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Ten Years After the Wall: German Jewish Life Arises Anew from Dustbin of Communism, Naziism

October 14, 1999
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Inna Orlowski sits at an outdoor cafe near the Jewish high school here, sipping a cappuccino. Bicyclists pass, sending long shadows across the cobblestone street.

It is a long way from Russia’s Ural Mountains, where Orlowski, 20, with close- cropped blond curls and a ready smile, was born — and a long way from Israel, where she wants to be.

Across town, Inna Slavskaja, 44, a Yiddish singer from Birobidzhan, smokes another cigarette. Her husband, Igor, died three years ago and she is raising their son, Genja, now 11, alone.

“I see myself as Jewish,” says Slavskaja, a small, dark-haired woman with sad eyes. But Genja, though born in Ukraine, feels like a German.

In the evening, Lyonia, an engineer from Lithuania, sits in a grocery store and watches his wife, Marina, a slightly plump woman with dyed-blond hair, count the pfennigs of another drunkard making a small purchase. Lyonia, 53, a short man with glasses and a receding hairline, had wanted to emigrate to America. For now, the two, who requested that their last names not be published, live in Germany.

These people are among the tens of thousands of Jews who, instead of going to Israel, caught the wave of freedom that swept the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism and rode it into the land they always associated with Hitler and death camps.

In the last decade of the century, their arrival has dramatically changed the Jewish landscape of Germany, more than doubling Germany’s Jewish population and making Germany the only country in Europe whose Jewish population is significantly growing.

In fact, since 1990, Germany’s official Jewish population has risen from 35,000 to 75,000, nearly a fifth of its prewar level.

With Germany settling its immigrants on a per-state quota basis, new Jewish communities are being established virtually overnight in towns and cities where no Jews have lived since World War II. In some cities, like Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt, the Jewish population has soared.

“I believe in the year 2004 we will have 100,000 Jews in Germany, making one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe,” said Michel Friedman, a Frankfurt attorney and member of the board of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. He is a possible contender to replace the late Ignatz Bubis as council president.

There are now nearly 12,000 Jews in Berlin alone, a tiny minority in this city of 3.8 million inhabitants — but Berlin now has a Jewish community larger than that of Milan, Italy, and many other major European cities.

“The immigrants brought back life into a community that was in danger of being very overaged, to put it lightly,” said Nicola Galliner, director of Jewish adult education programming in Berlin. “We have two Jewish junior high schools and one high school in Berlin, and none of these schools would have been possible without these immigrants.”

The immigrants are old and young, resigned and hopeful.

Pushed to leave the former Soviet Union because of economic hardship, anti- Semitism or fears for the future in chaotic new conditions, all have personal reasons for choosing Germany over Israel, where hundreds of thousands of other ex-Soviet Jews have immigrated since 1990. These reasons include Germany’s liberal policy in accepting ex-Soviet Jews, not to mention a desire by many to live in a country which is both a solid democracy and a firm member of the European Union.

“It’s very difficult to get to America, you can’t get into England,” said a Berlin Jewish activist who asked to remain anonymous. “Germany has the highest standard of living in Europe. It’s Germany or Israel, and if you are desperate you will go anywhere.”

The Slavskajas, for example, left Ukraine in 1991, after learning that their son’s playground had radioactive sand in it, probably from Chernobyl.

“I knew Germany took Jewish families,” said Inna Slavskaja, who had cousins in Berlin. “We came with two suitcases.”

Germany’s open door for Jews is no accident. It is connected with responsibility for the Holocaust. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Germany establish a liberal immigration policy for Jews. They are eligible for housing, financial aid, language instruction and help in finding work.

They may also become German citizens more quickly than usual, a right usually extended only to immigrants from ethnic German families. Under European Union regulations, citizens of one member country have the right to live and work anywhere in the E.U.

The influx has presented major challenges as well as rewards.

How does the established Jewish community integrate a largely non-religious population? And how does Germany justify its liberal policy toward Jewish immigration when more than 4 million Germans are unemployed and when Israel wants these Jewish immigrants for itself?

To be sure, Germany’s Jewish newcomers often have little connection to the Holy Land, and little more than a piece of paper certifying their Jewishness.

Raised in the Communist atheist tradition, they usually have more cultural than religious bonds to Judaism. But the Hebrew stamp on one’s passport — once associated with discrimination — is now virtually a ticket out of a world whose poverty and growing xenophobia outweigh the advantages of free speech and free enterprise.

With enough rubles, one can buy proof of a Jewish maternal grandmother on the black market.

“It’s true that a lot of people would like to be Jewish because they have a better chance to get out,” says Michael Liokumowitsch, the official trouble- shooter on integration issues for Berlin’s Jewish community. Liokumowitsch, 40, is a dental surgeon whose family emigrated from Russia in 1974.

In some cases, he said, the community does something to check, such as asking people who are visiting Russia to see if a certain person is known in a Jewish community or not.

But Jewish leaders say fakers pose less of a challenge than does the task of integration.

Newcomers need to learn German, and find homes and jobs. Jewish leaders would like them to show an interest in religion, and not just to use Judaism as a ticket for social help.

For some, the process has produced resounding success.

“In Frankfurt we have had an unbelievable infusion of oxygen into Jewish life with these former Soviet Jews,” Friedman said. “They are creative, a lot of them are artists, and the younger generation is very quickly integrated.”

But many who work with new immigrants express frustration and even cynicism.

“After 10 years, people here still make their Passover seders in Russian,” said Judith Kessler, who has been handling immigration issues for the Jewish community in Berlin since 1990, coordinating language classes, vocational training, social clubs, and publishing a German-Russian Jewish magazine.

“We have done something wrong,” said Kessler, who herself came to Germany from Poland in 1972. “We took them by the hand and served them in their own language.”

And Andy Steiman, who until recently was acting rabbi for the former East German state of Mecklenberg, dismissed the idea of a real “Jewish revival.” It’s just numbers, he said.

He told of a young couple who met because of a Passover seder, which they attended because it means a free meal. “When they got married,” he said, “they didn’t want to have a chupah because they think it is antiquated. And when they had a baby boy, they didn’t want to have him circumcised because they claimed it is a human right not to be harmed bodily.”

Ironically, some of the new immigrants who most want to be involved Jewishly are, as children of Jewish fathers and gentile Mothers, not considered Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law, and thus, according to community regulations, cannot take part in all official communal activities.

“It’s a big problem,” said Kessler. “They say, rightly, `In Russia we were Jews, and here we are Russian. Why will no one have us?'”

But some, she said, are getting “closer to Judaism” in a variety of ways. Some, for example, are taking conversion classes, with some men even being circumcised. Others are immersing themselves in a cultural rather than religious Jewish orientation.

Inna Slavskaja’s Yiddish cabaret performances attract good-sized crowds around Germany, mostly non-Jewish. Her identity is more cultural than religious. But her son is talking about a Bar Mitzvah.

“I have nothing against it,” she said. “It will take a lot of practice, but I am happy.”

And Inna Orlowski, a member of the first graduating class of Berlin’s new Jewish high school, is part of a back-to-Judaism movement among young people.

“My grandparents had decided against Jewish life and for Communist ideals,” she said. “Now, we can begin again to rebuild the relationship to Judaism. If I don’t do it, then for my children it would not be possible.”

Throughout the postwar period, the prevalent view of world Jewry was that no Jews should live in Germany.

Until the influx of immigration over the past decade, the Jewish community consisted mainly of Eastern European Jewish survivors who ended up in Displaced Persons camps after the war, and their descendants. Many openly said that they lived “with packed suitcases” at the ready — just in case.

“For the Jew, it is always a difficult decision to come to Germany,” Liokumowitsch said. “The generation who suffered directly [from the Holocaust] is still alive. On the other hand, Germany has changed, and we have to ask ourselves, `What is the alternative?'”

Still, whether Jews should live in post-Holocaust Germany is eternally debatable. Sometimes, ironically, immigrants encounter more overt discrimination in Germany than they faced at home. Two years ago, citizens of the economically depressed eastern German town of Gollwitz demonstrated against plans to place 50 Russian Jewish immigrants in their midst.

German xenophobia is most often directed against the millions of Turks and other foreigners living in the country, but a series of recent anti-Semitic episodes, including the desecration of the biggest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, has put the community on guard.

The fact is, however, that, 10 years after the fall of communism and more than half a century after the Holocaust, Jews are in Germany, building new lives.

“It’s certainly good that Jews want to live in Germany and are no longer afraid,” said Orlowski, the student from the Urals.

“I don’t believe that the young German born yesterday should carry guilt on his shoulders,” said Slavskaja, the Yiddish singer from Birobidzhan.

“We must be sure that never happens again.”

“Maybe in 15, 20 years, when the young extremists come to their senses, it will be better here,” said Lyonia, the engineer from Lithuania. “Whoever doesn’t take a risk, gets nothing.”

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