Asking the Questions/Telling a Story

by Norma Claire Moruzzi
Asking the Questions/Telling a Story
Norma Claire Moruzzi
The German Quarterly
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License


University of Illinois at Chicago

Asking the Questions/Telling a Story

This essay is about the relationship be- tween intellectual and personal identity, about the patterns of scholarship and those that inflect our lives.' In its details, it is very much an essay about my experience. As a meditation on more general themes, however, its range is intended to be more extensive: one very personal answer to the historical question of GermadJewish identity as it is posed today.

Sometimes people ask me, "Why Arendt?" Why this particular intellectual preoccupation, when so many others are available? There are several answers to this question, more or less complete and depending on the circumstance. The sim- plest, and maybe the most accurate, is that she makes sense to me. By now, it is hard to determine to what degree she makes sense because she has shaped the way I think: I first picked up The Origins of Totalitarian- ism when I was sixteen. I have been read- ing Hannah Arendt's writing on and off ever since, a circulation of interest and sur- prise that has been going on for more than half my life. Given this relationship, the more intriguing question may be, why did Arendt make sense to me in the first place? Why did this particular individual's writ- ing strike me as the best possible way to think about the world in which we live?

It's a world we have both lost and gained. For Arendt, a German-Jewish in- tellectual who wrote and published most of her important works of political theory in English in the United States, the lost world was obviously the cultural landscape of Eu- rope, the New World the place she landed as a refugee, after having fled Nazi Ger- many for France in 1933 and France for the

United States in 1941.2 But for me, a post- war child born to first- and second-genera- tion immigrants who believed the Old Worlds were well behind us, history's shadow cast a different shape. Firmly fore- shortened, minimized by the cheerful lighting of a consumer paradise, the shadow of history seemed barely to tangle around one's feet. Mostly a matter of reci- pes and childhood mythology, history was not something that was supposed to get in your way. In our house, my mother never called herself a refugee, although that is certainly what she was when she arrived in New York in 1938. At sixteen, she and her younger sister had been shipped out of Germany to live with American relatives they had never met. Together, they set out to become Americans; when my grandpar- ents did arrive ayear later, their daughters would only speak English with them. Ger- man was part of the history they felt lucky to have been able to leave behind, a shadow my mother felt she could mostly do with- out. She got on with her life. When she married my father, mixing ethnicities and religions, they were happy that this was so. They felt free.

For me, ironically, the shadow grew lon- ger. Maybe it was just the passage of time, the shifting of perspective that accompa- nies the slow turning of the world. Raised as Americans, free to make of ourselves what we wanted, my brother and I pursued different paths, he working to build the present, I fascinated with questions of the past. The absence of certain parts of our history shaped my own life. At sixteen, fin- ished with high school, I left home to spend a year on a kibbutz in Israel where my

The German Quarterly 73.2 (Spring 2000) 179

mother's sister lived. As a doctor, she had moved there somewhat skeptically years before, after she had married a fellow Ger- man-Jewish refugee who was also a Zionist pioneer and a distant relative. On the kib- butz, I worked in the cow shed and read ev- erything I could get my hands on. Mostly, I depended on my aunt and uncle's library. After I had pulled out Salinger, Rousseau, de Sade, and Kazantzakis, my aunt handed me The Origins of Totalitarianism. I think she thought it might keep me busy for a while.

While I was living on the kibbutz, peo- ple used to ask me if I was Jewish, and my answer kept changing. In the beginning, I said no. I was as Jewish as I was Catholic, having been raised in neither religion, but instead with the American credo of self- creation. When a double line of my class- mates had marched down the hill from the public elementary school to the church that held their catechism classes, and I had been one of what seemed like the few to walk straight home, I had certainly known I wasn't Catholic, and it didn't occur to me that being Jewish was any different. My family did not practice any religion except a fairly secularized Unitarian-Universalism. We hadn't had any religious initia- tions, and we did celebrate Christmas-so had my mother when she was growing up-although when we were very small my parents tried a system of giving us one present a day for several days, on the peda- gogical theory that too much Christmas buildup was overstimulating for the very young. We were proud to be a mix. But I looked like my mother, who looked like her sister, and people knew I was her niece. They were skeptical when I said I wasn't Jewish, and one day someone asked me if I were ashamed of it. Of course not! But it suddenly dawned on me that religious practice had nothing to do with it; at least in Israel, being Jewish was a matter of blood.

I suppose I had known that I was legally Jewish according to religious law, because Jewish national identity is passed on through the mother's line.3 Nonetheless, I had clung to my mongrel assurance that performance mattered more than pedi- gree. Now, somewhat confused but accom- modating to local custom, I switched my answer. But saying I was Jewish provoked a new set of problems: people expected me to be familiar with holidays and rituals about which I knew nearly nothing. I was suddenly shockingly ignorant about what before I had been proud to know a little. Frustrated, I revised my answer again: when asked if I were Jewish, I gave the somewhat unwieldy but accurate answer that I was Jewish through my mother, and let it go at that.

But I remained puzzled. What exactly did it mean to be Jewish? What did it mean for me to be Jewish? The whole question seemed to me to be completely confused, not just in my own case, but in its larger, theoretical ramifications. My secular, mod- ernist-rationalist kibbutznik relatives al- most entirely rejected Jewish religious identification. For them Jewish identity seemed to be a national identity based on a valorization of history and an almost tribal bond of blood. The more religious Jews, upon whom the kibbutzniks looked with varying degrees of dislike and contempt, at least seemed to think that Judaism had to be linked to certain actions and traditions; their emphasis on spiritual practice struck me as possibly more enlightened than my relatives' faith in blood. Jewish identity did involve choices, but they seemed to be split between the rituals of a spirituality I had- n't been raised to practice and adherence to a Zionist nationalism I didn't necessar- ily believe. In the midst of this quandary, my aunt lent me Arendt's book, and I started reading history.

At the time I didn't finish it, but I made my way through the first volume on anti-Semitism and well into the secondvol- ume on imperialism. Arendt's work on Eu- ropean Jewish history opened up to me a whole new way of thinking. Specifically, it allowed me to place my own questionable Jewish identity within the context of avar- iegated historical narrative, instead of finding myself simply confronting the most blunt of that narrative's end results. For Arendt, the evolution of European Jewish identity was central to the story of Euro- pean identity in general, and to the devel- opment of the nation-state in particular. Contemporary Jewish alternatives were themselves as much the products of the tradition of the nation-state as of the tradi- tions of Judaism. Reading Arendt's com- pelling and elaborate account of European Jewry's troubled relationship with politi- cal emancipation and cultural self-identifi- cation, I also came to realize that for me, as for my mother, Jewish identity had a lot to do with being German.

And what did that mean? For postwar children, German identity could be a con- fusing mix of Beethoven, marzipan, and death camps. Unlike most other sizeable American ethnic groups, there wasn't even an available immigrant identity, the vari- ous and powerful German-American clubs and organizations having been disbanded or banned outright during World War I. German cultural identity, including Ger- man-Jewish identity, was something that had to be reconstituted out of a broken past and an anomalous present.

This peculiar lack of historical presence wasn't true of my father's Italian back- ground. We weren't raised to think of our- selves as especially Italian, but we could go to Boston and walk by the house in the North End in which my father was born. For my father, a reasonably satisfactory continuity with the Old World existed, something that was, after all, less possible for my mother, the refugee. The quaint traces of cultural practice that are for the second generation the signs of ethnicity are for the first generation still the remnants of a definingloss. For the refugee, the mem- ory of that loss is confounded because it is mixed with relief: under the circumstances that necessitate flight, almost any place is better than where you've been-the past a stigma to be shed, the present a process of restive assimilation. Nonetheless, the dis- tant memories of childhood always remain the most familiar. My mother was not the only one to say she could never go back- and not only because her childhood home was destroyed in a direct hit near the end of the war. One of her duties as a US Army nurse had been to act as an interpreter for German prisoners; when they would ask her where she learned her good German, she lied. "In school," she said, "in Cincin- nati."

So I, a generation removed, went back to Germany instead. In part, at least, I went to study Arendt. A German friend was studying with a Jewish professor who had finished the war in the US and who had decided, with the strength of age, to return to teach the new generation. He was run- ning a seminar on Hannah Arendt, and a study group arranged in the old-fashioned way, with Sunday afternoon meetings at his home and evening gatherings with his venerable friends. I had been reading Arendt through college, her writings on philosophy as well as history and politics, but what I now began to appreciate was her intellectual tone. Both passionate and rig- orously disciplined, her voice was histori- cally definite while broadly conversant. Again she made sense to me, the perspec- tive from which she chose to "think what we are doing," her famous phrase from the prologue to The Human Condition, so oddly appropriate to my own intellectual queries. Certainly, we were of different minds and more than a generation apart. But, whereas other intellectuals seemed to me to presume the limits of their version of a project, a discipline, or a world, Arendt of- fered a complex affirmation of difference and critique. Although I would learn to question the value of her hierarchies and the validity of her distinctions, her writ- ings taught me how to think of social (and of course political) identity as a complex set of historical constructions, both determi-

nate and mutable. She had also become a

model of stylistic practice, her habit of eas-

ily incorporating serious discussions of lit-

erature within her social theory a relief

from the relentless specialization of much

academic writing. By the end of my year in

Germany, I knew that when I returned to

the US to go to graduate school I would

write on Hannah Arendt.

I did, and I continue to do so. But maybe the most honest use we make of others is of the dead, and at some point I became curi- ous about Arendt's own enunciation of a voice, her modelling of another's life as au- tobiography, After she finished her univer- sity degree, Arendt's first independent scholarly project was an investigation of the German Romantics, which became a book on the Jewish salon hostess Rahel Varr~hagen.~

In writing Rahel's story "as she herself might have told it," Arendt tried on another's voice while detailing that other's story. Although by the end of her text Arendt reverted to her own clearly enunciated style, her experiment with the muffled interiority she held to be charac- teristic of Rahel served its purpose. Nar- rating a version of Rahel's story in an ap- proximation of her voice, Arendt could re- claim a precedent for her own experience as a German-Jewish woman troubled by the difficult personal realities of assimila- tion. In Rahel Varnhagen's own writings Hannah Arendt discovered a sensibility that insistently created itself, a woman both seduced by the aura of Gentile patri- cian glamour and yet resolutely uncontained by the limitations of its norms. If in her mature work Arendt herself rejected Rahel's introverted personal style, she nonetheless had already found in Rahel an important cultural and textual precedent.

A connection with the past enables the future. In June 1993, my mother, her sister, and I travelled to Wurzburg, the city where they were born. We had all been visitors there before: my aunt in the 1950s, myself during my year in Germany before gradu- ate school, my mother after that. But this trip was in the nature of a pilgrimage. That winter both my father and my uncle had died after longillnesses; for all of us, but es- pecially for my mother and my aunt, the circumstances of the present had once again been terribly changed, and it seemed the right time to return to an earlier lost past. Together, we retraced paths that were familiar to them. They told stories, and they pointed out sites: the park paths along which they had walked to school; the street where my aunt was bitten by a dog; the bakery to which their mother sent for baking pastries too large to fit into their own oven; the exact place where their house had stood; the exact location of their grandmother's house-my grandfather's mother, and the only member of the family to die in Theresienstadt. We spoke freely among ourselves, but neither my mother nor my aunt would ever admit, or boast, in conversations with anyone else, that they had lived in this city before.

Certain silences still hold, but it is sometimes easier to find the voices that filled them. My mother's cousin rediscov- ered, translated into English, and distrib- uted, a family history put together by one of the uncles. Originally written in Ger- man by a man spending his retirement in postwar London, and reflecting the prefer- ences of the family snob, this brief docu- ment nonetheless provides a fairly com- plete account of the extended family, and of their life in Wurzburg both before and af- ter the turn of the century. My mother still keeps, but will not catalogue, the extensive collection of her own mother's family pho- tographs. They are ordinary scenes of swimming, dress-up parties, and picnic out- ings-now perfectly foreign. Remnants of another life, the family relics are hoarded, which also means they are hidden away. My aunt thinks they should be thrown out. So far they have been preserved, but denied as history: images of a life displaced in space and time; artifacts of ambivalent signifi- cance; evidence not yet erased, but seem- ingly, so far, destined for oblivion.

I certainly wasn't reading Arendt dur- ing our journey to Wiirzburg. In fact, I was reading Obabakoak, a recent novel first published in the always-nearly-lost tradi- tion of written Basque. But once I was back in the United States, I returned again to Arendt's work, reviewing her own inquiry into European Jewish lives, a focus that I eventually narrowed to Arendt's early writing on Rahel Varnhagen. In Rahel, Arendt had found a precedent for her own self-conscious construction of a German-Jewish cultural and intellectual identity. Intelling Rahel's story, she also answered certain questions for herself, questions about the relationship between an individual and a distantly formative past. At a fur- ther, mongrelized remove perhaps, I have found, through reading Hannah Arendt, a way of answering somewhat similar ques- tions for myself.

All scholars, all readers, find them- selves at times considering such questions. But in the contemporary world, the issue of GermadJewish identity is especially freighted. There is no simple exemplar to define the appropriate relationship between the terms, no easy or obvious way to reconcile history and the present. Yet it must be done. In such a situation, every ef- fort, no matter how personal, takes on a larger significance. Each story poses famil- iar questions, but is its own answer. This essay is abrief record of my own investiga- tion of those questions, and of the answers, none of them final, that Ihave so far found.


lThis essay is dedicated to the people who made it possible: my mother, Leonore Frank Moruzzi; my aunt, Heddy Frank Blum; my friend, Pia Bungarten; and my teacher, Friedrich Friedmann.

2HannahArendt is usually described as the only woman political theorist who is definitely accepted into the canon of political philosophy. She wrote classic, groundbreaking studies of totalitarianism-The Origins of Totalitarian- ism and Eichmann in Jerusalem-together with important works on the distinction be- tween the public and the private spheres in the Western political tradition (The Human Con- dition), European Jewish identity (The Jew as Pariah and Rahel Varnhagen), and social and political revolutions (On Revolution); as well as numerous assorted essays and a final, unfin- ished analysis of the distinctions between thinking, willing, and judging in the tradition of political philosophy (The Life of the Mind). For those less familiar with her life and her writing, a very brief biography follows. Those whose interest is piqued can refer to Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, and of course to Arendt's own texts.

Hannah Arendt was born into a middle- class assimilated Jewish family in the German city of Konigsberg (now the Russian city of Kaliningrad) in 1906. At eighteen, she became a student at the University at Marburg, where she had a brief but very significant affair with her married and much older teacher, Martin Heidegger. At the end of her first year of study, she transferred to Heidelberg, where she com- pleted her doctorate in philosophy under the supervision of Karl Jaspers, writing on the conception of love in the writings of Augustine. She then moved to Berlin, and began working on a project on the German Romantics that eventually became her book on the Ger- man-Jewish salon hostess, Rahel Varnhagen. However, before the manuscript was finished, Arendt left Germany for France, where she found work as a coordinator of Jewish refugee programs, and then, with her mother and sec- ond husband, Heinrich Bliicher, left France for the United States.

In New York, she worked as an editor, taught part-time, published in small journals, and worked on her first major work of political theory, the three-volume study The Origins of Totalitarianism (Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism), which was published in 1951. This book established her as an impor- tant scholar, and led to her first university fac- ulty appointment, at Berkeley in 1955. Over the rest of her life, she published substantial, original analyses on a variety of political top- ics, yet although she was affiliated with many of the country's major research universities, she did not settle down at any particular one. She died in 1975 at her home in New York City, the epigraph page for the third and last volume of her unfinished book, the one she referred to as her return to philosophy, in her typewriter.

31 specify national identity under religious law, since my mother's Jewishness (as opposed to her perhaps questionable Judaism) makes me and my brother automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship, even though we have never been through any kind of religious training or community observance. Thus, Judaism does- n't simply rely on mothers to pass on cultural continuity through adequate domestic super- vision, but also recognizes them as the only fully reliable parent through whom to trace a child's ethnicity. As my uncle rather gleefully pointed out to me, fathers aside, you always know who the mother is.

4Within German literary studies, Rahel Varnhagen (b. Rahel Levin, 1771-1833) is such a well-known figure that she is typically re- ferred to only as "Rahel," a practice that at least avoids confusion with her diplomat hus- band, Karl Varnhagen. She is one of the best-known examples of a small group of bour- geois Jewish women who established salons in nineteenth-century Berlin, and briefly helped define their era's cosmopolitanism. Rahel her- self seems to have tried to escape her Jewish- ness through romantic alliances with non-Jew- ish men and through conversion. Although Rahel may be best known for promoting the Goethe cult, Arendt was primarily interested in her as an example of an especially sensitive, frank, Jewish feminine personality, a woman preoccupied with her existence as a Jew in re- lation to the Gentile German aristocracy.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Re- port on the Banality ofEvil. New York: Viking, 1963.

. The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago 1958.

.The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. New York: Grove, 1978.

. The Life of the Mind. New York: Har-

court, 1978. .On Revolution. New York: Viking, 1963. . The Origins of Totalitarianism. New

York: Harcourt, 1973.

. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Harcourt, 1974.

Atxaga, Bernardo. Obabakoak. Trans. Margaret Jull Costa. New York: Pantheon, 1992. Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Loveofthe World. New Haven: Yalem 1982.


Bibliographic Errata

In the Fall 1999 issue, several errata es- caped the editors' attention. The most impor- tant of these occurred in the bibliography of Ricarda Schmidt's article, "Sockelfigur am 'Neisernen Paradepferd der Weltgeschichte': Christa Reinigs autobiographischer Roman Die himmlische und die irdische Geometrie als 'Weibsgeschichte' aus der Zeit des kalten Krie- ges,"German Quarterly 72.4 (1999): 362-76. Corrected bibliographic entries are as follows:

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Heath, 142-48. ijbersetzung des Original "La mort de l'auteur." Mantkia 5 (1968).

Benhabib, Seyla. Situatingthe Self: Gender, Com- munity and Postmodernism in Contemporary

Ethics. 3. Ausgabe. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. "What Is an Author?" lhers. v Donald E Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Hrsg. v. Don- ald F Bouchard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1977, 113-38. hersetzung des Originaltextes "Qu'estce qu'un auteur?"Bulletin de laSocikte fraqaise de Philosophie 63.3 (1969): 73-104.

Olney, James, Hrsg. Autobiography: Essays The- oretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton Q 1980.

.Metaphors of Selc The Meaning ofAuto- biography. Princeton: Princeton 1972. [Reinig, Christa]. Die Steine von Finisterre. Reinig, Die Prufung 7-69.

  • Recommend Us