Stranger in My Own Coun­try: A Jew­ish Fam­i­ly in Mod­ern Germany

Yascha Mounk
  • Review
By – January 10, 2014

The revival of Jew­ish life in Ger­many may per­haps be one of the most remark­able occur­rences in the post-World-War-II Jew­ish world — out­side of the found­ing of Israel. The Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in con­tem­po­rary Ger­many is the third largest in Europe and, fed by post-Sovi­et immi­gra­tion, one of the fastest grow­ing Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions in the world. It has not been an unmixed bless­ing. Yascha Mounk uses his expe­ri­ences grow­ing up in Ger­many to pro­vide a unique insider’s look at the often fraught sta­tus of the Jews who live there. Despite employ­ing a mem­oir-like title, Mounk pro­vides less of a fam­i­ly mem­oir than a provoca­tive account of the chang­ing nature of the posi­tion of the Jews: both the remain­ders of the Holo­caust who man­aged to sur­vive and decid­ed to remain in Ger­many and those who have, espe­cial­ly since the reuni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many, migrat­ed there.

Born in 1982, the son of an émi­gré woman from Poland who migrat­ed with her par­ents in 1969 after they were allowed to leave fol­low­ing the purge of Jews from posi­tions in the Com­mu­nist appa­ra­tus, Mounk grew up in var­i­ous small cities in Ger­many. There, the young Yascha was sub­ject­ed to a vari­ety of treat­ment, from bla­tant Jew-bait­ing by fel­low stu­dents to — what for him is the more insid­i­ous behav­ior — the often-awk­ward phi­lo-Semi­tism that many Ger­mans adopt­ed in the 1980s, and, in more recent years, the more veiled forms of anti-Semi­tism (includ­ing anti-Israel agi­ta­tion) express­ing a desire of many Ger­mans to put an end to Holo­caust guilt— described some­what awk­ward­ly as putting a fin­ish line” under the past.

For Mounk, the shift­ing atti­tude of the larg­er Ger­man pop­u­la­tion toward post-war and post-uni­fi­ca­tion Jews reflects the strug­gle of the pop­u­lace with the lega­cy of the Holo­caust. This strug­gle played itself out in treat­ing Jews as if they weren’t there, smoth­er­ing them with a phi­lo-Semit­ic embrace, and wish­ing they would fade into the back­ground or worse: express­ing alter­na­tive­ly feel­ings of denial, accep­tance, and final­ly impa­tience with the lega­cy of the past. The cumu­la­tive effect of his expe­ri­ence, Mounk relates, was to make him feel an alien in the coun­try of his birth. No mat­ter that he was born in Ger­many and spoke Ger­man as his native lan­guage, he nev­er felt that he was regard­ed by his Ger­man peers and elders as tru­ly German.

Now a Ph.D. can­di­date in polit­i­cal thought at Har­vard, Mounk has worked as a polit­i­cal jour­nal­ist, blog­ger, and edi­tor, and writes with self-assur­ance and com­mand of the his­tor­i­cal record. He quotes amply from con­tem­po­rary Ger­man media and lit­er­a­ture to sub­stan­ti­ate his analy­sis. The final irony for him is that although born to a Jew­ish moth­er (he says lit­tle about his father), he was raised with­out much con­nec­tion to a Jew­ish her­itage but nonethe­less was remind­ed in Ger­many of his iden­ti­ty at every turn. It is only in New York, the city with the largest Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, that he can actu­al­ly escape from that iden­ti­ty. Mounk’s account, one of the first on this sub­ject addressed to a gen­er­al Eng­lish-speak­ing read­er­ship, is an intrigu­ing and some­times dis­turb­ing glimpse into an aspect of Jew­ish life of which most Amer­i­can Jews may not be aware. Notes.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions