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My German Question

My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 222
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  • Book Info
    My German Question
    Book Description:

    In this poignant book, a renowned historian tells of his youth as an assimilated, anti-religious Jew in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939-"the story," says Peter Gay, "of a poisoning and how I dealt with it." With his customary eloquence and analytic acumen, Gay describes his family, the life they led, and the reasons they did not emigrate sooner, and he explores his own ambivalent feelings-then and now-toward Germany and the Germans.Gay relates that the early years of the Nazi regime were relatively benign for his family: as a schoolboy at the Goethe Gymnasium he experienced no ridicule or attacks, his father's business prospered, and most of the family's non-Jewish friends remained supportive. He devised survival strategies-stamp collecting, watching soccer, and the like-that served as screens to block out the increasingly oppressive world around him. Even before the events of 1938-39, culminating in Kristallnacht, the family was convinced that they must leave the country. Gay describes the bravery and ingenuity of his father in working out this difficult emigration process, the courage of the non-Jewish friends who helped his family during their last bitter months in Germany, and the family's mounting panic as they witnessed the indifference of other countries to their plight and that of others like themselves. Gay's account-marked by candor, modesty, and insight-adds an important and curiously neglected perspective to the history of German Jewry.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13314-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. ONE Return of the Native
    (pp. 1-20)

    On June 27, 1961, we crossed the Rhine Bridge from Strasbourg to Kehl, and I was subjected to the most disconcerting anti-Semitic display I had endured since I left Germany twenty-two years earlier. After a delightful few weeks touring in France, my wife, Ruth, and I were on our way to Berlin. A colleague in Columbia’s German department, Henry Hatfield, was giving a course on Thomas Mann at the Free University in West Berlin and had invited us to hear him lecture. Touring through France had been an unmitigated delight. We moved westward at a stately pace through the château...

  2. TWO In Training
    (pp. 21-47)

    Some traumas survive everything—the passage of years, the rewards of work, the soothing touch of love, even psychoanalysis. They can be counterbalanced by life, overborne and outweighed, but an ember remains lodged in one’s being to flare up, however fleetingly, at unexpected moments. Not even the most emphatic evidences of success, from domestic happiness to fame, wealth, or the Nobel Prize, can restore completely what was stolen long before. More than a half-century after the collapse of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, every surviving refugee remains to some extent one of his victims. In recent years, the status of victim...

  3. THREE The Opium of the Masses
    (pp. 48-56)

    There are three ways of becoming a Jew: by birth, by conversion, by decree. Brushed by only a breath of the first, I was forcibly enlisted in the third group after January 30, 1933. Many years later, after settling in the United States, I was accused more than once of not being “Jewish enough.” In 1943, when I was a freshman at the University of Denver, I joined an informal discussion group of Methodist students led by Harvey Potthoff, a minister who after more than fiftyfive years is still my friend. This “desertion” displeased one Robert Gamzey, who had heard...

  4. FOUR Mixed Signals
    (pp. 57-83)

    Nature and my parents seem to have prepared me well for the hazards of daily life under the Nazis. I had blue eyes and a straight nose, brown hair and regular features—in short, like my parents, I did not “look Jewish.” I had a peculiar obsession in those days: when I saw myself in the mirror, I judged my appearance to be just as it should be, while others, like my somewhat pudgy cousin Edgar, with his curly hair, fell off from the standard I set—a case of boyish narcissism, perhaps (I am ashamed even to think this)...

  5. FIVE Hormones Awakening
    (pp. 84-91)

    In one of his more problematic aphorisms, Freud contended that biology is destiny. I can certify that biology had its way with me even though I was under such severe pressure that anything and everything seemed to matter more than sex. I had to keep my balance amid the anxieties that were my daily fare—the possible risks of harassment at school, the unresolved question of my future, and, worst of all, the avalanche of assertions, pouring over me from every conceivable source, that I (like all Jews) was a blot on humanity. In this atmosphere, my hormones were not...

  6. SIX Survival Strategies
    (pp. 92-110)

    One early afternoon in the spring semester of 1961—I had been teaching at Columbia for more than a dozen years—I was in my office in Hamilton Hall, writing a lecture. I was teaching a two-semester undergraduate course on the French Revolution and Napoleon and liked to revise some of it every year. We had just reached 1805, the early days of France’s First Empire, when Napoleon was nurturing plans for invading Great Britain. His scheme was fanciful, almost utopian; it was to lure British warships from the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic waters to the West Indies and, after...

  7. SEVEN Best-Laid Plans
    (pp. 111-137)

    For a time it seemed as though 1937 might bring what 1936 had promised: an alleviation of pressure on Germany’s Jews, or at least no intensification. Yet this was the year in which our family made concrete plans to get us all out of the country, displaying a trust in our arrangements that in retrospect appears naive. How were we to know, when the Nazis themselves did not know, that they would drastically speed up their timetable of persecutions? The road to Auschwitz was never straight or foreseeable. But these arguments have seemed nothing better than lame excuses to the...

  8. EIGHT Buying Asylum
    (pp. 138-154)

    With an effrontery calculated to reduce the Jews of Germany to helpless rage, the Nazis first committed the atrocities of Kristallnacht and then promptly blamed the victims. To transfer culpability from the guilty to the innocent is a time-honored technique, but the rulers of the Third Reich took to it with a zest that astonished even seasoned students of politics. Psychoanalysts have a technical term for drastic reversals of the truth: projection, unconscious stratagems that burden others with the flaws or hateful desires one senses in oneself. But this diagnostic term does not apply to the criminals of November 1938....

  9. NINE A Long Silence
    (pp. 155-184)

    Try as I might to erase my six years under the Nazis from my mind—and I tried!—my past would not let me alone. The German-Jewish refugee community in Havana, numbering well over three thousand, clung together and talked Germany: who was still caught in the Nazi trap and what one could do to help. The latest news on the world stage added to our agitation. Even if the western European powers had shied away from a decisive confrontation in mid-March, when the Nazis took over all of Czechoslovakia, the high probability of war, half-desired and half-dreaded, was the...

  10. TEN On Good Behavior
    (pp. 185-206)

    The year 1945 brought both peace and horror, greater horror even than before. By the time I had broken my silence, in midsummer, word of the death camps and the Nazis’ murders of millions had trickled out of Europe. The Allied troops who liberated the camps in the west and their Russian partners who overran Auschwitz found shallow mass graves, piles of unburied bodies, collections of shoes and suitcases, and, perhaps more appalling still, living skeletons by the thousands. We were to learn—and some of this information took months, even years, to emerge—that the Nazis had continued their...