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Jews in Germany share a history - if not its context

  • Article by: SHELLEY EMLING
  • Cox News Service
  • March 8, 2008 - 4:33 PM

BERLIN

Six decades later, the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust continue to shape life among Jews living in Germany.

By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Jewish population stood at scarcely 23,000, generally survivors of the war era and their offspring.

But in a turnaround few would have thought possible, Germany today boasts the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe.

Like many Jewish refugees, Lala Susskind's parents were relocated from Poland to a displaced persons camp in West Germany in 1947, when Lala was a baby.

For years, she said, her parents were "sitting on packed suitcases" -- a popular sentiment among Jews who remained in the country that once plotted their extermination. But she said that eventually the suitcases just grew too big to pick up and leave.

"When I was a child and learned about the Holocaust, I couldn't understand how we could stay here in the land of the murderers," she said. "I asked my dad why we didn't leave, but my parents didn't speak to me about the past and that was just the way things were."

Today Susskind is president of the Jewish Community of Berlin and enjoying life as part of a revitalized population that's seen an extraordinary reversal of fortune.

Between 1991 and 2005 an estimated 220,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union migrated to Germany following the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the influx has created tensions between the established German-speaking Jews and the Russian-speaking newcomers who often hold little regard for Jewish rituals and traditions.

"Those coming in don't give the Holocaust the same centrality in their lives as those who grew up here," said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, which marks its 10th anniversary here on Tuesday. "They grew up with the Russian spirit of victory over the Nazis so they have a very different self-image.

"The real question is: what kind of people will the established German Jews be handing the torch to when they are gone?" she said.

Sergey Lagodinsky, vice speaker of the parliament of the Jewish Community of Berlin, migrated from southern Russia to Germany in 1993.

He said that economic security was a factor, as was growing anti-Semitism and general political instability in Russia.

Lagodinsky agreed that Soviet Jews tend to regard the Holocaust in a different way.

"It is framed in a context of being part of the Great Patriotic War, or World War II," he said. "Soviet Jews position themselves as victors -- and not victims -- of the Holocaust."

Despite the differences within the Jewish community, it is a strange historical twist that the country Adolf Hitler wanted to rid of Jews now has the largest population of Jews in Western Europe, after France and Britain.

Today Germany is home to 89 synagogues along with a growing number of Jewish schools, bookshops, cemeteries, social clubs and kosher restaurants. A popular Jewish newspaper is printed in both German and Russian.

Before the Nazis came to power, about 600,000 Jews lived in Germany, but at the end of World War II there were only about 15,000 left.

"Jews that remained wondered whether it was right to be here and many thought it wasn't right," said Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the national umbrella organization for Jewish groups. "In fact, our council was set up in 1950 to help Jews relocate and then to turn out the lights."

The relaxing of immigration rules and the launch of resettlement programs -- partly to atone for the Holocaust -- sparked an influx of former Soviet Jews mostly seeking bread-and-butter prosperity.

A stimulating and inexpensive Berlin also has attracted several thousand Israeli expatriates and hundreds of American Jews in recent years.

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