American Jews wrestle with old question: Reconcile with Germany?

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- The question still roils the Jewish community: Is reconciliation with Germany possible or even desirable after the slaughter of 6 million?

Some believe relations were poisoned forever by the Nazi's campaign to wipe out Europe's Jews. To them, ''Never forget'' means refusing to buy German products, travel to Germany or having anything to do with Germans.

But more than five decades after the war, political realities are challenging unbending attitudes. Modern Germany bears no resemblance to Hitler's era, the government has made restitution to many victims and Germany has become a stalwart ally of Israel, as well as the United States.

Harriet Mandel of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, a coordinating body for 60 groups, favors reconciliation, but other Jews in the United States do not.

''Sentiment to continue boycotting Germany is quite deeply imbedded,'' Mandel said. ''Second- and third-generation American-born Jews are the most reluctant to move on.''

An estimated 250,000 children of Holocaust survivors live in the United States, researchers say, some banding together to discuss childhoods colored by their parents' efforts to deal psychologically with the death camps, losses of family members and guilt about their own survival.

Even American Jews not directly touched by the Holocaust say they are expressing a tribal solidarity with the victims and their offspring by refusing to buy German or visit the country.

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, a German-Jewish Holocaust refugee, believes Jewish sentiment for shunning Germany has declined over the last 20 years as German democracy has strengthened.

''The German generation in power today is trying very hard to make amends,'' said Blumenthal, who heads the new national Jewish Museum in Berlin. ''They recognize that the worst thing that could happen is to forget.''

Still, he said survivors' views on Germany are influenced less by political developments than by whether close family members were victims of the Nazis.

Inge Oppenheimer, who spent her childhood in the German city of Kassel and was deported to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, visited Germany and recalled seeing her parents' name on a plaque for Holocaust victims.

''I got hysterical at the realization of what happened,'' she said.

She discussed her experiences at the Jewish Heritage Museum of New York in a recent symposium on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the Nov. 9, 1938, attack by Nazi followers on synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany.

Oppenheimer sensed the Germans she met on her visit felt uncomfortable around Jews, which she saw as a legacy of the Holocaust. Still, she said, ''Today Germans are different. I must admit it.''

Roman Weingarten, originally from Krakow, Poland, and a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, agreed. ''Today to put them all in one bushel, I don't associate with that,'' he said.

The Jewish population in Germany now numbers more than 100,000, the largest community in Western Europe, with most coming from Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe over the last 10 years. It is a remarkable rebirth, considering Germany's prewar Jewish population of 500,000 was almost wiped out.

Blumenthal addressed several hundred people in October at Temple Emanu-El in New York, tracing Jewish evolution from ghettos to assimilation in Germany, as typified by his own ancestors dating back to the 17th century.

In his high-profile position at the Jewish Museum, Blumenthal often meets Germans forced to fully confront the history of the Third Reich for the first time.

As a 12-year-old in Berlin, Blumenthal saw his merchant father dragged away to Buchenwald concentration camp on Kristallnacht. When his father was released, the family fled Germany for Shanghai, China, where they spent World War II, then emigrated to the United States in 1947.

In speaking to younger Germans born after the Holocaust, Blumenthal said, ''I tell them, 'You have no reason to feel guilty. But you have to learn about the past.'''

However, Blumenthal takes a different approach with Germans old enough to have lived through the war.

''I tell them, 'Of course you knew what was being done to the Jews,''' he said. ''These are people who come to me and say they didn't know, it wasn't their fault.''

Dieter Kastrup, German ambassador to the United Nations, said Germany's Holocaust reparations so far have amounted to 100 billion marks -- more than $50 billion in current terms.

''Of course, no amount of money would compensate,'' he told the seminar.

A lesson of the Holocaust for Germans? ''Never again will we accept the exclusion of people because of their religion or origin,'' Kastrup said.

End Advance for Dec. 28



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