The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany

Ruth Gay. The American Scholar. Volume 66, Issue 1. Winter 1997.

No phase of German history has been more closely studied than the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic, as we turn the events over and over seeking clues to the catastrophe that followed it. In the past year alone, two major works on Weimar politics by Heinrich Winkler and Hans Mommsen, respectively have appeared in Germany, while in the United States, Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., the dean of historians of the Nazi period, has just published a suspenseful study of the fateful last thirty days before Hitler was named chancellor of the young republic. Although these are the most recent investigations, a huge literature on Weimar has emerged in the postwar years, for Weimar has remained in our imaginations as the tantalizing ante-room to hell. Not least of the catastrophes was the disappearance of an ancient Jewish civilization. While Germany—in fact two Germanies—rose from the ashes of Hitler’s war, the Jewish community, with its history of sixteen hundred years on German soil, was totally destroyed.

Whether they disappeared by emigration, deportation, or murder, of the half-million Jews counted in Germany when Hitler came to power, only some five thousand managed to live through the war within the country, and all under the most perilous circumstances. They were soon joined by other Jews: survivors of the concentration camps; refugees from the East Bloc countries; later, Jews in flight from Iran and Iraq; some few returnees; and a handful of converts. These disparate, sometimes even hostile, groups made up a new community but one that was in no way a successor to the old Jewish world. One cannot read of those last years of the German Jews, therefore, without remembering the fate that awaited them and the culture that they had built.

In The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany, Michael Brenner has written a brilliant, original book about the Jews in the Weimar Republic. Unlike many earlier works that emphasized the Jewish “contribution” to Germany, Brenner brings us inside the community at a time of enormous ferment. He shows us the issues, questions, and problems that agitated the Weimar Jews: their dissatisfaction with the price of integration and their attempt to recover their past, the new developments in their cultural life, and the many subgroups that existed under the rather gross rubric “German Jews.” He shows us how the very period that was to be their last was also a moment in which the community had gathered new strength and was reshaping itself in a new mode of self-discovery. One of the main merits of Brenner’s study is the way he is able to draw disparate strands of Jewish life together, showing relationships between aspects often considered separately—such as Gershom Scholem’s study of Jewish mysticism and Franz Rosenzweig’s founding of schools for Jewish education. He has also integrated varied and little-known materials into his study, from internal communal politics to the post-war flowering of Yiddish and Hebrew publications. In doing so, he has given us a truer and richer picture than we have had of the last years of the German Jews.

Despite their long history on German soil, German Jews had only sixty-two years, from the proclamation of the Empire in 1871 to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, in which they enjoyed full legal rights as German citizens. For more than a century before this, in the patchwork of states, dukedoms, and principalities that made up what was later called Germany, they had seen rights granted and withdrawn in an arbitrary and maddening cat-and-mouse game. In response, during the nineteenth century, some 120,000 Jews had in fact given up on the hope of achieving civil rights in their homeland and had emigrated to America.

Ironically, Germany was the country where discussion about the rights of Jews had started earliest and finished last. In the German lands the discussion begins, as it does elsewhere in Europe, with the ideas of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary claim that Jews have the right to equal standing before the law. Moses Mendelssohn, as the emblematic figure of the Jew who encompassed both the parochial Jewish and the larger German worlds, was the inspiration for two of the major works that set forth the argument for equality. He was the model for the hero of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s enduring play Nathan the Wise and was the friend of Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, whose essay “On the Improvement of the Civil Status of the Jews” showed the selfdefeating nature of anti-Jewish discrimination.

Yet even without civil rights, in the eighteenth century Jews in Germany began to enter the larger world in which they lived. They began to speak German; they adopted German culture even without the conversion that Heinrich Heine called the “entry ticket to Western civilization.” In the new industrial world, their traditional occupations of trade and finance moved them from the margins of society to the center; and feeling a new confidence in the mid-nineteenth century, they began to build magnificent synagogues wherever they lived. No longer hiding their places of worship in back alleys or camouflaging their facades in drab stucco, they built in the grand “Moorish” style that was the rage for synagogues across Europe and even in the United States. But self-affirmation was followed by cultural drift, and by the time of the Weimar Republic, the synagogues were no longer real centers of community, for most Jews described themselves as “three-day Jews,” attending only on the High Holy Days.

As Michael Brenner points out, World War I became a watershed in which the cycle of Jewish Yorgetting and remembering suddenly took a new turn. For many of the German Jewish soldiers sent East, their encounter with Eastern Jewry was also their first meeting with “real Jews.” And what had become a strange world was suddenly a world that they desperately wanted to bring into their own lives. Fortunately, there were a few activists who were able to translate these longings into reality. Brenner has a long and fascinating section in his book on the work of Franz Rosenzweig and his colleagues, in which he concentrates as much on the institutional aspects of Rosenzweig’s Lehrhaus (house of learning) as on his philosophical beliefs. Opened in 1920 in Frankfurt, it closed after six years, largely because of Rosenzweig’s incapacitating illness. But he shows how in its brief but influential life, owing to Rosenzweig’s exaltation of the unlettered student, the Lehrhaus brought back into the fold exactly those young German Jews who had felt shut out by their ignorance. Rosenzweig’s life, in his alienation from his Jewish past and as a man who had trembled on the brink of conversion to Christianity and had returned to Judaism, was in itself a paradigm for many of the students at his school. Brenner’s description of Jewish cultural achievements, of the recovery of the Jewish past in the Weimar period, makes it clear that at the very moment that the German Jews were cut off by the Nazis, they were on their way to a new synthesis-this time, however, with the East European Jews and with the world of biblical and talmudic learning that had been abandoned by them for so long. This synthesis was a new swing of the pendulum. Some, under the influence of the Rosenzweig school, for example, adopted an orthodoxy that had not been seen in their families for generations. But what was more striking was the explosion of learning.

In absorbing detail, Brenner describes the founding of Jewish museums as well as the opening of a new era of Jewish scholarship as great works of Jewish learning were made available to a German-speaking audience. Among the best-sellers were a translation of the Talmud, which sold ten thousand copies, and a translation of Simon Dubnow’s World History of the Jewish People, a ten-volume work that sold one hundred thousand copies Other major titles of the period included Martin Buber’s Hasidic Tales, Gershom Scholem’s elucidations of Jewish mysticism, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber’s new translation into German of the Scriptures, the publication of both a Jewish Lexikon in four volumes for lay readers, and an Encyclopaedia with a more scholarly purpose.

Brenner quotes the Jf.dische Rundschau, the Zionist newspaper, as voicing a widely shared opinion on the publication of the Lexikon. “In recent years,” wrote the editors, “there has been a sharp increase in the demand for Jewish knowledge. After a generation that became ever more remote from Judaism, we see now a generation that wants to regain access to the knowledge which had been lost by the development[s] of the last century.” In 1934, the editors of the encyclopedia published the tenth volume, which had reached the letter L. Among the contributors had been Ismar Elbogen, Gershom Scholem, the musicologist Alfred Einstein, and the essayist Walter Benjamin. “The remaining volumes,” Brenner tells us dryly, “never appeared as a result of the political developments in Germany.”

The developments in Jewish scholarship in Weimar Germany, however, had their parallel in the arts. Jewish writers, artists, and musicians more and more sought out Jewish themes and Jewish subjects for their work. The intensity of this feeling is perhaps best demonstrated in a famous anecdote about Else Lasker-Schuler. When asked by the Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg whether she wanted her Hebrew Ballads translated into Hebrew, “she replied angrily,” reports Brenner, “U hat? But I am writing in Hebrew.” Nonetheless, a century of secularism had left its mark, as Brenner points out in a telling observation, since Jews tended to listen to the newly composed or newly rediscovered liturgical music in concert halls rather than in the synagogue.

What is perhaps too little known is the way Germany, and Berlin in particular, became a center for Jewish publishing in both Hebrew and Yiddish during the 1920s. Brenner reconstructs this period in comprehensive detail, showing how Berlin proved a magnet for Jews in flight from Eastern Europe. The poet Hayim Nahman Bialik explained the attraction: “Many of the bearers of Hebrew culture [from the East] found their way to Berlin, the same Berlin which was the birthplace of the Haskalah and the seat of Hokhmat Yisa el [the wisdom of Israel] in its Western dress. At this great and decisive hour, relatives who had been separated by force happened onto the same inn.” Thus even an organization so rooted in the East as the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) was founded in Berlin in 1925. Hebrew publishing also had a new home in Germany, notably with Bialik’s publishing house and journal of the same name, Devir. This scholarly periodical drew upon the talents of scholars of both Eastern and German origins, while the future Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who spent twelve years in Germany under the patronage of Salman Schocken, a department-store magnate, published his first works in Berlin with the newly founded Soncino Society press. And in 1922 Simon Dubnow also chose to move from the turmoil of Petrograd to a tranquil Berlin suburb, where he wrote his two-volume history of Hasidism.

Scholarship and the arts, museums, schools, and libraries were only the external manifestations, as Brenner shows, of a search for personal authenticity. That this was cut short is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the date of the opening of the Jewish Museum in Berlin-January 24, 1933, just six days before Hitler was named chancellor. As one closes Michael Brenner’s book, one cannot escape the feeling that, although he has recorded an amazing “renaissance,” he has written an ultimately tragic chronicle of the Jewishness of the last German Jews.