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Jewish Journal

The New Germany

Interest in Jewish museums, history and growing communities leads to a rise in tourism.


by Adam Wills

January 3, 2002 | 7:00 pm

The opening of Berlin's Jewish Museum, an architectural marvel that houses a celebration of German Jewish culture, has done wonders to invigorate interest in Germany as a Jewish tourist destination.

Vibrant Jewish communities are also adding to the allure of a nation that, during the Cold War, few American Jews would buy a car from, much less visit.

While accurate figures regarding the number of Jewish tourists traveling to Germany are not available, tour providers indicate that interest is growing.

"The increase in inquiries is definitely on the rise," said Stuart Katz, president of Tal Tours.

"The number has increased considerably," said Dr. Johannes Heil, a 39-year-old historian with the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin.

Heil believes that more Jewish Americans are visiting Germany, "because of the history and to see what this 'new' Germany looks like."

Germany's Jewish history is a rich one. Home to some of the most renowned Jews -- from Albert Einstein to Leo Baeck -- Germany was once the center of Zionism and the birthplace of Reform Judaism. Jewish museums detailing this history are not limited to Berlin. They can be found across Germany, in cities like Frankfurt, Munich, Farth, Schnaittach and Braunschweig.

Berlin

When arsonists set fire to the Moorish-influenced New Synagogue Berlin (www.cjudaicum.de) during Kristallnacht, Wilhelm Kratzfeld, a local precinct police chief, chased them away and called on the local fire brigade to save the building. Unfortunately, the synagogue at Oranienburgerstrasse 28-30 was later damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, and its main room was demolished in 1958, two years before the Wall would shelter the building from the West.

In 1988, one year before the Wall fell, the New Synagogue Berlin-Centrum Judaicum Foundation was established, and by 1995, the building, with its golden dome and Oriental spires, was reopened as a museum that celebrates Jewish life in Berlin, Germany's largest Jewish community with about 11,000 Jews.

Berlin is a city renowned for its museums. Museum Island -- a five-building complex featuring 6,000-years worth of archaeological collections and art -- and the Berlin Film Museum at Sony Center are just a few of 150 museums that dot the city's landscape.

The Jewish Museum Berlin (www.jmberlin.de), a zinc-paneled, lightning bolt-shaped building, is a glowing example of Germany's efforts to reconcile its National Socialist past.

In the two years the Jewish Museum remained empty awaiting exhibits, the $60 million facility, designed by U.S. architect Daniel Libeskind, drew 350,000 visitors. Some were so moved by the structure that they argued it should remain empty.

The museum's seemingly endless collection, which celebrates past and present Ashkenazic life and culture, is partly intended as a way to counter the perception that the Holocaust is the sum total of German Jewish history.

The collection both informs and encourages discussion. Talmudic scholar Moses Mendelssohn's life and contributions are explored in one room, while another features a Christmas tree in a living room representing the ever-present pull of assimilation. Multimedia stations throughout the museum tempt both children and adults with interactive programming, and crawl spaces beckon to children in need of a break.

In a nearby enclosed sloping courtyard where 49 willow oaks tower in concrete columns above visitors, Libeskind simulates the disorientation that exile brings with "Garden of Exiles."

"I think people understand it as a place of learning, as an opportunity to learn about a destroyed daily reality," Heil said.

Even though the Jewish Museum's collection doesn't focus heavily on the Holocaust, Berliners don't need to go far for reminders. The signs are everywhere.

In front of Berlin's KaDeWe, continental Europe's largest department store, a sign (one of many that can be found throughout Germany) lists the names of 12 concentration camps and reminds pedestrians: "These are the places of terror that we should never forget."

Conceptual artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock have also placed 80 signs on lampposts in Berlin's Schoeneberg District to commemorate the 16,000 Jews who once lived there. Each sign carries an example of Germany's anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s and 1940s -- "Jews are not allowed to buy newspapers," "Jews are not allowed to emigrate," "Baths and swimming pools in Berlin are closed to Jews."

Berlin currently houses seven synagogues offering Conservative, Liberal and Orthodox services, and a decent number of Jewish restaurants. Noah's Ark, an upscale kosher fleishig (meat) cafe in the Berlin Jewish Community Center at Fasanenstrasse 79-80, is the oldest Jewish restaurant in the city. The Orthodox Adass Yisroel community runs Beth Cafe, a kosher dairy restaurant established in 1991 at Tucholskystrasse 40, and Kobol, a kosher shop just around the corner. And Israeli cuisine with a Teutonic twist can be had at Café Oren, one of the city's trendier spots, and Café Rimon at Oranienburgerstrasse 26-28. Other eateries include the New York-style Barcomi's Deli, Restaurant am Wasserturm, Salomon's Bagels and Tabuna Restaurant.

Frankfurt

The former home of Jewish moneylending has remained Germany's financial center. It's also home of the rags-to-riches tale of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, progenitor of the Rothschild dynasty.

Rothschild, who grew up in Frankfurt's Jewish ghetto, the Judengasse (Jewish Alley), became an antique merchant specializing in rare coins. Supplier to Landgrave William IX of Hesse-Kassel, Rothschild became the prince's Hofjude (court Jew) and made fantastic financial connections. In time, the Rotshchilds established a European financial empire and a legendary reputation for philanthropy.

In the former Rothschild Palace at Untermainkai 14-15, Frankfurt's Jewish Museum (www.juedischesmuseum.de) traces the social and religious life of the city's Jewish community back to the 12th century. The museum, opened in 1988, features religious artifacts, a scale model of the Judengasse, and a research library with documents and images that cover the country's Jewish history.

Established following an excavation in 1987, The Museum Judengasse Am Barneplatz, at the intersection of Battonstrasse and Karl-Schumacherstrasse, brings the medieval history of Jewish Frankfurt to life with the original foundations of five medieval homes, a well and two mikvot (ritual baths).

Next to the Museum Judengasse is the Alte Judische Cemetery, which served the Frankfurt Jewish community for six centuries. Frankfurt has memorialized its Jewish citizens who perished in the Holocaust with 12,500 name plaques that encircle the cemetery wall five rows deep. A cacophonic gravel walk between the cemetery and the museum purposefully abates to striking silence at the square built around the foundation of the Barneplatz Synagogue, destroyed on Kristallnacht.

Jewish philanthropy continues to thrive in Frankfurt. The impressively designed Frankfurt Jewish Community Center, located in the city's fashionable Westend at Savignystrasse 66, is the administrative home to the city's Jewish organizers and rabbinate. Established in 1986, the center offers a concert hall, classrooms, and Sohar, a delightful kosher restaurant.

Munich (Munchen)

Munich's only synagogue was spared a fiery fate on Kristallnacht due to its proximity to the Gartnerplatz Theater and other buildings. The synagogue has since grown to become the Jewish Community Center, at Reichenbachstrasse 27, which houses several Jewish organizations and a kosher restaurant.

The center also features a small Jewish Museum, which traces the fate of a Munich Jewish family, the Blechners, before, during and after the Holocaust. A full-scale Jewish Museum, much like in Berlin and Frankfurt, is in the works.

The Bavarian capital's Jewish community is more prominent than before 1933 and continues to grow, mostly as a result of emigration from the former Soviet Union.

Like Israel, Germany welcomes Jews with open arms and financial assistance. As a result, Germany's Jewish community has become the third largest and fastest growing in Western Europe. In 2000, more than 6,000 Jews immigrated to Germany, mostly from the former Soviet Union, bringing the country's Jewish population to nearly 90,000.

In Munich, the Jewish population has doubled in the last decade, from 4,000 in 1991 to 8,000 in 2001.

"Munich has always been a community of emigrants from Eastern Europe," said Ellen Presser, director of the Munich Jewish Community Center.

But with the influx of immigrants comes challenges. One of the more pressing needs is Jewish education.

Dr. Rachel Salamander, owner of Literaturhandlunch, a Munich-based Jewish bookstore chain opened in 1982, has been meeting that challenge both in Berlin and Munich.

"The whole practice of Jewish customs are missing," Salamander said. "The Jewish people lost their roots, so we had to supply books."

But in a city best known for Octoberfest and pretzels, Yochi and Jacques Cohen have made a name for themselves with their Jewish-Israeli restaurant at Theresienstrasse 31.

Cohen's, voted "Best Foreign Restaurant in Germany" for 2000 by a leading German culinary magazine, is as much a Jewish community center as it is a restaurant.

During Passover, the Cohens invite a rabbi to lead a Seder that traditionally draws 100 people. The couple prepares take-home meals for Rosh Hashanah and offers a break-the-fast dinner for Yom Kippur. Friday nights always feature klezmer at Cohen's.

But there's one event that fills the Cohen's and other Munchens with pride.

When the people of Munich caught wind of a hate rally at a local plaza, four Cohen's regulars organized the first Die Lichterkette (candlelight demonstration) against xenophobia and racism.

On Dec. 6, 1992, more than 400,000 people, with candles in hand, came together to oppose right-wing radicalism.

"The people of Munich gathered in a plaza so deep that the neo-Nazis couldn't enter to demonstrate," Presser said.

For more information about travel to Jewish Germany, visit the German National Tourist Office Web site at www.visits-to-germany.com , or call (800) 637-1171 to request the booklet, "Germany for the Jewish Traveler."

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