A Reluctant Jew in Post-Holocaust Germany
Yascha Mounk’s entertaining new memoir sheds light on postwar history and current German politics
Other memories, however, are less innocuous. Mounk grew up knowing nothing about Judaism: “My being Jewish had no more significance to me than any number of other abstract facts I knew to be true of me—what hospital I was born in, for example.” But as always happens, this ignorance did not equal indifference: “I knew I was Jewish because, whenever somebody said the word ‘Jude’ on the street, Ala shrank into herself even as she craned her neck to hear what was being said.” When a teacher called the roll at school and asked each student whether they were Catholic or Protestant, Mounk’s declaration that he was Jewish led to laughter from the class: “Are they laughing at me because I’m a Jew? If so, is it funny to be a Jew?”
Mounk goes on to set his own experience against the background of postwar German history. He gives a quick sketch of West Germany’s tortuous confrontation with its Nazi past, from the hushing-up of the Adenauer years through the openness of the 1968 generation. Some of the episodes Mounk relates are famous, such as Chancellor Willy Brandt going down on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, or the eye-opening broadcast of the American miniseries Holocaust; others will be new to non-German readers. Still, the outline of the story Mounk tells is conventional, and his book serves better as an introduction to the subject than as a new analysis of it.
The most provocative part of Stranger in My Own Country comes at the end, when Mounk warns that the current generation of Germans is getting fed up with Holocaust guilt. Rather than continue to think of their country as uniquely culpable and potentially dangerous, German politicians have started to break old postwar taboos—committing German troops to action in Kosovo, for instance, and bucking the Atlantic alliance. Even Angela Merkel’s reluctance to use Germany’s wealth to end the euro crisis is a sign, Mounk believes, of this new German resentment—“the determination of many Germans to stand on their head the supposedly submissive policies [of] the Federal Republic.” On a more personal note, Mounk feels the same resentment at work when an acquaintance tells a horrible Holocaust joke in front of him. “Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny?” she demands. “The Holocaust happened 60 years ago. We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”
While Germany continues to wrestle with its own feelings about Jews—and, more consequentially, about Muslims, including its large Turkish population—Mounk has opted to emancipate himself from the whole tangled mess by emigrating. He now feels more at home at his mother’s summer house in Tuscany, he writes, or in the cosmopolitan and Jewish city of New York, than he does in his native country. At the end of the book, he even proclaims that New York is the place where he is “free not to be a Jew.” This is an understandable reaction, coming from someone who has mainly experienced Jewishness as an awkward burden. But of course, a Jew is never free not to be a Jew—and a writer who publishes a whole book about being Jewish is not exactly fleeing the identification. Better to say that Stranger in My Own Country marks the end of one phase of Mounk’s exploration of his unusual Jewish identity, and perhaps the beginning of another and more important one.
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