In 2009, Tal Recanati visited Germany for the first time. She’s been many times since.
The daughter of an Israeli mother and American Jewish father who spent much of her childhood in Israel, she had always considered the country to be scorched earth — a no-go zone for Jews after World War II. Besides, any Jew who did end up Germany lived sitting “on packed suitcases,” ready to flee.
Recanati was, therefore, surprised to discover that some 200,000 Jews live in Germany today, and that it is estimated that 15,000 or more of them are Israelis.
Recanati returned home to New York and told her close friend of three decades, Janina Quint, about her discovery. Quint, too was shocked.
Born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, Quint had learned all about the Holocaust while growing up. But she had never met a Jew and never imagined there were any living among Germans in the post-war period.
This exchange was the genesis of “Germans & Jews,” a self-funded documentary film Recanati and Quint made together over the course of four years. It raised incisive questions and received positive reviews from The New York Times and others as it premiered this past summer in New York and went on to be screened in Los Angeles and other American cities. The film will be screened in December at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival.
Quint had experience making short documentaries in the 1990s, but Recanati was completely new to filmmaking. Serving as executive producer for the project, she was determined to tell this story and learned as she went along.
The women, both in their early 50s, wanted to understand how it could be that so many Jews choose to live in Germany today. The filmmakers’ initial interest was spurred by the numbers, but they knew there was a larger narrative to uncover and convey.
“I knew we would not just be telling the story of Germans and Jews. It was the bigger story of a culture or memory, reconciliation, and of how a country delves into its past, accepts it, and uses this to improve its society. Germany has such a strong civil society, and the Holocaust is always brought to mind when the country weighs possibilities and makes choices about what it will do,” Recanati told The Times of Israel.
“I don’t think people really know how much the Holocaust is so much a part of German politics, that it plays an implicit role in Germany’s wanting to always do the moral thing,” Quint added.
Although by necessity it could not be devoid of history, “Germans & Jews” is very much focused on the present and future. The film, shot mainly in Berlin, has barely any archival footage from the Nazi period.
“We wanted to bring the discussion forward to the second and third generations post-war, and not be stuck in the past. Holocaust images are always a conversation stopper, so we didn’t want to use them,” explained Quint, who directed the film.
The film is anchored by a dinner party in Berlin organized by the filmmakers and attended by a group of non-Jewish and Jewish locals in their 30s through 50s. Most of the guests did not know each other previously, and some of the non-Jewish Germans had never even met German Jews before. (This is not all too surprising, since Jews make up only .2 % of the country’s total population of 80.6 million.)
“It was one of the most memorable evenings. There was an incredibly lively discussion,” Recanati recalled.
The film comes back several times to the dinner party and the conversation around the long table. The talk centers on what is was like for those present to grow up in Germany in the shadow of the Holocaust, with the Germans and Jews sharing their divergent experiences with one another.
The non-Jews speak about the guilt and burden of being the descendents of perpetrators, their resultant eschewing of patriotism, and their guilt-driven imperative to build a strong civil society. Many of that generation, including the filmmaker Quint, don’t even know the German national anthem, or ever raised or waved the German flag.
The Jews born in Germany tell of never feeling truly German, and of a sense of mystery about the past and uncertainty about the future. They were never comfortable enough to wear their Judaism on their sleeves. Now parents of teenagers, they are astounded that their own children feel totally German and proudly don uniforms emblazoned with “Deutschland” to sporting events, including the Maccabiah Games.
By contrast, those Jews who immigrated to Germany from the Former Soviet Union with the fall of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s (these immigrants accounted for much of the huge boost to Germany’s Jewish population, which had grown to only 27,000 in the first five decades following WWII), did not carry the same historical and emotional baggage. For these Jews who had lived under Communism, Germany presented an opportunity to live openly as Jews for the first time.
The Israelis at the dinner party speak of how safe they feel as Jews in contemporary Germany — ironically safer than in the Jewish state. There are many reasons for Israelis, many of them young artists, musicians, writers and entrepreneurs, to flock to Germany. High on the list is the significantly lower cost of living highlighted by the “Milky Protest” several years ago which called on Israelis to “make aliya to Berlin.”
Between the dinner party segments, the film provides an engaging chronological history of the relationship between Germans and Jews in Germany from immediately after the war through to the present day. From the commentary of various historians, social psychologists, museum professionals, educators, and memorial foundation leaders, viewers first learn about the major milestones in the German people’s journey toward taking responsibility for the evil that was unleashed on the world by their country.
In the immediate post-war years, Germans, traumatized by heavy losses, were focused more on self-pity than assuming responsibility. Then in 1952 West Germany signed a reparations deal with Israel. Later the 1961 the trial of senior Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem proved a turning point. By the end of the 1960s, the counterculture student movement led to the second generation accusing their parents and grandparents of having been Nazis and fascists, pressing them to end the silence on what had happened during the war.
Jewish journalists and leaders of the Jewish community speak of the ambivalence they felt as they grew up in West Germany, and of their parents’ decision to stay despite not really being accepted by Germans. Now in their 40s and 50s, they grew up “sitting on packed suitcases” as they lived among perpetrators and survivors. Yet, the never felt threatened.
“We were looked at like a dying species that needs to be protected,” says one commentator.
The broadcast in West Germany in 1979 of the American TV “Holocaust” miniseries was a turning point. Twenty million West Germans watched, and many participated in call-in discussion programs about what they had seen. (Quint watched the series, but remembered her mother refusing to join her, citing her abhorrence for the idea of “Hollywood-izing” the Holocaust.)
By the 1980s, West Germany was fully engaged in a struggle with what it meant to be a modern, pluralistic democracy that confronts its past. By the latter part of that decade, public debates about redefining German identity in relation to the Nazi past were commonplace. These were followed by the erection throughout the country of monuments reminding Germans of the crimes of National Socialism.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 forced West Germany and East Germany to integrate their opposing approaches to the past. The challenge was great given that the former was critical of the Nazis, while the latter had never felt responsible for the Nazi past and was instead critical of the Communists.
The question has arisen today as to whether Germans now over-identify with the Holocaust, causing them to see Jews only as spectral victims, instead of fellow Germans living among them. It’s been suggested that there has been an over-saturation of Holocaust education, and that it might be time to stop the ever-present discussion.
Then again, it may not at all be time to stop.
“Germans & Jews” was completed before the current influx of more than a million Middle Eastern refugees into Germany. One cannot wonder what a future sequel to this film might be like, taking into account that a significant percentage of Germany’s foreign-born population now comes from anti-Israel countries and anti-Semitic cultures.
Quint echoes the sentiments of many in the German Jewish community who worry that the power of the memory of the Holocaust might be dangerously leading Germany toward political naïveté.
“There needs to be a balance between good will and practicality,” she said.
It seems there would be good reason to reconvene the Berlin dinner party, as there would be much more to discuss in light of recent events.