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How Jews Became Germans

How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    How Jews Became Germans
    Book Description:

    When the Nazis came to power and created a racial state in the 1930s, an urgent priority was to identify Jews who had converted to Christianity over the preceding centuries. With the help of church officials, a vast system of conversion and intermarriage records was created in Berlin, the country's premier Jewish city. Deborah Hertz's discovery of these records, theJudenkartei, was the first step on a long research journey that has led to this compelling book. Hertz begins the book in 1645, when the records begin, and traces generations of German Jewish families for the next two centuries.

    The book analyzes the statistics and explores letters, diaries, and other materials to understand in a far more nuanced way than ever before why Jews did or did not convert to Protestantism. Focusing on the stories of individual Jews in Berlin, particularly the charismatic salon woman Rahel Levin Varnhagen and her husband, Karl, a writer and diplomat, Hertz humanizes the stories, sets them in the context of Berlin's evolving society, and connects them to the broad sweep of European history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15003-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 The Black Notebooks
    (pp. 1-16)

    Quite a number of years ago I found theJudenkarteiin a church archive in West Berlin. This book was born on that day, when I stumbled upon several bookcases crammed with short, rectangular black notebooks. I soon learned that these notebooks were the fruit of an enormous Nazi genealogical research project. The notebooks appeared to include every single Jew who became a Protestant in Berlin, over the three centuries spanning 1645 to 1933. Converts out of Judaism had to be identified as such, because they and their descendants were false Aryans with no place in a racially purified Germany....

  5. 2 The Era of Religious Conversion, 1645–1770
    (pp. 17-42)

    We can justly surmise that the rationale for beginning the black notebooks with the year 1645 was to bring the roots investigation of applicants for higher-level Nazi posts back that far into the past. The choice of that year shows that the genealogy officials were not attending to the landmark dates in the Jewish historical narrative, or they would have begun their records in 1671, not in 1645. In Jewish time, the key date was May 21, 1671, when the ruler of the ambitious state of Prussia invited two large Jewish clans threatened with expulsion from Vienna to move to...

  6. 3 The Coming of Age of Rahel Levin, 1771–1810
    (pp. 43-76)

    On May 19, 1771, Chaie Markus gave birth to her first child. She had suffered several miscarriages, and because the new baby girl, called Rahel, was so weak, the doctors predicted a short life for the tiny creature. They wrapped her in cotton wool and kept her in a small box.¹ Against all odds, little Rahel survived, although her health would prove fragile at many points during her life. A year later, her brother Markus was born, and a second brother, Lipmann, arrived in 1778. A sister, Rose, and a third brother, Meyer, followed. Rahel’s father was Levin Markus, a...

  7. 4 Emancipation and War, 1811–1813
    (pp. 77-123)

    Rahel and Karl found reasons for hope in June 1811, when they enjoyed a reunion at Bad Teplitz, a spa town in Bohemia, their first time together since Karl had left Berlin two years before. The spa resorts were attractive spaces for a mixed couple such as Karl and Rahel, because social boundaries were more relaxed there than in town. Nothing was going well for Rahel at home. Her mother had died, but she gained no financial autonomy, for her brothers now administered her inheritance, and she chafed at the limits they placed on her yearly allowance. They defended the...

  8. 5 High Culture Families and Public Satire, 1814–1819
    (pp. 124-164)

    Formalizing her relationship with Karl was Rahel’s first priority when she met him in Bad Teplitz that July. Karl remained in an exuberant mood, and perhaps as a sign of his confidence in his destiny he had taken to calling himself Varnhagen von Ense.¹ One day when he was doing some family research in a library in Munster for his patron, Count Bentheim, Karl had discovered in a volume of genealogy records some long-lost Varnhagens with a von Ense added to their family name, and appropriated this much more prestigious name for his own use. His new title, even if...

  9. 6 The Entrance Ticket to European Civilization, 1820–1833
    (pp. 165-216)

    The summer of 1819 was also a troubled time for Karl and Rahel, after (four contented years in Karlsruhe, the capital of the southern German state of Baden.¹ Karl chafed at the constraints of his official position representing Prussia abroad, and Rahel was insulted that court society rejected her. Baden was the rare German state to receive a constitution in 1818, but Karl’s radical politics were nevertheless seen as troublesome both by Baden’s Grand Duke Ludwig and by Karl’s superiors back in Berlin. Alas, he overplayed his hand, and late in July he was recalled from his post. His republican...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 217-222)

    I have been living with the converts who appear in this book for over fifteen years. Indeed some of those who converted during the old regime epoch have been with me for much longer, literally for most of my adult life. So often I have pondered their lives, empathized with their dilemmas, and judged their choices. I imagine them turning over the decision in their minds, then contacting a preacher, studying the new faith, dressing for the occasion, reciting what was asked of them, and exiting from the ceremony as Lutherans. To whom did they confide their new identity, and...

  11. Appendix
    (pp. 223-226)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 227-265)
  13. Index
    (pp. 266-276)