The Real Woman in the Real Cupboard

Benjamin Markovits

In the fourth section of The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald (or rather, his narrative alter ego) travels back to Germany from Norwich to look into the childhood of Max Ferber, an artist based loosely on Frank Auerbach. At 15 Ferber had been sent to England by his parents, who were eventually murdered in the camps at Riga. Sebald finds the silence of the people he encounters weird and unsettling: ‘I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves.’ Yet the reaction of Germans to the terrible things in their recent past continued to fascinate him. It isn’t easy writing about the Holocaust – artists work with proportions, and the Holocaust distorts all proportions – but Sebald turned the ‘after silence’ into a rich subject.

I have experienced something of this reaction first-hand – but it wasn’t characterised by silence. My German grandfather built ships for the Nazis. My mother, who was born in 1937, told us stories about the war at bedtime. She used to argue with my brother about the degree of her father’s complicity. Part of the heat of these arguments came from the fact that our father is Jewish, from New York, and his family gave him hell for marrying a Christian from Schleswig-Holstein less than 25 years after the end of the Second World War. My parents are both academics and for two non-consecutive years I went to high school (or Gymnasium) in Berlin – the first time a few months after the fall of the Wall, and the second during reunification. Twentieth-century German history played a large part in the curriculum, both in Geschichte and Literatur Unterricht, and teachers and students didn’t seem at all shy of expressing their opinions. I remember a wonderful English teacher, a short, vivid, grey-haired, energetic old man. In the course of discussing Slaughterhouse-Five, he said with painful honesty that if he had been born a year earlier, he had no doubt he would have become an ardent member of the Hitler Youth.

The war and the Holocaust came up naturally in class discussions – in part because so many of the students were reacting angrily against the military engagement in Kuwait. But Jews and Jewishness remained subjects on which the Germans came across as weird. (When I spoke to my mother about this recently, she reminded me of something her own mother once said to her. ‘I cannot say Jew the way you do,’ she remarked sadly.) An art teacher discussing the stereotypes employed by a cartoonist asked the class to describe one character’s features. Sinister, dishonest, dirty, they all said. Which surprised me: I thought he looked rather simpatico, an anxious man down on his luck. ‘Can you sum up these characteristics in a word?’ the teacher asked. And without hesitation my classmates answered: ‘Jewish.’ They didn’t mean that Jews were sinister and dishonest. They only meant that the cartoonist was playing off the stereotype, but it seemed odd to me how easily they fell in with his tactics.

In German class, we read Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise, based on his friend Moses Mendelssohn: a famous Enlightenment account of an enlightened Jew. When we discussed it I said that Nathan didn’t seem very Jewish to me, he didn’t have any particularly Jewish characteristics or habits of thought, and one of my classmates called out, almost involuntarily: ‘Oh, das ist fies’ – a hard phrase to translate. Fies means ‘mean’, in an underhand, school-bully kind of way. I looked at her baffled until the teacher stepped in to explain. There are also good Jewish characteristics, she said. The girl thought I was arguing that Nathan couldn’t be Jewish, because he wasn’t sinister, dishonest, dirty etc. She thought I was being nasty.

None of these struck me as examples of anti-semitism. Rather, the Germans of my generation responded to the peculiar burden of their history by discrediting all ideas of ethnic difference. Everyone was, somewhat impersonally, the same. They understood the stereotypes, of course, and knew their source, but for them any differentiation between groups could only be at the level of stereotype. At a party in Hanover I remember talking to a girl who seemed genuinely puzzled by the idea that you could tell someone was Jewish. Not a character in a book, or a cartoon on a page, but a real actual Jew, who naturally in her view would be just like everybody else. ‘Nobody cares,’ she said, about such differences. Meaning, they don’t exist. I tried to explain that Jews sometimes care, that certain differences matter to them, and that certain differences mattered to me too. She looked at me suspiciously, as if I were trying to surprise her into some kind of racist confession. ‘Honestly,’ she repeated, ‘nobody cares.’ Maybe this feeling accounts for the indifference and worse than indifference my Gymnasium classmates showed at the prospect of reunification. The same teenagers who boycotted school in protest against Operation Desert Storm had no particular fellow-feeling for the Germans on the other side of the Wall. Just because they are Germans, why should we welcome them?

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