A tormented relationship

In his latest book, Amos Oz grapples with his mixed emotions about Germany.

amos oz 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
amos oz 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Slopes of the Volcano By Amos Oz [In Hebrew] Keter Publishing 80pp., NIS 68 Rarely do we see a superb fiction writer perform brilliantly in the non-fiction minefield. But that is precisely what Amos Oz has managed to do in the three essays he organically blended into The Slopes of the Volcano. The subject at hand has troubled Oz for years - how should he, and Jews in Israel and abroad, relate to Germans? How should we treat Germany as a country and as a culture? He's discussed this anguished theme on three occasions: the first time in 2004, when Oz was awarded Die Welt's Prize in Berlin; then in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany; and the last time in August, when Oz traveled to Germany to receive the prestigious Goethe Prize. With slight nuances, the three essays reveal a tormented Oz, struggling to reconcile two profoundly polarized issues: the loaded memories and legacy of Nazi Germany and the growing political and moral constraints of the modern world which push Israel to accept the reality of "another Germany" - a term coined by David Ben-Gurion. As a child, Oz once asked his mother whether there might come a day when the Jews forgive the Germans. His mother responded that if the Germans don't manifest forgiveness for their own crimes, maybe one day we would forgive a bit, but if they show forgiveness for their crimes, we shall not forgive them. AS A patriotic child growing up in Jerusalem, Oz vowed never to visit Germany and never to buy German goods - apart from books. The German language was practically banned in Jerusalem in the first years following the war. But then reparations entered the lexicon, and in 1960 and 1961 the Ben-Gurion-Adenauer meeting in New York provided Israel with generous economic aid. Subsequently, the Eichmann capture and trial brought another degree of justice. In 1965, the first German ambassador arrived in Jerusalem. But why did he have to make his presentation speech in German, Oz wondered at the time. A few years later, Oz started to understand and internalize, perhaps under quiet protest, that there was no alternative but to accept the growing acceptance of this new Germany. The last ones to come to grips with the real world were the extreme Right and the radical Left. Oz belonged to neither. All these developments merely reflected the complexity and the conflicting undercurrents, the unhealed wounds and the growing pressures to accept the "facts of life," despite our sensitivities and the still-crying desire for vengeance in the hearts of survivors. For Oz, the old German classics, and perhaps more so the Hebrew translation of post-Nazi writers, accelerated the warming process. Of particular effect, he believes, was the arrival in the '60s and '70s of many hundreds, perhaps thousands of young German volunteers who were thought to have come in an attempt to atone for the crimes of their parents. By the end of the '70s, Oz started to receive scores of invitations to visit Germany and stay with Germans who met him in Israel. The first of Oz's books was also translated into German, followed by other titles. Finally, in 1983, overcoming resistance and doubts, he succumbed to the invitations. All in all, he's visited Germany over 15 times, responding to invitations by his publishers, accepting calls to lecture and attending various panels and symposiums. Once he broke through his self-imposed barrier, he discovered that the pedestrian malls of Frankfurt look like those in New York, London or Tel Aviv. He watched the pretty young ladies and modern youngsters and saw no difference between them and their counterparts in other western countries. On one of his trips, a young German lady asked him whether he thought the German people were to some extent responsible for the "tragedy of the Palestinian people." Oz discerned what the young lady implied. The Jews, she insinuated, were now inflicting on the Palestinians what the Germans had inflicted on them. He responded that to some extent, Germany was to blame for the Palestinian disaster, for had the previous generation been "less sloppy and more thorough" - had it not spared some millions of Jews - the Palestinians would not be in conflict with them. Oz asserts very plainly that the current generation of Germans is not to be blamed for the crimes of Nazi Germany. Only among Germans 80 and over are there some who deserve blame. The initial exhilaration over its relations with Israel has now been replaced in Germany by a more sober and complex attitude. Amos Oz's recommendation is "stop talking about normalization." Better strive to intensify relations. Normalization simply does not fit the historical legacy of our two peoples.