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23 May 2018updated 27 May 2018 8:17am

Germany reclaimed: Berlin’s Jewish revival

For Jews, the city was once the heart of darkness. Now, it is full of young Israelis and Arabs. Could this be a recipe for peace, not war?

By Matthew Engel

It was the evening of Purim, the jolliest festival in the Hebrew calendar. There was a decent turnout, too: about 50 people had gathered to read the Book of Esther, telling how the Jews of Persia were saved, circa 480 BC, from the hands of the wicked Haman.

Some authorities say it is the one night a year when Jews are permitted to get drunk. This, however, was a sanitised Saturnalia. Children wandered in and out dressed as spacemen or fairies; the rabbi wore a witch’s hat; and we were all given toy ratchets to wave noisily whenever Haman’s name was mentioned.

With variations for local custom and degree of orthodoxy, thus it would be anywhere that Jews can worship freely and bother to do so. But this was not just anywhere. This was Berlin, the very heart of darkness, the city where, within living memory, an extermination of Jews beyond Haman’s wildest imagination was planned and orchestrated. And not just anywhere in Berlin either, but inside the city’s most prominent and historic Jewish building, the Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Strasse.

Something remarkable is happening once again to Germany’s Jewish community. It is growing, faster than anywhere else in Europe. And in Berlin the growth is coming primarily from a most astonishing source: the arrival of thousands of young Israelis.

“Everything in Germany is connected to what happened in the 1930s and 1940s,” one rabbi, Nils Ederberg, tells me. “The country defines itself by what it is not. Specifically it is not anti-Semitic.” The extent to which that is true is a microcosm that defines the country as a whole. It is the litmus test of modern Germany’s honour.

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The Nazis’ obliteration of German Jewry was both lesser and greater than one might imagine. The death tolls by country are displayed prominently in the information centre under the Berlin Holocaust Memorial: Poland, three million; Soviet Union, one million; Germany 160-165,000, barely a quarter of the Jewish population as it stood in 1933.

The explanation of the relatively low, though still horrific, number is that German Jews spent six years on notice to quit: at first they were encouraged to leave; and if they didn’t get the message, Kristallnacht in 1938 was a much stronger signal. By the outbreak of war, most had gone, though many did not go far enough.

The conquest of Europe happened too fast to allow easy exits. Thus many of the German dead are attributed to other countries. (Relatives of mine went from Germany to Belgium to France, and were finally detained on the Swiss border; their small boys, my cousins Julien and George, had an astonishing escape.) When the trap closed inside Germany, there was almost no way out. A handful hid successfully. Jews married to approved Aryans could be spared, but their path was perilous and they were constantly at risk of denunciation for imaginary crimes. At the end of the war, a few DPs – displaced persons – drifted in from the east on the winds of war, having survived everything: each one a walking miracle. There were maybe 25,000 Jews in the whole of Germany.

They were not planning to stay. Even the World Jewish Congress agreed with Hitler, in that it believed Jewish life had no place in such a disgraceful country. Most were heading south to the American sector, which offered the best chance of a US visa.

Nonetheless, some stuck around. Professor Alfred Jacoby’s father was Polish, but he had spent time in Germany before the war. That was how he made it through: the Germans found him a useful interpreter. He came back, aiming for America, but contracted TB, which made him inadmissible. So he stayed. It was a strange population, says Jacoby: “People who had survived by fluke, who were in Germany by fluke and remained by fluke.” There was – and is – almost zero continuity between the pre-war community and today’s German Jews. Jacoby, now Germany’s leading synagogue architect, is one of the few with even a slender thread to the benighted past.

But these random individuals discovered something completely unexpected: here, of all places, they were safe. “I remember the first prayer book I held in my hand,” Jacoby continues. “It was stamped ‘PROPERTY OF US FORCES’. I have never forgotten that. It made so much impression.”

“It is an incredible irony of history that Germany became a place of safety,” says Michael Brenner, professor of Jewish history and culture at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. “But there was no Germany in a political sense. There were some anti-Semitic incidents, but it was said by both the Americans and by German politicians that the new Germany would be measured by the way it treats its Jews.”

Safety did not mean acceptance. “It was the sound of silence,” as Jacoby puts it. He received a note at school saying “GET OUT JEW SWINE” and did just that, to be educated in England. But gradually – very gradually – it became clear that the Nazis were not coming back, and generational change made the old attitudes taboo. German Jewry remained small, scattered and cautious. A few Russian émigrés arrived in the 1970s, but mostly the small population maundered on quietly for more than 40 years. And then the wall came down.

Now the Russians arrived in force; they were encouraged to scatter across the country; they reinvigorated and then dominated what had become tiny Jewish communities in middle-sized cities. But Berlin was different. “I hear people saying what’s happening in Berlin is this or it’s that,” says Michael Berkowitz, professor of modern Jewish history at University College London. “You can’t generalise. It’s a real mess. It’s wild.” Indeed, the phrase “incredible irony of history” hardly does it justice.


The Neue Synagoge was consecrated in 1866. It was built in showy Moorish style with 3,000 seats under the dome, and might be described, with hindsight, as a bit hubristic. It was earmarked for destruction on Kristallnacht but saved: the local fire chief was apparently unfashionably human. The Nazis ended up commandeering the building for storage.

The Allies did the real damage, with bombs. Then it was marooned in East Berlin, and the unsentimental East Germans cleared the site in 1958. But East Germany’s anti-Semitism was nuanced: its own small Jewish community, itself stuck behind the wall after 1961, was “maintained like some exotic sub-species in a zoo”, as Jacoby puts it. And, unknowingly close to its own demise, the Honecker regime in the 1980s decided to schmooze the Americans by announcing a rebuilding plan.

The job was ultimately finished and paid for after East Germany collapsed. And it did not quite live up to its billing. “Most people think the synagogue has been rebuilt,” says Professor Brenner. “The façade has been rebuilt. There are meeting spaces and archives and admin offices. It’s a symbol of restored Jewish life. But the old synagogue is not there. There is just a small space under the dome that seats a hundred. So it’s also a metaphor.” 

The Purim service was very well done, not just by the rabbi – Gesa Ederberg, wife of Nils – but also by members of the congregation, who were all both competent and melodious. When it opened, the Neue Synagoge was self-consciously modern, complete with organ, a frippery borrowed from Christianity. Now, in its unpretentious room, it is Masorti, a middle-of-the-road type of Judaism, doctrinally traditional with services in Hebrew, but more forgiving than full-blown orthodoxy. In particular, it is egalitarian, hence the female rabbi, anathema to traditionalists. It’s all in keeping with Jewish Berlin’s wildness: this is just one type of sandwich on a smorgasbord of observance that ranges from do-as-you-please to black-coat-and-beard Hasidic.

There are Russian Jews in Berlin: one was recently voted the community president, amid murmurs of Putinesque electoral manoeuvrings. But they are probably outnumbered by a group who are in a sense their polar opposites. Russian Jews had to hold on to their identity the hard way; for young Israelis, identity is a given.

Their numbers are unknown: Germany does not record inhabitants’ religion, only affiliation to places of worship, which many of the Israelis shun. But it is said that the influx became a surge after the “Milky protest” of 2014, when an early arrival set up a Facebook page pointing out that a product just like Milky, Israel’s favourite chocolate pudding, was on sale in Berlin at a fraction of the price. Almost everything else was cheaper, too. Older Israelis were horrified: “Are the gas chambers cheaper too?” asked one. Many younger Israelis, more concerned by their rocketing cost of living, were transfixed.

They also heard that Berlin welcomed Jews; artistic types heard that studios and workspaces were affordable; gay Israelis sensed a place where they could live without religious or parental hang-ups; students were welcome; so were investors. Others sensed a place free from the stress of embattlement that is a constant of Israeli life. Many of them – and here’s another irony – had ancestral rights to an EU passport.

 Berliners wear the kippa in response to a spate of anti-Semitic incidents in Germany. Credit: Gregor Fischer/AFP/Getty

In one sense it was just like home: Jews in Berlin are surrounded and outnumbered by Muslims. Indeed, costs dictated that the newcomers lived in the same districts as their presumed enemies. But somehow it seemed different. Oded Gershuny, a doctoral student of architecture and one-time pupil of Alfred Jacoby, found himself living next to a Syrian refugee: “I was a student. He was a refugee and still wasn’t allowed to work. So we were at home during the day. We had tea together. We talked. We got on.”

Is this happening for other Israelis? “For sure,” says Gershuny. “In the workplace here you have no choice. Jews have to work with Muslims; Muslims have to work with Jews. And from there it evolves. It doesn’t happen like that back home.” There is also this sense of an extra layer of governmental protection. “Guilt is a factor, though no one likes to talk about it,” according to Professor Berkowitz. “Israelis in particular are cut a lot of slack.” Of course one can never be sure. Our whole grim era is shaped by the fact that the 9/11 attackers got through. Outside the Neue Synagoge, police are on duty; security guards screen all-comers.

Germany is hardly immune from 21st century evils. And yet one can sense a subtle difference: a major attack on German Jews would not be another here-today-gone-in-a-fortnight atrocity for all but those directly affected, it would be a direct assault on the state’s raison d’être. Last month two men both wearing the kippa, the Jewish skullcap, were attacked and beaten in the street by a Syrian teenager. In a twist way beyond irony, one turned out to be an Israeli Arab, wearing a kippa to prove to his Jewish friend it was safe. Public and governmental anger was widespread and forceful.

Meanwhile, the resurgent German far right has a problem. “The European right tends to be pro-Israel because it is anti-Arab. So they’re conflicted,” says Professor Brenner. “The biggest problem for the Jews is in the east, where the Holocaust was not over-emphasised under communism. The German Jewish community has clearly rejected the right’s embrace. But the big worries for both are the Turks and the Arabs and radical Islam. So the Jews and the right have that in common.”


Germany’s capital is full of reminders. The map of Jewish Berlin lists 132 separate sites. The two most prominent – the new Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial – seem to me more like monuments to architects’ egos than anything else. The simplest statements are the most moving.

One is Gleis (platform) 17, at an otherwise ordinary suburban railway station, Grunewald. Between 1941 and 1945 dozens of trains left the freight yard – the choice was itself telling – carrying thousands of humans to the death camps in the east. Each train is recorded on a metal sheet laid on the platform, as if by a trainspotter, with date, numbers, destination: the banality of evil. And the single-mindedness of it: the last sheet reads “27.3.1945. 18 Juden. Berlin-Theresienstadt.” The Russians were almost in the city, but still there was no end to it.

And all around the German capital, the past is beneath one’s feet. An artist called Gunter Demnig, not Jewish and also single-minded, has masterminded a project he called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks): little metal tiles placed in the pavement outside the homes of the Nazis’ victims to honour them. Simple but heartbreaking. There are 8,000 now in Berlin. The work is nowhere near finished.

Purim is normally a one-day festival. In Berlin it was stretched out to four, concluding on the Saturday with an all-night Karneval de Purim costume party starring Dana International, an Israeli Eurovision Song Contest winner and “the world’s most famous trans woman” at “one of Berlin’s finest underground techno venues”. It sounded more like Weimar Berlin circa 1930 than the Purim of the Oranienburger Strasse. Which is unnerving.

But there is another, far more optimistic, thought. Dana, like these settlers-in-reverse, represents a very different Israel from the fundamentalists and its sleazy, cynical prime minister. Young Israelis who visit Auschwitz have their national attitudes reinforced. Those who come to Berlin have them softened. Most Arabs too, perhaps.

Is it remotely possible that the long-closed road to Middle East peace might one day start here, in Hitler’s capital? That would be the greatest irony of all.

For the next article in our series “The Lost Continent” Matthew Engel will visit the Netherlands

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman