Fritz Stern was supposed to follow in the family calling of three generations and become a doctor in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). Events interceded. In 1932, when he was 6, his parents gave him a typewriter, and then next year Hitler came to power. Five years after, the family, who were Christians but of Jewish stock, fled for America. The boy had by then become the family’s secretary and was hoarding pieces of writing that interested him, down to scraps of newspaper. He grew up to be a historian, publishing several important volumes about German and Jewish history, of which this beautifully-written memoir is the most soulful. In a sense Stern never abandoned the family profession: at 80, he is trying to heal himself and heal Germany—and even heal the Jews.

Stern loves Germany, and his memoir is best understood as a demonstration that all societies are vulnerable to the evil forces that swept that land in the ’30s and ’40s. His epiphany came on a trip he made back to Germany in 1954, to attend a tenth-year memorial service for the July plot by German officers to kill Hitler, a plot that led instead to the torture and execution of the brave conspirators. “As I looked at the people in the courtyard—old, distinguished, and sadly proud, dressed in mourning, faces hardened and humbled by suffering—I felt a sense of shame for my indiscriminate hatred of Germans,” he writes. The accumulation of such moments forced Stern at a late age to overcome his natural reluctance to write about himself. He understands what an unusual life he has had and how instructive it can be.

The first of Stern’s five Germanys was the Weimar Republic. He was born in 1926 into the assimilated Jewish elite. Jews had risen to new prominence in “most realms of public life,” but that did not keep them from “self-criticism,” sometimes joking, sometimes “harsh.” Religion tended to be a private matter, but everyone knew who was what.

His grandparents had converted to Christianity, yet the family never abandoned its Jewish identity, its sense of an elite intellectual inheritance. The complexity of the situation can be seen in the case of Stern’s godfather, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber, a friend of Zionist Chaim Weizmann and the inventor of a poison gas that was later used by the Nazis. Haber was a convert. But he was somehow able “to fuse a nominal Christian identity with a kind of civic religion, Germanness, and a private Jewish identity…”

Private became public with the Third Reich. For years the Stern family bargained that the nationalistic nonsense about Aryans would not last, even as the civil service was purged by the 1935 Nuremberg laws and Jewish doctors were stripped of public duties (to the satisfaction of many German doctors, who couldn’t compete).

Young Stern knew now that he was Jewish. He attended a gymnasium at which math problems were framed in terms of, “If three Jews rob a bank…” and on a family outing he read a piece of doggerel on a sign outside a village: “Trust not the fox on the green heath, and not the Jew when he gives his oath.”

Eight decades later, the author asks, “Why does this piece of filthy trash remain in my head?” The answer is obvious: this was living history.

Most of my classmates were in the Hitler Youth, and on special days (the Fuhrer’s birthday, for example) they would appear in their uniforms. Even without them, their pride in things German and Nazi and their joy in communal belonging were tangible. At times I was a target of verbal and, in the schoolyard, physical assault … . I have forgotten, or perhaps repressed, much of the unpleasantness, probably because it was so minor compared with the horrors visited later on others, but I do remember the indoctrinations, the celebratory assemblies, the Heil Hitlers that I neither could nor would say, the hateful songs, the party sermons …

In 1938, the Stern family escaped, and Stern’s father relaunched his medical practice in New York, though it seems that young Fritz held the family together. At 12, he was composing the correspondence for his shell-shocked family, reading Thucydides, and going to a Hoboken pier to greet other refugees. How many other boys would have spotted Thomas Mann and his brother in the crowd?

Portraiture became Stern’s strong suit. He made his name with a study of three early German nationalists and anti-Semites and solidified it with a study of Gerson Bleichroder, a Jewish banker who advised Bismarck. For nearly 50 years, Stern was a professor at Columbia University. In that time, he gained access to many a powerful chamber and, happily, this book includes some reports.

There is Henry Kissinger, who would have been a high-school teacher in Furth, he tells Stern, were it not for Hitler. When Stern criticizes Nixon, the secretary of state responds, “Don’t forget, he is not my president,” a reminder that he had supported Rockefeller. “What sublime disloyalty!” Stern comments.

When he meets Pope John Paul II, Stern tells him that Asian-Americans have taken the place of American Jews in schools. The pope says, “Yes, but they still control the media and finance.” (Stern says, “I was stunned.”)

Leading Jews from Einstein to Weizmann also make appearances. The historian Isaiah Berlin refuses to shake Menachem Begin’s hand, for he remembers the Jewish terrorism of the 1940s. The Zionist Nahum Goldmann comes to Germany to negotiate reparations and says that Jews are “a people one can admire but one cannot love. They are wonderful when they are persecuted. They are impossible when they have it good.”
As the author returns to Germany again and again, the reader sees that he is German at the core. In a book that involves identity, what does core mean? The feeling arises from Stern’s story that he is made by the German language and longs for the sensibilities that German words are able to pluck. Those words come in and out of the book. Schmokern, the love of light reading. Schlicht, a kind of simple, unostentatious elegance. Lebenluge, a lie on which a life is based. Wissenschaft, the body of documented knowledge. Nietzsche and Goethe are frequently cited and so is the idea that is central to Stern’s sense of himself: Bildung, the “goal of self-formation and education that sprang in part from knowing and exulting in the great works of culture …”

OK, then: explain Nazism. “Never before had a modern, educated, proudly civilized class so readily abandoned, betrayed, and traduced the most basic rights of citizens. Why? Fear? Willing acquiescence and complicity? Indifference? The questions haunt us still.” Stern’s best answer is that the religious and nationalist appeals that carried away a fearful and humiliated people can carry away other high-minded cultures. For all states struggle with “illiberal” forces and periods of “exaltation.” (As do rival administrators at Columbia: “If they had nuclear weapons, I thought, they would use them.”)

I can only hope that Stern’s comments about Israel get publicity. They are so understated yet backed by such intimate knowledge of anti-Semitism and the Zionist brain trust that no one can write them off. The last of the 20th-century utopias is now endangered by “self-betrayal,” militarism and nationalism. Israelis are incapable of accepting criticism from foreigners. Indeed the Holocaust seems to have hardened them in their contempt for critics. But Stern has studied the “harsh truths” of Israel’s 1948 war for independence and is perplexed by the public denial of evidence that Zionists forced a flood of Arabs from the land—“a pertinent question, especially for those of us concerned about ‘forgetting.’” Unlike so many other prominent Americans who have been to Israel and simply marveled at the society, Stern has also visited the West Bank and is grieved by the occupation. Palestinian refugees “had been made to suffer for the crimes of omission and commission that the Europeans had committed against the Jews.”

I wish he had brought these lessons home. The chief fault of this book is Stern’s resistance to taking on the historian’s “metaphysical fluency and … arrogance” (intellectual qualities he praises in Hannah Arendt) when it comes to Jewish history in the United States. He does not apply to the American scene his knowledge of Bleichroder’s presence at Bismarck’s side or of the German nationalists’ fury toward modernity. This reader kept waiting for Stern’s opinion on such issues as: How powerful are Jews in America? How does their role in the economy and the professions compare to Weimar? The obvious question is of course whether our society is capable of seeking the extermination of Jews, but just as interesting is whether the Jewish role in the American establishment has hampered our ability to relate to the Arab world. As it is, the neoconservatives are only glimpsed here, for instance in a crack about how much money Richard Perle has made.
I found one lesson between the lines. In 1954 Stern is traveling on a boat back to Germany when he hears the news of the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The reader exults with him: a great blot was removed from his adopted society, and Stern was able to bring out to Europe a demonstration of the noble American experiment. That was a very long time ago.

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Philip Weiss is at work on a book about Jewish issues. He writes a blog for the New York Observer, Mondoweiss.