Germany´s Jews step out of shadow of Holocaust (REUTERS) By Madeline Chambers BERLIN, GERMANY 02/23/12 7:40am EST)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Yitshak Ehrenberg has witnessed a transformation in
Germany´s Jewish community during his 15 years as an Orthodox rabbi
in Berlin and he is determined to harness a new generation to ensure
the religion thrives here.
"After the war, most of the community were refugees, survivors,
broken souls who had lost their family and sometimes even their
faith," the 62-year-old told Reuters from a luxurious living room
filled with modern art and family photographs.
"Now that generation has gone and the community is twice as big but
90 percent are from the former Soviet Union. If it weren´t for the
new arrivals, the synagogue would be empty," said the Israeli-born
Ehrenberg´s experience reflects Jewish life which has been
transformed across Germany by the influx of some 200,000 Jews from
the former Soviet Union in the last 20 years.
The emergence of a new generation, keen to play a part in mainstream
German society, has triggered the opening of bagel bars, Jewish
restaurants, schools and synagogues in cities such as Berlin, Munich
and Dresden in the last decade.
Berlin, with its trendy image for young people, has also become
popular among Israelis, with about 20,000 living here.
Strikingly, younger Jews no longer see themselves as victims. In
stark contrast to the generation of survivors who felt a duty to
remind Germans of their guilt after World War Two, they dwell little
on the Nazi period and its persecutions.
Today´s community is a mix of religious and secular, orthodox and
liberal, German- and Soviet-born Jews. It is very different from the
pre-Holocaust community and Jewish leaders say it will never attain
the cultural significance of the pre-1933 generations.
In a gesture of contrition, Germany eased immigration laws for Jews
from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.
Coming from a communist regime where religion was banned, many Jews
there grew up in a secular environment and only found their roots in
This has strengthened Orthodoxy in Germany, cradle of the more
modern, adaptable European Reformist movement in Judaism.
Ehrenberg, whose five children and five grandchildren live in Israel,
says growth in the Orthodox community is outpacing other strands,
helped by high birth rates among these families.
He lures young people to his synagogue with singing and dancing
services on Fridays and a big meal afterwards.
But it is not only the Orthodox community that is swelling.
Marina Weisband, born to a non-religious family in Ukraine, is
typical of a growing number of young progressive, secular Jews keen
to play a more active role in her adopted land.
The articulate 24-year-old, who moved to Germany when she was six,
rediscovered her Jewish roots in the town of Muenster.
She says she may seek a career in politics and was until recently a
leading member of the Pirate Party, which has made a splash with its
campaign to reform copyright and boost privacy.
Weisband thinks Jewish life in Germany is linked too closely to the
Holocaust and wants to forge a new identity.
"Young Jewish people live under this shadow -- they are always
reminded of the Holocaust," Weisband said in a recent television
Others agree, arguing that there is more to Jewish life.
"If people are confronted with only this one aspect of Jewishness,
then a big part is missing," said Christian Berkel, an actor whose
Jewish mother fled Nazi Germany.
"The Jewish joke, the Jewish love of life and the incredible capacity
to celebrate -- all this is missing."
The new generation even takes anti-Semitism in its stride.
A report published last month concluded anti-Semitism was entrenched
in German society, manifesting itself not only in hate crime but also
in abusive language used by ordinary people.
A recent poll showed that one in five young Germans do not know what
happened at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
Yet Weisband, who shrugs off hate mail she receives, believes German
society needs to become tolerant of minorities generally rather than
focus on anti-Semitism.
She points to former Berlin politician and central banker Thilo
Sarrazin who caused a storm last year when he topped the bestseller
list with his book "Germany does away with itself", which argued
German culture was at risk from Muslims.
"I think if our generation had really taken on board much from the
Holocaust, then Sarrazin wouldn´t be so successful as an author. He
starts from the same place, targeting one group of people," said
Weisband. "We need to tackle that."
In a further sign of the growing influence of Germany´s Jews, an
English-language newspaper, Jewish Voice from Germany, was launched
Publisher Rafael Seligmann, a prominent 64 year-old writer believes
it is time to tell the rest of the world, especially the United
States, what is happening in Germany.
"The time is rife to show there is a new community," Seligmann told
The numbers alone show Jews are embracing Germany, he says.
Since 1991 the number of Jews belonging to a religious community has
more than tripled to some 105,000. About the same number are non-
practising Jews or people with Jewish roots.
This compares to about 600,000 before the Holocaust and a meagre
10,000 at the end of World War Two.
"We must not let Hitler have the last word," said Seligmann, a
liberal Jew who was born in Israel and lived in Germany for more than
50 years. He is happy about the Soviet immigrants.
"There are some brilliant minds among these young people. They are
the future. These are the people who will continue our more than
1,000 year history in Germany," he said.
However, the sudden arrival of so many immigrants also presents
challenges and no one is under the illusion that the new generation
can compare to the pre-war German Jewry who were "more German than
Germans" according to the President of the Central Council of Jews in
"We cannot compare the situation to the Jewish community before the
war in terms of numbers or cultural wealth," said Dieter Graumann,
the first head of the council born after the Holocaust.
By the 1920s, Jews were better integrated than elsewhere in Europe.
Famous Germans with Jewish roots ranged from poet Heinrich Heine to
Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Jews played a leading role in the
cultural life of 1920s Berlin as painters, actors, theatre directors,
Kabarett artists, writers and journalists. Hitler purged them
ruthlessly on his accession, despising them as Jews and for their
often leftist views.
"We´ll never come that far again," Graumann told Reuters. "It can
never be as it was before 1933 but we´re on a road to new growth."
"The people from the former Soviet Union are a stroke of luck. But it
means that the Jewish community is different. We have a new community
with a new social architecture," he said, adding some people from
Communist states have struggled to adapt to their newfound freedom.
Jewish communities help immigrants learn German and find homes and
jobs. Graumann said highly trained engineers and doctors from the
Soviet Union had trouble getting good work because their
qualifications are not recognised in Germany.
Critics say many former Soviet Jews stick to themselves and live in a
parallel society, but Graumann argues that problem is easing as
children grow up here.
The influx has also led to tensions within the Jewish community,
especially in Berlin, with synagogues of varying religious
persuasions competing to win over souls.
For Ehrenberg, however, the biggest problem is the prospect of Jews
losing their identity by integrating too well. He says nearly half
the Soviet immigrants are non-religious.
"I think the Jews who came from the former Soviet Union will stay in
Germany. The question is if they will remain Jewish."
"It is my mission to keep them on track," he smiled. (Reporting By
Madeline Chambers, editing by Gareth Jones) (© Thomson Reuters 2012.
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