In Nazi cradle, Germany marks Jewish renaissance

The country's largest synagogue to be built since WWII opened Thursday on the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Cradle of the Nazi party, site of the first concentration camp, and favorite haunt of Adolf Hitler, Munich now has a new legacy; It's home to the largest synagogue built in Germany since World War II.

The modern travertine-marble temple – unveiled Thursday on the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when German mobs ransacked synagogues throughout the country – is the first phase of an elaborate $110 million complex that has been in the works for nearly two decades.

The project's presence in the heart of Munich marks the growing size and influence of Germany's Jewish population – the third largest in Europe and, in terms of immigration, the fastest growing in the world. It is also heralds an increasing willingness on the part of the nation's Jews to step out of the shadows and set down stakes in German soil.

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"Since the war, Jews in Germany haven't been a visible presence," explains Michael Brenner, chair of Jewish studies at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians University. "Now, they are becoming one."

The Jewish center, located at Munich's downtown Jakobsplatz, was first conceived in 1987 by Charlotte Knobloch, president of the influential Central Council of Jews in Germany.

A 73-year-old Munich native, Ms. Knobloch survived the Holocaust by posing as the illegitimate daughter of a Catholic farmer in the Bavarian hinterlands. Her father toiled in a labor camp and her grandmother died in Auschwitz, Poland, so she understands the reluctance of German Jews to keep to themselves. But she doesn't feel it serves them well.

"We simply can't go on living in a ghetto," she explains. "We have to be a part of German life. Otherwise our children have no future."

As one of half a dozen Jewish leaders and German officials addressing the invitation-only crowd of 800 at Thursday's opening festivities, Knobloch characterized the synagogue's debut as a new chapter in the history of Jews.

"My hope is that the people of Munich will see this place – Jakobsplatz and its ensemble of buildings – as their own," says Knobloch.

The complex, expected to be completed in 2007, will eventually include an elementary school, a child-care facility, administrative offices, an auditorium, a kosher restaurant, apartments, and a Jewish museum. The project will enable Munich's Orthodox community to consolidate its now scattered facilities and give it room to keep growing.

Over the last decade, the city's Jewish population has doubled to around 9,300, almost as large as before World War II, during which virtually all of the city's Jewish residents were killed, deported, or forced to flee. This growth is thanks to a 1991 law that opened the Germany's borders to anyone with Jewish blood. Since then, about 190,000 Jews have immigrated to Germany, bringing the country's Jewish population from fewer than 30,000 to more than 200,000 – although many haven't joined established Jewish communities.

Munich's mayor Christian Ude lauded the dedication of the new synagogue as a kind of homecoming for the city's Jewish population, saying " Munich's Jews have literally returned to the heart of the city," where the main synagogue stood until Adolf Hitler ordered it destroyed in 1938.

In contrast with the community's old synagogue, which was tucked away in the backyard of a building that half-resembled a bunker, the new buildings convey a sense of openness. With their modern lines and elegantly understated travertine facades, they could easily be mistaken for museums or posh shopping centers. A series of paths and plazas also link them to the surrounding neighborhood, so residents can wander through as they would a college campus. Eventually, the restaurant and auditorium are slated to be open to the public, and the school will accept children of all religious backgrounds.

While Munich's new synagogue is the largest, new synagogues have also sprung up in several other German cities recent years. And there are other signs of the growing strength of Germany's Jewish community. In September, for instance, the first group of rabbis to be trained on German soil since WWII was ordained.

But as Germany's Jewish population has increased in might and visibility, so, too, have anti-Semitic feelings. In fact, back in 2003 German police foiled a plot to bomb the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Jakobsplatz Jewish center. The culprits, a ring of neo-Nazis armed with thirty-odd pounds of explosives, were later convicted and sentenced to probation.

Neo-nazis also planned to protest today's festivities at the Jakobsplatz Jewish center, but Munich officials banned the rally, calling it a threat to public safety. Still, a few malcontents turned out with placards mocking Knobloch's invitation to engage the Jewish community. "But we don't want to speak with you!" read one.

These incidents appear to be signs of an increasingly active and brazen neo-Nazi movement. German police logged 8,000 "neo-Nazi crimes" – 425 of them violent attacks – in the first eight months of 2006 alone, a 20 percent increase the previous year.

And, for all the talk of openness, the block surrounding the new synagogue was ringed with steel barricade and some 1,500 police officers Thursday. Before the ceremony, men in camouflaged fatigues also prowled the building's roof. What's more, guests had to pass through metal detectors and submit to handbag searches.

The situation highlights the ongoing dilemma of German Jews in their long, slow quest for normalcy.

As President Horst Köhler noted in his remarks, "Even today our dream of a normal Jewish life in Germany clashes with reality. There is open and latent anti-Semitism and the number of violence by right-wing extremists is on the rise."

His solution? Education and personal responsibility. "It is all of our duty to get involved to keep people being abused, injured or even murdered because of their religion, origin or appearance," he noted.

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