My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Friday 3rd December 1999


My name's Johanen Eickhoff. I was born in Germany just after the Second World War, in the northern part. I was born into a middle-class family. That means we - or my foster parents - had a small corner shop. We lived a life as low-key as possible. That meant I went to a normal German school. We had no Jewish institutions as such on the outside. That means it looked as if we were just normal Germans. The only thing we didn't do was go to church. In Germany, the history of the Jews is that they wanted to be seen as Germans and tried to assimilate and to be accepted. But unfortunately Germans have a long memory. And as we saw from the Holocaust, it (ie the attempt to assimilate) didn't work all the time. But a lot came back after the Second World War, as they had nowhere else to go, and tried to forget, or tried to push aside, the simple fact of what had happened, and tried to be good Germans again. That was what my family tried to do as well - and tried to keep me away from showing too much my Jewish identity. Some members of the family spoke Yiddish and Hebrew - but tried to keep it from a child like me, so I would grow up learning High German. There was one special day which was kept. That was the so-called "Day of Repentance", which we know as Yom Kippur. But it wasn't called by its name. It was kept very quiet, very much in the family, very much in a small community of people who actually were Jewish and stuck a little bit together. But for the wider community of a town of about four thousand people, it was virtually not noticeable. When I was very young, it did not matter to me much, because I wanted to be like every other boy and every other young child in town. And when I grew a bit older, say about ten years, twelve years old, I noticed there were differences. In some way, I felt not at home. I lived in a country where more and more I felt I was a stranger. I worked in Germany for a pharmaceutical company first, and changed to an American pharmaceutical company. I was in my early thirties. It was at that time I became aware of my Jewishness, and I wanted to become "frum". That means I wanted to become observant. Now I changed quite a lot, because becoming observant means there are lots of Torah laws which I have to keep, which did not exactly fit in with the ethics or the culture of a pharmaceutical company. In observance, that means that (in preparation for) the Shabbat (ie the Sabbath), on Friday afternoon, we shut down - we really stop working. As a manager for a company like this, it was simply not possible. And, okay, I lost my job - a high-paid job at that. But I gained spiritual freedom. In the mid-'80s, I came to live in the United Kingdom. If I look at my life now, compared to what it was before I became observant, I think the similarities are virtually non-existent. I look completely different, of course, now. I have a long beard, and am dressed usually in black and a white shirt. I wear the "tsitsit" - the fringes which the Orthodox usually show. You stand out like this, especially in the City of London - not so much in our community. I would not have done anything like this in Germany. And even if I were to go back to Germany now, I would be a little bit frightened of showing myself this way. Which means I would tuck in my tsitsit, I would wear a hat, so as not to show my yarmulka (ie skullcap). And I would just feel not safe. When I look back over my life, I think from the very beginning I was trying to hide my identity. But it did not work for me very long. Because hiding your identity is living a life which is a lie. Although, if you show you're Jewish, especially in Central Europe, it can be a very dangerous way of being. But in the end, for me what changed is that, if I show what I am, if I live a life of truth, I gain in spirituality. And it works out always for the best. E N D