It was a given in my early years (the 1940s, 50s, 60s) that Jews and American Blacks shared an affinity of historical suffering and that their marginalization made kindred of them. There was some tension, in the 1970s, as Black activists appropriated the word “Holocaust,” from its role as signifier for the policies of exploitation and extermination of the German National Socialists in the 1930s and 40s, to apply it to the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th through the mid-19th centuries.
Nevertheless, the record of Jewish-Black cooperation and shared sympathy through the first six decades of the 20th century is pretty well documented. What has remained unremarked, however, is how vastly the histories of these two peoples differed in the years that followed their release from state sponsored oppression. In 1865, Africans in the United States saw the formal end of slavery, a paradigm shift analogous to that, eighty years later, of the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the regime of formal repression, exploitation, and death to which Jews had been subjected. But in less than two decades after the abolition of slavery, Africans in America were resubjugated to a policy of exploitation to a point just this side of extermination. The story of Jews in Germany, on the other hand, has followed a different arc. The following counterfactual to history as we know it is simply an attempt to imagine the story of the Jews of Europe after World War Two if that story followed along the lines of the history of African Americans in this country after the Civil War.
It is 1945 and the Second World War is over. The horrifying evidence of the inhumanity of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” is finally becoming visible to the world. Of course, the deaths of millions of Jews had already been known to Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin—but not to the man in the street in the countries those men led.
As a matter of policy, a program of reconstruction begins in Germany under the aegis of the allied powers and some high leaders of the Nazi party and the government it suborned are arrested, tried, and punished. Some kill themselves in prison. But many escape, to other countries or escape notice altogether, especially those Nazis and those who profited from Nazi policies in the “private” sector, businessmen, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, managers. These men will be needed to run a reconstructed Germany and within ten years, these men not only run the German economy but hold positions in the German government. In 1955, The United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union withdraw their troops from German territory, dismantle the military government that had monitored the democratization of Germany and turn control of the government over to the men who were running the private sector.
Immediately after the war, efforts are made by the occupying forces to reunite Jewish families separated by Nazi polices. Some efforts are successful, but there is little purpose in resettling Jews throughout Germanys as Jewish properties and accounts, personal and commercial, have been allowed to remain in the hands of the Germans who had usurped them in the 1930s and early 1940s. Jews settle into urban enclaves or in rural villages and work for Germans on land that they had once owned, in factories they had once financed. There are some Jews who advocate a national homeland but colonial powers in the Middle East refuse to part with enough contiguous territory and only a few token Jews are allowed to migrate to the British protectorate of Palestine. By 1955, the Jews who had survived the death and work camps are ageing and ill. Under the supervision of the occupying allies, they had been allowed to govern themselves in those states where there numbers allowed them a majority voice, but without access to the economy except as laborers and without ownership of productive property, they become client citizens in a nation that barely tolerates their existence.
Within five years of the withdrawal of Allied troops from Germany, national laws protecting the franchise for Jews are revoked by the German National Court and local jurisdictions are allowed to legislate terms for full and conditional citizenship based on Nazi-era criteria of Aryan identity. Jews are forbidden to live among Germans, own property of certain kinds, qualify for bank loans, attend schools with Germans, or even occupy the same public spaces. Special cars are put on German trains and streetcars are divided into compartments. The children of Holocaust survivors are identified and prevented from participating in state-financed programs for intellectual and physical development. Doctors who had once worked in the German camps conduct medical experiments on the survivors themselves, including injecting them with syphilis bacteria and allowing the disease to run its course as they make clinical notes.
Under this pressure, the breakdown of the Jewish family that had begun in the camps continues unimpeded by ameliorating social policies. Elderly Jews, suffering from disease and the effects of years of malnutrition, provide little guidance to a generation of young men and women who see no promise in the land of their birth and no place elsewhere in the world to go. In their ghettos, Jews tell stories of the past and consume their history along with quantities of despair. Some young Jews make it “out,” by passing into the Aryan nation itself, some by becoming professional storytellers, entertaining Germany with mythologies of a popular, “universalized” culture underwritten by Jewish suffering and wit, stories that “pass” for German just as the straight-nosed, blond brothers and sisters of their authors are doing. Some Jews dream of a Jewish nation and hear tales of Palestine, dress in tribal cloths and call each other by the ancient names of long-dead heroes of a romantically recollected Israel—. They stalk majestically through the ghetto calling for a renewal of the empire of Israel on the weekends but return to their jobs as bootblacks and porters and street sweepers on Monday.
Other young people try hard to find lives within the space allotted to them by the German state but there is so little money, no honor, no education, only cheap escapes in diversion: wine, sex, crime, gambling. Soon the ghettoes of Germany are seedbeds of moral and physical corruption. But the rest of the world just shakes its head, critical of the Germans but determined not to interfere in another nation’s internal affairs. To Americans and the French, Jews are esoteric and romantic figures; Jews who escape the German ghetto and make it to Paris or New York can find a patron there and a literature, a visual art, a music of the Holocaust and its aftermath begins to emerge. Jews writing outside of Germany and the few Jews inside Germany who had begun to translate their parents experience into forms Germans could consume without gagging on it build a record of response that made its way into print.
Out of the suffering of those Jews comes the real story of Germany. There is no aspect of German life that was not in some way shaped by the presence of Jews in Germany and by the consequences of German policy about that presence. German music, German, art, German literature, and above all German wealth is the product of the presence of Jews in Germany.
Well, I could go on, I think, but perhaps the analogy, extended and elaborate, is really not necessary. During each Black History Month, I become aware once again of how invisible the actual injustices done to African Americans are, even in those 28 days we are called upon to focus on that history. Black History Month has become a space of celebration for African Americans, as it should be; there is nothing wrong with setting aside a moment to praise one another for grace, strength, courage. But for whites, the month should be a reminder of the grave sins we, as a nation, committed against an innocent people, sins we not only institutionalized but, then, after once called to the bar of history’s justice, re-instituionalized and re-embraced.
I enjoy the celebration of African American triumph over adversity during Black History Month, but as a white man I set aside some part of that month for a moment taken in shameful recognition of my people’s responsibility for the telling of the tale at all.