My late mother, Dr. Janet Sax, was a student of German literature who minored in German at the University of Michigan. I can still recall her reciting Goethe’s haunting poem Der Erlkönig, in which a dying boy hallucinates an elf-king who threatens to kill him. I knew by heart the lyrics to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony before I was ten years old: Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! Millions, be you embraced! This kiss for all the world!

There was something ironic about her Germanophilia because my mother, born in 1924, defined her Jewish identity in ethnic, not religious, terms. And that meant an identity steeped in the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazi Germany. She grew up in Toledo, Ohio, with neighbors who listened to Father Charles Coughlin praising Adolf Hitler on the “radio priest’s” nationwide broadcasts. I would ask my mother how, given the crimes of Nazi Germany, could she read and enjoy German poetry? Knowing my love of classical music, which she had instilled in me, she answered:


Bach. Beethoven. Brahms. Haydn. Mozart. Schubert. Schumann. Mendelssohn. Wagner. Mahler. Bruckner. All of them spoke German as their first language. Most of the greatest music in the Western tradition was written by Germans. Beethoven is not responsible for the Holocaust. Neither is

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