Michael Blumenthal’s Search for Answers Takes Him Full Circle Back to Berlin

By Linda Arntzenius

Michael Blumenthal has made his home in Princeton since 1951 when he was a graduate student at the University. He has a fondness for the place, which he finds has retained its essential character even after six decades. “It hasn’t changed significantly in the last 30 years and even though there are new buildings, it isn’t overwhelmed by the franchises that have made this country so ugly,” he says. Besides, he has good friends here and it’s convenient to New York, Philadelphia and even Washington, D.C

Proximity to the nation’s capital has been important to Blumenthal who is used to being at the center of things—political, social and cultural.

At 89, the self-described “observer of history” can look back on an eventful life. Born in Germany in 1926, Blumenthal witnessed the rise of Nazism that forced his Jewish family to flee their native land. They found refuge during the World War II years in Shanghai. After finding his way to the United States, he served in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter administrations and was successful in business as CEO of Bendix and Unisys.

The former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury’s experiences and observations, drawn from privileged positions close to the center of government and trade for almost nine decades, can be found in his highly readable books, The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, a Personal Exploration and From Exile to Washington: A Memoir of Leadership in the Twentieth Century.

Blumenthal was prompted to write his first memoir, after his father died at the age of 101 in 1990. Ewald Blumenthal left his son a most valuable gift: the Blumenthal family tree. “After I retired, I worked as an investment banker and had some time on my hands,” he recalls. “I looked at the family tree and recognized some names, notably Giacomo Myerbeer, and Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, about whom there was quite a large literature, including a biography by Hannah Arendt. Each of these ancestors lived at a different period in German history and I found their stories to be a paradigm for the relationship between Jews and non-Jews over several hundred years.”

He set out to examine the varied and complicated relationships between Germans and Jews over a three-hundred-year period from medieval ghetto to Holocaust in an exploration of the perennial questions: How could the Holocaust happen? Why did it happen in Germany? What were the warning signs? And can it be prevented from happening again? These are questions that have been brought to the fore by this year’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and by attacks on synagogues in France and Belgium in the early part of this year.

He set out to examine the varied and complicated relationships between Germans and Jews over a three-hundred-year period from medieval ghetto to Holocaust in an exploration of the perennial questions: How could the Holocaust happen? Why did it happen in Germany? What were the warning signs? And can it be prevented from happening again? These are questions that have been brought to the fore by this year’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and by attacks on synagogues in France and Belgium in the early part of this year.

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THE INVISIBLE WALL

Part memoir and part historical analysis, The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, a Personal Exploration, involves the reader in the lives of six of the author’s ancestors. Henry Kissinger described it as “a fascinating and thought-provoking work… significant not only in terms of Jewish history but of the evolution of European social history.”

To quote Kissinger again: “[Blumenthal] explores the enduring questions of European Jewry: What is a Jew; How have they survived as an entity apart; Why, even if prosperous, were they second-class citizens; How did the Holocaust come to happen in the very country where Jews had most completely and successfully integrated into mainstream society.”

“The history of Germany’s Jews can only be understood in the larger context of German history,” says Blumenthal. “From the beginning, the German- Jewish relationship was a marriage of convenience. Germany needed its Jews for economic reasons, and the Jews needed Germany as a safe haven with scope for their unique talents.”

Blumenthal reveals the history that shows, for example, why Jews came to be so prevalent in retailing. “The law of unintended consequences that excluded Jews from so many other professions pushed them into it and they became experts,” he says, adding that this happened elsewhere in Europe, not just Germany.

In The Invisible Wall we learn of Jost Liebmann (1640-1702), the peddler who became a court jeweler and one of Berlin’s richest men, and of Rahel Levin (1771-1833) who, as Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, created a literary salon for intellectuals such as the poet Karl Wilhelm Schlegel, philosopher and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt and his naturalist brother Alexander, among other luminaries. Von Ense is celebrated in Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. The famous child prodigy and composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) is also featured, as is businessman and banker Louis Blumenthal (1818-1901), literary critic Arthur Eloesser (1870-1938), and Ewald Blumenthal (1889-1990), the author’s father.

Blumenthal describes his father as “a conventional, middle-class German Jew. His self-image was that of a German. He had served in the Kaiser’s elite guards and fought for his country in the trenches of France. The Emperor had personally rewarded him with an Iron Cross.”

“My parents were proudly German and deeply hurt that the Nazis had stamped them as alien and inferior,” he writes in From Exile to Washington.

The year 1938, as recalled in From Exile to Washington:

“Two men came for my father in the early morning, sometime before 6AM. They were detectives from the local police station and reasonably polite but otherwise uncommunicative as they waited for him to get dressed and took him away. The commotion had woken me, and I can still hear my mother’s insistent questions as she asked what it was all about, the note of panic and helpless frustration in her voice, and my father’s frightened last look back at us as he was being led away. He barely survived the dreadful Buchenwald camp and returned six weeks later, his head shaved, sixty pounds lighter and in a pitiful state. He never spoke about Buchenwald again, but it left him with a deep psychological trauma from which he never fully recovered.”

This event, coming on the heels of Kristallnacht, was a shrill wake-up call. It shook the author’s parents from any idea they had of waiting out the bad times. His mother faced the “herculean task of surmounting the innumerable obstacles in the way of our escape.”

The family left Germany in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Asked why they had not gone earlier, Blumenthal explains some of the thinking that had kept them there against all the warning signs: “My parents were middle class shopkeepers, not poor, but of modest means. They had never been outside of Germany except for one visit to Italy, their honeymoon, which they spoke of fondly for the rest of their lives. When the pressure mounted to leave Germany, where were they to go? They spoke only German. They were not allowed to take any money with them. This was a time when in many countries, for various reasons, there was little enthusiasm for admitting immigrants. It was a tough time to get a job. Where were two middle-aged people to go? It was a time of anti-Semitism.”

Blumenthal was 13 when he embarked, with his parents Rose-Valerie and Ewald and older sister Stefanie, from Naples on the SS Haruna Maru, a Japanese ship bound for the “open city” of Shanghai. To this day, the month-long journey is fresh in his recollection. “From Naples via Port Said, Suez, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong; each one of those ports of call was part of the British Empire and none would admit Jewish refugees. I remember Bombay was as hot as hell; our ship was part freighter, part passenger ship.”

Shanghai and, for a time, the Honkou ghetto would be Blumenthal’s home for eight years. “Shanghai had a terrible reputation and quite rightly,” he says, “a dreaded place of crime, poverty, and disease at the other end of the world, the last resort for those who had found no other place to go.” He vividly describes the city as a place of contrasts. And the sometimes bizarre community that “so diverse a group of poor and bedraggled European Jews, cast adrift in China under tough conditions in the midst of war, nevertheless succeeded in establishing.”

“Community life was astonishingly active and rich, tinged with heightened awareness of Jewishness,” he writes of the 18,000 Germans, Austrians, Polish, Hungarian and Czech who were crowded into a narrow area. “Some rediscovered the synagogues, and there was substantial interest in Zionism and Palestine. Yet most remained strongly wedded to the culture of the past. The Austrians put on Lehar operettas, lending libraries did a brisk business in the German classics, and in the little cafés comedians told jokes with Berlinese and Viennese themes.”

The period took a toll on his parents and their marriage but for their teenage son, [at least] observed in hindsight, “The tough refugee war years were precious lessons for the future…In Shanghai I learned what it means to be hungry, poor, and forgotten for no fault of one’s own, and what people will do when their backs are up against the wall. I saw that life can be unfair, that titles, possessions, and all the trappings of position and status are transitory, that they are not as important as one’s own inner resources in the face of hard times, personal setbacks and defeats.” He credits the Shanghai years for his interest in social science and economics and for leading him directly to the “Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.”

When the war ended in 1945, Blumenthal thought that he might find a future in Canada. “I read in a newspaper that the Canadian Consul General had announced that Canada needed immigrants. I was 19 and I went along. I was attending a British school and I spoke good English. I was told that I was ‘just the sort of fellow we’re looking for’ and then I was asked, ‘Under what passport do you intend to travel?’ I told them I was a refugee.”

When the long-awaited letter from the government of Canada arrived, it did not have good news. The sting of rejection is clearly something that Blumenthal finds easy to recall, but it is tempered by the satisfaction he felt years later, in 1960, when as U.S. Ambassador in charge of trade negotiations in Geneva, he was described by the Canadian Minister of Trade and Commerce as being a tough negotiator. “If they’d let me into the country in 1945, I might have been working on their side.”

Instead, he came to the United States two years later under President Harry S. Truman’s special “Refugee Admission Order” which opened the doors to Holocaust survivors. He arrived, with his sister, in San Francisco on board the SS Marine Adder in 1947 at the age of 21. After that, it seems, there was no stopping him.

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AFFAIRS OF STATE

With a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, he entered Princeton University where he gained a Ph.D. and went on to teach economics for three years in the late 1950s. Then he joined and ultimately became vice president and director of Crown Cork International.

In the 1960s, he entered politics and public service, serving from 1961 to 1963, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. He was with the State Department until 1967, as advisor on trade to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Of his direct dealings with the former, Blumenthal concluded, “Kennedy had political courage, a scarce commodity in politics.”

Following a ten-year career as president and then chairman of the board of Bendix, he was appointed as Secretary of the Treasury by President Jimmy Carter, serving from 1977 to 1979. He found Carter “unlike any other politician I had ever met.” His was a “problematic presidency,” and Carter accepted Blumenthal’s resignation in 1979. “Simply put, he fired me,” Blumenthal records in a chapter in From Exile to Washington which offers a riveting insider’s view of the highs and lows of the period. “By then, sadder but wiser, I was more than ready to go.”

Returning to the business sector, he joined Burroughs Corporation in 1980 as vice chairman, and then became chairman of the board a year later. After the company merged with the Unisys Corporation in 1986, he became chairman and chief executive officer of Unisys, where he remained until his retirement in 1990.

“Much of history is the result of accident,” Blumenthal contends. “So much depends upon who has his hands on the levers of power. Take recent history as an example, in the year 2000, the presidential election was up in the air and ultimately decided by a freak of fate, ‘chads.’ The Supreme Court had to make a much-debated decision. They gave the election to George W. Bush. They could have given it to Al Gore, in which case we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. In the 20th century there were assassination attempts on Hitler, which, if successful, would have altered the course of history.”

FROM EXILE TO WASHINGTON

In From Exile to Washington, Blumenthal reflects on leadership by examining each decade from the thirties through the nineties. For each period he focuses on one signal event in which he either took part or observed from close quarters. His insights range from Washington in the 1960s; business and the Carter cabinet in the 1970s; technological change and globalization in the 1980s; to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and his return to Germany in the nineties.

“Traveling the world as a business executive and government official, I was in a privileged place to observe the unfolding of these events. Occasionally I would play a small role in them myself,” he says with typical diffidence.

Blumenthal’s observations encompass reforms in China under Deng Xiaoping, with whom he had direct negotiations in 1979 that helped bring the country into the modern world after years of isolation. “Deng is the father of modern China, without whom it wouldn’t have come as far as it has.” He witnessed, at first hand, the fall of the Shah, the beginnings of religious fundamentalism in the Muslin world, and the decline of Communism. Along the way, he has words of praise for fellow Princeton resident and distinguished Under Secretary of State George Ball, whom he describes as “the single most influential and most admired individual in my life. I learned a lot from him.” Of Helmut Schmitt, one of Kennedy’s advisors in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Blumenthal argues he should have been made Secretary of State—“he was a far-sighted man and intellectually powerful.”

Blumenthal’s writings are peppered with fascinating anecdotes and details including his involvement with the Princeton Housing Associates formed to help combat the bigotry that had confined the town’s black population to “a de facto black ghetto.”

The last chapter of From Exile to Washington focuses on the founding and building of The Jewish Museum Berlin.

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BACK TO BERLIN

The importance of this museum to the sociopolitical life in present day Germany cannot be underestimated, says Blumenthal. “In addition to being a museum, it is an educational and cultural center, one of the most visited in Germany.”

Blumenthal’s conception of the museum was underscored by the belief that it is impossible to understand the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous contributions made by its Jewish citizens. Rather than being a Holocaust memorial, he points out, the museum integrates the meaning of the Holocaust into the German consciousness and memory. He believes that it is crucial for Germany’s future that the erasure of Jewish life from its history be acknowledged. “The museum demonstrates that Germans cannot understand their own history without knowing about the influence of the Jewish community on their culture.”

The museum, which opened in 2001, is regarded as architect Daniel Libeskind’s masterpiece. Its structure speaks to its subject in a dramatic way that marries the past with the future. Visitors enter via the Baroque Kollegienhaus and then descend by stairs underground to arrive at three destinations: the Holocaust Tower, the Garden of Exile and Emigration, and, by means of a second stairway, to the exhibition spaces.

The building’s zigzag plan features a “void” that embodies absence while also allowing visitors to “cross-over” numerous bridges connecting one side of the museum to the other.

Blumenthal felt it was crucial to show Germans that Jews lived as Germans in Germany for thousands of years. It is with some satisfaction that he speaks of the increase in the number of Jews living in Berlin today. “Since the wall came down, it has grown from 40,000 to 250,000.”

Blumenthal served as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin from 1997 until 2014. His writings probe and shed light on the deep contradictions and nuanced ambiguities of the German/German Jewish experience. In 1999, for his humanitarian work promoting tolerance and social justice, he received the Leo Baeck Medal and the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.