Interesting question – one in which my wife and I have differences of opinion about feelings, but not about Halacha
According to my understanding of Halacha, there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a German made car today, so many years after the Holocaust. Given that:
There are few, if any, Germans who are still working today who were Nazis in the 1940s
The German government has done a great deal in reparations to try to atone for the past
It seems to me that by refusing to buy an Audi or BMW or Mercedes today you would be depriving yourself of a good car, and punishing only the children of the Nazis of that generation.
The more interesting question would be if it would have been permissible to buy a German car in 1945, or for that matter, in 1942, in the midst of the war.
I am not sure what the Halachic answer to that question would be. On the one hand, it is an arms length transaction that does not directly help the Nazis. On the other hand, of course, one would not want to do anything that would help them in any way, especially given that it is rumored that some of those companies used Jewish slave labor, and thus one would not want to do business with them. It is difficult for me to say that it would be “forbidden” to buy one, but I would say that it would go against any notion of Jewish pride and sensitivity to one’s people at the time, and no self-respecting Jew would do so.
Which brings me to my difference of opinion with my wife. She, being a very sensitive soul, would not want to have anything German in the house (except German Jewish items like myself). It would therefore offend her sensibilities to purchase a German car, or kitchen appliance, or anything else. She would feel that it is somehow being disloyal to the memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust to want anything made by that accursed nation.
My feelings, in addition to the halachic ones articulated above, are that although I might have trouble which was directly reminiscent of the German products of that period (such as a Volkswagen Beetle), it is being (a) over-sensitive to deprive oneself of an otherwise fine product today and (b) not cognizant of the fact that today’s Germans are no better or worse than many other non-Jewish groups, who, given the appropriate circumstances, might equally engage in severe anti-semitism, including terrible violence. It is in my view simplistic to over-demonize today’s Germans, and not note that there are many places in the world today where anti Semitism is far more rampant than Germany.
When my wife and I were married in 1966, one of the gifts we received was a Bauer camera, made in West Gernany. Because it was made there, my wife would have nothing to do with it and insisted that I take it back to the store to exchange it for someothing else. As it happens, I had a Jewish clerk, and he pointed out to me that West Germany had full diplomatic relations with Israel and was paying reparations to Holocaust victims. I told him that I understood that, but I just did not want this to be the first argument that I had with my wife! We ended up with a Canon camera, made in Japan, which was also America's enemy in World War II !!!
There undoubedly is a sense of responsibility that we all have for what our ancestors have done, including the pride that we have for some of the things they did and the shame for other things. (Brad Paisley's new album, Wheelhouse, has a poignant song on this theme named Incidental Racist, in which he says that he is proud to be a Southerner but not proud of everything that we Southerners have done. L. L. Cool J sings a rap in the middle of it, in which he talks about the current African American tendency to look at all Southerners as slaveholders, so the prejudice goes in both directions.) It is precisely this sense of linkage to our ancestors that I discuss in my book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics with regard to a request by the priests on the Los Angeles Priest-Rabbi Dialogue who asked us rabbis what it would take for the Jewish community to forgive what the Catholics did and failed to do during the Holocaust. None of us around the table was an adult during the Holocaust, and many were not even born then, so they really did not have standing to ask for forgiveness (they themselves did not act badly), and we rabbis did not have the moral standing to forgive them, given that we were not the ones directly affected -- and yet both sides felt some responsibility to set things right. You can read in that chapter of that book how I explore the Jewish tradiition to resolve this issue.
Now to your specific question. Henry Ford was also an anti-Semite, and very public about it, so will you not buy a Ford now because of that? As the clerk said to me back in 1966, the German government has done everything it can do to make amends, and it is the staunchest supporter of Israel in Europe. In fact, the education curriculum in German schools requires young Germans to confront their country's crimes during the Holocaust, which is not true in Poland or Austria, for example. So I would say that if you are not going to buy an American car, then a German car is probably a better ethical choice for a Jew than cars from some other countries that have not done what the Germans have done to combat anti-Semitism, including anti-Israel propoganda.
The notion that it is unethical to purchase a German made car (or any German-made products) was especially pervasive in the years following the Shoah. Understandably – and appropriately – this was a visceral and emotional response within the Jewish community (and beyond) at a time when other responses to the tragedy of the Shoah had not yet emerged. For many, it would be unfathomable to buy any item that was tainted with German origin or manufacture. And of course, there are those who continue to feel this way to this day.
And, though the sting of the Holocaust will never be completely healed – as we are bidden to sanctify the memory of our murdered brothers and sisters – we also acknowledge that the world continues to progress and change, and that the Germany of today, and its people, is not responsible for perpetrating the violence and destruction of the past. Though it is completely reasonable for anyone to retain the instinctive hostility and refusal for such purchases, I don’t believe that we can suggest that our tradition mandates this reaction.
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