Jewish Journal


September 19, 2002

Berlin’s Open Wounds

Jewish life in Berlin continues to exist somewhat behind the scenes.


The Neue Synagoge Berlin in the city's Jewish Quarter.

The Neue Synagoge Berlin in the city's Jewish Quarter.

A bombed-out building transformed into a discothèque; the central section of an apartment building that is bizarrely absent -- these are just some of the visual images that preserve the memory of Berlin's complex and turbulent past. War wounds remain conspicuously open and unconcealed, leaving nothing in the city's history unexposed. Berlin has no intention of concealing its scars, and its candor makes a powerful statement.

It is no different with Berlin's Jewish history. The memory of the Shoah and the city's inevitable link to Jewish extermination is intentionally visible and evident in Berlin, and can be found even in the most unexpected places. Visitors to the square in front of Humboldt University law school are surprised to stumble across a small, but effective monument marking the location of the book burning by Nazi students in 1933. Designed by Israeli artist, Micha Ullmann, the monument consists of an underground library with empty shelves, which can be seen through a transparent plastic window.

Near one of the city's most exclusive department stores, KaDeWe, shoppers are met with an unexpected reminder: A sign listing the 12 concentration camps stands in front of Grunewald train station, the main deportation location for Berlin's Jews from 1941 to 1945.

Such memorials crop up everywhere in Berlin, recalling the city's dark and not-so-distant history. However, this is Berlin's past. It is not the present and, hopefully, not the future.

Some 57 years after the end of World War II, Berlin's Jewish community is witnessing a renaissance. The city, whose Jewish population was nearly nonexistent after the fall of the Third Reich, now has approximately 12,000 Jews, according to the American Jewish Committee in Berlin. Many of them are emigrants from the former Soviet Union.

While the memory of the past can never be forgotten, it is perhaps Berlin's effort to come to terms with its history that has provided a catalyst for a Jewish future.

"From all the German cities I know, I like Berlin the best," said Esther Birnbach, 41, a Jewish woman who has spent most of her life in the city. "It's open, metropolitan and honest with its past.... I saw the open wounds of the German past in this city's face where other West German cities already erased them. This always made me like the city and makes life here for me OK."

One need only visit Berlin's 10 synagogues or several of its kosher restaurants to see this recovering Jewish community. Currently, Berlin is the only city in Germany where one can lead a completely Orthodox life, with its various kosher butchers and Jewish schools. There are Jewish primary, middle and high schools, and the recent birth of Germany's first postwar rabbinical seminary, Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College, in nearby Potsdam.

The golden dome of the renovated Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) Berlin glistens above the city, marking the Jewish Quarter around Oranienburger Strasse. The New Synagogue is now used as a museum, but it represents what was once the heart of traditional Jewish life in Berlin.

In the Jewish Quarter, evidence of destruction is interwoven with evidence of rebirth. Near the Neue Synagogue is a memorial plaque marking the site that was once the Jewish Home for the Aging, which the Nazis transformed into a collection point. Not far away, at Grosse Hamburger Strasse 26, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, destroyed by the Gestapo in 1942 and now containing only one standing gravestone: that of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).

It is in this same neighborhood that there appears to be evidence of Jewish revival. The area buzzes with galleries, restaurants, bars and shops. Customers at Café Oren, a kosher-style, Israeli restaurant next to the Neue Synagoge, socialize with friends at all hours of the day and night. The intimate Hackesches Hof-Theater, Berlin's Yiddish theater, is within walking distance. Pamphlets advertising klezmer concerts can be picked up at many of the local spots.

The signs of rebirth look promising in the Jewish Quarter, but one thing is conspicuously missing -- Jews. "Actually, Jews are not going to the Jewish restaurants, the klezmer [concerts]. The real Jewish life still takes place behind closed doors, in the community center, families, school and kindergarten," Birnbach said.

Despite all strides that have been made by Jews, Germans and the German government to reconcile the past, Berlin's Jews still live somewhat of a double life. "One visible life as a citizen of this country and one other as a Jew, more or less invisible for non-Jewish people," Birnbach said.

Unlike the Jewish Quarters in many other cities, Berlin's Jews are no more likely to congregate or socialize in the Oranienburger Strasse area than any other German, nor do Jews typically reside in this neighborhood. But while such a discovery may be surprising to a visitor, it is historically accurate.

Before World War II, the majority of German Jews were quite successful and extremely assimilated into German culture, even to the point that many of their Jewish roots and ties were unidentifiable. "The western suburbs were the places where successful people lived and Jews who could move from the East to the West could say that they really had arrived," said Dr. Johannes Heil, a historian with the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism. It was the much smaller population of poor, Orthodox Jews living in the Jewish Quarter that the Nazis derived their anti-Semitic stereotypes from.

After the war, Jews who returned to or remained in Berlin settled in West Berlin, which is where most reside today. Thus, "the revival of the Oranienburger Strasse area is somewhat artificial and even ahistorical, since the poor Jews of Grenadie Strasse/Scheunenviertel in the East were, in the '20s, not at all a tourist attraction, only a stage where anti-Semites could take their stereotypes from," Heil said.

Today, Jewish life in Berlin continues to exist somewhat behind the scenes -- but exist, it does, and it is continually evolving, Birnbach said.

"I have two children [9- and 12-years-old] and they grow up as German Jewish kids, more normal than my generation perhaps, more clear about their identity. We had no Jewish elementary and high schools. They do. We had no parents with a more or less unbroken identity. They do."

The wounds of the past will forever affect the future of Jewish life in Berlin, but there is a Jewish presence that could never have been fathomed some five decades ago.

At the Wansee Villa museum, the house where 14 top officials of the ministerial bureaucracy and the S.S. met on Jan. 20, 1942, to discuss the systematic annihilation of the remainder of Europe's Jews, a message scrawled in the guest book reads: "As a proud Israeli Jew, I am shocked and overwhelmed by the atrocities. Our being here today is the real victory over those who planned to exterminate us.... We shall never forget."

Jewish Berlin General Information

For more information, visit www.juedisches-berlin.de .

German National Tourist Office

For more information, contact gntony@aol.com ; or call (212) 661-7200.

Berlin Tourism Marketing North America

For more information, visit www.berlin-tourism.de. Click on Sightseeing and scroll down to Jewish Berlin.

American Jewish Committee, Berlin office

Mosse Palais, Leipziger

Platz 15, 10117 Berlin

For more information, contact Deirdre Berger at bergerd@ajc.org; call 030-2265940; fax 030-22659414; or visit www.ajc.org .

Germany & Israel Tours

Tal Tours and Lufthansa are working together with the tourist offices of Germany and Israel to offer combined trips to Germany and Israel. For more information, call (800) 825-9399; or visit www.taltours.com .

Foundation Neue Synagoge Berlin-Centrum Judaicum

Oranienburger Strasse 28-30, 10117 Berlin

Open: Sun-Thu 10 a.m.-6 p.m.;

Fri 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

For more information, call 030-88028451; or visit www.cjudaicum.de .

Jewish Museum

Lindenstrase 9-14, 10969 Berlin

Open daily: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

For more information, call 030-25 99 34 10; fax: 030-25993409; or visit www.jmberlin.de .

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