The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933

by Amos Elon

As it's usually told, the story of the German Jews starts at the end, with their tragic demise in Hitler's Third Reich.

Elon traces how this minority-never more than one percent of the population-came to be perceived as a deadly threat to national integrity, and he movingly demonstrates that this devastating outcome was uncertain almost until the end.A collective biography, full of depth and compassion, The Pity of It All summons up a splendid world and a dream of integration and tolerance that, despite all, remains the essential ennobling project of modernity.()

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.31
  • Pages: 446
  • Publish Date: December 1st 2003 by Picador USA
  • Isbn10: 0312422814
  • Isbn13: 9780312422813

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As a result of reading this book, it occurred to me that the "German-Jewish epoch" (as the paperback's subtitle says) was something like Hellenistic Judaism, a form of Judaism that no longer exists but is the Judaism out of which Christianity emerged and which lasted six or so centuries. During the two centuries of the German-Jewish epoch, the German-speaking lands including Austria and particularly the eventually unified nation of Germany were the place to be and culture to join for Jews after the reality took shape that they would no longer be segregated in ghettos but would in some way, shape or form be joining the larger society. Germany, in other words, was their promised land and where they hoped to take root and even merge with the majority population in a way we find difficult to imagine, knowing what was to come. That this was so also is difficult to understand for other reasons, one being that Jews did not only want to assimilate into the culture; they also felt as keenly patriotic and in love with German land, history and blood as the Germans--even though those Germans in large part considered them foreign and rejected them both as Germans and Europeans, which could lead to their being internally conflicted and torn. (On the other hand, I do have the idea of the Irish as an ethnic group--but then they now own that and treat it as a source of pride in a way Germans don't.) The Jews were a tiny minority hovering around 1 percent. 376-377) I'm not sure exactly what the author means by his title, The Pity of It All: what happened, or the fact that the Jews so wanted to be German. 399) In many respects the history is the same as that covered in Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, except here we have a more exclusive focus on Germany that continues up to the Nazi takeover. What he's especially good at is making the reader feel what it was like to be there at various points along the way. (In a group discussion of this book, one participant recalled his immigrant relatives putting Heine on a Shakespeare-like level.) I could feel what it would be like to defend the Wiemar Republic and hear the fact I'd defended it be used to condemn it as a "Jew republic," or to survive an assassination attempt, only to have the judge put me rather than the perpetrator on the defensive. Then, after the war, he accepted the post of foreign minister, even though the likes of Einstein tried to persuade him that all Jews would be blamed for whatever he did. It was about Germans becoming able to confront their past and Jews feeling safe enough to move to Germany.

The first time I heard of this book was from my former employer, historian Rabbi Berel Wein, who said that it is a thorough history of German Jewry that would show how the Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum, but reading it would make you want to weep. Mendelssohn is persona non grata in the Ultra-Orthodox world in which I live, but after reading this book, I am convinced that he was an idealist who loved the Jewish people so much, he misguidedly advocated assimilation as a protection against anti-Semitism. The book is almost exclusively about assimilated Jews, and the Orthodox are hardly mentioned at all.

Here are some of facts from the book: - before the Nazi's came to power, the intermarriage rate in Germany was over 20%. - Jews wore yellow badges in the 1700's and before to identify themselves and to gain admission to German towns. - Sophisticated, urban German Jews were often prejudiced toward Eastern Jews who suffered even greater oppression.

I suppose the lesson is clear, no matter what we Jews, especially German Jews, tried to do in becoming members of society, we were still Jews and when anti-Jewish sentiment arose, we copped it. Anti-anyone makes no sense, honestly, unless one lives in a dog-eat-dog world. If we live in a civilized world, like 19th century Germany, then anti-Jewish hostility makes no sense. Hate makes no sense in a world of love and kindness.

In focusing on and describing the preceding two centuries of rapid development of a German Jewish community of prosperity and accomplishment, Elon gives these people back their identity and dignity as something other than doomed or pathetic foreshadows of predestination.