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WSRC director reflects on project dissecting German ‘anti-anti-Semitism’

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: News

March 24, 2015

Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC), screened a film of her time in Germany on Thursday afternoon, March 19 exploring a phenomenon she calls “anti-anti-Semitism.”

In October 2013, Reinharz went to Germany to see the town where her father lived, Gunzenhousen, and meet with a group of students taking an active role in learning about the lives of Jews killed or displaced by Nazis. Her experiences exposed her to many other Germans who are researching Jewish communities that once existed and trying to educate themselves and others on the Holocaust. Reinharz is the wife of former university President Jehuda Reinharz Ph.D. ’72.

Anti-anti-Semitism is, according to Reinharz, “an attitude among some Germans and others that [it] is important to educate other people to be respectful of Jews, that [it] is important to understand Jewish history. It is important to express regret about what happened to the Jews of their town. It’s important to develop relations with the descendants of people who were murdered from their town, and it is important to understand the feelings of the descendants of the former Jewish residents of their town.”

Reinharz’s mental connection between Judaism and Germany began when she was very young and living in a house where German language and culture played a huge role. Her parents often spoke German around the house.

“They particularly lapsed into German when relatives and their friends got together for the Passover Seder. In fact, the only people I ever heard speak German were Jews,” she said.

Though Reinharz grew up hearing German and associating it with Jews, she felt a strong hatred toward Germany. She explained this, saying, “I hated the Germans because of what that country and its people had done to my family and to the Jewish people in general.”

Reinharz never intended to spend any time in Germany, she said, visiting the first time only in passing on the way to another European nation, and the second time on invitation from the German government. Her experience in Germany the first time was very negative, and very different from her experience on her last trip. “We stayed in Germany for a few days, and I had very strong psychological reactions. First, I couldn’t get over the fact that everyone seemed to be Jewish, because everyone was speaking German. Second, I was furious all the time,” she explained.

When she was planning her third trip, she decided to write to the German consulate in Boston and asked to be connected to Gunzenhousen’s Jewish community. She was told, to her surprise, that no Jewish community exists in her father’s hometown. Instead, she was contacted by a German teacher whose ninth grade class has been conducting an in-depth interdisciplinary research project on the lives of the Gunzenhousen’s Jews.

Her video shows the presentations these students gave to her while standing outside of houses where Jews once lived, places where synagogues once stood and the Jewish area of Gunzenhousen. The students talked about the lives of the Jews they had researched, describing their professions and families, whether they had been killed in concentration camps or had been able to escape. Reinharz frequently paused the video to point out how similar the children were to American children, or note how enthusiastic they were about the project.

While outside the home of a Jewish doctor who lived before the Holocaust, the young children read some information they received from a German priest. They told Reinharz that the doctor was known to be very talented and generous, explaining that he helped Christians as well as Jews. In another part of the video, the students showed Reinharz to a memorial constructed in Gunzenhousen. The work of art had plaques commemorating entire families of Jews killed in the Holocaust and quotes from the Bible.

At one point in the video, a man from Gunzenhousen walked by carrying a tote bag with the Israeli flag and the word “Mossad,” the name of the Israeli secret service, on one side. The other side had an image of a menorah. After showing this segment of the video, Reinharz argued that it was a testament to how much interest the citizens of Gunzenhousen have in Jewish history.

At the end of the video, Reinharz shows a meeting she had with the mayor of Gunzenhousen and other people involved in the teacher’s project at the city’s town hall. The mayor explained his belief about anti-Semitism to Reinharz, saying that it is just like young German’s negative views of immigrants. He described how many young people in Germany see immigrants as people who steal their jobs, take their tax money and require assistance from the government. However, the mayor said that these immigrants, like everybody else, are doing nothing less than escaping war and fighting for their lives.

Though Reinharz formulated her theory of “anti-anti-Semitism” based on her time in Gunzenhousen, she believes it can garner interest worldwide. As she put it, education is crucial in the prevention of future genocides.

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