62 Years after Holocaust, Jews in Germany Thrive
Every Friday evening, Conny Jarosch and her 6-year-old daughter, Alisa, each light two candles, raise their hands to their closed eyes, and recite an ancient Hebrew prayer to welcome the Sabbath.
Conny’s husband, Siegfried, 42, blesses the wine and bread while his father, Gerhard, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor, sings from his prayer book at the head of the table.
An ordinary Sabbath, but celebrated in an unexpectedly vibrant Jewish community, the fastest growing in the world according to the World Jewish Congress: Germany’s.
These days, German Jews like the Jarosches are displaying new self-confidence about their future in the country that – within living memory – perpetrated the Holocaust.
“Twenty years ago, this would have been impossible in Berlin,” said Siegfried Jarosch, a real estate agent born and raised in the German capital. “But today we have an amazing Jewish infrastructure with kosher butchers, bakers, Jewish schools and several synagogues.”
The Jarosches – three generations of German Jews living under one roof – are immersed in Berlin’s Jewish community life. Siegfried is on the board of the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in Berlin’s western Charlottenburg district, his daughter and son, Joshua, 4, go to the Jewish kindergarten and elementary school, and his wife, Conny, 42, keeps a kosher kitchen at home.
Since the German government relaxed immigration laws for Jews following reunification in 1990, tens of thousands of Jewish migrants have come here, mostly from the former Soviet Union.
According to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, an estimated 250,000 Jews now live in the country, with some 110,000 of them registered religious community members.
Before 1990, only 23,000 Jewish community members lived in Germany, according to the Central Council.
“In 2005, more Jewish immigrants came to Germany than to Israel,” said Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council. “Without immigration, most of the Jewish communities would not exist anymore,” he said, adding that about 200,000 Jews left the former Soviet Union for Germany since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Cosmopolitan, affordable Berlin in particular has become a magnet, home to several thousand young Israeli expats and hundreds of American Jews, prompting talk of a “Jewish renaissance” in a place where famous Jews like Albert Einstein or the artist Max Liebermann once lived.
Berlin has the biggest Jewish community with 12,000 registered members and eight synagogues, followed by Munich with 9,200 members and a recently opened synagogue, community center and Jewish museum.
In Dresden, the ordination of the first three rabbis since World War II was celebrated in September as a milestone in the rebirth of Jewish life in Germany – 62 years after the end of the Nazi genocide that
killed some 6 million Jews, including 200,000 from Germany.
But the numbers are still a far cry from Germany’s flourishing Jewish community of 560,000 – and its cultural and intellectual prominence – before the Third Reich.
While Germany contained 600 Jewish schools before the Holocaust, it has only seven now. And in 1933 Berlin’s Jewish community had 120,000 members – 10 times bigger than today.
Still, says Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, “it’s a miracle that the Jewish pe(..ple are coming back to resettle in Germany.”
The orthodox rabbi from Long Island, N.Y., came to Germany nine years ago with the American Ronald Lauder Foundation, which promotes the reconstruction of Jewish institutions in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe.
Rozwaski, who conducts the Shabbat service at Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, also deals with the many everyday problems the community faces today. In his office at the renovated Neue Synagogue — a Berlin landmark overlooking the city center with its three gold-adorned blue domes — he patiently listens to the needs of old Holocaust survivors or tries to help solve the identity problems of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
One of them is Alexander Beelitz-Geiman a 16-year-old high school student, whose father is from Ukraine and mother from Russia. Alexander arrived when he was 1 year old but even though he has German citizenship, he doesn’t identify with this country.
“I don’t feel like a German at all. All my friends are Jewish,” he said on a recent afternoon in the courtyard of the Jewish Youth Center, sitting under a barren chestnut tree.
Alexander also talked about anti-Semitism and confrontations with Muslim immigrants over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Many Jews are afraid to say who they are because they fear it will cause them problems.”
In fact, all Jewish institutions – even book stores and kosher groceries – get 24-hour police guard and concrete barriers.
And while Kramer from the Central Council for Jews says that “anti-Semitism in Germany is no better and no worse than in other European countries” he also points to the special responsibility Germany carries because the “Holocaust started on German ground.” For Aviv Russ, 30, a gay Israeli who moved here with his boyfriend from Tel Aviv two years ago, Berlin has been a much more positive experience.
“Berlin is beautiful and cosmopolitan, it has a big gay network and most of my friends are non-Jewish Germans,” he said.
Russ, whose grandparents are survivors of the Shoah, studies German and hosts a weekly radio show in Hebrew on a local public access channel. Russ plans to apply for scholarships to enroll in a Berlin university soon but for now he still gets financial support from his parents.
At least 2,500 Israelis are in Berlin, according to the Statistics Office Berlin-Brandenburg, many of them young artists and musicians. The actual number of Israelis in Berlin is unknown but probably higher because many Israelis have reclaimed the German nationality of their grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany and had their citizenship revoked.
Growing up in Israel, Russ never thought much about his Jewish heritage until he came to Berlin, where he is constantly surrounded by the shadows and memorials of a Jewish life that was lost forever in the Holocaust.
“I really found myself and my own identity in this city,” Russ explained. “I feel more Jewish in Germany than in Israel.”
KIRSTEN GRIESHABER, BERLIN