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Posted in: Judaism

Published on Apr 28, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by The Jewish Press

'We Have Our Holocaust Museum In Our Hearts'

Filmmaker Michel Bergmann on Growing Up Jewish in Germany

According to some estimates, about 15,000 German Jews survived the Holocaust. Currently, Germany has a population of 120,000 Jews and is the only European country with a growing Jewish community. Approximately 90 percent of Jews living in Germany are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

According to a 2011 poll, nearly 20 percent of Germans believe Jews have "too much influence" in their country and 47 percent of Germans agreed with the statement that "Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians."

But statistics and trends do not tell us about individual stories or motivations. Why did German Jews, survivors of the concentration camps, remain in Germany? What happened to their children who grew up in post-Holocaust Germany? Bergmann is well suited to answer these questions.

The Jewish Press: You are really wrestling with what it means to be a German Jew who grew up in post-Holocaust Germany and still lives there. Why?

Bergmann: Germany has monuments and museums but I think the Germans' hearts are not in them. There is a new generation saying, "We had nothing to do with it." What makes me really sad is German anti-Zionism, which is nothing more than a cover for anti-Semitism.

Do you feel ashamed to live there?

I was always ashamed to live in Germany. I'm from the generation of people who have lived with a packed suitcase all their lives because we knew we might have to leave instantly. We were always planning to leave "next year."

Most of my generation who were raised in Germany had parents telling them, "We'll stay here for a couple of years so we can earn money and then we'll go to America or Israel or Australia or wherever."

When I was abroad I told people I was from Switzerland or Holland. When I went to Italy or France I pretended to be French myself. My cousins in Paris couldn't understand why my family was living in Germany. So it was always a struggle, and I always felt guilty, and I always had to make excuses for my parents.

What was it like for you growing up in Germany after the war?

I had few contacts with Germans. At first we were living in a DP camp. I was also in Paris with my mother. I spoke French, and at the beginning I didn't like living in Germany. I had mostly Jewish friends. I was raised in a very nice Jewish neighborhood in Frankfurt where a lot of Americans used to live. I had no special experience of anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, my mother and her generation had much larger antennae for anti-Semitism. There is one story in the book [based on the time] my mother heard a man say, "There are still Jews! I thought we gassed them all." My mother slapped his face. She was very courageous. My mother was tan and had black hair, so she looked a little bit like a Gypsy woman, and when customers came to the store, they said, "Oh, Mrs. Bergmann, you look so brown!" And she would say, "Yesterday you looked brown [the uniforms of the Nazis were brown]. Now I am brown."

Your father's health was impaired and he faced an uncertain future. Germany allowed him to return and to re-possess his family store. Was that his reason for living there?

The money mattered. And then there were reparations. There were a lot of Jews who didn't touch the money. But I remember my father's lawyer saying. "I'm sure your father is somewhere in heaven shouting, 'Take the money, you fool!' "

As you know, after the war in Poland there were pogroms; in Russia the Communists hated the Jews; the same in Czechoslovakia. So the Jews came to Germany, especially to the American sectors of Germany, because there it was pretty easy to earn money as the first licenses were given to people who hadn't been Nazis - and of course it was easy for the Jews to prove they weren't Nazis. So the Jews in Germany, especially in the American sector, had a commercial advantage.

Tell us more about your family.

My family came from Neu-Sandez, a little shtetl in Galicia which today is called Nowy Sacz. My Uncle David is the main character in my book. In the novel he's called Berman but in real life he's Bergmann.

My mother came from a typical Jewish family near Nuernberg. The village is Zirndorf. One of her uncles was the most successful writer in Germany in the 1920s - Jakob Wassermann. He wrote a very prophetic book called My Way as German and Jew. There's a very famous sentence in that book: "No matter what I do - if I'm soft, they say, 'You see, that smeary little Jew.' If I'm loud, they say 'You see, that aggressive, arrogant Jew.' If I'm rich. If I'm poor. It doesn't matter what I do. To them, I'm just a Jew."

When my mother was about 15 or 16, she went to Paris with her sister and brother. Her parents stayed behind in Zirendorf and got deported to Riga and shot. My mother ended up in a camp for women called Gurs in the Pyrenees.

In her barracks in Gurs there was another young woman who was married to a Jewish guy who had served as an officer in World War I. This man put on his uniform and went to the camp and asked the guards, "How can it be that the wife of an officer from World War I can be held here in this camp?!" They said, "Yes, this must be a mistake, your wife can leave," but meanwhile the wife and my mother had become friends, and she persuaded the guards to let my mother go as well.

I was born during the war. January 1945. We lived in Paris for a few years. My father was always traveling between Paris and Frankfurt to run the department store in Frankfurt. My mother refused to go back but my father convinced her. Perhaps he lied. He told her, "We're going to be here just for a couple of years."

Do you understand why she didn't want to go back?

Yes. She said, "They didn't want me in '33. Why should I stay here today?"

What happened to the Jews who came back to Germany after the war?

Most of them stayed for a couple months, some for years. They learned English and Hebrew. There were people who came from Palestine to teach them. They learned religion because most of them lost their God in the camps. And for most of them, Germany was just a transit point and they moved away.

You've been quoted as saying that you recently overheard a German woman, alluding to something Israel had done, say, "Didn't the Jews learn from Auschwitz?"

They see Jews as people who were battered as children and then grew up to become batterers themselves. It's a common attitude for many Germans.

Tell us about the anti-Semitism you've been experiencing in Germany and France.

The anti-Semitism we see now is mostly coming from Muslims. We also have neo-Nazis, and they're close to the Arabs in their ideology. And there is also a Left that is close to both of them. Of course, they would deny it if you said that they're anti-Semitic. But as you have written, modern anti-Semitism is called anti-Zionism.

Who's buying your book? Whom does it appeal to?

To my generation. For them it's a blank spot in their memory. My novel is successful because it tells a story that people have never heard before. It's their history. It's not just Jewish history.

A woman called me; she was running a Holocaust memorial place that cost the state of Hamburg maybe 100,000 marks per year. They wanted to close it down because of budget problems. So I wrote a letter to the mayor saying it's important to keep it open.

He called me and he said, "I understand you need this museum." And I said, "I don't need it. You need it. We have our Holocaust museum in our hearts. I don't need a museum. But you as Germans, you need it." And so the little museum is still alive.

Have Israelis challenged you because you live in Germany?

When I was in Israel a couple of weeks ago, a taxi driver asked me where I was from. I said "Switzerland," because Israelis see Switzerland as being cleaner than Germany. But many people I met at the Jerusalem International Book Fair and the Jerusalem International Film Festival told me, "Ah! I love Berlin! I would love to go there! Berlin is the heart of the world."

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