March 4, 2021

Anti-anti-Semitism, too, is alive and well in Germany

by Shulamit Reinharz

Shula preferred author photo

Shulamit Reinharz

Amid the tragic, anti-Semitic events in Paris and all over Europe and Israel, I also see examples of something else, for which I have coined the term, “anti-anti-Semitism.” A recent example was the declaration by the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, that  “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” Without Jews, France will lose Jewish creativity, intellectual productivity, arts and advances in all fields of endeavor. Even more recent was the historic step Canada took on January 28, 2015 in signing the Ottawa Protocol to Combat Anti-Semitism.

We know the attack in France at Charlie Hebdo was driven by anti-Semitism because the only woman at Charlie Hebdo singled out for death, while the other women were spared, was the Jewish columnist, Elsa Cayat. We salute her courage and mourn her death.

Yet, if we focus on anti-anti-Semitism, not just on hate and terrorism, we may discover people we can work with to improve the situation of Jews in Europe.

This topic should be of universal interest because in the last 70 years or so, we have learned some unexpected lessons. First, although “never again” may be a good rallying phrase, it does not describe what has occurred since 1945. Genocide has happened over and over again. A better slogan is “never forget.”

Second, people thought that after the bloodbath of the Holocaust and the complete defeat of Germany and its allies, anti-Semitism would be over. But, they were wrong. Research done at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute by Dr. Joanna Michlic shows that for countries behind the Iron Curtain, the Holocaust didn’t really end until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Anti-anti-semitism started shortly after 1945. Government leaders in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, the country that originated the Nuremburg Laws and the Final Solution, embarked on policies of anti-anti-Semitism right after Germany’s surrender. Many Western European countries embraced Israel and Jewish individuals through financial policies of Wiedergutmachung, which means restitution or compensation. On the basis of these laws many persons who were persecuted by the Nazi-Regime continue to receive monthly compensation payments.

Second, artists were commissioned to create permanent memorials that would remind people continuously of the anti-Semitic violence that had been committed. These memorials are visible all over Germany.

Third, Holocaust denial is illegal in a number of European countries including Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Romania, all among the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Recently, I traveled to Austria and Germany where I experienced many examples of anti-anti-Semitism. The main reason for my trip was to support Dr. Karen Frostig, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, who organized the The Vienna Project, a social action memorial to victims of National Socialism. The project’s public nature, unfolding on the streets of Vienna over the course of a year, is an obvious example of anti-anti-Semitism.

Because I was going to travel to Vienna, I decided to also visit Gunzenhausen, Germany, the Bavarian village where my father grew up. I am currently writing a book about his experiences. There, I pleasantly encountered profound anti-anti-Semitism. I began my preparation for the trip by calling the German consulate in Boston. I asked if he could kindly connect me with the Jewish leaders of Gunzenhausen.

“Frau Reinharz,” I was told. “There are no Jews in Gunzenhausen.”

His response did not deter me. I thought I would simply walk around the town when I arrived, meet people and try to learn something about my family’s past. The next day, a junior high school teacher, Emmi Hetzner, contacted me by email, informing me that the mayor of Gunzenhausen would host my visit and that she, Emmi, would escort me through the community. I welcomed her warm hospitality.

It turns out that for 15 years, Gunzenhausen has been engaged in a school project that crosses all the disciplines. The students are reconstructing Jewish life before the Holocaust and studying how the town behaved during the Third Reich. Select junior high students have studied such topics as: What was the demography of Gunzenhausen in 1933? Where were the homes of every Jew? The town archivist teaches the children how to look at city plans. The students made maps, they gathered documents, and they learned more about my family than I knew myself.

How wonderful to learn that they had a web site, which they had produced themselves. There I found pictures of my family, including my beloved grandfather. I also found photos of the house where my father grew up and the letter my grandfather wrote to explain that he sold the house “without pressure” as he wisely decided to leave.

A teacher connected to the student research team had even spoken to my father in New Jersey 12 years ago. The website commented on their discussion: “Unfortunately Max Rothschild has not been able to become reconciled with the fate of the Jewish community in Gunzenhausen and especially that of his family. Mr. Rohrbach wrote to us: ‘I found Max Michael Rothschild in New Jersey and spoke to him today (18. December 2002). He was very friendly, and mentioned frequently that he does not desire any contact to Gunzenhausen.’ ”

In this little town in Bavaria, students are fighting anti-Semitism by acknowledging their families’ past. They speak of the “first pogrom,” the compelled departure to the train station of the Jewish men of the town, and the population’s violence toward their doctor, my grandfather.

In addition to being overwhelmed by the student interest, I had another response: I wanted to get involved in the anti-anti-semitism I discovered in Gunzenhausen. Fortunately, I found two ways. Next to the junior highschool, there is a monument to all the war victims of Gunzenhausen during World War I. There I found the names of the Jewish men about whom the students had taught me. This monument is adorned with a big cross. I suggested to the mayor that although the cross could be kept in place, next to the names of the Jewish soldiers, they add Jewish stars.

I also toured the old Jewish cemetery where my grandfather’s first wife is buried. Emmi and I could not find the gravestone we were looking for because the headstones had been looted during the Holocaust. I have proposed to my brother and sister that, with Emmi’s help, we re-erect a gravestone for the grandmother I never knew.

From studying the Holocaust, I know that the violence against the Jews was both national and local. Hitler gave orders from above, but townspeople acted against Jews on their own initiative. In the first paragraph of this blog, I mentioned the powerful, lofty anti-anti-Semitic statements from heads of state. I contend that just as significant is the 15-year old junior high research project taking place in the classrooms and streets of the town of Gunzenhausen.


Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.


  1. Joan Stoltz says:

    Four years ago my husband, youngest daughter and I travelled to the two small German villages from where my mother escaped and my father had lived. There I visited graves of grandparents immaculately kept by gentile school children. I learned where my grandfather had last been before he was taken by the Nazis. I saw so much, spoke with so many. It was an incredible experience.
    Even though Germany has the largest growing Jewish population in Europe today, these villages had nair a Jew. Yet, the warm reception and kindness exhibited by all we met will stay with me always.

  2. Helene Aylon says:

    Shula, This little town is like a crack of light in the darkness. Your determination to find anti-antisemitism brought about that light.
    I am also touched by your erecting a new gravestone for the looted one of “the grandmother you did not know.”
    Helene Aylon

  3. I’m forwarding this article to my dear friend whose last name is Gonsenhauser (so close to the name of your grandparents’ town). Her maiden name was Herz. Both she and her husband were born in Germany. And both of their families were able to escape at different times to South Africa, hers because of the goodness of a gentile friend who warned her father he’d better run before the Nazis came for him.
    In addition to the coincidence of names, I was struck by your point of view, a very good one. Not only will your comments resonate with those of my generation (born in the USA in 1935), but I think will be an excellent way to educate those of my children’s age and their children about the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel.
    Thank you.

  4. ruth housman says:

    It feels like the pendulum keeps swinging both ways, as there is a surge of anti semitism around the world, documented extensively on many sites such as The Wiesenthal Center. On the other hand, there is also, this word you have coined, “anti anti semitism” and one could only hope this is on the rise. An enlightened society, an enlightened world, has got to at some point, realize, moving forward involves not just acknowledging a past history of unimaginable cruelty affecting many groups on this planet, and being a Jew I can speak to our heritage, but also moving forward in accord, as in A Chord, as in what is what I will call, OM Bilical. Long ago, a Promise was Made, called a Covenant made of Salt, and I believe, in order for that promise to reach fulfillment, we have to move together, as in the word Direction, has a doubling of meaning. As hard as it is to contemplate all this: This symphony has a conductor. I know, because my life is not just a little, but massively synchronous and I keep an on line Diary, and also have an archive of letters, at Brown University the Hay Library. Herein lies a Story!

    I am crossing BABEL, the Sanskrit word for GATE. And I know, the calling card of this era is ONE, in every possible way. AT ONE MEANT. We’re moving fast into a new consciousness, called by some, Cosmic, and this consciousness will marry conscience with consciousness, with environmental initiatives, and sow, what is called Seeds of Peace.

    SHALL OM: we’re all in this together. As to Ruth, I take the Book of Ruth to heart, as we’re here to sort the wheat from the chaff, as in those fields, where perhaps the most beautiful love story took place, and a book in which a profound lineage is listed.

    I go where my heart leads. I follow the “lieder”, because in depth, life is entirely about The Music.

    in truth: ruth

  5. Ruth Langer says:

    This is a powerful and important witness to a side of European society that does not make the news. We saw the fruits of similar efforts installed in synagogues of small towns in the Czech Republic.

  6. Loraine Obler says:

    Shula, what a gift that you have shared the story of your search and discoveries with us, providing a ray of light. Many thanks.

  7. Michele Clark says:

    This is an important point of view, Shulamit. And not much said right now. In fact I’m not sure it’s said at all. I get Tablet every day. You might consider writing something similar for them or sending them this piece.

  8. Lilly Rivlin says:

    In this week of commemoration of the Holocaust, I watched on TV those who gathered at the Auschwitz 70th Memorial and, of course, was moved by all who were there, and all who spoke. But all along I was conscious that there was only one woman who spoke, and no woman said the Kaddish on stage.
    Surely the victims of the Shoah were both women and men. I was saddened by all this and then I read your blog Shula, and my heart opens up because you speak the Truth, you speak of anti anti semitism, you speak of hope, and you are a Woman who is doing it. Thank you.

    • Michele Clark says:

      I was just reading the latest issue of Nashim in which, among other things, there are several discussions of the academic controversies that have surrounded looking at gender issues in Jewish studies and in Holocaust studies. So, Lily, your observation speaks right to this – that is if gender is forgotten as an issue then pretty quickly or easily it’s all men again.

  9. Bonnie Clewans says:

    I constantly hear “we are not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist”, for me, a distinction without a difference. I have attended several programs showing various museums dedicated to lost Jewish communities in Poland and Germany. I view these “attractions” as an attempt to “market” tourism. My maternal grandmother was from the Ukraine and lost several family members to a pogrom. My maternal grandfather lost 9 family members to WWII in Poland. For me, I have no interest in visiting either Poland or the Ukraine.

  10. A beautiful piece. I have been exploring anti-anti-Semitism in Lithuania for ten years. I did not expect to find it when I went there in search of my Jewish family roots — yet I did. Yes, I found anti-Semitism in the land of my ancestors. I also found brave people, Jews and non-Jews, who take Jewish remembrance very seriously and are working hard to build bridges and face a horrific and complicated past. My book, “We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust,” explores these issues.

  11. Interested to read future comments!

  12. Rachel says:

    Like Ellen Cassedy, I’ve been working on “roots-finding” and Holocaust education in Lithuania, specifically my father’s shtetl Shkud (now Skuodas, Lithuania). I’ve visited a number of times and have made a number of local contacts, all of whom were welcoming and willing to talk and listen to me. Several of them are involved in their own Holocaust education and Jewish history projects in Lithuania.

    Last year I discovered that this town, which has no Jewish residents, memorializes the Holocaust every year on September 23 (Holocaust Remembrance Day in Lithuania) with a ceremony at the memorial marker in town and speeches and songs by schoolchildren and their teachers. I’ve been invited to come and speak to the local residents in September 23, which I will do.

    I’ve also participated in Holocaust memorialization events in my mother’s hometown of Liepaja, Latvia, where attendees were welcomed by the city’s mayor and other local dignitaries, who also participated in the memorial ceremonies. The present-day Jewish community in Liepaja reports generally good relations with the non-Jewish residents.

    I agree that while some nods in the direction of recognizing prewar Jewish life in Europe can be cynically viewed as tourism marketing, that’s not always the case. Liepaja is not a prime target for Western tourists, and NO tourists are going to come to my father’s sleepy town in Lithuania!

    I believe, like Shulamit, Ellen, and others, that at least some members of the present generations in Europe ARE interested in recognizing their own histories, taking responsibility for past wrongdoing, educating others, and reconciling with present-day Jewish communities and individuals abroad. Yes, it is not an easy task. Think about Canadian and American relationships with their own aboriginal populations. Think about American recognition of black slavery and its repercussions. This is a process that will take time, probably generations, but it’s vital to begin the dialogue.

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