Cultural historian Peter Gay (The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud
, Freud: A Life for Our Time
) applies his considerable analytic skills to his memoir of his early years as a Jew in 1930s Berlin. Light-haired, blue-eyed, and culturally assimilated, the Frohlich family, as they were then known, convinced themselves that, despite the growth spurt of the Nazi party, anti-Semitism was on the wane among the German populous. Gay recalls that his daily life was relatively unaffected by the Totalitarian regime. That is until 1933, when, according to law, he became a Jew overnight. Soon the family found their living quarters shrinking and their awareness of their plight growing (though no one could possibly conceive of what would come). Though still a boy, Gay remembers that "one of the greatest moments in my life" came when the German women's relay team dropped their baton at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Then came Kristallnacht, which crystallized the family's sublimated fears and precipitated their flight from their home. After a certain suspenseful series of necessary deceits and circuitous travels, the family began their new life in America--12-year-old Peter spoke barely a word of English. Now, decades later, Gay employs his new native tongue to uncover the psychological impulses that fed his parents' decision to stay in Berlin as long as they did and governed his own behavior as a boy. The result is credible answer to the question: How could they have stayed?
From Publishers Weekly
Gay is best known for his painstakingly researched series on the Enlightenment and, more recently, on The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. In this memoir of his early life, particularly of the years between Hitler's chancellorship in 1933 and Gay's eventual escape in 1939, one can almost see the evolution of his obsessive concentration in the intense devotion to stamp collecting and sports that helped him block out the increasing din of Nazi racism. But this is not only a memoir, it's also a fierce reply to those who criticized German-Jewish assimilation and the tardiness of many families in leaving Germany. "We were not so stupid, not so deluded, certainly not so treacherous as we have been judged to be." In responding to these often facile charges, Gay is defending his beloved father, who through persistence and risky subterfuges managed to get his son and consumptive wife out of the country. In one episode, he recalls his father desperately doctoring a family certificate: "I can still see him at work committing this crime: using a straight razor, he gently scratched away at the ink, with St. Louis and May 13 growing paler and paler." This smart, funny, personable and resourceful man never adapted to his new life and died prematurely in 1955. Gay does not apologize for his father or other German-Jews, but rather offers an explanation of the mixed signals and the difficulty of escape. Or if it's an apology, it is, as he says "an unapologetic apology."
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