My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin

ISBN: 0300080700
ISBN 13: 9780300080704
By: Peter Gay

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About this book

This is an account of the author's experiences as a young, assimilated, anti-religious Jew in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1939. Gay describes his family, the life they led, and the reasons they did not emigrate sooner.

Reader's Thoughts


I'd read Professor Gay's book, Weimar Culture, when I was in college in the 1970s. I remember it as being rich and insightful with a good deal of insight into the cultural flowering that took place then. So, I was excited to find and be able to read his mini-autobiography on his life growing up as a boy in Berlin and his subsequent emigration with his family to Cuba and then to the United States. The question often comes up in people's minds (with the infallible benefit of hindsight) as to why Jews did not leave Germany earlier. In this book, Gay explains some of the mixed signals that were afloat that could easily lead to a sense that the worst would soon pass. And, he makes it clear that even if willing and financially able, there was still the hurdle of finding a nation willing to receive Jewish emigrants. It was quite a hurdle -- with the example of the ship St. Louis which was not allowed to offload its passengers in Cuba (or the United States) as as powerful example. Gay gives a very personal and insightful history of his life which includes his relationships with his parents and relatives, some of whom did not leave Germany in time to save their lives.


Memoir by a psychoanalyst. 'nuff said.


The eminent historian of Freud and the Enlightenment tells, in this slim memoir, of his childhood years in the nascent Third Reich. It is interesting for a few reasons which may not be Gay’s own intent. First, he and his family were relatively untouched by the Nazi regime. Yes, they were humiliated, expelled from schools, forced to resign from jobs, witnessed many crimes against Jews. But individually, they didn’t suffer much, not even daily taunts or abuse at school. This is due in large part to Gay’s father’s amazing efforts at subterfuge which got them into Havana before the mass murders began; but it’s also thanks to lenient treatment at the hands of teachers and others in positions of power.Second, Gay mentions --- almost incidentally --- some very shameful acts on the part of the US government, such as banning Jews from the Olympic team in Berlin, or refusing entry to misused refugees. Third, despite Gay’s education, and presumably rational outlook, he has a hard time restraining his rage at Nazi sympathizers and indeed, more unfairly, all Germany. On the whole, it’s a fairly uninteresting book, given the tumultuous era; Gay’s self-analysis is surprisingly crude, considering his many books on Freud; and his life story is fairly interesting, but surely many other refugees have more to say of more import than this.

Krzyś Pius

Out of this entire book, I felt maybe 3 of the chapters actually talked about the book subject matter. The rest was psychoanalysis and post war issues like getting his dissertation published. The 3 chapters were good enough though that I felt ok about rating this 3 stars, next time my professor should assign another book.


I thought it was a bit too meta for my liking


Good memoir of how the holocaust affected people who never had to go to a concentration camp.


Absolutely fantastic book. I bought this two years ago and I'm wondering how I possibly managed to keep it on my shelf, unread, in the meantime. This would be a fantastic memoir even without the issues that he addresses. Against the backdrop of the holocaust and Gay's struggle to understand and accept his feelings about Germans and his own identity, it is gripping. Moreover, his command of English is better than virtually any native speaker. His writing is a credit to the language and a joy to read. Anyone who wants to understand anything about modern Jewish culture, the holocaust or Germany simply must read this.


This story was written from a different perspective than most memoirs are written. Peter Gay dwells on the emotional and psychological aftermath of his childhood in Berlin. He is very clinical, and gives many facts to support his opinions.


I liked this memoir and I didn't like it. Gay's writing is annoying - too much psychoanalytic voodoo - although, having read a couple dozen holocaust memoirs, I understand why, decades later, he hates the Germans and is unable to be cool, calm, and collected about what he experienced in boyhood. Also, I had zero interest in his life after escaping from Germany just in the nick of time, and so the second half of this slender book was a bore. But his memories of the good life in Berlin, pleasures that dwindled down to a precious few as the 30s unfolded, and the difficulties obtaining visas, once his father finally made the decision to leave, were riveting. And then, safe on American soil, Gay changed his name. Undoubtedly, his Berlin experience had shown him that it was prudent to extinguish his Jewish and German identity in order to avoid discrimination in America. Curiously, Gay mentioned several times that his father didn't look Jewish, a statement that meant ... what? Mulling it over, it occurred to me that maybe Gay thought that not looking Jewish was evidence that he was not really a Jew, and therefore he and his family should be exempt from the wrath brought upon the Jews by the Nazi regime. I wonder whether if Gay had been Aryan, would he have been in that minority of Good Germans who helped the Jews go into hiding and/or flee the country or would he have behaved like most German citizens did, who knew how dangerous it was to offer help, and done nothing.Gay is also furious at America and England and etal for not increasing the number of visas they issued. After Kristallnacht in Nov 1938, the Jews, finally, after 6 years of the Nazis tightening the noose, now wanted to emigrate. But reality intrudes. Of the 5 to 6 million who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust that began in 1942, how many of them could America have absorbed? Wasn't it really the responsibility of the Jews, with the help of their friends, to leave Germany while the exit doors were open? In Sep 1935 the Nuremberg Laws stripped the Jews of their German citizenship and civil rights. Wasn't it clear at this relatively early date that it was time for the Jews to banish all hope of Hitler's overthrow and leave? Those who did leave before 1936 did so with most of their wealth intact, making it easier to begin anew abroad, unlike those who left Germany virtually penniless after Kristallnacht. By the end of 1939, 347K of the 537K Jews in Germany in 1933 had emigrated, including Gay's family in 1939. Of course, it's easy for me to say, at a distance of 70 years, what they should have done, and I do understand how excruciatingly difficult it was - how tight were the ties that bind - for all but the young Jews to actually leave.Despite my criticisms, Gay's story is recommended reading. There are lessons to be learned. History does repeat itself. What happened then in Germany COULD happen tomorrow in America.

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