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For America’s ambassador to Germany, a personal reflection on Yom HaShoah

Ambassador Amy Gutmann’s father left Nazi Germany as a young man. Nearly 90 years later, his daughter is back — representing the country that welcomed him

When Amy Gutmann, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, was a child, her father was always awake nearby and ready to bring her a cup of hot cocoa if she couldn’t sleep at night. 

Only later did she learn that it was because her father was haunted by nightmares, the consequence of his upbringing in Germany in the years before the Holocaust. He got out not long after the Nazis came to power, but many family members and friends did not.

“He didn’t share any of the horrors with me. Just the big picture, which I took to heart,” Gutmann said of her father, Kurt, who died when she was a teenager. “He instilled in me how important it is to speak out early and often against antisemitism and not take democracy for granted.” 

Speaking to Jewish Insider on Monday, the eve of Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — Gutmann reflected on her diplomacy in the country that her father fled 90 years ago and that is now one of America’s closest allies in the fight against antisemitism. 

“It’s something my father would be so proud of,” said Gutmann, 73. “Not simply proud of me, but proud of our country, the U.S., in the journey that it has helped Germany take to being in a place where Germany and the U.S. now can stand steadfast and strong as allies, fighting against antisemitism in all its forms. Making sure ‘never again’ is a reality, being strong and steadfast supporters of the State of Israel and above all, making sure that all forms of antisemitism and hatred and violence are combated.” 

Gutmann was sworn in as ambassador last year, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and launched a war that immediately and dramatically altered both European geopolitics and the day-to-day realities of her job. 

“We’re going to be with Ukraine as long as it takes,” she said. She views America’s continued support of Ukraine as an extension of her belief in democracy, one of the lessons she learned from her father. Democracy is also a topic Gutmann explored at length as a political scientist, most recently as the president of the University of Pennsylvania for 18 years. 

“I think the lessons of the past are more meaningful than ever before because of the rise of antisemitism, because of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the defense of democracy and combating antisemitism are two of the defining issues of our time.”

Gutmann’s academic career took her from Harvard and Princeton to Penn, three universities now known for thriving Jewish communities. But growing up in Monroe, N.Y., a small town a couple hours outside of New York City where her parents helped create the first and only synagogue, she was one of just two Jewish children in the local elementary school. 

“I felt [like] an outsider who was accepted but never fully integrated into the community,” Gutmann recalled. Sometimes this manifested in violent threats, like when a member of the John Birch Society tried to run over her father with a motorcycle, or the time students hung a noose in the school cloakroom. She also felt the more subtle but still insidious antisemitism of friends who were taught in Sunday school that Jews killed Jesus.

“If you’re taught that, even if you don’t realize it, you’re really being basically taught to be antisemitic,” said Gutmann. 

So she fought back by teaching her friends Hanukkah songs at Christmastime, and having long debates about religion with high school friends, perhaps an early indicator of her future as a political scientist.

“I was proud of standing up for why it’s wonderful to be Jewish,” said Gutmann. 

During her time as ambassador, Gutmann said, she has tried to prioritize teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to Germans, and to Americans. 

The “culture of remembrance,” she noted, “is under attack all over the world, as well as in Germany and in the U.S.,” said Gutmann, who added that she works to promote that culture. “We want to be leaders in that regard.” 

Part of that work involves looking at what America did during World War II — and just as importantly, what the U.S. failed to do. Last year she invited the filmmakers of the PBS documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust” to speak to Germans about America’s inaction during the Holocaust, and the ways that Washington failed to protect Jews in Europe.

“We’re actively engaged in the culture of remembrance by showing that we practice a culture of truth telling, and we recognize things that we didn’t do. That gives us more of a reason to do more today,” she said. 

In January, Gutmann hosted Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff in Berlin during Emhoff’s antisemitism-focused trip to Europe. Along with Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, they met with European leaders in the fight against antisemitism, visited Berlin’s somber Holocaust memorials and held an interfaith gathering to talk about combating faith-based hatred. (Interfaith work is a priority for the ambassador, who hosted an interfaith Iftar dinner on Monday.) In 2021, Germany’s security services registered more than 3,000 antisemitic acts, the largest number since they started tracking the data.

Emhoff’s visit “showed the importance to the Biden administration, to the United States and to Germany to come together, to speak proudly of what it is to be Jewish and to speak with a sense of great responsibility and obligation of our governments and our whole societies to do what’s necessary to make ‘never again’ the real legacy to our children and our grandchildren,” Gutmann said. 

She expects the most personally meaningful part of her Holocaust remembrance efforts to come later this spring, and to be much more personal. Last year, Gutmann visited her father’s hometown, the small Bavarian city of Feuchtwangen, for the first time. 

“I am finalizing plans to go back there and lay the first couple Stolpersteine, the first stumbling stones that this town has, in honor of my father and my aunts and uncles and grandparents,” said Gutmann, referring to the small memorials that appear across Europe to mark the former homes of Nazi victims. 

“It’s not just going to be for me, what we do on Yom HaShoah,” Gutmann continued, “but what we continue to do as the U.S. mission in Germany, to lay, if you will, the stepping stones to a better future — now I have grandchildren — for our grandchildren and their children.”

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