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haArez - Wednesday, July 19, 2000
By Eliahu Salpeter

The paradoxes of 
German Jewry

Students at Berlin's Hebrew Day 
High School. More than a third 
grew up in the former Soviet Union.
(Photo: AP)

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A central paradox of Jewish life in Germany is expressed in two reports that have appeared in recent weeks. One relates that German insurance companies are refusing to issue policies to indemnify Jewish gravestones desecrated by neo-Nazis. The other report notes that, for the first time since the Holocaust, matriculation examinations are being administered in a Hebrew day high school.

Those looking for symbolism may be interested to know that the downtown Berlin building housing the high school was once a transit station for Berlin Jews who were then sent to the death camps.There is another paradox in the fact that, while Germany is paying billions of deutsche marks in reparations to Holocaust survivors and their heirs, Germany's own Jewish communities are facing a serious financial crisis that threatens their ability to provide services.

Yet the most striking paradox of all is the very identity of German Jewry. Although German commentators and intellectuals maintain that an integral part of the identity of German Jews must be the Jewish component, German Jewry has never been less "German" in the post-Emancipation period. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the number of Jews in Germany has quadrupled to nearly 100,000. Yet 75 percent of Germany's Jews are actually immigrants from Eastern Europe, primarily the former Soviet Union, who are very distant from German language and culture.

The German Jewish weekly, Judische Algemeine Wochenzeitung, has published two interesting reports over a two-week period. The first, which includes a photograph of shattered headstones beside the grave of Dr.Heinz Galinsky, a former president of the community, contains the correspondence between a Jewish woman and eight German insurance companies. The woman wanted to take out an insurance policy to indemnify the graves of her mother, grandfather and grandmother against neo-Nazi vandalism. None of the insurance companies was prepared to issue such a policy. All the companies explained that they do not include coverage of a grave, which is a real estate property located in an open area, on their "list of insurable items." One firm suggested that the woman avail herself of the services of a ... furniture-moving company. She turned to the state inspector of insurance transactions, who replied, very politely, that the companies' refusal stems from the fact that "the assessment of the risk is extremely problematic."

In the large photograph accompanying the second article, readers can see 17 smiling faces belonging to the grade 12 students of Berlin's Hebrew Day High School. The students were photographed on the steps of their school building. More than a third of them grew up in the Soviet Union. In some classes at the school, 90 percent of the students are from the former Soviet Union.

The present financial crisis in the institutions of the German Jewish community is mainly due to its high proportion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some 90 percent of the Russian Jewish immigrants need some kind of assistance from the community, says Paul Spiegel, who heads the Central Council of Jews in Germany. According to Spiegel, four out of every five Jewish community centers has a budget deficit. He claims that Christian missionary groups offering communal services and generous financial help are active among the Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who find it difficult to get work in Germany's glutted job market. If the German government does not increase its share in funding Jewish community institutions, says Spiegel, Jewish life in Germany may soon find itself faced with a major crisis.

Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the entire Diaspora. Despite the strong general feeling of hostility toward immigrants, all of Germany's governments have supported Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, while Germany's two major political parties have consistently advocated assistance for these immigrants.

Today, 55 years after the Holocaust, Germans consider their own attitudes to both Jews and the Nazi past as a reflection of the robustness of their democracy. Many Germans feel that the rebirth of a normal, productive Jewish community is a vital element in Germany's transition from the 20th century to the 21st.

From the physical standpoint, there is now a relatively large Jewish presence in the German capital of Berlin. Dozens of real estate properties worth tens of millions of deutsche marks - including the golden-domed Great Synagogue on Oranienburg Street - have been officially restored to the ownership of the Jewish community. Some of those properties will be sold to provide the community with money to fund its activities, while some of them will house senior citizens' homes and cultural and social welfare institutions.

From the intellectual standpoint, the Jewish return to Germany is highly problematic. The tiny community of Jewish refugees who came back after the war - primarily from the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel - kept the memory of the Holocaust burning and served as a reminder to Germans of the sins of their country's past. Today's Jewish community, which is growing by leaps and bounds, and which is renewing the Jewish presence in modern Germany, is increasingly expected to play an active role in 21st-century Germany.

The expectations of German intellectuals from their country's Jewish community perhaps take their cue from the contributions made by Jews to German society, medicine, literature and art before the rise of the Nazis; however, the "new German Jews" are not the biological or cultural descendants of those pre-Holocaust Jews. The "new German Jews" will find it very hard to become the Mahlers, Zweigs, Reinhardts and Rathenaus of today's unified, modern Germany.

Regardless of the ultimate identity that Germany's Jewish community adopts, it is an irony of history, writes Italian-French sociologist Diana Pinto, herself a Jew, that it is the image of the Jew as a member of an inferior race that is so deeply inscribed in the modern German psyche. According to Pinto, Jewish history and German identity can no longer be separated.

haGalil onLine 19-07-2000

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