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My German Question

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In this poignant book, a renowned historian tells of his youth as an assimilated, anti-religious Jew in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939--"the story," says Peter Gay, "of a poisoning and how I dealt with it." With his customary eloquence and analytic acumen, Gay describes his family, the life they led, and the reasons they did not emigrate sooner, and he explores his own ambivalent feelings--then and now--toward Germany and the Germans. Gay relates that the early years of the Nazi regime were relatively benign for his family: as a schoolboy at the Goethe Gymnasium he experienced no ridicule or attacks, his father's business prospered, and most of the family's non-Jewish friends remained supportive. He devised survival strategies--stamp collecting, watching soccer, and the like--that served as screens to block out the increasingly oppressive world around him. Even before the events of 1938--39, culminating in Kristallnacht, the family was convinced that they must leave the country. Gay describes the bravery and ingenuity of his father in working out this difficult emigration process, the courage of the non-Jewish friends who helped his family during their last bitter months in Germany, and the family's mounting panic as they witnessed the indifference of other countries to their plight and that of others like themselves. Gay's account--marked by candor, modesty, and insight--adds an important and curiously neglected perspective to the history of German Jewry.
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About the Author

Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and director of the Center for Scholars and Writers, New York Public Library. He is the author of many books, including the five-volume The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud; Freud: A Life for Our Time; A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis; Voltaire's Politics; and Reading Freud, the last three published by Yale University Press.


Gay's many books include an insightful study of Weimar Germany and an acclaimed biography of Sigmund Freud (Freud: A Life for Our Times, LJ 7/88). His family was fortunate to emigrate from Germany to America shortly after the 1938 Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass" when Nazi-sponsored riots destroyed synagogues and Jewish stores. But Gay (Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale) takes issue with the suggestion that German Jews should have fled when Hitler came to power in 1933. He points out that Germany had a tradition of being among the most civilized nations in the world. The Gays themselves were liberal and assimilated, the father a decorated World War I veteran. But the impulse to live with their American relatives grew ever stronger as the Nazi stranglehold increased. The Gays endeavored to live a normal life: the author writes touchingly, for instance, about a passion for stamp collecting he shared with his father that provided some solace and orderly refuge. This thought-provoking, accessible memoir is recommended for most libraries.‘Paul M. Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., IL

Gay is best known for his painstakingly researched series on the Enlightenment and, more recently, on The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. In this memoir of his early life, particularly of the years between Hitler's chancellorship in 1933 and Gay's eventual escape in 1939, one can almost see the evolution of his obsessive concentration in the intense devotion to stamp collecting and sports that helped him block out the increasing din of Nazi racism. But this is not only a memoir, it's also a fierce reply to those who criticized German-Jewish assimilation and the tardiness of many families in leaving Germany. "We were not so stupid, not so deluded, certainly not so treacherous as we have been judged to be." In responding to these often facile charges, Gay is defending his beloved father, who through persistence and risky subterfuges managed to get his son and consumptive wife out of the country. In one episode, he recalls his father desperately doctoring a family certificate: "I can still see him at work committing this crime: using a straight razor, he gently scratched away at the ink, with St. Louis and May 13 growing paler and paler." This smart, funny, personable and resourceful man never adapted to his new life and died prematurely in 1955. Gay does not apologize for his father or other German-Jews, but rather offers an explanation of the mixed signals and the difficulty of escape. Or if it's an apology, it is, as he says "an unapologetic apology." (Oct.)

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