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,
in the 17th century with Jost, the "Court Jew" who provided
jewels to Frederick the Great. Other featured ancestors are
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
in such detail sheds glaring light on the attitudes of today. In
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.
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
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
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
as secretary of the treasury but resigned, after nine months, to
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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