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Kissinger's German roots

Diana FongJune 29, 2007

For the first time Henry and Walter Kissinger, whose German Jewish family fled the Nazis in 1938, talk about their odyssey from the small Bavarian town of Fürth to America, and their confrontation with anti-Semitism.

"Kissinger's Jewish identity deeply influences his perspective on the world"Image: AP

"I never give interviews about my personal life," said Henry Kissinger in response to a letter from Germany in 2003. But Evi Kurz, the author of the recently released "The Kissinger Saga: Two Brothers from Fürth," persisted. The book is based on Kurz's film documentary, which was aired earlier this year on German television.

Kurz, who is also a native of Fürth, was deeply moved by a speech that Kissinger gave in May 1998 when the former US Secretary of State was made honorary citizen in the city of his birth, near Nuremberg.

"He read from a letter his mother had written to him," said Kurz, who became obsessed about interviewing Kissinger, 84, and his brother Walter, 82 about their German Jewish roots. "Paula Kissinger wrote about her strong attachment to the city where she married and bore her two sons, the same city the family was forced to flee under the Nazis."

Kurz dug up a trove of old documents that impressed the brothers, and it was Walter, a retired multi-millionaire businessman now living out on a ranch in Colorado, who finally convinced his elder brother to commit their family history to film.

Life in Fürth

In the 1930s, Nuremberg was the site of the huge annual Nazi rallies, where the anti-Semitic laws on racial purity were passed. Fürth, a smaller city in the shadow of Nuremberg, had a good size Jewish community, which had lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors until the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Laden nach der Kristallnacht
The Kissingers had fled Germany before Kristallnacht--the night of broken glassImage: AP

"Kissinger's Jewish identity deeply influences his perspective on the world. He remembers that when the Nazis came to power, the nice tolerant neighbors did nothing to protect his family," said Jeremy Suri, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "Henry Kissinger and the American Century," which was also released last week.

Kissinger's struggle with anti-Semitism

"His confrontation with anti-Semitism did not end when he fled Germany," said Suria, who interviewed his subject several times. "He has been traumatized by it all his life. Kissinger was always conscious of being the outsider."

Although his trademark horn-rimmed spectacles and the distinctive gravely monotone marked by his place of birth have added to the Kissinger mystique, he tried desperately to fit into mainstream America, according to Suri.

"His brother Walter, who speaks English like a Yank and even has trouble with German, was much better able to assimilate," he said.

Henry clings more to his German heritage than Walter, according to Kurz.

"Walter wanted to be fully American," she said. "He wanted to leave Germany behind him."

Nazis come to power

In one interview Walter reminisces about family holidays at the grandparents' home in Leutershausen, where the children went swimming in a river. When asked about his reaction to a sign that went up in 1933 that banned Jews from the site, Walter, choking back tears, quietly asks Kurz to stop filming.

"It was incredibly painful for Walter to talk about this chapter of his life," Kurz said. "Surprisingly, it was Henry, who tends to be more reticent about personal matters, who opened up."

"Jewish boys my age couldn't understand why we were suddenly banned or segregated from the others, who joined the Hitler Youth," Kissinger said in the film. "It was much harder on my parents."

Their father, Louis Kissinger, who taught at an all-girls preparatory school, was suddenly "relieved" of his teaching duties, but it was their mother who saw the writing on the wall.

Before Kristallnacht, the pogrom that had left the streets littered with smashed glass in November 1938, Paula Kissinger had applied for exit visas that enabled the entire family to flee before it was too late.

New start in America

Living the American dreamImage: AP

Fast forward to the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood Washington Heights in New York City. By 1943, Heinz Kissinger, now known as Henry, was drafted in the US army, whose division took part in the allied invasion of Normandy. He then returned to the country of his birth as counterspy in the American occupational zone, while Walter served in the Pacific theater.

By the late 1940s, both had returned to America -- Henry pursuing a stellar academic career at Harvard University and Walter going to rival Princeton.

Kurz's book, which publishes the family's personal documents and photos for the first time, features a passage from Paula's diary, in which she wrote down her thoughts on the swearing in of her son as US Secretary of State in 1973.

"When we started out on our trip to Washington on Sept. 21, there were the words of the Man of La Mancha in my ears: 'This was the impossible dream!' Was it really true that Henry had been confirmed as Secretary of State, the first Jew, the first foreign-born, our son?"

Return to German roots

Two years later, having reached the pinnacle of American political power, Henry returns to Fürth with his parents, who had last seen their home when they were forced to flee.

"This city has always remained close to my heart," wrote Louis Kissinger in a letter to the mayor of Fürth.

It is former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose path collided with Kissinger's tenure as US Secretary of State, who has the last word in Kurz's film.

"He understood and convinced other world leaders that the Germans after 1945 had learned their lesson and could be trusted," he said. "We have this man to thank for that. Henry Kissinger never forgot his German roots."