Books: September 11, 1996

A look at six German Jews who stayed in a country that was determined to destroy them

Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire:
Why So Many German Jews
Made the Tragic Decision to
Remain in Nazi Germany
John V.H. Dippel '68
Basic Books, $27.50
If there seems to be an unusually large number of books these days about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, it's for good reason: These are the final moments before the singular act of inhumanity that will forever mark this century slips into history. Within a few years, no survivors will be left to remind us firsthand of what happened, no perpetrators remaining to be hunted, tried, or probed by young Germans, Jews, and others struggling to understand.
When those who lived through World War II and the Nazi genocide are no longer with us, it will be up to historians and writers such as John V.H. Dippel '68 to bring to life a time and a horror that will seem increasingly distant, dry, even improbable. There is little in Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire about politics and battlefields. Instead, Dippel has chosen six German Jews-all of them prominent and most of them well-off-and, in clear, sometimes moving prose, he has tried to understand why they stayed in a country that was clearly determined to destroy them.
German Jews have not fared well in historical accounts of Nazi anti-Semitism. From a distance of half a century, there is reproach, disbelief, even scorn: How could they have been so blind? The decision to remain behind, even when the Nazis made life miserable for Jews soon after the 1933 rise to power, is usually explained by the German Jews' simple, soothing mantra, "It cannot happen here," or by the words of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Willstätter: "One does not leave one's mother, even when she behaves badly."
But Dippel shows there were more complex motivations. For decades, centuries even, German Jews had sought to prove their loyalty, to show they were more German than the Germans. And indeed, they had picked up some stereotypically German qualities-quoting Dippel, "rootedness, complacency, incredulity, smugness, naiveté, wishful thinking, even opportunism." German Jews largely abandoned their own religion and traditions, seeking to blend into the larger society. Despite the fact that many Jewish families had been in Germany for centuries-the financier Max Warburg, one of Dippel's subjects, traced his German roots to the 1200s-it was only in the 20 years before the Nazis took over that Jews had finally felt accepted, serving with honor in the Kaiser's army.
So when the Nazis began trumpeting their anti-Semitism, many Jews refused to listen. The law would protect them, they thought. Average Germans would refuse to go along with Hitler's hate, they were certain. Jews who saw the Nazi demonization for what it was were dismissed as alarmists. Only one in 10 German Jews left the country in the first year of Nazi rule; the rest accepted the main Jewish organization's slogan, "Wait and See." Some nationalist and Zionist Jewish groups even praised the Nazis, if only for helping Jews return to their own traditions and identity when Nazi policies drew distinctions between them and Aryans. Prominent Jews helped the Nazis counter foreign press reports of oppression. Warburg's bank and other Jewish institutions helped Hitler by lending huge sums to the new government. "Wear the Yellow Badge with Pride!" a Jewish newspaper in Berlin told its readers.
The Nazis were eager for Jews to emigrate in those first years, but even dismissal from jobs and a gradual banishment from every aspect of public life could not break the Jews' bonds to German temperament, history, language, and culture. Rabbi Leo Baeck, the foremost religious leader of the community, vowed to be the last Jew in Germany, standing like the captain of a sinking ship, Dippel writes, "deaf to the nearing waves."
Years before the Nazis came to power, the German Jewish writer Jakob Wassermann wrote of his gentile countrymen, "It is futile to show them loyalty....It is futile to live for them and to die for them. They say: He is a Jew." But even after the attacks became physical, even after 319 new laws were passed against them in 1934, German Jewish leaders were preaching quiet faith and inner resolve. Three-fourths of the Jews who had lived in Germany at the dawn of the Nazi era in 1933 were still there at the end of 1937. Incredibly, in January 1938, Jews in Hamburg celebrated the opening of a new community center, complete with theater, restaurant, and lecture hall.
Despite that bit of bravado, it was finally clear that Jews had no future in Germany. After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Nazis no longer cared about foreign criticism of their anti-Semitic policies. But just as the terror against the Jews reached a new level, the rest of the world closed its doors to Jewish emigrants. The privileged, including five of the six characters in this book, got out-either through connections, payoffs, or blind luck. (The sixth survived in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.) To the very end, however, they worried about fitting in: Warburg, even in 1938, argued against a mass exodus from Germany, fretting that a large-scale movement of Jews, some of whom might not behave with the "uprightness" that Warburg valued, would stoke anti-Semitism worldwide. "He came across a little like a hotel manager insisting that his guests take off their pajamas and put on coats and ties before exiting a fire-engulfed lobby," Dippel writes.
Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire is often compelling. Dippel successfully recreates the intellectual lives of these six people-a banker, a gossip columnist, an editor, a scientist, a rabbi, and a literary critic. But even though we have their words to read and their circumstances to consider, it is nearly impossible to imagine the emotional anchors that held so many Jews in place in such a wild and venomous storm. Already, only 50 years later, that crucial bit of comprehension eludes us. That is history's way; we are too far.
The German Jews had proportionately more survivors than Eastern European Jewry. Of the 525,000 Jews who lived in Germany in 1933, one-third left the country before Kristallnacht, the 1938 orgy of sadism that signaled the start of the Final Solution. Another third fled in the 10 months following that night of terror. Of the 164,000 who remained in 1941, 123,000 perished in concentration camps.
-Marc Fisher '80
Marc Fisher, a reporter and former Berlin bureau chief for The Washington Post, is author of After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

The Lions of July: Prelude to War, 1914
William Jannen, Jr. '52
Presidio, $29.95

In relentless but often engaging detail, William Jannen '52 chronicles the events during the six and a half weeks leading to World War I, starting with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Interspersed through the nearly day-by-day account of diplomatic maneuvering are character sketches of the generals and monarchs and ministers who, with the best of intentions, plunged the world into the greatest conflagration it had ever known. We live today with its consequences.
Jannen stays focused on the players and their motivations and strategies and holds most of his analysis to the end. He critiques scholarly opinion on the causes of the war and reaches his own ironic, cautionary conclusions. Fear, he argues, was a motivating factor in the breakdown of reason-fear of disgrace in the eyes of other nations, of losing Great Power status, of a "traditional Europe...being replaced by a new and ominous industrial order." The principals knew that a prolonged general war would be suicidal for the old order they sought to sustain but concluded that only forceful action would keep the peace-or at worst make for a short, decisive war in their favor.
The author also blames the war on a kind of Murphy's Law of International Politics. As Jannen points out, "Peace is always precarious," and to keep it, "everything has to go right-and usually a lot goes wrong. Students of disasters-wars, plane crashes, train crashes, the collapse of a dam or a building, Chernobyl-almost always remark on the number of separate and independent failures that contribute to a major catastrophe. July 1914 was no exception."
-J.I. Merritt '66

Snowbound: The Tragic Story of the Donner Party (young adult)
David Lavender '31
Holiday House, $16.95

The Santa Fe Trail (young adult)
David Lavender '31
Holiday House, $15.95

The Myth and the Mirage:
Six Essays on Revolution
Mario Llerena *43
Endowment for Cuban American Studies, 7300 N.W. 35th Terrace, Miami, FL 33122. $12 paper

Princeton, 1746-1896
(new paper ed.)
Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker '43
Princeton University Press, $17.95 paper

Eye of the Glider: Shadow on
Cape Cod (poetry-essay)
Robert D.B. Carlisle '44
Orders to Robert D.B. Carlisle, P.O. Box 316, Chatham, MA 02633. $14.95 paper

Now That's a Miracle: Reflections on Faith and Life (poetry)
Richard Stoll Armstrong '46
Orders to CSS Publishing, P.O. Box 4503, Lima, OH 45802-4503.
$9.25 paper

The Book of Yeats's Vision:
Romantic Modernism and
Antithetical Tradition
Hazard Adams '47
University of Michigan Press, $39.50

Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Berlin-Cuba Crisis, 1961-1964
John C. Ausland '47
Scandinavian University Press, 875 Massachusetts Avenue, Suite 84, Cambridge, MA 02139. $29

In Defense of Marion: The Love of Marion Bloom and H.L. Mencken
Edward A. Martin '49, ed.
University of Georgia Press, $65

The Second John McPhee ['53] Reader
Patricia Strachan, ed.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
$27.50 cloth, $14 paper

The Vestry Handbook (revised)
Christopher L. Webber '53
Morehouse Publishing, $7.95 cloth

Atmospheric Halos
Walter Tape '62
American Geophysical Union, $40
Building a Strategic Air Force
Walton S. Moody '64
Orders to U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325. $31

Greenberg's Guide to Lionel Trains 1901-1942, Volume 1 (5th ed.)
Bruce C. Greenberg '65
Greenberg Books, $34.95 paper

Augustan Culture:
An Interpretive Introduction
Karl Galinsky *66
Princeton University Press, $39.50

Linear Algebra Done Right
Sheldon Axler '71
Springer-Verlag New York,
$49 cloth, $29 paper

Thinner at Last: The New
Medicine That Releases the Brain's Power to Bring About Permanent Weight Loss
Steven Lamm, M.D., and
Gerald Secor Couzens '72
Simon & Schuster, $23

The Writing Path 2: Poetry and Prose from Writers' Conferences
Michael Pettit '72, ed.
University of Iowa Press,
$32.95 cloth, $14.95 paper

An Anthology of Russian Literature from Earliest Writings to Modern Fiction: Introduction to a Culture
Nicholas Rzhevsky *72, ed.
M.E. Sharpe, $29.95 paper

Strabismus Management
William V. Good '73, M.D., and
Creig S. Hoyt, M.D.
Butterworth-Heinemann, $95

Psychiatry Made Ridiculously Simple (3rd ed.)
William V. Good '73, M.D., and Jefferson E. Nelson, M.D.
MedMaster, P.O. Box 640028, Miami, FL 33164. $10 paper

A Man Called Daddy:
A Celebration of Fatherhood
Hugh O'Neill '74
Rutledge Hill Press, $12.95

Calculus Lite
Frank Morgan *77
AK Peters, $29.95
Real Property Issues in Bankruptcy
Michael K. Slattery '78 and
Thomas G. Kelch
Orders to Clark Boardman Callaghan, 155 Pfingsten Road, Deerfield, IL 60015. $135

Fit Again: 90 Days to Lifetime Fitness for the Over-35 Male
Royce Flippin '80
Birch Lane Press, $17.95

Contemporary Lampworking:
A Practical Guide to
Shaping Glass in the Flame
Bandhu Scott Dunham '81
Orders to Salusa Glassworks, P.O. Box 2354, Prescott, AZ 86302.
$35.95 (postpaid)

Fringe and Fortune: The Role of Critics in High and Popular Art
Wesley Monroe Shrum, Jr. *82
Princeton University Press,
$49.50 cloth, $17.95 paper

Prospecting for Drugs in Ancient and Medieval European Texts:
A Scientific Approach
Bart K. Holland *83, ed.
Harwood Academic Publishers/Gordon & Breach Publishing Group, $65

Playing the Future: How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us to
Thrive in an Age of Chaos
Douglas Rushkoff '83
HarperCollins, $25

An Environmental Law Anthology
Robert L. Fischman '84, Maxine I. Lipeles '75, Mark S. Squillace, eds.
Anderson Publishing Company,
$27 paper

Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: Sacred Doctrine and the Natural Knowledge of God
Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. '84
University of Notre Dame Press, $34.95

Genodermatoses: A Full-Color Clinical Guide to Genetic
Skin Disorders
Joel L. Spitz '84
Williams & Wilkins, $89.95

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (novel)
Stephanie Barron '85
Bantam Books, $19.95