Germans & Jews follows Germany’s transformation as country
When World War II ended 71 years ago, the Jewish population of Germany was nearly eradicated. Those who survived were often left with no family to come back to and moved out of Germany. However, in 2016, the German-Jewish population is flourishing once again, with 200,000 Jews currently living in Germany.
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the Baruch Performing Arts Center hosted a screening of Germans & Jews. The documentary, directed by Janina Quint, discusses the shift of German-Jewish relations from the end of WWII to the 21st century. The documentary’s website explains, “What began as a private conversation between the two filmmakers and friends, Tal Recanati (Jewish) and Janina Quint (non-Jewish Germans), grew into a cultural exchange among many.” The date of the screening has historical significance.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Nazis torched synagogues and broke into Jewish businesses, homes and schools. The glass that they broke littered the streets for days and the event became known as “Kristallnacht,” or the night of broken glass. The documentary centers on a group of Germans and Jews who discuss their perspectives on how German-Jewish relations have shifted over the years. The people who were interviewed for the documentary are artists, historians and other people who were personally affected by Germany’s Nazi history.
In the opening scenes of the documentary, the interviewees are seen meeting one another for the first time and sitting around a dinner table to discuss their views on modern Germany. One of the interviewees mentioned how different his parents’ views of the war were. His mother said that she did not notice the disappearing Jewish population and the empty storefronts that populated the streets. In contrast, his father, who was part of the Hitler Youth, said that Germans were aware of what was happening, but were unable to prevent these events from occurring.
This story was an excellent metaphor for how the German population behaved after the war. As the documentary notes, while some Germans expressed sorrow over what the country did to its neighbors and people within the country, others acted as if the war never took place. Nazi soldiers who were actively involved in the war returned to their normal lives and did not experience repercussions until the 1960s. In another scene, the directors followed a woman who cleaned the “stolperstein” in front of her home. Stolperstein is a cobblestone-sized concrete cube with a brass plate dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, most of them Jews. Each stolperstein includes the victim’s name, the date they were born on and when they died.
By cleaning the plates, the woman explained, she is caring for the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. A small portion of the documentary shows other Holocaust memorials scattered around Germany. According to the director, these memorials are a constant reminder of the shame and crimes that the Nazis committed. However, some of the interviewees agreed that it is time to move forward from the country’s dark history.
The documentary also paid tribute to the German Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s. One man who was interviewed for the documentary was the son of a German Jew who decided to return to Germany after the war. Although his mother urged his father to stay away from Germany, his dad decided to move back because of the booming economy. Unlike Unsere Mutter, Unsere Vater, also known as Generation War, the documentary did a good job portraying the two types of Germans. Unsere Mutter, Unsere Vater was widely criticized for portraying just the Germans who were becoming disillusioned with the war after they became part of it.
In contrast, Quint’s documentary showed both the people who went along with Hitler’s plans for Germany and the ones who did not agree with the war despite being a part of it. It also portrayed a country that coped with its crimes through acceptance, retribution and sorrow. These feelings, however, took a few years to develop. The documentary highlighted that after the war ended, the German population refused to talk about the war. For some, it was a coping mechanism. For others, it was a way to move on with their lives.
There was also the issue of what some of the interviewees described as the “German capacity for self-pity” after the war ended. For a while, the German population behaved as if it was a victim of the war. Many Germans did not come to terms with their crimes until the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials took place in the 1960s. Afterward, the country went through a movement toward reconciliation with its history.
Lastly, the documentary highlighted the curiosity of the second generation, or the children of people who grew up during World War II. It shows their effort to discover the truth and make amends to those who were hurt by the actions of their parents. This curiosity, the documentary claims, was largely inspired by Holocaust, a 1978 U.S. miniseries that tells the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of a German-Jewish family and a Schutzstaffel, or SS, officer.
The documentary gives a breeze of fresh air to a topic that has been widely discussed for decades. While its message might have been received more negatively 10 or 20 years ago, it is well-placed for the modern audience that is willing to move on from the crimes of the previous century.