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German Jewish Community Begins Again

Religion: Bolstered by recent immigration, Jews are reasserting their identity in society.

September 20, 1999|WILLIAM T. HATHAWAY | William T. Hathaway, who recently completed two years as a Fulbright professor of English in German universities, is a teacher at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa

BONN — Most of the other children in the film stand up straight, almost militarily erect, and look right into the camera. They state their names and hometowns in clear voices. The announcer explains how they became lost from their families. One thin boy of about 12, though, stands hunched. He is darker complexioned than the others and glances away, as if the camera crew frightens him. In a muted voice he murmurs, "Karl Weisswein," then adds his hometown: "Auschwitz." The announcer says: "Separated from his parents in concentration camp." Karl disappears from the screen, replaced by a blond orphan. The parade of homeless children goes on and on. Some are too young to know their names. They were found in bombed-out buildings, train stations and cardboard boxes. The camera lingers on them, hoping someone in the audience will recognize them and give them a home.

The film was made right after World War II and shown all over Germany to try to reunite families. Now it plays continuously in Haus der Geschichte, the new museum of contemporary German history in Bonn. It is part of the opening section dealing with Nazism, the Holocaust and World War II. Thinking about what kind of hometown Auschwitz must have been for Karl, I watch the other exhibits through blurred eyes. They chronicle the growth of democracy, the "economic miracle," the collapse of communism and unification. Several displays feature Germany's ongoing attempts to deal with its past, including the Nuremberg trials, the reparations treaty with Israel and the Auschwitz trials. Concentration camp survivors are interviewed about their experiences, their lives today and their efforts to win compensation. Willy Brandt is shown life-sized kneeling in national contrition at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto. I pull out a little drawer beside this display and read that 7% more Germans in 1970 opposed this gesture as "overdone" than approved of it as "appropriate."

These exhibits make all the others--the jukeboxes, refrigerators, and Volkswagens--look hollow and superficial. Something is always missing, haunting the edges of the displays of consumer bounty. I leave the museum and walk through Bonn and realize that something also is missing here. An important element has disappeared: the Jews. As a Gentile who grew up among Jews in the U.S., I can see what a fine and varied country Germany would be if it hadn't destroyed its Jewish community.

Fortunately a remnant survived and kept their culture alive. Now, bolstered by recent immigration, Jews are reasserting their identity in Germany. The core group is 60,000--1% of the number killed throughout Europe in the war--but newcomers, mostly from the former Soviet Union, have doubled that figure. More Jews are arriving every month. Berlin has several Jewish-run cafes, shops, bookstores and the start of a real community, including the inevitable spats between new arrivals and the old guard. Throughout the country, 80 Jewish centers are active; new synagogues are opening and old ones are enjoying new life. If they continue to come, these Russian Jews could make Germany add a new section to Haus der Geschichte: the rebirth of Jewish culture.

The work of the current immigration project is done by local Jews, but most of the financing comes from the German government as part of its Holocaust reparations program. Politicians from all sectors except the far right are supporting it. Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, addressing the graduating class of Brandeis University in Boston in May 1998, said: "It is my great desire that the synagogues in Germany be not only sites of historical remembrance but more and more centers of current Jewish life." Then-President Roman Herzog, speaking at the opening of the American Jewish Committee's office in Berlin a few months before, stated: "There is a chance that Jewish life can once again become an integral part of German culture and society."

This new beginning is one of the most positive developments here, but its smallness and tentativeness point up the dimensions of what was destroyed. The never-to-be-forgotten fact is that from France to Russia, from Norway to North Africa, Germans killed every Jew they could find. The loss is beyond repair, beyond comprehension, leaving only grief and a bitter determination to protect those who remain.

This carnage also crippled German society. By murdering so many of its own citizens, Germany lost the dynamic of two counterpoised cultures, different, sometimes conflicting, but basically complementary. These two elements had enriched each other for centuries, producing some of Europe's greatest achievements. Now, out of annihilation, a community begins again.

The two groups greet each other cautiously: "Germany is a very different country today. Welcome."

"We shall see. Shalom."

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