“Germans & Jews,” an engaging, thoughtful documentary about the current relationship between Germany and its Jewish population, begins with a lively dinner party. In the middle of the meal, a German woman suddenly confesses that she always feels self-conscious uttering the words Juden and Deutschland and only dares to say them in English. It is a singular moment for both the Germans and the Jews in the room—a moment that captures one of the many complexities of this candid film.
The dinner party also brings together most of the principals of the film, which include German-born Jews, Israelis who have immigrated to Berlin and Germans who aren’t Jewish. Scenes from the dinner party recur throughout the film like a leitmotif, suggesting both the uniqueness and the straightforwardness of bringing together second and third generations of Germans and Jews to talk about the Holocaust 70 years after the end of World War II.
Other notable interviewees in the film include the late Fritz Stern, a world-renowned historian of the Holocaust, Rafael Seligman, an Israeli-born German-Jewish writer who publishes The Jewish Voice from Germany, and Rabbi Andreas Nachama, born in Germany and the executive director of the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin.
While “Germans & Jews” builds on what is perhaps the world’s most familiar history lesson, it is also notable for the new possibilities it draws from those lessons. The film is the brainchild and passion of producer Tal Recanati and director Janina Quint. Recanati, an American-Israeli Jew, and Quint, a native of Germany who isn’t Jewish, have been friends for 30 years. Over the years the two women have explored the repercussions of the Holocaust on their identities. Their openness, curiosity and respect for one another is a dynamic they have carried to the screen. Quint was the first not-Jewish German that Recanati met. Quint’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Nazi party while her paternal grandfather left Germany to fight against Francisco Franco in Spain.
I, too, have known Recanati for almost 30 years. We met as researchers at the Anti-Defamation League in New York City where our work encompassed tracking neo-Nazis, skinheads and Holocaust deniers. It was emotional work, and in the late 1980s neither of us could have predicted that Berlin would some day have the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe. Recanati’s fascination with the impact the Holocaust had on ordinary Germans grew from there.
In 2008 Recanati, her husband and two teenage daughters traveled to Berlin to delve into the German-Jewish past. That trip inspired Recanati to think about the future of Germany and its Jews. When she returned home to New York she told Quint, a filmmaker, that there was a story happening in Germany that needed to be told. “I saw it as an opportunity also,” said Quint by telephone. “My husband is Jewish. My children have a dual heritage. I felt the need to get involved.”
Quint sees the fall of the Berlin Wall as one of the turning points in German-Jewish relations. “It was an opportunity where Germany had to make a decision to allow Russian Jews into the country,” she said. “During the ‘90s more Jews came and there was a critical mass of people. And these days the German embassy in Israel is very busy issuing German passports to Israelis who can prove their ancestors once lived in Germany.” Statistics in the film back up Quint’s claims. In recent years there has been an influx of more than 10,000 Israelis into Berlin, and there are 100,000 Israelis with German passports. Germany’s Jewish population has swelled from 25,000 in the early 1990s to almost 250,000 today. Yet Jews are only .2 percent of the country’s population.
In many ways Germany aims to be an eternal memorial to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Scattered throughout the cities are bronze plaques, called stolpersteine, or stumbling stones. The film highlights a young German woman, who isn’t Jewish, who has made it her mission to buff and shine these plaques. “Anja Bukschat has adopted about 40 of these bronze plaques,” Recanati explained. “They are an amazing metaphor for what is happening today in Germany. It’s haunting. This is what Germans live with all around them. You see parents stopping on the street with their children to explain what these plaques represent.”
Both Recanati and Quint assert that “Germans & Jews” intentionally picks up the German-Jewish story after the Holocaust. “It’s a very nuanced story of how these two people came together,” Quint said. “And it’s a distinctive film for the way it pushes the topic of the Holocaust forward. The relationship between our two peoples is still complicated. There is still residual guilt and awkwardness for the third generation.”
Recanati elaborated: “Germans today feel that [the Holocaust] is part of a past their children and grandchildren should know about. They continue to emphasize a strong civil society and human rights. At the end of the day the film tells a story that doesn’t just apply to Germans and Jews. It’s what any society can achieve with time, and introspection.”
Perhaps Andreas Nachama, the German-born rabbi, gives the best advice to future generations of Germans and Jews when he suggests that memorials and museums like the Topography of Terror “are not just places of memory, but also places to learn.”
“Germans & Jews” has its Massachusetts premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday, Nov. 13, at 2:30 p.m.
A longer version of this article appeared in The Forward.