Remembering a Forgotten German Jewish Heritage | Culture | Reports on the arts, music and lifestyle of Germany | DW


“Tsurikrufn” is a Yiddish word meaning “to remember”.

It is also the name of a digital platform commemorating German Jewish figures who contributed to German society before the Nazi takeover. Many of them have already been largely forgotten. On the occasion of the anniversary year “1700 years of Jewish life in Germany”, various museums and cultural institutions are therefore working to revive their memory.

One of the pillars of these figures is Moses Mendelssohn, the revolutionary German Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment.

One of Mendelssohn’s descendants, Julius H. Schoeps, is dedicated to the preservation of German Jewish cultural heritage. Born in Sweden in 1942, the historian and political scientist is the founding director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam and chairman of the board of the Moses Mendelssohn Foundation. He spoke with DW about how this legacy can be remembered.

Moses Mendelssohn, 18th century German Jewish philosopher

DW: The digital memory project “tsurikrufn.de” presents Jewish personalities – musicians, journalists, doctors, filmmakers, lawyers – who shaped Germany until 1933. How do you assess such a project?

Julius H. Schoeps: I think very strongly of projects that try to understand the history of Judeo-German relations in a more concrete way, whether it is an exhibition, books or a digital project.

You are committed to preserving German Jewish heritage. What characterizes German Jews?

Yes, this is the question that must be asked. Who were the German Jews? I still maintain that German Jews were an integral part of German culture, at least until 1933, including literature, music, politics and social issues – it’s important to understand this.

What characterizes these people?

It is a very difficult question. What distinguishes a German Jew from a non-Jewish German? As a rule, there are practically no differences. German Jews dressed like Germans, they thought the same, felt the same. They spoke German. It is absolutely necessary to convey this. The Jews were not foreign bodies, at most among the nationalists. And that is what is at stake here.

Did the educated German Jews you describe refer to the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who argued that it was part of enlightened Judaism to engage in contemporary culture?

Moses Mendelssohn is considered the father of German Judaism. From the end of the 18th century, a process of integration and emancipation began which had a major impact on the Jewish population in the 19th century.

I have always been very interested in the question of democratic movements in the 19th century, in which the Jews played an important role. This continued until the emergence of anti-Semitism in the late 1870s, racial anti-Semitism. It was then that the disaster began.

Julius H. Schoeps

Julius H. Schoeps of the Moses Mendelssohn Foundation

Are we talking about a small educated elite? What were the German Jews interested in? Which authors have they read?

German Jews were very assimilated. They admired Friedrich Schiller, they admired Goethe and they read Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne. There was actually not much difference between them and the non-Jewish population. The educated middle class was heavily influenced by Jewish thought and sentiment.

What was Jewish thought and feeling?

He professed in Germany, but at the same time always worked in the direction of democratic developments and liberal progress. Of course, there were also conservatives, Jews who opted for the conservative parties. But it was the minority.

So I would say that German Jews were to the left of the center. This was a specifically German integration process, which did not exist in this way in other countries – also because of the language, since Yiddish was not so far removed from German. standard. I think this plays a very important role.

Some German Jews even gave up their Jewish names during this adaptation process because they felt so rooted in Germany.

It was very common, for example, for Jews to take the name Lessing. Maybe their name was Lesser, then they called themselves Lessing out of admiration for Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. I once found a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin with the surname Deutsch. This shows the deep roots of Jews in German culture and language.

Anti-Semitism also existed in the 19th century …

Yes, but it wasn’t huge until the late 1870s.

German Jews held salons in Berlin. Rahel Varnhagen’s salon was famous and attracted many educated Christian citizens. How long have such meeting places existed? And what was specific about them?

They started at the end of the 18th century and continued until the middle of the 19th century. The salons were meeting places for Jewish intellectuals, artists, painters, musicians and non-Jews. The salons sparked a momentum, including, and interestingly enough, the women’s movement, which was heavily influenced by Jewish women in the 19th century. Today, hardly anyone is aware of these developments.

Since the early Middle Ages, Jews have been presented as profiteers. In the 19th century, it was industrialists, capitalists and bankers. The images are always the same, but take the shape of the particular century.

How is the self-image of the Jews who lived in Germany different from that of today?

1933-1945 was a break. German Judaism effectively ceased to exist during the Nazi era, with organized mass murder. Most of the Jews living in Germany today come from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Poland and Romania. Their cultural traditions are quite different from those of German Jews before 1933, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a common new German Jewish culture at some point. It would be completely different from what we knew before 1933.

Why does interest in this Judeo-German culture seem to decline? In Israel, there are debates about the closure of the Jeckes Museum which preserved German Jewish cultural heritage.

This is the real problem: there is no German Jewish community that can shoulder this heritage. This is why I argue that it is the task of non-Jews to appropriate the heritage, and why I welcome the fact that the German government wants to save the Jeckes museum in Israel – the collection must go to the University. from Haifa. Caring for this cultural heritage belongs to non-Jews.

Is the Jewish Museum Berlin’s mission to preserve German Jewish heritage?

It does not deal specifically with the Judeo-German cultural heritage, the concept is European. Smaller museums like those in Halberstadt, Frankfurt and Munich have an eye on German Jewish cultural heritage.

This interview has been translated from German.


About Norma Wade

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