Jan 2019

Rezension: Jochanan Trilse-Finkelstein with Esther Grünwald. “So kam ich unter die Deutschen”

Jochanan Trilse-Finkelstein with Esther Grünwald. So kam ich unter die Deutschen: Jochanan Trilse-Finkelstein. Die Saga. Leipzig: Araki, 2017. ISBN 978-3-936 149-25-8, 670 pages.

von Gabriele Eckart


The East German Jewish writer Jochanan Trilse-Finkelstein died in Berlin in 2017.  In his estate, there was an unfinished autobiographical manuscript titled That’s How I Got Among the Germans — a politically engaged text with interesting reflections about war, fascism, and genocide, as well as about the first years of the GDR.

Trilse-Finkelstein, well known for several books about theater and about Heinrich Heine, was born in Breslau (today Wroclaw) in 1932. After his death, Esther Grünwald, the co-author of this book with the very fitting title, which is a quotation by Hölderlin, published the fragment — pointing out that the book is not “eine Autobiographie, die im Einzelnen historisch nachprüfbar wäre, sondern […] als Kunst mit allen Freiheiten und Ausdeutbarkeiten zu lesen.” The book is structured in four chapters, one fragment of a chapter, and an appendix on conversations that Grünwald held with the author before his death. A foreword by the co-author, many supplementary notes, and a bibliography enrich the text.

The emotionally highly charged exclamation “Meine Eltern waren nicht im Lager! Sie haben gekämpft” (241) can be used as a summary of Trilse-Finkelstein’s message that prompted him to start writing down his memories. As is well known, in the GDR’s Holocaust-discourse, Jews were portrayed as passive victims; therefore, according to GDR historiography, they were partially to blame for their tragic fate. Trilse-Finkelstein writes against the grain of this narrative.  While many of his relatives suffered and died in German concentration camps, he and his parents did not.  In 1941, they returned from their safe exile in Shanghai to Europe in order to fight in Tito’s partisan army against fascism. His father worked as a surgeon in mobile field hospitals in the forests of Slovenia, his mother as a nurse; later on, he was promoted to major, she to lieutenant; Trilse-Finkelstein himself, at age eleven, was a “Kindersoldat.” They ate deer, mushrooms, and berries, as well as food the Allies dropped from the sky; they slept in caves and sheep stables. As hard and dangerous as life was, he loved to be surrounded by the forest.

For scholars of Jewish culture, this book might be interesting to read  to better understand how the Jewish partisans managed to remain religious under these conditions. Celebrating Shabbat was a challenge without candles and eating kosher had become impossible.  For scholars of World War II, the book should be an important source of information because Trilse-Finkelstein also talks about what is left out of official historiography. For instance, some partisans did not stop fighting after the war and committed massacres among local populations — not differentiating well between people who had collaborated with fascists and those who had not.

As Grünwald points out, Trilse-Finkelstein wanted this text to be dedicated to his mother, Esther Finkelstein. Although wounded in battle during the war and having suffered as a political prisoner in the GDR, she survived; his memories are to a high degree based on stories he heard from her. On his deathbed, talking to Grünwald, you can hear his voice shivering when he remembers his mother’s fate in the GDR.  In 1952 — she lived in Erfurt at the time — she was told by the Party to condemn Tito (whom she had known personally treating his illness during the war) and the Yugoslav project of socialism. But, she did not. Trilse-Finkelstein explains: “Sie wollte sich ihre eigene, erkämpfte Aufwertung nicht nehmen lassen, die Chance nicht vertun, die die Geschichte ihr zugeworfen hatte – als Jüdin nicht Objekt von Demütigungen zu sein, sondern Offizier der Befreiungsarmee gewesen zu sein. Dieser Selbstwert war mit ihr verschmolzen. Schwerer als die Kränkung durch die Stalinisten in Erfurt wog später noch die, durch niemanden mehr gekannt zu sein” (235-36). After Stalin’s death, she was released from prison, and later, from 1981 on, even received a small pension, called VdN (Verfolgter des Naziregimes) Rente. She died in 1985.

Nevertheless, there are also positive memories of the GDR in Trilse-Finkelstein’s book, especially about people he met, including Ernst Bloch whose student he was in Leipzig. With a passport as a stateless person, Trilse-Finkelstein could travel, see the world, and did not have to share the claustrophobic feelings of the others living in that country. He enjoyed his work as an editor of the Henschel-Verlag and later as a free-lance theater critic and writer – work that brought him in touch with the leading intelligentsia of the GDR. His free time he spent on a sailboat. He did not get involved in political controversies publicly, perhaps because he was traumatized by what had happened to his mother.

Many of the pages of the book are filled with descriptions of travel. The description of the family’s trip (by train from Shanghai through China, Mongolia, the Soviet Union, Slovakia to Vienna) in 1941 is breathtaking. Without their fake passports, they could not have made it. However, Trilse-Finkelstein’s father had been widely known as a social democrat before the war (many people knew him; his true identity could be found out easily) and Trilse-Finkelstein’s mother looked very Jewish according to the stereotypes of the time; therefore, the constant crossing of borders during wartime was dangerous. In 1943, they moved on to Slovenia to join the partisans. In 1947, the family returned to Vienna; the mother was an Austrian citizen. Then, the parents divorced; the mother, a member of the Communist Party, moved to the GDR in 1951; the son followed her after he finished his studies in theater, dance, and aesthetics – regretting this last move later on. Vienna had felt like home; Berlin, where he lived most of his years in the GDR, never did.

Trilse-Finkelstein reflects broadly on the problem of remnants of anti-Semitism.  Since his father owned a house in Breslau and loved the city, he dreamed of returning there after the war.  He traveled from Belgrad to Wroclaw and discovered that a pogrom had just taken place in his birthplace, Kielce, when Jews who had survived the Holocaust had tried to return to their town.  In post-war Vienna and in the GDR, there were no pogroms; however, Trilse-Finkelstein also had to confront anti-Semitism there. In 1990, he became politically active as one of the founders of the Jüdischer Kuturverein Berlin.

Esther Grünwald’s conversations with Trilse-Finkelstein (not attached to the end, but integrated into the narrative) enrich the text; their discussions, as for instance, about Tito’s legacy, Ernst Fischer, or about the aesthetics of dancing are very interesting to read. Her footnotes to explain names and dates are helpful, but sometimes excessive.  For the sake of “Lesevergnügen,” I recommend reading the book for the first time without them – or only looking down at the notes when you have a question.  For further editions, the book requires more editing.  There are many typos and sometimes colloquial word choices like “upgedated.” A “Personenregister” at the end of the book is also very helpful.

For universities with programs in Jewish Studies this book is an important addition and provides a personal narrative of Jewish experience that is usually overlooked.

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