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Yascha Mounk, courtesy of his website

I just read an opinion piece entitled, “German, Jewish and Neither,” by a young German man named Yascha Mounk. And it left me reeling.

He and his mother were the only Jews in Laupheim, the small town in southern Germany where he grew up [he was born in 1982]. In his essay, which appeared in the New York Times this weekend, he included two short anecdotes that left me gasping. That both of them occurred in the past two decades is what made me feel like the recipient of a sucker punch. The first one took place in 1992 when Mr. Mounk had just started the fifth grade. His teacher, Herr Weiss, was going down the class list asking students if they were Protestant or Catholic, so he would know which religion class to send them to. Here’s how he describes it in the article:

“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.”

Herr Weiss’s afterthought was like a knife in the back. And the “Again” at the end was the final twist to make sure the knife was in good and tight. Then there was the second anecdote, which was more outwardly offensive, but no less insidious.

This incident occurred when Mr. Mounk was a young adult. Although I’m not sure exactly how recently, it seems to have been in the past decade or so. Here it is:

Once again, Germany’s changed understanding of its past manifested itself in ordinary interactions. One Saturday morning, for example, I went to Munich’s Oktoberfest with a group of acquaintances. A jolly brass band in lederhosen was playing. We clinked our mugs in a traditional Bavarian toast.

Stephanie, a petite woman in her late 30s, was trying to make a joke. “How do you fit 200 Jews into a Volkswagen Beetle?” she asked.

“Knock it off,” said Hans, a big-boned, folksy friend of mine. “This is not appropriate.”

“Why should I?” Stephanie shot back. “Because you tell me to shut up? Because they tell me to shut up? Come on, it’s just a joke!”

“I doubt it’ll be funny,” Hans said.

“Not funny? Have a sense of humor! Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny? It’s 2006. The Holocaust happened 60 years ago. We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”

“Look,” Hans said, “you know as well as I do that Germans have a special responsibility to be sensi — ”

“A special responsibility? I’m not even 40! No, no. I won’t stay silent any longer. Here’s how you fit them in. You gas them. You incinerate them. You stuff them in the ashtray. That’s how you do it.”

There was that word “again” again. Read the third paragraph from the bottom of the anecdote and you’ll see it. The line reads, “We should tell jokes about the Jews again!”

What the f*ck!?!?! It will always be too soon to tell jokes about the Jews. Especially Holocaust jokes. Who in their right mind could think a Holocaust joke is in any way humorous? Just cut it out you ignorant joke-telling people. Those jokes are far from funny. They reveal your inability to be a member of the civilized world.  Those jokes should never see a reprisal. They are most definitely never “again” and always too soon.

I’m thinking about writing to Mr. Mounk (who wrote, “Stranger In My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” which comes out on Tuesday, January 7, 2014) and finding out how he handled the aftermath of the joke. I couldn’t tell from the article whether or not he responded to her. I know that I would have railed into her. Oh, would I have let her have it. Wonder what calm, cool and collected response I could use in a situation like that. Something just witty and smart enough to make the person feel stupid and confused at the same time. Any suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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Puhleeze.

Doctors in Germany are sorry. So very, very sorry. Except their apology (if you can call it that) is six decades too late.

According to an MSNBC editorial by Art Caplan, PhD, “The German Medical Association has issued a remarkably blunt and straightforward apology, more than six decades after the end of World War II, for the role it played during the Holocaust in the mass murder, sterilization and barbaric medical experiments done on Jews and many other groups.”

“The declaration says that contrary to popular belief doctors were not forced by political authorities to kill and experiment on prisoners but rather engaged in the Holocaust as leaders and enthusiastic Nazi supporters,” writes Caplan, adding that this statement was “unanimously adopted by the delegates of the Physician’s Congress.”

Pardon my acronym but WTF? And seriously, did it take them 60+ years to craft that statement?

And now I have a cyber-commenter-crush on someone named Eric C who responded to the news with this:

I feel no satisfaction from this apology of the German Physicians Congress. An apology issued for acts committed by others is just so much moral preening. This apology is akin to the congressional apologies for slavery and abuse of native Americans issued in 2009. They are jejune blatherings, a corruption of language. It would have been better for these German doctors to simply condemn their predecessors, rather than to strut through this mummery of apologizing for them.”

Amen Eric C., you took the words I didn’t have right out of my mouth. Thanks for so eloquently stating exactly how I feel.

Jenna Blum's novel, "Those Who Save Us"

I just finished Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, a novel that toggles between one woman’s shameful past in Nazi Germany and her daughter’s attempt to uncover the truth in present-day Minnesota. I’m impressed by how real it feels, especially as a novel about the Holocaust.

Apparently it was her first book, which impresses me even more. Curious about why she wrote it as fiction and wondering if it was based on personal family history, I checked out her site. I soon discovered I wasn’t the only reader who wanted to know the book’s back story. She explains:

“Readers assume Those Who Save Us is autobiographical—they often look surprised when they meet me and see I’m not an eighty-something German woman or embittered fifty-something German history professor. I take it as the highest compliment when my readers think my characters and their situations must be real. But in fact, I invented their stories.”

Wow. I knew it was fiction but assumed it was founded on some semblance of fact. I often wonder why people choose to write novels about the Holocaust when the real-life stories are endless and endlessly fascinating.

Like me, Ms. Blum is interested in the enduring impact of the Holocaust some 65+ years later. I got excited about how well she was able to impress upon the reader the transfer of trauma from one generation to the next, both through her main characters and even some peripheral ones like a man who witnessed the murder of his mother and younger brother at the hands of a Nazi. He spent the remainder of his life haunted by the fact that he did nothing to help save them.

As I read more about Ms. Blum, I noticed other similarities between us. She was introduced to the Holocaust at the age of five through a book called, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. My interest began at a young age too, when I met and spoke with real Holocaust survivors at my synagogue. We grew up in neighboring New Jersey towns during the 1970s and 1980s (am pretty sure we’re the exact same age, too) and although both intrigued by the Holocaust and its effects on subsequent generations, we’re both only tangentially connected to it. Haven’t gotten around to it but am thinking of contacting her and inviting her to lunch or coffee or some such if she lives in the tri-state area.

Anyway, if you like a page-turner and are as interested in character-driven Holocaust stories, you should consider picking up this book. It’s a fast read and it’s really well done. Let me know what you think of it too!