CHICAGO — The chest of drawers is dark and ornate. Resting on clawed feet, its solidity evokes the lost time and place of pre-war German-Jewish life when upper middle class families furnished their homes with heavy antiques. A sterling silver tea set rests on its top.
The piece was brought to Chicago via Israel by the Bensinger family, once-wealthy refugees, who had the foresight to leave Nazi Germany in 1934 shortly after Adolph Hitler rose to power. It will be featured in a major project by national German broadcaster Deutsche Welleto, documenting the remnants of Germany’s once-thriving Jewish community around the world.
The project, called “Spurensuche, Deutsch-Jüdisches Kulturerbe Weltweit” in German and “Traces, German-Jewish Heritage in the world” in English, will go live on the Internet Dec. 4 and include radio and television broadcasts in four languages.
The German-Jewish heritage resides not just in records, but in…their china, their volumes of Thomas Mann, their oriental carpets, as well as intangibles, such as their attitudes, tastes, values, even ways of studying
“In general, when people in Germany think of German Jews, they think about the Holocaust and the genocide of the Jews—the crime and its remembrance–but not about how rich this culture was and what was lost,” said Cornelia Rabitz, an editor at Deutsche Welle and coordinator of the project,
“We hope, through the project, that the rest of the story comes into the common conscience,” Rabitz said.
“Traces,” underwritten by a 250,000 euro grant by the German Foreign Office, was inspired by the German-Jewish Cultural Heritage Project sponsored by the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam. The project seeks to save German-Jewish documents around the world from decay by creating a databank of information and then linking it to existing databases to make information universally accessible, said Alisa Jachnowitsch, a Moses Mendelssohn Center researcher.
“We want to locate German-Jewish heritage abroad and preserve it, not to bring it home to Germany, but to let people know how they can preserve their own historical memory and legacy in their home countries,” Jachnowitsch said. She recently traveled to Buenos Aires, for instance, to speak to the Jewish community there about preserving their records.
But the German-Jewish heritage resides not just in records, she stressed, but in everything they were able to bring with them, their china, their volumes of Thomas Mann, their oriental carpets, as well as intangibles, such as their attitudes, tastes, values, even ways of studying.
“Traces” has taken Deutsche Welle reporting teams around the world to Argentina, Brazil, China, Lithuania, Portugal, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, South Africa, and Israel. Reporters attended a reunion of a German-Jewish family in Sao Paolo, Brazil, for instance, and also traveled to Kaunas, Lithuania, to profile a family who left Germany in the 1920s before Hitler, later to become part of an underground network who tried to rescue Jews. Researchers also interviewed descendants of a German-Jewish shoemaker who emigrated to South Africa in 1936 and who later played an important role in the anti-Apartheid movement; they also met with a Turkish Jewish family in Istanbul, who lived across the street from the Nazi German embassy.
In each place, they were asked to create a digital and audio portrait of a physical object—a letter, a havdalah spice box, a piece of cloth with a secret message from a concentration camp, a piece of furniture brought from Berlin—that represented the culture and community that Germany had lost, Rabitz said.
“It’s a link to a past gone by, to family members who are no longer here,” said Ethan Bensinger about the chest of drawers his émigré parents brought to the United States.
‘It is more than 60 years away from the Holocaust. Relations with Germany are good, and the attitude toward the German language has become more open — and we’re ready to treat it without the big stain’
Bensinger is a Chicago filmmaker whose family and film are the focus of the Deutsche Welle segment on the German-Jewish community in Chicago. “REFUGE: Stories of the Selfhelp Home,” tells the story of the last generation of survivors at a senior citizen community in Chicago that has given shelter to more than 1,000 victims of Nazi persecution from Central Europe since the war.
Bensinger’s mother, who is 100 years old, now lives at Selfhelp, surrounded by the furniture she and her husband were able to bring out of Germany, including the chest that will be featured in the DW project. The Bensinger family owned a large textile concern that was nationalized by the Nazis after Kristallnacht, and had lived a life typical of many wealthy German Jews, of summer homes and nannies, chauffeured cars and education.
Bensinger, who was born in Israel, speaks of the tremendous sense of loss and trauma his family felt on being uprooted from their home country.
His mother, actually, was a member of a German Zionist youth group.
In 1934, the chest, then more than 200 years old, accompanied Bensinger’s grandparents to Israel, where it took a place of pride in their pre-fab house in the sand dunes of Holon. In the 1950s, it traveled with the family to the United States.
“It is nearly the only thing that we have left of my family’s past,” said Bensinger, now 63. Twenty-five members of his family were killed in the Holocaust.
“To have something tangible that we can touch and look at and which can be passed down,” he added, his voice trailing off.
About 525,000 Jews lived in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933, according to Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann, director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Of those, 270,000 were able to leave before the war, but many of them left to European countries that were later occupied by the Nazis. Ultimately, about 210,000 German Jews were killed overall.
Israeli journalist Micha Limor has discovered his inner yekke. He now edits the latest German-Hebrew bilingual publication in Israel, Mitteilungsblatt Yackinton, which estimates that about 60,000 German Jews made it to Israel, including his parents.
“My first language was German,” said Limor, who was interviewed for the Deutsche Welle project. “But I was not interested in my parents’ past, because I was a young Israeli and interested in what being an Israeli meant.”
Limor, who only became focused in his parents’ heritage when he was in his 60s, sees a resurgence of fascination in German-Jewish cultural in Israel. Not only has the once-pejorative term yekke, referring to a person with family origins in a German-speaking country, become a positive, but a 2011 conference sponsored by the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, which publishes the paper, drew 10,000, more than three times what was expected. More recently, a Yekkish-Hebrew dictionary — “The Ben Yehuda Strasse Dictionary: A Dictionary of Spoken Yekkish in the Land of Israel” — has made it onto the Israeli bestseller list.
“Why are so many people buying [a book] that reminded me of my parents and how they never really learned Hebrew and spoke half Hebrew and half German?” Limor asked, then answering his own question: “Because culture is a dynamic thing, and it is more than 60 years away from the Holocaust. Relations with Germany are good, and the attitude toward the German language has become more open — and we’re ready to treat it without the big stain.”
In a recent opinion poll conducted by Zimmermann’s institute, 80% of Israeli Jews believed that relations between Israel and Germany are already normalized; the poll also claims German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the most-popular non-Israeli politician among Israelis. “There is a kind of schizophrenia,” Limor says. “On one hand the Shoah consciousness is getting stronger over time, and on the contrary, there is the process of normalization today. People make a distinction between the Germany of the past and the Germany of the present.”
According to Zimmermann, everything the Germans do in relation to Jews is either an attempt to understand the Holocaust or to compensate for it. The Deutsche Welle project “is an attempt to approach Jewish history and Judaism and not ignore it.”
Stefan Messerer, spokesman at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., said that as part of the historic responsibility Germany bears toward the Jewish community and toward the State of Israel for the Holocaust, “the German Government is committed to maintain German Jewish cultural heritage in German-speaking countries as well as in the countries of emigration.” Besides supporting the project, the German Government also helps with the upkeep of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, subsidizes religious research centers and provides money to train rabbis and cantors.
For Deutsche Welle reporter Aya Bach, who helped create the segments on Israel and Istanbul, the project had great meaning as her personal act of reconciliation.
“I feel a strong sense of responsibility for what the German people did to the Jews,” said Bach, who was born many years after the war. “I believe through my reporting, people will feel that.”