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.

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.

'I've Experienced Many Miracles'

SPIEGEL: For you, Germany was the land of the murderers -- and the rescuers.

Knobloch: I believe that God protected me. I've experienced many miracles. One day, my father was arrested as I stood nearby on the street. A total stranger who was pushing a baby carriage took my hand and put it on the handle of the carriage, as if I were her child. As soon as it was safe for me, she let me walk home.

SPIEGEL: In 1942, your father brought you to your uncle's former housemaid, who had returned to her parents' farm in the Franconia region. She told people in the village that you were her daughter, and that's what saved you. Weren't the villagers suspicious about a devout woman saying that she had an illegitimate child?

Knobloch: No, on the contrary, they were relieved that even this devout woman could make a mistake. And nobody asked any questions.

SPIEGEL: But the village priest knew the truth.

Knobloch: She had informed him -- that was important to her.

SPIEGEL: Why did she take the risk of hiding a Jew?

Knobloch: She was religious and hoped that God would bring her two brothers safe and sound back from the war in return for this good deed. And that's what happened.

SPIEGEL: Why did this woman, Kreszentia Hummel, refuse to accept any thanks for this? She even declined one of Germany's most distinguished awards, the Federal Cross of Merit, which you could have made possible later on.

Knobloch: Her brothers were her reward. She wanted nothing more.

SPIEGEL: You came from an affluent family, and your father was a lawyer. What did you think of country life?

Knobloch: It was quite an adjustment. Every morning, we all had to wash ourselves with water from the same basin. Since they knew that I was a pampered city girl, I was allowed to wash myself first during all those years. But I had to help out on the farm, and I also wanted to help.

SPIEGEL: Did the work help you forget your fears of being discovered?

Knobloch: It was admittedly very difficult to stand in the fields when it was 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and harvest grain by hand. It helped that I was an animal lover.

SPIEGEL: When your father returned in 1945 after working as a forced laborer, you didn't want to go home with him. Why is that?

Knobloch: I had bad memories of Munich -- the neighbors there had spat at us. But the farmers said: "Go back, you should make something of yourself."

SPIEGEL: You wanted to emigrate.

Knobloch: I met my future husband at the age of 16. He was from Krakow, and his mother and five siblings had been shot in the ghetto. He saw Germany as a transit station. He wanted to go to America -- and I wanted to go with him.

SPIEGEL: But you never left.

Knobloch: We already had the requisite documents, and we were trying to arrange our departure, but something always came up. At the time, thousands of people wanted to leave the country, and there were limited quotas. Then I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, and women were not allowed to travel after their seventh month of pregnancy. Later, my husband was successful in his profession -- but we had our bags packed for decades. For instance, I had my doubts when two of my children decided to study law because I thought that they would then be specialized in German law, and thus professionally tied to the country. Well, one of my daughters became a doctor in Israel, and the other works in France. My son has remained in Germany. My husband died in 1990.

SPIEGEL: Would you have liked to move to Israel?

Knobloch: I love Israel -- but things turned out differently.

SPIEGEL: You say there is a declining amount of solidarity with Israel. What indications do you see of this?

Knobloch: For instance, I remember well that in 1967, during the Six-Day War, there were demonstrations in Munich in support of Israel. The media rushed to show solidarity, which is something that I no longer see today.

SPIEGEL: What criticism of Israel's policies to you find appropriate or inappropriate?

Knobloch: I think objective and constructive criticism is always appropriate. This is normal and even important among friendly nations. There is also criticism of Italy and Greece, for example, although I personally would never formulate it in such a sweeping and aggressive manner. Comparing the Israeli state with Nazi murderers -- which is something that happens -- is unacceptable and I oppose it.

SPIEGEL: You have on occasion called yourself a German patriot. But many non-Jewish Germans can't see themselves as patriots due to the country's Nazi past. Why you, of all people?

Knobloch: People here should very consciously see themselves as enlightened patriots. They have every reason to do so. After the war, Germany rejoined the international community and has become an exemplary free and democratic country. I would also say that Jewish people are largely to thank for the fact that Germany is respected again abroad. Our confidence and faith in this country have contributed to this.

SPIEGEL: You also call on schoolchildren to be patriots. Isn't that risky?

Knobloch: It's only important to differentiate between patriotism and nationalism. I speak of enlightened patriotism. This entails a willingness to appreciate and protect the liberal and democratic achievements of this country. Today, I received yet another school class here at the Jewish Center and I said to the children: "You have the good fortune of receiving an outstanding education -- you have a future in this country, so you should do your part, too. We have democratic parties where you can make a difference, and where your criticism can help shape the future."

SPIEGEL: One of your predecessors in the office of president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, had a rather strained relationship with Germany toward the end of his life. What led to that?

Knobloch: Before his death, Bubis said he had the feeling that he hadn't achieved anything. I told him that wasn't true. He was, after all, the first representative of Judaism after the war who made a point of approaching the general public to debate with people. That accomplished a great deal. Toward the end of his life, though, he unfortunately had a shocking experience much like the one that I am now having with the circumcision debate.

SPIEGEL: That was in 1998, when the Walser-Bubis dispute erupted.

Knobloch: Yes, German author Martin Walser gave a speech in Frankfurt's St. Paul's Church in which he referred to Auschwitz as a browbeating routine -- and people applauded. That sparked the debate. At the time, Bubis felt, as I recently did, that he had no public support. Do you still want us Jews? That's precisely the question that he asked himself at the time.

SPIEGEL: You will soon celebrate your 80th birthday. You plan to spend this special day just with your family. Does this have anything to do with the affronts that you have recently experienced?

Knobloch: No. I have never celebrated my birthday here. I'm going to travel abroad. My children usually have a surprise in store for me.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Knobloch, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.
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