This year, 2021, marks the 1800th anniversary of the first documented major settlement of Jews in Germany. That community, probably formed of Jewish settlers from Italy, was established in Köln, or Cologne on the Rhine, itself a mere 200 years old at the time. Soon settlements were created in other parts of the German territories, but the epicenter remained in the Rhineland, specifically in Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. During the past nearly two millennia, the fate of German Jews, or Ashkenazim, has wavered between the extremes of acceptance, even thriving, for example under Charlemagne and during the post-World War I Weimar Republic, and near-destruction during the Dark Ages, the First Crusade, and—most famously—the Holocaust under the Nazis in the mid-20th Century. By 1939, some 60% of German Jews had emigrated, leaving roughly 214,000 in Germany proper...
The great majority of those were of course deported to Eastern Europe and later ended up in the Nazi death camps. Today there are roughly 114,000 Jews in Germany, many of them Russian-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Federal Republic has strong laws against antisemitism, and public-school children receive required education about the Holocaust including field trips to nearby former concentration camps. German non-Jewish young women can be found wearing Stars of David around their necks, in solidarity, as one told me, with the people their grandparents had killed. Jews in Germany today play prominent roles in commerce, industry, government, the media, and the nonprofit sector. Still, as in the U.S., anti-Jewish incidents still happen.
Why is all this important to me? I am not a German Jew. My ethnic origins go back to Eastern Europe. Yet when I arrived in Germany for my junior-year exchange experience in summer, 1958, I felt an instant connection with the Germany people. My German became fluent quite quickly, and most things German drew me with a magnetic force. I was happily married to a German citizen for 43 years, until her death, and to this day I consider her family mine. I tear up when I listen to the late, great German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, sing Schubert songs. Mozart’s music has a near-religious hold on me. I learned through various means—you can believe it or not—that I had been martyred early in the Holocaust as a 16-year-old German-Jewish boy and had been quickly reborn with a mission to return love for hate.
For better or worse, the German and the Jewish people are strangely bound together. As a symbol of this unusual connection, some 70-75% of the vocabulary of Yiddish, the major Jewish patois, is rooted in German. Henry James once said, it’s a complex fate being an American. As some kind of German Jew, I can make the same claim for German Jews as well.