Five Germanys I Have Known: A History & Memoir

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Once, in September , amid another demonstration that threatened to storm Breslau's royal residence and thus precipitate a battle between revolutionaries and armed soldiers, Asch pushed himself to the front of the crowd, warning against violence. The soldiers, he repeatedly cried out, were "the unwilling instruments of black reaction. By December , however, Asch left the Democratic League, disappointed by the intolerance and radicalism of his allies. His earlier hopes were dashed when the old order, somewhat modified, was restored. After a judicial delay, in May he was sentenced to a year's arrest under especially harsh conditions.

After his release and his marriage to the daughter of a prosperous Jewish merchant, he concentrated on his medical practice, gaining notice by holding office hours at dawn for indigent patients. He charged his rich patients enough so that he was able to treat the poor for nothing, and often he unobtrusively left money in the latter's homes so that they could buy the medications he had prescribed.

In , he was elected Stadtverordneter, or representative to the city council, a position he held for sixteen years, and in which he fought for various causes concerning urban improvement and public health. Asch had three children: one, Betty, converted to Protestantism at the age of fourteen; another, Toni, married a young doctor, Richard Stern, my grandfather. Asch himself died in , in the city where he was affectionately known as "der Alte Asch," publicly mourned and properly buried in the Jewishcemetery.

His son, Robert, also a doctor, was my mother's obstetrician at my birth.

Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern

I have always delighted in this democratic ancestor! His children, facing different conditions, felt less incentive to engage politically. Their public lives centered on their work; their private lives concentrated on family and friends but were quietly shadowed not by the "German" question, but by what became a new phase of the "Jewish" question. As we shall see, Jewishness posed the deepest quandaries, so deep that one rarely talked about them. For centuries, Jews and Germans had been separated by visible and invisible walls.

Jews had lived under various disabilities, and were scorned for their enforced penchant for peddling and money changing, for their strange clannish orthodoxy, and for their attachment to a primitive divine dispensation that Gentiles believed could be fulfilled only in Christianity. Jews and Christians were divided by a common God. But great changes had come at the time of the momentous flowering of German thought--the great Idealist Age identified with the German Enlightenment and classicism, when Lessing, Herder, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller transformed German culture.

That is when some German Jews began to feel the attraction of emancipated European life, and began to wish for what has been called assimilation or even integration. By the end of the eighteenth century, some German states decreed the partial emancipation of Jews; Prussia followed in The subsequent history of German Jewry--the trials, triumphs, and ultimate tragedy--which remains of surpassing importance in the history of the world, provided an ever-changing context in the lives of individual families, mine included.

I have grappled with and written about this subject for all my professional life: here the barest summary must suffice. In the late eighteenth century, Jews made their first appearance in German intellectual life. Moses Mendelssohn came to Berlin in , met his exact contemporary Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in , and these two philosophers, both of them interpreters of Enlightenment thought and related theological questions, became friends.

Lessing was a philosopher and great dramatist, whose play Nathan the Wise was deemed the most compelling argumentfor toleration of all religions. Mendelssohn had six children, of whom two converted to Protestantism, two daughters to Catholicism; his grandson Felix was the genius composer who in his music celebrated Reformation Christianity. Thus conversion to Christianity appears at the beginning of the modern phase of German Jewry and remained a theme in German Jewish life to the very end.

Motives varied with individuals and time: Heinrich Heine converted in , considering, as he said, that baptism constituted the entrance ticket to European culture. Conversion became ever more common right down to the Nazi period, but it still involved only a tiny minority of all the Jews who lived in German lands. The legal emancipation of Jews came in stages, beginning with Prussia's decree of , which removed most civil disabilities.

By , Jews were recognized as possessing all legal rights and duties of German citizens. However brief, the road from ghetto and exclusion to legal equality and material opportunity had been painful and precarious. Legal equality did not quash ancient prejudice, and in the new age, Jews remained tacitly banned from positions of political power, indeed from all visible identification with dignified power; in the unified Germany of post, the sanctum sanctorum, the officer corps, was closed to them.

There was something asymmetrical in almost every aspect of German Jewish coexistence. Barred in some fields, Jews succeeded beyond all expectations in others: disproportionately prominent in the free professions, in law, medicine, and journalism; a major presence in trade and banking; disproportionately wealthy, their children disproportionately successful in higher education.

In the late nineteenth century, German Jews achieved an unprecedented preeminence in the natural sciences, fields in which Germans and Jews complemented one another and collaborated in what may well have been a singular crucible of genius. But the need to excel, instilled by tradition, was nurtured by hostility. In retrospect the ascent of German Jewry constitutes one of the most spectacular social leaps in European history.

But success bred resentment, which was newly inflamed when in the early s a great economic bubble burst, involving many tales of corruption. Jewish financiers were involved in some of the scandals, and a regular hate campaign began that blamed Jews as the all-powerful agents of corruption. It was in this context that a German publicist coined the very word anti-Semitism. The attacks, some of them in respectable journals and petitions, demanded at least a partial revocation of the Jews' emancipation.


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This didn't happen, but German anti-Semitism continued, not in some steady, inexorable fashion but with ups and downs, though there was ararely articulated, latent continuum of prejudice, as there was in every country--in other countries perhaps even more strongly than in Germany, where Jews met with an equal measure of hospitality and hostility. No wonder, then, that German Jews had a shaky sense of identity, that ambivalence was a common feeling among them--but then, Germans generally have always had difficulty with their identity, and as Heine once said, Jews are like the people they live among, only more so.

For many German Jews, Jewishness was a charged and private matter about which they spoke only rarely. Yet it marked their lives. In European life, particularly before the Great War, decorum was all-important, and one did not discuss in public subjects such as sexuality and money. Some Jews may have thought that their innermost feelings about Jewishness also deserved to be passed over in silence. But then, Jews also were great disturbers of this decorum: Heine as brilliant satirist of German sentimentality, Marx as analyst of the power of money and capital, Freud as explorer of sexuality.

As Freud once put it,A great imaginative writer may permit himself to give expression--jokingly, at all events--to psychological truths that are severely proscribed. Thus Heine confesses: "Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees.

Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies-but not before they have been hanged. Jews and Christians lived alongside one another, separate for the most part but together in prescribed realms such as schools, obligatory military service, business, municipal affairs, and in many voluntary or professional organizations, in clubs, in hobbies. But in no field did Jews enter Gentile life more intimately than as physicians--as confidants and comforters in those pre-psychotherapeutic days. In imperial Germany, the physician's white coat was the one uniform of dignity to which Jews could aspire and in which they could feel a measure of authority and grateful acceptance.

My grandparents, two doctors and their wives, and their circle of friends, colleagues, and assistants exemplified the wide range of responses to a world at once enticing and hostile. In a culture in which Bildung and Wissenschaft had profoundly altered the traditional outlook of many religions, Jews faced very special quandaries. How could one reconcile ancient rituals and proscriptions with the prevailing post-Darwinian secular-scientific outlook?

Like so many educated Protestants, my grandparents arrived at a worldview that fused a distillation of Christian ethics with rational precepts and national sentiment, the whole enveloped with a proper sense of awe. For Jews like them, a further step to integration was conversion to Germany's "national" religion, Lutheran Protestantism, a step made easier by the fact that that religion had become theologically undemanding by then, having made its peace with modern life, with the spirit of capitalism, and with science.

This was in contrast to the austere Catholicism prescribed by Pope Pius IX, with his canonical denunciation of modern life. My great-grandparents and grandparents fully shared in this Kulturreligion, which gave them a self-evident commonality with non-Jews.

I suspect they knew their German lyric poetry far better than their Hebrew psalms if they knew these last at all ; they felt an uneasy estrangement from Jewish rituals and practices. And this transformation had happened so swiftly!

In the course of but two or three generations, German Jews had lost their particular dialect, a form of Yiddish, or Judendeutsch, and had become entirely Germanified, though probably they had occasional recourse to a few Yiddish words when they couldn't express something in any other way. They delighted in the German language, which in serious and playful efforts, in prose and poetry, they mastered with elegant ease. And still, they carried a memory of past apartness.

I think they thought of Jewishness as both stigma and distinction. Many Jewish families, especially prosperous ones, were steeped in this kind of civic-cultural religion, so distant from the demands of Orthodox Judaism, if more compatible with the prevalent form of Reform, Liberal Judaism. But some of them wished to go even further and, breaking with ancestral ties, convert to Christianity. What in the early nineteenth century had been primarily a philosophic-emotional step gradually acquired an all-too-practical aspect.

Conversion, as it was called by many, apostasy by others, eased most forms of social and economic ascent--some of Bismarck's ministers were Protestants of Jewish descent--so while no doubt conversion had many motives, even the purest grounds for it carried a taint of opportunism. Consider but one example from the life of a friend of my grandparents,Fritz Haber , a chemist of great talent and vaulting ambition who in converted--to the dismay of his father.

The conversion certainly eased Fritz's academic career, which eventually made him a towering figure in the German scientific community, with a Nobel Prize as ultimate recognition. Haber had been thirsting for a university post, denied to him because he was a Jew. Like many others, these two thought it dishonorable to take a spiritual step that would afford material advantage. Many converted Jews continued to feel an ineffable affinity with their former co-religionists, but after a generation or two, some children of Jewish descent didn't even know of their Old Testament roots.

They began to feel they belonged to the "evangelical" or, rarely, "Catholic" group to which their identity papers assigned them. They were Christian by choice and often by faith. In the first generation at least, converts were often regarded with suspicion by both new and old co-religionists. But--and this is nowadays often forgotten--it was only during the Third Reich that, by declaring race and not religion as a determinant of a person's civic identity and worth, Christians of Jewish descent were reconverted into "non-Aryans" and made subject to the same persecution as Jews, hence Jews tout court.

In this respect, Hitler was successful: most people today think of Felix Mendelssohn, say, or Fritz Haber as a Jew, although that is not what their status was in Germany during their lifetimes. Israelis, too, count these "apostates" as Jews, especially if they have won Nobel Prizes or are otherwise distinguished.

My grandmother Hedwig, as I remember, considered herself Christian. Put differently, the converted Sterns were more conscious of their Jewishness than the unconverted Briegers. The two families were exceptionally close friends for decades. The fathers were colleagues, and for years the families lived virtually next door to each other. Their principal friends were fellow converts, Jews tolerant and understandingof their baptism. Jews and converts intermarried, the latter perhaps more often with Jews than with ur-Christians, though among all three groups, close friendships existed.

The two families vacationed together; their children went to the same schools, even to the same, very formal, dancing classes, which mixed the young of all confessions or none. My grandfathers attended to both their Christian and Jewish patients with equal care and worked harmoniously with their Christian colleagues. Both families had Christian nursemaids and servants, who in many instances remained with them over decades, in a trusted if unequal relationship.

In all this, the two families appear to have retained a kind of silence about what we would call their identity, neither openly boastful of their German and Christian belongingness nor openly denying their Jewish roots.

Lectures about Heaven

They adopted a certain style of life and with it a definite ethos, much of it unspoken and habitual. My grandfathers and their colleagues had a "calling" the German word is Beruf that was at the center of their lives, and this patriarchal calling had a commanding place in the family. Among the great callings in the free professions--medicine, law, the clergy--medicine was probably most highly regarded, combining as it did welfare, sacrifice, and science. We know that German Jews flocked to medicine; at the end of the nineteenth century, nearly half of Breslau's doctors were Jews or of Jewish descent.

That all my immediate male forebears were doctors may say something about the effectiveness of the patriarchal model, of the comfort of following in one's father's footsteps or of having one's footsteps followed. But there was more to it than that: by the late nineteenth century, the ancient art of healing had become even more enticing, for it was now a science as well, and its discoveries proved life-transforming.

My doctor forebears were the direct heirs of a generation of clinicians committed to creating and expanding a scientific basis for medicine. They set out to discover the microbacterial origin of disease and to seek remedies through immunology and chemotherapy. During this period, professional organizations and journals multiplied and medical research became an international enterprise. One of the earliest of these German physicians was Bernhard Naunyn, whose self-chosen motto was: "Medicine will be a science or it will be nothing. At the bedside of the sick, the physician's old virtues of trust and human empathy prevailed: medicine at its best remained an art and a science.

My grandfathers, even as medicine was becoming ever more "scientific," were also, inseparably, devoted clinicians. My grandfathers' correspondence exudes a sense of privileged duty, and their progeny continued this tradition. The two men collaborated in the clinic and in medical societies, and they lived in a world of pure science.

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Even their most casual correspondence shows this. In , for example, on a postcard written in his tiny scrawl, Haber addressed "dear Stern" using the familiar du , answering a complicated question about chemistry. Paul Ehrlich, the founder of chemotherapy and ultimately the greatest scientific luminary of Breslau, wrote letters about scientific matters to both my grandfathers, often to thank them for supplying him with samples from their clinical material for his experiments. After Richard Stern's death, Ehrlich sent his handwritten condolences to Stern's widow: "I can tell you that I always esteemed and loved the suddenly deceased to the highest degree--equally as man and character, as an eminent representative of science who mastered equally theoretical research and clinical responsibility as only the fewest do.

Science was a faith, a bond, a career. The obituary of my grandfather Brieger, written by his chief assistant, put it well: "Work was for him It gave meaning to life, and it sustained health even as overexertion damaged it. Theirs was a generation that understood Tolstoi's praise of what he called the work-cure, the Arbeitskur. Practitioners at the time took this ethos for granted; it deserves our respect. I suppose I feel a certain genuine as well as conventionally prescribed ambivalence about descending from this privileged if embattled class. I have to ask myself whether my unbridled admiration for their ethos is a compensatory gesture.

The admiration may be, but their devotion to their calling is beyond question. Their wives, often their cultural equals or, in aesthetic matters, their superiors, chose their own duties and responsibilities--not just at home but outside it, in community and educational work--and they had their own calling in providing for and presiding over the family home, and ensuring the moral education of the children. And I remember that, in Breslau, my maternal grandmother shared responsibility for a quite common enterprise of the time: a Kinderhort, a home that provided full-time care for indigent children.

The choice of a career was taken with the greatest seriousness by both menand women in my family. An undated letter from my grandfather Richard Stern to his father, Heinrich, makes this clear. Heinrich had an exceptional reputation; in one of Germany's foremost internists, Theodor Frerichs, who had been a professor in Breslau and was briefly to be Bismarck's physician, recommended the young Stern for a post because of his "rich experience" as "a thoroughly conscientious and experienced assistant in the All Saints' Hospital and as a doctor to the poor.

Medicine, he added, aroused disgust in him, and in law he foresaw a life of boredom, quite aside from his lacking the rhetorical gifts that the law demanded. The fact that this letter is one of the very few the family kept from that early period could be an accident, but more likely the letter was preserved because it was exemplary. It certainly bespeaks self-critical seriousness and ambition on my grandfather's part, a respectful wager on autonomy. I don't know whether my grandfather explored these earlier interests before he, too, turned to medicine, in which field, as we shall see, he excelled.

These family letters suggest something of the nature and expected closeness of family bonds. They give us a picture of how life was lived or how the writers wanted it to be lived; they articulate what was taken for granted and what seemed quirky or exceptional. Parents and family friends offered advice and admonition, affirming basic rules of conduct. Literary allusions abounded, and a light or humorous touch softened the didactic rigor or severe tone.

He was in Vienna and Halle, finishing his specialization in the new field of otolaryngology, having to do with ear, nose, and throat diseases. His father was a physician in Kosel, in Upper Silesia; hers, Dr. Lion, was a physician and co-owner of a liberal daily in Breslau. Their letters are remarkably candid, fervent love letters that also contain ruminations about life in general. In June, Oskar wrote from Halle of his utter disgust with the Saxon dialect, which made him sick and "melancholy"--and led him to this revealing remark: "in thecourse of time a major conversion has come over me: I have become a passionate friend of Jews I am incredibly happy at every typically crooked nose I see on the street.

That reminds me of Breslau. Of course in this hovel of anti-Semites nothing but boring blondness, blown-up beer faces decorated with dueling scars. The other subject referred to frequently in the letters was Richard Stern. In , Oskar intimated that Richard's conduct had compromised Toni Asch--a renowned beauty, and from a family that demanded special respect--and that if he now had the gall to drop her, she would be forced to lead a life of spinsterhood forever.

How Richard had offended Toni isn't clear, but circumstantial evidence suggests that he had avowed his love but then proved indecisive. He had somehow violated the moral code of the time--though it is unlikely he had compromised her physically, and Oskar had no forgiveness for such behavior; in any case, within a year or so, Richard married Toni, and relations remained unscathed and close, though for decades the solid yet sentimental Briegers would mock the ironic, brittle Sterns.

I can testify to this myself. Conventions dictated manners, the outward form of morals. And moral education and correct conduct mattered intensely: one was expected to follow a code in dress, speech, financial life--to say nothing of the more serious matters of love, marriage, truthfulness, and fidelity. Infractions reflected on the entire family. Parental admonitions, freely given, survive in some of these letters. Thus Toni Stern writing to Rudolf, her fourteen-year-old son, reaffirmed "regulations on conduct" while visiting another family, and at the same time enjoined him to be solicitous of his younger sister, who would be alone at home under the care of the trusted nursemaid.

He needn't take her to a pastry shop: "more valuable for her and more difficult for you is to muster a steady kindness and readiness to help. By giving her a good example you educate her more deeply than by all manner of sermons and eternal admonitions. Doesn't some example of rising above self which you may by chance witness affect your own conduct more effectively than all the brave instructions you receive?

Characteristically, the father added two lines at the bottom to his "dearest Rudi," affirming that he subscribed completely to the mother's injunctions. At another time, the mother explained that of course she had shown the boy's confidential letter to his father, whose judgments he should treasure,quite aside from the fact that he must always be aware that "husband and wife can't have secrets between them, least of all about matters concerning their dear children. A small child's natural tie to his mother ripens into a special relationship between them, "but it is equally natural that the growing man who must enter life with all its dangers and struggles will turn for advice and support to the accomplished man, the father, who has experienced all that and very differently from the mother.

Many a poor child must face the world alone. These admonitions and injunctions may sound banal, but they expressed a strong implicit bond between the generations: the advice so freely given was part of what parents could do for their children's Bildung. This was also an expression of a secular-rational world in which the responsibility for moral education fell on the parents, though obviously there were other voices as well. I happen to know, for example, that the confirmation classes presided over by one Pastor Wackernagel much impressed my parents.

So parental certainty--itself mirroring the prevailing sense of a world in order--informed a young person's view. Harmony and rebellion coexisted: father-son conflicts, a great theme in German life and literature, were generally conducted openly; everyone knew the ultimate sanctions of disassociation or disinheritance.

There was infinite pain in the disputes, but that, too, was a sign of their moral seriousness, so different from the parental diffidence of later times. In the years before the Great War, my grandparents had a kind of certainty, which they felt they should transmit, about how life should be led. These were the living equivalents of the Bildungsromane, the novels on which young Germans had been reared for generations.


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  • Books had a central place in the two families: one began with the classics at home and continued in school in the hours before his death, my father quoted Homer to me in Greek ; in adolescence one was expected to go beyond the assigned, to live, so to speak, in the great novels and dramas. Schiller called the theater a moral institution, and the children in the Stern and Brieger families followed their elders in their awe of, if not necessarily in their taste for, great drama or acting. My father's library, which I inherited along with part of his huge medical library, is a treasure-house of German culture: the collected works of Goethe and Heine, exacting books on philosophy and religion, with bookplates showing an idyllic snow-covered village and the date of the book's acquisition often , the year after his father's death and just before his mother's.

    Perhaps this love of books didn't make those generations any wiser or more attractive than later ones, and it probably encouraged a certain pride of class, a defining superiority--yet it bore a seriousness and certainty that helped to nurture them. Of course, there could be a surfeit of entombed spirit and the danger of succumbing to Bildungsphilistertum.

    Oskar Brieger, having served his required year in the army, finished his medical studies in the new specialty of otolaryngology; at the age of twenty-eight, he became the first head of this department at the leading municipal hospital in Breslau, All Saints', and in he was appointed professor.

    He published a wide range of papers, belonged to the board of the German Otological Society, founded the international journal in the field, and developed a flourishing private practice. Meanwhile, Richard Stern--who may have been exceptionally ambitious and austere but was also, I believe, fragile and uncertain--became a respected internist and outstanding diagnostician, and diagnosis in those pre-X-ray days demanded a much greater intuitive gift than in our test-equipped world. He was devoted to the many facets of his work; a sought-after clinician, he was also a researcher who in published a pioneering study of the traumatic origins of internal diseases, based on his own observations and on existing international literature.

    Industrial accidents were very common at the time, and since Bismarck's progressive social legislation provided for workers' compensation, doctors had to determine if a physical or even psychic trauma might have been responsible for debilitating, even fatal, diseases of internal organs. Richard's book became a standard international work in forensic medicine--coming as it did from the country that was the laboratory of social insurance. He became an expert witness in court cases, asked to establish whether a given trauma could have caused a subsequent disease or death.

    To render a medical opinion in such cases was scientifically complex and, for the victim or his family, of immense importance, as it was for the state and its fiscal responsibility. In addition to this much-hailed pioneering work, Richard Stern made important discoveries in clinical bacteriology and the bacterial etiology of disease, then the frontiers of medical science.

    In he was appointed associate professor at the University of Breslau, itself a place of exceptional standing in medicine. At the same time, he was appointed head of the university Poliklinik, or outpatient department, a position of considerable responsibility, and made chairman of internal medicine at All Saints' Hospital, where Brieger headed the ear, nose, and throat department. The next and highest rank was Ordinarius,or full professor, a rare position for anyone to attain, and especially hard for someone of Jewish descent.

    In , Richard Stern was offered this position at the University of Greifswald, in northern Germany, in a provincial city close to the Baltic Sea with none of the cultural advantages of Breslau, where he was meant to succeed Oskar Minkowski, a stellar internist who as a young doctor discovered in animal experiments the etiology of diabetes mellitus, the essential step that years later led to the discovery of insulin. He had finally received and accepted a call as Ordinarius in Breslau. Richard was attracted to Greifswald--after all, it offered important teaching responsibilities and high prestige.

    His wife prepared the children for the move in the fall of the year. But, apparently having fallen into a state of melancholy indecision, Richard first accepted and then declined the offer. In June he wrote to his friend Fritz Haber, acknowledging the latter's solicitude about the issue and saying that he was very slowly recovering from the tumultuous nonevents of the previous fall, but "still thinking too much of past happenings. In the same letter he mentioned that he was planning to go on holiday to the North Sea and inquired whether Haber would remain loyal to Pontresina, an idyllic Alpine village near St.

    But a year later he died quite suddenly at the age of forty-five. Newspaper accounts I have found about Richard Stern's death give different stories about a long or short illness. As a child, I had always been told that he died of influenza. He was buried at the Maria Magdalena Cemetery in Breslau; the many obituaries in medical journals emphasized his scientific research, his clinical excellence, and--with exceptional warmth--his qualities as teacher and mentor.

    His death in affected my life half a century later. In the very last days of my father's life in , I was in the midst of having to decide whether to stay at Columbia University or accept an invitation to teach elsewhere. My parents remarked that at least the decision wasn't as hard as the choice between Breslau and Greifswald. Then, a few years later, my relative and good friend the physicist Otto Stern casually referred to my grandfather's suicide. Shocked, I immediately asked my mother what my grandfather had died of; with charac-teristichonesty when confronted, she acknowledged that he had died of an overdose of sleeping pills; it was, in fact, her father who had been called to Richard's deathbed to sign the death certificate.

    I was troubled by my parents' secretiveness about this, and still regret their deception, though I realize how much pain my father must have felt at the loss, which the subsequent repression of the truth only emphasizes. Perhaps Richard Stern had been anguished at having made the easier choice: Breslau, after all, was familiar turf, where he and his wife were part of a cluster of distinguished colleagues who doubled as a network of friends.

    Among those closest to him were not only the Briegers, but Paul Ehrlich and the dermatologist Albert Neisser, discoverer of the gonococcus, also a converted Jew and a physician's son. In , Neisser was appointed full professor of dermatology, the first such chair in Germany. By all accounts, Albert and Toni Neisser enjoyed a very special social presence in Breslau, with a grand villa and garden, elaborately designed and decorated, home to a celebrated salon of artists and writers, including Gerhart Hauptmann, the architect Hans Poelzig, the painter Fritz Erler, and the musicians Adolf Busch and Artur Schnabel.

    Albert's brother Gustav was a lawyer, or Justizrat, adviser to various enterprises, a liberal city councilor, and also a close friend to several generations of Sterns and Briegers. Albert Neisser died in His successor at the university was Joseph Jadassohn, who was later considered "the most famous dermatologist in the world. I remember him vividly. There were Gentile friends and colleagues as well, foremost among them the outstanding psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, some of whose numerous children went to dancing school with my parents.

    Ties to the Bonhoeffer family remained close for decades. Another fabled member of the psychiatric faculty was Alois Alzheimer, who observed and described the symptoms of senile dementia, and was the first to relate them to pathological changes in the brain. In , Johann Mikulicz, student of the incomparable Theodor Billroth in Vienna and one-time assistant of Joseph Lister, was appointed professor of surgery; he acquired a worldwide reputation for his new operative techniques carried out under new aseptic conditions; Ferdinand Sauerbruch, one of his pupils, was in turn to have Rudolf Nissen as his star assistant--a lifelong friend of my father's and of mine.

    A recent history of Breslau's medical faculty records that many foreign visitorsand students flocked to the university, including American doctors, such as the neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing and the Mayo brothers, who in went home to Minnesota to establish their famed clinic. No wonder they had come to Breslau: it did have a galaxy of preeminent physicians!

    The children founded a "club" there, with its own elected leaders and statutes, the principal activity being to write and perform plays, and created their own entertainment for themselves and their appreciative elders. In some way, their activities duplicated an adult Breslau club, the Akademisch-Literarischer Verein, a student organization that originally served as a primarily Jewish substitute for the Gentile university fraternities that excluded Jews.

    The ALV comprised alumni and students, another intergenerational effort involving men and women, and held frequent feasts with lectures and poetic, witty persiflage. For years, Gustav Neisser was its head. This older generation, born in the s, gradually established themselves, overcoming prejudices and benefiting from the scientific and material progress of the times. They came to lead comfortable, respected lives. Oskar Brieger, at some point in the early years of the new century, treated the director of the Breslau Academy of Arts, Hans Poelzig, already a well-known architect and slated to become even better known.

    I believe Poelzig's favor was richly rewarded. That furniture has had its own history, as we shall see.


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    • My impression is that the generation of my parents, born in the s, had an easier childhood and more cheerful prospects than their parents. They started life on a calm and prosperous voyage--only to be caught in a storm of violence that their elders could not even have imagined. Perhaps that mixture of felicity and seriousness in the early years gave some of them the psychological stamina to cope with the terrors of later times. Those two generations were not much concerned with national politics, though the wives and sisters addressed what was then called "the social question," hoping to ameliorate the lot of underprivileged children, for example, while the men were used to a world of international scientific collaboration and rivalry.

      They were patriots in a cosmopolitan world. Some were liberals, some conservatives, but they all thought that the Rechtsstaat, the rule of law,was the unassailable bedrock of civic existence. They witnessed the reign of Emperor Friedrich, Queen Victoria's son-in-law and the very embodiment of German liberal hopes, who by the time he ascended the throne in had been left speechless by cancer of the esophagus; he died after three anguished months. His son, Wilhelm II, was of a different mold: arrogant, reactionary, the very epitome of strident tactlessness, though in his own way open to scientific and technological innovation.

      Many in my family were bemused by, even critical of, this feckless young monarch. But awareness that politics could threaten or destroy their lives came to them, as to most Germans, only with the Great War. In my twelve-year-old father began "a newspaper," of which only the first "issue" survives, in which he noted with satisfaction that in that year's election, the democratic parties had not scored further gains: he surely came to this class-bound political view via his parents. What mattered most to this cluster of quietly privileged people was their private life--family, career, friendship.

      The outside world may have seemed remote and unchanging, and yet German society--in which an ever-growing, organized, educated proletariat imbued with social-democratic hopes challenged the old elites who governed a semi-authoritarian monarchical state--was anything but stable. By the Social Democratic Party had the largest representation in the national parliament, the Reichstag, with limited but expanding powers.

      How long before radical reforms or revolution would threaten the social order? Imperial Germany was a strange hybrid, a magnificently disciplined modern society with an antiquated political order. As Walther Rathenau wrote in , "What cultural criteria justify the fact that Germany is being governed more absolutistically than almost all other civilized countries? We cannot maintain a separate climate for ourselves forever.

      Wilhelmine arrogance was mixed with pervasive anxiety that Germany's powerful neighbors were "encircling" the country, trying to throttle its legitimate growth. Germany was at the geographical center of Europe, with more neighbors at its borders than any other country. For a long time German lands had been Europe's anvil; the new Germany was the hammer. My impression is that my forebears were among those prosperous Germans who paid but intermittent attention to the great political questions of the time. They knew important cultural innovators such as Hauptmann and Poelzig, early representatives of German modernism.

      But were they aware of the greatcultural and emancipatory movements of the Belle Epoque? Probably not. After all, Germany was not rent by a Dreyfus Affair there could be no Dreyfus in Germany, since a Jewish officer on the German General Staff was unimaginable , nor was it threatened by a time bomb akin to the Irish question in Britain.

      Confident patriotism was a birthright of the prosperous citizen; local and charitable activism was the principal civic concern. Certainly the young had other matters on their minds. This Realgymnasium--there were no classical gymnasia for girls--offered a practical form of higher education, emphasizing modern languages, mathematics, and science. It was a rare pursuit for a woman at that time--the whole notion of a professional career for a woman was still suspect. But her father's ambition for her had gently encouraged her to choose this path; his confident expectations spurred her all her life.

      My father attended the Johannes Gymnasium, a school founded in , at the height of Germany's and Breslau's civic liberalism, with the explicit aim of being a bastion of religious tolerance; it was the only Gymnasium in Breslau that had Jewish teachers, and by the end of the century a quarter of the staff was Jewish. The Prussian state looked with suspicion on the school, but the strong liberal wing of the municipal council cherished it. My father passed his Abitur in and that spring began his medical studies in Breslau; he spent the next semesters in Munich--successively attending several universities being a German academic custom.

      The year was the year my father became an orphan. He had his two sisters as both comfort and responsibility, and his father's sister, Grete, kept in touch with them. I remember her as a somewhat humorless spinster who had begun and abandoned an academic career but kept up her literary-scientific interests.

      The family had a legacy of sustaining intergenerational friendships, and among the friends who became substitute parents were the Briegers, who, for example, invited my father to join them on their Swiss holiday in Pontresina, where Haber also vacationed. Albert and Gustav Neisser also kept a protective eye on him--and in the medical world he was just entering, many internists would recognize his name. And it was precisely in the years of his parents' deaths that he built up his library--he lived with his books. Books were part of the serious side of life, of what his family thought of as moral education.

      So was the advice passed on by one's elders. In congratulating my mother on having passed the Abitur, Toni Neisser expressed the prevailing ethos, adorning her advice with a string of pearls: "I would so much want to tell you today what for me has been most important in life: to be able to be active, to be able to do without, to be able to feel joy and to be able to suffer, to be able to love, to admire. If you are able to do this as well as you have done your studies, you'll be able to say your life was sublime [herrlich].

      Toni Neisser's anything-but-casual remark fastened on something that her generation, unlike ours, took for granted: in a world of abundant comfort, a high value was put on renunciation, on knowing how to do without. There was a fear of indulgent luxury, of ostentation, of excessive ease, all of which bore the danger of decline and decadence. Criticism of such self-indulgence was not so much a pragmatic counsel fear of a rainy day as a moral tenet, part of a now-secularized, once-Christian--more specifically Calvinist--faith. It was a secular bow to the virtues of modesty and thrift.

      I am reminded of Buddenbrooks, the novel by the twenty-six-year-old Thomas Mann that was published in , with its portrait of a bourgeois family in decline. Mann gave epic expression to a pervasive fear that wealth and luxury marked the road to perdition--to say nothing of his equally pervasive disdain for ostentatious wealth.

      He was my father's favorite modern writer. Everyday thrift enhanced the pleasures of family celebrations and holidays, which were major occasions marked by festive meals, in turn requiring proof of proper bearing. I don't know when the earlier generations had ceased observing the Jewish holy days, but I do know that beginning with my parents' time, Christian holidays were duly celebrated--Easter; the Advent Sundays; St. Nicholas's day, with the fearsome character with the switch; Christmas, with the tree and its lighted candles, the singing of carols, presents, and the special meal.

      In equal contrast to the workaday world was the annual vacation, with or occasionally without children, the travel with heavy baggage to the sea or the mountains, the time to restore one's health after habitual overexertion, the time to read, to meet up with or make friends, often the time for cultural pilgrimages to Italy or France, to the fabled spas in the vast Dual Monarchy or toprimitive inns in simple villages.

      Frontiers, after all, were open, visas rarely required, and the prevailing gold standard served as a kind of common currency. For this compressed portrait of my family's life my sources are family letters and photographs and, to a lesser extent, oral tradition. I have tried to hear the varied voices of the time, and I know that they may perhaps sound implausibly idyllic, that what they preserved on paper may well already have been purged or "elevated.

      But they couldn't--they shouldn't--have seemed idyllic to them at the time: there was too much poverty, too much disease, too short a life span. There was hardly a family that had not experienced grave illnesses--tuberculosis, syphilis, diphtheria--and many had endured the worst ravage, an infant's death. Physicians' families knew all about this. And there were constant reminders of death everywhere, with the public expression of private grief: women in mourning dressed for at least a year in the prescribed black, men with their black armbands. Death was publicly acknowledged, while the advent of birth--pregnancy--was kept hidden or referred to only in polite circumlocutions.

      Of course the outside world had always impinged on these private lives--sometimes dramatically, as at the moment of German unification, in ; sometimes gradually, as with the industrialization of Germany and with its increasing political discord. And there were the occasional bomb-throwers, mostly anarchists venting their rage at crowned heads and other representatives of a hated order.

      But I doubt that many Germans--or indeed Europeans--took a full measure of what the consequences might be of the sharpening antagonisms among the great powers. To be sure there were sudden crises--the Russian Revolution of , Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in , a second Moroccan crisis in threatening alliances, and ever-greater military expenses; but the presumption was for continued peace, even perhaps for greater international understanding, given the Hague Convention and the Socialist International, with its pledge to oppose all war.

      Perhaps peace, progress, and prosperity would endure. At first, then, few realized that the assassination in in Sarajevo of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, posed a more ominous threat. The killing, it was assumed, had been the work of someone in the Serb underground, a manifestation of nationalist fury against Austro-Hungarian rule. It took almost a month for people to grasp that Europe was on the brink of war. Memoirs have been written since the ancient times, as shown by Julius Caesar 's Commentarii de Bello Gallico , also known as Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.

      In the work, Caesar describes the battles that took place during the nine years that he spent fighting local armies in the Gallic Wars. His second memoir, Commentarii de Bello Civili or Commentaries on the Civil War is an account of the events that took place between 49 and 48 BC in the civil war against Gnaeus Pompeius and the Senate. The noted Libanius , teacher of rhetoric who lived between an estimated and AD, framed his life memoir as one of his literary orations , which were written to be read aloud in the privacy of his study. This kind of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and Rome , that memoirs were like "memos", or pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing, which a writer might use as a memory aid to make a more finished document later on.

      The Sarashina Nikki is an example of an early Japanese memoir, written in the Heian period. A genre of book writing, Nikki Bungaku , emerged during this time. In the Middle Ages , Geoffrey of Villehardouin , Jean de Joinville , and Philippe de Commines wrote memoirs, while the genre was represented toward the end of the Renaissance , through the works of Blaise de Montluc and Margaret of Valois , that she was the first woman to write her Memoirs in modern-style.

      While Saint-Simon was considered a writer possessing a high level of skill for narrative and character development, it wasn't until well after his death that his work as a memoirist was recognized, resulting in literary fame. Over the latter half of the 18th through the midth century, memoirists generally included those who were noted within their chosen profession. These authors wrote as a way to record and publish their own account of their public exploits. Authors included politicians or people in court society and were later joined by military leaders and businessmen. An exception to these models is Henry David Thoreau 's memoir Walden , which presents his experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond.

      Memoirs documenting incarceration by Nazi Germany during the war include Primo Levi 's If This Is a Man , which covers his arrest as a member of the Italian Resistance Movement , followed by his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz ; and Elie Wiesel 's Night , which is based on his life prior to and during his time in the Auschwitz, Buna Werke , and Buchenwald concentration camps. At the same time, psychology and other research began to show that familiarity with genealogy helps people find their place in the world and that life review helps people come to terms with their own past.

      With the advent of inexpensive digital book production in the first decade of the 21st century, [7] the genre exploded. Memoirs written as a way to pass down a personal legacy, rather than as a literary work of art or historical document, are emerging as a personal and family responsibility. The Association of Personal Historians formed in Amherst, Massachusetts , in the early days of the modern memoir, as an international trade association for professionals who assist individuals, families, and organizations in documenting their life stories, preferably in archival formats.

      With the expressed interest of preserving history through the eyes of those who lived it, some organizations [10] work with potential memoirists to bring their work to fruition. The Veterans History Project , for example, compiles the memoirs of those who have served in a branch of the United States Armed Forces — especially those who have seen active combat. The term 'memoir' has been used in an academic context to describe an essay on a learned subject.

      Examples include explanatory texts accompanying geologic maps.