What fed rage against Germany’s Jews?
Amos Elon’s book “The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933,” writes Steven J. Zipperstein in his 2002 New York Times review, “begins with the precocious young Moses Mendelssohn, soon to be the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, at the gates of mid-18th-century Berlin.”
Elon describes a small, sickly boy with an awkward stutter walking alone to Berlin, all but penniless, his few possessions in a satchel on his badly hunched back.
The “boy’s overall appearance ‘would have moved the cruelest heart to pity,’ claimed one contemporary,” reports Elon.
“In the fall of 1743,” writes Elon, “a fourteen-year-old boy entered Berlin at the Rosenthaler Tot, the only gate … through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass.”
Explains Elon: “In 1743, the movements of Jews — many of whom were wandering peddlers — were tightly regulated and controlled. Only a limited number of rich Jews (and, occasionally, a scholar) were allowed to settle in Berlin, but peddlers were barred.”
Elon also says: “Jews requesting admission to Berlin, even for only a few days, were sternly interrogated as to their background and purpose. If temporarily admitted, they were verzollt , that is subject to a ‘commodity tax,’ as though they were merchandise, at the same rate as imported Polish oxen.”
Berlin’s gatekeepers, government documents say, were to “stop and register all incoming Jews, keep an eye on them during their stay, and expel the foreign ones.”
The gatekeepers’ log for 1743 includes this: “Today there passed six oxen, seven swine, and a Jew.”
Zipperstein describes Germany’s achievements and the upward trajectory of its Jews in the 19th century: “Jews in Germany emerged by midcentury as overwhelmingly middle class, and more so: by the early 20th century, their prominence in the arts, in literature, in psychoanalysis, in music and perhaps especially in the physical sciences meant that friends and foes alike took for granted some special Jewish penchant for intellect.”
Jews’ rising status “occurred in what was, or at least seemed by the late 19th century to be, Europe’s most cultivated, certainly its best-educated country. Germany had the world’s finest elementary school system, the highest literacy rate and the best universities; by 1913 more books were published annually in Germany than in any country in the world.”
And then, “the rapidity with which liberal Weimar was transmuted into the Third Reich.”
Those who began as hopeful and lived exemplary lives ended up mostly thwarted, or worse, murdered en masse by bigotries, avarice and resentment.
After a brief Gestapo jailing, Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish American political theorist, decided to leave Germany without proper travel documents. Her train out of Berlin sped south, the opposite direction taken two centuries earlier by Moses Mendelssohn on foot.
Asks Zipperstein: “What was it that existed, however unevenly beneath the surface, that fed into the murderous rage, the hunger for revenge and devastation that was Nazism?”
Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics emeritus at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur ([email protected]).