In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. In his new role, he would pass anti-Semitic laws that eventually led to the murder of millions of European Jews.
At the time, there were some 522,000 Jews living in Germany. During the next six years however, 304,000 of these people would leave the country and resettle in other parts of Europe as well as the United States and Palestine, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website states.
These people, though often omitted in history lessons, were able to start new lives away from home and, in some cases, avoided the genocide that was taking place in the Third Reich. Despite being this fortunate, many were yearning to regain the lives they left in Germany.
This conflict between the Jews’ love of their fatherland and painful memories of murdered family and friends took the center stage of Chronicle of Return: Life Histories of Jews in the GDR (1989/1993).
The event, which took place in the Baruch Performing Arts Center, consisted of the screening of two short documentaries followed by a panel discussion.
The two documentaries were meant to help explain why Jews who emigrated from Germany to escape the Nazis would come back to Germany after the war. In particular, the directors attempted to find out why these people would resettle in the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany.
The first documentary, Jews in the GDR, was a short documentary discussing the place of Jews in modern Germany.
The people in the film argued that it was courageous for the Jews to come back to Soviet Germany. However, another person shown in the documentary put that argument into question.
For many Jews who decided to come back to Soviet Germany, it was simply homesickness. They grew up in Germany and were forced to leave, but their love for the fatherland never died.
The documentary also highlighted that the interest in GDR Jews is increasing, even though it has been 27 years since Germany was reunified.
The second documentary screened that evening was the Return of German Jews and the Questions of Identity of German Jews.
Unlike the first documentary, it revolved around the actual people who either left Germany and came back after the war or were born abroad to parents who left Germany.
Dr. Jeffrey Peck, a former dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, said that “The story of the film was almost as interesting as the film itself.”
One of the first people shown in the documentary was Albert Klein, whose wife was murdered by the Schutzstaffel, or SS, in Austria and whose son died in a concentration camp. Klein explained that, at that point, it was getting difficult for Jews to emigrate from Germany. Those who survived usually went to England, the Soviet Union or the United States. Those who went to other European countries were only protected until the Nazis arrived.
Eva Bruck, who also appeared in the documentary, lived in England and came to Berlin in 1946.
When she arrived and saw the state in which the city was in, she recalled sitting down on the rubble and asking herself, “My God, will it ever be a city again?”
Though she tried to join the Communist Party, she was rejected and never tried again.
She said that after the war, East Germany became an anti-fascist country. Every Saturday and Sunday, the youth came to Berlin to clean the ruins and rebuild. By 1952, the government structure of East Germany was getting decentralized and the people were indoctrinated.
As with the first documentary, the overarching message was that, despite everything that happened in Germany before and during the war, German Jews still saw Germany as the fatherland and wanted to not only rebuild the country, but live in it.
The participants also highlighted that they primarily identified themselves as Jews, with Germany and GDR coming second and third.
The documentary screenings were followed by a panel discussion with Frank Mecklenburg, Peck, Katherine Pence and Albert Scharenberg. The event was moderated by Jessica Lang, the director of the Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center.
The documentaries shown during the event were not meant for an audience that does not know a lot about World War II and German history from 1933 to the present times. For those people, the topics that were covered would have been difficult to follow.
As such, this may be the reason why most of the audience consisted of older people rather than Baruch students.
For those who were on top of the topic, however, the event was truly a learning experience. The second documentary should be praised for portraying how the reunification of Germany changed the people in the documentary by returning to the protagonists a year after the original interviews were conducted.
Overall, the event provided a fresh perspective on a delicate topic that is still changing modern Germany.