Understanding Jewish history with Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner (Photo by Stephan Rumpf)

Michael Brenner describes himself as a Jew first. Other aspects of his identity come second: Germany, where he was born. And the United States, his longtime home.

Brenner, 57, is a history professor and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University.

Through his writing, Brenner aims “to show, really, that Jewish history and Jewish culture and existence cannot be pinned down to one idea, to one essence. It is so vibrant, because of its manifold ideas, because of its many centers throughout the world,” he said.

Brenner has authored multiple books on Israel, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. He said he tries to write on topics that are both relevant and can be approached from a previously unexplored angle. “In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea,” Brenner set out to look at how, long before Israel was declared, influential Jewish thinkers and politicians envisioned a Jewish state functioning.

“I didn’t think there was really much written from that particular angle,” he said.

In the forthcoming “Hitler’s Munich: Jews, Antisemites, and the Rise of Nazism,” Brenner aims to illustrate how the Bavarian city’s Jews reacted to their home becoming “a testing ground for the anti-Semitism in post-World War I.”

“There’s so many books these days on everything people are interested in,” Brenner said. “There’s so much on Hitler, but I wanted to look at Munich.”

The book has been released in German and is set to be released in English next year. Brenner said it was inspired by his upbringing and partially influenced by what he calls the rise of populism and the rise of extremism in the United States.

“The historical example of Germany is often, perhaps too often, invoked. But rarely has it been so close to our reality as it is today,” Brenner wrote to The Washington Post following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Brenner grew up in a small town in Bavaria in a Jewish community of Holocaust survivors, including his parents. His Polish-born father survived several ghettos and concentration camps and his German-born mother hid in Dresden until the war’s end. His family history left him alienated from German society.

“Being a Jew in Germany after the Holocaust, I never had the feeling that this is really my home,” Brenner said. “I grew up with some kind of distance to living in Germany.”

In 1981, while in high school, Brenner entered the German Federal President History Competition, in which students research historical topics and then present their findings in a report, exhibit or video. Brenner decided to write about the history of his town’s Jewish community.

“That really was very important for me, recording the Jewish history of the town where I grew up,” he said.

Out of 13,000 participants that year, Brenner took first prize. And he discovered a passion for research. He enjoyed combing through archives and conducting interviews. It was that experience that made him want to study Jewish history as a profession.

Last year, Brenner received the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Award, which the University of Vienna calls its “Nobel Prize for the study of Jewish experience.”

He spends each summer teaching at the University of Munich. There, he belongs to Ohel Jakob Synagogue.

“A lot of my Jewish identity has to do with heritage and history,” he said. “But I never wanted to reduce Jewish identity to some kind of Holocaust-related identity. I always thought it should be more.”

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