Third Generation East: New Perspectives
Moving to the United States has made it easier for me to think and speak about some of these complicated issues. This change of perspective was facilitated by the opportunity of dealing with questions of my own identity, which came with leaving the context in which I was brought up. Since I moved to the United States, having to explain what I mean when I say I was born in East Germany has become a common experience for me. Everyday conversations in the United States have both required and allowed me to explain my background. But unlike in Germany, my explanations have mostly been prompted by curiosity, rather than an expectation of me being uncritically ‘grateful’ for living in post-reunification Germany. Nobody here is surprised by the fact that I am able to speak German “without a dialect” or offended by my self-identification as East German. In short, moving to the United States has given me the freedom to think about my own identity without being under constant scrutiny, a process that has been important for my work on East German Jewish history, as I now know.
I am currently a member of the U.S.-based research network Third Generation Ost. The network is loosely affiliated with the German network Dritte Generation Ost and the association Perspektive Hoch Drei. Both groups have released several publications and organize cultural events focused on the experiences of members of the so-called Third Generation East, i.e. people born in the GDR between 1975 and 1985. Unsurprisingly, the use of the generational concept has been intensely debated, ever since the term emerged. I personally have a difficult time aligning myself too closely with any organized group that, willingly or unwillingly, comes to be understood as a representative of my interests and experiences. In a way, this attitude may reflect the kind of skepticism with which I was brought up by parents who came of age in a society where one’s affiliation with political groups affected one’s professional opportunities and often served to silence oppositional voices. However, the much looser research network Third Generation Ost in the United States, with German as well as North American contributors, has allowed me to situate my own research within current debates about how to write GDR and post-reunification East German history and to reflect on my personal relationship to the subject.
When I talk about my research on postwar East German Jewish history, the fact that I am not Jewish does not seem to be confusing to anyone in my academic environment in the United States. I am merely an East German doing research on a particular aspect of East German history. However, when I arrived in Berlin this past summer to conduct research in the archives of the Jewish Museum and the Centrum Judaicum, I quickly remembered that my East German identity is only half of the story; and unlike in the United States, it is the less significant half in Germany. Before the division of Germany, there was the Holocaust. Thus, understandably, the Holocaust remains the seminal catastrophe that continues to affect relations between the Jewish community and surrounding non-Jewish communities in Germany.
However, this relationship is now embedded in a much more complex context than it was before 1990. In a recent essay in the German newspaper der Freitag, Dimitrij Belkin writes about what he calls “patchwork Judaism” (“Patchwork-Judentum”). Over the last decades, the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, the continued conflict in the Middle East, and younger Jews’ increased readiness to marry non-Jewish Germans have made the Jewish experience in Germany more complex. Jewish communities have opened up, and Belkin claims that these changes and the German Jewish history of trauma and suffering can help Jews “be a kind of Avantgarde, to dismantle social prejudice and promote education.” Understandably, these developments and interpretations like Belkin’s have caused debate within the Jewish community. But they are also important for the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Germany and for what should be a shared fight against anti-Semitism, as Belkin concludes.