Chajm Guski

The German-Jewish writer who wasn’t Jewish

Is there anything more Jewish than a German – non-Jewish – journalist who pretends to be Jewish but blames his mother? And who, ironically, wrote an article entitled “Irena Wachendorff: The German Alibi Jew Who Wasn’t” for Heeb Magazine in July 2012?

The fact that there has recently been some kind of scandal that has shaken liberal Jewry in Germany and affected organised Jewry in Germany as a whole was not as remarkable for the German newspapers as the case of “Fabian Wolff”, who revealed in the online edition of the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” that he is not Jewish.
His Jewish identity was only imagined. In his essay “Mein Leben als Sohn – My life as a son” (ZEIT online, 16 July 2023) he writes that his mother told him – falsely – that they (i.e. mother and son) were Jewish. This happened shortly before he graduated from high school. He only found out about it now. In contrast, the feature editor of Germany’s only Jewish weekly, “Juedische Allgemeine”, Philipp Engel, wrote “in journalistic circles, the question was not when Fabian Wolff’s costume Jewishness would be revealed, but only who would make it public first.” In other words, there were also doubts about this version of the story.

The most important question is: why?
Perhaps Fabian Wolff himself provides the answer. Again, in Heeb Magazine, May 2011:

Problem is: There are not that many actual Jews around to satisfy all Hebrew needs – just around 300,000, including the most secular swine-eaters. Most are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The Lithuanians don’t like the Ukrainians, who don’t like the Russians and so on.
Heeb Magazine online

And he filled the market niche marvelous! Intelligent contributions, often reviews. First for smaller papers, then also for the Juedische Allgemeine. Other media followed. Always with a small reference to his own Jewishness. Little snippets of Yiddish interspersed in conversations or texts. If asked to describe how a Jewish journalist from New York would write articles, most philosemitic Germans would have described a style like Wolff’s. Almost too good to be true.

In 2021, his essay “Nur in Deutschland – Only in Germany” caused heated debates in the social media. The article appeared on ZEIT online and was translated into English.

Today Zeit online has added a disclaimer to the article. In the article, Fabian Wolff tries to explain why he, as a Jew, can take a left-wing stance critical of Israel and can certainly have understanding for BDS.

The article ends with:

And if we can’t choose our own path, then I would at least like to see, with open eyes, where the storm of progress is blowing us; instead of being gagged and blindfolded by the goyim, claiming, as always, that they know what’s better for me, what’s better for us. Who knows, after all, where they might take us.

The Self-Revelation was published with the title “Mein Leben als Sohn – My Life as a Son”. “Mein Leben als Sohn” is the German translation of the book “Patrimony. A True Story” by Philip Roth. This shows where Wolff positioned himself intellectually.

The case did not remain a Jewish affair. It was taken up by the feature pages of every major daily newspaper. The major weekly magazine “DER SPIEGEL” had several journalists investigate the whole story. DIE ZEIT itself built a team to do an in-depth fact-check and also subjected the revelation itself to an investigation. In the process, circumstantial evidence had been discovered, as the ZEIT claims, to support Wolff’s accounts that his mother, now deceased, had raised him believing in a Jewish identity. Both email conversations and persons from his mother’s closest circle were mentioned. “We must continue to assume that Fabian Wolff’s mother did indeed tell him that he had a Jewish great-great-grandmother, and therefore also a Jewish great-grandmother and grandmother – and that the author did not make this up,” according to the article in Zeit Online’s “Transparency Blog”.
However, there were doubts about the alleged point in time at which Wolff had developed serious doubts about his Jewish origins. The editorial staff of Zeit was criticised for not having followed up earlier on the hints that had been circulating since 2021. It came out during the entire debate that a former partner of Wolff had prepared a “dossier” in which she explained that Wolff was not Jewish and neither was the family. She claimed, this was known to Wolff.
She had sent this to various newspapers. Tragically, the young lady died and can no longer give any information about it today.

The impact of an author of whom the German professor Michael Wolffsohn wrote in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” on 18.07.2023 that he did not know him and had never read anything by him was thus inflated to the maximum: At the end of his career as a “Jewish author” he is better known than at the peak of his “active” time.

Depending on the ideological orientation of the journalist (or commentator) in question, the “left-green press” is blamed for making such a thing possible. Or it is considered whether “costume Jews” are not a symptom of problems with East German identities, or that they were particularly fond of publishing him because he took a stance critical of Israel (which was not the case from the beginning). Everyone points the finger at each other. The fact that so many non-Jewish German commentators take satisfaction in dissecting the case may begin to emerge as a more interesting question. At times, newspapers found Jewish writers to contribute concerning the “Causa Wolff”.

The fact is: the need for Jews in the public eye is still high, as Wolff himself mentioned in his early days of writing. “Living Jews” have the task to prove that Germany is a “good” and civilised place. But these Jews should please be as one imagines them to be. Not too religious. Perhaps even critical of their own institutions, or maybe critical (at least mildly) of the state of Israel. Intelligent. Self-confident, but not with a point of view that causes too much public opposition.
As long as there is demand, there will also be “service providers” who want to meet it. The community will come forward if there is a lack of authenticity.
As long as one does not have to confront the realities of Jewish life in Germany, discussions about costume Jews are welcome evasive discussions for the non-jewish public.

Aspects of reality (in relation to the German majority society): Growing anti-Semitism without a concrete idea of how to confront it, while the government cuts funding for initiatives against it. But hey, let’s keep talking about one person.

About the Author
Chajm is a writer, blogger, and resident of the German Ruhr district; publisher of the German Jewish website Some of his articles are published in a German-Jewish weekly.
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