Berlin Bind: Between Neo-Nazis and Mendelssohn

Letter From Germany

By Michael Levitin

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
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Last month, one day after 1,000 skinheads marched here to celebrate the first-ever “National Nazi Day,” a different cast of Germans huddled into the country’s largest synagogue and listened raptly to cellist Steven Isserlis, whose performance opened the 18th Berlin Jewish Culture Festival.

The events couldn’t have coincided more strangely, reflecting today’s wide split in interpretations of German history. On one side were the ultra-nationalists who have made their grandfathers’ wartime past a heroic myth; on the other, the majority of Germans, who regard the catastrophe of World War II as their country’s darkest hour.

Jews in Germany, however, have enchanting chapters to remember, as well — like the one that inspired this year’s culture festival, titled “Mendelssohn and Co.” Through two weeks of concerts, theater, lectures, films and exhibits, Berliners celebrated the religious philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1737-1812) and his descendants, who shaped business and cultural life in this city and in Germany over the last two centuries.

The duality of German and Jew — a so-called symbiosis of two souls in a single body — might be nowhere better seen than in the accomplished and conflicted family of Mendelssohns. The irony, of course, is that every Mendelssohn had converted to Christianity by the fourth generation. But nonetheless, the family never shook the Jewish identity that began the day a 14-year-old Moses Mendelssohn arrived in Berlin through the gate reserved for Jews and cattle. In several decades, he would become one of the most widely known philosophers of his time, revered by poets Goethe and Heinrich Heine, and popularly called the “German Socrates” and the “Jewish Luther” for his ideas about an enlightened secular state.

Through exhibits and discussions, a full picture of the Mendelssohns emerges: as a family suffering in contradictions, and a microcosm through which to view the Jewish-German pathos in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite their mass conversion to Christianity, the Mendelssohns continued to embody many qualities associated with Jews: hardworking, eager to succeed, creative in business and in the arts. But maybe what stood out most was their commitment to society, seen in the way they connected culture and economy.

“The history of Jews in Germany — the history of Germany itself — would have been another history without Moses Mendelssohn and the creative contributions of his children,” said Thomas Lackmann, arts director of the festival. “You cannot separate the two.”

Moses Mendelssohn not only set in motion the Hebrew Enlightenment of the 19th century, but his classic “Letters on Sentiment” — considered the foundation of German philosophic-aesthetic criticism — and “Phaidon,” about the immortality of the soul, proved that one could be both a practicing Jew and an enlightened German. He remained devoutly religious all his life, while steering Judaism away from the mechanical repetition of ritual toward a doctrine of reason. “Rational argument is the path to bliss,” he wrote, pioneering the emancipation and integration of Jews in German-speaking lands and, in time, being viewed as the father of Modern Reform Judaism.

Beyond paying homage to Moses and to his famous grandson, composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the festival shed light on lesser-known Mendelssohns. For example, the bank Mendelssohn and Co. was founded by Moses’ eldest son, Joseph, and became the largest privately owned bank in Germany during the 19th century — responsible for managing France’s reparations after the Napoleonic Wars, financing railroad development across Eastern Europe and controlling the Tzar’s investments.

The elegiac Christian chamber music written by Felix’s cousin, Arnold Mendelssohn (1855-1933), was resuscitated along with the dramatic life story of his father — also named Arnold — who, as a doctor and radical socialist, fled to exile in Turkey, founded that country’s oldest Christian hospital and died in Crimea while serving as a medic in the Turkish army.

Several Mendelssohns also played key political and financial roles in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Banker Franz von Mendelssohn (1865-1935) wielded influence at the highest state levels before Hitler seized power in 1933. And Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy, a lawyer and adviser to the German government at Versailles, became the first German judge to serve at The Hague and created the first peace research institute aimed at integrating Germany back into Europe after World War I.

To translate the family’s history into something alive to audiences today, organizers arranged the festival around the historic homes and workplaces of the Mendelssohns — including proud Jewish landmarks like the Rykestrasse Synagogue, the New Synagogue-Judaic Center and the Jewish Museum.

At the baroque-style Berliner Ensemble theater, viewers were treated to a rare stage production of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s dark comedy, “Die Juden.” The play — about a Jew who saves a man from attackers and then, when offered the man’s daughter’s hand in marriage, refuses because he is a Jew — caused a sensation when it appeared in 1749, sparking a friendship between Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn that lasted through their lifetimes. Mendelssohn credited the playwright and journalist for inspiring all his future work, while Lessing immortalized his friend by modeling him as the philosophic protagonist in the classic drama “Nathan the Wise.”

While centuries-old plays like “Die Juden” and symphonies by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy attest to a long and meaningful history of Jews in Berlin, the country as a whole still moves in semi-silent fear around the subject of the Holocaust. Some show no hesitation in stating a differing opinion about history, like the neo-Nazi coalition whose recent march commanded a military police presence of more than 1,000 officers.

It’s partly this division — between modern and reactionary views of the past — that makes Germany a fascinating country to live in today. The booming interest in Jewish literature, culture and history over the last 20 years is something to celebrate. At the same time, the regional election results from September, in which the German states of Saxony and Brandenburg gave nationalist parties 10% and 6% of the vote, respectively, could well be something to worry about.

Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist living in Berlin.

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