How It All Began

"Betaba'at hakhenek" ("End of the Rope") by Uri Ben Ari, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 351 pages, NIS 78

Uri Ben Ari, a Palmachnik and armored corps commander, returns to his childhood in Berlin and paints in vivid colors the period between Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and the outbreak of World War II. He describes the vicious process by which the Nazis pushed the Jews from their status as respected, self-confident citizens into the humiliating position of alienated, desperate individuals. Through the stories of seven families, intertwined with episodes of degradation and suffering as well as others of heroism and self-sacrifice, he traces the beginning of the process that led to German Jewry's dehumanization, a process that ended in the gas chambers.

Attorney Marina Rosov is humiliated in the courtroom; her mother, Olga, who faithfully served for years as a hospital doctor, is now termed merely a "caretaker of the sick"; Prof. Theo Cohen is banished from the university; Nathan Bergman is fired from his position as an influential journalist on the staff of an important newspaper; and Albert Rosenthal is forced to sell his factory for a quarter of its value.

At the time, some people thought that what was happening in Nazi Germany was only a passing phase, a temporary disruption of the order of things, a bad dream that would quickly vanish. In "The German Lesson" (1968), Siegfried Lenz describes how a diligent police officer tries to force painter Max Ludwig Jansen to stop producing paintings that the government has declared "decadent." The painter sighs, saying that everyone will have to wait until the Nazi regime disappears.

Germany's Jews also thought they could wait until the Nazis would vanish; however, this hope proved futile. The stranglehold in which they were locked tightened with each passing day, but they were victims not just of the regime's pretexts; ordinary Germans enthusiastically dedicated themselves to keeping alive the anti-Semitic flames the Nazis had kindled. Ben Ari describes how Germans willingly cooperated with the boycott of Jewish shops; how they rejoiced when, in Berlin's Opernplatz, the books of the Zweig brothers, Erich Maria Remarque, Leon Feuchtwanger and other Jewish authors were burned ; and how they rubbed their hands in delight when the aryanization process confiscated the property of their Jewish competitors.

A young Jew, Jacob Fleischer, who would later become the distinguished historian Jacob Talmon, saw this clearly even then. In the wake of Kristallnacht, he wrote in an essay published in February 1939 that some people were claiming the persecution in Germany and other places was a temporary phenomenon, first of all because the acts were being committed by a handful of tyrants and the politically passive masses bore no hatred toward the Jews. According to Talmon, this was totally faulty reasoning: It would be foolish, he maintained, to assume that a few demagogues and villains were misleading the masses, confusing them so they would be unaware of their bondage, and poisoning them with a baseless hatred, like the former preacher who in his zeal incited his benighted flock to avenge Jesus' murder. Regrettably, Talmon notes, fascism's power precisely lies in its ability to ignite the masses - with much noise and shouting - instead of harnessing their capacity for collective thought or holding plebiscites. (The essay appears in "The Riddle of the Present and the Cunning of History," edited by David Ohana and published by the Bialik Institute in 2000 in Hebrew.)

A loss for words

The noise and shouting grew more intense, as did the anti-Jewish violence. Danny Kaminsky loses an eye; his mother is thrown to her death under a truck's wheels; his father Josef is hurled from a window together with the wheelchair he is sitting in and his dead body lies crumpled on the sidewalk. A Nazi hooligan rapes Tadek Schreiber, and Alek Rosov returns from the Dachau concentration camp in a coffin. Readers will find themselves, to their embarrassment, gradually at a loss for words in the face of these painful descriptions, which appear in rapid succession without any respite.

Retrospectively - because of the growing dulling of the senses, which increases with each page - readers will become aware of the powerful experience of the first encounter with the disintegration of the old order. It occurs in the courtroom, where Marina Rosov, an ardent attorney, is representing her client, a Jew beaten for no reason by a gang of Nazi ruffians. Marina is breathing deeply. The courtroom, where she has sometimes been victorious and sometimes not, has always inspired her with a sense of awe and respect for German law and German justice. However, as she delivers her summation, members of the SA - brownshirts - burst into the courtroom, shouting wildly. They call her a Jewish slut, informing her that only the Aryan justice of the pure Germans rules in this courtroom. There is no room for a Jewess who calls herself a lawyer, and they order her to return to her native Polish Galicia. They beat her, hurling her unconscious body into the street. Much more gruesome events will occur; nevertheless, a special shock is produced by the moment when the Jews first meet the new reality, when they see how Nazi brutality has become transformed from street thuggery to state terrorism.

Why did more Jews not leave Germany? After all, they were exposed to the Nazi regime's nature long before their brothers and sisters in the rest of Europe. Besides, until 1941, they could leave - and with the Nazis' encouragement. Yet, in the Third Reich's first five years, only a quarter of Germany's Jewish population of half a million emigrated.

Ben Ari describes the debate between the "optimists," who believed the storm would pass, and the "pessimists," who urged the Jews to leave. He and his friends - children who had matured quickly in this period - stridently supported emigration. Ben Ari intertwines in his story the activities of the World Zionist Organization's Palestine Office in Berlin and the Hehalutz training program, which disqualified his girlfriend Rita from immigration to Palestine because of her poor state of health - a reflection of the demand, issued from Palestine and the association of German Jewish immigrants there, not to send people who would become a burden on Palestine's Jewish community. In addition, he presents dramatic descriptions of attempts by Jews to flee Germany, some of which ended disastrously.

Amos Elon ends his book "The Pity of It All" (2002) with the image of Hannah Arendt leaving Germany by train. The train hurtles out of Berlin, in the reverse direction taken two centuries earlier by Moses Mendelssohn, who, as a young boy, traveled there earlier on his way to a glorious career in an enlightened Berlin. As a young boy, Uri Ben Ari also left Berlin and reached Palestine, leaving behind the rest of his family, who were murdered in the Holocaust. He would later hurtle toward the battlefront, commanding the Jewish state's tank corps. He now returns to Berlin of the 1930s because he felt the need, as a Jew and an individual, to document in writing the history of German Jewish youth, whom the Nazi machine of abysmal hatred crushed. He has fulfilled that duty honorably.

Uri Dromi is the Israel Democracy Institute's director of international outreach.