Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany
By Walter Laqueur
I.B. Tauris (St. Martin’s Press),
345 pages, $15.95.
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Any author who seriously and intentionally lumps together Henry Kissinger and Ruth Westheimer possesses an ambition that is admirable, or laughable — or both. In “Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany,” historian Walter Laqueur — best known for writing the readable and fair “A History of Zionism” and for later editing “The Holocaust Encyclopedia” — is firmly motivated by admirable ambition. Laqueur is a major historian writing lucidly, and autobiographically, about one of the Holocaust’s influential but rarely considered corollaries. In writing about the generation of young German Jews who managed to get out of Nazi Germany (including the two mentioned above), he has found a fascinating and formidable subject for a 20th-century history — but one that is, finally, beyond his means to capture.
His failure to present a single unified history of the escaping Jews of Germany is hardly his fault. When Hitler came to power in 1933 there were half a million Jews of differing professions and social classes spread around Germany, which means that Laqueur’s subject is hardly singular. Nor are the members of this “generation” particularly unified historically. Unlike the Polish Jewish communities — for whom repression, deportation and execution took place with extreme rapidity — the German community had some years, between 1933 and 1940, to resist and escape.
Despite its heterogeneity, this generation of German Jews as a whole was highly cultured and highly assimilated and, although only a small fraction of the younger ones survived, they had a disproportionate impact on the many societies to which they fled. Partly because of the difficulty of doing so, the group rarely has been considered together, and certainly not after their departure from Germany. Laqueur, himself a member of this generation, begins the Sisyphean task of narrating, collating and analyzing the stories of this German diaspora.
There are two major problems with the project, and Laqueur, to his credit, ducks neither. The first is the more self-evident one: that the thousands of people in “Generation Exodus” found so many routes for escape and ended up in so many separate destinations that it is impossible to encapsulate “the story” of the generation. Instead, as Laqueur does, one has to tell exemplary stories or bear witness to the numerous different types of experiences that befell the generation. The second major problem is the fact that the German Jewish community, for all of its stereotypes as an arrogant, hard-working, high-cultured, assimilated upper-middle-class community, was anything but monolithic. Certainly there were observable trends in the Berlin community, but they were no more than vague generalizations; plus, trends in Berlin differed from those in other cities, other regions and smaller settlements in the countryside.
Drawing on all his experience as a writer and as a journalist, Laqueur tries to depict the generation as a coherent whole. He starts off chronologically by telling numerous snatches of stories from Germany, but since his attention is focused solidly on the generation as a whole, the stories often are deliberately too short to allow the reader to identify with any individual protagonist.
The book works better when it is organized thematically. Although moving on chronologically from the earlier sections, the central sections of the book divide up experiences according to the destinations of the refugees: Israel, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Latin America and Asia, as well as a section on those who returned to Germany after the end of the war. Whereas the opening of the book reveals the disparate nature of its subject, the central section begins to show how Laqueur’s conceit can be illuminating, not only about the generation who is the book’s primary focus, but also about their eventual host countries and the Jewish communities that received them.
No longer having to worry about the narrative sporadically darting around the landscape, the reader can begin to aggregate the achievements of individuals into the achievement of the generation. Part of that aggregation includes the pleasure of discovering well-known figures who were part of this “generation”: Lord George Weidenfeld and Yehuda Amichai, as well as “Dr. Ruth” and Kissinger all give their luster to its strange and varied legacy.
Laqueur is too fair a writer to ignore the people whom fate has passed over when he discusses the overachievers of the generation. In one of the most engaging passages of the book, he briefly contemplates the profound intervention of accidents in human affairs. He compares the fates of Gerhard Koszyk-Schiftan and Walter Gruenfeld, who were born close to one another in Silesia, a divided town that straddled the Polish border, in the same year. Despite similar ages, abilities, interests and birthplaces, the former was thwarted at every turn, eventually drinking himself to death in East Germany, while Gruenfeld went on to become a successful international commodities trader. Laqueur discusses this in the final section titled “Portrait of a Generation,” in which the juxtaposition of Koszyk-Schiftan and Gruenfeld is offered as just one proof of the impossibility of calling this a single generation. It is the only section in which Laqueur explicitly deploys his own experience to discuss his friends and acquaintances in the “generation” and the reunions they hold. This personal witnessing of, and belief in, a bond might very well have been enough to justify grouping them together.
Laqueur’s attempt to write the autobiography of his generation is heroic, but when all the stories of his contemporaries are told, we are left wondering whether these German Jews have any more in common with one another than do any other Jews in the Diaspora. On the jacket Kissinger describes the book as a “collective biography of a generation,” but it is a generation that defies José Ortega y Gasset’s definition as “people living at the same time and in the same space.” Despite beginning together in Nazi Germany (including post-Anschluss Austria), the subjects of this book are absorbing precisely because they did not live in the same space but scattered through diverse routes to dozens of countries, and to variable success in myriad professions.
Dan Friedman writes and teaches about 20th-century film, history and literature.