The Washington Post Column

A great historian offers a memoir about a life marked by the shadow of Nazism.

Like a puzzle with an infinite number of answers, the Holocaust keeps turning up new stories, different angles, fresh versions of events we thought we knew already. Unexpectedly, Fritz Stern, one of the most distinguished historians of Germany in this country, has now produced a new story of his own. I say “unexpectedly” because Stern is best known for his extraordinarily thorough use of archives: For Gold and Iron, his celebrated book on the close relationship between the 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the Jewish banker Gerson von Bleichrôder, Stern carried out research across Europe. But in Five Germanys I Have Known, Stern’s best stories come not from the archives but from his own family memories. Indeed, his description of the world of his grandparents forms the first and most striking of the “five Germanys” that he describes during the course of this essentially autobiographical book.

Stern was the son of assimilated German Jews — so assimilated, in fact, that they had converted to Christianity. His paternal grandparents converted as adults. His maternal grandparents never converted but had their children baptized — among them Stern’s mother, born in 1894. His parents and grandparents’ closest friends were all converts, too, or else Jews intermarried with Christians. No one thought this odd:

“My grandfathers attended to both their Christian and Jewish patients with equal care and worked harmoniously with their Christian colleagues. Both families had Christian nursemaids and servants, who in many instances remained with them over decades, in a trusted if unequal relationship. In all this, the two families appear to have retained a kind of silence about what we would call their identity, neither openly boastful of their German and Christian belongingness nor openly denying their Jewish roots. They adopted a certain style of life and with it a definite ethos, much of it unspoken and habitual.”

Stern goes on to explain this ethos in loving detail, starting with his grandparents’ (and later his parents’) dedication to work, which was not just a duty but “what life was about.” The men in the family were all extremely distinguished doctors, the women committed to various charitable and educational projects. All had a “kind of certainty,” writes Stern, “about how life should be led.” They considered themselves German patriots, fought in World War I and heatedly debated the politics of Weimar Germany. They lived in Breslau (modern-day Wroclaw), then a city at the edge of Germany, now a part of Poland. They taught their children to love books, they maintained friendships with distinguished scientists — Albert Einstein was a friend — and, of course, they celebrated Easter and Christmas.

And their Christianity was more than token: Stern’s sister Toni became especially religious, even joining a confirmation class in 1935, a year in which it was no longer easy for grandchildren of converts to keep calling themselves Christians. Indeed, Toni’s wish to be confirmed “brought home to us the very real (if limited) conflict between the Christian churches and the Nazi regime.” The state declared that anyone with a Jewish grandparent could not be considered a Christian, but a few churches — a very few — refused to recognize that rule. Toni was eventually confirmed in one of them. The pastor of that church had already been arrested several times, and Stern, then still a child, was thrilled to learn he had communicated with prisoners in nearby cells by knocking on the wall in Morse code.

The next part of the story — that of Stern’s “second Germany,” Nazi Germany — is more familiar. By the late 1930s, the Third Reich, “by declaring race and not religion as a determinant of a person’s civic identity and worth,” had effectively reconverted such Christians of Jewish descent into “non-Aryans.” In that sense, Stern points out, Hitler succeeded. Nowadays, most people think of, say, the great 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn as a Jew, but in his lifetime neither he nor anyone else thought of Mendelssohn as anything but a German. Nor, before Hitler, had Stern’s family been identified as particularly “Jewish” either.

In due course, the Stern family, like all their converted or intermarried friends and acquaintances, had to leave Germany. The story of how they searched for universities that would employ them, friends who would help them or a government that would accept them is an agonizing one, full of false starts and lethal mistakes. Some left the country, were unhappy and actually came back. Some waited too long, could not leave and died in concentration camps. For most of those who got out, the end result was a position with lower stature, less money and a more uncertain future. The Sterns wound up in the United States, where young Fritz immediately identified with American culture and developed a passionate loathing for anything German.

As he grew older, though, Stern channeled that passion into a desire to understand Germany better, to make sense of what had happened to him and to millions of others. This led him first to German cultural history, including a good deal of work on the history of the Jews in Germany, and later back to Germany itself. He discovered first West Germany, then East Germany, then the fifth and final Germany of the book’s title, the reunified Federal Republic. So many different professional and personal encounters did he have with these “Germanys,” in fact, that by the end of his career he counted many prominent German politicians, intellectuals and journalists among his friends, had received dozens of awards from German institutions and had even served for a time as a semi-official adviser to Richard Holbrooke, when he was the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Still, none of the descriptions Stern gives of the grand seminars and conferences he attended in his later years really matches, in interest or intensity, the depiction of his grandparents’ world in the book’s opening. Perhaps that isn’t surprising: The story of what happened to the Jews in 19th- and 20th-century Germany simply demands constant and new retellings, and probably always will.