This is a film documenting the stories and attitudes of a number of jews that emigrated from Germany to Washington Heights, Manhattan during the 1930s and the following years, in response to pressure from the National Socialist regime. The film maker Manfred Kirchheimer was a young boy when he and his parents steamed over in 1936, and he returned to the neighborhood some fifty years later, partly to gain a deeper understanding of what happened, and partly to explore analogies and incipient attitudes there and elsewhere that he finds dangerously similar to that of the Nazis.
The core group interviewed consists of childhood buddies Walter Hess, now a fellow film-maker, Louis Kampf, now an activist and MIT professor, and Max Frankel, now in charge of the editorial page at the NY Times; relatives – notably his father Bert and Aunt Annie; and others in concentric rings of closeness – the rabbi’s widow Sary Lieber, Mrs. Krakow from down the hall, Walter’s mother Mrs. Moletta Hess, and the imperious Ilse Marcus. Editor Hans Steinitz and Yonkers housewife Edith Eisenmann fill out the cast.
(* Throughout, I use the present-tense “now” from the perspective of the film – I have not tracked these people down to the real present. In parentheses are the approximate time into the film, in hours:minutes.)
Most of these jews regarded themselves as Germans, and draw a sharp us-them distinction between themselves and jews from Poland or Russia. They claim to be descended from jews that followed the Roman legions up the Rhine, and stayed. There are signs of Aryan admixture: the rabbi’s widow has blue eyes, and several of them lack the characteristic “jewish whine” in their tone of voice. The claim that they thought of themselves as “Germans of a different religion” has surface (though deceptive) plausibility. Indeed Kampf’s father would have joined Hitler’s army (1:57) and Frankel confesses he would have marched with the Hitler Youth if only they would have had him (35, 2:03).
Not only did they think of themselves as Germans, they believed they were so regarded. The title comes from Bert Kirchheimer’s remark that the Germans felt bad about the new regime “because we were so beloved.” Mrs. Hess continues to correspond with her German friends from back home right up to the present (1:46) (as does Mrs. Krakow also [1:57]) and blames the problems that did occur not on something Germanic but on “the human.”
The German jews looked down their noses at the Polish jews, who, they claim, were tricky in business, dishonest, and they cheated — “not like us.” In 1938 the Polish jews in Germany began to be sent back, getting dumped in fields in Poland. Mrs. Lieber says that the attitude of the German jews was to “let them go back” (31). Frankel’s family was “first generation German” and was sent back. They walked back to Germany — so desperate were jews to get to and stay in Germany then — but were threatened with concentration camp if they came back again. (Later his mother with classic chutzpah stormed into the Gestapo office and demanded, and got, exit visas to America.) Kampf adds that the German jews blamed Polish jews for Nazi hostility toward jews, and on the ship to America there was a virtual ongoing war between the German jews and “Ostjuden” (34).
Thus, when Hitler started to make noises, many assumed it was a transient difficulty that would soon fix itself. Yet they did start to move out, and “by 1950” – an odd year to anchor the statistic on, as if the emigration continued blithely along during and after the war – “more than 20,000 jews had settled in Washington Heights, setting up thirteen synagogues.”
The theme of ethnic and even infra-ethnic resentments is explored. Frankel admits that in New York, he was reviled even by other jews who had been there twenty years longer. “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” they asked (1:09). Frankel wonders if the “hysterical, grieving, deep pessimism” of earlier waves of East European jewry is due to their peasant stock, or perhaps something more deeply cultural in the Russian soul (1:11). Some of the jews in the film tut-tut the arrogance of new immigrants, including Russian jews, while others defend them.
A basic leftist orientation is presumed with these jews. A simplistic “Nazis=capitalists,” “good people=socialists” is taken for granted. Hitler “used the concentration camps to destroy the socialist, communist and trade union opposition, which had the support of the majority.” (49) Uh… right.
Interesting facts come to light to prove that Hitler’s intent was not the genocide of jews, but their removal from Germany.
• Jewish men could “buy” their freedom from concentration camps for the pledge to leave Germany (40)
• In 1936 jews could leave with all their money, while Germans could only take 10 Reichsmark with them if they left (29). (Later, the restriction to 10 was evidently extended to jews as well.)
• Mr. Hess (already deceased at the time of the documentary) spent time in Dachau, after which he took the family on a cruise ship vacation, riding first class (51).
• As mentioned above, the Polish jews that had emigrated to Germany were “dumped” into Poland, and were often desperate to get back into Germany.
The strident Mrs. Marcuse (1:40) shares the view of the narrator (1:44) that Germany deserved to be bombed into rubble. The indignities that justify that conclusion are sprinkled throughout the film and I list them here:
- 1936 Nuremberg law said they could not call themselves German any more
- kosher slaughter was banned (21)
- stores were boycotted
- German nurses could not work on jewish men
- some of Walter’s classmates threw dirt clods at him
- Frau Schumacher at one point stopped inviting Walter to the annual Easter-egg hunt (59)
- in general, the Germans made Walter hate himself (58)
- the Germans threw the jews out of a pool in Mannheim, and as a result, one of the girls was afraid to swim for the rest of her life (24)
- Mrs. Eisenmann says, for punishment for misbehavior in one of the camps, women’s heads were shaved funny
- Mr. Hess at one point was made to enter his place of work through the rear door (28)
- in one camp, Mrs. Marcuse had to use a pail as latrine (1:19)
- in another camp, underground editor Steinitz had to use a typewriter with a broken A-key (1:18)
I will limit my commentary on this list to just the first four items. (1) Not being able to call oneself “German” is a reasonable thing applied to a tribe that refuses to assimilate, that is, a tribe that is in fact not German as to tribal identity. (2) Kosher slaughter should in fact be banned from any civilized country, and those that continue to perform it should be exiled or executed. This is deliberate cruelty to animals that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up: more will need to be said about this in the future. (3) As I showed elsewhere, boycotting minority-owned stores is actually entirely reasonable if in effect that minority is boycotting the stores of the majority — whether they are doing so as intentional program or by natural ethnic loyalty. (4) is just common sense.
Finally, I mark those items in the film that can serve as evidence that can be gleaned on the question of the “holocaust.”
1. A couple of the interviewees mention how many of their “family” were lost to the holocaust. Mrs. Krakow “lost more than twenty.” (Exactly how many; can we get some names and places?) Bert Kirchheimer says, “they always told me 46 people from my family were murdered… Of course, I counted them, a long time ago” (11). There is something a bit flippant about this statement. “They” always told him. He counted, but a long time ago – don’t ask for specific details now. Above all, if 46 people can be identified as “my family,” then “family” is a very extended family indeed. (Extend the concept sufficiently, and most Germans can probably say they “lost 46 people” in the war, too.) Names and dates and places, please.
2. Steinitz admits that the German camps were not extermination camps (1:17). This is a relief to hear: many Americans are still unaware of this fact due to the post-war propaganda. It is an amazing coincidence that all the “death camps” turn out to have been in regions “liberated” by the Red Army.
3. The narrator makes the preposterous statement, “Exterminations were carried on up to the last day [of the war]” (1:37). Meanwhile, the real Germans in Auschwitz were nursing Elie Wiesel back to health, and asking him if he wanted to be left behind to be rescued by the arriving liberators, the Red Army. Wiesel opted to return to Germany with his captors.
4. The grating Mrs. Marcuse reviles a young soldier that did not know of the existence of the nearby concentration camp – by which she must have meant “death camp.” She says “he should have been killed.” (1:43) Of course the liberating soldier would have known about the camps as such. Apparently, he had not yet discovered that they were actually death camps. Any eye-witness that does not support the story should be killed, Mrs. Marcuse evidently thinks.
5. In general, we still don’t get the names of individuals executed at named dates and places. The closest we get is Edith Eisenmann who claims to have found a letter indicating that her father was told that mother had been sent to a gas chamber. (1:39). But this is still hearsay three-times removed.
Twice, something rather odd is said in reference to gas chambers:
6. Mrs. Marcuse says that the SS women threatened that saboteurs would be “sent to the gas chambers” if it happened again (1:34). It did happen again, but instead of being sent there, the girls responsible were executed in the sight of their shifts to make an example. So, was “send to the gas chambers” a vacuous threat, like Scarlet threatening Prissy to “sell her south”? or is Mrs. Marcuse filling out the drama based on what she heard later?
7. Similarly, consider the statements by Mrs. Eisenmann that when her family arrived at Auschwitz, she was directed to the one side, the others to the other side. (But her father was a baker, presumably a healthy man in the prime of life. Why would he be rejected for work and a young girl kept?) Later, people in the camp said “see that? that’s the gas chamber” and most odd of all, consider this: “they told us when the gas was turned on” (1:29).
Apparently Mrs. Eisenmann heard the stories later about “gas chambers,” and she assumed that they would work like the gas oven in her kitchen. No one ever told her, or it did not sink in, that the “gas chamber” was supposed to work by Zyklon-B tablets being dropped through a slot in the roof; not by “the gas being turned on”!
The film could have had a half-hour edited out without loss, but nevertheless I recommend a couple viewings (HIx 2). It opens up new vistas on the German situation in the 1930s and the intra-tribal hostilities within jewry. Especially, it drives home unmistakably what the real German goal vis-à-vis jews was in the 30’s and it clearly was not extermination. Finally, several odd statements give further matter to ponder regarding the “holocaust” question.