A superb account of the sometimes exalted, often tragic relations among Germans and Jews, “two souls within a single body.”
Jews, writes Israeli novelist and historian Elon (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East, 1997, etc.), had lived in Germany since the days of the Roman conquest, though always uneasily. For a 200-year period, however, much of German society opened to them, with institutional barriers and common prejudices falling away. Elon begins with the arrival in Berlin, in 1743, of a shoeless, hunchbacked boy from Dessau, Moses Mendelssohn, who spoke only Hebrew and Yiddish; fewer than 20 years later, Mendelssohn had taught himself several languages and had “become a renowned German philosopher, philologist, stylist, literary critic, and man of letters, one of the first to bridge the social and cultural barrier between Jews and other Germans.” Within a few years, other Jews were able to enter the professions, attend university, and engage in business more or less openly; some even received titles of nobility. Over time, their influence on the arts and culture, combining with what otherwise was a golden age for German language and literature, produced a remarkable body of work that has been likened to that of the Renaissance and, Elon observes, would be remembered as such had not the end been so tragic. In few other places did Jews so successfully assimilate into the dominant society, so much so that German Jews widely opposed the mass immigration of their brethren from Russia following the pogroms of the late-19th century, with German-Jewish politician Walter Rathenau decrying the arrival of the “Asiatic horde.” At the time of WWI, Germany was renowned as a place of religious tolerance, a situation that would soon thereafter change abruptly with the assassination of Rathenau, the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Well-written, humane, full of learned asides and character sketches of figures such as Heinrich Heine, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Karl Kraus: a memorable evocation of a disappeared world.