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World Perspective | EUROPE

Germany Becomes a Haven for Jews Fleeing Ex-Soviet Lands

January 16, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Despite occasional outbreaks of right-wing extremism and much public anguish about how to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, Germany now has the fastest-growing Jewish population outside Israel.

However, the growing tide of Jewish immigration here is less a tribute to German social harmony than a troubling sign that anti-Semitism is on the rise elsewhere.

More than 100,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have joined Germany's about 30,000 Jews since 1990, and authorities with the Cologne-based Federal Administrative Office note that the pace has picked up in recent months as Russia's economic crisis rekindles ancient Slavic resentment.

After last summer's collapse of the ruble, nationalists and Communists in the Russian parliament sought to blame Jews for the country's downfall, and open threats of new pogroms have gained popular appeal in the poisoned atmosphere of poverty and despair.

"There's no better barometer of the health of Russian society than the health of its Jewish community," David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, observed during a visit here this week. "There is good reason [for Jews] to worry in Russia today."

The influx to Germany pales in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of former Soviet Jews who have settled in Israel, but German and Jewish social workers see an increasing tendency among the eastern Europeans to stay on the same continent as their homeland.

"My family is still all in Ukraine, and it's easier for me to visit them from here than it would be if I were living in Israel," said Felix Krasny, a 46-year-old engineer who has lived in Germany for nearly seven years and may soon become eligible for citizenship.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government this week put forward a parliamentary proposal to radically change German citizenship requirements, allowing immigrants like Krasny to retain their old passports when they acquire German ones. The current law forces applicants to renounce their original citizenship, which for Russians means confronting a complicated and ineffectual bureaucracy when they want to return for a visit.

Jews fleeing the former Communist world are coming to Germany in greater numbers now because they have a choice, said Irene Runge, director of the Jewish Cultural Assn. here.

"In the beginning, when they were first able to emigrate, there was only Israel to go to and they didn't care anyway. A foreign country was a foreign country, as long as it was in the West," said Runge, whose organization aids Russian-speaking newcomers. "Now everyone compares what is available before they decide where to emigrate: What kind of social welfare system is there? How does unemployment insurance work? What are the schools like for my kids?"

Germany is often more attractive than Israel for those former Soviet Jews who are not very religious and for those who are married to non-Jews, Runge said.

With more than 1.6 million former Soviets of German descent having been made citizens here during the past decade by virtue of the current citizenship law, which defines who is entitled to a passport according to blood lineage rather than birthplace, Jews from the former Soviet Union find a familiar cultural environment in Germany. Russian-language newspapers and television broadcasts are available in many major cities, and Russian is spoken in some businesses.

Yet most immigrants from the former Soviet Union say they would prefer to lead a normal life in the land of their birth.

"It's much easier to stay where you were born and know the language and the culture. Only in the most extreme situation do you want to pull up stakes and move to a foreign country," said Igor Chalmiev, an immigrant who has co-authored a guidebook for Russian-speaking Jews settling in the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin.

"To compel someone to emigrate, it has to be a life-threatening situation, and I fear that is what is developing in Russia today," Chalmiev said. "If the current political climate continues, we will see a flood of Russian immigrants here."

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