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My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin Hardcover – October 7, 1998

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 222 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (October 7, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300076703
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300076707
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,450,098 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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."
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 27, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most moving survivor books I have read since Into Thin Air. Unlike other readers who found it uninsightful, I found in the simple telling of this terrible story ample insights for the perceptive reader. The prevailing confessional genre of our day has desensitized us, and led us to expect a memoirist to bare his soul, beat his breast, bemoan his fate. Such antics would be antithetical to a man of dignity, and Professor Gay always retains his dignity. It is enough that he describes faithfully, but with detachment, his daily life in Nazi Germany as a youth. We supply the necessary subtext. Gay need only relate dispassionately his bike ride on the morning after Kristallnacht, and the sensitive reader understands that there are things that cannot be made explicit, but that must be inferred. He tells the reader his father's non-Jewish partner expropriated his business. He describes without emotion how, a top student, he was expelled from school at age 15. He describes the trashing of his relatives' dry goods store. He shows us a picture of his lovely blond aunt, who played "Germania" at a school pageant, and tells us she was killed by the Nazis. He describes how his family finally managed to escape at the eleventh hour and come to America. He relates how his father worked uncomplainingly at a physically taxing factory job. I would not cavil at what Gay does not include. Peter Gay has done us a great service by undertaking the wrenching job of writing this book, obviously for the sake of the historical record. He writes as a historian. Do not ask for passion. The feeling is inherent in the narrative, at least for the sensitive reader.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Manuel Haas on January 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
Some readers were disappointed with this book, because it does not explain why and what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany; what it does is give a highly personal account of Gay's "growing up in Nazi Berlin". At first the normalcy of the family described here may seem disappointing, but this changes when the Nazis declare a family of fervent atheists to be Jews. Gay's book explains how he survived psychically in a country which said he was worthless; and he points out what kept his family from leaving before 1939. The answers to those two questions are important contributions to our understanding of Nazi Germany.
Supporting the local Berlin football team is more than just that when it is one of the very few means of belonging, of not being singled out. And watching the 1936 Olympics is different when all you hope for is that it will prove that Aryans are not as superior as they keep telling you every day.
I feel grateful for this book. Peter Gay came to hate the Germans who would have killed him if his father had not managed to get the family out of Germany; this memoir, however, by telling us who and what helped him survive, also tells us what was once beautiful about Germany.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Christoph Gassenschmidt on March 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
As a historian I was recently confronted with a request by one of my students to find memoirs of a young Jewish person who had lived in the 1930s in Germany. Looking for memoirs of that type in English proved to be difficult. Most childhood recollections are anyhow problematic - due to the time difference and the natural lapses in memory. Then I stumbled across Peter Gay's book. After having read the book I decided to go to Amazon to see once again what other people thought about the book.
Indeed, I found mixed reviews concentrating on Peter Gay as the scholar or Peter Gay as the survivor etc. I am German myself and on top of it a history professor who is teaching right now a course on Collaboration and Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe. So, the book became interesting to me from several perspectives. While I did not learn anything new as far as his years in Berlin are concerned, his judgments on Germany and the Germans troubled me deeply. Although I could not share Peter Gay's eye for an eye statements - especially concerning the bombing of Dresden and the acts of Zionist terrorists in early Israel (terrorism remains terrorism - no matter what side) - I was once again confronted with my German identity. Since I am born in 1959 I had nothing to do with those times directly - nevertheless my compatriots overall did commit those crimes to humanity. Gay's statements troubled me in the sense that once again I asked myself to which extent could we Germans have prevented this from happening. What could the "ordinary German" - to remain in Christopher Browning's words - have done? The resistance of Gay's friend Busse did not do much either in preventing the Holocaust! So, what could have been the solution?
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 25, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This succinct, extremely well written slice of autobiography and history is valuable to those who would (and should!) garner some very personal recollections of what it was like to be a young man growing up in Germany, moving to Denver (of all places!), and becoming one of the premier historians of our time. I emphasize "of all places" because, although somewhat younger than the author, I, too, fled from Germany and found in Denver the midpoint of my maturation. But I also found matters there considerably less agreeable than Gay did. He seems to have encountered none of the simultaneous anti-Semitism and anti-Germanism that I experienced. This may be a matter of a ten-year age difference, or a difference in temperament (then and now), as we both lived in the same part of Denver. It may also mirror different approaches to the topic. It may also be that the meanness in Denver paled, as did everything else, against the cruelty in Germany. Professor Gay offers an excellent psychoanalytic interpretation of Germans under Nazism. This is also a study of the author himself as the tormentors' fury acccelerates. Responses are invariably haphazard or inadequate. He is here not much interested in the cultural aspects (which he handled so well in "Weimar Culture").He correctly attacks some of the simple (or simplistic!) reactions to the experience of exile, but comes to this attack late in his own life. Why, it might still be asked, did it take him more than two decades to begin to re-examine his unscholarly hostility toward Germany and Germans? As he nears the closest he will, I suspect, ever come to a reconciliation with Germany, he correctly attacks the "white anti-Semitism" of the philo-Semites he encountered in contemporary Germany.Read more ›
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