The Story of Two Identity Crises in the Weimar Republic

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Justice Kurt Soelling


As published in the Jewish News: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-story-of-two-identity-crises-in-the-weimar-republic/ on 23rd March 2017

In 1927, Judge Gellin, of the Breslau District Court in the state of Silesia, had become drunk at a popular Breslau wine bar. Free from his self-control, the judge proceeded to embark on an unremitting, inebriated tirade. Gellin began by accusing the popular newspaper Berliner Tagelblatt of being a “vulgar Jewish paper” and then directed his anger towards a member of parliament, Deputy Herrmann, who was present at the bar. Gellin labelled Herrmann a “dirty Jew” amongst other anti-Semitic insults. A policeman was called in, and Gellin was suspended from his judgeship after a disciplinary trial in January 1929. During the short trial, it was revealed that Deputy Herrmann was not Jewish at all. According to a report in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “The democratic press made merry over the fact when it came out in the course of the proceedings that the anti-Semite in the case was by birth a Jew, while the man whom he attacked as a Jew was a non-Jew.” Judge Gellin was, in fact, born to a Jewish family.

Five years later, on the 20th of May 1932, the Chairman of the Berlin District Court, Kurt Soelling, launched a libel action against the Jewish journalist Felix Hirsch, editor of the 8 Uhr Abendblatt — a Berlin evening newspaper. A year earlier, the judge had stopped attending meetings of the German Social Democrats, in favour of Nazi party gatherings. At the meetings, he was seen giving the Nazi salute.

The libel case revolved around an article in which Hirsch had revealed that Soelling was actually born Kurt Seligsohn; the son of active members of a Silesian Jewish community, like Gellin. Also like Gellin, in adulthood Soelling had decided to convert to Protestantism. The article went on to allege that the judge had rejected his community in order to further his career and that he was a “dishonest politician”.

A day later, Soelling won the case and Hirsch was ordered to pay damages of 500 Reichsmarks, a not insubstantial sum. That wasn’t before the defence had put forward an embarrassing procession of witnesses and picked apart Soelling’s career through the lens of his personal choices. Although he successfully managed to argue that he had been baptised out of religious conviction, it emerged that he had waited for a wealthy but pious uncle to pass away before his conversion. He also defended his attendance at the Nazi meetings, and participation in the Nazi salute, by claiming that it was his duty as an office holder to keep an eye on political developments, and that it was essential that he should blend into the crowd by raising his hand when necessary. Indeed, it probably was necessary for such investigations to take place, if Soelling’s account is to be believed.

Upon the Nazi accession to power in 1933, and owing to his prominence on the Berlin legal circuit, Soelling was one of the first judges to be ordered to hand in his resignation on the grounds of his racial identity. In 1938, he was marched out of his home at gunpoint, by local thugs in the Bavarian town of Marzoll, and subsequently fled to Canada with his wife. In 1944, his sister Hedwig was transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where she lost her life.

The point of outlining these somewhat obscure but shocking, uncomfortable and ultimately tragic cases is not to chastise a couple of men who are no longer around. However, it is clear that both men exemplify, to an exaggerated extent, the internal and external conflicts of being members of a persecuted and increasingly marginalised minority community. Even more, they exemplify the magnification of those pressures during a period of national identity crisis; a problem that plagued European nations after The Great War. Although both judges profoundly rejected their communities by birth, Soelling’s case, at least, demonstrates that identity is necessarily composed of both chosen and un-chosen elements; that are independent of individual expressions of politics or life decisions. It would be unthinkable for such situations to arise in or around the Jewish community today (although some would wrongly claim that they’re rather common), but these cases provide us with a stark and important example of the extremes that might emerge when one is presented with a conflict between multiple aspects of identity, in the midst of cultural uncertainty and upheaval.


Communal Memory

As published in the Jewish News: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/communal-memory-and-where-we-are-now/  on 13th December 2016

When members of a community pass on, the memories they have shared and left behind take on a life of their own. We remember the happy moments, their habits, their ways of being. We remember the good and the bad. They leave behind oral histories and physical objects that act as evidence of life in a difference world. And ultimately, elements of their past are assimilated into our collective wisdom; lessons to be learned and profound truths to be examined and re-examined. The Jewish community is no different in this regard, and I believe the experiences of our predecessors are invaluable cultural tools.

Last year, I was helping my dad clear out his parents’ house; a chore that he had left undone for nearly 20 years. Looking through the garage, I came across several boxes. Mainly containing a variety of books my grandparents, Fritz and Lilli, had brought over in 1930s, having made the journey as refugees from Berlin. By the luck of history (the garage was damp and unattended to) I discovered an extraordinary cache of letters sent from my grandpa to my grandma during the summer of 1938. My grandma never spoke about her experiences, but I believe she kept these mementoes in the hope they would speak for her.

According to the letters, sent every other day for a month, my grandpa had made the journey from Berlin to New York in late July 1938, in order to look for an opportunity to resettle, undoubtedly a luxury and rare opportunity at the time. They mostly outline his meetings with other German Jewish friends and contacts. But there is a more personal side. As the month goes on and his efforts begin to look increasingly fruitless, his sense of sadness and desperation becomes clear.

His unsuccessful fact-finding trip had reinforced in his mind that the family needed to leave immediately. I was then struck by his letter dated the 20th of August 1938. In a parenthesised side-note he asked my grandma: Hast Du diese Verordnung schon gelesen, nach der wir jetzt Israel und Sarah heissen? Or,“Have you read the regulation, after which we are now called Israel and Sarah? [referring to a law passed on the 17th of August 1938, requiring Jews to use identifiably Jewish names].” For me, this side-note was the most personally profound part of the letters. My grandparents were Germans, they had always considered themselves German, but this letter captures the moment, in the mind of Fritz, that the sentiment was called into question. According to the law of their homeland, the essence of their being was now Jud. They eventually found a safe haven later that year in London, retaining their German identity and love for Germany out of pure defiance.

So where does this lead us now? Well, as the people with first-hand experiences of this period are becoming fewer and fewer, it is now up to us to finally consolidate their assorted memories into our communal culture. Of course, we should remember and document their stories, but culture is more than that. It informs the way we think, and the way we act. It informs how we interact between ourselves, and with others. 2016 has been a year of crisis, and we are now entering 2017. Not only are there millions of people fleeing their homes across the world, but the discourse in our own nations is turning sour. Our politicians are starting to hint at an essence of identity, “You cannot be a citizen of the world,” and subtly questioning the loyalty of certain British citizens and those who have recently arrived.

In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd have just unveiled new legislation regarding anti-Semitism. Yet both are on record as using rhetoric and forming policy intended to ‘essentialise’ communities, and not just in relation to immigration levels. In that case, what about anti-Semitism do they actually oppose? These views are often informed by superficial polling of these communities, often reduced to mere data cleavages, as well as unscrupulous and selective focuses generated by certain sections of the media; sections, by the way, that labelled Ralph Miliband an “enemy of the people”. Although the situation for our community now is very different, if we are to take the lessons of our families seriously, we can’t just look at protecting our own communities, but must engage with and stand by all communities subject to prejudiced essentialism.1-yc7il1nmvxbnldsfcderta