New Media Project: The Last Yekke

June 12, 2008

A few months ago, I wrote a profile of Walter Schnerb, a German-Jewish bookbinder who fled the Nazis and settled in New York. I offered the article to The New York Times, but because the paper had just run an article about a Jew with a similar story, it hesitated to print my piece as well. Eventually, they shortened my article considerably and ran it under the title “As an Age Recedes, a Craftsman Soldiers On.” Their version focused on Schnerb being a bookbinder and left out any substantial description of his character and his community.

But Mr. Schnerb is too interesting a person to be reduced to 300 words. So I took all my leftover reporting, added some new media elements and created The Last Yekke, a fuller portrait of not only the man, but the German-Jewish community he represents so well. Please see for yourself by clicking on the photo.


Still controversial: former star journalist tries another comeback

May 15, 2008

Michel Friedman, 52, the former vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and celebrated TV journalist, is back on German television. At the height of his prominence, in 2003, he was involved in a cocaine-and-prostitutes affair, quit his job and stepped down from all public positions.

Back then, the Forward wrote: “Friedman’s life had, to this point, been a success story; the son of parents saved by Oskar Schindler, he grew up to become an important political figure and an outspoken Jewish personality in Germany. But the current investigation threatens to bring his tale to an ugly denouement.”

It did. Although Friedman didn’t give up – he wrote a novel and launched a talk show in October 2004 – his new career never even came close to what it had been before. He made headlines, however, when he interviewed Germany’s top Neo-Nazi Horst Mahler for the German Vanity Fair and was greeted with “Heil Hitler, Herr Friedman.”

Now all eyes are on Friedman again. According to one review of his new reportage, which deals with youth delinquency, Friedman is an “excellent journalist.” However, the reviewer doubts that Friedman will be able to rid himself of the stigma that has clung to him since the affair. Another review makes fun of Friedman for his inability to show compassion with the prison inmates he interviewed, but never mentions the ugly past.

Friedman has always polarized Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike. Many hated him long before the scandal for his alleged arrogance and vanity. They added hypocrisy to that list when it came out that the seemingly clean Mr. Friedman was really not that clean. (He used to be a real hardball when he interviewed politicians and often gave the impression that he stands on a higher moral platform than anybody else.) But many Germans – especially Jews – also loved Friedman for precisely this arrogance, which they said he can afford due to his sharp intellect and his impressive eloquence. He is also a staunch supporter of Israel.

Whatever one thinks of Friedman, one thing is clear: the man knows how to divide opinions.


More on Germans and Israel

May 9, 2008

image courtesy of DPA

Jews and non-Jews celebrated Israel’s sixtieth birthday all over Germany, as seen in the photo above from Stuttgart’s Schlossplatz. Yet, the occasion naturally called not only for celebrations, but for political commentary as well. German papers were full of historical reviews and analysis. Die Welt, a conservative paper published by the traditionally pro-Israel Axel Springer Verlag, wrote that most Germans were not too interested in Israel’s creation 60 years ago. Apparently, only German politicians really cared.

For them it was an epic event, and soon after the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany on May 23, 1949, there was contact between leading figures in both countries, at first mainly in the area of science. However, the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, as well as the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, wanted more.

But in the Holy Land a majority of people then were not in favor of direct talks with, let alone financial support from, the ‘country of the perpetrators.’ However, in a memorable debate, Ben-Gurion convinced the majority of parliamentarians that it was time to have some sort of relations with the new, democratic Germany.

In the Luxembourg Agreements signed on Sept. 10, 1952, Germany promised to give Israel 3 billion German marks, on top of compensation payments to individuals. The money was meant to be used to help the integration of former European Jews. The ice was broken, but it still took a long time until the two countries established diplomatic relations.

Today, Germany is Israel’s second-most important ally after the US. Luckily, the main reason for that is not the ever-present history of the two countries, but the common belief in the fundamental values of our existence.

Read more about the German press on Israel here.

German-Jewish journalist Henryk Broder wrote several pieces on the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day. I found only one translated into English: “The Poisoned Congratulations of German Know-It-Alls.” Last but not least, let it be known that the Jewish elementary school in Cologne posted three videos of its Israel Independence Day celebration on YouTube. Part 1 and part 2 are noisy and hardly bearable 10-minute pieces showing an introductory presentation by the teachers followed by the kids singing Israeli songs and waving flags. Part 3 is a mute slide show featuring nice photos of the presentation and the subsequent party in the school’s backyard. Enjoy!


Germany’s Jews celebrate 60 years of Israel

May 7, 2008

Hat tip to J-Comm.


A mere shadow of former glory

April 25, 2008

I just wanted to quickly point out an interesting article in the Spring 2008 issue of PresenTense. Brauna Doidge (pronounced Deutsch?) spent six week in the “new Jewish Berlin” and pretty accurately debunks the myth of the renewal of Jewish life there. 

Indeed, for each Jewish cultural event that occurs in Germany—the ordination of rabbis, the renovation of synagogues or a new Jewish museum—there is nothing short of a media frenzy. Many have a stake in this “renaissance”: Germans want to show their country has normalized, Jews want to celebrate growing Jewish communities, and the community itself is eager to prove it has recreated life in this formerly thriving center of Jewish activity. But for all the exciting news my Google results offered me, I found an all-too typical Jewish community: racked by in-fighting and pettiness and a mere shadow of its former glory.

Read the entire article here.



Coming attraction: THE LAST YEKKE

April 24, 2008

Dear Ashkenews readers,

I apologize for not having posted in a while. Ashkenews is not dead, we are just on a short hiatus. I have been extremely busy, but I am also working on a special new media project about German Jewry. It is called THE LAST YEKKE and will soon be published only here. Please stay tuned and check back regularly.

Thank you for reading Ashkenews. Your patience will be rewarded soon.


Chutzpah 2.0: Catholic-turned-rabbi speaks out about Jewish-Christians relations

April 3, 2008

There has been, once again, some brouhaha about the pope changing some words in a prayer concerning the conversion of Jews to Christianity. A prominent German “rabbi,” Dr. Walter Homolka, took this opportunity to give a fiery interview to SPIEGEL ONLINE, in which he sharply criticizes the church. Some excerpts:

It is insulting to Jews that the Catholic Church, in the context of Good Friday of all things, is once again praying for the illumination of the Jews, so that we can acknowledge Jesus as the savior. Such statements are made in a historical context which is closely connected with discrimination, persecution and death. Given the weight of responsibility that the Catholic Church has acquired in its history with Judaism, most recently during the Third Reich, this is completely inappropriate and must be rejected to the utmost degree

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Christianity is a missionary religion. Isn’t it logical that it would also seek to convert Jews?

Homolka: No, because the controversial Good Friday Prayer completely ignores the unique status of the Jews as God’s chosen people. God called us Jews to be a “light for the nations,” so we certainly do not require illumination by the Catholic Church. The younger sister has clearly struck the wrong chord here.

So far, so radical. I, for my part, happen to belong to those people who think Jews shouldn’t tell others what to believe. I agree with Dr. David Berger, who also wrote about this issue. Here are the words of a smart man:

… I do not find fault with Catholics who believe that Jews will recognize the truth of Christianity at the end of days. I have argued on a number of occasions that there is nothing unethical about such a position, any more than it is unethical for Jews to recite the High Holiday prayers for the universal recognition of the God of Israel by nations who will forsake their current beliefs… In the final analysis, Jewish objections should be carefully formulated and should not indicate that the Christian belief that Jews will convert at the end of days is itself objectionable or tinged with anti-Semitism.

Anyway, let’s get back to “Rabbi” Homolka, who allows himself to speak in the name of all German Jews. To be sure, Homolka is quite a prominent man: he is a member of the exectutive board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the executive director and co-founder of the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Potsdam, Germany’s only rabbinical seminary. The Reform Kolleg made headlines in September 2004 when, for the first time since 1942, three rabbis were ordained in Germany.

homolka.jpgHowever, neither his entry on Wikipedia nor his own Web site dwell to much upon the fact that Homolka has quite a bit of history. In fact, it isn’t even mentioned that Homolka wasn’t Jewish before he became Germany’s Next Top Rabbi. But the people talk. And they say that his planned career as a priest was destroyed when the church threw him out because of his homosexuality. So instead, he decided to become a Jew, then a rabbi, then a rabbi who ordains other rabbis, and finally the voice of German Jewry when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations. Oh boy.

By the way, rumor has it his conversion to Judaism is questionable, as is his rabbinic ordination. I usually don’t spread rumors, but his inflammatory interview with Germany’s most read news site was just too much. I have nothing against Christians, I have nothing against homosexuals and I have nothing against converts to Judaism. But I think it is a shame for German Jewry when a man like Walter Homolka speaks in its name. Have some decency, man, and shut up.