After the website and DVD “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” it can be a relief to find Jewish elders who are not trying to be adorable or cutesy. The publisher S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt, Germany has reprinted 1989’s “Jüdische Portraits” (“Jewish Portraits”), 80 interviews and accompanying photographs by Herlinde Koelbl, to go along with an exhibit on view at the Stadtmuseum Graz, Austria, until November 14.
Twenty one years ago, Koelbl conducted in-depth discussions with dozens of German-speaking Jewish overachievers. Her book’s reprint underlines its value as a time capsule, since most of the interviewees, then in their 80s, are now gone. Their advanced age makes this as much a text on enjoying a long and happy life despite travails, as it is about Judaism per se, although Koelbl has pointed questions for everyone about belief, the Shoah, and other Jewish topics.
The Hungarian Jewish soprano Gitta Alpár, noted for her peppy prewar performances, explains that people cannot “live with bitterness and hatred in our hearts,” in response to pressing questions about post-Auschwitz attitudes. The sociologist Norbert Elias agrees, adding that “being anti-German would be no less foolish than being antisemitic.” Martin Buber’s son Rafael has a nuanced reply to the question of belief after Auschwitz: “I believe in God, in a higher power, but not in his omnipotence.”