ESSEN, Germany – While growing up in the 1990s in Berlin, writer Max Czollek recalls, he and his classmates occasionally dug up human bones when they played outside their school. Years later, he learned that the site had been used as a deportation center during the Holocaust.
“This was a place where the Nazis gathered Jews and tortured them,” he said. From there, he realized that Germany is, as he said, “a great cemetery.”
The continuing influence of the past in the present, and what Czollek sees as Germany’s collective reluctance to recognize it, reports his latest book, “Desintegriert Euch” (“Disintegrating themselves”), a collection of politically charged essays and historical reflections It came out in August 2018 and is still making waves in the country. In it, he argues that Germany, anxious to shed its past, is not counting on the rise of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism. And with the title of the book, he appeals to people who have been excluded or selected to stop trying to fit in and embrace their “otherness” so that Germany can become a truly multicultural and pluralistic society.
More than a year after its publication, “Desintegriert Euch” is in its seventh print edition. And in a Germany, struggling with national identity 75 years after the end of World War II, Czollek, 32, has not finished talking about anti-Semitism. But book fans are not limited at all to those who are Jewish. Last fall, in Essen, Czollek spoke on a panel exploring what it means to be “different in Germany”, whether that is being black, having a Lebanese name or having a father from India.
In a nearby cafeteria after the panel, Czollek explained how the weight of the past motivates him. “I am one of the few Jews who has a history in Germany since before World War II,” he said. His grandfather survived more than one concentration camp and spent several years in exile in China before returning to East Germany in the late 1940s.
“The only Jewish relative I have is my aunt,” said Czollek. “My father died when I was young. The thread is extremely thin. Sometimes I think that what I do is reconnect with that thread. “
Czollek, who has a doctorate. from the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at the Technical University of Berlin, he has also written several volumes of poetry, one of which went on sale in September, and is co-editor of “Jalta”, a biannual magazine on contemporary Jewish culture, which published its first special edition together with the Jewish Literary Festival earlier this month. Translations of some of Czollek’s poems are online, although none of his books have been fully translated into English.
The European Jewish Congress estimates that around 200,000 Jews live in Germany today, but most emigrated to the country from the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The generation of German Jews from Czollek, those who are now millennials, were some of the first who were able to attend Jewish schools from first grade to high school. Having Jewish spaces to form critical ideas, he said, “is a prerequisite for thoughts such as disintegration to arise.”
Jews as litmus test
In post-war Germany, national identity has been defined in many ways by “overcoming the past” or the effort to go beyond the crimes and ideology of the Nazis. “Germany is a country that prides itself on being a world teacher of memory culture,” he said. Jon Cho-Polizzi, a PhD candidate in the German department of the University of California at Berkeley, who has translated four chapters of Czollek’s book into English, as well as some of his poems and essays. “That is as German as a soft pretzel.”
Historian Michael Brenner has said at conferences that it was crucial that Jews be seen as integrated as western and eastern Germany emerged in the post-war years. “The presence of Jews served as a litmus test for the new democracies,” he said.
In his book, Czollek is about how that litmus test has evolved and what it means for a Jew in Germany today. Making use of a term coined in 1996 by the sociologist Y. Michal Bodemann, “the theater of memory,” Czollek writes that the Jews in Germany are “a confirmation of the German narrative that they are no longer Nazis.”
Unfortunately, he adds, this configuration means that “the Germans have fundamentally misunderstood their responsibility for the past,” something that has become increasingly clear with the emergence of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known as AfD, and growing anti-Semitism (an attempted attack on a synagogue in Halle has been the most violent example). “He really got nervous with this criticism,” said Mirjam Wenzel, director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.
Although Wenzel said that “Desintegriert Euch” is important, she called her sometimes aggressive tone “battle rap”, saying she doesn’t offer an inclusive vision of Germany. “What is this society supposed to be?” She said. “In your book, that question is not there. He has no interest in what holds people together. Either you are part of my crowd and my way of thinking or you are not. ”
Czollek does not necessarily disagree with the criticism that his work is aggressive. He formed many of the theses in his book while organizing theater festivals in Berlin. One of them, “Radical Jewish Culture Days,” included a night in which the guests ate rugelach and watched movies in which the Nazis were beaten.
“It seems that I wrote this book standing on a stage,” said Czollek. “This allowed me to be more extreme and more theatrical in a way that I would not have come from a PhD.”
“The threat from the right has created a new kind of solidarity”
Although Czollek writes from the perspective of a German Jew, in the book and in all the conferences and panels that have followed, he has tried to create alliances with other minority groups.
Integration has become a buzzword in Germany, gaining traction after More than one million asylum seekers began arriving in 2015. From one point of view, the word encourages newcomers to join German society and build their lives here with existing templates as a guide. From another, it imposes conformity in the room of the country with a history of immigrants.
“The integration is based on certain ideas of how society works: there is a certain dominant German position,” Czollek said. “‘ We were here first, you were here last, and that is why you have to adapt. ” Problems arise when the perspectives offered by newcomers are ignored because they do not meet German expectations.
In Essen, it was part of a panel of four writers who contributed essays to a book called “Eure Heimat Ist Unser Albtraum” or “Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare”. The concept of heimat, which translates as “home” or “homeland,” has been revived in recent years, culminating in the creation of a “heimat ministry.” Critics like Czollek call “heimat” a dangerous idea that represents a longing for a cultural ideal that is white, homogeneous and Christian.
“This anthology is written by people who are in this country,” said Mithu Sanyal, an author who contributed to the anthology and whose father emigrated to Germany from India in the 1960s. “There is a kind of network of us. People like Max and I, who have never been perceived as a group, are suddenly perceived as a group. The threat from the right has created a new kind of solidarity. ”
She sees the success of Czollek’s book as a positive change in German society. “For a long time, nobody wanted to know anything about race,” he said. “There is the idea that race is a construction, so there can be no racism.” That was the end of the discussion. Racists are Nazis and we are not Nazis. ”
But now, Sanyal said, “there is a new kind of self-confidence in the so-called immigrant community, if you want to label it.” People who are supposed to be out of culture are now part of it. ”
For Czollek, writing and talking about the book has been part of a lifelong effort to keep the thread with his ancestors. “I feel like I’m in a constant speech with them,” he said. “The only difference is that it’s me who lives.”