DÜSSELDORF: In the Land of the Murderers
Four men are standing on the street corner. They are archetypes of Aryan perfection: the shortest of them is a strapping six feet, and all have sandy hair so brilliant it seems to reflect the fall sunlight. They are trying hard not to appear the federal policemen that they are. Their elbows rest close to their sides to shield the bulge of guns, their hair is pulled forward to conceal the tiny wires running from their ears. They train their sights on one another, avoiding eye contact with passersby, yet their senses are keenly tuned to the squat white brick building behind them.
At last, a middle-aged man emerges. Slightly stooped and graying, he is as obviously Semitic as they are Nordic. His nose is prominent and slanted, his lips full, his blue-gray eyes at once thoughtful and sad.
In an earlier era, the four men in green sweaters and brown pants would not have hesitated to drag the Jew away to certain imprisonment, probable death. That is precisely what plainclothes policemen like these did half a century before to this man's eleven-year-old sister. This time, however, they greet him with an embrace and a joke, helping him into the backseat of one of two idling Mercedeses. Paul Spiegel, topman in the Jewish community of Düsseldorf and vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is their ward. He is their VIP visitor.
The federal police are there--in bulletproof cars, with holes drilled in the doors so they can shoot out without being shot at--to see that Spiegel gets safely from Düsseldorf to nearby Cologne. He will be the star attraction in a panel entitled "Goethe and the Jews: The Jews and Goethe." They will scour the audience much the way U.S. Secret Service agents stand watch during a presidential address. It is not that the government expects trouble; that is rare these days. But it is making a statement--of respect for Spiegel and his offices, of brotherhood with the Jews who live there, and, most of all, of how much Germany has changed, in case the world is not fully convinced. As if to reinforce that goodwill, the bodyguards make an unscheduled stop on the way back to Düsseldorf at the hospital where Spiegel's wife is nursing a broken leg, waiting in the rain until midnight while he pays a visit.
It is almost impossible to believe. Sixty years ago, on these same streets, Jews were compelled to wear star-shaped badges of shame and were slaughtered by the thousands. It was a campaign of terror unlike any other, one that remains the standard against which all human atrocities are measured. It threatened to exterminate not only the Jews of Germany, but of all of Europe and beyond. Now, as one century blends into another, Jews in Germany are displayed as trophies in the very halls where Hitler inaugurated his Third Reich.
Spiegel's royal treatment is part of the fervent embrace in which Jews are held today in the Federal Republic of Germany. Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, with the deluge of Russian Jews during the 1990s swelling its numbers from 27,000 to more than 100,000. While they make up barely 1 percent of the German population, Jews are consulted by the media on everything from politics to the arts, with nearly 200 people turning out to hear Spiegel and others parse the poetry and plays of the revered Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for signs of anti-Semitism. Jewish communities get government funds to rebuild synagogues and schools. Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union are given citizenship along with benefits substantially more generousthan they would receive in Israel or America. The rare desecration of a Jewish cemetery or synagogue is treated like a crime against the state. Even non-Jews are naming their children Sarah and Jacob, and they are unearthing Jewish grandmothers who, not so long ago, would have ensured them a spot on a deportation train. Being Jewish is, quite simply, high fashion in today's Deutschland.
That swelling in size and status of the German Jewish community raises questions that resonate with Jews everywhere--about whether Germany can overcome its Nazi past and return to the prewar glory days, when Jews like Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, and Karl Marx were defining figures in science, the arts, and politics. And whether, after the Holocaust, it is safe for Jews there or anywhere to feel as secure, as much like they belong, as German Jews did at the dawn of the last century.
But recent developments in Germany also raise a profound hope--that if Judaism can make a comeback there, in the land of the murderers, it can happen anywhere.
Spiegel witnessed firsthand the horrors of being a Jew in Germany, and the way that identity is now being renewed and refurbished. When he was a toddler, his mother evacuated him and his sister from their tiny town near Düsseldorf to what seemed like a safe haven in Brussels. Mrs. Spiegel had carefully instructed Rosa, who was eleven, that if a man wearing a uniform asked her if she was Jewish, she should deny it. But no one had counted on the girl's Nazi interrogators wearing street clothes and so, when they stopped her, Rosa told the truth. That affirmation of her faith, Spiegel recalls, "was the last word anyone ever heard from her."
There was no time for Ruth Spiegel to mourn her daughter. She whisked Paul away again, this time to the countryside and the care of a Catholic family that raised him as its own for three and a half years. Anticipating an eventual end to the Nazi nightmare, Ruth had once more rehearsed with her child what to tell those in charge, only this time the message was in English and it was the truth. "Tell the British or American soldiers," she said, "that you are a German Jew." He did, and it worked, drawing gifts and kisses from a U.S. G.I. But Paul did not feel at all German. "Everyone during the war told me the Germans are big,big people who are killing us," he remembers. And his mother, with whom he was quickly reunited, already had resolved to "take me to America. She had decided that if my father or sister were alive they would never go back to Germany."
His father was alive, barely. He had spent five years behind barbed wire in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau, and had dropped from 220 pounds to 88. If Paul, who was seven, had difficulty understanding how the Nazis could have snatched his sister, why they brutalized his father and murdered his uncle and cousin, then he was incredulous when his father insisted the family return to its German roots. "I'm sure I wouldn't have come back to Germany. I always discussed with my father how could he come back, I couldn't believe it," he says, looking back from the comfort of his plush living room in the center of Düsseldorf. "After the war my father said to me, 'Listen, I tell you one time what has happened, what I was going through, but not again. I don't want to be in the past. I want to be in the future.'"
Today, Spiegel sounds like his father as he explains his own choice to remain in Germany, to build a thriving talent agency, create a life for his wife and two daughters, and help rekindle Jewish life there. It was not a decision that came easily or quickly. Sixty years are hardly time enough to forget such horrors, or to stop hating the country that transformed his childhood into a nightmare that never will go away. But Germany, he insists, has changed. And so has he.
"If I every day say, 'I hate the Germans,' I couldn't stay here. I trust most of the German people, the generation after the war. Now I am feeling like a German with the Jewish religion," says Spiegel, who at the end of 1999 was elevated from vice president to president of Germany's most influential Jewish organization. "I'm not feeling that I'm here on a part-time basis. Until ten to fifteen years ago the Jews in Germany who had lived here since 1945 said, 'We are here with packed suitcases.' These suitcases have been unpacked in the meantime.
"Compare that with what happened in Spain during the Inquisition, when they sent all the Jews out. For five hundred years no Jews came back to Spain, not one," he adds. "Here in Germany we had the biggest murdering of a people in history, more than six million Jews killed, and already one or two months after the Holocaust they started again torebuild this Jewish community. Now we have the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world.
"This is one of the miracles of the century."
To understand that miracle it is necessary to step back into German history, to the time just before the rebuilding began. It also helps to zero in on a single community. Düsseldorf, Spiegel's home and the first big city in Germany to surpass its pre-Holocaust Jewish population, is a compelling place to launch this tour of the Jewish diaspora.
From the tree-shaded promenade along the banks of the Rhine to the medieval tower visible in the distance, it is easy to imagine why Napoleon dubbed the former fishing village "Little Paris." That is how it must have seemed to Jews living there in the early 1930s and sharing in the industrial boom. The official census back then counted 5,000 Jews in Düsseldorf and 500,000 in Germany, or 1 percent of the local and national populations. Add in nearly 500,000 Germans born to marriages between Jews and non-Jews, or with other ties through blood or marriage, and Jews constituted almost as substantial a minority in prewar Germany as they do today in America. And as in America, numbers only begin to reflect their contributions: a Jew drafted the Weimar Republic's constitution, another was foreign minister, and eleven of the thirty-eight Germans awarded the Nobel Prize before 1933 were Jewish. Jews also were overrepresented in influential cities like Düsseldorf, which gave birth to lyrical poet Heinrich Heine, gave an orchestra to classical conductor Felix Mendelssohn, and gave a pulpit to world-famous theologian Rabbi Leo Baeck. Religious ties may have been fraying, but Jewish youth were enlisting in causes from socialism to Zionism while their parents were reaffirming ethnic and cultural connections. The Weimar era truly was a Golden Age for Jews in Düsseldorf and all of Germany--one where a palpable sense of potential, of moving into the mainstream, drowned out warnings by skeptics that age-old anti-Semitism had not really gone away.
World War II made the skeptics into sages. Hundreds of thousands of Germany's 1 million Jews fled in the mid-1930s; most of the rest were deported, with 180,000 choked to death in the gas chambers, starved in slave-labor camps, or shot at the edge of burial pits they had been forcedto dig. The situation was equally bleak in Düsseldorf. On November 9, 1938--the infamous Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass--Nazi henchmen fire-bombed Düsseldorf's main synagogue on Kasernenstrasse, destroyed five smaller prayer houses, and systematically ransacked Jewish homes, killing seven and wounding seventy. One local religious leader, finally acknowledging that the threat was real, ordered that his congregation's Torah scrolls be buried in the Jewish cemetery. Mass deportations began in 1941, when Rabbi Siegfried Klein, his wife, Lili, and 1,009 others were shipped out to Lód in Poland. Dr. Siegried Falk, president of the Jewish community, was due to be deported on December 11 but he and his wife, Edith, killed themselves before the trains departed. Altogether, 2,500 Düsseldorf Jews managed to escape; the 2,500 who did not perished.
At war's end 200,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors from outside Germany found themselves on German soil. The Allied armies of occupation labeled them Displaced Persons (DPs), a sterile-sounding reference to the fact that they had been scattered from their homelands and were being housed in camps set up by U.S., British, French, and Soviet troops. They called themselves Sherit Hapletah, a biblical name meaning "remnant of the saved." Many had been prisoners in extermination camps in Poland who, as Hitler's forces fled west in the last days of the war, were forced to join them, then were deposited in Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and other camps in the German heartland. Still more were survivors who had tried to return to their homes in Poland, Lithuania, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, but were greeted by an anti-Semitism so virulent they had to flee again, this time to the U.S. and British occupation zones in southern Germany. Then there were those who had spent the war in German prisons, hidden in forests in Eastern Europe, or otherwise survived long enough to be liberated by the Allies.
Whatever their reasons for being there, the result was wrenchingly ironic: the only country where those who had survived the death machine could find safe haven was the home of the executioners. Suddenly Bavaria and the rest of southern Germany, where Hitler had hatched his blueprint for making Europe judenrein--free of Jews--had more Jews than ever.
Most concentration camp survivors were depressed by the prospect of being in Germany, in another enclosed camp, and they resentedhaving to live side by side with Nazi collaborators from Ukraine, the Baltic states, and other formerly occupied lands. They had been told the camps would be a short stop-off on the way to Israel or America, but they had to wait until 1948 for Britain to sanction the Jewish state and even longer for countries like the United States and Argentina to open their borders. By 1950, however, nearly all the camps had been closed and more than 90 percent of their occupants had abandoned Germany. The rest were too old, too ill, too poor, or simply too tired of moving to contemplate moving again. So they stayed, this eclectic band of 15,000, and they became two-thirds of the founding fathers of Germany's post-Holocaust Jewish community.
The other third had more reason to feel bound to Germany, since they were born there, but they also had more reason to loathe it, having been betrayed by the nation to which they had pledged their allegiance. These Jews survived the war in Germany itself, evading the most efficient extermination apparatus the world had ever witnessed. Most were sheltered by a non-Jewish spouse, relative, or friend; others managed to secure special status or bribed their way out of the noose. While 7,500 or so of the survivors understandably left as quickly as they could for America or Israel, another 7,500 chose to reclaim what they could of their lives before the Nazis.
How could these Jews remain in the land of their tormenters? The ones from Germany often had non-Jewish wives or husbands and were convinced that they, together with the rest of the "righteous few" who had risked their lives to defy the Nazis, would restore the more tolerant prewar society. The DPs, meanwhile, were so frail and disoriented that they could not conceive where else to go. Whatever the necessity, the decision to make their home in Germany still defines their lives--and bedevils them--more than half a century later.
No one had more reasons to stay away than Helen Israel. When the Nazis stormed through Poland they slaughtered her aunts and uncles, her brother and sister, and her parents. Rather than escaping to Palestine the way many Polish Jews were doing, her father, a deeply religious man, had insisted that true believers should wait where they were for the Messiah. Helen had managed to persuade her husband to flee to the Russian zone in eastern Poland, but he could not bear being separated from his pregnant wife. When the Germans pushed out the Russians heremained in Poland, and was last seen just before German troops raided his home. Then the Nazis took an even more precious possession, her infant son, Lech. Helen was shipped to a work camp and forced to leave the baby behind with her parents, only to hear later that he had perished in Auschwitz at age three and a half. Today, all the eighty-one-year-old Israel has to remember Lech by is a pair of fading photographs, one taken at eleven months, the other not quite a year later. "At least I can see the pictures every day," she says as she takes down from the mantel the snapshots of the toddler with brilliant blond hair. Tears well up as she recalls how proud she was to give the baby his Hebrew name, Shlomo-Arie. And she still insists that, if she could find her son's murderers, "I would kill them right away."
After she was liberated from the last of her nine work and prison camps, Helen went to work for the Red Cross in Holland. Those years seem now like one long stupor, broken only by her meeting and marrying another concentration camp survivor, Kurt Israel, and having another son, Robert Viktor. Four years later, Kurt's clothing shop began to falter and he decided to move his family back to his hometown of Düsseldorf. Helen detested Germany but loved Kurt so she did not resist, although she made him promise they eventually would go back to Holland.
"Day and night I was crying," she recalls. "It was terrible for me. Terrible. Terrible. For two years I held my flat in Amsterdam while I lived in Düsseldorf. I paid rent in Amsterdam and went there sometimes with my child. Then I saw it made no sense, and from two years in Düsseldorf it became four, and six, and now forty-five years."
She tried to leave once, in 1967, two years after her husband died. Robert Viktor enrolled in college in Amsterdam and she joined him there. But she had trouble feeling at home, having been away for a dozen years, and when her son decided a year later to transfer to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Helen decided it would be unfair to both of them to follow him a second time. "I said, 'Okay, you go, but I will go back to Düsseldorf.' I said, 'I have there my friends, my interests, my Yiddish interests.' There's an old saying in Yiddish that you can't plant an old tree in another place."
Her work with the Jewish community helped. She served for a record-setting thirty years as chapter president of the Women's International Zionist Organization, and for thirty-three years she helped restore andrun the Jewish community of Düsseldorf, all of which, she says, "helped me to stay in Germany. I was looking for something that would make it lighter to live in Germany."
But she could not erase the nagging sense that she did not belong there, that no Jew did after what had happened. It started with the anguish anyone feels who has lost a cherished parent, sibling, or, worse still, a child. For Helen Israel and other Holocaust survivors in Germany that was just the beginning. What they suffered was so terrible, they never will get over it. They are haunted by knowing the ones they loved died alone and in agony. They are consumed by not being able to identify the murderers or, more precisely, knowing that an entire country was in some sense to blame. They are tormented by having to live shoulder to shoulder with those they suspect were the executioners, wondering whether it is the elderly person they pass on the street, the shopper standing beside them in the market, their neighbor next door.
In the early 1970s the justice minister of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, a Jew named Joseph Neuberger, nominated Helen for the German Cross to honor her work with the Jewish community. "I said, 'Thank you, Joseph, but not for me. I would never take a German medal. How can I have together a concentration camp and a German medal? What do you think of me?'" A decade later a friend proposed it again, but "I said to her, 'You don't know that I have said never. This is the same medal that Hitler had for his heroes, only this time there is no swastika, now there is an eagle there. I have no split existence. It is the same now as it was for me as a child in Poland. I never felt Polish. I was a Jew in Poland.'"
Turning down the medal let her give voice to the frustration and resentment she generally kept bottled up. Robert Viktor knew no such constraints. He never wanted to be in Germany and could not understand why his parents did. He told them that from the time he could talk, making his mother proud while at the same time deepening her shame. "When he was eleven my son said, 'You and Dad are characterless that you live in Germany,'" Helen remembers. "He said, 'You must send me away. If you don't do it voluntarily I will make you.' When he was twelve he said we must send him to a school abroad, an international boarding school in Amsterdam. He stayed there until his graduation six years later."
Germany had robbed her of a second son. Robert Viktor, now a fifty-year-old bank consultant in Holland, had forsaken his parents out of hatred for their country. "He comes to visit me now," Helen says as she sits in the front room of her apartment down the street from the Düsseldorf synagogue. "But he can't forgive me that I live in Germany."
For his part, Robert Viktor says that he very much loves his mother, and always has. But he has not changed his mind about Germany: "I am still of the opinion that it is absolutely absurd for Jews to be living in Germany. It's absurd because, in historical terms, what happened during the Shoah was a very few years ago. Establishing ourselves again in Germany, as Jewish communities, is to start the process of forgiving. As I said once to a very highly placed German, 'Let's try again in a few hundred years, not now.' The boycott of Spain after the Inquisition lasted five or six hundred years, I don't see how we are entitled already to lift such a boycott of Germany. That's giving Germany the chance to act as though we were almost through it, as though it were almost forgiven if not forgotten. I'm not preaching that we should start a war against Germany. I'm just saying we should behave much more honorably in this context."
Paul Spiegel was equally unforgiving of his parents' decision to return to Germany, at least at first. But the more he heard of his father's story, the more he understood. When the gates at Dachau opened, Hugo Spiegel headed for the only place he knew, his hometown of Warendorf, walking there in his prison clothes. On the way he met a non-Jew he knew from the town who invited him home. "That man said to my father, 'Before we start to eat we will go to the cellar,'" Paul recalls. "There was a small curtain. The man opened another door on the floor and went down. He came back with mahzorim, with prayer books, that he had saved from the burned synagogue in their small town. He said to my father, 'Now it's up to you.' He was a neighbor of the old synagogue. He had ten books and the Torah. With these books and the Torah my father founded the Jewish community in Warendorf.
"If my father had thought before whether it was right or not to go back to Germany, that was the last time."
That is not quite the end of the story. Even Hugo Spiegel, who felt himself as German as he was Jewish, hated Germans, or at least some of them. He had returned to his old job of buying and selling cows andhorses. While his old customers greeted him warmly, saying it was "fantastic" to see him back, he made it his point to find out how each had treated Jews during the reign of terror. "One time," Paul remembers, "another cow agent said, 'Look, the Jew is back here.' My father gave him the back of his stick, he wanted to kill him. It was only the English military police who kept my father from doing it."
In 1958 Paul moved from Warendorf to Düsseldorf, in search of more Jews. What he found was a Jewish community of just under 1,000 in the city of half a million. Allied bombers had been drawn to Düsseldorf by its control over the vital Ruhr region and its concentration of heavy industry, most of which they turned to rubble. But by the time Spiegel arrived the city was giving rise to a collection of theaters, museums, and performance halls, and construction was being completed on a stately synagogue, the first permanent house of Jewish worship since the war and a sure sign that Jewish life was being revived. As much as any place in Germany, Düsseldorf epitomized the postwar comeback, building a powerful manufacturing base in steel, coal, and cars, serving as the nation's center of fashion, and offering economic and political opportunities to natives and refugees alike.
Jewish refugees continued to stream in, drawn by a government that wanted to put things right after the Nazi wrongs, by a scarcity of other options, and by the takeover of Eastern Europe by communist regimes, most of which were hostile to Jews. By 1959, when the new synagogue was finished, Jews had settled in Düsseldorf from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Argentina, Poland, Israel, and, most of all, Romania. Some chose Germany because it promised a more comfortable life than Israel, the other country willing to take them. Others, having come from Europe, felt a European neighbor like Germany offered more familiarity and more opportunity to visit friends and relatives left behind. No matter that they were going to a land with a long history of hating Jews.
In the early postwar days it was tensions within their community, rather than with Gentiles living around them, that occupied most Jews. Those with German roots abhorred the Nazis but embraced their native language and culture. The Displaced Persons and others from Eastern Europe, by contrast, spoke Yiddish, felt they were living in a foreign land, and had their sense of alienation reinforced by organizations like the World Jewish Congress, which urged all Jews to get out of Germany.The German Jews typically came from an assimilated world and had never been religious or worried about marrying outside the faith, whereas the East Europeans were steeped in Judaism, as a faith whose practices they scrupulously observed and a way of life that defined them more than the nation they happened to live in. To the Germans, the DPs were unwashed outsiders who threatened their acceptance by the wider society. The East Europeans saw their German coreligionists as pseudo-Jews who had forsaken tradition and made unseemly accommodations with the unrepentant Germans.
Over time the two camps learned to live together in Düsseldorf and elsewhere, much the way warring Jewish refugees have across the diaspora. They also forged a partnership with successive German governments and the wider society. Some felt such patching up of differences amounted to papering over critical distinctions in and outside the community. But others wondered why, having lived through the Holocaust, they should feel any guiltier than Jews who were forging similar alliances in England and America, two countries that had ignored compelling evidence of the ongoing slaughter.
Accommodation was partly a natural response by Germany's Jewish leaders to what was happening around them. The Allies had withdrawn as an occupying force and now regarded Germany as a critical collaborator in the Cold War against the Soviet bloc, and international Jewish organizations had withdrawn once the DP camps were shut. Germany's Jews suddenly were left to fend for themselves. At the same time German leaders from Conrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl were savvy enough to realize they could score points with their Western allies by doing favors for their tiny community of Jews, from helping rebuild synagogues to offering modest restitution to Holocaust victims, and Jewish leaders were savvy enough to accept. The result: the community rebuilt synagogues, reopened Jewish cemeteries, and resumed circumcisions and other traditional practices, although most Jews remained nonreligious. Jewish leaders spoke out on safe subjects, condemning international terrorism and backing the State of Israel, but they avoided public criticism of the German state. And the community grew with the arrival of East European Jews who had found it difficult to adapt to conditions in Israel, the United States, and South America, along with others from Iran and the Soviet Union. Still, as late as 1989 there were fewer than 30,000 Jewsin all of Germany and about 1,500 in Düsseldorf, only slightly more than in 1950.
Most of the rest of the world, even the Jewish world, did not know there were any Jews left in Germany. Those who did know were unrestrained in their condemnation and unapologetic about making pariahs out of the Jews who chose to settle there. "My mother's family didn't call for ten years. My family didn't want to speak to us," recalls Dora Tamler, an Israeli who came to Düsseldorf in 1967 with her Romanian-born husband. "Finally my aunt, who had strong ties to Germany, decided to visit. She was our guest and saw that it's not that bad. So she brought the good news to the family in Israel and ever since they've been talking to us."
What worried the Tamlers even more than the reaction of Jews to Germany was the reaction of Germans to Jews like them. When they first arrived they were open about telling people they were from Israel, and Jewish. "The reaction was either too positive, with people saying they had Jewish friends and had saved hundreds of Jews during the war, or they made derogatory comments," says Dora's husband, Alexander, one in a line of successful dentists from Romania, and before that from Austria. "No matter what happened there always were feelings of uneasiness between us and our acquaintances."
Their solution was to stop telling anyone where they were from or what religion they were--not their neighbors, or his patients, or even his dental assistant of twenty years. And they instructed their only child to do the same. They all simply said they were from Romania. "They were explicit, twice a day, about telling me not to tell anybody that we were Jewish," recalls Ronald Tamler, now twenty-four and a recent graduate of medical school. "In reality, even though we were thinking that nobody knew, we found out in mysterious ways that most people did know, especially our neighbors. We live in a very conservative, well-maintained area. We have a tennis club on our street and my parents wanted to get me in it, but it wouldn't have me, and my parents found out why. It was because we were Jews. My parents went directly to our neighbors across the street. They made a scandal and I was accepted, but I didn't want to be in that club anymore.
"In retrospect my parents were overly sensitive, but it was the way that most Jews behaved then. I was no exception, my parents were noexceptions. Nowadays, everyone is a hero. They say, 'I was walking around with a kippah ten years ago.' But of course it's not true."
A series of unrelated events encouraged Jews across Germany to become more assertive about their religion and their rights. There was the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Jewish state outfoxed and outfought vastly larger Arab armies, in the process inspiring Jews across the diaspora. There were a series of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incidents in the 1970s, from the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinian terrorists in Munich to the increasingly vituperative attacks against Israel by German leftists. There were perceived slights during the 1980s, including Chancellor Kohl's invitation to President Ronald Reagan to honor the war dead at a military cemetery in Bitburg, even though they included SS officers, and bids by historians to cut off discussion of the Holocaust. And there was the Gulf War in 1991, when Germans demonstrated against alleged American and Israeli imperialism and Jews there felt compelled to come to America's and Israel's defense. They spoke out again, a year later, when Turks and other "foreigners" came under attack and Jewish graves were desecrated. Even the fall of communism generated a reaction. Many young, idealistic Jews who in an earlier era would have been attracted to socialist ideals now turned to religion for identity and meaning, the fact that their parents neither knew nor cared much about Judaism making it even more attractive.
The same sort of confidence-building was under way in Düsseldorf during the 1970s and '80s. Jewish life centered on the grand marble synagogue whose large semicircular front steps led to ponderous metal doors that were forever bolted. The image was meant to be imposing to outsiders, to convey a grandeur as well as an impenetrability, but behind the barriers were warmth and welcome. The rabbi and other Torah readers led services from a pulpit that seemed unusually close to worshipers. The community was like a little village, an intimate gathering place with a Maccabee sports club for children to hone their athletic skills, a religious school to learn the basics of the faith, and regular excursions across the Belgian border to Antwerp where the few who kept kosher loaded up on ritually prepared chicken, beef, and other foods. Intimacy, however, had its price: finding the ten men needed at daily prayer services for a minyan, or quorum, was difficult enough that the community hadto offer bribes that sometimes required cash, although a warm meal in the morning generally was enough.
While their numbers were not growing, Düsseldorf Jews' sense of themselves was, which made it easier for the Tamlers to acknowledge their Judaism and begin to feel at home. At the same time it was becoming more problematic for them to stick with their story about being Romanian. "After the downfall of communism and the opening of the Wall, many Romanians who came here were burglars and gypsies," says Alexander. "I started telling people I am Jewish and I got amazing responses. Friends think better of me now that I'm Jewish versus when I was Romanian."
What is their actual identity? As with all Jews in Germany, the answer is never simple. "An American Jew would die for his country. Same for an English Jew and a French Jew," says Alexander. "But not a German Jew. My uncles died for Germany in the First World War and were very proud to be Austrians and Germans, but not anymore. By living here for such a long time I am a German culturally. I'm used to the fact that people here do not cross the street on red, that people are on time, and when I visit a foreign country, I feel pretty German. It used to be my dream to return to Israel but I imagined an Israel with German TV, German newspapers, German punctuality, and German culture. Everybody is trying to find a different excuse for why he can be here as a Jew, how to legitimize himself. Mine is that we have a good life here. I've seen war and poverty in my life, and it's a good life here."
His wife offers a slightly different slant, saying, "He's gotten used to the German lifestyle. He's grown fat here."
Tamler is not the only one. Excluding the Russians, Jews in Germany are better educated than non-Jews, more entrenched in the white-collar work world, and richer. Forty percent of Jews were earning more than $3,000 a month as of 1990, compared to just 12 percent of all Germans. Tamler is also right that his generation of older arrivals typically feels the need to rationalize being a Jew in Germany, to themselves as well as others--and their answers often are colored by contradictions.
"It was easier to make a new start here, easier than anywhere in the world," says Adrian Flohr, a gynecologist who came to Düsseldorf from Romania with his parents in 1969, when he was eighteen. "After threemonths we had citizenship. The language was not a problem. My father got a job and people helped us." As he grew older and had a family of his own, Flohr got more involved in Düsseldorf's Jewish community, serving as its president and later heading the city's chapter of the United Jewish Appeal. Yet as the child of Holocaust survivors, he never felt completely comfortable. "I don't feel as if I am living in Germany. I am living on the Sohnstrasse in Düsseldorf. I'm not living here with eighty million Germans. I have a very big practice and I have friends. It's very easy for me. But if tomorrow I get the big lotto I would like to go to Israel or the United States. One of the most important things, of course, is the money. Life is easier here. If money were not so important I can imagine I would be in Israel or the United States."
While he says the money is all that kept him, the truth is more complicated. He had the money, professional credentials, and mastery of English to have gone anytime he wanted. There would have been adjustments, but fewer than his parents faced moving to Germany. Hearing him struggle over several hours to sort out his feelings about his adopted homeland, it becomes clear that he is, by most definitions, decidedly German. Germany is where he has lived for thirty of his forty-eight years, and where he owns an elegant home with a BMW-735 parked out front. It is where he runs his busy medical practice, fought for and achieved unprecedented acceptance for himself and other Jews, chose to raise his two children, and, even if he wins that lottery, it is where he is likely to retire. Yet he senses, the way Tamler did, that there is something wrong with how comfortable he has become. He thinks that he should feel guilty, even though he has built a good life not only for his wife and children but for his parents, who live nearby in an apartment he purchased for them. He deals with the conflicts by refusing to acknowledge, to himself or anyone, his unmistakable identity as a German.
His wife is the same way. Jaffa Flohr was born in Israel but has spent her adult life in Germany. Her parents brought her to Düsseldorf thirty-five years ago, her father having survived Auschwitz and her mother Theresienstadt. "My father came here to Germany to meet an old friend, and his friend said, 'Stay here. Take the money from the government, from the Germans.' So we came. My parents are still here. They say that their luggage is always packed, but they're still living here. For the Germans we say we are German, but I don't feel like a German. EveryoneJewish who you talk to will tell you, if he tells the truth, that he's not a German. It's not nice to say it but I think they are not like us, they're different. I grew up with Germans. Our best friends are German. But they don't feel like us."
Although it is all right for them to question their decision to stay, the Flohrs resent others questioning it. "We don't allow the Germans to tell us that we are not German," says Adrian. Jaffa recalls how, in 1991, her twelve-year-old son Yoel and four other Jewish children from Germany went to a summer camp with Jews from France. "One day some French kids came to them and made the Nazi 'heil Hitler' and told them, 'What are you doing here, you Nazis?' I called the camp leaders and told them what happened, that we could not imagine that Jewish children would do these things to other Jewish children all the way from Germany. We know that all people don't like it that Jews are living in Germany, but that it goes to this level really is a shock."
Such attempts to work out an identity, and work through their guilt, have produced a schizophrenic existence for many Jews of Adrian Flohr and Alexander Tamler's generation. They resent Germans treating them like foreigners, assuming that their true allegiance is to Israel and wondering when they will be going back. Yet they admit that, just in case they do have to leave again suddenly, they have raised their children with as international and cosmopolitan an upbringing as possible, teaching them different languages, vacationing overseas, and exposing them to other cultures--which, to Germans, merely confirms the image of Jews as outsiders. These Jews deal with their feeling of being apart by looking for more intimate settings where they can fit in. For doctors it might be medical societies, for professors the university, and for many others it has been the Jewish community. They turn to other Jews for kinship and brotherhood, for religious, cultural, and spiritual identity in a land that, even though it is where they have lived most of their lives, still does not feel entirely comfortable.
The next generation is likely to be different. These young people were born in Germany and have studied there. They know of the Holocaust only through stories passed down from their grandparents, which is the way it is for their non-Jewish friends. They grew up hearing their parents question the wisdom of living in Germany, and they internalized some of those doubts, but they also grew up as full-fledged participants inGerman society. They have German friends. They are German citizens. And their way of looking at the world is more German than their parents' at the same time that it is more Jewish.
"I have no problem with Germany," says Michael Bleiberg, a twenty-seven-year-old banker who is part of the young leadership of the Düsseldorf Jewish community. Like many in his generation he understands the doubts of those who came before but does not share their ambivalence or rootlessness. Germany, he explains, "offered me almost everything. I have a good job, and Jewish life is growing year to year. It's not a problem being a Jew here. There is no reason to leave this country."
Yoel Flohr, now twenty, is less certain. "I am German," he says, "but I don't feel really like a German. If someone asks me, I am a Jew." Then he wavers in a way his father and mother will not let themselves: "Until now I said every time that I would go to live in Israel. But now I'm starting to study, starting to go a little bit deeper into life, and I'm not sure actually. I can't tell you. Maybe I will stay here. I feel it's something like our job, to show them that we are here, that fifty years after the Holocaust we can live here. Some Jews have to live here to show that Hitler doesn't get what he wants."
Questions about whether these children and grandchildren of the post-- World War II generation would stay--and whether they could blend their German and Jewish identities in ways that had eluded their forebears--seemed academic as recently as 1990. Whatever they did, Germany's Jewish population would continue aging, its numbers would wane, and it seemed certain that there would not be much of a Jewish community left in the newly unified German state by the time Yoel and Michael came of age.
Then came the Russians. The influx of immigrants from the old Soviet Union began as the 1980s were ending, and it swelled the size of the Jewish community nationwide--from 27,000 in 1989 to 54,000 in 1996, 68,000 in 1998, and 87,000 by the end of 2000. And those are just the ones officially registered with the Central Council of Jews. Another 20,000 to 30,000 are not registered, and 30,000 more Jewish emigres from Russia and Ukraine are expected over the next few years.
The surge was even more dramatic in Düsseldorf. Just 35 Russiansarrived in 1990, but 456 came the following year. By 1999 the annual number of new immigrants was up to 755. Düsseldorf and surrounding communities in the state of North Rhine Westphalia welcomed Jews more warmly than anywhere in the Federal Republic of Germany, in part because of the region's history of tolerance and because its political leaders were determined to reach out. The result was that in 1999, Düsseldorf became the first major city in Germany to exceed its pre-Holocaust population of Jews, with 5,900 compared to the prewar high of 5,150 in 1925.
Jewish institutions have mushroomed in a bid to accommodate all the new Jews. New synagogues went up from Recklinghausen in the west to Offenbach in the south, with the one in Kassel being expanded. New rabbis, cantors, and teachers were recruited from around the globe. Enrollment in Jewish elementary and high schools was way up. So was attendance in Jewish history and culture programs at universities and at more informal continuing-education programs. Most impressive of all, Germany now has seventy-eight cities and towns with a critical mass of Jews.
In Düsseldorf, there is a Jewish elementary school for the first time since 1942. The kindergarten, youth center, religious school, and retirees' society all have expanded, and Russian-speaking clubs were founded around topics such as literature and science. The large marble synagogue, which was always grand but was typically deserted, finally has enough congregants to fill it. Children stream in and out of the sanctuary from a playground in the abutting courtyard. The religious school, on the other side of the playground, is bursting with 300 students, and construction is about to begin on a new set of buildings for youth programs. Another attached structure is home to the community's welfare agencies. The complex is open every day, and it is almost always filled with a stew of newly arrived immigrants seeking advice on launching their new lives, grandparents there to sing with the choir or listen to a lecture, toddlers looking for a playground and playmates. Unlike synagogues in much of the diaspora that are used mainly on Shabbat, that one is a center of community life.
To Jews already in Germany, the Russians' coming has meant a top-to-bottom transformation of the community they grew up in--often stretching its finances to the point of bankruptcy, disrupting the statusquo, and harking back to the tensions and soul-searching they had experienced fifty years before, when German-born and East European Jews were struggling to get along. But it also has meant that their Jewish world, which just a decade ago seemed to be dying, today is being reborn.
To world Jewry, the message was even clearer: it could no longer wish away a community that was growing so fast and yielding such life.
While everyone calls them Russians, the immigrants who began arriving in 1989 came not only from Russia, but also from Ukraine, Latvia, Georgia, and other remnants of the old Soviet empire. Those refugees today make up the majority in 90 percent of the cities and towns across Germany with recognizable Jewish communities. In Düsseldorf, they account for more than 80 percent of the 6,480 Jews living there as of the end of 2000 and their share is growing. Only about 40 percent are affiliated with the synagogue and other Jewish institutions, most came speaking no German and still cannot find the words they want or an accent Germans can comprehend, and nearly all arrived with empty pockets.
That poverty is the key to why most came. That is not to say they were not tormented back home for being Jewish, sometimes even terrorized, and that they did not face political persecution. Most were, and did. Some say they had KILL THE JEWS written on the doors of their apartments, and heard that lists of prominent Jews were being prepared for arrest or worse. But most Jews who really embraced their religion, or felt imperiled by their political circumstances, left shortly after the Soviet empire crumbled in 1989. The German tidal wave, by contrast, did not begin until 1994. And most religious and political refugees went to Israel or America, where they could easily find yeshivas to study in and food that was kosher, political systems that were open and countries where their being Jewish, if it mattered at all, was an asset.
The ones who came to Germany were primarily refugees from an economy gone haywire and a social safety net that was leaking badly. They had impressive professional credentials--as doctors, lawyers, and engineers--with an equally solid grounding in literature, music, and world affairs. But that education had raised their expectations in a land where there was no opportunity for satisfaction. Many stuck it out foryears after communism collapsed, hoping the promised economic and political reforms would be realized and the state would honor its commitments to the old and infirm, which were cornerstones of the Soviet system. When neither happened, they felt they had to go.
The question of where was an easier one. Everyone knew the stories of how hard life was in Israel, and how the Israeli media were stereotyping Russian emigres as freeloaders, mobsters, or some other variation of second-class citizen. They knew that America, as of 1989, had closed its doors to Russians unless they had close relatives willing to serve as sponsors or were lucky enough to qualify under strict new quotas. They realized that it was even more difficult to get into France, the Netherlands, and other countries in Western Europe, none of which gave priority to Jews and all of which were inundated with emigres from the former Soviet Union.
Their only real option was Germany, a country that a mere sixty years ago had killed 6 million of their coreligionists and 10 million of their countrymen, that had starved their grandparents during the siege of Leningrad or hunted them down with squads of Sonderkommandos expert in executing Jews, and that today is the only Western nation willing to embrace Russian Jews. It was, of course, an impossible choice.
Ervin Nagy grew up loathing Germans. The Nazis had murdered his grandparents, along with his aunt and cousin. It happened not during the waging of war, which might have been forgivable, but after they had won the battle and could get down to the business of liquidating Jews. Nagy was just fifteen then, but he still can see the German prisoners being paraded around the ring of Moscow. He can still taste the hatred he felt then.
Today Nagy lives in Düsseldorf, among the hated Germans. Sitting at the dining room table in his subsidized apartment, his thinning white hair brushed back and his blue jeans and suspenders reflecting the reality that his life there offers more leisure than work, he explains why he and his family left Russia even though he had a good job as an industrial engineer and his wife and daughter were neurologists. And why they chose Germany. "One reason was that we are a people who belong to a European culture," he says. "We have also family matters, we didn't want to be that far away from Russia. And just before we applied toimmigrate to the United States we were told that George Bush had closed the border for Russian Jews and it would be almost impossible. Then we decided to come to Germany."
Nagy came because there was nowhere else to go. That was difficult, but life in the Soviet Union had prepared him for worse. Joseph Stalin and his henchmen had killed Nagy's father, who had been a correspondent in Japan for the Soviet newspaper Tass. They may have suspected he was a spy, or that he was not faithful enough to Stalin. No one ever said. The only thing that was made clear was that he was an enemy of the state, and by extension his wife and children were, too. If ideology was the reason for persecuting the Nagys in the 1930s and '40s, religion took over in the 1950s. "They never let us forget that we were Jews," he recalls. "On our Russian passport a nationality was stamped, which was Jewish. Persecution was what Russian Jews had in common."
So while most Jews could not conceive of voluntarily moving to a country with Germany's history of anti-Semitism, to Russians like Nagy it seemed no worse than what they were used to. And so far it has proved dramatically better. He does often wonder what Germans who are his age were doing during the Holocaust, something he says is automatic. "But when I lived in the Soviet Union I could suspect that every Russian I met was the person who killed my father," he explains. "The Holocaust is a horrible thing, with six million people killed because of their religious background. But what would you say to the question of why there were twenty million Soviet citizens killed just because of their ideological differences with the state?" Being in Germany also gives Nagy the same ironic satisfaction it gave Jewish refugees of an earlier era: "The fact that I now live in Germany, as a Jew, is a contradiction of the ideas of Hitler. It's just the understanding that what Hitler wanted to achieve with the Jews he didn't achieve."
That Nazi past, a past spent trying to cleanse its soil and soul of anything remotely Jewish, is why Germany has opened its doors to Jewish emigres when its neighbors and allies are slamming theirs shut. It is doing penance. If the world happens to notice, and pay homage to how much Germany has changed, all the better. "Germany is the only country in Western Europe to accept this Russian Jewish immigration," says Michael Szentei-Heise, the chief administrator in Düsseldorf's Jewish community. "A year and a half ago we had an international meeting onJewish immigration with representatives of the French, British, Dutch, and others. France proudly said, 'We are accepting Russian Jews at the rate of fifty per year.' Well, in Düsseldorf we accept them at the rate of fifty per week."
While that acceptance has met with little resistance within Germany, it has aroused the ire of Israelis. In the early 1990s senior Israeli officials told then-chancellor Kohl to stop taking in Russian Jews who belong in Israel--and most decidedly do not belong in a state with Germany's record of anti-Semitism. "I met several times, during visits to Jerusalem, with high-ranking political groups who said, 'Why do you let Jews from Russia immigrate to Germany? We need them in Israel,'" recalls Burkhard Hirsch, the former vice president of the German Bundestag. "Our answer was, 'What is our right to tell them where they have to live?'" Spiegel, the German Jewish leader, remembers offering Kohl comparable advice: "I said, 'If you decide today no Jews can come to Germany, what will be the reaction of the world?' He said, 'You are right.'" Spiegel and his colleagues also recognized how badly Germany's aging and shrinking Jewish communities needed new blood, and they knew that the only Jews who would be willing to venture to Germany were those, like the Russians, who had to leave their birthplace and had so few options where to go.
Germany not only let them in, it let them in with most of the generous benefits it gives its own citizens and immigrants with Germanic roots.
For Eugene Mann, that has meant medical schools that were top-notch and free, along with a work permit that lets him earn money to support himself. He left Russia for Israel in 1992, which was an easy decision: "The terms of living in Russia were not good, not the financial ones, not spiritual ones, not human rights, not anything." It was harder, three years later, to leave Israel for Germany. He liked the freedom Israel gave him to practice his religion and he liked the country, but he was not accepted to medical school there and was not happy about the way Israelis treat Russians. "There are a lot of prejudices," explains Mann, who is twenty-six and works part-time translating Russian to German, German to English, and English to Russian. "Israelis say that Russian immigrants come with false papers, that the majority are not Jewish, that they've brought persecution to Israel. That is sometimes right but is quite exaggerated." In Germany, he adds, "my life is very comfortable. I amvery well accepted in this society. Germany has the best conditions in the world for students."
Mann's parents and grandmother have even better deals in Germany, starting with housing. The government gives new arrivals like his parents $279 a month for rent if they live alone and $559 for a family of four--enough, in Düsseldorf, for a comfortable place in a good neighborhood. Handicapped people like his grandmother get $363 a month for a single apartment or $727 if they share with three others. And there is more: vouchers that give them access to less expensive apartments, fees for rental agents to help find a place, up to $70 a month for heating, and full funding for furniture if it is used and partial payment if it is new. A refrigerator also is considered essential, as are a washing machine and a used black-and-white TV, so the state pays.
There is even an allowance of sorts. A single adult gets $324 a month, the second adult brings in another $259, and each child up to seven means an extra $162. Men get $148, twice a year, for clothes. Women, who presumably cost more to dress, receive $189. Pregnant women are eligible for a 20 percent premium in living expenses, a one-time clothing allowance of $222, and $136 for a stroller.
The state helps young Jewish boys become men by contributing to the costs of a bar mitzvah, and it lets old people die with dignity by paying for the funeral. Émigrés' medical bills are fully covered, along with part of dental costs, and the government will pay up to $2,367 a month for a nursing home. Transportation to the doctor is free. Mann's grandmother, who broke a bone in her pelvis, also gets money for a device that lifts her into the bathtub and for a wheelchair. She can ride the trolleys, buses, and subways for free, and twice a month the state pays for a taxi to the movies or anywhere else she wants to go. Money is available for a caretaker to help her bathe--up to $769 a month if someone is sick enough. Anyone sixty and under is supposed to be looking for work, and the government will pay for six months of language instruction to make them more attractive to employers. Those over sixty do not get that language training, but they also do not have to look for work.
What really distinguishes that welfare system from the one in the United States, however, is the fact that in America most recipients are kicked off the rolls after two consecutive years, or five years over alifetime. In Germany they can keep collecting as long as they need it, which can be forever.
Word of that generosity quickly made its way back to Moscow and Kiev. "I don't think persecution is the main reason people come to Germany," says Vera Steyvers, who heads the Social Welfare Department of the Jewish community and works mainly with Russian émigrés. "The main reason is because of the benefits they get here. It's more or less the only country where they can come that is not so hard with the regulations." That is also a major reason why the population of Russian emigres in Düsseldorf is skewed toward the old and the ill. Steyvers estimates that a third of those who have come over the last decade are sixty or older, and "every second one of them, at least, is sick. Among those who come from Ukraine, even the younger people are sicker, on average, compared to Germans of their age group." The logic, immigrants say, is simple: pensions are so low in the former Soviet Union that the old are forced to peddle cigarettes and candy or take other desperate measures to stay alive, the sick are denied care and support, and most who can leave do, with Germany now their destination of choice.
Since being Jewish is the easiest way to get in, lots of Russians who under the old Soviet regime denied any ties to the repressed religion suddenly are reciting the Shema and proclaiming their piety. "At the very beginning we were very naive, our means and capabilities to find fake documents were very low," says Szentei-Heise, who oversees day-to-day operations of Düsseldorf's Jewish community. "Today it's me who personally checks all documents, and if I'm on holiday people are told they'll be checked later, when I am back. I'd say I'm able to discover most fakes. If I'm not able to discover those documents, they're so well made that it would cost twenty to thirty thousand dollars. This amount of money only a very few can afford."
Fakery is tougher to uncover once the Russians have settled in, at which point those who are young and healthy are supposed to think about finding a job. But why look too hard when the government is willing to pay so much for you not to work? "Most of the time people from forty-five years on depend for the rest of their life on social welfare," says Steyvers. A 1999 nationwide survey by the University of Potsdam bears her out: nearly 70 percent of Russian Jews of working ageare unemployed, and those who are working on average took five years or more to land the job. That is partly because Germany has had such high unemployment since reunification of the East and West, and because it requires Russian doctors, engineers, and other professionals to be retrained before they are allowed to work. Language also is a barrier, the Potsdam authors found, with only 10 to 15 percent of those surveyed fluent in German.
Jan Katschko is one of the success stories. He left Moscow for Germany in 1991, with the first wave of refugees, having chosen it over Israel and America. Getting out was not easy. Katschko worked in radio physics, which in the eyes of the Russians made him a security risk. Life after he arrived was also difficult, with Katschko, his wife, and their thirteen-year-old daughter living in a tiny bungalow and sleeping in bunk beds. He could not find work in physics so he took what he could until, in 1995, he opened a travel agency in Düsseldorf that caters to the Russian-speaking community.
Like most Russian Jewish refugees, Katschko is of two minds about Germany. He is grateful for the economic opportunities and, even more, for the way German doctors cured his daughter, who had been paralyzed by a car accident a year before they left Russia. "I am sincerely thankful to this country that gave me all the civilities to live, work, develop my family, and save my child," he says. "My parents live here as well. They receive a social charge and will receive it forever. Soon I will receive German citizenship." But he has reservations: "I don't feel German and I will surely never feel German. I feel as a person living in Europe, who was born and lived a big part of his life in Moscow. I'm quite a flexible person, and if tomorrow I find myself living in the United States or Israel, I will feel like a Muscovite living there. I'm not going to feel like a German when three of my five uncles didn't come back from the front and the war."
Starting off with expectations that low might seem like an ominous way to begin life in a new land. But things have worked out much better than most of the new arrivals expected. The Russians came from a country where the government was the enemy, and found that in Germany it is their benefactor. They came from a place where non-Jewish neighbors might be informants and rarely were friends, and found that their German neighbors are at worst indifferent and oftentimes are openlywelcoming. They came mainly to escape the bleak economic and political realities of post-Soviet society--then they got generous social benefits, became citizens, and, like Helen Israel, Adrian Flohr, and others who came before, they settled in. They came expecting nothing, which is what they had gotten in Russia, and slowly realized they were building new and better lives.
In the process of adjusting to their new surroundings the Russians tried to re-create what was familiar to them. They settled in a neighborhood of Düsseldorf that officially is known as Reisholz, but that they renamed Russeholz. The big brick buildings had the same feel as the complexes they lived in in Russia, only with more color and more creature comforts. There were Russian-language newspapers and TV stations, Soviet-style stores, and other amenities that made them feel at home and were a function of the fact that along with its Russian Jews, Germany has admitted more than 1 million ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union.
While Russeholz looked like their old neighborhoods in Russia, there was one telling difference: in Germany they could, for the first time, openly and safely be Jews--which took getting used to. The world where they had been reared was brimming with prohibitions and embargoes. Jews in the Soviet Union could not join in Passover's celebration of freedom or Yom Kippur's reflection and redemption. They were not allowed to learn Hebrew or Yiddish, and if they did they were afraid to speak them in public. They were kept from arguing about the Torah and Midrash and honoring their children's coming of age with bar and bat mitzvahs. Jewish sports clubs were banned, along with Zionist collectives and other organizations based on culture or religion. Yet even as they were denied the fruits of their faith, they could not escape the scarlet stamp that branded them as Jews on their passport, in the workplace, and in everything else they did in their socialist society.
In Germany, by contrast, they can define their Judaism any way they choose. For Katschko, that means identifying himself more with the Jewish people than the Jewish faith. He attends synagogue, but only on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and while his twenty-one-year-old daughter keeps kosher, he and his wife do not. Yet his Jewishness still defines how he thinks about himself and who he chooses as friends. "My family in Russia was Yiddish speaking. My grandparents came from a smallshtetl in Ukraine," he says. "From the beginning of my coming here I felt like a Jew, and I will always feel like a Jew."
It was the same for other Russian refugees. "The big majority of Soviet new arrivals have almost no connection to religion," says Ervin Nagy, the engineer who came in 1994 and is now a fixture at the Düsseldorf synagogue. "But it is a very important point that we Russian Jews do have a sort of Jewish mentality that was developed in us because of the repressions of the Soviets. Our Jewish mentality, which was in this way always supported by persecution, has not so much in common with classical Judaism in a religious sense. It's more an ethnic and national thing."
That interpretation of Judaism generated a strange reaction in Germany. The wider population of Germans seemed willing to let the Russians identify as Jews or anything else they wanted to be, but the existing Jewish community has been less welcoming. The resentment of new arrivals by older ones is a pattern familiar in Jewish communities from Paris to Atlanta. But this time, in Germany, there is even more at stake. The Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians who came to America generations ago seemed too Jewish to their assimilated coreligionists, too steeped in Orthodoxy and ceremony. The Russians arriving now in Germany, by contrast, do not seem Jewish enough. New arrivals to America were famously hardworking and entrepreneurial, in part because there were no social programs to fall back on. Russians in Düsseldorf start out on welfare and often stay there, in part because they are too old and sick to work even if they could master the language and find a job. The biggest difference, however, is the numbers. New arrivals to America came in successive waves, rarely threatening to take over communities long run by Jews who had come before. In Germany they have come seemingly all at once, to big cities like Frankfurt and Berlin and small ones like Erfurt in the east and Recklinghausen in the west, numerically and psychologically overwhelming those who came before.
The older arrivals have responded by compiling a list of gripes, starting with money. Jews, like Catholics and Protestants, are supposed to tell the government their religion and pay a 9 percent surcharge on their income tax to support their religious community. But some Russians do not register, and most who do are not earning anything so they cannot pay taxes. All of which helps explain why, at a time when the flood ofRussians requires the synagogue and other Jewish institutions to expand and swells the Düsseldorf community's budget to more than $4 million a year, it collects less than $700,000 in taxes. For the rest it turns to the government, to a few wealthy donors, and to the time-honored technique of deficit spending.
The catalog of complaints goes on from there. The Russians are too willing to accept handouts and dabble in the black market. They are rude to city and state welfare workers, giving the Jewish community a bad name. They wear loud clothing made of cheap man-made fibers, do not wash enough or groom their hair, and do not try to master the German language or learn German comportment. Worst of all, half of them are not really Jewish, only pretending to be so that Germany will let them in, while the rest neither know what it means to be a Jew nor care about Israel. There is a grain of truth to all the charges, although none are generalizable and most are explainable. What matters is the perception on the part of older arrivals that the Russians are another race and not really part of their religion.
"There is a big problem, believe me," says Helen Israel, who came to Germany forty-five years ago. "Yesterday afternoon I was with a Russian group, survivors of the Holocaust, and there were two ladies who had birthdays. I had sandwiches and cookies. They took the rolls with butter and honey and put them on a plate with sausages. I said, 'Ladies, you can't do that. You're in the Jewish community center. At home I also am not kosher, but here you must make kosher.'" Jaffa Flohr's concerns are more generalized and deep-seated: "It's not our community anymore. It grows different. The people who came here from Russia don't have the same mentality, they have another mentality. What I am very angry about is that they don't care about Israel and we care very much about Israel. They only want to have a good life. Every one of us is a stranger with them. I think most of them are not Jews and they are not interested in Judaism."
Ronald Tamler, the young doctor, is better acquainted with the Russians as friends and colleagues and he is less vested in the community's hidebound ways. Tamler is also more realistic about where Düsseldorf's Jewish community would be without them. "The community would have died if the Russian Jews hadn't come and saved us," he says, echoing the findings of demographers. "Everybody was old and people who werenot old were trying to leave. Don't believe anyone who is telling you the Russian Jews are killing us."
The schisms between Jews who came years ago and the recently arrived Russians, and between Jews and non-Jews, are real and painful. But they are just half the story. What matters even more to the future of the Jewish community in Düsseldorf, and Germany, are the bridges that are being built.
Consider the way the Russians are learning to be Jews through the Club of Jewish Tradition. They sing songs like Hava Nagila and Hatikvah, following along with Russian transliteration since they cannot read Hebrew and sounding more like Cossacks than cantors. They learn about Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and other holidays, from what to wear to what to eat. They rehearse a Shabbat dinner, sitting behind long tables covered with challah and fruit, lighting candles and chanting the Motzi over bread and the Kiddush over wine. More than 1,000 refugees have gotten involved, coming to know things they would have picked up as children if the Soviets had let Jewish children attend Sunday school or Hebrew school, and expanding on the random bits of tradition passed down by their bobbehs and zeydehs.
Other Russian Jews are learning on their own. They read Jewish books, study Jewish history, watch Jewish movies. In Russia the only Jewish culture available was the Yiddish writings of Ukrainian-born humorist Sholom Aleichem, whose work inspired the Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof. In Germany they can get anything they want, and what they want increasingly includes attending synagogue for daily minyans, Sabbath services, and special celebrations. To make things easier, the community now offers prayer books with Russian and Hebrew text as well as German and Hebrew.
To serious scholars, the new refugees' rudimentary knowledge is frustrating, especially since most older arrivals also are relative neophytes when it comes to Jewish laws and texts. "Naturally it's very difficult," says Michael Jedwabny, the twenty-three-year-old assistant rabbi who is from Moscow, came to Dusseldorf by way of Israel, and is part of the Litvak sect of the ultra-Orthodox. On the one hand, he explains, the community is run by the Orthodox and adheres to halakhah, or Jewishlaw, for everything from burying the dead to ensuring the kitchen is kosher and bar mitzvahs are performed properly. But it is not a brand of Orthodoxy most traditionalists around the world would recognize or sanction, with everyone, regardless of how observant they are, welcome to join in. For him, Jedwabny says, that means that "I don't have a partner to learn the Gemara and the rest of the Talmud with every day. And every time, if I meet somebody who will learn it, I have to teach them from the beginning. I have to begin from the beginning, to adjust myself to their level. Thank God I have my books and I can study myself. I also have friends in Israel and I can fax to them if we have a discussion in writing. I send faxes all the time.
"For the whole amount of Russian people here I could not influence so much, but for certain people it works well," adds the young Torah reader, who walks the street with a black yarmulke topped by a wide-brimmed black hat, a brown beard, sideburns that are thick around the ears in the Orthodox style, and the frilly white tzitzis of his undergarment showing. "There are people who I reached and who I succeeded in turning back to Judaism, to do brit milah, to learn Torah."
Where Jedwabny sees himself reaching down to lift up his fellow Russian refugees, his boss, Rabbi Michael Goldberger, considers it reaching out. And he relishes it. It is partly that he has no choice. His is the only synagogue in Düsseldorf. He is its only full-fledged rabbi. His community ranges from Jews who can daven on their own and are as versed as he is in the Mishnah, Talmud, and other holy books, to those who are not sure how to put on a prayer shawl and would have no idea what to do with tefillin, the tiny leather cases filled with scriptures that an observant Jewish male binds to his forehead and arms during morning prayers.
That is precisely the sort of broad-based outreach that the thirty-eight-year-old Orthodox rabbi was trained for when he studied in Boulder, Colorado, with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, father of the Jewish Renewal movement. "Orthodox people all the time say, 'We have Judaism today because we did everything exactly as Jews did it two thousand years ago,' and they are right," explains Goldberger. "The Reform say, 'Judaism exists today because we were ready to assimilate and change, we were pragmatic and did what was necessary,' and they are right, too. Our answer is a pluralistic Judaism that accepts mosteverything, that accepts every serious expression of Judaism. In France, England, and even in America, we have these denominations where the Orthodox rabbi doesn't speak with the Reform rabbi. The only country where this new structure of pluralistic Judaism could grow is Germany, because we have here Orthodox, Reform, and everything under one roof. If we succeed not to split these congregations, to have one congregation and maybe several synagogues under one umbrella, then the whole world will realize this form of congregation can function."
It does function, at least for now, in Düsseldorf and scores of other German cities. It captures under one umbrella, or one synagogue roof, not only the various denominations of Jews, but also old arrivals and as many new ones as it can. For most of the last fifty years there was a single synagogue because there were too few Jews to support more. Since the Russians came, there have been enough in many places to fill a second or third, but with the exception of Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt, there is still just one synagogue. In some cases that is because the Russians are so poor that communities cannot afford more, because the synagogue is filled only on the High Holidays, and because Orthodox leaders have resisted sharing funds and legitimacy with those trying to launch Liberal or Conservative congregations. But there is also a sense, among Goldberger and others, that Germany is forging a paradigm for a pluralistic Judaism that could be a model for the diaspora, uniting denominations and nationalities.
Russian Jews are like the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah, Goldberger says as he removes his wire-rimmed glasses and rubs his tired eyes. The wise son was born four generations ago, when there still were Jews there free to practice the religion. "Then we had the wicked children who made revolution in Russia, saying, 'We don't want religion, we are communists,'" the rabbi continues. "The ignorant son of the third generation didn't know a lot about Judaism; the only thing he knew was that his grandfather was Jewish. These are the ones we have today who are forty or fifty years old and still can remember their Jewish grandma; they knew she used to make gefilte fish. The last generation is their children, who don't even know what to ask because they can't remember their great-grandparents."
Goldberger is imposing, standing six feet three inches, with a brown beard and a scholar's air, and his mission is no less monumental. Heintends to send a lifeline to those last sons made famous through the Passover fable, the simple one and the one so ill-informed he does not even know what question to ask. In Düsseldorf's case they are Russians, but throughout the diaspora they assume different shapes, from the boy in Boston who calls himself Jewish yet cannot explain what that means, to the daughter of Moroccan Jews in Paris who insists she is neither Sephardic nor Hebraic. Comparable exercises in Jewish learning are being tried in Boston, Paris, and elsewhere. But the experiment under way in the Federal Republic of Germany--involving refugees from Russia, the world's largest community of unschooled Jews, now living in Germany, with its unrivaled history of hostility toward Jews--seems particularly poignant and especially relevant to the Haggadah story.
The Düsseldorf rabbi puts it more simply: "If we treat them friendly and wisely and everything that I learned from the Torah then they will realize, 'Oh, the synagogue is a good place to be.' They'll see that there is a Jewish atmosphere, a Jewish way of creating friendships with other people." Even as he teaches the Russians about rituals, rules, and the written words, Goldberger is acutely aware that "they also can teach me about Judaism. We are going into it together. You know how great it is to learn Torah with people who never learned Torah and don't know Torah and don't know Rashi? They are brilliant, they have brilliant ideas."
Learning what it means to be Jewish benefits the Russians in several measurable ways. After years of being repressed for their religion without really understanding it, they are finally seeing Jewishness as a cause for celebration. As important, learning Hebrew, studying Torah, and going to synagogue all offer links to older arrivals in Düsseldorf and other German cities.
The new bonds that have formed are on full view on Simchas Torah, the holiday commemorating completion of the yearlong reading of the Torah. Mothers and daughters in the balcony rain down a shower of candies on the men and boys below as they march around the shul, then around again, Torahs cradled in their arms, celebrating the work accomplished and the joy of starting over. The cantor, dressed in a Mickey Mouse tie from Disney World, reaches a high note and beckons congregants to join in. An assistant rabbi wearing a black hat and thick payess prays next to another assistant wearing conventional clothes andclose-cropped hair. As they sing and dance, worship and reflect, it's difficult to discern which Jew is from Moscow and which from Romania, who has been in Düsseldorf thirty years and who arrived three weeks before.
The blurring of divisions is even more striking in conversations with the community's established leadership, men like Esra Cohn. His German roots go back to the 1700s. He was born in Israel, came to Düsseldorf in the 1950s, and, as head of the three-member board that runs the Jewish community, is one of the oldest of the old guard. Yet it is the Russians, Cohn says, who matter most today: "I'm not sure that all of us understand how important and how good it was for us, and Jews in Germany, that the Russians came. We live again since the Russians are here.
"People are afraid that the Russians will take over our Jewish communities. They will change the communities completely, and they will take over certainly. We are getting older and there are no more young people from the beginners. All the young Jews will be from the Russian people one day and it won't take very long," says Cohn. But that can be a good thing, he insists, if older arrivals like him remember that they were once refugees, with accents that identified them as outsiders and job training that the Germans found deficient. "Most of the people who came with me didn't study, they just began to work," recalls Cohn. "They were maybe not the best Jews we had. Not many intellectual people came back to Germany, more the average people came. The Jewish people were very high intellectual people before the war, many of them, and suddenly we didn't have it." The Russians, by contrast, bring with them "culture, music, theater, and other things. They are much more interested in these things than the Jews who have come before."
For the young, lust and love often are the best barometers of how life is going, and by those measures the Russians already have transformed Düsseldorf Jewry. "When I was seventeen," recalls Ronald Tamler, who was born in Germany in 1975, "I could choose whether I wanted to go out with the fat Jewish girl, the ugly Jewish girl, or the arrogant Jewish girl. I could choose between those three in my age group. Fortunately that has changed since the Russians came. That has changed because our community has changed. Now we have morechoices." Such a metamorphosis may seem insubstantial or even irreverent. But Jewish parents intent on their child marrying within the faith, or any child determined to do so, understand that adding a major pool of eligible singles substantially increases the odds that the Jewish community will survive and thrive.
A different but equally critical sort of reaching out is happening with converts to Judaism, and potential converts. That is not surprising since one in every three Jews in Germany is married to a non-Jew, with an even higher rate among newer arrivals. Rabbi Goldberger's ties to Orthodoxy sometimes constrain him from embracing converts as warmly as he would like, but he feels even more strongly about his ties to pluralism and the Jewish Renewal movement. "We have to make it possible for these people who want to convert to learn, to study, to experience Judaism, and to convert," he says. "We have classes, we teach them. We had last year the first class who finished conversions, seven people and they converted. Now is the second formal course. It has to be clear for these non-Jewish partners that they could be welcomed if they decide to. Of course they have to learn, but it has to be clear that they can succeed."
One way of making that clear was when the rabbi took his first class of converts to Boulder to introduce them to the Jewish Renewal movement and show them off. Another is the key posts converts hold in the Düsseldorf community--from one of the assistant rabbis, to Rabbi Goldberger's secretary, to the chief of religious instruction at the Jewish school, with the latter now leading conversion classes.
While most of those interested in converting have a spouse who is Jewish, or another relative, Bettina Schneider was entirely new to the faith and there was no apparent reason why she should care--which makes her explanation of her conversion even more interesting. A slim, studious, twenty-eight-year-old with curly chocolate-colored hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Schneider grew up in a leftist family where her parents were nonpracticing Protestants. Her only connection with Judaism was through the husband of a great-aunt, who was deported more than forty years before Bettina was born and later died at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
"I was just kind of intrigued," she recalls, "and later, when I waseighteen, I thought I wanted to go to Israel and see what has become of the people who survived the Holocaust." She made the trip, spending six weeks on a kibbutz near Haifa, "and I was just intrigued by the fact that people seemed to be so energetic and turbulent and wild on the outside, but so calm inside. People my age were so much more grownup than I was. I liked the country, I liked the kibbutz, I liked the people I met." That trip led to two more, as well as to Hebrew lessons back in Düsseldorf, contacts with young Jews across Germany and, finally, to a decision to convert, a process that lasted fifteen months and was finalized early in 1999. The adjustments continue, as she is beginning to keep kosher and has moved closer to the synagogue so she can walk to services. She recently became involved with a non-Jewish man who was "the sweetest guy I ever met," but she "ended up dumping him because he wasn't Jewish. I knew problems would develop."
Her initial attraction to Judaism, Bettina explains, "was because of my interest in history, in the Holocaust. It is part of the German mentality. We grew up even as small children knowing what happened, being aware of our responsibilities, of the things that had happened, and avoiding something like that happening again. The first thought of going to Israel occurred to me because I was German. But everything that happened afterward had nothing to do with being German. Being German made it harder. In Germany, converts are seen with more prejudice, from the Jewish side as well. Jews think, 'Why should Germans convert? Do they feel remorse and want to make up for something?' And from the German side people were asking, 'Why the hell would you want to do that?' Nobody really understood.
"What I feel today is that I was just born wrong. Not being born a Jew was a mistake and I had to correct the mistake."
Few Germans go so far as to say it was a mistake that they are not Jewish, but most admit their country has made monumental mistakes in its treatment of Jews, not just during the Holocaust but before and since. Much as Russian and Eastern European Jews are trying to make peace with one another, many Jews and non-Jews are, too.
Moving beyond Germany's long-simmering anti-Semitism first requires facing up to it, in its past and present incarnations, in Düsseldorf as well as the nation. Intolerance toward Jews is now an acknowledged part of the city's history, one that began 500 years before theHolocaust. Jews were expelled in 1438 and kept out for more than 100 years. Later, hatred occasionally erupted into violence of the sort seen in 1843 when the killing of a young boy brought rioters into the streets charging Jews with ritual murder. It was not until 1872 that Jews got full citizenship and civil rights, and even then there were exceptions.
Jews remain targets, the way they do across the diaspora and in Israel, although today's attacks almost always are against property rather than people. A synagogue is defiled in Munich, and another in Lübeck is firebombed twice in two years. The marble grave of a Jewish leader is blown up in Berlin while ten headstones are toppled in a Jewish cemetery in Guben. As the number of Jews in Germany has grown, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has climbed--from just over 300 a year in the early 1990s to 817 in 1999. But now such acts are taken seriously, with news organizations trumpeting them and German authorities investigating quickly and thoroughly. It is against the law to disparage anyone because of their race or religion. Far from inciting the public against Jews, today's incidents of intolerance are condemned by all but a marginal movement of skinheads and other, mainly young fanatics.
That does not mean a century of anti-Semitic animus has suddenly evaporated. You still can hear it in the stammtisch sessions where ordinary Germans gather at a pub to drink freely and pour out their uncensored feelings, making clear that it is not just Turks they resent as drains on the welfare state, but also Russian Jews. Sometimes it spills into public view, such as when Düsseldorf's largest newspaper wrote an article calling Ignatz Bubis, the recently deceased chairman of the Central Council of Jews, a "rich, clever Jew"--then refused to apologize when community leaders complained about the inflammatory stereotyping. Nearly every Düsseldorf Jew has a personal tale of anti-Semitism--from the high school student whose classmate drew a swastika on the back of her jacket with chalk, to Assistant Rabbi Jedwabny hearing someone whisper "fucking Jew" as he walked down the street in Orthodox garb. At the synagogue each piece of mail is checked for explosives with a metal detector that looks like an oversized magnifying glass, a green-and-white police car patrols out front during Friday night services, red-and-white cement poles encircle the building to keep car bombs from ramming it, and security officers check everyone who comes in the one public entrance.
To many, such precautions seemed extreme--until a World War II-- era hand grenade exploded near the entrance to a Düsseldorf train station in July 2000, wounding ten, all of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union and six of them Jewish. Two of the injuries were severe, and a pregnant woman lost her unborn baby. While the motive remained unclear, it is almost certain that the attack was directed against Jews or immigrants, or both. The victims, who walked as a group from the station to a German-language class and back at the same times every week, made an easy target for hate groups. "In the community we already are very vigilant, so there is no need to exaggerate or get in a panic after this bombing," says Szentei-Heise, the community's chief administrator. "Of course we do open our eyes a little bit more, and are more aware of anything happening around us."
Even more eye-opening were the three Molotov cocktails lobbed at the Düsseldorf synagogue just three months after the attack at the train station. Although no one was injured and damage was minimal, the timing of the firebombing was especially disturbing: during the Jewish holy week that runs from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, and on the eve of celebrations marking ten years of German unity. It also came during a period of heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians; one of the accused bombers was Palestinian and the other was a native of Morocco.
Almost as troubling is the recent backlash against efforts to remind Germans of wartime atrocities, and to make German firms pay billions of dollars in restitution. Martin Walser, a respected author, raised the specter of resentment at a ceremony in 1998 when he said Germans were being overexposed to the Holocaust and warned that the horrors of Auschwitz were being misused as a "moral club." Bubis, the German-Jewish leader, shot back that Walser was guilty of "spiritual arson." A national survey several years before had found that 22 percent of Germans preferred not to have Jews as neighbors, a third said Jews had too much influence on world events, and 40 percent felt Jews were exploiting the Holocaust.
A similar feeling--that Jews are nagging, that they are pushing for too much money and asking a new generation to unfairly bear the guilt for actions of an earlier generation--has been echoed by other intellectual and political leaders, the more so since the reunification of East andWest Germany created hard economic times. "My son, who was born in 1970 and has been twice to Israel, discusses with me Germany's pledge of thirty billion dollars in compensation for forced labor. He says that's incredible and asks, 'Why do I have to pay for that? I was not even a child at those times. I didn't exist,'" recounts Burkhard Hirsch, the widely esteemed former vice president of the Bundestag who, while not a Jew, has long backed Jewish causes. "That is normal, it is not anti-Jewish, not anti-Semitic. It's a question of younger people saying that that war was fifty years ago. It was incredible what happened, and they ask what we did during those times, what our fathers did. But they also ask why have they to pay for it.
"My answer," adds the white-haired Hirsch, "is that I believe there will be a time when we come to see these matters without emotion, as a historical fact. But how long it takes cannot be decided by those who did it, or their descendants. It must be decided by those who suffered and their descendants."
Spiegel, however, takes issue with the argument that Germans are weary of the Holocaust. "I hear that a lot, that enough is enough, that people don't want to hear any more," the Jewish leader and Holocaust survivor says. "The opposite is true. Now I have the most invitations ever to give lectures about the Holocaust and what is the Jewish community. They come from schools, from organizations. If I didn't have a job I could go every day to a school, and the next week to organizations of four hundred men, to talk about my history, how I survived. They are so quiet and interested. Teachers present this to young people who want to know what was the reason, what was the history. They want to hear from people who are survivors what it was like, not just to be shown pictures and books."
He is not the only one getting such invitations. "I could give speeches every night before different classes, Christian classes. I'm invited so much I can't do anything. They're really interested in Judaism," says Rabbi Goldberger.
German society, and especially its political elite, know they are being judged by how they treat their Jews, which is one reason they made it a crime to print anti-Semitic literature or deny that the Holocaust happened. Jewish youth are excused from military service if a parent or grandparent was a victim of the Nazis or if serving would make itdifficult to practice their religion. And Germans have done more to open their borders to Jewish immigrants than the French, British, or anyone else in Europe or North America. Neofacist parties do exist in Germany, and they rail against what they see as Germany's overly liberal immigration laws, but those parties attract a fraction of the vote that their counterparts do in Austria and France, and their leaders go to great lengths to proclaim they are not anti-Jewish. "One can say to me that I'm blind, but I don't see any anti-Semitism nowadays in Germany," says Juergen Krueger, a thirty-four-year-old member of the far-right Republican Party who was recently elected, for the second time, to Düsseldorf's city council.
Germany has even modified the meaning of words in a bid to be sensitive to its Nazi past, recasting Kristallnacht, as Pogromnacht, for instance, to make clear that Jewish lives were smashed along with property the night in 1938 that the Brownshirts went on a rampage. A political correctness has taken hold among the politically involved that makes it difficult to question the admission of Russian Jews and awarding of benefits to them or other matters that, with other immigrant groups, are part of normal discourse.
The notion that anti-Semitism is on the wane is shared by nearly all Düsseldorf Jews, but there is less consensus about what to make of the new trend of philo-Semitism, or fascination with things Jewish. The evidence is everywhere. Germany now has more Jewish studies programs than any nation outside Israel and America, and 80 percent of the students are not Jewish. Non-Jews also account for a quarter of those attending Hebrew classes in Düsseldorf, and they flocked to the synagogue until it limited their participation several years ago. The German media followed the election of Bubis's successor with the kind of intensity normally reserved for a presidential campaign, and Jewish leaders are solicited for their opinions on everything from the race for mayor of Düsseldorf to the Kosovo crisis. Ask average Germans how many Jews there are in Germany and they will guess anywhere from 500,000 to 10 million, based on all they hear about Jews in the media, even though most admit they never met a Jew and the true total is slightly over 100,000.
That curiosity about things Jewish is natural, and probably healthy, given the country's history of accepting myths and rumors about Jewsand Judaism. But philo-Semitism makes some Düsseldorf Jews almost as uncomfortable as anti-Semitism. "It's fashionable now to be Jewish in Germany," says Daniel Padan, a twenty-seven-year-old who just graduated from medical school. But he worries that such fashion carries a price: "Here you're like a piece of a human museum. You're a mixture of a rabbi, a stranger, an alien, and something weird. You're like a rabbi because they think if you're Jewish you have to know everything about Judaism. You're like an alien, you're something strange, because they can't really touch you, you have your own religion. Maybe it's all part of an excuse. They say, 'I have children with Jewish names. I made something for the Jews. I don't have problems with Jews.'"
What Daniel Padan and other Düsseldorf Jews want is something that their coreligionists in much of the world take for granted: normalcy.
Normalcy is easier to define through its absence than its presence, and there has not been enough of it in Germany since Jews began coming back after the Holocaust. Being normal would mean that, when they walk by an elderly person, Jews no longer would calculate how old he or she was during the Nazi era and wonder whether they were, as American author Daniel Goldhagen dubbed them, one of "Hitler's willing executioners." It would mean that a Jew with a kippah, or even a black hat and sidelocks, could walk the streets without people snickering. Normalcy would let Jews and Germans remember the death of the 6 million during the Nazi reign of terror, passing on its lessons and compensating its victims, but not be immobilized by it. Most of all, being normal would mean that being Jewish and being German no longer would be seen by so many, on both sides, as mutually exclusive. It would let Jews feel they could be both without denying their past, and it would let Germans understand that the hyphenated identity of German-Jewish can affirm a national identity rather than signal questionable loyalties. It would allow young German Jews and old ones, recent arrivals and ones who came a generation ago, finally and forever to feel at home.
On a day-to-day basis Padan treats Germany as if it is his home. He was born in Israel, moved to Germany when he was five, and today is one of the most politically active young Jews in Düsseldorf. He studied there, his girlfriend is there, and the opportunities for advancement seemendless for a doctor like him. His sister and mother live in Düsseldorf, and he insists that "we're not sitting on packed suitcases." Still, there is an ambivalence, a feeling that "we are just here part-time, that even if I stay my whole life, in the bottom of my heart this will not be the place where I die.
"When my father died six years ago we had a discussion whether to bury him in Germany or Israel. We asked the rabbi about burial and he said we could transfer the body, even after several years, from one place to another. That was really important as we decided whether or not to bury him in Israel. Because we are living here, and my mom is here, we buried him first here. But if we decide to leave, if my mom leaves Germany, she would not leave without him."
Maybe Padan is right to hedge his bets. The Holocaust had such a traumatic effect on Germany that it is difficult for outsiders to understand. Jews living in Germany, and many non-Jews, too, are haunted by the 6 million who perished and are gripped by a shock that makes normal life nearly impossible. It has, after all, only been sixty years. Maybe things never can be really normal for them.
Or can they? Jeannette Barth, who lost her father and other close relatives to the Holocaust, cannot accept that such pathos has to continue to define her life or that of other Jews. She will not let herself bask in or be brought down by the anguish. "I try to live a normal life," explains the eighty-one-year-old who escaped Germany three weeks before war broke out and returned in 1948. She had to flee again two years later, this time from impending imprisonment by the communists in East Berlin, and came with her husband to Düsseldorf. "I want to leave behind me what happened in Germany in 1939. You can't always live behind you because you get depressed if you do."
Barth says she does not feel alienated being Jewish in Germany, and does not worry about assimilating. What she worries about more is living in a separate society of Jews, which is one reason she limits her participation in the Düsseldorf synagogue to attending High Holiday services and occasional meetings. "I don't get more involved with the Jewish community because I don't want to be put into a box, to live Orthodox and eat kosher and goodness knows what else," she explains. "We can be Germans and Jews, of course."
The city of Düsseldorf hopes that is true, and has been working for years to make it so. It is helping build a new Jewish community by welcoming and subsidizing Russian refugees, doing more of both than any German city its size. It also is acknowledging its Nazi past and trying, in modest but meaningful ways, to make amends. In 1981 it started bringing back Düsseldorf natives who survived the Nazis and now live in America, Israel, and other parts of the world. Forty or so came a year, with the city paying their bills, taking them to the site of the old synagogue and their families' former homes, and piecing together as much of their past as was preserved in records of the Jewish community or the city.
Düsseldorf has also set up a museum that memorializes its Holocaust past, in an unusual and expensive way. "I'm visiting survivors from here and interviewing them in the places where they live. I've done one hundred and thirty so far in America, England, and Israel. I'm doing it for them. It's very important for them that somebody is asking them for their history, their story, their experiences," explains Angela Genger, a historian who runs the memorial institute. "Some don't want to talk about their experiences. They say, 'You didn't ask us for forty or fifty years and now you are coming to ask.' They are so hurt and traumatized. Two years ago I had somebody here who had never talked about his experience. His sister told him to come and see us. He said, 'I don't remember anything.' Then he talked to us for two to three hours about what happened to him as a young boy, how he was terrorized and sent to Auschwitz. He talked about it in German, in perfect German, and he hadn't spoken German for fifty years.
"The other thing, of course, is that we come to know a lot about our story, the story of what happened to Düsseldorf. In the last twenty years at least a minority of the Germans have taken responsibility for what happened, not because they felt guilty personally, but because they felt it is part of their history."
Still, many Jews remain skeptical about the motives of individual Germans and the society as a whole, worrying that the outreach is more to assuage their guilt than understand the suffering of Jews, then and now. "I am not here because the Germans want to become a normal country, I am not here to help them," says Adrian Flohr, the gynecologist. "I amhere because I want to be here. Of course my being here makes it easier for them to say they are a normal country."
Rabbi Goldberger started out an even more entrenched skeptic. He grew up in Basel, Switzerland, just five minutes from the German border, "but it was very clear to me that I would never step into Germany. My mother is a survivor of the Holocaust and while we never spoke about this, it was clear. You didn't drive German cars, you didn't use anything German, and you didn't come to Germany. For us it was clear that all the Germans were Nazis." He did come, however, in 1988, with his pregnant wife, to run the Jewish youth center. And over time he came to differentiate the kinds of Germans. "I told my mother, 'You are right, there are very bad Germans, but there are good ones as well.' And she remembered that in Auschwitz, she survived once because a German soldier gave her his potato skins.
"I'm finished to hate this country. I've learned not to hate people but to hate what they do. The only reason for me not to feel really comfortable in Germany is the lack of Jewish education on a high level, which I used to have in Switzerland. It won't be here in time for my children because it takes a long time to develop. Sometimes in the evening when I'm alone, I think it would have been nice for my oldest, who is eleven, to have friends who eat kosher like him, who keep Shabbat like him. All the time he's invited to bar mitzvahs on Friday evenings and he can't go. This is the reason why I don't feel comfortable. If there would be this religious infrastructure here, and religious people in Düsseldorf, then it would be perfect."
The lack of that religious support system--and the effect it was having on his children--ultimately convinced the rabbi to resign his pulpit and return to Switzerland. He stayed on through the end of 2000 to give the community more time to find a successor and says he deeply regretted having to go. He takes hope, however, from the fact that most of his congregants seem determined to persevere.
The sense that things are improving for Jews in Düsseldorf, and Germany, is apparent among the twenty- to thirty-year-old leaders of Kesher, the city's Jewish youth group. They say they feel considerably more Jewish than their parents, from their facility with Hebrew to their understanding of Jewish history to their deep involvement in Jewish communal affairs. Being comfortable with their cultural and religious identities islikely to make them more comfortable in whatever country they find themselves, even Germany.
"Yeah, I will stay, yeah. I can't say it a hundred percent because I don't know what's going on in the next years, but the plan is to be here," says Judith Jacobius, thirty-three, a Kesher director who was born in Germany to parents who also were born there, immigrated as children to Latin America, then returned. Marcus Thill, a thirty-year-old Talmud scholar who works as a consultant for McKenzie & Co., was born in Germany, spent two years as a fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but "I couldn't stand living in Israel any longer. The reason why I came back is that I feel much too Western European to live anywhere else." And Daniel Padan, the young doctor who was born in Israel and moved to Germany when he was five, says, "I've built up a life here, my whole family built up lives here, of course I feel comfortable here."
As for the next generation, the one now in their teens and younger, visits to public schools and Jewish ones suggest that these youth understand their history but do not feel constrained by it. "We talk about the Holocaust in school. We have to talk about it because our ancestors are responsible for it," says Melike Karamustafa, a seventeen-year-old at the Humbold Gymnasium who is not Jewish. Maxim, a fourteen-year-old student at the Jewish community's religious school, says it is "easier to be Jewish here than in Russia. There people hate Jews and don't understand them, but in Germany you can be Jewish and no one forbids it."
The Jewish community that children like Maxim inherit is almost certain to be bigger, more vital, and more self-confident than the one their parents inhabited, especially if they came before 1990. While many want to try living in America or another part of Europe, most feel part of German society and feel accepted by their non-Jewish contemporaries. At the same time that they are more German than their parents, they are also more Jewish--and less troubled by seeing themselves as both at once. Their parents and grandparents were generations in transition, who tried but were never fully able to recover from the horrors of the Holocaust. These children and grandchildren say they have arrived. They understand their parents' anxieties but most have decided that Germany is as good a place as any for a Jew to live.
Paul Spiegel is from the generation of Holocaust survivors who never could feel entirely at home in Germany even though they lived therenearly all their lives. He says he understands the lingering fears and resentments, but he agrees with his children's generation that it is time to think of Germany as a home rather than just a haven. And he is "sure" that sometime soon, as the Russians settle in and younger Jews assume control of the community, the organization he runs will signal the rising comfort level by changing its name from the Central Council of Jews in Germany to the Central Council of German Jews.
Copyright © 2001 by Larry Tye All rights reserved.