For Jews in Germany, A Cultural Comeback?
Anniversary of a night of anti-Semitic terror highlights new German acceptance of immigrant Jews, but some issues remain.
BERLIN — Sixty years ago tonight, crowds led by Nazi thugs rampaged through German cities, setting synagogues on fire, plundering 7,000 Jewish-owned shops, and killing 91 Jews. Kristallnacht - or Night of Glass - foreshadowed the genocide that followed.
After the Holocaust, only a tiny fraction of the once-thriving Jewish community remained in Germany. Yet since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, Germany has seen a revival of Jewish life. Today, the Jewish community numbers more than 100,000, including some 80,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Berlin is the center of this revival. Clustered around the magnificently restored New Synagogue in the heart of the capital, Jewish restaurants and cultural institutions have set up shop. On almost any given evening there are well-attended lectures, readings, or concerts related to the Jewish experience.
"A Jewish culture is developing that could later turn into a new German Judaism - though it will have nothing to do with the old [prewar] German Judaism," says Julius Schoeps, director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam. "People are even starting to consider a European Judaism, as opposed to German or French Judaism," Mr. Schoeps continues. "This new consciousness could lead to a third [Jewish] block after the US and Israel."
Many of Berlin's recent Jewish immigrants are rediscovering their religion, long suppressed in the Soviet Union. "In Russia I used to read the Bible, but not so attentively," says Lyuba Ilyin, who came from St. Petersburg in 1990 and now works at Berlin's Jewish Culture Association. "Now I'm reading the Torah."
Integration remains the biggest problem for recent immigrants. In Germany's tight labor market, many immigrants are unemployed or unable to find jobs in their previous professions. Ms. Ilyin was an engineer in Russia. Her husband, now jobless, was a psychologist.
Since reunification in 1990, Germany has been wary of large-scale migration from eastern Europe. But Jews and ethnic Germans from the region have been largely exempt from otherwise strict visa regulations. While Jews have had difficulty integrating in smaller towns, Berliners have greeted their culture with enthusiasm.
"The non-Jewish population has begun to love Jewish culture," says Schoeps. "But I'm skeptical. It's just the other side of the coin of anti-Semitism. Once you hated Jews, now you love them. What is necessary is a normal life, where Jews are seen as equals," he says.
Several issues remain to be resolved. While Bonn has paid billions in reparations to Holocaust survivors, Jewish groups are hoping that Chancellor Gerhard Schrder's new government will compensate slave laborers from the Nazi era. German banks have come under pressure to publicize lists of accounts held by Jews before World War II. In June, Holocaust survivors filed a class action suit in New York against Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank. Another sore point is the planned Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which after years of debate still has not been constructed. With the recent change of government, the project's realization remains uncertain.
Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has warned that a growing number of young Germans are becoming susceptible to anti-Semitism and xenophobia, mainly due to apathy and ignorance.
"The future must be based on remembering," Mr. Bubis said ahead of the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht. "Without remembering there is no future."