Letter from Germany
I’m currently in Köln, Germany, where my father’s side of the family originates. I’m here visiting places related to our family history. There are several memorials dedicated to my cousin Gottfried Ballin, who was a member of a socialist anti-Nazi resistance cell, as well as his mother Anna Ballin née Ganz. My great-great grandfather and grandmother are also buried in the Jewish cemetery here and I’m going to try to visit their graves today. I’ll also visit the Lengfeld’sche Buchhandlung, the bookstore that once belonged to my family. I’m also hoping to visit the NS-Dokumentationszentrum to see if they have any archival materials related to my family. I wrote about Gottfried here.
While in Köln, I learned about a curious scandal worthy of Philip Roth roiling the German intellectual world this summer. An outspoken, controversial, and brilliant German-Jewish journalist and polemicist named Fabian Wolff turned out to be, well, not Jewish. Some, including myself in a Tweet, have rather unkindly compared this story to Rachel Dolezal. But the situation is perhaps more complicated: Mr. Wolff’s mother told him of his Jewish origins and he seems to have accepted her story. He discovered that what she had told wasn’t true and published a long, confessional essay admitting the truth. This suggests that he might have actually believed it. According to the Times of Israel, he also underwent circumcision as an adult after learning of his putative Jewish origins. This also perhaps implies a degree of sincerity on his part. Die Zeit, the leading German newsmagazine, which published Mr. Wolff’s essay, did their own investigation and they concluded that Wolff actually believed his story. Of course, it’s difficult to do investigative journalism on a person’s inner life. The question, as they once asked of Richard Nixon, is what did he know and when?
Some are not so convinced of Mr. Wolff’s sincerity. They believe he cynically wielded his “Jewish” identity as a cudgel to subdue critics and only admitted to this now that he was threatened to be outed in the press. He is being called a “Kostumjüde,” which means exactly what it sounds like. Apparently, the truth about his identity was sort of an open secret for some time in the Jewish community in Berlin, but was not publicized because of an earlier case where a writer who falsely claimed to be descended from Holocaust survivors killed herself after being exposed. This led to a de facto rule in the German-Jewish community about not doxxing even impostors.
Part of the controversy that attached itself to Mr. Wolff was due to his pugnacious affect on the internet and part of it was due to his criticism of Zionism, which, in Germany, both inside and outside the Jewish community, is a highly contentious issue for obvious historical reasons. I’m given to understand that Mr. Wolff also had a number of fans and supporters in the German-Jewish community who particularly appreciated his bold, convention-bucking line on Israel-Palestine. (I joked that since he’s so argumentative and difficult, he may actually be Jewish.) Some of the coverage of his downfall, particularly in the pro-Israel Jewish press, has been quite harsh, replete with accusations of antisemitism because of his stance on Palestine.
As it so happens, I interacted a little bit with Mr. Wolff on Twitter and remembered his name. My only recollection of him was that he seemed like a very bright and knowledgeable guy. Had this happened in the United States, one would expect this story to attract a great deal of cruel glee in literary circles. What could be more fun than exposing a faker? Especially one who had been o obnoxious and brash. But the way I’ve found this story discussed here is that it’s felt to be mostly tragic: he was thought of as highly-talented and an important voice in German intellectual life and now his reputation lies in tatters. But, as a foreigner, I can’t help but have a certain amount of amused distance to all this. Partly, this is just because we Americans tend to have a slightly condescending attitude to other nations—”Haha, so what are those little people doing now?” But I guess I am German now too so I suppose I should take it more seriously.
As a Jew, the idea of someone pretending to be Jewish for clout is just very funny to me, again, redolent of Roth or Bellow. I’m reminded of an opposite case in Hungary a few years ago, where a prominent antisemite discovered he was actually Jewish, dropped his membership in a far right party, and became a practicing Jew. Go figure. I suppose then I should be offended by all this, but I’m really not. It’s just curious to me. Now, had Mr. Wolff personally insulted me, I might have a different attitude. And, as I wrote earlier, maybe he kind of converted. Being a tireless, outspoken controversialist and unwilling to bow to the polite consensus around him is a very culturally Jewish attitude. It clearly meant a lot to him.
Let’s imagine for a moment he was totally sincere and actually believed it all. What an absolutely crushing discovery! Imagine losing one’s public status and own self-conception in one fell blow. What sense of self could one fall back on? Of course, one might reply that he went all in on his Jewishness on some pretty thin evidence. He also maybe didn’t need to make it quite so central to his very public self. Whatever talents he does possess, one must admit that this imposture certainly lead to his increased public notability: his particular type of Jewishness was exotic here.
It may actually take a great deal of integrity and courage to admit the truth of this situation and face the consequences, but that is unlikely to impress people much. The public is pretty blood-thirsty and it suddenly becomes interested in The Importance of the Truth usually when it leads to someone’s downfall. But, in fairness, there are some tough questions to be asked here: Where does being merely in error end and real self-deception begin? And just how responsible are we for our own self-delusions and pretensions? These are things that are not easy to answer, least of all about ourselves.
From a certain perspective, this story is actually tragic, like in the Greek sense. It certainly has elements of anagnorisis, “discovery,” peripeteia, “reversal of fortune,” and even hubris. But it is also undoubtedly comical as it treats with human weakness and absurdity. I hope it one day has a happy ending for Mr. Wolff.
But what is identity really, anyway? What standard of being Jewish are we going to apply? You want everyone to take a genetic test? You vant to see his papers, please? What are you? Some kind of a Nazi? Part of me says, if he wants to be Jewish, let him be Jewish. I’m kidding around, of course—please, don’t make up an entire identity and build a career around it: it’s probably not going to end well for you. But, Germany, if you are looking for a real German-Jewish journalist who can also be very rude online, I happen to know one who is available. Actually—you know what? Never mind: I’m busy.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, there’s a bunch of actually bad stuff going on in the news and I’ll be back to commenting on that soon enough. Till then!