A Mosaic of Experiences: Glimpses of Jewish Life in Berlin
Julia Wagner and Maggie Whelan, Humanity in Action 
The Jewish population of Berlin has been shaped by a set of distinct political and social events. Many of those Berlin Jews who survived the war went to Israel or the United States. Inge Borck survived the war as a young girl by going underground. In 1945, she returned to Berlin from the town where she was hidden for the last part of the war. She didn’t want to stay, she tells us, but a ticket to Israel was too expensive. Once she had money, she had an established life in Berlin.
Jews from Eastern Europe and Displaced Persons from concentration camps joined the few who stayed. Susanne Thaler, a local political figure and outspoken member of the Jewish community, was hidden in Amsterdam with her mother. She remembers her mother crying at the sight of the ruined city, when they returned to Berlin in 1947. But the family stayed.
The division of Berlin meant a division of the Jewish community as well with the majority living in the Western part of the city. These small groups of Jews in the East and the West formed the first ‘Jüdische Gemeinden’ (Jewish Congregations), the local branches of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany. They also united the different branches of Judaism into the ‘Einheitsgemeinden,’ the unified congregation. Even though many are originally from Eastern Europe, this group of Jews in Berlin are referred to as ‘German Jews,’ a term that is useful only in light of the large numbers of Jews who came to Berlin later from the former Soviet Union.
Although Soviet Jews had been coming to Berlin ever since the end of World War II, the fall of the Iron Curtain resulted in a huge wave of immigration that has more than doubled the Jewish population in Berlin. In 1989, there were 6,000 Jews registered with the ‘Jüdische Gemeinde.’ Judith Kessler, who works there, now [in 2002] estimates that there are close to 13,000 Jews registered, and Rabbi Joshua Spinner of the Lauder Foundation, an American organization, thinks there could be another 10,000 Jews in the city who are not officially registered.
The new immigrants have altered the landscape of Jewish life in Berlin, both in numbers and in what they bring. As Thaler notes, for the first time there are flowers in the Jewish cemetery. Reunification of Berlin also meant the reunification of the two Jüdische Gemeinden in Berlin, one in the East with 300 members, the other in the West with about 6,000 members.
Irene Runge, a member of the East Berlin congregation and now head of the board of the Jewish Cultural Center, sardonically describes the unification as a “hostile takeover.” The Western congregation was mostly interested in real estate in the old Jewish quarter, and the leadership of the Eastern branch went along with it in order to retain their positions. For Runge, this transition was not at all easy. The intellectual group that she led was not accepted or understood by the leaders of the newly unified ‘Jüdische Gemeinde’ and they became an independent organization.
Hermann Simon, another member of the Eastern congregation and now director of the ‘Centrum Judaicum’ of Berlin, faced a different challenge as the two congregations combined. His objective was to continue a project started in 1986 to renovate the New Synagogue and create the ‘Centrum Judaicum.’ With a lot of “luck and effort,” the unified congregation approved the project.
The historical development of the Berlin Jewish community cannot be understood without looking at the city itself. Jewish life has helped shape Berlin and its unique history. It is between the neighborhoods of Mitte and Charlottenburg, between Oranienburger Straße and Joachimsthaler Straße, two areas separated by 30 minutes on public transportation, that you encounter the Jewish population and infrastructure of Berlin. But the traditional Jewish districts and its former identity have now become unrecognizable. The streets around the Bayrischer Platz in Schöneberg, that before the Second World War had a population that was over 60 percent Jewish, have lost all of its former inhabitants. The same is true for many other parts of the city.
On Oranienburger Straße, in the shadow of the domes of the New Synagogue, we find the headquarters of the ‘Jüdische Gemeinde,’ the ‘Centrum Judaicum,’ an exhibition hall dealing with historical and cultural issues linked to Judaism, and the ‘Jüdischer Kulturverein’ (Jewish Cultural Center). This historical site, which is now also the new cultural and political center of the city, is “where the music plays,” says Hermann Simon. “You could get the impression that you’re in a Jewish neighborhood when it’s really just a façade,” says Judith Kessler, who has been involved with the ‘Jüdische Gemeinde’ in Berlin for more than twelve years and now manages the organization’s newsletter. Today, “more than 92 percent of the local Jewish population has their homes in the Western part of Berlin”.
In Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf are most of the institutions, such as the Jewish kindergarten, the elementary school, the community center with its library and the youth club. Here, people meet for a peppermint iced tea at Salomon’s bagel shop right next to the Jewish bookshop.
Central to Jewish life in Berlin are the six synagogues located all over the city. The synagogues range from conservative to liberal with the one on Oranienburger Straße perceived as the most progressive. We are told by Kessler, that the general tendency is to practice a very traditional form of Judaism.
Our interviewees use the Jewish infrastructure of Berlin in various ways. Judith Kirschke, a young student who recently moved to Berlin, only occasionally attends services at the synagogue in Oranienburger Straße. She likes the music and the fact that it’s egalitarian. Her friend, Inna, who emigrated from Russia, is very observant. She organizes the religious activities at the Jewish Cultural Center and is in close contact with the Lauder Foundation. She prefers these groups, because they offer more practical advice and personal contact than the Jüdische Gemeinde.
Igor Chalmiev emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1992 and is now in charge of the integration programs of the Jewish Cultural Center. He tells us about his childhood in Azerbaijan, where his grandparents lived in a small town near Baku. The German Wehrmacht never marched that far, so he experienced a rich and visible Jewish street life. His grandparents spoke their own Jewish language. With this in mind, he says, in Berlin “there’s no Jewish life; there are only Jewish places and a few Jews.”
Dani Neubauer who is very active in the Jewish youth center and currently has an internship at the American Jewish Committee, says “it’s hard to lead a Jewish life in Germany,” and he was disappointed in not finding an elaborate Jewish infrastructure in Berlin. He has also had a lot of trouble getting kosher food. “It’s sad that with such a large Jewish population there is only one kosher restaurant.” He also questions the fact that there are 30 to 40 percent non-Jews attending the Jewish high school. But Sabine Voltmer, the school’s social worker, says that they didn’t have enough Jewish students and decided to open the school for other students. While she worries about the non-Jewish teachers’ lack of Jewish knowledge, she still thinks highly of the ‘Jüdisches Gymnasium.’ “The parents feel safer sending their children to a Jewish school, and a positive aspect is that they learn a lot about the Jewish religion,” she says.
Immigration and Integration
Most Jews in Berlin immigrated or were the children of immigrants. After the ‘German Jews’ were established a second wave of immigrants came in the 1970s. Several members of this group now sit on the congregation’s board and hold other important positions in the community. While their integration may have taken some time, they were a relatively small group and they are now indistinguishable from the rest of the Jewish population.
The Russian immigrants of the early 1990s now make up the majority of Jews in this city. They are referred to as the ‘Russian Jews,’ or just ‘the Russians.’ Runge of the Jewish Cultural Center tells us how excited the members were at the prospect of a new group of Jews coming to Berlin, but her enthusiasm soon dimmed because they “weren’t what I expected.” She had been hoping for new members for the Jewish Cultural Center and a new life for the Jewish community, but she describes the Russian immigrants as “demanding” and wanting only what they could get for free from the Cultural Center.
Kessler says huge numbers of Russian Jews come daily to the congregation, but they come for social welfare, not to participate in Jewish life. She says that with the Russian, the congregation has changed from a “small family” to a “supermarket.” And Voltmer wonders why, after so many years of receiving from the congregation, the immigrants aren’t really giving anything back.
The descriptions seem slightly exaggerated when one actually meets some of these ‘Russians.’ Jana Wolotschij, who emigrated from the Ukraine in 1990 at the age of ten, is now a university student. She recounts leaving everything behind including a nation that discriminated against her parents based on their religion and would not allow her community to have a synagogue. She talks of the terrible refugee housing that her family left as soon as they could afford an apartment of their own. She also describes what she calls a “vicious cycle” in which the immigrants do not speak German so they can’t find jobs, and then they forget the German that they’ve learned, because they are not in touch with the German speaking population. If they find work at all, the Russian immigrants find work in Russian businesses.
As for the ‘Jüdische Gemeinde,’ Jana doesn’t seem impressed with what it has to offer. She sees the organization as using the high numbers of Russian Jews to gain more lobbying power. The immigrants are mostly secular, poor and if anything reform or liberal Jews. However, the majority of activities sponsored by the congregation are orthodox. Thus, the ‘Russians’ see themselves as paying dues to an organization that supports a religious practice in which they, themselves, do not believe.
The religious disparity between the new Russian immigrants and the older Jewish population in Berlin receives a lot of attention. “The Russians don’t have a clue about religion,” says Neubauer. However, as Rabbi Spinner points out, the ‘Russians’ lack of religious knowledge is perfectly understandable in light of the situation in the former Soviet Union. He predicts that the Russian immigrant population will someday resemble any religious population, where some choose to be more observant than others.
The key word is ‘integration’. Everyone has an opinion on how best to integrate the ‘Russians’ into the Jewish framework of Berlin. In the early 1990s, Voltmer proposed programs that could help integrate the Russian immigrants that were never put into practice.
Rabbi Spinner criticizes the Jewish congregation for their approach to the Russian immigrants. He speaks of “building bridges” between the two communities, but the special classes for immigrants on integration merely separate the two communities further. The old Jewish population should be trying to find ways to bring together ‘Russian’ and ‘German’ Jews. He is also generally astounded by the types of comments made by Jewish leadership about ‘the Russians’. Many of their “attitudes are just disgusting.”
Spinner projects that the Russians will soon take the lead in the organization of the Jewish community and that they may turn a blind eye to the problems of the old ‘German’ Jews who have been treating them so poorly. “They’re gonna get it on the head, and I can’t wait,” quips Spinner, “I just hope my tenure here lasts long enough to see that happen.”
For all the negative discussion associated with the Russian Jewish population in Berlin, there is some optimism. Jana refers to the younger generation, as getting a “new opportunity,” while Chalmiev is a living example of the possibility of positive integration and success after immigrating at the age of thirty-seven. For those who would like to see ‘the Russians’ come to synagogue more often, Rabbi Andreas Nachama, former President of the Berlin ‘Jüdische Gemeinde,’ points out the reality of immigration: people must deal with the new place, the new language, economic issues. “Religion is not the first thing.” Still, this new population is making its presence known in different ways and it’s certainly adding a new dimension to Jewish life in Berlin.
The question of identity and notably religious identity is certainly not an easy one. Some of our interviewees had an answer at hand. “I am modern orthodox,” says Dani Neubauer, “I am traditional conservative,” Vivian G. tells us. She has been living in Berlin for the past six years, but she has not found a synagogue or an institution where she can feel “at home”. Only her closest friends know the prominent role religion plays in her life. She didn’t feel welcome in the Jewish student movement and other organizations so she now avoids going to the social gatherings they offer. Yet, she is very interested in the organizations’ political events.
For Judith Kirschke who, like Dani and Vivian, is in her early twenties, the social gatherings are the most important aspect. Her Hungarian mother waited until she was 17 to tell her about her “Jewish roots”. From then on her interest in Jewish religion and culture grew. Though she’s not observant she feels part of a larger community of Jews. She goes to synagogue because she feels she can relax and experience a positive group feeling there.
Jana, the Ukrainian immigrant, feels Jewish without practicing on an organized level. Her mother, who never had the opportunity to practice her religion in the Soviet Union, feels that it’s “too late”. Without knowing the prayers and the songs she wouldn’t feel comfortable in synagogue.
Simon, unlike other Jews of the post-war GDR generation who had to find their own way to Judaism, was born in the Jewish hospital and was thus immediately a member of the ‘Gemeinde.’ For him, the “real decision was to stick with it”. His parents raised him in a traditional Jewish way, “we knew who we were,” he proudly says. In East Berlin, they could live their religion openly. This was not the case for Jews living outside the capital.
Runge also grew up in the GDR. Her communist parents immigrated to New York during the Third Reich, and she was born and spent her early years in the United States. They left the U.S. during the McCarthy era and settled in East Germany (GDR), turned away from religion and raised their daughter secularly. She later discovered Judaism, which led to her involvement in the Jüdischer Kulturverein.
Voltmer who was not born Jewish, but with four different nationalities in her family, felt “rootless.” During her ‘student marriage’ to a Russian Jew she thought about converting but wasn’t supported by her husband. It was only after their divorce that she saw a rabbi and talked to him about her wish to convert. She began taking classes and a year later was admitted to the religious community. For many years now she has been professionally involved in the ‘Gemeinde.’ Her three daughters have Israeli names. “Why hide?” she asks. All of her daughters are enrolled in Jewish schools. She says going to a Jewish school strengthens the student’s Jewish identity and “enlarges the common ground” of the young generation no matter what their background may be.
Is it true then that the ‘Gemeinde’ was a more religious community before the immigrants came? Judith Kessler laughs and says that in her opinion the image of the congregation as a very religious group has always been a “myth.” In a survey she conducted, the majority of the 400 people who answered the questionnaire said they’d see themselves as belonging to the reform movement or even as non-religious or atheistic. For them the main tasks of the community are political representation, organizing cultural events, and providing Jewish education.
The Russian immigrants in particular aren’t interested in the religious aspects. “They register and are never seen again. These people are living their Jewishness in a different way,” said Kessler.
Fear and Uneasiness
In Germany in recent months there have been political and cultural debates over anti-Semitic statements made by public figures. The crisis in the Middle East has further fueled the debate. As a result, the Jewish community is once again in the spotlight. Many of the interviewees expressed a feeling of insecurity. Kessler now feels uncomfortable in her country and questions whether everything before was just a ‘show’ to cover latent anti-Semitism. “The only thing you can do is wear the Jewish star under your clothes,” says Kessler. Others reacted to the fact that Germans did not speak up in outrage. Adam Sacks, an American Jew living in Berlin for the last two years, speaks of the ‘Gemeinde’ as a “litmus test” for morality and asks why no one else stood up for the Jews. Rabbi Nachama gave a speech on anti-Semitism two years ago in which he used the exact same text that his predecessor used in a speech in 1980, and the words still applied. He chuckles now at the bitter irony of the situation.
Vivian G. recently had the unsettling experience of being confronted with anti-Semitic stereotypes in her own circle of friends. While they may have been “positive” stereotypes, she was still shocked by their implication.
Hermann Simon says that now for the first time it is politically correct to be an “outspoken anti-Semite.” Even as he shows us a solidarity ad from non-Jewish individuals in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung,” a leading newspaper, he called on German Jews to get involved, not only as Jews, but also as German citizens.