Reporter's notebook

In Frankfurt, grappling with traces of my family’s Nazi-shattered world

Over Shavuot, in the city where my father was born, I scratched the surface of the new Germany

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Some Horovitzes in Frankfurt (photo credit: LMH)
Some Horovitzes in Frankfurt (photo credit: LMH)

Until this month, I had spent precisely one night in Frankfurt — a stopover on a journey home, during which I stayed in an airport hotel. Nothing too surprising about that; plenty of people have never been to Frankfurt. Except that my family comes from there.

My great-grandfather Rabbi Markus Horovitz founded the city’s Borneplatz Synagogue in 1882. My grandfather Abraham was born there, as were my father and his siblings.

I had never wanted to go to Germany. I insistently regarded Germans en masse as inherently evil — a people whose fastidious respect for authority and order rendered them predisposed to embrace Nazism — and never mind the ostensible post-war national reckoning. Never mind any nuance, in fact. Today’s Germans still spoke the same language in which their elected leadership had barked out its genocidal orders 70 and 80 years ago. That was enough for me.

My family had fled Germany for England in 1937. I had seen the blurred black-and-white photograph of my great-grandfather’s synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht in November 1938. There was nothing, I long believed, for me in Germany.

Rabbi Markus Horovitz
Rabbi Markus Horovitz

So why did I go earlier this month? I could varnish this, but the truth is that the brief trip originated not in some belated recognition, as I turn 50, that I might want to introduce myself and my children to the German pages of our past, to reconnect with a heritage that predated Hitler. It was, rather, because Bruce Springsteen is touring in Europe this summer; I wanted my kids to see one of his exuberant performances before more members of his band move on to the great gig in the sky (two have died in the past three years); the only time during the tour when I could be sure two of my children wouldn’t have matriculation exams was the weekend of Shavuot, and that weekend happened to find Springsteen in Frankfurt.

Okay then, Frankfurt. So be it. Maybe the Boss here on Earth and the Boss On High were combining to fashion a travel itinerary.

As it turned out, and terrific though the Springsteen concert was, our long weekend in Frankfurt proved far more eye-opening and emotionally complex than I had anticipated. And the reconnection to my family, and its Nazi-shattered Germany, felt meaningful and overdue.

We barely scratched the surface of “the new Germany.” We barely penetrated through the decades. A few days in an unfamiliar city, no matter how full of exploration and conversation, can offer no definitive conclusions. But previous certainties can be clouded with detail and doubt.

I’d never wanted to know whether there was a post-Nazi Germany, a Germany that has faced and internalized and repented for the horrors it perpetrated. Now, I am able to begin to wonder if there is — whether Germany, as many claim, has confronted its past, and striven to learn from it and atone for it, more effectively than any of the peoples who collaborated in its brutality.

I’d never been able to fathom how my wise and learned ancestors could have stayed on in Germany as late as 1937 — when the Nuremberg Laws were in force, my family was being deprived of its citizenship, my grandfather was no longer allowed to practice law. However much they loved their cultured country — being that they were part of that not uncommon mix of highly Orthodox Jews and highly patriotic Germans — how could they not recognize where things were heading? How could they have deluded themselves that the Nazis were a temporary blight, a passing phase?

The Borneplatz synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Borneplatz synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht (photo credit: Courtesy)

I’d always recognized that hindsight is 20-20, and that from our vantage point, six million corpses later, it is easy to fall prey to the conviction that we, in their shoes, would have recognized earlier what was about to befall European Jewry. But in Frankfurt it was also pointed out to me that the Jews of pre-Nazi Germany had only gained their emancipation a few generations earlier. As they struggled to make initial sense of their crumbling reality, the first restrictions imposed by the Nazis were perhaps understood, misunderstood, as a relapse, a possibly brief return to relatively recent darker times, rather than a catastrophic collapse of civilized values, a decline into genocide.

January 1939: All that remained (photo credit: Courtesy)
January 1939: All that remained (photo credit: Courtesy)

Now that we know how horrifically it all turned out, it’s tempting to think that we, in our ancestors’ place, would have made sure we found a way out to somewhere, anywhere, before death closed in upon us. Tempting, but also arrogant and very possibly mistaken.

Again, no new conclusions have replaced my previous disinclination to so much as confront any of this history. I have no firm answers. But where previously I was dismissive, now I have questions. Now I have the beginnings of a capacity to grope toward explanations.


Signs at the Borneplatz show the various names by which it was called over the years. (photo credit: K R Horovitz)
Signs at the Borneplatz show the various names by which it was called over the years. (photo credit: LMH)

There are two Jewish museums in Frankfurt — the main one, in a former Rothschild family palace on the Main River, a meticulously assembled testament to a community that was meticulously dispatched to the death camps. Hundreds of years of history are documented and illustrated, replete with such religious paraphernalia as could be salvaged. Silver work by my great-uncle Leo is on display in two cases. So, too, is a photograph of my great-grandfather Markus, a sober, dependable looking gentleman with the family’s trademark high forehead, and three photographs of his Borneplatz synagogue — in its heyday from inside and from out and, almost 30 years after his death, ablaze.

A tzedaka box by Leo Horovitz on display in Frankfurt's Jewish Museum (photo credit: K R Horovitz)
A tzedaka box by Leo Horovitz on display in Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum (photo credit: KRH)

The city’s second Jewish museum is at the site of the former Borneplatz synagogue itself. The shul was built next to a Jewish cemetery that dates to the 12th century, and was trashed by the Nazis. Around the grassy oasis of what remains, a low wall bears thousands of small plaques with the names of Frankfurt’s World War II deported and murdered Jews. A four or five-meter stone cube, dominant in a remembrance garden of slender trees, contains most of what remains of the synagogue: it is comprised of red rock retrieved from the rubble.

The author beneath the plaque at the site of the Borneplatz Synagogue (photo credit: K R Horovitz)
The author beneath the plaque at the site of the Borneplatz Synagogue (photo credit: JMH)

A 1946 plaque commemorating the synagogue is affixed to the wall of an adjacent modern office block, with the museum occupying its lower floors. When plans for the office block were hatched in the 1980s, some locals bitterly protested what they saw as further sacrilege. They half won. They couldn’t prevent the offices rising, but they did obtain the museum.

Its main exhibition area preserves excavated relics of what had for centuries been Jewish homes in the area. A side gallery traces the construction and destruction of the synagogue. A photograph I had never previously seen shows all that remained the day after Nazi Frankfurt had vented its hatred on Kristallnacht: one near-intact wall, the resilient front of a building that had served as a house of prayer for 1,000 devout Jews. By early the following summer, the exhibit recalls, the rubble-strewn area had been rendered “passable for traffic.” The bereft Jews, it is noted, were required to finance the clean up.

Markus Horovitz’s features gaze out from this exhibit too, along with scraps of Hebrew-inscribed marble from around the ark, and a copy of Max Beckmann’s distorted, slightly ominous 1919 painting of the shul exterior (the original is in the city’s main art gallery across the Main River).

Die Synagoge in Frankfurt am Main, by Max Beckmann (Stadel Museum, Frankfurt)
Die Synagoge in Frankfurt am Main, by Max Beckmann (Stadel Museum, Frankfurt)

The Borneplatz synagogue’s final, relatively trifling indignity came four decades later, with the construction of the office block. Only after the bulldozers and mechanical diggers had been let loose was it realized that the synagogue floor had survived the war largely intact. A middle-aged non-Jewish woman, who was involved in another exhibit at the museum but who had been among the 1980s protesters, told our family all this and more of this Jewish area’s history, and then, quite unexpectedly, started crying. She apologized. We tried to comfort her.

We walked from the site of the shul to the street, 10 minutes away, where my father and his siblings grew up, imagining them making the same short, carefree journey, on sabbaths and festivals 80 and 90 years ago, never dreaming…

Like the shul, their home is long gone — torn down, but not viciously, to make way for a long, three-story terraced block of apartments. On earlier return visits, relatives had told us of a surviving chestnut tree, and even of a house-key found hidden deep in its branches. But we saw no hint, and heard no echoes, of our loved ones’ lives lived here.


Remembering that The Times of Israel had carried a story about Frankfurt recently electing a Jewish mayor, Peter Feldmann, I had contacted his office a few days before we flew out. We spoke by telephone because he was away from the city. In fact, I caught him on a train to Munich, traveling with his two-year-old daughter — not the easiest of circumstances for an interview in which I was taking my first steps toward trying to understand why, on earth, Jews would nowadays choose — choose! — to live their lives in the country that incinerated us by the million.

Peter Feldmann (photo credit: Courtesy Feldmann Frankfurt)
Peter Feldmann (photo credit: Courtesy Feldmann Frankfurt)

Feldmann emphatically made such a choice — and his father made it before him. His father had fled Nazi Germany for Denmark in his early teens, and survived because Denmark, uniquely, saved its Jews from the Nazi occupiers, smuggling them out on boats to Sweden. He returned to what was now East Germany after the war to try to put the world to rights, via democratic socialism, quickly became disillusioned by the hypocrisies and inequalities of the Communist regime, and moved to West Berlin. There he met and married Peter’s mother. Feldmann was born in Helmstedt, on the border between East and West Germany in 1958.

“My father identified as a Jew, absolutely,” Feldmann told me from his Munich-bound railway carriage. “His father was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz, then selected as a slave laborer and sent to Japan. But my dad was also very politically oriented” — within the framework of the SPD, Germany’s social democratic party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands). “He had me watching the news from age 7. He was disgusted with East Germany. He and his group of Jewish political activists had wanted to build a fair society there, and when they realized that wasn’t going to happen, some went to Palestine, some confronted the East German authorities and were killed, and some fled to the West. My father was one of that last group.”

“Because of him,” Feldmann said, “I was also very politically aware and outspoken from a very young age. I was a student leader at university, at Marburg, near Frankfurt. At 15 I’d been reading the Communist Manifesto. My father said Karl Marx was “one of us, from a rabbinical family, an exemplar of the classical Jewish thought process — thesis and antithesis.”

Feldmann lost aunts and uncles in the Holocaust, but one aunt fled to Palestine. “She and her husband, my uncle, lived in Rehovot. They were my only family in Israel. The Moshkovitzes. I came to Israel many times over the years.” But his German identity, and his history of political activism, triumphed. “I was a temporary resident in Israel in 1979. I worked as a gardener, at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet. I still remember Hanan Cohen, who ran the ulpan there. I was in Kitah Aleph (the lowest grade). I learned the past and present tenses, but didn’t reach the future. I wanted to stay. At one point, I was seeing a nice woman of Jewish Yemenite background. But I was very disciplined and very German, and that kibbutz path didn’t work out. So I went back to finish my exams in Marburg.”

An academic and both a paid and volunteer employee in various NGOs, Feldmann has been an SPD activist all his life — marrying his politics with his faith to co-found the party’s Jewish club five years ago. Two of his friends — of whom more later — told me that his rise to the mayoralty was a little improbable: It was by no means clear that he would succeed in gaining the SPD nomination and, when he did, far from certain that he could defeat his rival, Boris Rhein, from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Rhein was a better-known politician in a city that had kept re-electing a CDU mayor (Petra Roth) since 1995.

His campaign focused on the need for more affordable housing, his friends told me. It most certainly did not focus on his being a Jew, he and his friends agreed. “There was no Jewish factor whatsoever. It played no role,” Feldmann said. “Lots of people know I’m Jewish. Nobody cares. Frankfurt is a very international city, very special. There’s nobody really Aryan, to use a really ugly expression.”

A very international city? Very special? Was this curious figure, to me, this modern Jewish German, this man of principle who had rejected Israel for that blood-soaked land, trying to suggest that Frankfurt had been somehow exceptional in those dark years, “international,” “special.” He was not: “Frankfurt’s Jews were caught and sent to concentration camps,” he said. “In the Nazi era, German bureaucracy was brutally efficient.”

Borneplatz synagogue in its heyday
Borneplatz synagogue in its heyday

Feldmann moved back to the present: “Thirty percent of Frankfurt’s citizens today have a foreign passport. Forty percent are of immigrant background. That figure rises to 80-90% in some schools.” That’s what he meant by international. “There have never been conflicts over this issue of immigration. Frankfurt has typically been motivated by business.”

What about the rest of Germany nowadays, I asked him? If Frankfurt is special, his Jewishness a non-issue, what about the rest of the country? “In East Germany, in Saxony, in the parliament and in some villages and cities, there’s some real neo-Nazi influence,” he said. “But in the west, it’s very different. And Frankfurt, well, Frankfurt is really a bubble. It’s like the Tel Aviv bubble,” he suggested, drawing on the experience of what he said were 35 visits to Israel over the years. “Just like you can have a war in Gaza and Lebanon and not feel it in the cafes of Tel Aviv, so they can be horrible to foreigners in East Germany, and you don’t really feel it in Frankfurt.”

Feldmann, who takes office in July, will be coming to Israel on his second official mayoral visit soon afterwards, including to sister city Tel Aviv. His first visit will be to Turkey. “Making Israel the first destination would have been too easy,” he said.

He is not, as was widely reported when he won the election in March, the first Jew elected mayor anywhere in post-war Germany. He is not the second either, as other reports have suggested, or even the third. Max Brauer, who fled the Nazis to the US in 1933 and had his citizenship revoked a year later, returned to Germany and became mayor of Hamburg in 1946. Another Jew, Herbert Weichmann, was mayor of the same city in the 1960s. Dieter Salomon, the Australian-born mayor of Freiburg, is also Jewish.

Feldmann is also, of course, by no means exceptional in being Jewish in his city and his country almost 70 years after the war. Estimates suggest there are 200,000 Jews in today’s Germany — including many Jews who chose Germany over Israel when the exit gates from the Soviet Union opened over three decades ago, and many Israelis who have chosen Germany over Israel when the Jewish state disappointed or overwhelmed them for some or other reason. In Frankfurt, officially, there are 7,000 Jews. Feldmann believes the true figure may be almost double that.


Because he was out of town, Feldmann recommended two other members of his city’s Jewish community for us to meet: Elisa Klapheck, rabbi of the city’s Liberal congregation, and her partner Abraham de Wolf, a fellow SPD activist, lawyer and former head of the Jewish community in Heidelberg, to the south.

They collected my wife and me at our hotel, and set off to show us the city from a Jewish perspective, intending for us to end up in the Sachsenhausen district for coffee. This goal, however, was complicated both by a one-way system that frequently defeats even local experts, and by the fact that Klapheck was baring her soul to me even as she attempted to navigate it.

A feisty extrovert with a mass of silver-gray hair, Klapheck took us via the ghost of the Borneplatz to her own living synagogue which, quite remarkably, sits under the same roof as an Orthodox congregation and, surely uniquely, an ultra-Orthodox congregation. The so-called Unified Community represents renewed evidence of the capacity for pragmatism and internal harmony among Jews, if we only make the effort.

Elisa Klapheck (photo credit: copyright Rafael Herrlich)
Elisa Klapheck (photo credit: copyright Rafael Herrlich)

On her mother’s side, Klapheck’s family dates back to 1390s South Germany. Her grandparents fled to the Netherlands in 1933-34, and her mother was born in Rotterdam. They had “an odyssey” around Europe trying to stay out of the Nazis’ clutches, but were defeated when, having traversed Belgium, France, and even Portugal, they wound up in “neutral” Switzerland, which promptly sent them back to Germany. “My grandfather was killed in Auschwitz. My grandmother hid somewhere in the forests near Berlin. Eventually, she and my mother were caught and sent to a work camp in Berlin, where they were liberated by the Russians. They went to Dusseldorf, to ‘Tante Louisa’, and that’s where I was born. My grandfather did not come back. A great aunt moved to Palestine, a great uncle to New York, but the other 10 of my grandfather’s siblings did not survive.”

Klapheck’s father was not Jewish, but converted to Judaism. An artist, he came from a family of professors and academics and philosophers and philo-Semites. “His father was instrumental, for instance, in organizing in 1909 in Dusseldorf the first German-Jewish art exhibit, which became a stepping-stone for founding the Jewish museum in Berlin before the Shoah,” she said, as we went around what appeared to be the same block for the third or fourth time. “Although many deny it today, there was a Jewish-German symbiosis, and I am the embodiment of it.”

Her mother did think about emigrating to Israel, especially in the late 1960s. “In 1968, she took my younger brother and me for a few weeks there, and we went again later. But I remember my mother saying to a Jewish friend, ‘They are the Israelis, and we are only the Jews.’ I remember a kind of decisive sub-tone, that it was not a country for her to live in.”

The first German Jew I’d encountered in her native land, I barraged the rabbi with questions, beginning with, Why didn’t the Jews get out? and Why did some of them, like your family, who had lost so many of its members, opt to stay after the war?

Doubtless, she’d been asked all such questions before, and agonized over many of them. But her answers were anything but pat, and each only raised more questions, that she strove, earnestly and seriously, to address.

“Those who knew Germany before 1933 know it is more complex,” she began. “My father’s family, non-Jews, had been so involved in bringing Jewish culture into mainstream German consciousness. In Berlin, 3-6,000 Jews survived because they were hidden. To hide one Jew you needed 10 people. Those people who were hidden couldn’t just say, ‘It’s a wicked country’ because they knew it was more complex. My mother was hidden for a while too. It was very dangerous. We visited this family once and I still remember my mother’s gratitude toward them.”

After the war, she said, “There were many reasons to stay. We German Jews didn’t talk about the Holocaust. It was a taboo, it was a subject of shame. Also, being a ‘German’ Jew was a subject of shame. Only much later did it become clear to me that I’m a German Jew and that there was a great past, a great history of scholarship to hold on to. I understood then that I had to come to terms with Germany.

“I like this country,’ she said with feeling. “I like the way they dealt with the past. I’m very involved in the revival of Jewish life in Germany and in Europe.

“I always felt that, in Israel, my cousins are the real sabras, and that I did not belong there. They ignored the fact that their grandparents only spoke German. They made jokes about yekkes. I felt ashamed. I am happy to have come to terms with living in Germany. It’s a very democratic country. I feel this is my place.

“In dealing with the past, the country was honest,” she argued. “It’s not easy to confess that you’re guilty. To be guilty and to have sinned are two very different things: If you are guilty, you have to be tried by the secular courthouse. Guilt is individual, based on a concrete deed. Sin is different: It is the negative energy of guilt, which infects others too and can mount up to poison an entire society. I’m a rabbi. I deal with sin. And this country made a collective tshuva,” she said, using the Hebrew word for repentance.

And not only West Germany, she said. In the rabbi’s narrative, other parts of the Nazi empire have had a reckoning of sorts as well. “After the wall came down between East and West Germany, one of the first things that the new parliament president did was to say ‘Sorry, from East Germany.’ To say that ‘We didn’t apologize for what we had done to the Jews.’ In Latvia, at one of the first demonstrations against the Soviets, they said, ‘We want to apologize to the Jews because there were so many collaborators when the Germans came in 1941. That reconciled me with eastern Europe. Poland, too, where you have a new generation of Poles, who try to connect to the Jewish past of the country. (Her partner, de Wolf, would later speak rather differently to me about the former East Germany, saying that it had not undergone the same kind of post-war self-analysis and repentance as the West.)

“It’s a continent with a lot of anti-Semitic history, so it’s very complicated. And I felt it shouldn’t be ignored that they were apologizing. I worked as a journalist. (Before training as rabbi, Klapheck had been a reporter, in print and for German TV). I went to Poland. I was seen as a journalist from Germany. Nobody knew I was Jewish. They saw me as a representative of the perpetrators. I saw what it’s like for my generation of young Germans to be confronted all the time. I think they’ve done a great job of collective penitence. Other countries like Spain and Japan could learn a great deal.

“When I gradually came to terms with all this, I felt that we needed a new Jewish life here. It can’t always be about the Holocaust. I’m here to start a positive, new chapter of Jewish life in Germany.”

As part of that ambition, Klapheck and de Wolf have founded an “economic club” — a group that seeks to bring practical Jewish ethics to economic and social practices. Said de Wolf: “We’re working on a Jewish reply to the question of where society should step in to regulate markets. Between pure capitalism and the Christian idea that money is evil, there has to be a middle ground. If you say something is evil, you don’t look at the details. Rabbinical thinking is to be involved in society, so you have a responsibility to regulate, to set up rules. Well, which rules apply here?”

If you say something is evil, you don’t look at the details. That was a point I was having to internalize a great deal on this trip.

By this point, our driving tour had brought us to the campus of the University of Frankfurt — founded, including by Jews, in the 19th century, part of that rich Jewish educational past. The university is housed in what was the I.G. Farben building until 1945, an enormous construction that was once the largest building in Europe. It was then a US military headquarters, until 1994. I.G. Farben, which notoriously manufactured Zyklon B, “had many Jewish members on its board before the Nazi era,” Klapheck pointed out as we drove past. “Then it was taken over.”

She said the university building has exhibits on many of its floors examining I. G. Farben’s role in the Holocaust. “It’s not hidden or glossed over.” Also inside the I.G. Farben university complex is the research institute of Fritz Bauer, the Jewish jurist who in Frankfurt in the early 1960s prosecuted those responsible for running Auschwitz. Today, the institute deals with research on the implications of the Holocaust — in the Nazi-era, but also for today’s society. Elsewhere in the city, there’s still an active prosecution unit, that did a lot of work on the John Demjanjuk case.

“If we create taboos around everything that was linked to the Nazis,” she argued, “we cut ourselves off from our own history. We have to come to terms with history.”

But it’s a history in Germany, I persisted. Germany. Holocaust-hatching Germany.

“From 2005 to 2009 I lived in Amsterdam” — her first rabbinical post. “Now you have someone there called Gert Wilders. He’s using Islam to fanaticize the population. There’s a very bad mood in the Netherlands. The atmosphere is poisoned. The Netherlands is not in danger of losing its democracy, but some of its intellectual elite are starting to ask, ‘Why do we need democracy — to let the Muslims take over?’ You can see society changing there.

“Something similar happened to Germany with economic and other causes. It can happen anywhere. It can happen in Israel too. It can happen in the right conditions. Germany was not the most anti-Semitic country before the Nazis. Poland was worse. The Netherlands were not anti-Semitic at all, yet that was the Western European country with the highest rate of deportation (of its Jews) and thus the highest level of collaboration in the Shoah. The level of anti-Semitism was not the indicator. Germany was a poisoned society and those people who did it used the Jews as the vent.”


We never did make it to Sachsenhausen, which didn’t greatly trouble me or my wife, since the neighborhood shares its name with a Nazi concentration camp in which her late father spent part of World War II. Instead, Klapheck went off to her next engagement, and de Wolf took us back to our hotel.

We had planned to have a quick coffee with him, and then say our farewells; we’d already imposed on the couple for much of the afternoon.  But we got talking again, and found it hard to stop.

De Wolf was born in Stuttgart, a child of two political scientists who moved back and forth with him between the US and Germany. Both of his parents’ families were safely in the US before the war broke out, and none of his immediate family was killed. “For me,” he said, “it is natural to live in Germany.”

Abraham de Wolf (photo credit: Courtesy)
Abraham de Wolf (photo credit: Courtesy)

He’d said in the car, and he repeated now, that he saw it as a “weakness of Jewish culture” that there had been no real attempt by the Jews “to understand what happened here and why. There’s been no serious Jewish discussion. Jews don’t want to go into it, although Claude Lanzmann tried in ‘Shoah’. There are Holocaust studies all over the place, but they are usually superficial.”

I contested that assertion at first. There has been non-stop examination of the what and the when and the where and the how many, I said. But that’s not what he meant. “There is Jewish cultural and scientific discussion on lots of issues, but not on why a modern society could become barbaric,” he elaborated. “After the UK and the US, Germany was the leading modern society of the time. How and why did it descend into barbarism?”

Non-Jewish Germany, he said, “has tried to address this. In high school they study at least half a year on what led to the Holocaust. They study political anti-Semitism, and not just the rise of Nazism. Political anti-Semitism is not the same as Christian anti-Judaism, though it has its roots there too.”

Okay, then, I said, taking his bait, and forcing myself to depart from my longstanding, all-encompassing dismissal of Germans as uniquely flawed, uniquely obsessed with correctness and order, uniquely capable of routinely, relentlessly carrying out acts of appalling inhumanity that should have forced their souls to revolt. How and why, I allowed myself to ask him, did the Holocaust come to happen in Germany?

De Wolf advanced a variety of factors over the next couple of hours, stressing that they did not constitute any kind of revolutionary personal thesis, but rather parts of a widely familiar narrative.

He spoke about Germany’s elites, who had felt so comfortable, suddenly finding “that voters were in the living room. A static society broke up. And when that happens, fascism is one of the responses.”

He said that if a society allows people to be brutal, “some people will be. That’s why it’s dangerous if politicians participate in hate speech.”

He acknowledged Germany’s “authoritarian education system.”

He spoke of the frictions in the 1920s between the social democrats, who embodied democratic tradition; the communists, “who cooperated with the Nazis against the social democrats in the big cities”; and the conservative middle class and upper class, “who wanted their emperor back and for whom Hitler was the ersatz emperor.”

And then he began to put the pieces together. “So there was a tactical alliance between a conservative society that feared democracy — bringing what it saw as hyper-inflation, big salaries and unions – and the Nazis. The conservatives thought, ‘We’ll use the Nazis to get rid of the Communists, the Left, the Democrats and the Jews.’ Not only the Jews. There was hyper-inflation and the middle class lost all its money…  The German elites were anti-democratic. The heavy industry leadership in Dusseldorf financed Hitler’s election campaigns.

“That’s how Hitler came to power. Hitler was made chancellor because the conservatives didn’t want a coalition with the social democrats. They thought ‘Hitler will clean up and then we’ll kick him out.’ So they underestimated him.”

If that sounded like de Wolf was exculpating ordinary Germans, he raced on to stress the opposite: “People were pleased. The Jews were forced out of their jobs, out of their houses, and other people could benefit, so people were happy. Don’t ignore that. German TV is constantly full of programs on why this happened. Innumerable books have been written. Germans have had to examine it.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, Germans were asking their parents, ‘What did you do in those years?’ Everyone said, ‘I had nothing to do with it.’ Which of course is not true. It was the customary excuse: ‘I didn’t know what was happening.’ That phrase started emerging only after (the critical 1942-43 battle of) Stalingrad, when Germany knew it was going to lose.”

And what did de Wolf make of the charge that there’s something about the Germans, precisely the Germans, a combination of nationalism, authoritarianism, racist inclinations and other factors, that primed them to sink into fascism and genocide?

“That’s nonsense,” he said. “And let’s start with this: Germany could never have murdered so many people without so much support — not just from eastern Europe, but from France, Holland and other occupied countries, many of which did far more than they were asked to do (to expedite the killing process). There’s a human flaw, but it’s not German-specific. Fascism was strong in many of these countries.”

De Wolf argued that German society fell gradually under Nazism’s sway — with not enough people realizing the scale of the danger until it was too late, a factor which he said needs to be internalized by all societies.

“Until 1938, and Kristallnacht, everything was out in the open. Everyone could see that the clock was being turned back to the Middle Ages. The Nazis were reimposing restrictions on Jews that had been in force until not many decades earlier, that were only cancelled in the 1900s. It didn’t start with Auschwitz. And Hitler was surprised time and again at the absence of international outrage. Even the (1936 Berlin) Olympics were not boycotted. So the Nazis said to themselves, ‘We can mistreat the Jews, and no one will care.’ That’s why you must have international human rights movements — calling early attention to the gradual abandonment of democratic values.”

But why did the Jews not realize what was happening? They were the victims. Why did my family leave it until 1937 to flee?

“Until 1938, German Jews could say it was not about murder. After 1938, it was clear it was going further,” he said. “Until 1938, with the removal of Jews from public office and professions, it was ‘your average anti-Semitism,’ and people thought they could live with that. Then it turned murderous. In 1933, if you were 50, your grandfather had lived in an era when he hadn’t been allowed to be a lawyer. For Germans too, initially, there was a sense of returning to the nineteenth century. They thought they were returning to the nineteenth century with Hitler.

“But of course,” and this was the main lesson he wanted to stress, “if you tolerate the first reversal of rights, you get the second, wider consequence.”

Unsatisfied, I asked de Wolf again why was there no revolt in 1938. His answer came down to a particularly cynical version of carrots and sticks.

“If you allow massive discrimination, at some point it’s too late,” he said. “Many portions of German society were bought off. The Nazis made sure workers received new benefits. The plundering of the Jewish middle class was public; possessions were auctioned off at very low prices. The non-Jewish people in Jewish companies took over (although I know of cases where Jewish ownership was later restored). They made themselves complicit.

“And then, on the other side, most of the opposition was arrested in the mid-1930s. Social Democrats, communists, clergy — most were arrested at the time of the Olympics. The Gestapo was very active. So, the buying off, on the one hand, and the terrorizing, on the other, encouraged complicity. Most of society said, ‘We have to work within the system.’

“The opposition lost support. It was bought off, terrorized and it had no organization. The unions and social democrats did not take the Nazis as seriously as they should have. They thought it would be over in two or three years.

“And they feared civil war. There could have been a military response. The social democrats had an armed wing. It wasn’t activated because of that fear of civil war. Of course, in hindsight, we should have had the civil war. We had our guns in early 1933, but no one said, ‘Let’s go and shoot the Nazis.’

“The main issue,” de Wolf stressed, “is that society has to depend on its educational system, on its media, and on its main political parties to ensure that democratic values are maintained. If that breaks, then anything can happen… in any country.

I asked him what I had asked Elisa: Why was he here, in this once-terrible land?

“My generation of German Jews has a choice,” he acknowledged right away. “We are here because of a conscious decision. My family has no connection to Israel. I identify clearly with modern German society. I want to be here. It’s intellectually interesting.”

And today’s Germany, he said, is a far more comfortable place to live a Jewish life than many others in Europe. “You have anti-Semitism in England today,” he said. “I do a lot of international work (as a software lawyer). I had a venture capitalist in Britain say to me, ‘It’s not a good idea to do business with Israeli companies.’ A member of the aristocracy — his family is distantly related to the Queen. That’s the same kind of thing you had here — where the nobility had a problem with the Jews; the Jewish banker foreclosing on the castle.”

If things go wrong in Frankfurt, will they blame your friend Peter the Jewish mayor?

“He’d just be a bad mayor, not a bad Jewish mayor,” de Wolf laughed, a rare moment of humor. “Some people might think it and say it, but not in public view. You’ll never root out anti-Semitism altogether. The question is how society deals with it. German society today deals with it.

“There’s a neo-Nazi party. And 15% of German society hold extreme right-wing views, but that’s not reflected in elections. Nationalist parties got 4% in 1968. Nowadays, it’s down to 2%.”

The lessons that Germany has internalized, he added, impact on its relationship with Israel. “German critiques of modern Israel (over its handling of the Palestinian conflict) are a totally emotional reaction to the Nazi period,” he asserted. “There’s a strong pacifist inclination in this country. Germany knows it was the cause of two world wars. When Germany criticizes Israel, it’s not rational thinking. No one is against Israel. It’s an emotional reaction to a strong military force — which of course Israel needs to survive. It’s totally irrational.”

“On Israel, Germans see checkpoints and that’s an immediate association. They hear the talk of (Foreign Minister) Liberman and it awakens associations here. Germans are hyper-sensitive. It’s not intellectual, it’s emotional.”

And we Israelis say, how dare you, you of all people? We see hypocrisy in Germany’s critiques.

“It’s sensitivity. We’ve been down this road.”

You are saying it’s much easier for Israel to believe that Germany is inherently evil because then what happened here can’t happen anywhere else, least of all with us in Israel? Is there not something in the  nature of German society that created the Nazis?

“The authoritarian nature of the German character broke in the late 1960s. People discovered that their father or grandfather had been a mass murderer. When they were allowed to do it, they did it. When they weren’t allowed to do it, they stopped. Education since the late 1960s has been to think for yourself.”

But Denmark did not submit to the Nazis.

“The Jews there were a small enough group. It was feasible, practicable, to save the Jews (many of whom, like Peter Feldmann’s father, were smuggled out to Sweden on fishing boats). It was an occupied country and the king did not collaborate. In other countries, most especially including Germany, the elites collaborated. You couldn’t have done what was done to the 600,000 German Jews and the 3 million in Poland otherwise. In Greece, France, Holland, there was collaboration. You always had pogroms. There is a basic human condition.”


My wife and I said a warm goodbye to Abraham de Wolf, walked him to his car, and went back into our hotel to rejoin our kids.

I’d found the conversations challenging, eye-opening. I wasn’t convinced by any of the arguments I’d heard, but I wasn’t deaf to them either. I recognized that we’d barely scratched the surface of the new Germany, and the question of its distance from the old.

Today’s Frankfurt is a sparkling clean, skyscraper-dominated city where business is booming and notably happy locals spend their weekends drinking flavored champagne at outdoor bars, staging rowing races along the Main, and strolling the endless flea market on its banks. It seems thoroughly at ease with itself, unconscionably so, I would have said when I first arrived.

I came home with two little memories competing in my mind.

Detail from the 1946 'memorial' photograph
Detail from the 1946 ‘memorial’ photograph

The first was of a photograph in the exhibit at the Borneplatz. It’s a heart-wrenching shot of a “memorial service” held at the bereft site in 1946. Those few Frankfurt Jews who had survived the war and had the will and the means to return are immortalized as they gathered here, in such dark finery as they could muster, mourning at the scene of the crime. United in their religion and their loss, they are Jews of all ages, the elderly seated, the rest crowded behind them. Bearded men, women in complicated hats and berets, hands clasped in front of them, they stare stoically at the camera or down at their shoes or vaguely into the middle distance — mute faces at the delayed funeral for a community that had been torn out from under them.

And the second was of the moment when our family was sitting in a crowded outdoor pedestrian mall, surrounded by rosy-cheeked Germans drinking beer and cocktails in the early afternoon. All of a sudden, we heard loud voices, singing, shouting, and saw the crowds melt backwards. I braced for something presumably nasty, guttural echoes of sounds I’d never heard. But then I saw that the people around us were looking cheerfully baffled rather than anxious. The boisterous singers came into view: It was a group of black-suited Lubavitch young men, striding confidently through the good-natured German crowds, and they were singing in Hebrew.

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