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Saturday, 11 November, 2000, 13:14 GMT
Rebuilding Germany's Jewish community
Girls in Dresden light candles to mark Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass)
Girls in Dresden remember Holocaust victims
By Rachel Ellison in Berlin and Potsdam

The S-Bahn glides smoothly overhead through west Berlin. Evening commuters are silhouetted in the oblong windows of the train. Below, a festive gathering is in full swing. German police stand guard in front of the Jewish Community Centre. Some smile - perhaps caught up in the atmosphere of the party

It is the Jewish festival of Succot - a thanksgiving for the harvest. The air rings with the sound of Klezmer music and Israeli folk tunes. Men link arms, singing and dancing with boisterous energy.


Language has been their biggest barrier to integration

Soon the women form their own circle alongside them, clutching toddlers in their arms - clapping and singing in the open air.

Germany's Jewish population is flourishing. Few people could ever have imagined that 55 years after the end of World War II, Germany would have the fastest growing Jewish population in the world - and the third largest Jewish community in Europe.

Tens of thousands of Russians have arrived from the East, whilst American and British rabbis and Jewish teachers have come from the West.

Sacrifices and gains

I had tea with the Milysteyn family at their small apartment in Potsdam. The Milsteyns left Moscow in 1996, driven out by anti-Semitism, and tempted by Germany's offer of fast-track immigration status for Soviet Jews.

Thousands of people gather in front of a Jewish synagogue in Berlin during a protest action against right-wing extremism
Thousands of Germans are angry at right-wing extremism
Irena brings the tea cups - filled to the brim - into the living room. Out of her tiny kitchen comes plate after plate of biscuits, chocolate wafers, nuts and Jewish matzah bread. Irena is short and a little plump. She is wrapped in a caramel-coloured wooly cardigan - her motherly smile and twinkling eyes implore me to eat more.

We speak in a mixture of Russian (I speak none), German (she speaks none) and sign language - which seems to work perfectly.

The rather rotund, ebullient and equally generous Boris - Irena's husband of 27 years - jokes and gesticulates his way through tea. As I drain my tea-cup, out comes the vodka, served in cut crystal thimbles that looks as if they have dripped off a Prussian chandelier.

Despite the jolly atmosphere, the Milstyens have found life in Germany tougher than expected. Back home, Boris was a high flying freight engineer and Irena worked in a bookshop. In Germany, she cannot find a job and he delivers pizza for a living.

Boris shows me his old business card - one side is in Russian, the other in English. The information on is now all but irrelevant, but he wants me to know he still has pride - for Boris, a man without a business card is half a man.

Language has been their biggest barrier to integration. And the small but solid core of German Jews has not helped very much either. They regard Russian immigrants as inferior intellectually and culturally - the Russians see them in turn as cold and arrogant.

But there are positive things too. The Milsteyns' two children have made rapid progress. Misha, 15, is doing really well at school and wants to study medicine at university. No doubt he will.

Another upside is the freedom to practice their religion. At one time under Communist rule, it was a crime to hold religious services - teaching Hebrew or being caught with a prayer book could lead to prison. Things are easier now, but years of brutal anti-semitism in Russia's left generations of Jews, like the Milsteyns, with little or no knowlege of their religion.

Rebuilding religion

That is where Rabbi Teichtal comes in. He and his wife moved to Germany from the US, to set up synagogue services and education programmes for Russian immigrants. He is a bearded and imposing figure. All of 28-years-old, he strides confidently down the street, clad in his traditional black silk coat and black hat.

The rabbi's family has certainly faced challenges -- both professional and personal. It has not been easy bringing up two young children in the ultra-orthodox tradition, without like-minded playmates. Recent anti-semitic attacks mean community days out have to have an armed security escort.

Many Russian immigrants are not interested in Judaism. It is a disheartening reality, but Rabbi Teichtal is determined to reintroduce them to their cultural heritage - and he is succeeding. New arrivals are gradually getting involved in Jewish community life.

The issue of any Jew, religious or non-religious, living in Germany is an emotive one. Rabbi Teichtal's grandfather, himself a holocaust survivor, was sickened when he heard his grandson, Yehuda, was going to live in Germany.

Yehuda remembers him saying: "At first grandson, I couldn't understand why you were going to Germany - how can you live in a place where they exterminated my entire family - my entire city."

But then the old man paused before adding: "But on second thoughts, the greatest revenge you can take on Hitler and the Nazis is to go to the very same place where they tried to eradicate Jews and destroy Jewish life, and go and rebuild it."

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See also:

09 Nov 00 | Europe
Germans unite against racism
09 Nov 00 | Europe
In pictures: German rally
14 Sep 00 | Europe
Germany bans neo-Nazi group
12 Aug 00 | Europe
German alert over Nazi marches
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