A stonemason's stand against racism in Berlin

In Germany, rarely a day goes by when a Jewish cemetery isn't desecrated. Still, many Berliners were shocked when vandals toppled 103 gravestones last October in Weissensee, a former East Berlin neighborhood where Europe's largest Jewish graveyard is located.

The vandalism troubled Otmar Kagerer, a local stonemason, enough that he and eight other members of his trade agreed to volunteer their time and skills to repair the damage.

Since then Mr. Kagerer, who is not Jewish, has learned firsthand about anti-Semitism and the strength to be gained from opposing it.

First, he began to receive telephone death threats at night. Then, in November, his workshop in eastern Berlin was attacked by intruders, who smashed 150 tombstones - $30,000 worth of uninsured show pieces.

"At first I was speechless when I saw the chaos in front of me," says Kagerer, running a hand through his thick, gray hair. "Only after the first shock, did I make the connection to the Jewish cemetery. It looked similar, the way the tombstones were lying about," he says, referring to the topsy-turvy appearance of many older Jewish graveyards.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the destruction. But the office was left untouched, indicating that it was not an attempted burglary. Kagerer says he felt very alone at that moment. The soft-spoken, broad-shouldered German had become a victim of an anti-Semitic crime.

There are 2,100 Jewish graveyards in Germany. In many parts of the country, they are are the only reminders of a proudly assimilated minority that Hitler's "Final Solution" nearly erased from German life during World War II.

In Berlin, the Jewish population today is less than a tenth of the 170,000 Jews who lived here before 1933 - despite a revival following immigration from the former Soviet Union in the past decade.

Since the late 1980s, the number of anti-Semitic crimes, including Holocaust denial - which is illegal in Germany - have quadrupled to a yearly average of about 800, according to Werner Bergmann, a sociologist at the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at Berlin's Technical University.

And only last week in Britain, a High Court judge ruled against historian David Irving. Mr. Irving, who claims that Hitler did not mastermind the mass slaughter of Jews, had brought a libel suit against an American professor who wrote a book that labeled him a "Holocaust denier." In his verdict, the judge called Irving "anti-Semitic and racist."

France, meanwhile, is due to publish a report today on Jewish assets seized between 1940 and 1944 by the Nazis and their French collaborators. The assets include bank accounts, gold, artwork, and real estate.

In Germany, some 10 percent of all right-wing crimes are classified as anti-Semitic. The rest are largely targeted against foreigners, who in contrast to Jews are a large and often conspicuous minority.

"Anti-semitism has a different structure than xenophobia because it deals with questions of reparations and German guilt," says Mr. Bergmann. "It's a personal opinion that people don't normally express," except in anonymous polls.

Research consistently classifies some 15 percent of the German population as anti-Semitic, with a higher percentage among older people.

Yet to Kagerer, it came as a surprise to learn that an elderly retiree was responsible for the death threats. In December, the man confessed and later offered an awkward, legalistically-worded apology.

"I can't explain to myself that a man just a few years older than me could have so much against Jews," says the stonemason. "When we were growing up, there weren't any Jews."

Kagerer, who was raised in Communist East Germany, says that because the Jewish community was so minuscule, his contact with Judaism first came through the restoration of tombstones. "I became interested because of a feeling and my trade," he says. "The stones are witnesses of history. I began to learn about the rites and way of life, and how to write Hebrew script."

As religion in general was repressed under Communism, Kagerer says faith was not his guiding motivation for repairing the desecrated tombstones.

Rather, the "solidarity" with which he learned to overcome the daily challenges of Communism made him volunteer his efforts.

After Kagerer's workshop was vandalized, and he began checking his car regularly for bombs, he began to doubt whether his good deed had been worth the risk to his family's safety and the future of his business.

Yet as news of the vandalism spread, Kagerer found he was far from alone in his determination to take a personal stand against racism. A foundation for the victims of racist attacks came forward to lead a fundraising campaign that brought in far more money than the amount that Kagerer lost in destroyed gravestones.

This year, he and his wife will take their second-ever trip to Israel.

"When anti-Semitism appears, you must say it loudly. You can't solve the problem if you keep it under the covers," says Andreas Nachama, head of Berlin's Jewish Community. "You see what publicity does. There is a flip side to anti-Semitism: there are also the people who carry their heart in the right place."

Kagerer received his most recent phone threat in January. But he says he now receives many more calls from strangers voicing their support for him. The stonemason says he feels encouraged by the donations and outpouring of goodwill.

"I discovered that somehow our society is still intact," says Kagerer. "And in hindsight I'd say I did the right thing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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