The Jewish Difference



The movie Europa Europa came out in 1990, about the Jewish boy, Salomon Perel, a German Jew who survived World War II and the Holocaust by passing himself off as a German—first, by joining the German Army, then by joining the Hitler Youth. He did it as a matter of survival, because to tell the other soldiers that he was in fact a Jew would have meant instant execution by men brainwashed to hate the Jews. When all this happened, Perel was just 16-years-old. 

Perel writes in his autobiography I Was a Jew in the Hitler Youth that he endured endless hours of Nazi indoctrination, and even admits that part of him converted to Nazism. Even as a Jew, he might have given in to the indoctrination altogether, except for one unchangable fact. His parents had him circumcised at his birth. The movie Europa Europa begins with the circumcision ceremony, led by a Rabbi, called in Hebrew Brit Milah (Genesis 17:10). Like it or not, circumcision identified him as a Jew.

He could never shower with the other boys in the Hitler Youth, nor urinate in their presence. A few times, other people saw his penis, recognized that he was a Jew—which he admitted to them—but did not report him. No matter how much he wanted to integrate into the German ethnic group or the Nazi faith, the circumcision kept him separate. Perel even tried to cover the head of his penis with the remainder of his foreskin, but the pain forced him to stop. He even admitted that "traurig und widerwillig," (sadly and reluctantly) he had to give up his desire to convert to Nazism.

But the Nazi indoctrination made its mark, too. At the end of World War II, American soldiers took him and the other boys in his unit into custody, disarmed them, and made them stand against a wall for hours. The German boys worried whether the Americans intended to execute them on the spot. Eventually, they realized the Americans only wanted to scare the shit out of them.

Perel wanted to yell, "Don't shoot! I'm a Jew!" but could not get the words to come out. Remorse or shame kept him silent. Eventually, he identified himself as a Jew to a German-speaking American officer who was also a Jew. To prove his identity, Perel recited the most important Hebraic prayer, the Sh'ma Yisroel!" "Hear, o Israel!" He also sang "Hatikva," modern Israel's national anthem.

When his American captors asked him what he intended to do, Perel said he wanted to emigrate to Palestine and live in a nation with his own people. In a sense, Perel had no choice. The circumcision marked him for life as a member of a people apart from everyone else. In a larger sense, though, he simply states a simple insight about human kind, that we want to belong. His story also reveals the fraudulence of "Tolerance and Diversity" as a social ethos, because it does not allow us definition. In practical terms, tolerance and diversity only mean that the stronger political element will define tolerance and diversity for everyone else.