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Germans into Jews: Remaking the Jewish Social Body in the Weimar Republic, by Sharon Gillerman. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 238 pp. $50.00.
It was once difficult for historians to escape the shadow of Auschwitz and write a narrative of German Jews that did not focus on antisemitism and assimilation. The postwar Zionist assumption was that German Jews gave up being Jewish in order to become German, with catastrophic results. Since the 1980s, however, historians have stressed how assimilating involved not discarding with Jewish life but rather transforming and reaffirming it. This slim book on German-Jewish social welfare during the Weimar Republic continues with that revisionist approach. It shows how after 1918 German Jews created a vast and extensive network of public assistance organizations. These associations were tightly integrated—ideologically, structurally, and even financially—into the sprawling Weimar welfare state that touched the lives of all Germans. The integration, the author Sharon Gillerman argues, was due to the agreement of Jewish welfare workers with their Christian and secular counterparts that Germany could heal the wounds from the lost war and the economic crises only by invigorating the “social body” (Volkskörper)—that is, by promoting the health, fertility, productivity, and morality of the German population as a whole.
Against those who think that being Jewish and being German were at odds, Gillerman details how Jewish welfare organizations consciously aimed to redeem and restore the German nation. But Jewish social welfare also revitalized Jewish communal life. The welfare organizations intervened in the lives of the tens of thousands of needy and wayward Jews, and fostered a Jewish identity by collecting membership dues from close to half of the adult Jews in Germany. Furthermore, because so much Jewish ritual happened in families, welfare organizations that socially supported parents and children had an especially important role in maintaining Jewish life. They accordingly complemented and even rivaled religious institutions in invigorating Judaism. In fact, according to Gillerman, the Central Welfare Agency of German Jews, which coordinated the semi-autonomous associations, was “German Jewry’s most important organization during the Weimar Republic” (p. 82).
Population policy was of particular concern because the number of Jews had halved over the previous half century in proportion to the general German population, a result of the tendency of middle-class Jews to marry late and have few children. According to the social workers, the German Jewish “social body” was literally shrinking. The remedy was to intervene more vigorously with social welfare: giving better care for orphans; providing early marriage funds; offering medical assistance, especially pre- and postnatal care; encouraging breast feeding and healthy infant hygiene; promoting physical culture; redressing youth delinquency; aiding crippled veterans; retraining the unemployed and finding them jobs; and setting up marriage bureaus to help poor young Jewish women find Jewish husbands (Jewish men often preferred large dowries, even if that meant marrying a gentile). The social workers, most of whom were female, also proposed that the “new woman”—the modern, independent, and sexually loose urbanite allegedly prominent among German Jews—should be replaced by the “new Jewish mother,” who was politically liberated but also committed to aiding the Jewish community and nurturing the Jewish “social body.”
Much if not most of the welfare work served the 35,000 largely poor and unassimilated eastern European Jews who immigrated to Germany during and immediately after the First World War. Reformers concerned about the deteriorating Jewish “social body” believed that these eastern European Jews, with their tendency to marry early and have large families, promised salvation for German Judaism by multiplying its numbers. Yet, according to the reformers, success depended on acquiring and acting on the bourgeois values like education, hard work, and self-help that had made German Jews so extraordinarily successful in the professions and commercial trades.
The title of this book is hence somewhat misleading because it fails to capture the paradox that Gillerman so forcefully highlights: Jewish social welfare aimed to turn these foreign Jews into Germans as much as they wanted to turn indigenous Germans into Jews. Gillerman could have explored this paradox further: While the small families common among middle-class Jews might have diminished the “social body” in numbers, fewer children maximized resources for nutrition, education, and social and medical care and prevented the very poverty that undermined the health of the eastern European Jews and the “social body” more generally. Whatever the social workers thought, in order to become healthy and upright like the German Jews, eastern European Jews would have to limit their fertility.
The first four chapters of this book are rich and penetrating, with sharp analysis page after page. However, the fifth and final chapter, on the orphanages founded by the progressive reformers Siegfried Bernfeld and Siegfried Lehman, is out of place. Bernfeld was a Zionist, and his children’s home was in Austria. Lehman, also a Zionist, founded an orphanage in Kovno in Lithuania, and later moved it and his one in Berlin to Lod in Palestine. Both men stood apart from the German-Jewish social workers and their project of healing the German nation that the rest of the book addresses.
Gillerman mentions in passing that Jewish social welfare was in part a defense against antisemitism. Social workers hoped, for example, that job training in crafts and agriculture for Jews would muffle criticism about their over-representation in the professions and commercial trades. Thus, the revisionist approach is perhaps taken too far: the context of intensifying anti-semitism is mostly absent in the book. Periodization is also missing. Gillerman discusses only briefly how inflation (1918–1923), the so-called golden era (1924–1929), and the worldwide economic crisis (1929–1933) shaped Jewish social work. Each of these periods corresponded to a particular urgent social problem: overindulgence during the inflation, the new woman thereafter, and unemployment after 1929. The narrative of book is consequently static.
Germans into Jews is nonetheless an impressive work of scholarship. It makes an important contribution to our knowledge about the welfare state and the transformation of the Jewish community during the Weimar Republic.
University of Massachusetts Amherst