The wdr and the “jewish roots

“How Jewish is Germany??”: Rachel Patt investigates in the WDR documentary series “Unterwegs im Westen” Screenshot: ARD-Mediathek

The idea doesn’t necessarily sound bad: In the WDR documentary series “Unterwegs im Westen,” young reporter Rachel Patt wants to find out, according to the station’s description, “how much Jewish identity” Germany has, how “Jewish people are represented here,” and “how visibly Jewish being” is.

To that end, she starts from herself: By her own admission, she has a Jewish grandfather, but she never knew him. So at the beginning she visits the Jewish part of her family in Amsterdam. You can see a joint Shabbat celebration on Friday evening.

But for a German context, one learns surprisingly little about the reporter’s relationship to what she herself repeatedly calls “Jewish roots”: Why didn’t she know her grandfather?? How did he – if he was old enough – survive the Shoah?? When did your grandmother meet him? Why did the family’s “Jewish roots” go down – and what does it all have to do with Germany and German history?

The reporter states right at the beginning that she does not want to handle the topic of Judaism in Germany “with kid gloves”. With which it suggests that this happens otherwise. But instead of hard facts or in-depth research, there is at first only a bit of surface folklore with lighting candles and breaking challah (a traditional Shabbat yeast plait pastry).

Flippant instead of interested

What Patt apparently means by “not with kid gloves” is unfortunately too often just a flippancy in tone. Already during the Shabbat meal, the German dubbing voice translates one of her relatives as saying “but we don”t always go to the synagogue for mass”. Now the Holy Mass is the service of the Catholic Church (derived from the closing formula of the Latin liturgy “Ite, missa est!”). Jews, however, do not celebrate “masses,” and usually find this conceptual Christianization encroaching.

The author

Photo: Christian Spielmann

Andrej Reisin is a freelance journalist, among others for “taz”, “Spiegel” and “tagesschau”.de. Since 2002 he has been working mainly on behalf of NDR, especially for “Panorama” and “Zapp. He was one of the editors of the weblog Publikative.org and, together with others, received the Grimme Prize for “Panorama”s” coverage of the Hamburg G20 summit.

When asked by ubermedien, WDR does not understand the problem at all, but states that it is “a literal translation of an original sound of the Dutch relative of the author”. But what does this say in the original sound? “We don”t always go to Shul”, whereby the Yiddish Shul as a synonym for synagogue (with the same root as school) marks this historically also as a place of learning. No “mass” anywhere, but in Catholic Cologne on the Rhine they apparently think every service is one and everything else is carnival.

Addendum/correction, 16:40. According to WDR, the relative literally said, "We don"t always go to the shul, to the synagogue, to the mass". In the dubbed version with translation this cannot be heard clearly. According to WDR, the wording shows "that the author"s Jewish family, which is not strictly religious, is not always completely at ease with the relevant terminology itself."

It is possible. However, it is also possible that the Dutch-speaking relative was looking for the corresponding German word, so that his German visitor would understand what he meant. In any case, it would have been necessary to address the confusion of terms in the film, so as not to leave the German audience simply believing that Jews celebrate "masses".

Unfortunately, the story continues in this flippant manner: while walking through an excavation site on the Jewish history of Cologne, Patt writes succinctly: "After the 2nd World War, the Jewish community was forced to leave the city. After World War II, there were more than 80 percent fewer Jews in Germany."No shit, Sherlock – and where have they gone??

Honestly, it just doesn"t work that way: Of course you can and should present the topic for a young audience. But especially in view of the repeatedly discussed glaring gaps in knowledge about the Shoah among young people, you can"t just talk for 30 minutes about "how Jewish Germany is" without an explicit discussion of the fact that the Germans were busy for twelve years disenfranchising, plundering, expelling and murdering their Jewish neighbors – without kid gloves.

Whoever makes a film about "Jewish identity" in Germany for whatever reason cannot avoid finding a narrative for it. This film, however, unfortunately tries it without – and sentences like the one quoted above are the result. They were just gone, the 80 percent.

Until when there was the USSR?

Afterwards, it doesn"t get any better: More Jews, we learn, only came back to Germany "when the Soviet Union collapsed around the 2000s and Jewish people had to flee because of the religious ban there. Germany then thought, let’s take in a few of them." There"s simply nothing right about these sentences, which have, after all, passed through the editorial approval process of the country"s largest public broadcaster.

First things first, the Soviet Union dissolved not "around the 2000s," but on 21. December 1991. From 1991 on, Jews from the former Soviet Union and its successor states had the opportunity to immigrate to Germany as so-called contingent refugees. This immigration had nothing (more) to do with the communist religious ban of the old Soviet Union.

Former Soviet Jews were referred to as "Jewish immigrants," a symbolic policy intended to provide a legal framework for Jewish migration to Germany after the Shoah. Especially since in the same period a much larger number of so-called "late repatriates", i.e. people of German origin from the former USSR, were allowed to immigrate. If you want to know something about this whole context, but don’t feel like reading history books, you can read Wladimir Kaminer for research, for example.

The author and the Jewish name lists

A little later, a scene occurs that caused loud protests on Twitter from various journalist:ins and Jewish people: Patt pursues the fixed idea that she can find out "how Jewish Germany is" on the basis of names or other characteristics, how many people in Germany have "Jewish roots".

To that end, Patt "wildly calls out of the phone book" people with last names like Fleischer, Stein, or Lustig and asks them if they are Jewish. The names are on a list. In the film it is not clear how Patt arrives at this list of names. When asked by ubermedien, WDR states that Patt compiled this list based on a dictionary of German-Jewish surnames by Berlin letter carrier and amateur researcher Lars Menk.

"Frankfurter Rundschau" journalist Hanning Voigts, tweeted about Patt’s phone research:

If you’re planning a film about "Jewish roots" in Germany (for whatever reason) and get the idea of just randomly calling people with names that sound Jewish to you, it’s best to stop for a moment and ask someone to talk you out of this lunacy then.

Jewish blogger and columnist Jenny Havemann immediately parodied the bizarre scene with her own video, in which she fictitiously calls "Mrs. Muller" to ask if she actually has German roots:

My response to @WDR s "How Jewish Germany is"

❗️Caution. Satire. pic.twitter.com/bet1Pi0j3i

— Jenny Havemann (@jjhavemann) January 30, 2022

Julia Stallinger, who hosts a radio program on Jewish life and cultural history, summarizes:

Just watching a documentary from WDR on the subject of "Jewish roots" and a woman does a "telephone research"& calls people whose names she reads as Jewish to ask them about their Jewish roots. Searching for Jewish stereotypes would have been the better name.

The "lunacy" of which Voigts speaks exists here on several levels: On the one hand, of course, the very approach of searching for Jews via names is richly adventurous. As Patt describes herself, this genealogy is hindered by the fact that names change with marriage. Especially for an affiliation with Judaism, which in religious Judaism is passed down from the mother, a high hurdle for mixed marriages, in which classically the man’s name was adopted.

On the other hand, many Jews took on especially "German" names to escape anti-Semitism. At the same time there were Nazi greats like Alfred Rosenberg with supposedly "Jewish" sounding names. But above all, in view of German history, one should simply beware of creating Jewish name lists.

Warnings thrown to the wind

Bizarrely, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews, Abraham Lehrer, warns the reporter Patt of exactly this only minutes before this scene: Already she asks him whether there are not directories, who is Jewish and who is not, who has a Jewish grandmother and who does not and so on.

Whereupon teacher responds:

I’m going to be blunt: God forbid there are no lists. Imagine if somewhere in our good republic there were lists that could be misused to launch attacks against Jewish people.

Patt nods knowingly and says "yes" again and again. Then, literally in the next moment of the film, makes a list and phones off.

So it’s by no means the case that she didn’t ask anyone who could have talked her out of it, as Hanning Voigts says. No, it does, although the vice president of the Central Council of Jews nolens volens tried to talk her out of it. To use a Yiddish bon mot, you’ve got to have the chutzpah.

WDR fails to see the problem

But what does the broadcaster say to all this criticism?? In response to an inquiry from ubermedien, it says: "The filmed research wants to show to what extent Jewish history is much more deeply anchored in German society than the general public and the individuals are partly aware of. All those called were informed before the recording about the recording and about a possible publication."

Yet the documentary does have strong moments, such as a street scene with Jewish Berlin rapper and anti-Semitism coach Ben Salomo, in which Patt notes that she herself mistakenly calls a Star of David a "Jewish star" – a Nazi invention. Their visits to an anti-Semitism workshop in a school or a synagogue are also worth seeing and enlightening. But the answer of the WDR to many-voiced, and above all also Jewish criticism is inadequate.

In recent years, broadcasters have increasingly fallen for the idea, based on YouTube trends, that the reporter absolutely has to tell his or her own story, has to stand permanently in front of the camera and speak more or less clever thoughts directly to the audience – young people supposedly want it that way. This can work because the audience follows better emotionally, but speech bubbles are no substitute for well-founded research.

For while the journalist Tilo Jung in "Jung und Naiv" merely pretends to be naive in front of the camera, but in reality is top-prepared, here an author who is pursuing a perfectly legitimate concern fails because of the lack of technical support from her editorial staff. The problem is not the results of Patt’s research, but that she simply did too little research, that she acted on gut feeling instead of having the simplest facts like the Jewish immigration history after 1991 up her sleeve. And no:e editor:in notices anything about it.

In contrast to some on Twitter, the Youtube users unfortunately don’t notice the mistakes either. The comments are sympathetic, everyone thinks they have learned a lot. And maybe it is even so. But the quality standard of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk can not meet this standard.

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