic and constructed places... Here [the Jewish Museum, Berlin] was mistaken as a concentration camp [by] one of [the visitors] I guided through here. It is a constructed place; it is an architectural means of expressing an experience of the Holocaust. … The basic premise here in the museum [is] it's all a constructed place, and people mistake this as a Jewish institution. They think they encounter real Jewish life in here, real Jewish history. We have got to tell them, "No, it is not. If you really want to encounter real Jewish life, don't join my guided tour, go to the Jewish synagogue. Go to the Jewish communities." Although that is a problem because a lot of people can't go to all the Jewish communities. But why do you think I carry a suitcase like this around? So it's about raging gaps and fears also. So for the first time they might have a tallith [Jewish prayer shawl] in their hands, and just I tell them, "Well, that is one of the three monotheistic religions, and they do it this way and the Christians do it this way, and the Muslims do it this way, so it is nothing special really.

Marzynski: No, it is fantastic really.

Schwartz: You know that young people take this as it is, the touchy questions. And the anti-Semitic questions come from elderly people. That [has] also shown me that something has happened in Germany over the years. Really, there is no anti-Semitic mood anymore.

Marzynski: I see. In my personal peace treaty with Germans, if I will sign with you, then I think that you offered me a fantastic thing. If he signs with me this peace treaty, he will make a statement: "Marian, today anti-Semitism is history. You are obsessed with anti-Semitism because you think of the old Germans, but I know the contemporary German is not anti-Semit[ic]." So we don't have to educate them not to be anti-Semitic, [but] we have to educate them.

Schwartz: Marian, you are a filmmaker; you make things seem so easy. Marian, it is little bit more complicated than this. I have a feeling that the younger generation doesn't feel this anti-Semitic mood anymore.

Marzynski: That is what I said!

Schwartz: There are anti-Semites also among my colleagues in my generation. Of course there are. But they are in the minority. That is the thing that the Americans achieved, is that they enforced a new system of education in Germany, and also a self-emancipation of German society with a more democratic structure. … You know, an anti-Semite coming here won't be changed in a museum like this, and that is what we were told in our training, that you won't change anybody in here. Let me just offer some knowledge and ask questions, open them up.

Thomas Mehrel: My feeling about your tour is that it takes the sting out of Judaism, any stereotype that people would walk away with is trying to be explained away with medical reasons for circumcision, etc. So nothing is dangerous[ly] mystical or subversive about Judaism. But what if the bad stereotypes of Jews were true? Would that justify our extermination?

It happened that in England a person said [to me], "In my mosque, they always say that the Jewish people are much better Muslims than we are. They are giving to charity, they are taking care of their community," etc. And I said, "I am sorry, I really take offense to what you just said." And he was really taken aback. And I said, "What [you are saying] is, if we are sly businessmen, if we cheat our clients, if we cheat our consumers, we don't have a right to live on this planet? Or, you don't have to love us as human beings as well?"

And that is the point, you know. I know your intention [as a tour guide here] is filled with integrity, and I know that young people in this country are of very good will. And I thought of the people today in your tour, "They have such good will; they are open they want to learn and I am thinking --"

Marzynski: The question is, with this good background that you are offering the people on the tour, can we offer something extra?

Mehrel: No, it is not the extra that I am thinking of. I am asking, are we missing the boat here? Isn't this what it is about: the need to get back to the human condition. We [Jews] don't have to be normal, non-subversive, non-mystical and always good. What if we are not that? What if we are all bad? When you think about us in your deepest heart, we are still OK? We are still around. Because I have to keep justifying to these others: No, it's not a Jewish-American Mafia that directed the Iraq War. No, no, we are not all rich. No, there are some poor amongst us. You [a German Gentile] don't have to do that. No one will say, "Oh, the Germans are all rich," or "The Christians are all bad," or "The Christians are all crusaders." [For you] there is a self-confidence, there is a secure feeling you have about being here in this country. However, the German Jews that I saw in the synagogue yesterday, there is a different feeling. There is not this self-confidence. And there is still the question, are we part of this or not? And we can become part of this only if we are really good and everybody alludes to the contribution of German Jewry to the German elite?

Marzynski: My question, Johannes, is that when I listen to you presenting to people touring the museum how the Jews are religious people with tradition, with no bad qualities, with no problems, as a bunch of people believing in God, moral people, having all these habits, I am just realizing that there is no room for non-religious Jews, and there is no room for the controversial Jew. … What is the strategy here?

Schwartz: The museum's purpose is to represent an image of a Jew, and it is our task to put this ideal image into reality. I do not attempt in my tour to depict the Jew only as a religious being. So the purpose of the museum as I see it, is to explain Jewish identity, which is very complicated. I don't see the purpose in apologizing; that is why I do not make an idealized image of a Jew. I also oppose the demand that the Jews should be morally superior.

Marzynski: To me you are much a larger presence in this society than being a guide in the museum. You study; you are a teacher; you write; you meet people. So let's not limit this discussion whether you can do this in the museum. But let's look at this as you as a human being. As a man who knows Germany, how can you bring this subject of ours into the society in different forms? Do you agree with us that you need this type of presentation, or do you think that we don't know the public that well? Just explain to me what kind of large educational programs you would like to see in this country, by you and others.

Schwartz: It's already there, why create? I mean the Jewish Museum has filled a real big gap in the pedagogical landscape of Germany, and especially in Berlin. Up until now, when you came to Berlin and you wanted to know something about Judaism and Jewish history in Berlin and in Germany, there was nothing there, there was the gap, the void, so to speak. Now you have for the first time the place to go to. And I always tell people, if you want to see real Jewish life go to the communities, try to make friends there and [see] what it is like so far.

Marzynski: But that is not practical, of course.

Schwartz: And that [is] exactly the major intention here.

Mehrel: But you say the pedagogical program is there.

Schwartz: That is a major pedagogical institution of Germany we have here, I mean.

Marzynski: So what is the program? Can you give us the highlights, just in a few sentences?

Schwartz: First of all, there is no Holocaust museum here. It tries to counterbalance the picture of what students get in German schools today about Jews -- they are always executed and murdered and so on. This museum shows there is a much larger story and a longer history, richer culture in Germany -- almost 2,000 years. Though it's wrong that they write German-Jewish history that only starts in the 19th century. It is the history of the Jewish presence in Germany for 2,000 years, and not 2,000 years of German-Jewish history. …

Mehrel: I was thinking, it will not work if the task is left in one hand. It will not work; it takes both. Actually, the conversation we are having now is part of education, the rubbing off on each other is part of the education. It doesn't work in just watching him and seeing, "Oh yeah, he is doing well. ... He is not bad, but he is not really good enough, and it doesn't really work like that." It takes both of us. We both really have a task here.

Schwartz: [It takes] personal encounters, the discussion between generations, between Jews and non-Jews. I mean, for my preparation before I went to Israel on this trip, I had a lot of contacts through the Israeli Embassy and a lot of Jewish institutions. I was overwhelmed with contacts and people were willing to talk with me and so on. And when I came back, I was inside somehow. It is something, getting inside maybe, but at the same time seeing that inside means universal, and it doesn't really matter if you are Jewish or not. I mean, your personal story matters, always….

When I started studying Jewish studies at Heidelberg University there was such a lot of people coming [up] with complexes, psychological barriers, and always they would ask, "Are you Jewish, or are you not?" And so it really didn't anymore matter to me, really not for my own personal feeling, whether I should feel bad or good. I mean, we all were studying the thing we were interested in, and I really objected that it should matter if I am Jewish or not Jewish or the line is still there. And that is a feeling I still have today, that there is not really anything alien between people [of different] family origin, tradition, culture and so on.

Mehrel: But there is a line between Jews and Germans. There is a distrust, there is a history. Look, that line exists. You wouldn't have [this] conversation if there was no line…

Marzynski: If I make friends with Germans, I cannot avoid touching them and maybe offending them, because we need to be honest. …

Schwartz: I agree with you that the Holocaust must be touched in the end. That is the most important story, I think, still between Jews and non-Jews today, and especially its connection with Germany. But just take it like it is. I think youngsters maybe just want to talk on another level first, and then maybe touch something in the Holocaust. Maybe talk about football first, and then ask each other what the grandparents had done or suffered --

Marzynski: I cannot take it, I cannot take it --

Schwartz: -- then go to Israel and talk to youngsters of today.

Marzynski: Well, the youngsters in Israel only want to talk [about] Israel. They are going to school, [Israeli] kids, [and learning about] concentration camps. They do not want to see anything else. I am not talking about youngsters in Israel, they have their own problems. I am a messenger to the non-Jewish world, I have non-Jewish wife, I have non-Jewish [friends].

Schwartz: And that is the experience that I had, that actually in school you are more or less overwhelmed. They also sometimes overdo talking about the Holocaust [here], and maybe there is something to that.

Marzynski: How it hurts to hear that we had enough about the Holocaust.

Schwartz: No, I am not saying [that]. You'll end up with it anyway, anytime, but in a more natural and non-pedagogic prescribed way.

Marzynski: But you realize that when someone is telling you, "I had too much of Holocaust education," the only reaction should be: "No, you're full of shit. You didn't have enough. Maybe you were taught wrongly, because if you are really learning the right way about the Holocaust, there is no such thing as too much."

Schwartz: What is the right way to learn about the Holocaust?

Marzynski: Well, it is just to understand the depth of it, the meaning of the humanities, that is something not about atrocity, not about so many Jews were killed, not about the technology, not about the atrocity, but about the absurdity.

Here is the base for me. If I would build the museum, I would say, number one, Jews were killed in this country -- a very bad thing. How did this happen? Now let's go to the beginning: It all started in the 16th century. You are saying that you start by this nice easier education of history about this -- maybe you are right -- but I would like to understand, do you agree with me or do you disagree with me? Because you have a problem with this, that is why I suggested bringing the Holocaust to the forefront.

Schwartz: But if the Holocaust is brought five times to the forefront, you are fed up with it in the end. That's also what happens to Israeli youngsters. I mean, that is why the pupils in the sixth grade, they are asking, "Well, let's go to this concentration camp." They have learned about the concentration camp, what might have been, but in a very vivid and inappropriate way, and there is also something missing. So don't start early. I mean, go to Israel and look what really happens, and that is what my article is about in my book, on just institutionalizing the Holocaust for political aims. Actually, there is a reaction that goes the other way, or most of the time. goes the other way. …

Mehrel: I want to make a little point. I have two children and they are 12 and 14. There is compulsory Holocaust education in the U.S., and it's something that is very unpleasant for them from a variety of perspectives. And I am thinking as I was hearing you, [that] the sixth graders at the concentration camp is not the right time, this is not the right thing. Do not ignore it, of course, but you need to be prepared. There is a long history of anti-Semitism and a lack of character building that prepared [the ground] for what culminated in the Holocaust. You have to be prepared from a very early age on to understand and then graduate to see the brutality and conflagration that will ensue if certain steps are not taken in human education. This is what we are getting to.

Schwartz: But don't overdo it, I mean. …

Mehrel: I am agreeing with you, you can't overdo it. You have to do it right.

Marzynski: And the right way of doing it is in the book that we are reading. It is called The Pity of It All: The History of the Jews in Germany by Amos Elon and it covers from the 18th century up until the Nazi period. And in Amos Elon's telling of the history of German-Jewish people, the one thing that is really the thread through it all is the anti-Semitism. Because only when you trace anti-Semitism can you understand that the Holocaust was possible. And every time the history goes this way: Germany is in trouble, and then the Jewish banker defrauds money and the wave of anti-Semitism comes because the Jew has no right to defraud money. Every 50 pages of this book there is a scandal, and then what is justified [is an] entire wave of anti-Semitism, and then we are waiting for the next Jew to do something wrong. Isn't that what the book is about?

Mehrel: It is also what you said before, if we meet the stereotype [of the Jew], we condemn it. And you know, the trap of saying we must not overdo [teaching about the Holocaust] -- God forbid, the public should get tired of being educated regarding this tragedy. …

Marzynski: I would like to find in Germany, people who agree with me [that] there is a certain approach to this Jewish subject and that is the Jewish story is the story about anti-Semitism. If we try to pretend that the Jewish story is not about anti-Semitism, the danger is to create a fairy tale. And I would say that that fairy tale is better than nothing. Absolutely. I have nothing against a fairy tale. My question is, we have to be aware that we can create a fairy tale, but that fairy tale is always dangerous in history, because Jews were stereotyped in history. And so that will prevent us from making this fairy tale, and make us conscious of the fact that the story of Jews in Germany is the history of anti-Semitism.

Well, that is what I would like to sign with you. I am just looking for agreement. If you would like total agreement with me you're my man, that is it. … But I want on the record that on the human level actually, I have you as my ally. And you will still continue your museum work, and actually we do not dismiss it. It is just wonderful. I am truly moved by what you do. I am just asking myself, is that enough? Is the wonderful museum here enough to assure my children that this horrible nonsense of one people killing another will stop?

Schwartz: Then I should get out and go into politics.


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posted may 31, 2005

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