Corrections or additions?

This review by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 27, 1998. All rights reserved.

What Is a Jew?

Jews and Gentiles alike will want to read W. Michael

Blumenthal’s "The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, a Personal

Exploration." Blumenthal gives a reading and signs his book as

part of Reunion weekend activities at the Princeton University Store

on Sunday, May 31, at 11 a.m.

This 444-page book, with its 50 pages of notes and index, may look

like a daunting work of scholarship, but Blumenthal tantalizes the

general reader by organizing the story around seven relatives,

starting

in the 17th century with Jost, the "Court Jew" who provided

jewels to Frederick the Great. Other featured ancestors are

intellectual

opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, banker Louis Blumenthal, Weimar

scholar and Zionist Arthur Eloesser, and his father Ewale Blumenthal,

who once served in the Kaiser’s elite guards.

To learn about three centuries of exclusion, castigation, and

stereotyping

in such detail sheds glaring light on the attitudes of today. In

telling

about Jost, for instance, Blumenthal writes that a traveling Jew was

safest when he looked threadbare. "Taunts and insults were some

of the lesser problems he had to face; the headache of finding a place

to eat, sleep, and pray was more difficult to resolve. Most country

inns would not accept a Jew, and to locate a friendly roof was not

a simple task."

Blumenthal uses the life of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense to grapple with

the assimilation question. The young Rahel steeped herself in the

arts and tried to invent a new existence for herself. In the late

1790s she created Berlin’s most important salon. Then anti-Semitic

forces came to power and her assimilation efforts were thwarted.

"Before

she died in 1833," Blumenthal writes, "she had come to what

must have been for her the most surprising and unexpected insight

of all: that her lifelong struggle against her Jewish origins had

been futile, that her Jewishness had in fact been the one thing that

had given her existence meaning."

For the nearly 10 years it took to write this book, Blumenthal

wrestled

with his own identity problems. Born in Germany in 1926, he escaped

with his family in 1939 and spent his teenage years in a Shanghai

ghetto. At age 21, with $65 in his pocket, he enrolled at the

University

of California at Berkeley, and came to Princeton for master’s and

doctorate degrees in economics (Class of ’53 and ’56). After a brief

teaching stint he went to work at Crown Cork International, leaving

in 1961 to serve in the Department of State. He became CEO of Bendix

Corporation in 1972 and was called to serve in the Carter

administration

as secretary of the treasury but resigned, after nine months, to

become

CEO of the Burroughs Corporation, engineering the transformation of

Burroughs and Sperry into Unisys.

Blumenthal aimed to answer questions about his past, "not merely

about my own family and their ancestors, but about that entire group

of German Jews into which I was born." Now he has been chosen

to head the very controversial Jewish Museum in Berlin, and he will

get yet another chance to wrestle with some of the most provocative

and disturbing questions of our time: What is a Jew? How have Jews

managed to survive? How did the Holocaust happen?

— Barbara Fox


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