Cornell University Press 2019


RRP: US$29.95

Reviewed by Anne Henderson




It has become a favoured technique in historical writing to enter the past through the connecting links of one family and its extended individuals. Frequently this is done with research and memorabilia around particular individuals who have lived through momentous years of history. Many such works have been achieved as the accounts of survivors of the Holocaust and World War II. The stories of individuals set against the context of larger political and social upheavals tell the story of massive movements in human history.

In Jay Howard Geller’s The Scholems: A Story of The German Bourgeoisie From Emancipation to Destruction he traces the story of four very different brothers – German Jews from Berlin – their parents and forebears to evaluate what happened to the remarkable growth of the German Jewish middle class over a century only to face its destruction by the end of World War II. This marked the death of a distinctive European sub-culture that in many ways had come to define much of European high culture in the early twentieth century but, once killed, would not resurface. Geller’s merging of individuals and history is meticulously worked, revealing in complex detail how a savagely wrought apocalypse changed Europe forever.

Geller’s opening to this saga of the birth and death of German-Jewish emancipation and flowering is set in the old town of Glogow in Lower Silesia (south western Poland). Today empty lots from World War II remain and the demise of a once vital centre of Jewish identity is barely to be found. The scene of present day Glogow will echo the far larger story to come.

It was from Glogow that the Scholem family came to Berlin in the early nineteenth century shortly after Prussian King Frederick William III issued an edict granting Jews of his kingdom the same civil rights as Prussian Christians in 1812. This became known as the emancipation of German Jews. With the right to nominal equality, German Jews such as the Scholems moved to the greater opportunities offered by larger centres and cities. Especially Berlin.

Emancipation did not mean Jews immediately found themselves equal to Christian Germans. Jews were not permitted to exercise authority over their fellow Christian citizens. Craft guilds continued to refuse membership to Jews. The attraction of Berlin, however, was that its commercial bourgeoisie was relatively open to Jews and they could join professional organisations. On the other hand, the close knit and religiously guarded Jewish communities also needed to relax some of their antipathy to what was seen as modernisation.

Entry for Jews into the German middle class was not easy. Restrictions on education meant the best chances for prosperity by the middle of the nineteenth century were apprenticeships in various trades. Geller’s focus is on the antecedents of the renowned scholar of Judaic history and theology Gershon Scholem whose grandfather Siegfried began his apprenticeship in printing in 1847. Siegfried’s son Arthur, who also joined the printing business, would father the four brothers Geller chooses to weave this history around – Reinhold, Erich, Gershom and Werner.

The Scholem family as Jews were not conventionally orthodox; their customs included celebrating Christmas as a festival and, while attending Passover seders and Friday night dinners, Arthur Scholem would light cigarettes or cigars from the Shabbat candles. Family life reflected a loose connection between German Christian national customs and their Jewish traditions. They lived in an upmarket area of Berlin and Betty and Arthur enjoyed travel and the pleasure of small luxuries.

Such were the personalities and choices of the four brothers, Geller is able to construct a comprehensive analysis and history of what happened to a whole generation of German Jewry as it enjoyed the freedoms won over a century only to see its heritage lost in a matter of less than two decades. Geller sees the beginnings of the end for the German Jewish bourgeoisie coming with the German loss in World War I, ironically a war that saw many German Jews fight for their country as German nationalists, some to be awarded for gallantry, some to return home staunchly committed to their German life. Reinhold Scholem, for example, was awarded the Iron Cross for his bravery. The interweaving of German education, prosperity, social acceptance and peaceful co-existence with non-Jewish Germans seemed to have assured German Jews they belonged to the Fatherland. Geller notes that in the early twentieth century, anti-semitism seemed “to be on the wane in Berlin”. But the war would end all that.

In the custom of so many German Jewish families, the older Scholem brothers Reinhold and Erich had followed their father Arthur into the printing trade. They both served in the war and were proud nationalists. Werner and Gershom – who both had the chance to study at university – would react against the war, Werner to become the editor of a communist newspaper and briefly a member of the Prussian state legislature and Gershom to increasingly oppose the war even as he was forced to briefly join up. Gershom and Werner, unlike their older brothers, wanted to shed their childhood experiences. For Werner it was a commitment to the communist party and overturning capitalism; for Gershom it was to study Jewish texts while millions died in the war. Gershom would leave Berlin for Palestine in 1923. He became one of the 34,000 Jews who settled in Palestine between 1919 and 1923.

The political history of Germany and European Jews from the nineteenth century to the end of World War II is a well-worn story. What Geller achieves in his record of the Berlin family of Arthur and Betty Sholem is to trace the personal reactions, decisions, risks and delusions of those that were affected by the upheaval of anti-semitism and Nazism as it swept over them. In the harsh economic times following defeat in World War I, anti-semitism returned to Germany as Jews became seen as the culprits for food shortages and profiteering. Yet, under the German government known as the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933, Jews were guaranteed religious freedom and the legal basis for their lives improved. In these volatile conditions, families such as the Scholems took the economic stringencies in their stride alongside most Germans and continued their lives unable to imagine what horrors might be coming.

Ironically, it was Werner Scholem waging his war on capitalism and against the National Socialist street thugs who sounded a warning in a letter to his brother Gershom in November 1932: “The disintegration of the Jewish bourgeoisie progresses … The decline of the family is taking place very quickly.” Yet, just eight years before, Geller notes that the Scholem sons Erich and Reinhold were doing well as independent businessmen and looking forward to future prosperity. Not only could they not foresee the political plates that would shift disastrously, like most of the capitalist world they could not imagine the 1929 stock market crash.

It is clear from his footnotes that Geller has not only mined a treasure trove of letters between various members of the Scholem family but has also done an immense amount of research of available sources. His notes and footnotes take up almost 100 pages of densely typed script. Yet the flow and tempo of Geller’s writing pushes the stories on and captures the reader’s curiosity about different individuals and what they say about a whole watershed in history.

In Gershom, there is the development of Jewish Palestine, pushed by immigrants with nowhere else to go. Yet Gershom is not one of those. He is what Geller describes as “descending into hyperintellectuality”, so absorbed in his study of what his family called “all that Judeo Semitic stuff” that he not only became a founder of semitic studies in today’s Israel, Gershom Scholem also contributed in no small way to Jewish identity and the Jewish sense of legacy in the land of Palestine.

Like many Jews in Palestine, Gershom Scholem would agree in part with Zionists and disagree as well. He favoured a shared Palestine between Jews and Arabs – somewhat prescient for today’s world. After the war, with the collapse of Jewish communities in Europe, Gershom was given the task of collecting as many books on Judaism and Jewish culture from Europe as he could. He became an “eminence grise”, fell out with Hannah Arendt over her controversial analysis of the Eichmann trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem – The Banality of Evil, but opposed Eichmann’s execution. Harold Bloom regarded Gershom Scholem as “a hidden theologian” who masqueraded as an historian.

In Werner Scholem is the story of the many German Jews who became communists in opposition to the National Socialists. In the late 1930s, to be a communist and a Jew in Germany was the worst of all fates. And Werner carried himself boldly even getting offside with his communist colleagues. Arrested in April 1933, Werner would end his life in Buchenwald after years of hard labour. Shot after being asked to walk beyond the guards’ cordon in July 1940, his death was recorded as “Shot while trying to escape”. In the years of his incarceration, Werner never believed he was destined to be held indefinitely; he had connections and believed in German justice. He seemed not to have absorbed how despotic and genocidal the Nazi system had become.

By 1938, 150,000 Jews had left Germany. By July 1938, Reinhold, Erich and Reinhold’s family had arrived in Sydney, Australia, coming via Montreal and Vancouver. They would all settle there. Erich and Reinhold’s mother Betty, concerned for Werner, remained in Berlin. Her decision to leave came slowly as she needed to raise money from her savings in Palestine through Gershom who could be somewhat selfish and slow to show concern. And she was working for Werner’s release. But, before long, even Werner was encouraging her to go. Betty reflected the divided loyalties of many fleeing in similar circumstances. She also had to decide whether it would be Palestine or Australia. Palestine offered no language barriers as many there spoke German, but she worried about the unrest between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Eventually Betty landed in Sydney on 27 April 1939. The remnant Scholems would in time symbolise the aftermath of the destruction of European Jewish culture, absorbed in far smaller numbers to live on in Palestine and countries of the new world such as the United States and Australia.

Geller does not need to retrace the ghoulish nightmare of the Holocaust, its murders and its death camps. Readers can fill in the gaps. The death of the German Jewish bourgeoisie was undoubtedly completed by Hitler’s genocide but its beginnings and future is to be found in the lives of the Sholem brothers, children of Arthur and Betty from Berlin, who all but one escaped the European war before it had begun.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.