German, Jewish and Neither

Laupheim, a small town in southern Germany, once boasted a large Jewish community and named a prominent street after one of its Jewish sons: Carl Laemmle, who went on to found Universal Studios. But all of that changed in the 1930s. By 1992, when I started fifth grade, Laemmle’s name had long since been removed from the map, and my mother and I were the only Jews in town.

“Allsbach, Lisa,” the teacher asked at the beginning of our first class. “Protestant or Catholic?”

“What?”

“I have to sign you up for either Catholic or Protestant religion classes. So, Lisa?”

“Catholic.”

“Good. Bach, Klaus?”

“Protestant.”

“Emmerle, Johannes?”

The list went on. Soon, I realized, Herr Weiss would get to M. And I still didn’t know what to say — in part out of an instinctive understanding that I would be marked out; in part because, not being religious, really, I didn’t know the right answer.

“Mounk, Yascha. Protestant or Catholic?”

“Well, I guess I’m sort of Jewish.”

The class laughed. Uproariously.

“Stop making things up,” Johannes Emmerle, a Protestant, shouted as the hilarity ebbed. “Everybody knows that the Jews don’t exist anymore!”

Herr Weiss reprimanded Johannes. “Don’t talk unless I call on you. We must have order. O.K., Yascha. You’ll have a free period when the others take religion. There’s a Turk in another class, I think. You two can keep each other company.”

Then he added, as an afterthought: “And, Johannes, you are wrong, as a matter of fact. There are a few Jews. Again.”

Johannes wasn’t too far off the mark. Of the more than 500,000 Jews who lived in Germany when Hitler took power in 1933, only about 15,000 remained on German territory at war’s end, and many of them planned to emigrate. German Jews, it seemed, would soon be extinct.

But that extinction never came to pass. Some Jews who had fled the Third Reich returned to build a new, better society. Others, liberated from the concentration camps but without a home to return to, temporarily settled in camps for “displaced persons.” Most of them soon made their way to Israel or the United States, but some got stuck for one reason or another, and never left. As West Germany rapidly grew, more Jews came to the country as businessmen, artists or refugees — especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, when tens of thousands were encouraged to relocate. All told, well over 100,000 Jews now live in the Federal Republic.

My family, too, came to West Germany as immigrants. Born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, my grandparents embraced Communism as teenagers, leaving home to become political activists. They survived the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union and returned to Poland after the war, keen to put their ideals into practice at long last. But then the regime they had helped to build threw them out amid a large-scale anti-Semitic witch hunt. Out of options, my mother and her father sought refuge in West Germany.

Born in 1982 as the citizen of a peaceful, affluent and increasingly cosmopolitan country, I spent a mostly happy childhood in places like Munich, Freiburg and Karlsruhe. I was a fervent supporter of the national soccer team and dreamed of running for the Bundestag. German is, and will remain, the only language I speak without an accent.

My family’s Jewish identity has never been strong. I had neither a bris nor a bar mitzvah. When I was young, my mother gave me Christmas presents so that I wouldn’t feel left out.

Even so, as I grew older, I felt more and more Jewish — and less and less German. Gradually, I concluded that staying in Germany was not for me.

The reaction of my classmates in Laupheim might suggest that ignorance or hatred — which have subsided since I was a child, but remain real problems — are why I left. But that’s not quite true. If there was one thing that made me feel I would never truly belong, it wasn’t hostility: It was benevolence.