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Jewish Berlin, Within and Beyond the Cemetery

Marty Roth
February 5, 2017

by Marty Roth

Discussed in this essay: Berlin For Jews, by Leonard Barkan. University of Chicago Press, 2017, 191 pages.

LEONARD BARKAN is a Jew who loves Berlin, particularly Jewish Berlin, and he offers his reader a deft and charming prose style, an eye for ambiguity, paradox and irony, and a wealth of research (both on the ground and in the archive) to get us Jews to love it too. He wrote the book, he says, especially for Jews who refuse on principle to go to Berlin. To ask the question of him that he asks of his German subjects, “What kind of a Jew is he?” -- he is the “child of anticlerical parents who would sooner have noshed on a raw pork knuckle than ship me off to bar mitzvah school.” In other(s) words, he is a “bad” Jew, but so are the people he writes about.

Berlin for Jews is about two places -- a cemetery and a residential area (the epicenters of Jewish Berlin) -- and three people, Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833), James Simon (pictured at top, 1851-1932), and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). But, he wonders, “does the knowledge of a Jewess’s salon in 1825 or a Jewish plutocrat’s art mania in 1904 or a band of brilliant young Jewish intellectuals in 1920 bring the stones of the city to life?”

The book is thus both travel guide and “Who’s Who.” Barkan leads us on, or directs us to, various walking tours, and his facility as a travel writer is admirable. In the Schoenhauser Allee cemetery, he reads the tombstones as texts and introduces us to Jewish Berliners both great and ordinary, with their stories of cultural achievement, monetary success, or crime and scandal. With Walter Benjamin, of course, urban excursions hit their stride as Barkan uses Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood as a guidebook. The book ends with a failed Berlin walk.

Bayerisches Viertel, the Bavarian Quarter, was a fantasy construction, much like Jewish Hollywood, Barkan tells us, but inhabited by Jews with a sense of social responsibility.
It’s a heady combination: Jews with money, a taste for opulently stylish design, and a social consciousness oriented toward upward mobility via education. Creators of operettas and of paperbacks, a passel of revolutionary shrinks and a pole vaulter, proponents of progressive education and of borderline pornographic photography, met, or narrowly missed meeting, each other in these very few square miles.

BARKAN THE ART HISTORIAN has a keen eye for visual interest but an even keener one for ironies, irreverences, ambiguities and paradox. The great ambiguity of the period is expressed through Jewish assimilation (represented at its extreme by conversion to Christianity) and the tangle of philosemitism and antisemitism among Berlin’s gentiles and Jews. It is a story of cognitive dissonance that leads Barkan to regularly raise the question, What kind of Jew was he/she? Felix Mendelssohn offers an incomparable case of the “Jew-but-not-a-Jew.” Paradoxically the Jew was indispensable to high culture but “through some sort of collective and silent agreement, qua Jew, invisible.”

Barkan’s Rahel is different from the Rahel in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 biography; his belongs to the glittering sphere in which she is enthroned, whereas hers is always aware of herself as an outsider and a parvenu. An articulately self-ironizing figure, Rahel and her ardent conversation was at the center of Berlin’s salon life; her salon was a temple to Goethe and free love. “How is it then that an unconverted Jew could find herself at the very hub of culture in Berlin, hobnobbing with Goethe and Beethoven, the Humboldts and the Schlegels, nobility and royalty, stars of both the musical and the lecture theater?”

In the end, though, one comes back to paradox . . . . She came, she spoke, she conquered . . . the Jewess from practically nowhere who mastered the world with the brilliance of her speech.

James Simon was the grandson of a ragpicker who became “cotton king” of Berlin by stockpiling cotton from the U.S. South before the Yankee naval blockade of the Confederacy. He divided his fortune between art collecting (masterpieces like the Nefertiti Head and the Ishtar Gate) and charity. “If my preference among all Berlin Jews is unashamedly James Simon,” Barkan writes, “it is first of all for this familiar mix of prosperity, civic responsibility, and passionate love for art.”

World War I turned European eyes to a Near East beyond the extended boundaries of ancient Greece and revealed its cultural treasures. All of Europe began to dig, and Prussia feared being left out. Simon bankrolled many of these expeditions: He paid for the digs in Palestine out of his own pocket. As a German Jew, Simon clashed with Chaim Weizmann and the budding Zionist movement. Weizmann called him “a German toady,” and in truth he was a friend of the Kaiser’s and even escorted Wilhelm to a synagogue.

Walter Benjamin was accepted for a position at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but he gave up the necessary language lessons in Hebrew because he was emotionally unable to leave the city. Benjamin too was a “hidden Jew,” whose family celebrated only Christian holidays, and in Berlin Childhood there is a telling episode in which young Walter, on the High Holidays, loses his way to the synagogue (a unique venture because his mother “felt some sympathy on account of family tradition”).

THE GREAT PARADOX at the heart of this book, however, “is the claim that Berlin feels so Jewish even with most of its Jews gone.” Can there be a Berlin for Jews after Auschwitz? Of course, that is what this book is all about. Barkan doesn’t bewail the Judaicide, although its shadow hangs (not looms) over many of the facts he records (i.e., in 1933 all James Simon labels were removed from museum artifacts), and he doesn’t really address the Holocaust until he gets to his epilogue. This is in line with his refusal to adopt an elegiac mode (à la Thomas Gray) in the cemetery chapter. So it’s an added irony that the publicity for the book shows a photo of Barkan contemplating the memorial at Track 17, where markers state the dates and numbers of Jews transported by railcars from Berlin to concentration camps in the East.

Nonetheless Barkan does reveal some anxiety about travelling over Nazi-cleared territory, and he covers it with smart-aleck wit. He performs a little psychodance getting into his subject. As he writes in his journal about another Germany, the one he doesn’t explore in this book: “Germany is in AA. To get sober, it has to tell the story of its crimes over and over again.”

Not everything is smooth walking here. Barkan stumbles at times and there is the occasional self-indulgence and smugness of tone. But mostly the book is a pleasure as he shares his enormous capacity for enjoying life with us.

Marty Roth is an retired American academic living in Vancouver. For the last ten years he has written for and helped to edit Canada’s Jewish Outlook.