With German Jewry Assimilated, Is it Auf Wiedersehen for Aufbau?

By Ruth Westheimer

Published May 07, 2004, issue of May 07, 2004.
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Were it not for Aufbau, I would never have become “Dr. Ruth.”

I was in this country on a visit in 1956. While looking for a cheap furnished room in Washington Heights, I bought a copy of the German-language newspaper and learned of a scholarship being offered at New School University for victims of the Holocaust. I got one of those scholarships and, instead of returning to Israel, stayed in the United States. The rest, as they say, is history.

So it saddens me to think that Aufbau, which long has been the glue holding together America’s German-speaking Jewish community, soon may cease publication. I’m not totally counting on a miracle, but without some intervention, the newspaper will be shut down in a matter of weeks.

It will certainly be more difficult, if Aufbau disappears, for all those who still consider themselves German-speaking Jews to communicate. A newspaper helps to make a community out of people who share the same interests, even if they don’t all live in the same place. Most German-speaking immigrants, including me, are not computer literate, and we have relied on Aufbau to be our link, no matter our often-ambivalent feelings regarding our native land.

Though the people of New York no longer think of German Jews when they think of Washington Heights, many of us still live in this upper Manhattan neighborhood to which I gravitated when I moved to the America in 1956 and where I still live. In those early days, our community was a center for German Jews who fled the Holocaust, and more German was spoken on the streets than English.

The effect that we German Jews have had on this great country, though, has been much broader than merely helping newcomers to Washington Heights. When you look around New York City and see the many buildings bearing the names of donors who came from our background — Guggenheim, to name but one — or look at the phone book to see the names of all the doctors, lawyers, architects and other professionals who have come from this heritage, you immediately grasp the contribution that we have made — and you can do that in every major city across the United States.

The second and third generations that sprang up have succeeded beyond their parents’ wildest dreams. When we first arrived in New York, as I and most German-Jewish immigrants did, we were unable to speak the language. Thrown into the tumult of this great city, we never imagined that we would ever be able to “make it here.”

But we German Jews certainly did make it, and our children have done even better. We’ve assimilated in every sense of the word. We climbed into that melting pot and have done quite well at blending into the American stew.

In so doing, though, we lost much of our German connection. I know that some other cultures decry this. Many immigrants from other countries who came here voluntarily, including German Jews who came over before the rise of Nazism, have tried to hold on to their roots. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having that attitude; it’s wonderful to have pride in being Irish or Italian or Chinese.

But since we German Jews who came over after Hitler’s rise to power weren’t wanted in the land of our birth, an open country like America was a bit of a miracle. We needed the comfort of sharing a neighborhood at first, and we needed a newspaper like Aufbau to help hold us together, especially because of our difficulties with English. But as we adapted to our surroundings, and came to love this great country, it was only natural that we, more than other groups, were less inclined to reminisce fondly about our heritage. We couldn’t totally lose our accents, but we were more concerned about our children being Jews than Germans, which is why we preferred to have them learn Hebrew rather than German, and why we were more likely to serve them matzo ball soup than wienerschnitzel.

It’s interesting to speculate on whether, if there had been no Nazis, German Jews would have come in such numbers. The British came as colonizers. The Irish and the Italians came pouring across the ocean because their economies were weak. And the first Germans who came to the United States, some even on the very first ship to Jamestown, did so for the very same reason we German Jews did: to escape religious persecution.

But the Jews in pre-Nazi Germany were more German than the Germans themselves. They thought, wrongly as it turned out, that they’d been accepted in Germany and so took great pride in their German heritage. They adored the German composers. They devoured German literature. They pursued as many aspects of German culture as they could. So I don’t think that many would have immigrated to America. And Germany certainly would have profited from having people like Albert Einstein, to name one, remain where they were.

But when Hitler came to power, all that ended. We were left in limbo. We were Germans and yet we weren’t. We didn’t want to give up our culture, but we felt disconnected to it because of what had happened.

Aufbau helped us to fill in that gap. Not only was it written in German, it permitted us to continue to share our intellectual and cultural heritage. An Irishman could read a copy of the Irish Times, but the last thing we wanted to do was read the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Aufbau was crucial to making us feel like we belonged somewhere.

Now, of course, we belong to America, and the sad reality is that eventually there won’t be enough people who read German or care about German culture to keep a newspaper like Aufbau going. But just because the children of German Jews are reading The New York Times, The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Times and the Forward doesn’t mean that our community has disappeared. Rather, it’s a sign that we German Jews have become almost fully integrated into our new homeland.

Of course, we Jews have a long history of persecution, and just as the German Jews thought they’d always be safe, no one can predict the future. But there is one enormous difference about this country, and that is that it’s a melting pot. We German Jews don’t stick out as being immigrants because almost everyone, except Native Americans, is an immigrant or a child of one.

So while I would mourn the loss of Aufbau, I’m also very glad that we’ve been accepted in our new home. We’re quickly becoming as American as apple pie, though maybe with just a dollop of schlagsahne on top.

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