Books: Their stolen fatherland

Germany may forget its Jews; but Jews don't forget Germany, says Julia Pascal
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The Independent Culture
My German Question: growing up in Nazi Berlin

by Peter Gay

Yale UP, pounds 15.50, 208pp

THIS IS an extraordinary memoir of what it was like to be a Jewish boy growing up in Berlin between 1933 and 1939. Peter Gay (born Peter Frolich) is now a renowned and prolific historian at Yale, but this is the first time he has recorded the trauma of his boyhood years under the Nazis.

Gay starts with the shock of his 1961 return to Berlin: "Wherever we went there were Germans: driving their cars, walking their dogs, lounging in cafes, waiting on customers. And they were all speaking German, as though nothing had happened." This expression stands out as if written in neon. Gay is stunned to find a country still living in a state of collective amnesia.

Gay tries to reconcile rage at the murder of his family with his father's Burkean view, "that one cannot properly condemn a whole nation". If there is anger against a Germany which embraced Hitler, there is also fury with naive American Jews who blamed his family for not getting out in 1933.

Gay gives a poignant description of what it was actually like to live in the lurch from Weimar liberalism to Nazi brutality. Who are the Germans? is his underlying question. "We were the Germans... the gangsters who had taken control of the country were not Germany - we were." The use of the word "gangsters" is not arbitrary. Throughout the memoir there is the sense of what has been stolen. As Gay begins to get sexually curious, his whole life is torn up by the Third Reich as the family is forced to leave Berlin. Shunned by the US and Britain, the Frolich family find temporary safety in Cuba. Ripped from his home and language, young Peter is also removed from sexual development, as if his manhood has been stolen.

Theft is both metaphorical and literal. He gives a vivid description of Kristallnacht in 1938. The morning after the massive pogrom, he bicycled through Berlin, entering the smashed wreck of what was once his uncle and aunt's clothes shop. At this moment, his parents realised they had to get out or die.

Gay examines how he and his parents survived the Hitler years without becoming clinically depressed. His account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics shows how sport could be a temporary escape. If the black sprinter Jesse Owens could win gold medals, then the Aryan myth of racial superiority was wrong. There is a wonderful moment when the German women's relay team drop the baton, allowing the Americans to win. Peter's father, sitting opposite Hitler and Goring, can't help yelling with joy.

And, if there is a hero in Gay's memoir, it is his freethinking, self-educated, Socialist father who, by some prophetic impulse, swaps their boat tickets and consequently saves his wife and son. Gay remembers standing on the Havana harbour watching the doomed St Louis wait in vain for entry. The boy undergoes a fast political education watching this ship full of escaping Jews which was never allowed to dock. As America and Britain closed their doors, young Peter stopped idealising the "free world".

Gay writes with with tremendous integrity and humour. Although the war with Hitler's Germany is long over, he is still dealing with its 60-year fallout. Gay remembers seeing Willy Brandt in New York ask his audience to acquit innocent German youth. "We miss our Jews," said Brandt in 1965. Gay doubts that today's Germans miss their Jews. The problem is that we Jews still miss what was once Germany.