Tuesday, March 7, 2017



By Leonard Barkan

University of Chicago Press, $27.50, 191 pages

As a longtime provincial backwater that, almost overnight, became the capital of Europe’s mightiest commercial and military power, Berlin has always been a special case. Part insecure, arrogant arriviste and part vital, creative nerve center, Bismarck’s 19th-century unification of Germany capped a process that, beginning with Frederick the Great in the 18th century, had gradually attracted money, talent and influence to the capital of Hohenzollern Prussia, mostly at the expense of the far more elegant but fading German-speaking cultural center of Hapsburg Vienna. The collapse of Imperial Germany at the end of World War I and the establishment of the Weimar Republic diluted but did not destroy Berlin’s influence. Hitler’s rise to power actually enhanced it, but in quite the wrong way. Then came retribution. Berlin, like Germany, was crushed and divided. West Germany and West Berlin quickly rebuilt and prospered on democratic, capitalist lines, but both city and nation were incomplete, physically and emotionally.

Only with the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany — and of Berlin itself — has the city reclaimed its position as the most influential metropolis not only in Germany, but in Central Europe. As one who first visited West Berlin in 1973 when the Iron Curtain, though rusty, showed no signs of lifting, then in June of 1982 with President Reagan, when his message of hope had just begun to sink in, and then to East Berlin in 1989 as the Wall was literally being demolished, I was able to see the process unfold as if in time lapse photography. All very exhilarating, but the roots of today’s vibrant, free Berlin dig deep into bloodstained soil, memories of which are never far from view if you walk through the bustling city today with any degree of historical awareness.

Berlin has changed, but, in the line of an old song that. Mr. Reagan quoted in his 1982 speech there — which I was responsible for drafting and editing — “Berlin bleibt doch Berlin” (“Berlin is still Berlin“), a city of good and evil spirits, of deep shadow as well as bright light. With this in mind, it in no way detracts from Leonard Barkan’s sensitive and perceptive little travel/historical volume on “Berlin for Jews” to say that the most moving words it contains are those in its dedication:

“In grateful recognition of a whole generation of exiles who were my teachers, whether in person or by example. I think especially of three remarkable individuals who taught me German: at Horace Mann, Arthur F. Walber from Bottrop (1897-1991); at Swarthmore, Hilde Cohn from Grlitz (1909-2001) and Franz Mautner from Vienna (1902-1995). What a glorious slap in the face of evil that all three lived to such a grand age in their adopted homeland!”

The best way to reach a full understanding of the story of the rich German-language culture that millions of Middle European Jews so sincerely and — at the time — so seemingly successfully embraced, is to read the late Amos Elon’s “The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933” published in 2002. Having dined on Mr. Elon’s thorough, scholarly and humane treatment of the broad panorama, the reader can then order “Berlin for Jews” as dessert. In less than 200 pages it walks you through surviving landmarks of Berlin’s largely vanished (but now gradually regenerating) Jewish population and introduces you to famous and not-so-famous figures from the past and the present connected to the pageant. You will also enjoy the author’s exuberant evocation of the sights, sounds and — not least — tastes of today’s Berlin. He seems to have a particular fondness, almost to the point of obsession, for local strawberries and white asparagus. My own favorite culinary memory of Berlin is a near-perfect bowl of eel soup enjoyed at a lakeside restaurant in 1973 … but to each his own.

As an American of Christian Armenian ancestry who experienced some very complex emotions on my first visit to contemporary Istanbul — which my paternal grandparents had known as “Constantinople,” the glittering capital of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the previous century, before the mass murder of Armenians during World War I — I felt more than a little empathy for the complex process of reconnection Mr. Barkan, as an American of Ashkenazi Jewish extraction, has undergone in Berlin. There are occasional moments when one might wish that his book contained a little more Berlin and a little less Barkan — the city being a much more interesting subject than the author — all in all, though, you will find him a knowledgeable, engaging guide.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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