ESSEN, Germany — Growing up in the 1990s in Berlin, the writer Max Czollek remembers, he and classmates occasionally unearthed human bones when they were playing outside their school. Years later, he learned that the site had been used as a deportation center during the Holocaust.
“This was a place where Nazis gathered Jews and tortured them,” he said. From there, he came to realize that Germany is, as he put it, “a huge graveyard.”
The continuing influence of the past on the present — and what Czollek sees as Germany’s collective reluctance to acknowledge it — informs his latest book, “Desintegriert Euch” (“De-integrate Yourselves”), a collection of politically charged essays and historical reflections that came out in August 2018 and is still making waves in the country. In it, he argues that Germany, eager to shed its past, isn’t reckoning with the rise of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism. And with the book’s title, he is calling on people who have been ostracized or singled out to stop trying to fit in and embrace their “otherness” so Germany can become a truly multicultural, pluralistic society.
More than a year after its publication, “Desintegriert Euch” is in its seventh print run. And in a Germany grappling with national identity 75 years after the end of World War II, Czollek, 32, isn’t anywhere near done talking about anti-Semitism. But the book’s fans are by no means limited to those who are Jewish. Last fall, in Essen, Czollek spoke at a panel exploring what it is like to be “different in Germany,” whether that means being black, having a Lebanese name or having a parent from India.
At a nearby coffee shop after the panel, Czollek explained how the weight of the past motivates him. “I am one of the few Jews that has a history in Germany from before the Second World War,” he said. His grandfather survived more than one concentration camp and spent several years in exile in China before returning to East Germany in the late 1940s.
“The only Jewish relative I have is my aunt,” Czollek said. “My father died when I was young. The thread is extremely thin. Sometimes I think the things I do are to reconnect with that thread.”
Czollek, who has a Ph.D. from the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at the Technical University of Berlin, has also written several volumes of poetry, one of which went on sale in September, and is a co-editor of “Jalta,” a twice-yearly journal on contemporary Jewish culture, which published its first special edition in conjunction with the Jewish Literary Festival. Translations of some of Czollek’s poems are online, though none of his books have been fully translated into English.
The European Jewish Congress estimates that about 200,000 Jews live in Germany today, but most migrated to the country from the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Czollek’s generation of German Jews — those who are millennials today — were some of the first who could attend Jewish schools from first grade through high school. Having Jewish spaces in which to form critical ideas, he said, “is a prerequisite for thoughts like de-integration to emerge.”
Jews as a litmus test
In postwar Germany, national identity has in many ways been defined by “overcoming the past,” or the effort to move beyond the crimes and ideology of the Nazis. “Germany is a country that prides itself on being a world master of memory culture,” said Jon Cho-Polizzi, a doctoral candidate in the German department at the University of California at Berkeley, who has translated four chapters of Czollek’s book as well as some of his poetry and essays into English. “That’s as German as a soft pretzel.”
The historian Michael Brenner has said in lectures that it was crucial that Jews were seen as integrated as West and East Germany emerged in the years after the war. “The presence of Jews served as a litmus test for the new democracies,” he said.
In his book, Czollek deals with how that litmus test has evolved and what it means for a Jew in Germany today. Making use of a term coined in 1996 by the sociologist Y. Michal Bodemann, “the theater of memory,” Czollek writes that Jewish people in Germany are “a confirmation of the German narrative of not being Nazi anymore.”
Unfortunately, he adds, this setup means that “Germans have fundamentally misunderstood their responsibility for the past,” something that has become increasingly clear with the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, and growing anti-Semitism (an attempted attack on a synagogue in Halle has been the most violent example). “He really hit a nerve with this criticism,” said Mirjam Wenzel, the director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.
Though Wenzel said “Desintegriert Euch” is important, she has called its sometimes aggressive tone “battle rap,” saying it doesn’t offer an inclusive vision of Germany. “What is this society meant to be?” she said. “In his book, that question is not there. It has no interest in what holds people together. Either you’re part of my crowd and my way of thinking or you’re not.”
Czollek doesn’t necessarily disagree with the criticism that his work is aggressive. He formed many of his book’s theses while organizing theater festivals in Berlin. One of them, “Radical Jewish Culture Days,” included an evening where guests ate rugelach and watched movies in which Nazis were beaten.
“It feels like I wrote this book standing on a stage,” Czollek said. “This allowed me to be more extreme and more theatrical in a way than I would not have been coming from a Ph.D.”
‘The threat from the right has created a new kind of solidarity’
Though Czollek writes from the perspective of a German Jew, in the book and in all of the lectures and panels that have followed, he has sought to create alliances with other minority groups.
Integration has become a buzzword in Germany, gaining traction after more than a million asylum seekers began arriving in 2015. From one point of view, the word encourages newcomers to join German society and build their lives here with existing templates as a guide. From another, it imposes conformity on the quarter of the country with immigrant backgrounds.
“Integration is based on certain ideas of how society works — there’s a certain German dominant position,” Czollek said. “‘We were here first, you were here last, and this is why you have to adapt.’” The problems arise when the perspectives offered by the new arrivals are disregarded because they do not fit in with German expectations.
In Essen, he was part of a panel of four writers who contributed essays to a book called “Eure Heimat Ist Unser Albtraum,” or “Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare.” The concept of heimat, which translates as “home” or “homeland,” has been revived in recent years, culminating in the creation of a “heimat ministry.” Critics such as Czollek call “heimat” a dangerous idea that represents a longing for a cultural ideal that is white, homogeneous and Christian.
“This anthology is written by people who are othered in this country,” said Mithu Sanyal, an author who contributed to the anthology and whose father immigrated to Germany from India in the 1960s. “There is a kind of network of us. People like me and Max who have never been perceived as a group are suddenly perceived as a group. The threat from the right has created a new kind of solidarity.”
She sees the success of Czollek’s book as a positive change in German society. “For a long time, nobody wanted to hear about anything race related,” she said. “There is this thinking that race is a construct, so there can’t be any racism. That was the end of the discussion. Racists are Nazis and we’re not Nazis.”
But now, Sanyal said, “there’s a new kind of self-confidence in the so-called immigrant community, if you want to stick a label on it. People who are supposed to be outside of the culture are now part of it.”
For Czollek, writing and talking about the book has been part of a lifelong effort to maintain the thread with his ancestors. “I feel like I’m in a constant discourse with them,” he said. “The only difference is I’m the one who lives.”