By MARILYN HENRY
(May 19) - Mike Blumenthal escaped the Nazis to soar to the summit of US economic life. Jews aren't smarter than anyone else, he says, but history has honed their will to survive. His new book tells of German Jews' 'unrequited love affair' with Germany
With $65 in his pocket, Mike Blumenthal arrived in California in 1947, a German-born survivor of the Nazis and the Shanghai ghetto. In the decades that followed he didn't look back.
W. Michael Blumenthal went on to a distinguished career as an Ivy League economist, a corporate executive, an American trade negotiator and, as President Jimmy Carter's secretary of the Treasury, the man whose signature appeared on dollar bills.
"When I came to this country the last thing I wanted to do was delve into the past," he said in an interview in his office in Princeton, New Jersey. But a half-century later he began to look around, and back.
"There are a lot of people in this country whose backgrounds are not too dissimilar from my own," Blumenthal said, mentioning his friend Henry Kissinger, a refugee who went on to become secretary of state. "You look at them and see what they have done in this country, and you ask yourself: What is the wellspring of their psychology, mentality, energy - and my own?"
Blumenthal's digging for that wellspring led him, at 72, to a fount of Judaica. He recently completed a book, part-history, part-memoir, of three centuries of Jewish life in Germany, and also was named director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In addition, his name is often mentioned as the possible chairman of a US presidential commission on Nazi-looted assets, which is expected to be formed in the next few months.
"I don't think Jews are any smarter than anyone else, but I think their experience over the centuries has done something to their determination to survive," Blumenthal said. He linked this to what he calls the "unrequited love affair of Germany's Jews with their native country," the 300-year saga he tells in The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews - A Personal Exploration.
THE BOOK, which is to be published in the US this month by Counterpoint, treats the Jewish-German experience as a circle, told through the stories of six members of Blumenthal's family tree.
Beginning the circle of three centuries was Jost Liebmann (1640-1702), an outcast itinerant peddler who became court jeweler to the Brandenburg nobility and one of Berlin's richest men.
Rahel Varnhagen von Ense (1771-1833) presided over a Berlin salon that won favor with Prussia's intellectual elites. But she often lamented that her birth as a Jew was her greatest curse, and was baptized as part of her constant striving to be accepted in the Christian world. In this, Blumenthal writes, she failed.
"Like a soldier, she climbed the Gentile world's invisible walls, only to be stopped short of her goal every time."
A composer of Grand Opera, Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) remained a devout Jew, but he also wanted desperately to be seen as a great German, and relentlessly strove for recognition.
Louis Blumenthal (1818-1901), the author's great-grandfather, lived in the age of Bismarck. He was a middle-class Jew who was grateful for the civil rights granted to Jews in 1871. One of the first Jews elected to the Oranienburg town council, he was the Kaiser's loyal subject, and respected and approved of Prussian law and order.
Arthur Eloesser (1870-1938) was a scholar and literary critic in the heyday of Weimar, the intellectual "showpiece in a family of merchants and traders," Blumenthal wrote. He came from the generation of assimilated Jews who were Germany's "star pupils, eager to please."
For most of his life Eloesser knew little about Judaism. But he later studied Bible, became a Zionist and visited Palestine twice, feeling as if he had "come home. We Jews, especially we who were justified to consider ourselves quite assimilated, have in the face of so many strokes of misfortune, the one compensation - the happy insight that has enabled us to rediscover ourselves as Jews... to renew the long-buried roots of our history," he wrote.
Closing the circle was Ewald Blumenthal (1889-1990), the author's father. Once a soldier in the Kaiser's elite, he was awarded the Iron Cross. His was a thoroughly assimilated family.
An emphasis on Jewishness, Blumenthal wrote, was evidence of a "flawed assimilation - a not sufficiently complete Germanness."
BLUMENTHAL got his first exposure to Jewish religion and tradition only after the Nuremberg laws barred him from his German education and forced him to study at a special Jewish school. There he learned to light candles, sing Hebrew songs and celebrate the Sabbath. Once he was chosen to chant the blessings solo.
"I distinctly recall the mixture of embarrassment and bemusement with which the news of my triumph was received at home," he wrote.
While Eloesser was delighted with Palestine, for Blumenthal's parents living there was out of the question.
"'We are not Zionists,' they would say dismissively. 'We're Europeans, and don't belong in the Orient,' " Blumenthal wrote. "Sometimes my father would add - only half in jest - that he couldn't imagine living with 'nothing but Jews.'"
When his father was born, German Jewry stood at its heights, Blumenthal wrote. "A half-century later, he fled the country much as Jost had entered it three centuries earlier - an alien Jew without property or rights."
The family fled Germany on April 6, 1939, bound for the only place that would admit them, Shanghai. His refuge was not a "normal place," Blumenthal wrote, "but an eight-year waiting room."
Blumenthal's name has been bandied about as the head of an American presidential commission that will examine US policy on Nazi-looted assets. No decision has yet been made about the composition of the commission, which is being considered by the US Congress.
Blumenthal is grateful to the US and to Americans who "didn't ask who I was, but asked what I could do and let me develop my talents and lead my life the way I wanted to."
But he is not blind to the American past. In his book he wrote that the universal refusal to help German refugees remains one of the great tragedies and scandals of the time, and that the US was no exception.
The former cabinet official, who has vivid memories of Nazi brownshirts standing in front of his parents' shattered store in Berlin after Kristallnacht and its later expropriation by the authorities, also is an advocate of restitution.
"It is unacceptable to me that even at this late stage we would fail to focus on situations where countries or industries benefited in an obvious way from the Holocaust and did not make amends where they could," he said. However, he also acknowledges that restitution is complicated, and in some instances, "it is almost impossible to be fair to everybody."
This is an issue he has encountered, albeit in a small way, in the Berlin museum, which has had to reckon with silver menoras and other Judaica collected by the Nazis.
"Who gets them? Does a German museum exhibit them? Are they given to us, to a Jewish museum? Are they sold and the money used for some general welfare purpose?" Blumenthal said. "This is part of dealing with memory. I think it has to be resolved."
BLUMENTHAL's book appears two years after the publication of Daniel Goldhagen's popular Hitler's Willing Executioners, which theorizes a near-universal German propensity for "annihilationist" antisemitism.
The Invisible Wall was "not intended to be an answer to Goldhagen," Blumenthal said. Nonetheless, he challenges Goldhagen by saying that German-Jewish relations are not that simple. "It's a more nuanced picture," Blumenthal said.
He shifts easily and often in an interview from a discussion of his book to a discussion of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which he sees as having the same aims.
At the museum, Blumenthal replaced Amnon Barzel, the Israeli director who was fired last year after clashing with Berlin municipal officials over autonomy for the museum. It is scheduled to open next year.
"Hopefully, that is what this [Berlin] museum will do: show the whole history of the German-Jewish relationship, with its high points - it had some high points - and with its ultimate failure," he said. "I want people to understand what it was like to be a Jew in Germany, to be Jost Liebmann at the end of the 17th century, walking from one town to the other, a total outcast."
But he does not want to deny or mask what he called "the enormous strength and glory of these Jews who, against huge odds, accomplished great things." Blumenthal said. "I want people to understand the willpower, the energy, the determination not to give up, and to survive and succeed in this very hostile environment over a long period of time."
In addition to conveying the history of German Jewry, Blumenthal also hopes the museum will teach about the future.
"What is the memory of the Holocaust? How do you deal with it?" he asked. "Of course, you deal with it to grieve, but that is not enough. I want this museum to be a place where lessons are drawn about tolerance. "Hopefully they will draw the lessons of how to live with minorities - whether they are Turks in Germany or Vietnamese, or minorities of other religions, races, languages," he said.
"Because after all, in a global world, in the next century, this is going to be very common. Borders don't mean what they did anymore."
Although the vast percentage of Germans are one or two generations removed from the Holocaust, that heritage weighs very heavily on non-Jewish Germans and Jews living in Germany.
"The relationship is not yet normal," Blumenthal said. "Maybe that is not unnatural a half-century after such a traumatic and terrible event." He quickly noted one "unnatural aspect," however: "Each time I go there, I arrive in Germany as an American, and I leave there as a Jew, because nobody lets you forget." Some of that, of course, has to do with his new post as director of the Jewish museum.
But, "within the first 20, 30 minutes of any discussion - maybe about totally different things - somehow people let you know they know you are a Jew, sometimes in a nice and sophisticated way, a friendly way. They do it to show you how much they like Jews," he said.
"They don't look at me and say, 'This is Mike Blumenthal, an American.' They say, 'This is Mike Blumenthal, a Jew.'"
Although he now has a job in Berlin, Blumenthal has no interest in taking up permanent residence. "I left Germany as a child," he said. "Except for language, when it comes to the way Germans live their lives and the German mentality, it is quite foreign to me."