A fascinating historical tour.Library Journal

Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch – it is barbaric to write verses after Auschwitz – is Theodor Adorno’s famous, massively quoted and frequently misunderstood 1951 declaration about the state, the potential and the responsibility of a life of the mind, of the voice of any spirit and intellect, after what Joseph Roth called “the reign of hell”. Leonard Barkan, in his elatedly poetic, meticulously erudite and irresistibly personal chronicle of his rapprochement to and re-appropriation of Berlin for a Jewish, nay, for a historically and morally authentic 21st-century conscience, probes unflinchingly that same question: can we visit, love, be enchanted and intrigued by Berlin after Auschwitz?

Barkan is a beguilingly charismatic teacher, a scholar transgressing biases and transcending set limitations, but he is also an unabashedly exuberant travel writer, “drinking life to the lees” (see, for example, his Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome, 2006). In Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First Century Companion he must face an almost Faustian lure and adversary: Berlin as it was in the Romantic imagination, as it came to be in the infernal eternity of a mere 15 or so years, and as it can be, for all that happened, or especially because of everything that happened on its now reconstructed soil and nexus of streets, squares, places of remembrance, memorials of horror and shrines of atonement. As Barkan tells us, the city must be taken as a Shakespearean tragic hero, an Othello, Lear or Macbeth, as a space of intangible brilliance, legendary greatness and nobility, and inescapably material darkness. The vital challenge for Barkan, for Germany, for humanity, Jewish or non-Jewish, is to be able to inscribe on the monument of that past alav ha shalom – peace be unto it, without compromise, with absolute dignity of memory and awareness, with undefeated hope for the future. There is a Dantesque mission to the book, as well as beauty: to undertake, halfway through life’s journey, a return to the path that will set both past and future to rights. And Barkan will have three precious guides along the way: Rahel Varnhagen, a woman who might be said to be the Beatrice of her time; James Simon, a man of the world dreaming of art, beauty, history; and lastly Walter Benjamin, a philosopher who took his own life to escape his Nazi persecutors.

Berlin for Jews is less a travel guide or city companion than it is an elegiac essay on human possibility, endurance, wonder, tragedy – and, one may hope, regeneration. Ethnology, genealogy, history and historiography, together with fragments of personal, emotionally charged narratives of the Jewish population of Berlin, constitute a poignant starting point, which is as much an “in my beginning was my end” as it is emphatically the reverse: there must be a beginning beyond everything that ended so very brutally. Barkan’s first Berliner topos is the Schönhauser Allée, the Jewish cemetery that the Nazis did not succeed in obliterating, and which still resonates, in Barkan’s account, with Goethe’s idealism and simple materiality. The cemetery provides the evidence for an analysis of Jewish folklore, mentality, cultural identity, the rootedness of the presence of that community in a city that was both a point of transit and a haven of permanence. We are given rare insights into the dogged perseverance, the tribulations, ambitions and ultimately the harrowing tragedy of Berlin’s Jewry. Typeface and ornamental choices provide a glimpse into German history and society through the prism of a group that would come to represent its every trait in strong, tactile relief and enhanced focus; syncopated dates speak the unspeakable, the interrupted narratives of Jews who would commit suicide by jumping out of windows, throwing themselves under trains or swallowing poison to escape a different end to their lives – “careful people always carried poison with them” as we know from the stories of Benjamin, Koestler, so many others.

Barkan is exquisite in humorously sleuthing the minutiae of a name, the semiotics of a gravestone and the intertextuality of signifiers surrounding long-gone significant or insignificant mortals.”

A cosmos of enchantment or banality, of seminal or ordinary existence is conjured up before our eyes from apparently trivial, individual observations, and Barkan is exquisite in humorously sleuthing the minutiae of a name, the semiotics of a gravestone and the intertextuality of signifiers surrounding long-gone significant or insignificant mortals. He has the sharp talent of close reading, of a shrewd analysis that is coupled with natural elegance and vibrant gusto, felicitously devoid of jargon or meta-theoretical burdens and self-indulgent obscurities. And we are enthralled by the richness of the story, the depths of the history we are told: Berlin Jews are merchants, tradesmen, media moguls and publishers, manufacturers of sewing machines who evolved into armament industrialists. They are doctors, professors and lawyers, scholars as well as artists, musicians, actors and writers, they are determined patrons, philanthropists and salon hosts – especially the women. They are ‘urbanologists’, and, intriguingly, they are behind much of the upper-class agglomeration of new neighbourhoods ‘from scratch’. They are also the nameless poor, the ones described caustically in raw, urgent sentences by Joseph Roth in his feuilleton bulletins for the Frankfurter Zeitung.

Before Weimar itself, Berlin is already the centre of Haskalah, the Jewish movement of cultural enlightenment led by Moses Mendelssohn; then it will become the hub of Zionist circles and the Aliya youth movement. Jews dream of building a Berlin that will include them, initially embracing as much of their environment as will make their symbiosis seamless, then, in reaction to the pressures of Aryanisation and assimilation, seeking a clearer definition of their own identity. Rahel Varnhagen’s Geselligkeit, the companionability between cultures, minds, genders, will continue in the Weimar Republic, yielding astounding paradigms of what that human community could be like. In Berlin Rabindranath Tagore and Charlie Chaplin were guests of Einstein, whose friends included Kafka, Benedetto Croce and Max Liebermann. Barkan lets slip with delicious apparent nonchalance the story of how Einstein invented a new form of refrigerator, or of how he shipped his Bechstein piano from Berlin to Princeton.

Barkan writes as the host at a gala celebrating a new reality: he introduces us to all that is vocally present in its absence, to ghosts or forgotten figures, Jewish above all, to remind us of the necessity for an organic unity and recognition. Paris may have been for Joseph Roth the “European expression of universal Judaism”, but Barkan convincingly makes the case here that it may in fact be Berlin that should hold that very special status. He gives us the story of Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 conducting the previously neglected St Matthew’s Passion by Bach, the transfixing story of James Simon, a Kaiser-Jude like Max Warburg, whose success as an industrialist is inextricably bound with Germany’s progress and fate, whose largesse as a patron of the arts, a social philanthropist and as a lover of archaeology reveals utterly unexpected facets of German, Jewish, early 20th-century life. Nefertiti’s bust owes its discovery to him; he is part of the very fabric of the new state of Israel, as is evinced by the debates with Chaim Weizmann.

Crucially, Barkan is not simply tracing the identity and history of the Jews of Berlin, but seeks rather a definition of what it is to be a Jew, weighing carefully the clash between Weizmann’s vision of a national identity and sovereignty and Simon’s perception that bicultural belonging was possible. This polarity, not only between individuals but within Jewish self-perception, led to “a devastating conflict”, even when reason clearly defines the righteousness of one position while the heart yearns for the balance of the other. There are priceless anecdotes in this particular section of the book, of Simon’s relationship with Kaiser Wilhelm, about Jews as collectors and the new art market, about the Amerikanischer Gefahr, the American threat, namely J.P. Morgan.

Flânerie is a spiritual, social, intellectual, existential gesture, a fundamental way of subsistence, and in Barkan’s hands an inescapably contagious and beguiling one.”

As with his vignette of Rahel Varnhagen, which complements Hannah Arendt’s famous biography, this is not just Berlin for Jews, but Berlin for the Western European mind, art and heritage, for everyone who would still wish and care to understand it. It is a project as much of recovery as of prophecy, and Barkan unearths not only archaeological finds of Jewish and European history and life, but also reinstates the sense of a spiritual attachment and belonging that even Hitler’s Germany was ultimately incapable of obliterating. Through his three guides to the city’s mystery and truths, Barkan reunites high and low, the pure and the dialectical: Varnhagen’s pure (too pure?) high culture, Simon’s visionary Jewish capital, and Benjamin’s return to high culture through his own background mixing both art and money. Barkan is not afraid to be iconoclastic, he tests as much as he approves, appraises critically as much as he eulogises. His analysis of Varnhagen’s ambiguity towards the identity and heritage that made her all she was or of Benjamin’s own ambivalence between the rigours of rational thought and the flights of poetic beauty are to be cherished.

Ultimately, spectacularly, Barkan is the perfect flâneur: “an outsider who is capable of bringing cosmopolitan analytics to urban phenomena that less acute inhabitants either gape at in uninformed wonder or else ignore.” His definition of Judaism is as an essentially urban attitude in modern times. Flânerie is a spiritual, social, intellectual, existential gesture, a fundamental way of subsistence, and in Barkan’s hands an inescapably contagious and beguiling one, and even perhaps the prototype for the perfect scholar. The final encounter is with memory itself – that most anti-flâneur of qualities: a solemn consideration and evaluation of our debt to remembrance, of the integrity and genuineness of our tributes to history. Berlin has some of the starkest Holocaust memorials and perhaps the most critical museums about the genocide of Jews during the Nazi years. Are they enough, are they effective, are they, above all, personally vital and resonant, asks Barkan, reminding us that because of the Holocaust, because of the bombing of Berlin, and the Wall between east and west, “we are exiled from [the rich tradition of European civilisation of Varnhagen and Simon] not just because the past is always past… but because the physical Berlin of all that culture, along with many of its inhabitants, was largely obliterated.” He essentially asks the unutterable question of how can we remember in a vacuum, how do we regenerate a presence – how do we speak, write verse, remember, live after Auschwitz?

His answer is as full of life and promise as every word of this eclectic, highly absorbing, seriously engaging book: we must create more life, history, memory “haunted, but also honoured, by an indelible past.”


Leonard Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton, where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and holds appointments in art and archaeology, English and classics. His previous books include The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture and Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome. Berlin for Jews: A Twenty-First Century Companion is published by University of Chicago Press.
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Princeton.edu: Leonard Barkan

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.