Message From Zachary Gomo, Head of Jewish Studies, April 2019

The Freedom to be Enslaved

As WWII ended, a new epoch began for humanity in general, and the Jewish people in particular. Nazism had attempted to eradicate all Jews from the face of the earth, succeeding in killing one third of their number and shattering the contemporary centre of Jewry in Europe. By 1945, Nazism was crushed and life had to continue in its shadow. Jews had to reconsider what it now meant to be Jewish and what a Jewish future look liked in this new reality.

For some Jews, amongst them many who had either fled Nazi persecution in their place of birth or indeed been amongst its most direct victims, the solution was clear. Following the end of the war, they decided to travel from places of relative safety and refuge, including North America, England and even Australia to a centre of conflict in order to create a new state. This state was to be a haven for Jews, free of persecution and discrimination, where a Jew could finally be an equal citizen. Most importantly, it was envisioned that this state would fulfil a historical process as distinct from that of Nazism as possible. A state for the victims and opponents of the Nazi evil.

That state was not the state of Israel. Not at all. For some Jews, many of whom had been socialists or communists before the war, the goal was the new country known as The German Democratic Republic (GDR), formed out of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany. Indeed, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Germany was divided into a Soviet zone and an Allied zone of occupation, administrated by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. In 1949 the allies gave Germans the reins of government in the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany) whilst in the same year the Soviets presented the newly formed GDR (or East Germany) as an independent socialist state.

The appeal of East Germany for opponents of Nazism was considerable. Whilst the Allies prosecuted some Nazis after WWII, in the context of the Cold War between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union, West Germany played an increasingly significant role. It was the front line and ensuring that West Germany was a strong and viable state became gradually more important than rooting out anyone with a Nazi past.

Former Nazis held significant positions of power in politics, the legal system and all elements of West German public life. As late as 1957, 77% of the senior leadership of West Germany’s Justice Ministry were former members of the Nazi party. This was actually a higher percentage than when Hitler was in power. Even a West German Chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger elected in 1966, had been a member of the Nazi party.

The country with the largest Jewish population after the war, the United States of America, whilst offering Jews unparalleled opportunities in some areas, still expressed deep seated Anti-Semitism. Universities frequently had quotas limiting Jewish enrolment. Prohibitions on Jews joining social clubs were a common phenomenon. The United States government even purposefully sought out Nazis who had skills in science, engineering and missile technology that would be useful to them in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. These included individuals with Jewish blood on their hands. They were provided with new identities and protection from prosecution (this was known as ‘Operation Paperclip’).

In the context of the Cold War, Jews were often suspected of being left-leaning and Communist sympathising. In 1953, husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of, and executed for, spying on the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. Whilst it is true that declassified Soviet documents have confirmed that the couple did indeed spy, there was a widespread sentiment that their harsh prosecution was a product of Anti-Semitism. Indeed, they were the only two American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War.

In contrast, Socialism and the Soviet bloc held much appeal for many Jews. The ideal of universal equality was seen by some as the remedy for the problems of discrimination and negative distinction.

There were few countries with as apparent an Anti-Nazi identity as East Germany. The country was led by Socialist opponents of Nazism, many of whom suffered greatly under, and indeed fought courageously against, Hitler. The East German purge of Nazis from political life, whilst not absolute, was far more wide spread than in West Germany and was promoted frequently in propaganda. East German national identity was predicated upon it being the ultimate Anti-Fascist country. At the time of the Rosenberg affair, East German trains even bore signs protesting the Anti-Semitism of the United States government.

For all of these reasons and more, a small number of German Jews decided to remain in East Germany, whilst others travelled from across the world to be part of the new hope they felt East Germany represented.

These Jews included some of the most prominent and influential members of East German life, in almost every field. They included Lin Jaldati, a Dutch born Holocaust survivor who was a renowned singer and performed throughout the world, predominantly in Yiddish. She was amongst the last people to see Anne Franke alive in Bergen-Belsen and after WWII settled in East Germany. Famed Austrian Jewish composer Haans Eisler fled Germany for the United States when his music was banned by the Nazis. During the Cold War, he was again forced to flee, this time from the United States of America due to accusations of being a Communist. He eventually settled in East Germany and even composed its national anthem.

Perhaps most prominent of all was Markus Wolf. Born in Germany, he too had to flee the Nazis, as his father was not only Jewish but a known Communist. They fled to the Soviet Union. After WWII, Wolf became one of the founders of the East German State Intelligence Service, known as the Stasi. He was its deputy leader for 34 years and the head of all foreign intelligence operations. According to Israeli intelligence expert Yossi Melman, “Wolf is considered to be one of the most talented, daring and brilliant intelligence operatives in the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War period. His character has been documented in dozens of books, documentary films and Hollywood-style action films.” Indeed, Wolf was known in Western intelligence circles as ‘the man without a face’ and an unparalleled spymaster.

The Stasi he helped run is remembered for being amongst the most oppressive and pervasive secret police agencies in history. Shockingly, according to Holocaust survivor and famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, “The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people. The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million… They not only terrorized their own people worse than the Gestapo, but the government was the most Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israeli in the entire Eastern Bloc. They did nothing to help the West in tracking down Nazi criminals; they ignored all requests from West German judicial authorities for assistance. We have just discovered shelves of files on Nazis stretching over four miles. Now we also know how the Stasi used those files. They blackmailed Nazi criminals who fled abroad after the war into spying for them. What’s more, the Stasi trained terrorists from all over the world.”

International recipients of Stasi aid and support included the armed forces of Idi Amin’s Uganda (host to the Entebbe hijackers), Syria and various Palestinian groups, including the perpetrators of the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes.  Furthermore, the Stasi frequently recruited Neo Nazis in West Germany to vandalize Jewish sites, in order to make West Germany appear more Anti-Semitic. All of this took place under the direct control of Markus Wolf, the man who had fled Nazi Anti-Semitic persecution.

East Germany ceased to exist in 1990. In 1996, Wolf actually visited Israel, claiming that he had always harboured a special feeling towards the Jewish State and suggesting that he had tried to protect it from the brunt of East German aggression, “I would not describe myself as a reborn Jew. This would be presumptuous and no one would believe it. But like many older people who are interested in where they come from, I am interested in my own roots.”

Internally, the Stasi helped maintain the East German state by operating the most extensive surveillance program of any country in history. When considering paid employees as well as part time and voluntary informants, the Stasi had one person surveying every 6.5 people in East Germany. Spouses spied on each other, children were recruited to spy on their parents. An enormous number of homes, workplaces, schools and institutions were bugged. It was the closest real life scenario to George Orwell’s dystopian vision in the novel 1984 yet.

According to German historian Hubertus Knabe, “…the Stasi often used a method which was really diabolic. It was called Zersetzung. The word is difficult to translate because it means originally “biodegradation.” But actually, it’s a quite accurate description. The goal was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships. Considering this, East Germany was a very modern dictatorship. The Stasi didn’t try to arrest every dissident. It preferred to paralyze them, and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and to so many institutions.”

Rather than publically oppress people, when possible the Stasi preferred to prevent people from criticising the regime by slowly destroying them. Speaking negatively about the government in one’s own home could be picked up by a hidden microphone or reported to the Stasi by one’s own relatives. This could lead to someone being fired from his or her job and being made destitute, eliminating them as a threat. There would be no trial, no arrest, and no opportunity for defence or plea for mercy.

Horrifically, the Stasi would often secretly enter a targets home and make the slightest of changes. Agents would move a piece of furniture, swap the flavour of tea in a jar or tighten a loose tap. This would make the person slowly lose their sanity, or, if they dared share their suspicions that someone had broken into their home in order to make such a miniscule change, make them appear insane to others.

Salomea Genin was born in Germany in 1932 and fled to Australia with her parents when the Nazis came to power. Angry at the Anti-Semitism and inequality she perceived in the West, Genin tried to immigrate to East Germany in 1954. However, she was denied entry. Even so, Genin ended up moving to West Germany and spying for the Stasi in order to prove her loyalty. After ten years of doing so, East Germany accepted Genin as a citizen. She ended up suffering from Anti-Semitism in East Germany too, eventually becoming completely disillusioned with the state that she had hoped would be a utopia. Genin found that in East Germany she was not free to live as a Jew, but also prohibited from not being one, “I tried to get rid of the Jewish identity to become German. And then, my world broke down when I realised I will never become German because I am different – whether I like it or not.” Anti-Semitism limited Genin’s ability to live a content life, however much she tried to escape from even identifying as Jewish.

Genin remained in Berlin after 1990 and in 2015 reflected on her past, saying, “The Anti-Semitism of the Nazis had taught me that I was Jewish vermin… In 1991, I went to Jerusalem for six months to find out what all this meant to me. There I had the same dream twice. I was trudging through the world with a heavy stone on my left shoulder, looking for a place to put it down. It was a well-honed heavy stone, beautifully smooth. The first time, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I hadn’t found a place. The next night, I dreamt the same thing. And there, I saw a beautifully green, well-cut hedge. And at the bottom of the hedge, I saw a hole which was exactly the size of the stone that I was carrying. So I put it down, pushed it into the hole and woke up. And I knew that stone was my being Jewish. That’s the burden I’ve been carrying all my life, and now I’d found a place to put it. And now I know it’s not awful to be Jewish, it is something that I can – and should – celebrate. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since 1992 when I had that dream.”

East Germany did at times have a functioning Synagogue, a Jewish youth camp and a Kosher butcher, all on a tiny scale. However, most of the small number of Jews who were desirous of living a communal Jewish life attempted to leave East Germany, if they could.

Ultimately, the utopian dream of East Germany quickly presented itself as a veritable nightmare. The desire of many East German citizens to flee the country for the freedom of West Germany was so great that East Germany had to build physical barriers to stop people leaving the country, including the infamous Berlin Wall. The East German government called it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” In reality, it had nothing to do with keeping fascists out, but rather keeping East Germans imprisoned within their own state. Attempting to cross the barrier often meant death, as even if one could get past the booby traps and mines, the border guards were under orders to shoot to kill.

Whilst West Germany eventually moved towards modernisation, liberalism and economic growth, East Germany was reliant upon Soviet support to survive and was a poor, dreary and inherently oppressive place. Over time, many West Germans even began to honestly confront Germany’s Nazi past, symbolised by the decision to pay reparations to survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. By contrast, East Germany refused to pay any reparations, claiming that as committed Socialists, East Germans bore no responsibility for Nazi crimes.

In 1990, East Germany had the first free elections in its history and its citizens voted the state out of existence. Today, the Berlin wall is no more and Germany is once again a united country. The regions of Germany that were formally under Eastern control are still, on average, poorer and less developed than the West. They also have significantly greater concentrations of Neo Nazism and political extremism. This is often attributed to the notion that, unlike in the West, East Germany was never able to face culpability for Nazism and indeed experienced a secondary totalitarianism with which it had to come to terms with.

Judging people in the past, with the benefit of hindsight, is not something that should be undertaken lightly. That is especially the case when considering Holocaust survivors. Certainly, most of the Jews who stayed in or moved to East Germany believed that they were helping to build a better society. However, history and their own reflections have proven that endeavour to have been a terrible failure.

Pesach is the festival of freedom. It is important though to consider what freedom means. Surely, freedom to do anything, even the harmful, should not be admired. It should certainly be combated when it limits the freedom of, and harms, others. In helping to build East Germany, there were Jews who caused great harm to themselves, the other citizens of East Germany, Israel and the Jewish world. Freedom, and the most heartfelt pursuit of it, can end in enslaving even oneself.

It is imperative upon all of us to continuously work towards making the world a better place. It is equally obligatory to think long and hard about how best to do so, and to remember, causing great harm to others in the name of freedom is to miss the very point of what it means to be free.


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