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Europe Wednesday, 15 November, 2000, 20:20 GMT
Jewish Berlin rises again - with Russian help
Optimism at a German-language lesson for new immigrants from the ex-USSR
By Olenka Frenkiel

Never have I know a city to change as fast or as completely as Berlin.

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The first time I was here it was divided into four sectors. Hitler's former deputy, Rudolf Hess was still a prisoner in Spandau. In November 1989 I watched the confusion as East German politicians floundered in the last uncertain days before the Wall came down. And I was there, one of the first on that Wall when World War II finally ended for the city on November 9th 1989. It was 51 years to the day after Kristallenacht, the night in 1938 when gangs of Nazis went on the rampage smashing Jewish homes and shops.

That was the Berlin of Brecht and Weill, of Kandinsky and Otto Dix, and of 170,000 Jews - some of whom would escape, some of whom would be killed. By the time the city was united again in 1989 there were just 6,000 Jews in Berlin.

But the old Jewish quarter, which lay dingy and semi-derelict in the Russian sector, has now come back to life with cafés and restaurants, Jewish schools and shops - and gleaming above them all are the golden domes of Berlin's grand Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue.

Fritz Marcuse celebrates his 90th birthday - in Berlin
Most important of all, the Jews themselves are coming back. Fritz Marcuse left Berlin for Lithuania in the 1930s to look for work. He escaped the holocaust but lost an arm while fighting in the Red Army. He settled in Estonia but after fifty years there, he has returned with his wife to the city where he was born.

At the Jewish Cultural Centre I listened to his childhood friends wish him mazeltov for his 90th birthday and reminisce about their schooldays in the Berlin of 'before'. 'The city is unchanged' he told me. 'I remember it as though I had never left. 'It is my heimatstaat, my home.'

It's funny. For me the city never stops changing. But Fritz is right. The Jewish quarter of Berlin today probably looks more like his Berlin of the 30s than at any time in between.

Over the last decade the number of Jews here has doubled and Germany now has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world. Most, like Fritz come from the former Soviet Union - invited, courtesy of the German taxpayer, to start a new life here and rebuild the Jewish community. But unlike Fritz, most of them are too young to remember the war.

I visited a group of them learning German. They struggled a bit with the language but seemed bewildered by their good luck. They are housed and clothed, their children are fed and schooled and they're paid.

Andrei was a Professor at Petersburg University. He told me: 'I had a possibility to come here and I used it. I have family. I used to earn 40 dollars a month. People here give me a dream that I will have a good job with a good salary, and that my children will be modern European people."

The Berlin immigration office is heaving with Russians, Kosovans, Turks and others desperate to settle here. But the Jews come not as refugees or asylum seekers but specifically as Jews, a unique category with uniquely generous provisions. All they need to qualify is an identity card from the former Soviet Union marked with the letter J.

It strikes me as strange, a little distasteful, certainly ironic, this direct reversal of the Nazi's genocidal policies. The letter J was enough to kill half a century ago. Now, it's a lifeline. The twentieth century was plagued with failed attempts at social engineering; today it's done with the best intentions but still, you'd think they'd had enough. It seems to be the Germans' atonement, an attempt in some symbolic way to undo their great crime.

Barbara John, Head of Immigration for Berlin
And that's what Barbara John, Head of Immigration for Berlin, confirmed to me: "Germany wants to build up a Jewish community after the Nazi times when Jewish Germans were first persecuted and murdered. There is a feeling that Jewish life is part of German life and it should be there again."

Not everyone is so open to a multiracial Germany. Since unification 100 people (mostly from Africa and Asia) have been murdered in race attacks. The Jewish community, too, is cautious. Synagogues and offices are guarded by police round the clock. Anti-Semitism, everyone here agrees, will always lurk in Berlin's shadows. Behind the political correctness of its politicians and middle classes, hatred of the Jew and all foreigners remains and must be fought. And now there's the Middle East. As Arabs and Israelis kill each other on the West Bank and in Gaza, a military tank is positioned in front of Berlin's synagogue.

But as Berlin's Jewish revival gathers pace and the new imported community here grows, there are also healthy signs that it is taking root and growing up. What better sign of this than internal squabbles in the hierarchy?

Rabbi Walter Rothschild
Rabbi Walter Rothschild (from Yorkshire) was sacked after he took out a condom packet and offered this prop in the synagogue as an example of what Jews should not be thinking about during the special days of Rosh Hashanah. 'They didn't like my sense of humour' he said, a little wounded; but he's vowed to fight on and continue with his 'impossible job'.

Avitall Gerstetter - face (and voice) of the new German Jewish community
The new Jewish Berlin hasn't just taken root: it is already flowering and bearing fruit. Take Avitall Gerstetter, a young and delicate singer, born in Berlin who has become the first female kantor, or synagogue singer, in Germany. 'Ten years ago' she told 'it would not have been possible. But now, with this new community, our new schools, we have become revitalised, we have a future here.'

Berlin is changing again.

Avitall Gerstetter, Berlin, Oct 2000
describes her hopes and fears for Germany's Jewish community
Irene Runge, Berlin, Oct 2000
explans the different sectors and aims of today's Jewish Berlin
Rabbi Rothschild, Belrin, Oct 2000
explains why Jewish Berliners can't always keep up with synagogue services
See also:

11 Nov 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
10 Nov 00 | Europe
09 Nov 00 | Europe
30 Aug 00 | Europe
18 Aug 00 | Europe
09 Jan 00 | Europe
05 May 99 | Entertainment
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