Singing to Joschka

By Masha Leon

Published February 16, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.
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“The West exists today, but it ain’t what it used to be,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at Washington, D.C.’s Council on Foreign Relations. Kupchan, who is also director of European studies and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, was a panelist at the January 24 debate, “The West — Does It Still Exist or Do We Have To Reinvent It?” The debate was sponsored by the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany at its New York headquarters and was moderated by David Unger, senior foreign affairs writer of The New York Times’s editorial board.

“The U.S. and Europe still share values,” Kupchan said. Noting that America has “backed away from the brand of American-European relationship practiced from FDR to Clinton,” and that America’s “population is less European oriented,” Kupchan added, “Europe may grumble, but when push comes to shove, [they say]‘We’d like the U.S. on our side.’ Young Europeans do not see America how their parents did,” Kupchan said. “The visceral is no longer operational…. The Europeans see us as cowboys… are critical of such issues as ‘the death penalty’.” Noting that “veering away from multinationalism predates Bush,” he posited, “Possibly the U.S. [may] go to war against Iran and not find a single ally in Europe.”

“I’m not too pessimistic,” said Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, the evening’s second panelist. Stating that the [post-World War II] “West was based on anti-Hitler [and] anti Soviet-Union [mentality],” Fischer stressed that “trans-Atlantic trade is still an important factor…. Europe is struggling with the unification process [whereas] the U.S. is struggling to be the only [super] power…. Europe has no option to return to nationalism; even major countries are not major performers, [and] a united market has clout…. We are facing common threats [but] don’t have the same strategic objectives.” Fischer elicited knowing laughter apropos Russia’s role in Europe’s multinational tapestry when, semi-seriously, he joshed, “Kissing a bear is still risky business.”

The debate flowed civilly, with nary a blood-pressure raising blip. China’s Westernization was given short shrift, and a passing mention was made for the need to “restructure the Middle East.” During the question-and-answer period, I asked whether the large Muslim populations in so many European countries compromises European voters regarding the Middle East. “Finally!” an energized Kupchan exclaimed. “We have something of a debate.” Fischer minimized this concern. Countering, Kupchan cited a recent terrorist attack on an Israeli bus. “CNN devoted four of the five video minutes” to the slaughter of Israeli civilians and “one minute to Israel’s retaliation… whereas BBC’s coverage of the [identical] terrorist attack devoted four minutes to the devastating retaliatory missile attacks by the Israelis,” at the end of which an incidental reference was made that “this was retaliation for an attack on a bus. No mention of casualties.”

Following a series of thanks by Germany’s consul general, Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, I asked Fischer about the origin of his name. I told him that, in Poland, Joschka was a popular diminutive Yiddish name and that, in fact, there is a song that has a refrain about a Joschka getting one kiss after another as the train departs. I then sang it for Fisher (“Oy, oy, oy, oy, Joschke fort avek, nokh a kush un nokh a kush, der poyazd fort avek”). He smiled diplomatically, and stated that Joschka is Hungarian for Joseph.

. .


The next evening (January 25), Heimsoeth was a panelist at a discussion, “Negotiating Past and Present — Current Trends in Germany’s Self-Reflection,” held at the American Jewish Committee’s headquarters.

Co-sponsored by the AJCommittee, the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and the Goethe-Institute New York, the event coincided with the 61st anniversary of the January 27 liberation of Auschwitz (now established by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day).

Prior to the discussion, there were film clips from the recent World Cup Games, during which — for the first time since the end of the war — there was a manifestation of German national pride when soccer game fans appeared with faces painted in the colors of Germany flag. Some were actually waving flags!

Ernestine Schlant Bradley, author and scholar of postwar German literature (and wife of ex-senator Bill Bradley), and the evening’s second panelist, noted that this represented “a sea change.” Distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism, she noted, was something new at the World Cup: “It was okay to be German in the context of a larger group of people.” Heimsoeth, who was born in India, attended the Bronx schools P.S. 81 and the Riverdale Country School, speaks Polish (he was posted in Warsaw) and recently spent time in Israel, concurred: “This was an emotional turnaround… a generational difference…. Every 15 years, a new generation of Germans reflects on the Holocaust. In 1968 there was a violent argument against their parents’ exculpation. In the 1990s and [after] the reunification [of East and West Germany], Hitler was not an important issue for the East Germans, who perceived the Holocaust as ‘Hitler’s fascist undertaking’.” Bradley noted that, surprisingly, in a united Germany, nostalgic novels are [for the first time] being written as having nothing to do with the Holocaust, and that young people are “coming to terms with the legacy.”

Commenting on Nobel Prize-winning German author Günter Grass’s revelation that as a 17-year-old he had been a member of the Waffen-SS — while castigating other Germans for similar affiliation — Heimsoeth informed: “Only 4% of Germans who were 18 when the war ended [are still alive today]…. [Germany has] a large number of hyphenated German flag-wavers — Turkish Germans, Serb Germans — who do not know about the Holocaust…. This will forever remain a [historic] negative.” Musing about the “2,000 years of Jews in Germany — not always a sympathetic situation,” it is “Israel [that] will determine Jewish-German relationship and will be forever linked with the Holocaust…. We go into the European Union with maximum pro-Israel attention… more than any other country.” While noting that Germany is trying to make denial of the Holocaust a punishable crime, Heimsoeth expressed hope that “the growing Jewish community [in Germany] would [more actively] participate and integrate into the political fabric of German life.”

Touting the AJCommittee’s “50-year deep relationship with Germany,” moderator Rebecca Neuwirth, AJCommittee’s director of special projects, trumpeted the AJCommittee’s office in Berlin as “the state department of the American Jewish community.” She informed: “In Germany, 70% of the citizens know about the past…. No other country who fought in the last major war spent as much to deal with the past.”

Post-discussion, the floor was open for personal observations and comments. I described my mid-1987 encounter with four teenage Germans at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills. These 17- and 18-year-old students had been hired to provide guests with towels poolside at the Concord’s outdoor Olympic-size pool. When I asked to interview the foursome for the Forward, one of them commented that the prior evening, at the bar, a Holocaust survivor had attacked him, screaming, “You murdered 6 million!” Though visibly upset, the young man treated this incident philosophically and said, “I understand… but I was not there.” I was amazed at the extent of the foursome’s Holocaust knowledge, and at their ability to quote statistics and historic timelines. At one point they debated the nuances of complicity between the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party, only to have one of the other boys interject that the Lutherans also did not have clean hands. Two others revealed that they no longer spoke with their grandparents. I asked the young men how they felt about working in a resort where most of the guests were Jewish. They expressed surprise: “They look just like the people back home.”

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