BOSTON — For three decades, Rolf Schuette has made dialogue with Jews the centerpiece of a career in Germany’s foreign service.
The soft-spoken diplomat has served just about everywhere, from Cold War-era Moscow to Rome, and — in more recent years — San Francisco and New York.
Last August, Schuette moved to Boston for his penultimate posting, as Germany’s consul-general to New England.
As the common thread running through his service, German-Jewish relations have engaged Schuette on several continents. Though he’d been a Fulbright scholar at Ohio University during the mid-’70s, he did not encounter an “actual Jewish community” until moving to Israel in 1986 for his second diplomatic posting.
“Until I was well past 20, everything I knew about Jews was restricted to the context of 1933 to 1945,” Schuette told The Times of Israel in his Boston office, adjacent to America’s oldest public library. “Everything was dead, abstract.”
Schuette grew up west of Berlin, in medieval Goslar, a West German garrison town during the Cold War. No Jews lived in Goslar, but Schuette remembers learning about the Holocaust during school and visiting concentration camps.
It took meeting Israel’s so-called yekkes — German-speaking Jews — for Schuette to encounter vibrant Jewish life, not to mention classic German literature.
“Many of the yekkes had positive childhoods in Germany, and they welcomed me with open arms for dinner and into their literary salons,” Schuette recalled of his three years in Tel Aviv. “On Shabbat, they would close the curtains and speak to each other in German. I’d never heard a more beautiful or literary German.”
The German-born Jews were a sort of bridge to pre-Nazi Germany, explained Schuette. Because not all of their experiences with Germany had been nightmarish, they were more open to meeting Germans and visiting their former homeland after the war.
During his Israeli posting, Schuette met hundreds of young Germans volunteering at kibbutzim or studying at Israeli universities. The constant stream of Germans coming to volunteer or study in the Jewish state helped Israelis develop “more positive” views of post-Holocaust Germany, Schuette said.
“Long before formal diplomatic relations in 1965, Israelis and Germans were encountering each other in trade, culture, education and other areas,” Schuette said. “For Germans, it was a way to take responsibility for the past.”
Even with Goethe and Hegel in common, the Holocaust inevitably distanced Schuette from his yekke conversation partners — a sort of “silent elephant” sitting in those Tel Aviv living rooms.
“It is the most harrowing experience both for Jews and for Germans,” Schuette has said of the Holocaust. “It creates a very special relationship, even for those who want to deny it and for those who want to forget it. Whenever a German and a Jew meet, it’s always in their head, but it’s very seldom spoken of. Still, it is the most important element in this relationship.”
As an openly gay man, Schuette attests to the ability of mutual recognition and dialogue to foster change. He was one of Germany’s first “out” diplomats, something he said “took a little courage” in 1981. For 17 years, he’s been partnered with Bertolt Schmidt, a product designer and artist, with whom he enjoys civil-union status in Germany.
“Being part of a minority makes you think more about discrimination and how it can develop,” Schuette said. “A sort of mindset forms.”
Though not Jewish, Schuette points out that he, too, would have been targeted by Nazi policies.
“As a gay person, I would have been put in a camp or killed,” he said. “I would not even have had choices to stand up to the Nazis or help others, probably.”
In 2009, Schuette ended four years as Germany’s representative in San Francisco, where he oversaw consular activities for eight states. Regarded as a dream posting among German diplomats, the role allowed him to work with a seemingly endless parade of welcoming synagogues, gay groups and assorted Germanophiles.
Schuette incurred controversy during California’s 2008 Proposition 8 debate, when opponents of gay marriage sought to amend the state constitution. When he denounced the amendment in public, Schuette drew from his own experience in Germany, where years of court battles led to government-recognized “registered partnerships” in 2001.
Conservative groups lambasted the consul general for weighing in on the Prop 8 debate as a foreign diplomat, a charge that did not upset him.
Schuette is most interested in trying to increase people’s concern for minority rights, whomever those minorities happen to be, he said. His purview includes Germany, where he said anti-Semitism is far from dormant.
“It’s true that anti-Semitism is worse in other European countries than in Germany,” Schuette said. “But that is not a valid argument in light of Germany’s past.”
Adopting a pragmatic approach, the diplomat admits he faces Sisyphean odds.
“It’s naïve to expect a society to embrace minorities100 percent,” he said. “What we can do is try to convince more people to make minority rights their issue.”
As a modus operandi, Schuette prefers bilateral dialogue and concrete action over consensus-based process and bureaucracy, he said. The years of “passive absorbing” he spent as part of Germany’s mission to United Nations were not his most exciting, though he became adept at speech-making.
Having worked with Jewish communities in many countries, Schuette is familiar with challenges facing a German seeking to mend bridges.
In 2004, he spent a sabbatical year as a visiting scholar with the American Jewish Committee, where Schuette researched American Jews’ relationship with Germany. He focused on ways in which US Jews and Israelis had formed diverging views of Germany since the Holocaust.
“Unlike Israelis, who had to work with post-war Germany from the get-go, American Jews never had to ‘dance with the devil,’ ” Schuette said. “They were able to despise Germany or just ignore it.”
Before coming to Boston, Schuette served as chief of protocol for Berlin, where he ran a program inviting Jews and other Nazi refugees back to Germany. He was consistently surprised by the “effusive” reaction returnees had to his country after decades away.
“Some of this may have been because their expectations were just very low,” he admits with a subtle grin.
These days, Schuette enjoys meeting New England Holocaust survivors and speaking at universities on German topics. Whether commemorating Kristallnacht at Brandeis University or lecturing about German literature at Smith College, Schuette values meeting young adults and learning about their worldviews.
When he’s not representing Germany, the consul general enjoys touring the US, where he’s been to more than 40 states and a slew of national parks. Walking his dog Blacky and reading historical novels also figure prominently, as does anything geared toward “getting to know the place I have been posted.”
Back in Germany, Schuette and his partner live in Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, close to where the Berlin Wall once divided the capital. In his sparsely decorated Boston office, an abstract print made by his partner depicts the neighborhood: Two people sit atop a Berlin roof, gazing toward the iconic Cold War television tower floating above them.
For Schuette, a diplomatic career has left little time for navel-gazing or relaxing on the roof. Through immersion in German-Jewish relations, however, he’s found professional and personal continuity, not to mention inspiration.
“You ask yourself what you can do in your world, and in your career,” Schuette said. “German-Jewish relations have been my special interest, and what makes the work personally meaningful to me. Talking can be my contribution.”