The Jewish Stake in German Reunification

ON the night of Nov. 9, 1938 - Kristallnacht - Jewish-owned buildings throughout Germany were burned and gutted, a prelude to the Nazi destruction of European Jewry. Precisely 51 years later, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, setting off a chain of events likely to lead to a reunified Germany. Will the wall's collapse, symbol of the German national revival, replace the memory of Nazi crimes in the German consciousness? It is a question that haunts Jews, leaving many of them ambivalent about the course of events in Germany today.

There is much in the historical record to arouse concern. The Germany that Bismarck unified through ``blood and iron'' over a century ago was a militaristic regime where purveyors of anti-Semitism found a ready audience. Most historians consider imperial Germany the nation most responsible for World War I, which devastated Europe.

Out of the carnage of the war, playing upon the alleged victimization of Germany in the Versailles peace treaty, Nazism emerged. From the moment they came to power in 1933, the Nazis systematically degraded and persecuted Jews. Then, having started another world war, they pursued the ``final solution'' to their ``Jewish problem'' - and wiped out 6 million.

The families of these victims are still in our midst, as are survivors of the death camps. Memories are still fresh. The pain persists. And an unanswerable question lingers: Is there something in their culture or history that predisposes Germans to obey authority blindly, to act with cruelty, to persecute minorities - latent traits that Germans act upon when unified and strong?

But Jews have other feelings, too. When the Berlin Wall crumbled, so did communism, not just in East Germany, but throughout Eastern Europe. Jews rejoiced at the collapse of a system that had consistently persecuted Judaism and discriminated against Jews. What the East Germans did benefited the cause of freedom and human dignity - American values rooted also in the sources of the Jewish tradition.

And since the Berlin Wall was demolished in the name of self-determination, who can deny the demolishers the right to unite with their brothers and sisters in the West, if that was their desire? The two Germanys are moving toward unification with lightning speed. Whatever the qualms of Jews or anyone else, the question of whether there will be one Germany has already been decided.

Emotionally torn as they are, how might Jews develop a meaningful approach to German unification? Perhaps by examining the record of West Germany, which is a fully democratic country governed by the rule of law, a firm NATO ally committed to the European Community, and a constructive participant in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

West Germany has accepted historical responsibility as a successor state to the Nazi regime. It pays substantial reparations, compensation, and indemnification to individual Jews, to Jewish organizations, and to Israel. Indeed, Bonn's close links with Israel underscore its determination to blaze a new path in German-Jewish relations. And, not least, the inclusion of Holocaust education in the West German curriculum indicates that its leaders know that they cannot evade the past.

Similar acts by East Germany would go a long way toward mitigating Jewish anxieties. The new East German parliament has already taken a significant step by asking Jews to forgive them for the crimes of the Nazi era, and indicating a willingness to recognize Israel and discuss reparations.

There are a host of additional ways for East Germany to reassure Jews: programs to acquaint its people with the truth about the Holocaust, Christian-Jewish dialogues, support for repeal of the infamous United Nations ``Zionism-is-racism'' resolution, an end to supplying and training anti-Israel terrorists, laws banning extremist groups that incite hatred, and public acknowledgment that Jews were victimized in concentration camps located on East German soil.

Above all, Germans, East and West, should appreciate the historical memory lying at the root of Jewish consciousness. Even while Jews foster ties with a Germany on the road to democracy and unity, their continuing awareness and commemoration of what Nazi Germany did to them may help keep such horrors from ever happening again - to anyone.

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