Fall of Berlin Wall a boon for German Jewry

berlin  |  One of the most remarkable transformations in Europe since the fall of communism is the return of Jewish life in the country that generated the Holocaust.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this week, postwar Jewish life in Germany was “more a museum piece than something living,” said Kuf Kaufmann, who emigrated from Russia in 1990 and now heads the Jewish community in Leipzig. “Today it is very lively — socially, religiously and culturally.”

In 1989, Germany had only about 30,000 Jews. Then the doors to the east opened and about 220,000 people of Jewish lineage from the Soviet republics poured in, about half of whom were Jewish by matrilineal descent, according to a new report by the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

The immigrants sought economic opportunities and an escape from anti-Semitism, and they chose Germany over Israel.

In all, about 90,000 of the immigrants registered as members of Germany’s Jewish communities, quadrupling the country’s pre-1989 Jewish population.

Kuf Kaufmann leads a Torah dedication ceremony in Leipzig, Germany, in 2005. photo/jta/toby axelrod

Lala Suesskind, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, said the immigrants parallel her parents’ experience as refugees from the Soviet interior in 1947.

The older generations may have trouble adjusting, she said, but their children and grandchildren “are all part of our Jewish life in Berlin.”

The influx of immigrants ended in 2005, when Germany adopted new rules on immigration that made it more difficult for would-be immigrants. The move came in part due to pressure from Israel, which saw Germany as a competitor for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

While the immigration has transformed Germany’s Jewish community, it also has brought with it the need for more rabbis, outreach to unaffiliated Jews and questions about how to deal with Russian immigrants who are not Jewish according to halachah. (In Germany, as in most of Europe, even Reform congregations adhere to Orthodox halachah when it comes to the question of who is a Jew.)

Some worry that Germany’s Jewish institutions are failing to ensure that the numeric boost to the Jewish community will be enough to ensure a future threatened by assimilation.

“Cultural identity cannot last more than one generation,” said Julia Itin, 24, who came to Dortmund from Odessa, Ukraine, in 2000, after first going to Israel. “They have to add in a bit of religion, in any form,” otherwise many people will fully assimilate.

Itin, now a university researcher and teacher, has become involved with Jewish causes, volunteering for the Limmud Jewish educational festival in Germany.

Svetlana Agronik, who coordinates Russian social and educational programs for Berlin’s Jewish community, came to Germany in 1991. Once there, she said she asked herself, “Am I really lucky? These Germans killed so many Jews. But for my daughter Marina, I had to do it.”

Nevertheless, Agronick admits some

disappointment. Her daughter has little

connection to Judaism, and Marina’s boyfriend, who is the father of her child, is a German non-Jew. When he belatedly learned that Marina was Jewish, he told her he was glad because he had heard that all Jews are rich.

Renat Fischbach, 28, who arrived from Czernowitz, Ukraine, in 1990, said he “always felt more aligned with the smart Russian kids than with the established German families. And in 10 years, these are going to be the minds who lead the community.”

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.