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Friday, December 30, 2005

A Jewish renaissance in Germany

A Jewish renaissance takes root
Shelly Kupferberg, 31, is the granddaughter of Jews who fled the Nazi terror in the 1930s for the land that would become Israel. Her parents returned to Berlin in the early 1970s, weary of Israel's wars and yearning for their German heritage. She was raised both as a Jew and a German, and takes quiet pride in both identities.

''It's great to be a Jew in Germany," said Kupferberg, a journalist and adviser to Berlin's Jewish Festival. ''There's this feeling of a unique culture being reborn -- with more people in the synagogues, more Jewish artists, a sense, at last, that it's completely normal for Jewish people to be living and working here. That's something you couldn't say until recently."

The dark mid-20th century history of Germany is seared into every Jewish soul. But in a turnaround few would have imagined, Germany today boasts the fastest-growing Jewish population in the world.

While Germany's Jewish community is full of hope for the future, its rapid expansion has brought new tensions -- with animosity festering between longtime German-speaking Jews and recent immigrants from the eastern fringes of Europe, many of whom lost their Jewish traditions, if not their identity, under decades of communism.

''This is a time of difficult transition for a community that was once tiny and insular, but has suddenly grown large," said Stephan J. Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the nation's umbrella organization for Jewish groups. ''There is friction, there is anger, there is distrust, there is fear. We have started to lay the foundation for a dynamic Jewish culture in Germany. But we are far from completing the house."

The road to Berlin
Most newcomers are from Russia, Jews seeking a better life in a more prosperous place, but also escaping the anti-Semitism that seethes in many parts of the former Soviet Union. The ''Russian Jews" -- the term embraces the thousands arriving from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states -- are joined by a small but significant wave of young Jews from Israel, the United States, Canada, and Australia. The Westerners flock mainly to Berlin, attracted by the capital's easy-going style and vibrant cultural scene.

Before the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, Germany's Jewish population stood at barely 25,000, mostly survivors of the World War II era and their offspring. Since then, encouraged by liberal immigration laws, the number has swelled to more than 200,000, according to estimates by the government and Jewish groups. Last year, twice as many Jews -- 20,000 -- settled in Germany as in Israel, according to Jewish groups.

In 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, Germany's Jewish population stood at 530,000. Berlin, famed for tolerance, was home to some of the world's foremost Jewish writers, philosophers, and scientists. By 1943, however, the Nazis had declared Germany ''Judenrein," or cleansed of Jews. In fact, several thousand remained hidden in Germany or returned from concentration camps after the Holocaust, which killed 6 million European Jews.

''For decades, the remaining Jews in Germany were seen as slightly cuckoo, people who 'lived sitting on a packed suitcase,' " said Kramer. ''Jews have finally unpacked their suitcases. If we haven't fully found our place in Germany, we do feel it offers a place for us."

Partly to atone for the Holocaust, Germany offers resettlement programs for Jews from Eastern Europe. It is much easier for Jews to win legal entry to Germany than other parts of Western Europe or the United States. Israel also keeps open doors, but many Jews from the former Soviet Union see Israel as either too dangerous -- because of the struggle with Palestinians -- or as too alien, because of its Middle Eastern culture and desert climate.

''Germany is Europe, and I am European as much as I am a Jew," said Frida Scheinberg, a veterinarian who recently arrived in Germany from Ukraine. ''Germany was a good place for Jews before Hitler. It feels safe and prosperous. Its cities, its climate, its customs all seem familiar. Israel seems strange to me, with the hot sun and the hot tempers."

Still, unease and bickering pervade Germany's Jewish community, reflecting differences between new arrivals and the old guard of German-speakers. Some question whether all of the newcomers can legitimately call themselves Jews -- until this year, when Germany tightened the rules to weed out imposters, almost any former Soviet citizen with a Jewish ancestor could qualify. Traditional law defines a Jew as an individual with a Jewish mother or someone who has undergone conversion to Judaism; Germany now requires that prospective Jewish immigrants have at least one Jewish parent, as well as some command of German and marketable skills.

Integration has been complicated by Germany's recent unemployment woes, with many Russian Jews drawing welfare -- and also drawing some resentment. But many Jews are confident that once the economy rebounds, differences among Jews will inevitably heal.

''Many problems, yes, but most [former Soviet] Jews in Germany feel ourselves to be in a much safer situation. The anti-Semitism here is minor compared to what we experienced in the places from which we came," said Mykhaylo Tkach, an engineer from Ukraine. ''In the old Russia, nothing changes -- when things go wrong, blame the Jew. Germans understand such things must never happen here again."

Some Jewish immigrants admit to ambivalence about their choice of a new country, even as they defend it.

''There is a twinge of guilt, some secret shame, I think, in the heart of every Jew who calls Germany home," said Josef Eljaschewitsch, a physician from Latvia. ''And yet, for Jews not to come here -- to surrender our stolen heritage in this country -- would be to give the Nazis a sort of final victory: A Jew-free Germany.

''Most of us come for bread-and-butter reasons, to make money, to ensure our children's futures are secure," he said. ''But our dream is also to make Germany a place where Jews and Jewishness can once again flourish. Against all odds, I believe that's starting to happen."
Read it all, it's really fascinating and it makes a change from all doomsaying and suicidal nihilism of mostly American sites.

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