‘My Father, the Germans and I’ by Jurek Becker: An Excerpt

Jurek Becker (1937–1997) is best known for his novel Jacob the Liar, which follows the life of a man, who, like Becker, lived in the Lódz ghetto during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War. Throughout his career, Becker also wrote nonfiction, and the essays, lectures and interviews collected in My Father, the Germans and I share a common thread in that they each speak to Becker’s interactions with and opinions on the social, political and cultural conditions of twentieth-century Germany.

Edited by Christine Becker

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An Excerpt: My Way of Being a Jew

IN THE PAST, WHENEVER SOMEONE WOULD ASK ME ABOUT MY PARENTAGE and background, I would answer: "My parents were Jews." I used this sentence like a proven formula, one that gives information of unsurpassable clarity. When the asker occasionally confirmed my statement with his own:

"Then you are a Jew," I would repeat my formula: "My parents were Jews." The distinction seemed somehow important to me, although I had never made it a topic for discussion; indeed, it had never even been the subject of thoughts that deserved to be discussed.

Moreover, I cannot ignore the effects that being born into a Jewish family had on my early life. When I was two years old, my parents and I lived in the ghetto in Lodz, which shortly before had been renamed Litzmannstadt. After that, followed periods in the concentration camps at Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. When the war was over, my family-up to then a veritable tribe, I am told-had been reduced to three survivors: my father, an aunt whom I cannot remember because right after the Germans marched in she was able to flee Poland, perhaps to America, and I was the third.

My father, who was in a different camp than I at the end of the war, searched for and found me with the help of an American relief organization. All of my clear and recollectable memories start from this point. I was already seven, nearly eight years old.

I know that other people have childhood memories that reach back much farther than mine. And because I was not satisfied just to know that life takes one path for most people and another path for me, or that something was not functioning right in my brain, I spent a lot of time trying to find the reason for this difference. My success was modest; nevertheless, 1. must consider the result correct, as long as no one gives me a more plausible explanation. This is how I figure it.

First of all, the unusually late start of my memories must have something to do with repression. A protective mechanism, the presence of which is certainly a blessing, could separate me from a painful period and thus protect me from it. Second, I cannot believe that there is much to remember. The days in a concentration camp pass in gray uneventfulness, interrupted by incidents that could be disturbing only to adults-because they alone saw life being threatened at every turn. For children, the days were bleak and indistinguishable from one another. Third, and finally, I suppose that what I was leading at that time can hardly be called "life"; it deserved only the term "existence." It was a state of dullness and stupor, in which life functions were reduced to a minimum, in which every action was designed solely as a means of survival. There was no room for observation, curiosity, or intellectual meditation. It is likely that everything that took place was of such a nature that the person I was at the time did not consider it worth remembering. These three circumstances-so runs my ultimate conclusion-obliterated from my memory the period of time prior to our release, not so completely, to be sure, that one could say nothing whatever remained, but so thoroughly that the little bit left over could hardly be called memory.

After the war, my father stayed in Berlin with me, again for reasons I can only guess at. For he never wanted to discuss it with me. Not that he was like someone who does not want to reveal a secret; he was more like someone who avoids a question because he does not know the answer himself. I think he had lost his home in the war, to the extent that a home consists primarily of people and not landscapes: of relatives, friends, confidants. They were no longer there, they were dead; the luckiest had disappeared without a trace. So my father proceeded from the premise that if a man feels drawn to no place in particular, he will feel most comfortable staying right where he is.

He alluded to but one of his reasons for staying there, and then only occasionally and indirectly; yet it was enough that I was later able to make sense out of it. He believed that in his old environment, in Poland, antiSemitism did not appear for the first time when the Germans marched in. And the fewer the number of Jews living there, the greater the chance that people would try to make life difficult for them. Once he said: "In the end it is not the Polish anti-Semites who have lost the war." He hoped that the discrimination against the Jews would be most completely done away with in the place where it had taken on its most horrifying expression. And when he died in 1972, he was happily convinced that he had not been wrong on at least this point. He once said: '''If anti-Semitism did not exist-do you think I would have felt like a Jew for a single second?"

At any rate, there I was in Berlin without knowing a word of German.

The fact that I did not begin learning German until the age of eight may explain the rather reverent nature of my relationship to this language. Just as other children my age were interested in ladybugs or racing cars, examining them from all angles, I examined words and sentences, turning them over and over. In an intense preoccupation with language I saw the only means of escape-escape from the ridicule and prejudice resulting from my being the only eight-year-old anywhere around who could not speak properly. And I still believe today that there was certainly no other way for me.