Germany rediscovers Jewish contributions

The fledgling success of a Jewish newspaper in Berlin heralds a new awakening

An American Jewish newspaper with flagging US readership is finding new life in an unexpected place - Germany.

Aufbau, a German-language New York newspaper created in 1934 to help Jewish refugees settle into America, had been rapidly losing its natural constituency as its initial readers age and successive generations speak German less and less.

The paper, whose name means "reconstruction" - then went online, and a startling trend began to emerge. Germans from across the ocean - young, well-educated, and non-Jewish - started reading the paper more and more. That phenomenon, coupled with the German media's enthusiastic reception at the unveiling this month of Aufbau's new Berlin bureau, is being seen as evidence of a new German curiosity about Jewish life and culture.

German Jews before Hitler

Before Hitler came to power, Germany had a dynamic Jewish community of nearly 600,000 that made major contributions to German culture and industry. Observers say the opening of Aufbau's Berlin bureau - and the recent opening of a Jewish museum in Berlin - are positive steps toward Germany's return to being a Kulturnation, or a nation open to various cultures.

One Aufbau staffer describes this trend as part of Phantomschmerz, a condition in which someone who has lost a limb may feel a "phantom pain" in that region.

"There's a yearning for this cultural richness that existed before the war, when Germany was a country you could be more proud of," says New York deputy editor Andreas Mink, a native of the spa town of Baden-Baden, who is not Jewish. Before the Aufbau office's opening, the Berlin bureau chief gave some 20 interviews to major German publications and television - attention vastly outweighing the fortnightly paper's small circulation of 2,000 or so in Germany, and up to 10,000 overall.

Daniela Martin, an Aufbau editor and writer in New York, says the attention "must be seen in the context of the ongoing debate of whether there can ever be something like normalized relations between Germans and Jews in Germany."

The question has grown more relevant over the past decade: Germany is home to one of the world's fastest-growing Jewish communities, due to an influx from the former Soviet Union. There are now some 100,000 Jews, of a total population of 80 million. Aufbau joins the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, and the historical research-gathering Leo Baeck Institute, in opening its Berlin offices.

Still, the overwhelming attention the German media has devoted to Aufbau, can also be seen as "a sign that there's still nothing normal about the non-Jewish-Jewish relationship in Germany," says Deidre Berger, managing director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin branch.

Nevertheless, Ms. Berger notes that the past 20 years has seen "lots of work on coming to terms with the past. A corps of people has emerged who are conversant in the German Jewish/non-Jewish dialogue. These are people who have been to Israel, who have researched prewar Jewish history in their local areas, who have organized events on Jewish topics, and who have sought contact with members of the Jewish community in Germany."

Youth recognize value

Berger and others say it's in probing Germany's rich cultural heritage that many young Germans, typically ranging from 20 to 30 years old, come across Aufbau: the more they study such areas as German literature, music, and science, the more they realize the significance of Jewish contributions.

Aufbau was originally founded for German Jews fleeing the Nazis as a practical guide to adjusting to American life. It included tips on job-seeking, navigating the city bureaucracy for public services, even American table manners. After the war, its classified section reunited families splintered by the Holocaust, while news articles kept readers abreast of German efforts to return looted property and compensate Jewish victims. Circulation soared to 50,000 across 30 different countries; and among its contributors were Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt.

But aging and assimilation took their toll on circulation, with the number of subscribers plummeting to 8,000 a few years ago. After rejuvenating itself through the Internet, the paper plans to broaden its coverage of Germany and Europe and expand its small English section.

Like the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, Aufbau focuses not only on the Holocaust, but also highlights the 2,000 years of German-Jewish history. Also within the paper's 24 pages is extensive coverage of US politics, a topic hugely popular among young German intellectuals.

• Lucian Kim in Berlin contributed to this report.

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