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Fatal Attraction

THE INVISIBLE WALL: Germans and Jews; A Personal Exploration.\o7 By W. Michael Blumenthal (Counterpoint: 444 pp., $27.50)\f7

July 26, 1998|MARIANNE HEUWAGEN | Marianne Heuwagen is Berlin correspondent of the Suddeutsche Zeitung. Her review was translated from the German by Zaia Alexander

Michael Blumenthal's appointment last year as director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin was a surprise. None of his many past careers--chief negotiator of the GATT Treaty in Geneva under the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, chairman and CEO of the Bendix and Burroughs corporations, university professor and secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration--would appear to have prepared him for this post. His new book, however, makes plain his long-standing and deeply personal interest in the entangled relationship of Germans and Jews.

In "The Invisible Wall," Blumenthal chronicles the history of German Jews by using his family's experiences and the lives of six ancestors--Jost Liebmann, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Louis Blumenthal, Arthur Eloesser and Ewald Blumenthal--to paint a panorama of the times and of the political and social conditions affecting the Jewish minority over the entire span of German history. A pattern of discrimination, hope and disillusionment materializes from these accounts, which ultimately lead us to the inconceivable: the Holocaust. Blumenthal attempts to describe what happened, and he does it without accusation. His book examines the hopes and limits of assimilation.

Jews in Germany had always been subjected to terrible discrimination. They lived in ghettos, the so-called Jewish Quarters. After the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century, German principalities began the practice of keeping "court Jews," who were given special protection and sheltered by the royal family. Jost Liebmann was a court Jew. He rose from being a traveling merchant to becoming a court jeweler and finally the most prosperous and influential Jew of his time. In 1671, Frederik Wilhelm allowed 50 Jewish families to settle in Brandenburg. As long as they did not disturb the Christian majority, they were allowed to travel, own homes and pursue a trade. Still, they were not permitted to build a synagogue.

By the end of the 17th century, nearly 600 Jews lived in Brandenburg. They lived in isolation, were disliked and were always at the mercy of the capricious ruler's charity, often leaving them defenseless against attacks. Jews called life under Frederik Wilhelm's reign "Iron Times." They were forced to secure their existence by paying exorbitant taxes. Separate gallows, one for Christians and one for Jews, were often in use. Jews spoke Yiddish and had no access to a general education; it was only in 1743 that the first Jew was allowed to study medicine.

In Berlin, Varnhagen, who lived from 1771 to 1833, was denied a formal education because she was a woman. The upper-middle-class daughter of a prosperous merchant, she was an autodidact who considered her Jewish heritage a damnation yet who nonetheless lived during a period when prominent Jews in Berlin created their own Jewish aristocracy and were able to amass astounding fortunes. The wealthy Jews of Berlin such as the Itzigs and Ephraims associated with aristocrats. In the second half of the 18th century, philosophers, writers, artists, aristocrats and Jews mingled in Varnhagen's famous salon. The clever and educated Rahel was interested in literature and theater and was at the center of a seemingly enlightened world. Appearances, however, were deceiving. Jews were still highly taxed. Even a great Prussian reformer like Baron von und zum Stein was a staunch anti-Semite, though Jews profited from his reforms. They were allowed to vote in municipal elections and were even voted into the local government. Blumenthal describes the Emancipation Edict of 1812 as a sort of Magna Carta for Prussian Jews. In the Napoleonic wars, they proved themselves grateful citizens. More than a thousand Jews fought for the first time in the Prussian army, 72 of whom were awarded Iron Crosses for valor.

The famous composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, born in 1791, was acclaimed and celebrated throughout Europe yet criticized in his own country for being too "cosmopolitan." He achieved his first success in Italy and moved to Paris in 1837. Meyerbeer, a Jew from Berlin, was acclaimed in France as having created the consummate French opera. Though he was awarded the post of Berlin's musical director, the sensitive composer considered himself subject to unjust discrimination. Yet he was so proud of his Prussian heritage that he rejected France's offer to bury him in the Pantheon. Meyerbeer's grave can be found in a Berlin cemetery.

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