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The new Jews of Berlin

Being a Jew in Berlin these days has become very fashionable, an integral part of the city’s self-conscious culture of remembrance and reconciliation. From Holocaust monuments, museums and memorials to books, historical studies, Yiddish folklore, food, film and Klezmer concerts, it has also become a profitable industry, one which Jewish cultural critic Iris Weiss claims has more in common with Disneyland than what it really means to be Jewish.

Iris and I have met for coffee in a café next-door to the Berlin’s largest synagogue. Bombed almost to rubble by the Allies, its magnificently reconstructed golden-striped dome has become one of the brightest landmarks of the city. We are also in the heart of a Jewish quarter, densely crowded with summer sightseers, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Within a block are the Anne Frank Museum, a Jewish high school and cemetery, an original workshop from the 1930s for blind Jews and a theatre that features Jewish music. All around, on apartment buildings and pavements are brass plaques listing families who died in concentration camps.

A couple of kilometres away on prime city real estate near the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is nearing completion. At a cost of around $50 million, the memorial consists of 2751 ash-coloured concrete pillars arranged in rows like a graveyard.

‘Germans perceive it as something for Jews,’ Iris tells me, a little scornfully. She says she prefers memorials that confront you unexpectedly in everyday life. In the Berlin suburb of Schöenerberg, for example, there is a 1930s plaque on a post outside a grocery store. On one side is a picture of bread, on the other a warning that Jews can only shop from 4 to 5pm.

In her late 40s, outspoken and independent, Weiss moved to Berlin a decade ago to take up a job as executive director of a government research project on women’s issues in German reunification. Now, as well as providing a comprehensively-researched tour of Jewish Berlin, she occasionally works as a journalist for the Jewish press. During the past year, her website has averaged 19,000 hits a month.

Weiss’s father was one of the few German Jews to survive the Nazis extermination program. In Berlin, out of a Jewish population of 170, 000, only around 6,100 were alive by the end of the war. Growing up in southern Germany, Weiss says one of the first things she noticed as a child was that, unlike her classmates, she had no relatives to share the family celebrations.

Similarly, she says there are simply not enough Jews in modern Berlin to meet popular interest. The results are cultural products supported and administered by non-Jews who have insufficient background in Judaism. Moreover, many of these Germans identify with the Jewish community as a way of assuaging the guilt of the past and developing a sense of belonging. This often means the Jew is portrayed as an exotic stranger or as a perennial victim.

If true, such stereotyping appears to have very little to do with contemporary realities. Although Berlin has the fastest growing Jewish population in the world, the community is ethnically diverse and spans a range of traditions from orthodox to secular. Eighty per cent of the 12,000 or so registered, tax-paying members of the Jewish Gemeinde (community) are from various regions of the former Soviet Union, including the Ukraine, the Baltic, Moldovia, Azerbaijan and Russia. It’s estimated up to another 20,000 Soviet Jews have migrated here but have not officially acknowledged their Jewish descent. Israelis too are immigrating in increasing numbers. The German Embassy in Tel Aviv is said to have up to 3,000 inquiries a day. In other words, almost no-one in today’s Berlin is a German-born Jew. According to the figures, only 2–3 per cent ever returned.

‘Of course, we are generally talking about only two categories here’, says Berlin’s Chief Rabbi Chaim Rozwarski, poignantly, ‘those who chose to stay away and the dead’.

Rabbi Rozwarski’s synagogue is a 20-minute train ride from the city centre in the genteel district of Charlottenburg, where a small post-war community of Eastern European Jews also settled. The synagogue is in a side-street just off the Kurfürstendamm, the main shopping drag with its designer-label shops and department stores. At the door is the mandatory security that’s a feature of the city’s seven synagogues, including armed police guards, video screen, double glass doors and metal detection.

The Rabbi is a short, barrel-chested man with greying hair. Of Polish descent, he grew up in New York and came here six years ago to set up a Jewish school. He appears overworked, a little impatient and deigns to be interviewed in his shabby book-lined office for exactly 20 minutes by his watch.

‘Soviet Jews are coming here because it is really more secure’, he tells me, ‘without the haunting feeling the neighbours could turn against them. Also the German government is still behaving in a contrite fashion, accepting the migrants are a special minority, extending financial aid, language teaching and so on’.
But why Berlin?

‘If Israel was without political and security problems, most would have gone there’, he shrugs. ‘Many have strong connections and feelings for Israel. At the same time, we must give credit to the Jewish community here for establishing an infrastructure for social and cultural life—a case of the few absorbing the many.’

Since Perestroika more than a million Jews have left the Soviet Union, most of them for Israel. According to a study by social researcher, Judith Kessler, the turmoil in Israel has meant that the USA became the dream country for Soviet Jews. But with America’s policy of severely restricted immigration, Germany has shuffled up the list to become the most favoured alternative. It’s seen as a country of poets and thinkers, wealthy, stable, open to the world and close-by geographically. As well, many Jewish migrants come from regions that were never occupied by the German army or they’re of a generation that’s more likely to remember the persecutions under Stalinism.

For these migrants, Berlin is unique. The number of ex-Soviet citizens, Jewish or not, who are living here either legally or illegally is conservatively estimated to be around 200,000. As a result an infrastructure has spread—from Russian-language video rentals and computer software to marriage bureaus, restaurants, clubs, radio shows and newspapers. By the late ‘90s, 75 per cent of Soviet Jews arriving in the city had relatives already here, including children and grandchildren.

Kessler’s study also suggested that many of those who were Jewish were not being absorbed by the few in the established Gemeinde. After 70 years of communism, the newcomers appear mostly estranged from Judaism. Equally, there are rumours that the favoured status of Jewish migrants to Germany has led to a thriving trade in false documents in the former Soviet Union.

Whether or not they are officially affiliated to the community, Kessler describes these Jewish immigrants as overwhelmingly highly educated, cultured professionals—civil engineers, teachers, doctors, journalists and economists. And with 75 per cent of them unemployed in a recessionary Germany, not surprisingly many feel displaced and disappointed.

‘It takes a long time to integrate,’ acknowledges Dr Irine Runge, ‘ten to twenty years through the children to grow out of the past. For the younger Russians it’s good here—250 to 500 Euros a month is better than what they’re used to. For the older generation, not so. A man might be a Professor of something-or-other but no-one wants to listen.’

Runge is the Director of the Jüdischer Kulturverein, (Jewish Cultural Association) in Berlin, a secular organisation which she set up in East Berlin in 1986 to help Jews understand their heritage. A small woman, full of energy and optimism, who looks 20 years younger than her 62 years, she says it can take a long time too to find a way back to a sense of what it means to be Jewish. It’s a struggle she believes she has yet to win.

These days she also works as a ‘voice’ for the immigrant community. ‘The Soviet Jews have more in common with bourgeois Germans’, she says, ‘because they invest a lot in their children. The kids are pushed with music and dance lessons, university education. Culture is their vitamin’. Recently her association organised an outing to the Museum of Modern Art exhibition in Berlin. It was very important to the Russian Jews, Runge says, that they bring their young children along.

‘And with no chance of a job, many of them become writers, poets, musicians.’

Runge also questions the commonplace belief that a failure to register with the Gemeinde necessarily means a deep-seated alienation from Judaism. Jewish life often takes place, she says, ‘in the kitchens of the new immigrants’. They worship ‘in small backstreet synagogues which transplant familiar Eastern European orthodox traditions with a male rabbi whose language is Russian’.

Runge and her family are among the handful of German Jews who came back to the city after the war—but not to West Berlin. She describes herself as ‘a red diaper baby’, born in ‘The Fourth Reich’—Washington Heights, Manhattan. Her parents were communists who returned from exile at the invitation of the East German government. Now she agrees that many accounts of the regime underestimate the idealism of its citizens, especially the young.

‘Our Jüdischer Kulturverein was never a dissident group’, she says. ‘Some of us worked for the Stasi. We were part of a system we’d grown up in and we were blind to it because we were too close. We believed we belonged to a unique future.’

At times Runge says they were very critical of the old men who ran East Germany, but no-one imagined their own people were capable of such ‘shit’: that they were doing what the Nazis did, that the stereotypes went on. But with hindsight it’s clear ‘idealists should never be in power because reality has no relevance to them’.

For a time after the collapse of the East, Runge says she lost the ability ‘to live and fight for social dreams’. But she is beginning ‘to build up again’ in face of the gradual re-establishment of Berlin’s Jewish population: ‘No longer is there a survival mentality. These people have made a decision to live here. Fifty years ago Jews were not open, trusting, everything was the cemetery. Now it’s schools and kindergartens, two Yeshivas. Look around at the young people, the babies and pregnant women—they mean real change. There is a Jewish future in Berlin’.

Dorothy Horsfield is a writer and journalist currently based in Berlin. Her most recent book is a memoir of her late husband, Paul Lyneham.



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