Jewish renaissance in Berlin

Despite a surge in anti-foreigner attacks, Jewish immigrants say Germany let them rediscover faith.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The bulletin board in a hallway of the Jewish Community Center here looks like it should be hanging in a retirement home in Russia.

Sweeping Cyrillic letters spell out "We were so young" in Russian, and the faded black-and-white photos show the youthful faces of Red Army soldiers who helped crush Nazi Germany 55 years ago.

Hitler set out to exterminate "Bolshevik Jews" in his bloody campaigns in Eastern Europe. And for Germany's half-million Jewish citizens, the Nazis' genocidal mania meant exile - or death.

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For the 15,000 Holocaust survivors who chose to remain in Germany after World War II, a revival of the country's rich Jewish culture seemed unthinkable. Yet it is making a remarkable comeback, thanks largely to the arrival in recent years of tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

While Germany isn't as popular a destination as the United States or Israel, the country's Jewish population now tops 80,000 and continues to grow.

Anti-Semitism has done little to deter immigration to Germany.

Although reports of attacks against foreigners have become an almost daily occurrence this summer - a bomb injured six Jewish immigrants in the west German city of Dsseldorf in July - and conservative representatives in the Hessian state legislature recently made thinly veiled anti-Semitic remarks, most immigrants say that Germany has provided a relatively secure setting for them to build new lives.

"Jewish life today is different than before the war," says Boris Feldmann, editor in chief of the Russian-language weekly Russkii Berlin. "The revival of Jewish life in Berlin is the revival of Russian-speaking Jews."

Among the 12,000 registered members of the Jewish Community of Berlin - Germay's largest and most dynamic such community - there are some 70 Red Army veterans who are spending their remaining years in the country they once fought so bitterly.

A new religious identity

And like many other Jews from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they are finding their religious identity only now that they are in Germany.

Mr. Feldmann, who emigrated from Riga, Latvia, 10 years ago, visited a synagogue for the first time at age 29.

Before Soviet Communism began crumbling in the late 1980s, Feldmann says, he could have lost his job for openly practicing his faith.

"Those who have come have a different mentality, different traditions. We're also Jews, but we grew up under Soviet rule, where we were unable to practice our religion," he says.

While Jews started emigrating to Germany from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Jewish cultural life in Berlin didn't begin blossoming until after unification 10 years ago.

A highly visible presence

One important factor was that the majestic New Synagogue, located in formerly Communist East Berlin, once again became a highly visible, central locus of Jewish culture in the reunified capital.

Performances, readings, and exhibits by Jewish artists are well attended, and Jewish-run cafes and restaurants in the vicinity are always bustling.

Berlin's newly built Jewish Museum will open next year, and the long-debated Holocaust Memorial has finally been approved for construction. Among Germans there is much greater acceptance of and curiosity about things Jewish, says Michael May, managing director of the Jewish Community of Berlin.

Problems settling in

Without the influx of newcomers from the former USSR, who now make up the majority of the city's Jewish community, it is unlikely that such a vibrant cultural life could be possible. Yet the promises of a new beginning in Germany have also been accompanied by the troubles typical of first-generation immigrants.

Even within the broader German- Jewish community, the language barrier and immigrants' ignorance of tradition have been problematic.

The motivation to come to Germany was a "combination of the existential need to improve one's situation and anti-Semitism [in the former Soviet Union]," says Mr. May.

Given recent political and economic upheaval, Germany appeared to be a bastion of stability. Furthermore, the German government provided a loophole to its strict immigration laws by allowing Jews to enter the country in the same category as war refugees. Still, integration has been difficult.

"The truth is that people who had a high social standing in Russia despite their Jewishness, on the whole haven't continued their careers and now have relatively menial jobs," says May.

Language is the main hindrance to getting a comparable job. Middle-aged immigrants eagerly attend German classes offered by the Jewish community, but it is improbable that they will ever find work in their previous professions.

On the other hand, a common language provides a strong bond among immigrants. "Most of all, Jews feel like foreigners here," says Ilya Levin of the Jewish Community's welfare office. "But they also feel positive about Judaism: the community, the holidays, and all the things Jews didn't have in the Soviet Union."

Many Jewish newcomers brush off the threat of anti-Semitism in Germany, expressing much greater confidence in German civil society than the shaky democracies that emerged from the Soviet Union.

Under Communism, Russian anti-Semitism was institutionalized, while post-World War II Germany made an effort to confront its past treatment of Jews.

The ugliest expressions of anti-Semitism that newspaper editor Feldmann ever experienced were in Riga, where he helped found one of the first Jewish schools in the Soviet Union in 1988. Soon after its opening, there were stones flying through the windows, two arson attempts, and beatings of students.

By contrast, Feldmann says, coming to Germany has allowed him to rediscover his faith and pass it on to his two children.

"I think that today we shouldn't compare with the past. I don't look back, I look ahead," he says. "I think that Jewish life in Germany is still ahead of us."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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