Muted, and then mute
"Rehov Haprakhim 22" ("22 Flower Street") by Ruvik Rosenthal, Keter Books, 296 pages, NIS 79.
"Rehov Haprakhim 22" ("22 Flower Street") by Ruvik Rosenthal, Keter Books, 296 pages, NIS 79
God is my witness: I wanted to write this review as soon as I finished the book, like always. I wanted to, but I couldn't. A big thick wall loomed up between my hand and the keyboard. It wasn't the book. It wasn't the story or the storyteller. It was something in me.
The history of the Rosenthal family is very different from that of my father's family. Even so, it could have been written about me, about us, to the point of being painfully, castratingly personal. Until three of us got together last week. Three Israelis from very dissimilar worlds. He, a kibbutznik born to parents who immigrated from Germany in the 1930s; she, a salt-of-the-earth sabra, daughter of a famous military man; and me, brought up on the religious Zionism of Germany and Eretz Yisrael.
- "Dad never kissed us," we said.
- "Why? Because of the Holocaust?" she asked.
- "No," we laughed. "Because of Germany."
With that, the cork popped and I could write. Although Ruvik Rosenthal summed up the situation better than I could, through one of the women in his story:
- "What I'm missing is the man himself, the flesh and blood. Look at my father - He spent his whole life taking care of the world, and me - I never got so much as a kiss from him."
- "So your father can't be a member of the club," announced Carl.
- "If that's the case, then you might as well count out all the fathers from Germany," said Willy. "Does anyone know a father who kisses his children?"
Michael Shashar's description of his grandfather in "Germany and I" echoes faintly in the background: "My grandfather conducted himself like a model yekke [German-born Jew]. Everything he did was so German ... When he went to the barber ... he took his own personal comb lest he catch lice from some other client. And he did this although he had a shiny bald pate and never needed a barber in the first place."
True, my father was different, and so was my whole family. I had a father who was incredibly warm and loving. But there was something of that remarkable yekke quality in our breeding, and life since then has been filled with longing for this amazing culture, destroyed and gone forever. Germany took its own life and ours, sending up in smoke large chunks of our Jewish identity and the cultural affinities that could and should have been ours.
The Israeli bookshelf is quickly filling up with aliyah literature. The immigrants themselves or their offspring are writing the history of those days, of the fatherland and the pain of separation, of aliyah and the frustrations of absorption. Thus we have the wonderful Eli Amir with his tales of Iraqi Jewish aliyah; the pain of Dorit Rabinyan depicting the hardships of Iranian olim; and more recently, Kobi Oz on Sderot and Morocco from a new and surprising angle. Every wave of immigration has produced such testimonials.
Only we German Jews, cold and remote, have made do with such intellectual and scholarly fare as Frederic V. Grunfeld's "Prophets Without Honor," Naama Sheffy's "German in Hebrew" and the historical monographs of Saul Friedlander. It's as if European Jews, and German Jews in particular, don't need this kind of catharsis. After all, we founded the state. We're the Ashkenazim, the elite. We rule the roost. So who needs all that whining?
But apparently we do. It turns out there's a lot of pain out there, which even expressed impassively, hurts like the devil. It's an emotional wound that has never healed.
"22 Flower Street" is the history of the Rosenthal family. It begins with the typical detachment of the yekke, describing detached characters, people from another planet - pre-war Europe. Assimilated Jewish Europe, torn between cultures, seething with revolutionary debate. The new Jewish Zionist identity in one corner; egalitarian, universalist socialism in the other.
Growing up between the fault lines in grand, pulsating Europe were individuals seeking their own way of life: Young people trapped between the tradition of their parents and the spirit of the times. Families moving here and there, driven by employment, hostility or opportunity in a continent awakening to the 20th century, which looked so promising at first.
The Rosenthals in the book are three or four generations of German Jews, yekkes, who wind up in all those places that this illustrious Jewish community found itself after being severed from the limb of the German homeland: the death camps, kibbutzim, the Communist revolution, the Israeli arrogance that led to the catastrophe of the Yom Kippur War. The chronicle of the Rosenthal family is the story of broken dreams, of individuals in a family and a large immigrant collective. At the end of nearly every alley in the lives of this family is a high wall that blocks the way and turns it into a dead end.
The old people of the family die from breathing the noxious gas that ended the eager naivete of these Jews, who thought that members of the Mosaic faith could integrate and be absorbed in the great German conglomerate. At the end of the war, some of the author's close kin find themselves on the Communist side. They too totter on the brink as the Communist utopia dies. And those who make aliyah, as his charming father, Hans Rosenthal, does, die in agonizing spiritual loneliness, in a painful vacillation between Communist asceticism and the search for Jewish identity through poetry and thought, neither of which left them fulfilled. Until the son came and redeemed them in his book, so many years later.
In the book, there are also some who were born in the author's own generation, like his brother, who fell in battle, whom he never really got to know. These are the ones who took the kibbutz movement on their shoulders, until it collapsed, some of them dying in another of the arrogant Jewish state's needless wars.
As you move slowly through the book, which begins as the naive inventory of a Jew in the Holocaust era and ends with a giant python of emotion wrapped around your neck, it is hard to escape the conclusion of one of the Rosenthal women: "There is no time to be a child in this world." Because a few moments after Germany, the cultural knight of the 19th and 20th centuries, opened its arms to the Jews, something happened to it. "Germany has gone mad," declares Erich Frier, the author's erudite, cultured and semi-assimilated relative.
And there is something to that. Why did Germany go crazy? What made them so angry? After all, between the two world wars, the Jews made up only one percent of the population - half a million among 50 million Germans. Why were the Germans so afraid that the Jews were on the verge of taking over German culture? It was not so much the quantity, apparently, as the quality. Nearly half the physicians and a third of the lawyers in Berlin were Jewish. The Jews played an overwhelming part in the scientific, academic, literary, cultural and journalistic life of the country, even more so than the influence of American Jewry in the United States today.
But what angered the Germans caused the Jews to block out the truth. That, in effect, is Rosenthal's unspoken conclusion. They simply refused to hear of any other reality apart from their glorious Germany. When an eyewitness got up at a meeting of the Zionist League and described the horrors of the pogrom in Kishinev, a fistfight almost broke out between the open-eyed Zionists and the close-eyed deniers of Zionism and anti-Semitism.
And so the Jews of Germany, barricaded against reality, self-satisfied, gifted, went to their deaths, with the fury they aroused in the Germans imposing a death sentence on Jews everywhere. On all Jews except for our Zionist parents.
Since then, we have rarely spoken about this. A great deal of German literature has been translated into Hebrew. Apart from the black hole between the Holocaust period and the resumption of efforts to translate modern German novelists (especially those who beat their breast over the sins of the Nazis - members of Group 47, like Gunther Grasse, Heinrich Boll and Ziegfried Lanz), there has almost never been a time when we didn't know what was happening over there, in Germany. We knew about them - but about us, about the yekke immigrants and their pain, very little was said. When Shlomo Bar banged out the rhythms of Moroccan Jewry on his drums, the muse of the German olim fell silent.
Something in us was stilled. Maybe it was the painful encounter with the "Asians." Maybe it was longing for which there is no cure. Maybe it was the sense of a great opportunity missed, or frustration over the fact that Israel has never properly appreciated the remarkable contribution of the German immigrants to agriculture, industry, academic scholarship and Israeli culture. Maybe we were ashamed of our origins because of the Germans. Maybe Israel punished us because of our cultural homeland, which betrayed us as no people has ever been betrayed before. And so we turned mute and disappeared.
Just like the author's father: "We sat there for a long time, reading the poems of Hans Rosenthal, the father I knew nothing about. Who disappeared from my life without a word. When I got up to take leave of my mother, I kissed her, for the first time in my life."
Perhaps this sensitive and refined book is the first kiss, after which we will finally be able to sing the song of the forgotten German Jews, who disappeared from our lives without a word.
Avraham Burg is a Labor Party MK.