“Not only a memoir, it’s also a fierce reply to those who criticized German-Jewish assimilation and the tardiness of many families in leaving Germany” (Publishers Weekly).
In this poignant book, a renowned historian tells of his youth as an assimilated, anti-religious Jew in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939—“the story,” says Peter Gay, “of a poisoning and how I dealt with it.” With his customary eloquence and analytic acumen, Gay describes his family, the life they led, and the reasons they did not emigrate sooner, and he explores his own ambivalent feelings—then and now—toward Germany its people.
Gay relates that the early years of the Nazi regime were relatively benign for his family, yet even before the events of 1938–39, culminating in Kristallnacht, they were convinced they must leave the country. Gay describes the bravery and ingenuity of his father in working out this difficult emigration process, the courage of the non-Jewish friends who helped his family during their last bitter months in Germany, and the family’s mounting panic as they witnessed the indifference of other countries to their plight and that of others like themselves. Gay’s account—marked by candor, modesty, and insight—adds an important and curiously neglected perspective to the history of German Jewry.
“Not a single paragraph is superfluous. His inquiry rivets without let up, powered by its unremitting candor.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[An] eloquent memoir.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A moving testament to the agony the author experienced.” —Chicago Tribune
“[A] valuable chronicle of what life was like for those who lived through persecution and faced execution.” —Choice
Gay is best known for his painstakingly researched series on the Enlightenment and, more recently, on The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. In this memoir of his early life, particularly of the years between Hitler's chancellorship in 1933 and Gay's eventual escape in 1939, one can almost see the evolution of his obsessive concentration in the intense devotion to stamp collecting and sports that helped him block out the increasing din of Nazi racism. But this is not only a memoir, it's also a fierce reply to those who criticized German-Jewish assimilation and the tardiness of many families in leaving Germany. "We were not so stupid, not so deluded, certainly not so treacherous as we have been judged to be." In responding to these often facile charges, Gay is defending his beloved father, who through persistence and risky subterfuges managed to get his son and consumptive wife out of the country. In one episode, he recalls his father desperately doctoring a family certificate: "I can still see him at work committing this crime: using a straight razor, he gently scratched away at the ink, with St. Louis and May 13 growing paler and paler." This smart, funny, personable and resourceful man never adapted to his new life and died prematurely in 1955. Gay does not apologize for his father or other German-Jews, but rather offers an explanation of the mixed signals and the difficulty of escape. Or if it's an apology, it is, as he says "an unapologetic apology."