“German culture would have been unthinkable without the Jewish contribution,” said Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at the recent opening of Berlin’s first ever Jewish museum. “It is still a wonder that Jews live in Germany, and still meet us as friends.”
The Holocaust is integral to Daniel Libeskind’s stunning building, but this permanent display doesn’t just commemorate the Shoah. Nor should it. Because although the wider world knows Berlin as the headquarters of the Final Solution, for several centuries it was liberal Judaism’s favourite city, the multicultural metropolis where secular Jews felt most at home. Incredibly, less than a lifetime after its leading role in the attempted genocide of European Jewry, Germany’s reinstated capital has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world.
Jews have lived in the city ever since the Middle Ages, but Jewish Berlin really began in 1671, when the Prussian emperor, Frederick Wilhelm, allowed Jews expelled from Vienna to settle there. This influx helped to revive Berlin’s fortunes after the devastation of the Thirty Years War, and over the next two centuries Jews played a crucial part in Berlin’s ascent to the status of a world city. Moses Mendelssohn (the German Socrates), his grandson Felix (the great composer), Marc Chagall, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and many others thought of themselves as German as much as Jewish. During the Second Reich, between 1871 and 1914, Berlin became a boom town, and Jewish Berliners prospered. Jews founded Ka De We, Berlin’s version of Harrods, and the Berliner Tagesblatt, Berlin’s answer to the Times.
Around 100,000 German Jews fought for the fatherland in the First World War; 12,000 died. But 15 years later, when Hitler became chancellor, this counted for nothing. In 1933, 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin. By 1939, 80,000 had emigrated, including Albert Einstein, Billy Wilder, Max Reinhardt and Kurt Weill. In 1941, the death-camp deportations began: 55,000 Jewish Berliners were deported; only a few thousand survived.
Yet the capital of the Third Reich was never a Nazi stronghold. Berlin was socialist, not National Socialist, and its Nazi vote was well below the national average. “The Nazis were always very afraid of the Berliners,” says Wilfried Rogasch, a Berlin historian. “A big city is always more difficult to control.” Jews found more Gentile friends in liberal, cosmopolitan Berlin than anywhere else in Germany. In 1945, there were 7,000 Jews left in Berlin: 4,200 “privileged” Jews, mainly married to Aryan women; 1,500 who had returned home from liberated concentration camps; and another 1,300 who had survived in hiding.
From these survivors, Berlin’s new Jewish community gradually emerged. From 1945 to 1950, 200,000 eastern European Jews poured through Germany, and although most travelled on to Israel or America, some never moved beyond Berlin. Their small numbers were boosted by Jews fleeing anti-Semitic purges, in East Germany in 1952, Hungary in 1962 and Poland in 1968. Nevertheless, these refugees merely slowed the mortality rate of an ageing population, and by 1989 there were only 6,000 Jews in Berlin, slightly fewer than in 1945.
However, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than 50,000 Soviet Jews have come to Germany. More than 12,000 came to Berlin, tripling its Jewish community in a decade. Berlin now has 13,000 observant Jews, and maybe even more non-observants. There are seven synagogues, three cemeteries, several schools and numerous kosher shops and cafes. Potsdam University nearby even has a Moses Mendelssohn Centre for European Jewish Studies. Against all odds, Berlin is a Jewish city once again.
“The intellectual and commercial yeast of Jewry disappeared almost entirely,” wrote Bernard Levin, in To the End of the Rhine, less than 15 years ago, “with no expectation that it would ever return.” That old yeast is gone for good, but now a new Jewish yeast is fermenting.
This fermentation entails teaching former East Germans about the Shoah, something that scarcely happened in the so-called Democratic Republic. “The Holocaust played a minor role in East German history,” says Rogasch. “The conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union played the major role.”
It was different in West Germany. “Everybody is aware of the basic facts of the Holocaust,” says Rogasch. “Only a minute minority firmly believe in some sort of neo-Nazi National Socialist outlook.” Conversely, former West Germans need reminding that German Jewish history doesn’t begin and end with the Holocaust. “We want to inform Germans about the role Jews have played in German Jewish history,” explains Eva Soderman, a spokesperson for Berlin’s new Jewish Museum. “You can’t think of modern German history without thinking of Jewish scientists, for example, or the role that Jews have played in cultural life.”
The hub of German Jewish cultural life in Berlin today is the Judische Gemeinde (Jewish Community), which administers Berlin’s synagogues, and its Jewish schools and cemeteries. It even publishes its own monthly magazine, in Russian as well as German. “We were a very small community,” remembers Cynthia Kain, the Gemeinde‘s vice-president, recalling the quieter but tamer times before reunification. “Everybody knew each other.” But although many newcomers don’t speak German, she welcomes this exodus from the former Soviet Union, which has revitalised Jewish Berlin.
Kain was born in Canada. Her parents were Polish Jews whose homeland had been swallowed up by the Soviet Union. They came to Berlin when she was a toddler. When she visited Israel, everybody asked her: “How can you stay in Germany?” But if Jews don’t live here, she says, Hitler has succeeded.
Across the street from the Gemeinde‘s office, there is a more commercial symbol of Berlin’s Jewish renaissance. In the 1920s, the Kempinski (www.kempinski.com) was a chic watering hole for fashionable Jewish and Gentile Berliners alike. Aryanised by the Nazis in 1937, and destroyed by allied bombs, it was rebuilt as Berlin’s first postwar hotel, with the blessing of its original Jewish owners. A famous meeting place once more, the Kempi doesn’t hide the dark chapter of its history. There’s a prominent plaque outside. The firm’s founder, Berthold Kempinski, is buried in Berlin’s atmospheric Jewish cemetery at Weissensee.
“There’s pain on all sides,” says Rabbi Walter Rothschild. “Why is there so much cabaret and culture? Because people are hiding the pain. That’s where laughter comes from.” Rothschild is British, but his father was a Holocaust survivor, whose German Jewish parents married in Berlin. “I feel I ought to be here,” he says. “There’s a sense of a circle closing, a sense of work to do.”
Like the rest of the city, Berlin’s Jewish centre is shifting eastwards, back towards its historic heart. A trail of haunting memorials marks the sites of Jewish suffering and resistance. On the Mirror Wall, endless lists of murdered Jews are etched on to a huge stainless-steel sheet that reflects back the images of the people who have replaced them. At Grunewald station, where 35,000 Jews were herded on to the cattle trucks that took them to the death camps, the details of each departing train are recorded along the length of an entire platform. The most remarkable memorial of all is the Otto Weidt brush factory in Berlin’s renovated Hakesche Hof. Weidt was an unsung Schindler, a blind businessman who sheltered dozens of Jews in his workshop. One Jew he saved was Inge Deutschkron, whose subsequent autobiography has sold more than a million copies.
“Berlin has always been different,” says Deutschkron, who still lives there. “If there was a symbiosis between Jews and non-Jews, it was here, more than in any other place in Germany.” She didn’t know she was Jewish until Hitler became chancellor, when she was ten. After the war, as German correspondent for an Israeli newspaper, she was horrified by Germany’s mental block. “They simply didn’t want to talk about the past because they all had a guilty conscience.” But when she returned to Germany from Israel in the 1980s, she found a new generation determined to admit the past. Now she visits German schools to tell children about the Shoah.
In the early 1990s, Deutschkron received anti-Semitic hate mail, but when this harassment was reported in a Berlin newspaper, she was swamped with letters from sympathetic Berliners, begging her to stay. “If ever you need help or advice, come to us,” wrote one seven-year-old. “Germans have to find new ways to cope with this horrible heritage,” says Deutschkron. “It’s not easy, but they’re doing it.”
But Jewish Berlin isn’t just about the past. The Hakesche Hoftheater, in the old Jewish quarter, stages rousing recitals of Yiddish folk music and cabaret for hip young Jews and Gentiles. Around the corner, Berlin’s grandest Jewish landmark, the Neue Synagoge, has been beautifully restored. In nearby Middle Eastern or middle-European restaurants, you can eat a different kosher meal every day of the week. “A lot of Jews would rather not take the eternal victim approach, but get on with their lives as normal citizens in a normal country,” says Rabbi Dr Walter Homolka of the Union of Progressive Jews. And even though the Holocaust will never be forgotten, least of all in Berlin, for Jews like him Germany is becoming a normal country again.
Germany seems keen to nurture Berlin’s Jewish renaissance. Berlin’s tourist office even prints conscientious guidebooks, listing the sites of old atrocities and new restaurants alike. And though the words German, Jewish and tourism make uncomfortable bedfellows, the response has been huge. In 1992, Rabbi Dr Andreas Nachama, a Holocaust survivor’s son who later became president of Berlin’s Jewish Community, mounted a Judaic exhibition in Berlin. In three months it attracted half a million visitors. The strength of this new Judaism, and its Gentile support, is the cultural yardstick by which Germany’s moral regeneration must be measured.
“It will play an increasingly important part in society,” predicts Wilfried Rogasch, “and I look forward to that.” The fact that more eastern European Jews settle here than in any other European city shows that Germany is forging a new Jewish identity, in which the Holocaust is always present, but not omnipresent. “The thousand-year history of German Jewry is at an end,” declared the eminent Berlin rabbi Leo Baeck in 1933. But a lifetime later, a second millennium is just beginning.