Stefan Schlueter’s effort to heal Germany’s wounded past extends even to the linguistic level. When speaking about Germans today, he carefully uses the phrases “non-Jewish Germans” and “Jewish Germans” to emphasize that both are a part of the German community.
“It would give Hitler a small victory to think of Jews and Germans as separate categories,” said Schlueter.
In some ways, it seems that cleaning up after Hitler accounts for much of Schlueter’s work as the envoy to the Jewish community for the German consulate in New York. He has spent many nights just providing a friendly German face at synagogue and JCC events across the country. He has hung around the American Jewish Committee’s office in New York so much that when they held him a going-away party last week, a few security guards at the building confessed that they thought he was an employee.
Like most diplomatic assignments, Schlueter’s term in New York was temporary, and he will be moving on to a new posting in a few days, in Buenos Aires. In an interview with the Forward before the official end of his term, it was evident that his work is not just that of a diplomat. Like most Germans, he has maintained a tremendously personal and complex relationship with the Jewish people.
“I’m not guilty for what happened,” the 54-year-old Schlueter said contemplatively, over coffee in the German consulate’s 18th floor café, overlooking the United Nations Headquarters. “But I do have a responsibility and some shame.”
Like so many of his generation, Schlueter’s father was in the German army during World War II, as a doctor. In 1943 his father was captured in Kiev and sent to work in the coalmines of Russia for five years.
His father’s unfading memory of wartime horror has helped Schlueter understand the lingering animosity among many Jews for Germans, of which he has confronted his fair share. After a Concorde carrying a planeload of German tourists crashed near Paris, just months after Schlueter arrived in New York, his office received one letter from an old Jewish man saying the death of so many Germans had made his day.
With the bridges between Germans and Jews mostly broken, Schlueter has taken it upon himself to become a sort of one-man pontoon bridge, ferrying traffic in both directions.
His biggest project during the past four years was creating an exchange program for young American Jews and “non-Jewish Germans,” as he puts it. For each of the past three years, 12 kids from a Long Island synagogue have swapped homes for two weeks with 12 kids from Berlin, through a project funded almost completely with money raised by Schlueter from German businesses he deals with as the German consulate’s director of economic affairs.
Schlueter himself did not meet a Jew until he was 17. A waiter in a crowded café in Istanbul seated him at a table with a young man who introduced himself as an Israeli. In the contradictory emotions that swept over him, Schlueter says his first instinct was to say he was from Switzerland, but he decided to be honest instead. They ended up speaking for two hours.
In his current work, part of his goal is to repair the image of Germany in the eyes of American Jews, but Schlueter is equally interested in helping German children deal with their own fractured selves.
“It’s important for those German kids as individuals to see that they are not being held responsible for what happened,” Schlueter said. “Once they know a Jew, it’s easier to deal with the history, and not to try to escape the history.”
That has never been Schlueter’s tendency. He has gone to Israel almost yearly since he was 22, when he first visited a kibbutz in the middle of the night and was accepted with open arms.
“I loved that there was no wishy-washy with the Israelis,” Schlueter said. “With Israelis you always know where you are. They’re very straight shooters.”
After taking Hebrew classes during diplomat training, Schlueter spent five years in Tel Aviv as the German embassy’s spokesman. Even after all this time, Schlueter says that as a German he never feels entirely comfortable talking about Israeli policy. On a trip to the West Bank last fall, Schlueter says that he was devastated by the travel restrictions on Palestinians, but he kept his thoughts to himself and constantly worried about how he would justify his opinions to his Jewish friends back in New York.
He has made a lot of them. Just last month, in fact, he was awarded the first ever Tikkun Olam award from the North American Board of Rabbis.
In 2001, Schlueter helped the board make plans to hold their annual meeting in Berlin, and he arranged for the 43 rabbis to meet the German president and the foreign minister. But he never will forget what made the greatest impression on almost every one of the rabbis: meeting a class full of German students who had learned a lot about the Holocaust but almost all of whom had never met a Jew before.