Had I not been Jewish, could I have been a Nazi?

I was always an incredibly trusting child, hung onto my parents’ every word, believed everything they said even though years later, once my mind started venturing more along analytical lines, I questioned much that I had previously taken for granted, such as ‘the only good German is a dead German’. Of course, being racially Jewish and born not too long after the Camps had been liberated, Jewish anti-German bitterness was only to be expected, even from Jewish Austro-Germans. I can vividly remember standing in our North London dining room on the Sabbath watching darkly garbed people walking past the window on their way to Synagogue (which my parents virtually never attended) and unconsciously matching that image with the death-haunted tales that my parents – whose families included no Holocaust victims – had told me. Because my hard-working Ukrainian-born maternal grandfather, or Zayde, (a tailor by trade) was deeply religious, and I wanted to explore thinking beyond the materialist borders of my own household, I flirted with Judaism on a practical level, wouldn’t as much as flick a light switch on Shabbat, nor smoke (which I did in those days) or listen to music. I was defining my inner self but being a passionate lover of poetry and a potential devotee of philosophy, psychology and world religion (only as an enthusiastic amateur I might add) I was using the steps of Judaism to reach places beyond orthodox practice. Before long the open sky replaced the Synagogue’s roof and my reading ranged beyond Judaic texts to major works from disparate sources. It was my coming of age though I retain the greatest respect for genuinely religious people, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims or whoever.  

All this is a preamble to a difficult and uncomfortable admission. When at school although we had no music lessons as such, a German pianist by the name of John Gunter played at our school assembly. We got to know each other well, even wrote a song together (I was 13 at the time), ‘Far from me’ which got as far as a test (45 rpm) record and a potential performance from crooner Matt Monroe. John wrote the tune, I wrote the words, the opening line ‘Here am I, just an unimportant ripple on the sea …’ I’m sure it wasn’t terribly good (my words that is) but still I appreciated the faith that John had in me. We also shared a love of Wagner and I’d go to his pad near Golders Green – later on with my wife – listening to his 78s of great performances by Melchior, Leider, Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Karl Muck and others.

Here was a German who was most definitely good, I thought, and I was right. But one day I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda spectacular The Triumph of the Will and I have to admit it thrilled me to the core. I can admit it now, but I could never have admitted it then, not even to myself. Years later I posed the difficult question: if this sensitive, trusting child, had he been born an Aryan German rather than a Jewish Londoner, could I have swallowed all the toxic Nazi propaganda? Had my beloved parents referred to Jews as evil vermin, as expendable, grasping, a bothersome drain on the nation’s resources, as inferior, both physically and culturally, would I have believed them? I’m terribly afraid that as a naïve, doting son, I probably would have done.  

Let’s say that I attended a recital by that notable, and great, Ayran anti-Nazi violinist Adolf Busch, went backstage wearing my Hitler Youth insignia and Busch affectionately put his arm around me saying, ‘have nothing to do with them son, they’re evil,’ would I have appreciated his words or believed my father who (fictionally) called Busch a ‘Jew kisser’ (a stock German reaction to Oskar Schindler after the War). Don’t forget, Dad’s never wrong.

Then, once the War was over, the Holocaust exposed, and the whole fetid business of Nazism revealed in its blood-drenched colours, would Rob as-was become newly-born, try to understand just what had been lost, either killed or catapulted into exile, millions of innocents amongst whom were great scientists, artists, musicians (performers and composers), philosophers, psychologist, poets (including the writers of the humanist Hasidic tales), novelists, academics, war heroes and so forth? I shan’t patronise the cause by naming a single one of them, but I don’t have to: you already know who they are. Could I really have forgiven my people, but far more important than that, might have I forgiven myself, a youthful innocent whose unthinking faith contributed, in some tiny way, to what happened? I just don’t know the answer to that. But what I can say is that the elevated canon of Austro-German music and literature, from Bach to Wagner (yes, Wagner), and from Hölderlin to Heine and Rilke, and so much more suggests a self-replenishing core that can never be corrupted. That I hope would have provided the basis for my new faith.   

7 thoughts on “Had I not been Jewish, could I have been a Nazi?

  1. Tully Potter

    Rob, I very much doubt that you could ever have become a Nazi. For one thing, you have too much of a sense of humour. And for another, you know as well as I do that, while all Germans of the Third Reich era can be said to bear some guilt, a lot of them were infinitely less guilty than a lot of others. The German army was full of men who were not enthusiastic Nazis, a good example being Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, seems to have been very Nazified. I remember seeing that brilliant actor Leonard Rossiter in the Brecht play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in which he gave a Hitler-style speech. I was quite carried away for a while but my sanity put a brake on my enthusiasm! Similarly I remember Panorama (I think) doing what the producer obviously thought was a hatchet job on the ageing Sir Oswald Mosley. My impression was that the old menace still had the ability to compel attention, and that many silly people would have come way from the programme admiring him. But I don’t think either you or I would ever be impressed by the idea of being just two more goose-stepping cyphers in the Nazi horde. As you mention Adolf Busch, I may as well point out that the word governing his own attitude and his expectation of others was ‘anständig’ (decent). He judged people by whether they did, or did not, behave decently. I smile wryly when I hear all sorts of excuses being made for folk such as Furtwängler, as I have a pretty good idea of what Busch would (and in fact did) think: that helping a few Jews was the very least anyone could have done. I think I can safely say that your behaviour in that ‘scoundrel time’ would have been anständig.

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    1. Thanks for your faith in me Tull. I’m really thinking of the pre-teenage ‘me’ rather than the fully fledged teenager. And also I’m thinking in terms of a kid from the suburbs, rather than a townie. It’s so terrible. I don’t know if you’ve yet received Ward Marston’s wonderful set devoted to the delightful Jewish Austrian soprano Lotte Schöne but in the notes she refers to her last appearance in Berlin before she was obliged to leave the Austro-German territories. She was cheered to the rafters and yet many of those who cheered her, when they left the theatre, threw stones at Jewish shops on their way home. Peer pressure would you say, or hatred? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Best, as always. Rob.

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  2. I’ll make my reply very personal, Rob. I am the 9th generation direct descendant of the
    Bal-Shem-Tov, something that has never meant all that much to me, but when I go to
    conduct in Israel they make a big deal of it, and also because my uncle (he changed
    Serebrier to the Hebrew translation “Caspi”) was responsible for rebuilding Jafa.
    I often thought about young kids growing up at the start of the Nazi era, brainwashed
    like their elders, and how “natural” it may all have felt to them. It’s the only way that
    it could be justified by our current imagination and these politically correct times…
    It’s difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of “what if?…but I have observed, in very
    different situations, how minds can be bent when everything is moving in a direction
    which becomes the “norm”. No excuse, but it’s the reality, Shalom! Jose

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    1. So lovely to see you here José and being directly descended from the Bal-Shem-Tov (for those who don’t know, a mystic healer who is regarded as the founder of Hasidism) means a good deal to me, a great fan of the religion guru Martin Buber. We seem to be of one mind on this. I’ve grappled with the subject for years, read about it too (my shelves and floorboards groan under the weight of relevant books) and I’ll no doubt go to my grave asking more and more questions. It seems the further away we journey from those terrible days the more real they become. Ironic isn’t it how hindsight burns more brightly than the immediate past. Thank you again, also for all your marvellous work.

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  3. Hilary

    An intensely thoughtful article and an antidote to some of the armchair comfort critiques one sometimes encounters of this period.

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  4. Pingback: Reading list #13: Marcel Marceau’s wartime rescues – The Holocaust Reader

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