August 07, 2008

The Israeli heirs of nazis

Here's a curious story from yesterday's Guardian. It's about the descendants of nazis who converted to Judaism, apparently out of guilt over what there immediate ancestors did to Jews. There are a few personal anecdotes but see this first one:
I am walking through the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, to meet Aharon Shear-Yashuv. He is the son of a Nazi. And yet he was a senior rabbi in the Israeli armed forces. He lives in an apartment in the Jewish quarter, near the Western Wall. I walk through a pale gold alley; Orthodox Jewish men in long black coats and round fur hats dart past. He opens the door and looks like every other rabbi I have ever met - a black suit, a beard, a questioning shrug. He takes me into his study, settles into a chair, and says, in a thick German accent: "My father was in the Waffen-SS."

He was, he explains, born in the Ruhr Valley in 1940. During the war, his father served on the eastern front with Hitler's elite troops. What did his father do in the Waffen-SS? "I don't know," he says calmly. "When I grew up I tried to ask, but there weren't really answers."

He was four when he first met his father. "I don't remember anything about that," he says. It seems he doesn't want to talk about his father; he doesn't describe his conversion in psychological terms but in grand theological and historical ones. "During my theological studies at university it became clear that I couldn't be a minister in the church," he says. "I concluded that Christianity was paganism. One of [its] most important dogmas is that God became man, and if God becomes man then man also can become God." He pauses. "Hitler became a kind of god."

So would he have become a Jew even if the Holocaust had never happened, even if his family had been anti-Nazi? He looks surprised. "Oh yes." I try to draw him back to his father, but he seems exasperated. "Well, you see, he is a father, of course, but ideologically, there was no connection. I was so involved in my conviction that I had found the right path, all the other items no longer had any importance."

Fragments of the story begin to emerge through the haze of theological reasoning. His father was "shocked and enraged" when he went to study Judaism in America, he concedes. "For him that was the end of the world. 'My son is leaving Germany to study in a Jewish rabbinical seminary!' He told me I was crazy and renounced me as a son." When he moved to Israel, his parents pretended that it hadn't happened; they told their neighbours he was still in America. Years later, his sister arranged a meeting with his parents at a station in Düsseldorf. Shear-Yashuv arrived with a Jewish friend. His father peered out of the train, saw the Jewish stranger, and refused to get off.
Ok, you got that so far? The father was still a racist. The lessons of the holocaust had not been learned by this former SS man. And his son?
Today, he believes Germany is doomed. "People there don't get married, and if they do they have one child," he says. "But the Turks and the other foreigners have many children. So it is a question of time that Germany will no longer be German." Why does he think this has happened? "I think it is a punishment for the Holocaust," he says, matter-of-factly. "Germany will leave the stage of history, no doubt about it."
Hold on, didn't he say, "ideologically, there was no connection" between himself and his father?


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