The Jews of pre-Nazi Germany

The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction by Jay Howard Geller (Cornell University Press 2019)

Jews had a long, eventful and productive history in Germany that predated Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Yet, understandably, this is often overlooked and overshadowed by the ghastly pall wrought by the Nazis and their confederates.

Without eulogizing a world that has long since passed, it is a fact that the Jews enhanced all aspects of life in the German-speaking lands of central Europe – cultural, social, political, industrial and scientific – at least since the singularly striking figure of Moses Mendelssohn walked through the gates of Berlin in 1743.

In The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction, Jay Howard Geller paints a detailed portrait of life in Germany across four generations of one particular middle-class Jewish family, spanning nearly a century and a half until the full throttle application of the Nazi killing machine.

The focus of the book is the Scholem family of Berlin:Arthur, Betty and their four sons, Reinhold, Erich, Werner and Gerhard. Gerhard Scholem later became known to the world of Jewish studies and to the wider world of philosophical and historical scholarship as Gershom. Of course, it is because of Gershom Scholem’s enormous stature in modern Jewish learning that Geller chose the Scholem family as the focus of his study of middle-class Jewish life in Germany. And fortuitously, the Scholem family encompassed the “diversity of political opinions and social choices among middle-class German Jews in the early 20th century,” writes Geller. “They were ‘broadly representative’ of German Jewry in this era.”

Scholem’s temperamental and iron-willed father was a successful businessman, the owner of a printing establishment. Scholem’s older brothers Erich, who was politically liberal, and Reinhold, who was more patriotic and nationalistic, eventually went into the family business. Werner Scholem abjured the business world altogether. He was a leading German communist, who would eventually get elected to parliament.

Gershom Scholem was a commanding figure in Jewish academic life from the 1930s, through to his death in 1982. His reputation among scholars was fixed into the high constellation of shining stars with the publication of his book, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, that developed out of a series of lectures he delivered in the United States in 1938. Much of the subsequent research and scholarship into the subject of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah has been written by Scholem’s students.

From his vantage as a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Scholem influenced the development of intellectual and political life in Mandatory Palestine and Israel. He was a larger-than-life figure – opinionated, self-absorbed, zealous for his causes and absolutely dedicated to his scholarly work.


A Gershom Scholem-centric story will necessarily introduce the reader to Scholem’s associations and friendships with many of the outstanding academic, literary and scientific figures of the time. Geller’s book is replete with elaborations of such relationships. Indeed, this is one of the endearing bonuses of The Scholems. We read about Scholem’s complicated relations with Martin Buber, Franz Rozensweig, Walter Benjamin, S.Y. Agnon, Zalman Shazar and Hannah Arendt, to name only a few.

In addition, in telling us about Scholem’s settling in Mandatory Palestine in the late ’20s, Geller provides eye-opening detail of the difficult, unembellished, hardscrabble existence that was life for young Zionists fulfilling idealistic aspirations, or older ones simply trying to build a new life away from hateful pursuers.

Scholem’s prominence and his specific family makeup and background provided the perfect flour from which Geller milled his very interesting work. He explains what he tried to achieve with this work as follows:

“Studying German-Jewish society before 1933 illuminates the world that the Nazis destroyed. Not only did they compel Albert Einstein, Erich Mendelsohn and Kurt Weill into exile, but also hundreds of thousands of less famous German Jews, many of whose families had lived in the German lands for centuries. Indeed the Jews were an important part of the German bourgeoisie before 1933. Despite their relatively small proportion of the total German population, they had a special place in urban life in Germany before the Second World War. They were among the chief producers and consumers of modern culture in Germany. The Jewish middle class was central to journalism, the business community and the professions of law and medicine in German cities before the Nazi era. Going beyond a review of their contributions to German society, this book elucidates the experiences of Jewish individuals and families within their own milieu and then the place of the German-Jewish microsociety in German society as a whole and ultimately the world of German-Jewish bourgeoisie in exile.”

Geller is especially suited for the task. He is the Samuel Rosenthal professor of Judaic studies and a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. He is also the author of Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953. In other words, he has extensive knowledge of the history of the Jews in modern Germany.

The Scholems is a praiseworthy achievement. It has the substantive heft of an academic work. It is detailed and cross-referenced with all manner of illuminating and interesting facts, accompanied by more than 100 pages of notes and indices. But the writing is light and swiftly paced. The narrative travels through the chronology of events that affect each member of the six-person family, as well as members of the extended family. Geller presents the details of the many-peopled story in pendulum fashion, swinging from the events of Scholem’s life back to his siblings and parents. After Hitler becomes chancellor, the inter-related developments affecting the Scholems reads like a tension-filled suspense novel. Scholem is in Mandatory Palestine; the rest of his family are struggling to escape the spidery web of Nazi Germany in which they are all enmeshed.

As the author notes, however, the story of the Scholems in the ’30s, like that of most German Jews, was, ultimately, one of dispersal or destruction.