German Jewish Leader: 'Jews Don't Need Any Tutoring in Democracy'

Ahead of her 80th birthday, Charlotte Knobloch, one of Germany's most prominent Jewish leaders, talks with SPIEGEL about her relationship with the country, her outrage over the recent circumcision debate and the former housemaid in Bavaria who saved her from the Nazis.

German Jewish community leader Charlotte Knobloch: "We had our bags packed for decades." Zoom
Armin Brosch/ DER SPIEGEL

German Jewish community leader Charlotte Knobloch: "We had our bags packed for decades."

Anyone who visits Charlotte Knobloch at the Jewish Center in Munich must first pass through security and be checked by guards. Since 1985, Knobloch has been the head of the Jewish community in Munich, and from 2006 to 2010, she was the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Next Monday, she will turn 80 years old. Knobloch says she doesn't want to be the focus of attention, but allowed herself to be persuaded to publish her memoirs, released in German on Monday by the DVA publishing house under the title "In Deutschland angekommen," or "Arriving in Germany." In an interview with SPIEGEL, she discusses her relationship with the country and her outrage over the recent debate over the legality of circumcision.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Knobloch, you had to hide from the Nazis when you were a child, and you deliberated for a long time about whether you, as a Jew, actually wanted to live here. Your memoirs have just been published under the title "In Deutschland angekommen," or "Arriving in Germany," alluding to the sense that you are now at home again in Germany. Is that how you really feel now?

Knobloch: I can certainly tell you about one of the most important moments in my life, one in which I had this very feeling: It was on Nov. 9, 2006, when the synagogue was inaugurated here on Jakobsplatz in Munich. My dream had been fulfilled. The Jewish community in Munich had finally regained a prominent place in the public sphere. In my speech I said: "I've unpacked my bags."

SPIEGEL: But in a stinging editorial on the circumcision debate published recently in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, you said "for the first time my basic convictions are starting to shake." Are you no longer certain that you are wanted here in Germany?

Knobloch: That's a hard question for me to answer. You see, I don't want to admit that the certainty I have gained over such a long time is being relativized. But I must say that I'm disappointed and bordering on despair over the debate and the direction that it has taken. This is not about me here -- it has to do with future generations. I want to avoid at all costs the risk that another generation of Jews will one day have to wonder whether staying here was the right decision. We, the Jews who want to feel like an integrated part of this country, need the support and backing of society. And I feel that this has been missing. I was extremely surprised to see that the circumcision issue could make headlines for months, although we truly have other concerns, such as the financial crisis. Jews have been circumcising their boys for thousands of years, and suddenly we are accused of tormenting our children? I definitely see this as a setback in the social discourse.

SPIEGEL: Social values and perceptions are continuously evolving. Society now places a higher value on the rights of children than it did before.

Knobloch: We Jews really don't need any tutoring in democracy. I'm always open to fair and even controversial debates, but in this debate the focus doesn't seem to me to be on clarifying things, but rather on stirring up a controversy. The horror stories that are being spread here are absurd. Circumcision is a sterile procedure, conducted by qualified personnel in a matter of seconds. Anyone who has ever witnessed it can't comprehend the current debate.

SPIEGEL: Holding a debate on circumcision is not necessarily an indication of anti-Semitism.

Knobloch: I live with the awareness of my experiences, and these have taught me that it's important to observe the subtleties. Our free and democratic society appears to be stable. But we must remain vigilant, look after each other, and treat each other with care and respect. I have seen how quickly moods can shift to hate, and how hatred can turn to violence. We recently saw this in Berlin, when Rabbi Daniel Alter was assaulted on the street. When the Jewish community is verbally vilified on such a massive scale as we have been subjected to for weeks now, it is only a matter of time before people are physically attacked.

SPIEGEL: Do you agree with the draft legislation that would make circumcision legal if it is conducted according to accepted medical standards?

Knobloch: I have congratulated the German government and I am very much in agreement. Of course I would have preferred this religious act to require no law whatsoever, but I hope that this will finally put the issue to rest.

SPIEGEL: Thanks to the senior positions you have held, you are widely seen as a shining example of women's liberation. At the same time, you describe yourself as conservative and feel that mothers should remain at home with their children. How do your conservative views and your career fit together?

Knobloch: I never strove for this career, and I have never pushed myself into the limelight. Things just worked out that way. My children were already grown up at the time. In 1985, when I was asked to be the head of Munich's Jewish community, I simply couldn't imagine it. My response was: "Ask the rabbis." This statement alone revealed my conservatism. My involvement in the community had largely been limited to caring for Holocaust survivors. Many of them were alone and had no family. I had no ambition to go into politics -- but, as the head of a community, one is automatically involved in politics.

SPIEGEL: Are there biographical reasons behind your view that mothers should always be there for their children? After all, you were abandoned by your mother when you were only four years old.

Knobloch: I personally felt the need to be there for my children at all times. Unfortunately, that's a goal that one can't live up to entirely. I was a mother hen, but that didn't harm my children. When you're a mother hen, you sometimes coddle your children. But there are different ways of coddling. Some coddle with luxury, others with love. For me, it was entirely with love. That's something that I never had as a child.

SPIEGEL: Your mother converted to Judaism when she married your father, but she caved in to the pressure of Nazi propaganda in 1936. The fact that she left her entire family flies in the face not only of conservative values, but also of basic human ones. Do you have an explanation for this?

Knobloch: Perhaps it was fear and weakness, which are always poor advisors. But I'd rather not speculate on this and make accusations against my mother. It also wouldn't have been what my father wanted. But there is no question that it was incomprehensible to me at the time -- and remains so today.

SPIEGEL: You were raised by your father and his mother. They both came from the German Jewish middle class. What has changed since then in terms of the image that German Jews have of themselves?

Knobloch: One example -- what is today's date? Oct. 17th? My grandparents would have replied with the date on the Jewish calendar.

SPIEGEL: You also maintain traditions.

Knobloch: Of course. Some are no different than those that were maintained by my grandmother. When I celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath -- the woman of the house lights candles and says a blessing -- I always think of her.

SPIEGEL: Your grandmother starved to death in Theresienstadt. Have you been able to retrace her final days?

Knobloch: When the Jewish hospital in Munich was closed, the patients and staff were deported. One of the physicians, Dr. Spanier, had been my pediatrician. He met my grandmother in Theresienstadt and later told me: "She suffered a great deal, but you were in her heart."

SPIEGEL: Did you ask him anything else?

Knobloch: I couldn't. He might have told me more, but I didn't want to know any more.

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From DER SPIEGEL

About Charlotte Knobloch
  • DPA
    Charlotte Knobloch, born in 1932, is one of Munich's foremost Jewish leaders, serving as the president of the city's Jewish community organization since 1985, and as the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews between 2006 and 2010. She also serves as vice president for both the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress. Her memoirs were released in Oct. 2012 under the title "In Deutschland angekommen," or "Arriving in Germany."

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