Lev Raphael, My Germany
A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped
reviewed by Danielle L. Parker
Publisher: Terrace Books, 2009
Length: 210 pages
I suppose I read Lev Raphael’s My Germany hoping for answers to questions I’d never really formulated for myself. When I was a teenager, I went through a brief period when I was intensely interested in my own family history and ancestry, as well as the world and its peoples. I wanted to travel the world; I wanted to learn a dozen foreign languages. I wanted to see Europe and Israel and Greece; I was fascinated by Venezuela and Argentina, and thought about emigration to Australia just to have time to explore that ancient continent. I wanted to live in England and visit its historic sites (as well as its bookstores and tweedy clothing shops).
I had passionate intellectual arguments, as much as a teenager’s naive formulations can be intellectual, that is, with my parents. My mother, an even-tempered and understanding soul, was amused, but I had some satisfying knock-down door-slamming rows with my father, who was old-fashioned and firmly of the belief the man ruled his household, and should not be questioned by the female gender, or by the younger generation, either. (Though Dad was modern enough to not only expect my mother to work, but to do the dinner and the dishes after she came home, while he read his paper in his recliner. He was known in the house as Mr. Chair).
All those memories came back to me when I read Lev Raphael’s My Germany. The difficulties we have with our parents, the love and the frustration they evoke in us; the family stories we want to know that are withheld, for whatever reasons, from the children. Mr. Raphael’s parents were Holocaust survivors. They passed on a horror of anything Germanic to their son without ever really divulging their own personal experiences. Perhaps the past was too painful to talk about. Perhaps they belonged to a generation that suffered its traumas in silence. Perhaps there were secrets they did not wish to divulge.
Like me, Mr. Raphael was left with no more than tantalizing details. The reasons for my own buried family history were hinted at, but not fully explained, too. My parents were well-adjusted, unlike Mr. Raphael’s, but they knew little. My paternal grandfather was half German and half Choctaw Indian, and his wife, an Englishwoman, did her utter best to bury his family history. She was ashamed, when World War II came around, that she had married an ethnic German, who had in turn (worse yet! horror!) a full-blooded Choctaw Indian for a mother. So she pretended her husband was of Scottish extraction, and as for the “squaw,” well, no one referred to her (other than my father, who liked his mischievous tease of a hook-nosed grandmother).
My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, buried her past because her own father disowned her. As a young teenager she converted and became a life-long devout member of the Assembly of God. She was known, as an adult, as the first person her neighbors called when they needed serious help (including giving birth and caring for the sick: she was a midwife and, later in life, a licensed practical nurse). Whatever her family’s religious affiliation (I have no clue what that was, and neither did my mother), that conversion was a sin her father never forgave. So far as I know, they never spoke again.
Mr. Raphael’s parents, too, had problems with their heritage. Mr. Raphael grew up uncomfortable with his Jewish ancestry. His parents were so fearful of being “outed” as Jews they refused to have their sons circumcised. When Mr. Raphael finally attended Shabbat services, he was as at sea as I was the first time I attended a Catholic mass.
But in college, as many of us do, he began to explore his independent identity, including his Jewish heritage. The religious rituals that had seemed so unnatural to him became comfortable. He flirted with the Orthodox persuasion, but in the end settled for a more middle-of-the-road observance, one that could accommodate his dual identity as a Jewish gay man.
The first half of this book, where Mr. Raphael explores his family history in the context of broader historical events, as well as his relationship with his parents, works beautifully. But when the story segues into Mr. Raphael’s visits to Germany, we have difficulties. Mr. Raphael has become a successful writer known for his works on the Holocaust. He undertakes several book tours to Germany, and comes face-to-face with the nightmares in his mother’s closet, in the form of real walking, talking Germans.
And lo and behold, he likes them. He likes Germany. He feels at home there. He relates to the younger generation of Germans who are, like himself, dealing with the trauma of their parental legacies. He realizes it might be more traumatic to be son of a Nazi SS guard than of a concentration camp survivor. He finds Germans intelligent, friendly, and eager to hear his stories. The story ends in a feel-good “this is where I let go of my hate and my ancestral trauma” arc. On with life! Mr. Raphael can even bring himself to use his Krups coffee maker without shame.
It may be enough for Mr. Raphael to let go of his personal past, to move on to writing stories that have nothing to do with the Holocaust, to accept the new generation of Germans as people he can treat as he would any other ethnic nationality. But his discreetly managed, well-shepherded book tours are a shallow exposure that fails to convince this reader he really knows what he’s talking about.
And the reader can’t find satisfaction in Mr. Raphael’s release from the past, because it leaves too much unexplained. Why did the Germans do what they did? Are they different from other races, or is the evil they showed the world one that all can potentially descend to? How is the new generation of Germans truly different from their ancestors? Is there something about their culture that produces future SS camp guards? Would the new Germans do the same thing, in the same time and place? What can be done to prevent such events happening again? Should such deeds ever be forgiven and forgotten? What harm does it do to us and our children, if we can’t?
The book ends with a difficult reading given by the author in an American Jewish heritage center. His audience is openly hostile. While the author feels it’s simply his hecklers have not moved past their ancestral traumas, as he has, I think it’s more than that. One can’t move on without understanding. Mr. Raphael never attempts to understand the why and how of that defining conflict of the twentieth century, at least in this book.
Perhaps no one can provide those answers. But without the attempt, Mr. Raphael’s book is lacking. I can understand why his fellow Jews heckled him. Personal redemption from the past is enough for Mr. Raphael. More power to him for that. But until those questions, those possibly forever unanswerable questions, are at last addressed, it won’t be enough for many others. I wish Mr. Raphael had tried, eternally futile as such an effort might be. This would have been a greater book.
Copyright © 2012 by Danielle L. Parker