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Coming to terms
In Weimar Germany, six years before Hitler came to power, a young Jew determined to plumb the juncture of faith and patriotism
The following was excerpted from the author’s biography of her parents, who came separately to the United States as refugees in 1933.
The first mention of judentum (judaism) as a subject in my father’s diary appears in his journal entry for June 1927. Edgar Bodenheimer was 19, and a university student, when he made this list of intellectual problems he must think out.
1. Nationalism and Jewry
3. Northern vs. Southern people
4. The essence of music: melody and rhythm
6. The essence of opera
For Edgar, the relationship between Judaism and nationalism appeared as a problem of intellectual concern, on par with “the essence of opera.” It was, after all, a subject that had occupied European writers, both Jews and non-Jews, as increasing numbers of European Jews were granted citizenship and limited civil rights during the 19th century. Active anti-Semitism tended to lie dormant during periods of prosperity and optimism, but it would revive during periods of economic stress or national crisis.
In troubled Weimar Germany, at a historic height of Jewish participation in German public life, the old questions were coming up again. To what extent could a Jew fully belong to a European national culture or history? To what extent was that merging of historical identities desirable at all, from either the Jewish or the European point of view? Was assimilation possible or desirable? Rabbi Leo Baeck of Berlin, the revered leader of the German Jewish community, was an assimilationist who nonetheless urged his flock to save their souls by keeping faith with their religion. At the same time, the Enlightenment ideals adopted by German Jewry as a modern form of belief were facing a new kind of nationalism, one that looked back to a pre-Enlightenment Teutonic past.
Richard Wagner’s infamous essay, for example, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”), first published in 1850, set out to explain why Jews cannot contribute to the arts. Wagner began: “With all our speaking and writing in favor of the Jews’ emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them.” Having established that anti-Semitism is a natural human instinct, Wagner contends that not only are Jews unable to speak European languages idiomatically, but “the Jew’s [voice] is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle.” (The contemptuous German verb for Jewish speech intonations or gestures was the Yiddish term mauscheln, which connotes scheming.) For Wagner it followed that Jews have no aptitude for song, or music in general.
As for the assimilated Jew who has cut himself off from his own roots, he is left nowhere: “It has only contributed to his isolation, and to making him the most heartless of all human beings.” This line of thinking will be familiar to anyone who has encountered racist attitudes toward colonized peoples: Capable only of “mimicked speech” and stuck in a historical dead end, “they” can never become like “us.”
Despite his claim that Jewish listeners cannot grasp the essence of German music, Wagner the composer remained an artistic hero to cultured Jewish audiences, who followed his work and contributed funds to support his grandiose ambitions. He seems to have made an exception for these Jews, and they reciprocated by forgetting about his anti-Semitic sentiments. For such patrons it would have been bad form to allow the personal anti-Semitism of a great artist to interfere with one’s worship of his transcendent art. To meet intolerance with dignity and forbearance was the mark of a civilized person.
What most German Jews wanted was to exist in harmony with their culture. Middle-class children were taught to erase any Yiddish inflections in their speech or gestures; mauscheln had to be trained out of them. As late as 1934, running a school for Jewish children who had been expelled from German classrooms, Edgar’s cousin Vera Lachman wrote to him about a pupil “who mauschelt fantastically and talks with his hands. But Edgar, if we don’t change his habits, he’ll grow up and pass the poison on. He’s now 10—maybe it’s still possible!”
A passionate student of classical and German literature, Vera would continue to indulge her fantasies until the very last moment, emigrating only in late 1939, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. But to my father making his list of topics to ponder in 1927, any directly personal threat that lurked in the pairing of German nationalism and Judaism was, as yet, inconceivable.
Rosemarie Bodenheimer is a professor emerita of English at Boston College. Her essay is drawn and adapted by permission of University of Alabama Press from her new book Edgar and Brigitte: A German Jewish Passage to America (© 2016 University of Alabama Press).