When his daughter was about to become a teenager and asked when she would have her bat mitzvah, German diplomat Stefan Schlueter had to explain to her that they weren’t Jewish.
The confusion was understandable. Her dad, who has been Germany’s consul general in San Francisco for the past three years and is retiring at the end of June, spends much of his time in synagogues or speaking to Jewish organizations.
Schlueter, who went to Israel to work on a kibbutz before joining the foreign service and then was spokesman for the German Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1986 to 1990, said German diplomats have an obligation to reach out to Jewish communities due to the legacy of the Holocaust.
“We were the perpetrators of this unheard-of crime,” he said. “Generations [of Germans] who were born after the war are not guilty for what happened at that time, but we should definitely — with our history — have a special responsibility to see to it that things like that don’t happen again. This is part of tikkun olam [repairing the world].”
Schlueter, 65, certainly has reached out to the Jewish community while in San Francisco — even while preparing for his departure, he was organizing a June 7 concert at Congregation Emanu-El featuring Israeli singer Noa Levy and German cabaret singer Karen Kohler and planning a July trip to Germany by a group of West Coast rabbis.
He also has taken great pride in repatriating Jews and their descendants who have sought to regain German citizenship seven decades after the Holocaust.
“Germany and Israel, and Germany and the Jewish people, have a very special relationship based of course on the history,” said Andy David, Israel’s consul general in San Francisco. “Stefan served as a diplomat in Israel and understands very deeply this historical connection. He did a very good job in maintaining those relationships and developing them with the Jewish community here. He has a very good affinity to the Jewish community and to Israel. It’s a genuine interest and not just a professional one.”
After studying political science at the University of Hamburg, Schlueter went to Israel as a 23-year-old in 1975 and lived on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel near Jerusalem.
“That was an incredible experience for me, 30 years after the end of the war and the Holocaust,” he said. “I was really surprised with the open arms, the welcome we received as Germans even at that time. I left that summer with lots of friends in Israel.”
After joining the German foreign office in 1979, he was sent to Buenos Aires, where he met his wife, and Algiers before moving to Tel Aviv, where daughter Danja was born in 1988.
“So many Israelis, including [Jews from Austria], were like grandparents to our daughter. These were Holocaust survivors,” he said. “It’s something I found very moving. You meet people who endured this horrible fate and they were open to us.”
That was followed by postings in Los Angeles (where his son, Sebastian, attended a synagogue preschool), Bonn and Berlin, New York (where Danja asked about her bat mitzvah) and Port of Spain, Trinidad, before coming to San Francisco in 2014.
So many Israelis, including [Jews from Austria], were like grandparents to our daughter. These were Holocaust survivors.
During his globetrotting, Schlueter often has been reminded of the relationship between Germany and Jews worldwide. After speaking at a synagogue in San Bernardino in the early 1990s, a woman came up to him and rolled up her sleeve to reveal an Auschwitz tattoo.
“She said, ‘Today is the first time I feel Germany has a bright future,’” Schlueter recalled. “For me, this is more satisfying than arranging for a German company to do good business in my host country.”
Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Emanu-El pointed to Schlueter supporting Music of Remembrance, a program that focuses on the legacy of the Holocaust via concerts, educational tools and the commissioning of new works, and speaking out against rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
“Stefan has been engaged and involved on cultural levels, on intellectual levels. He’s given generously of his time and been a friend of the Jewish community,” Singer said. “If we’re going to make the world a better place, then we need to have dialogue and engagement with people with whom we’ve had a painful past. I can’t think of anyone who’s been better at that than Stefan Schlueter.”
Required to retire at the age of 65, Schlueter and his wife plan to move back to Buenos Aires, though they will be spending plenty of time in Europe. Both of their children live in London, and Schlueter will be in Berlin several weeks each year training German diplomats.
His successor in San Francisco will be Hans Ulrich Suedbeck, who already has enrolled his son in the Emanu-El preschool for the fall.
Schlueter is pleased at the number of Jews seeking to reclaim the German citizenship they or their parents or grandparents lost in the 1930s and ’40s. There were a number of such repatriation ceremonies in San Francisco during his tenure.
“That’s one of the things I find so moving,” he said. “You have all these German Jews, thank God they were able to leave Germany alive. But they lost their culture, their history, their background. We had hundreds of years of Jews living in Germany. Every one that had to emigrate had more culture in their little finger than all the brown shirts [early Nazi paramilitary personnel] together.
“It’s even more moving now with their descendants, their children and grandchildren discovering their roots and allowing us to welcome them back,” he added. “For me, it’s like the last victory over Hitler, to welcome them back.”