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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Who is a Jew in Germany ? The Wankum Question

What if the head of Hamburg’s Jewish community wasn’t actually Jewish?, Tablet [1]

On March 6th 1997, 2.574.000 Jews live in Europe, they were 10.048.400 in 1930; 62.000 Jews live in Germany, they were 564.400 in 1930; 2.900 Jews live in Hamburg, they were 20.800 in 1930 (from Jews In Hamburg - Permanent Exhibition at the Museum of Hamburg History [2])

For years, Andreas Christoph Wankum was the Hamburg, Germany, Jewish community’s favorite son. A self-made millionaire who made his fortune in real estate, he signed fat checks to Keren Hayesod, the influential pro-Israel charity. When Communism collapsed in Hungary, he was instrumental in helping many of that country’s Jews make aliya. He funded scores of Jewish philanthropies in Israel and Germany alike, including a Birthright-type initiative that sent local Jewish students on their first visit to the Jewish state.

There was only one problem: he may not have been Jewish, and the rabbi who appointed him to the presidency of the Hamburg branch of Keren Hayesod, the global equivalent of the United Jewish Communities, may not even been a real rabbi. As if being a Jew in Germany wasn’t complicated enough, this case of identity wars is threatening to tear apart Hamburg’s Jewish community, which is one of Germany’s most resurgent and influential. And, like so many things in Germany, this affair is all about adhering to the rules.

Born in 1955, Wankum first discovered his Jewish roots when he was 13. Observing that his neighbors, the Wolfs, shut down their dry-cleaning business every Saturday, he asked his mother about this odd business practice. The Wolfs, she said, were Jewish, and so were the Wankums, even though they’d concealed it during the war for obvious reasons.

Enamored with his new identity, Wankum reached out to Hamburg’s Jewish community, and even received documents from its leaders that helped him avoid military service. But his Jewish provenance remained questionable, and he never joined the community as a full-fledged member.

In 1999 when Wankum was offered the presidency of the local branch of Keren Hayesod, he found himself facing an unexpected hurdle. To accept the position, he was told, he needed to be an official member of the community. And to do that, he needed to prove, beyond any doubt, that he was indeed Jewish. He was helped in his quest by Rabbi Dov Levi Barzilai, Hamburg’s chief orthodox rabbi. In December of 1999, Barzilai heard four witnesses, including Wankum’s brother and his wife’s uncle, and then signed a paper declaring, officially, that Wankum was a Jew. Soon thereafter, Wankum accepted his new position.

Under Wankum’s leadership, Keren Hayesod experienced unparalleled success. But in late December 1999, following terrible liquidity problems with his company, Wankum declared bankruptcy, which, in Germany’s unremitting political and economic landscape, is a death sentence: Bankruptcy and debt are unacceptable, and forgiveness is never offered. To anyone, that is, but Wankum. Remembering his charitable past, his fellow community members kept him in their warm embrace, and, in 2003, bestowed on him the highest honor imaginable, the chairmanship of Hamburg’s Jewish community.

It was at that time that Wankum aroused the interest of Stefan Knauer, a veteran journalist for the venerated German weekly Der Spiegel. Nearing retirement, Knauer decided to abandon the hard-edged topics he’d been covering throughout his career and examine instead the state of religion in his local community. The Jewish community in particular struck him as insular, further igniting his curiosity. He was especially fascinated by its boisterous chairman, Wankum. Then, one day, he had an epiphany. “[Wankum] was just looking for rehabilitation,” Knauer said in a recent interview, “a place where no one can criticize him after his bankruptcy, and the Jewish community is the best shelter because any criticism about its chairman is immediately tagged as anti-Semitism and Nazism.”

Guided by his suspicions, Knauer started to ask around about Wankum and his religious affiliations. Wankum, on his end, kept referring the reporter to Rabbi Barzilai, and claimed that 2,000 years of Jewish history gave him the right not to talk to the media.

“We started to look in archives in villages around Hamburg where his family used to live,” Knauer said. “There were registration forms with religion identity and we found that Wankum’s mother was named Ruth Morgenstern and she was registered as Lutheran. But you can’t really know because many Jews hid their identity under the Third Reich. On the other hand, how do you explain that his middle name is Christoph?”

Knauer’s quest might have ended up nowhere if it weren’t for Ruben Herzberg. A local educator and a former beneficiary of Wankum’s funds, he was appointed the community’s chairman after Wankum’s term ended in 2007. Soon thereafter, he said, strange things began to happen. “When I was elected as chairman,” he said, “I found out that we basically don’t have any money to maintain ourselves and that we must find ways to cut our expenses. I might be naïve, but I was expecting our rabbi to care about the situation and take a pay cut.”

Rabbi Barzilai, however, would do no such thing, and an exasperated Herzberg began looking into the rabbi’s conduct. During one such investigation, he learned that several community members, Wankum among them, had no documents certifying his Jewishness. Alarmed, he asked the rabbi to provide proof that Wankum was indeed a Jew.

“After a while we understood that Rabbi Barzilai has no documents,” Herzberg said, “just four witnesses and that only one of them was Jewish himself.” In his defense, Rabbi Barzilai claimed he was not permitted to divulge the names of Wankum’s witnesses, but Herzberg asked around and learned that no such rabbinic edict existed. Suspicious, Herzberg decided to call the central rabbinate in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya, where Barzilai claimed to have gotten his rabbinic certification. They were shocked to learn it wasn’t kosher: the chief rabbi of Netanya wrote Herzberg back, saying that the people who appointed Barzilai had no authority to do so. (Barzilai’s credentials are currently being examined by a German rabbinical court. He refused to comment for this piece.)

At this point, Hamburg’s wars of the Jews escalated. “During our checkup,” Herzberg said, “we found that 20 people were missing documents in their files; 16 responded and brought us the papers, but four, including Wankum and his brother, never answered and were ousted from the community.”

Herzberg fired Rabbi Barzilai, an act he he’s claimed in previous interviews with the press was motivated by financial issues, with the community refusing to pay his pension. Some of his colleagues in the community were so livid about what they perceived to be Wankum’s deception that they suggested digging Wankum’s deceased mother from her grave in the Jewish cemetery and interring her elsewhere. Within months, former collaborators became the worst of enemies.

“I will tell you what Herzberg is according to the Jewish halacha,” Wankum fumed recently. “He is a total schmuck, a pathological liar of the worst kind. He just wants to clean the community from anyone who was there before and he uses methods that Nazis used in order to do it.”

Any attempt to question his sincerity, Wankum added, was malicious. “After all I did,” he said, “the claim that I used Judaism as shelter is a disgusting lie. I have a daughter who volunteered in a kibbutz and lives a traditional life in Israel. So what kind of other proof do I need?” Wankum also said that it was sheer jealousy that motivated his enemies and fueled the fallacious claims against him. “Our fight” he said, “is a fight for Jewish identity.”

Stefan Kramer, the General Secretary of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, agrees. “What Herzberg and his friends are doing is Chillul Hashem,” he said, using the Hebrew term for desecration of the holy. “For me there are more important things in Judaism than whether you mother is Jewish or not. If you support Jewish issues and if you educated a daughter and live in Israel it is much more Jewish to me than people who want to drag you mother out of her grave. Herzberg is Jewish by birth, but him running to the media, letting goyim in, shows me that he lacks Jewish brains. Jews can’t sit in a house of glass and throw rocks outside, definitely not in Germany.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Uncertain Future, Undisputable (and Blissful) Ignorance

Jews in Germany past their peak [1]

I read with wry amusement the following post (see below in italics). In my personal experience, Jewish communities and Jewish associations in Germany - and specifically in Bavaria - are utterly, completely and supremely unwelcoming. The truth is that the Moses-Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam has absolutely no estimate whatsoever of how many Jews who are not members of a community live in Germany. So I would be very curious to hear who in Germany has any “expertise” on the question.

A number of years all sound good: The number of Jews increased from 1989 from 28.000 to some 130.000, what is less than a quarter of the number of Jews living in Germany in 1933, when Hitler rose to power. Several Jewish Communities all over Germany were reestablished, some of them even occupied Rabbis, the first time for 60 years and … worldwide headlines announced a kind of Jewish Renewal in Germany. Only some years ago German newspapers relished that the number of Jewish immigrants from Russia to Germany exceeded the one to Israel. But this was just a snap-shot …

Julius Schoeps, historian and head of the Moses-Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam in view of declining figures of member in Jewish Communities in Berlin as well as Brandenburg suggested to pool them together in order to keep the Jewish Communities “alive”. In Berlin for instance last year there was a decrease of 121 people. 139 arrivals (immigrants, removals and births) contrasted 260 leavings (deaths, removals). The decrease is an underestimated trend for some years. In 2003 the Jewish Community in the German Capital had more than 13.000 members, now at the end of 2008 the figure shrank to mere 10.794 (that is a downturn of 17 % in 5 years). Smaller communities of course are affected by this trend more badly, the more so because there was a trend in recent years that Communities like Berlin advanced there growth by people moving in from surrounding localities.

The situation in Berlin and Brandenburg is representative for the situation of the development in whole Germany. The figure of immigrants decreased to less than one thousand a year – it was at an annual average of 10.000 a couple of years ago. Since a vast majority of the immigrants from former Soviet Union were elderly people, figure of deaths is exceeding nationwide. Especially in smaller communities there are few births, circumcisions or bar mitzvahs.

As few experts predicted the figures of Jewish growth in Germany had reached the point of culmination in 2004/5 and are decreasing since. The high rate of inter-marriages, the increasing leaning towards splitting up into sectarian “liberal” or “reform” communities as well as the current age distribution illustrate that the often acclaimed “normalization” of Jewish life in Germany merely was a kind of flash in the pan. You don’t need to be a prophet to predict that the speed of the diminishment will increase. Maybe as early as 2025 the figures of Jews in Augsburg, Bavaria and Germany again will reach the level of 1990.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Operation Reinhard and the Shoah by bullets

Holocaust: The Ignored Reality, by Timothy Snyder [1]

Though Europe thrives, its writers and politicians are preoccupied with death. The mass killings of European civilians during the 1930s and 1940s are the reference of today's confused discussions of memory, and the touchstone of whatever common ethics Europeans may share. The bureaucracies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union turned individual lives into mass death, particular humans into quotas of those to be killed. The Soviets hid their mass shootings in dark woods and falsified the records of regions in which they had starved people to death; the Germans had slave laborers dig up the bodies of their Jewish victims and burn them on giant grates. Historians must, as best we can, cast light into these shadows and account for these people. This we have not done. Auschwitz, generally taken to be an adequate or even a final symbol of the evil of mass killing, is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.

The very reasons that we know something about Auschwitz warp our understanding of the Holocaust: we know about Auschwitz because there were survivors, and there were survivors because Auschwitz was a labor camp as well as a death factory. These survivors were largely West European Jews, because Auschwitz is where West European Jews were usually sent. After World War II, West European Jewish survivors were free to write and publish as they liked, whereas East European Jewish survivors, if caught behind the iron curtain, could not. In the West, memoirs of the Holocaust could (although very slowly) enter into historical writing and public consciousness.

This form of survivors' history, of which the works of Primo Levi are the most famous example, only inadequately captures the reality of the mass killing. The Diary of Anne Frank concerns assimilated European Jewish communities, the Dutch and German, whose tragedy, though horrible, was a very small part of the Holocaust. By 1943 and 1944, when most of the killing of West European Jews took place, the Holocaust was in considerable measure complete. Two thirds of the Jews who would be killed during the war were already dead by the end of 1942. The main victims, the Polish and Soviet Jews, had been killed by bullets fired over death pits or by carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines pumped into gas chambers at Treblinka, Be zec, and Sobibor in occupied Poland.

Auschwitz as symbol of the Holocaust excludes those who were at the center of the historical event. The largest group of Holocaust victims—religiously Orthodox and Yiddish-speaking Jews of Poland, or, in the slightly contemptuous German term, Ostjuden—were culturally alien from West Europeans, including West European Jews. To some degree, they continue to be marginalized from the memory of the Holocaust. The death facility Auschwitz-Birkenau was constructed on territories that are today in Poland, although at the time they were part of the German Reich. Auschwitz is thus associated with today's Poland by anyone who visits, yet relatively few Polish Jews and almost no Soviet Jews died there. The two largest groups of victims are nearly missing from the memorial symbol.

An adequate vision of the Holocaust would place Operation Reinhardt, the murder of the Polish Jews in 1942, at the center of its history. Polish Jews were the largest Jewish community in the world, Warsaw the most important Jewish city. This community was exterminated at Treblinka, Be zec, and Sobibor. Some 1.5 million Jews were killed at those three facilities, about 780,863 at Treblinka alone. Only a few dozen people survived these three death facilities. Be zec, though the third most important killing site of the Holocaust, after Auschwitz and Treblinka, is hardly known. Some 434,508 Jews perished at that death factory, and only two or three survived. About a million more Polish Jews were killed in other ways, some at Chelmno, Majdanek, or Auschwitz, many more shot in actions in the eastern half of the country.

All in all, as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, but they were killed by bullets in easterly locations that are blurred in painful remembrance. The second most important part of the Holocaust is the mass murder by bullets in eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. It began with SS Einsatzgruppen shootings of Jewish men in June 1941, expanded to the murder of Jewish women and children in July, and extended to the extermination of entire Jewish communities that August and September. By the end of 1941, the Germans (along with local auxiliaries and Romanian troops) had killed a million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltics. That is the equivalent of the total number of Jews killed at Auschwitz during the entire war. By the end of 1942, the Germans (again, with a great deal of local assistance) had shot another 700,000 Jews, and the Soviet Jewish populations under their control had ceased to exist.

There were articulate Soviet Jewish witnesses and chroniclers, such as Vassily Grossman. But he and others were forbidden from presenting the Holocaust as a distinctly Jewish event. Grossman discovered Treblinka as a journalist with the Red Army in September 1944. Perhaps because he knew what the Germans had done to Jews in his native Ukraine, he was able to guess what had happened there, and wrote a short book about it. He called Treblinka "hell," and placed it at the center of the war and of the century. Yet for Stalin, the mass murder of Jews had to be seen as the suffering of "citizens." Grossman helped to compile a Black Book of German crimes against Soviet Jews, which Soviet authorities later suppressed. If any group suffered especially under the Germans, Stalin maintained wrongly, it was the Russians. In this way Stalinism has prevented us from seeing Hitler's mass killings in proper perspective.

In shorthand, then, the Holocaust was, in order: Operation Reinhardt, Shoah by bullets, Auschwitz; or Poland, the Soviet Union, the rest. Of the 5.7 million or so Jews killed, roughly 3 million were pre-war Polish citizens, and another 1 million or so pre-war Soviet citizens: taken together, 70 percent of the total. (After the Polish and Soviet Jews, the next-largest groups of Jews killed were Romanian, Hungarian, and Czechoslovak. If these people are considered, the East European character of the Holocaust becomes even clearer.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Warburgs: The Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family

The Warburgs [1]

The Warburg saga can be traced to 1559, when a German Jew known as Simon of Cassel moved from Hesse to Warburg, a town in Westphalia. There he worked for the Prince-Bishop of Paderborn as a moneychanger and pawnbroker, two of the very few professions the Catholic authorities in the region permitted Jews to enter. In 1668 Simon’s great-grandson, Juspa Joseph of Warburg, moved to Altona, near Hamburg, and in 1773 one of the latter's descendants moved into the great port city itself. There, in 1798, two Warburg brothers, Moses Marcus and Gerson, created M.M. Warburg & Co., which mostly brokered bills.

The Warburgs' first claim to major prominence coincided with the life-times of five Warburg brothers: Aby (1866-1929), Max (1867-1946), Paul (1868-1932), Felix (1871-1937), and Fritz (1879-1964). Aby turned his back on finance and became one of the great bibliophiles and art historians of the twentieth century. Max and Paul worked diligently and patriotically for a German empire that had allowed Jews much freedom after centuries of anti-Semitic deprivation. By 1914, M.M. Warburg & Co. was the leading private bank in Hamburg, playing a top role in acceptance credits, foreign exchange, and securities operations.

In 1895, the firm cemented ties to Kuhn, Loeb, and Company, Wall Street's second most important investment banking house, when Paul married Nina Loeb, daughter of one of its founders, and Felix married Frieda Schiff, whose father Jacob was the leading partner in Kuhn, Loeb and was himself a Loeb son-in-law. With Max and Fritz in Hamburg, and Paul and Felix in New York, the Warburgs could now boast strong global connections. Indeed, 1900-1914 was a high point of financial success for the Hamburg Warburgs, as they floated numerous government loans and enjoyed close ties to the Kaiser and the German Foreign Office.

This summit would prove ephemeral, however, for it was followed by World War I, chaos in international banking, hyperinflation in the German mark, and, most ominously, a new German nationalism resulting from the Versailles Treaty that would make the Warburgs the most visible scapegoat for Nazi propagandists and their disillusioned, resentful followers. By 1938, after a 140-year existence, M.M. Warburg & Co. had been plundered and then "Aryanized" as Brinckmann, Wirtz & Co. by the Nazi regime. After World War II, the Warburgs persevered in resuscitating the family name in Hamburg banking circles, and Max's son Eric (1900-1990) succeeded in capturing control of the old firm and restoring the original name.

In America, Paul grew weary of Wall Street and, having long been interested in importing European banking theories and practices, pushed certain basic reforms for U.S. finance--all of them tied to his vision of a central bank. In 1913 his brainchild, the Federal Reserve System, was enacted and President Woodrow Wilson appointed him a member of its first board of governors. Felix remained with Kuhn, Loeb but found time, like many other Warburgs past and present, to be extremely active in Jewish causes. He donated generously to philanthropy at home and to overseas relief efforts for impoverished and endangered Jews in Europe and pre-state Israel. For many years he was a leader of the Joint Distribution Committee, and in 1917 he was instrumental in bringing together 75 different charities to form the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.

In the generation succeeding the five Hamburg-born brothers, Max's son Eric, was notable for his attempts to reinvigorate a Jewish presence in post-Holocaust Germany; Paul's son James (1896-1969), moved in high government circles during the New Deal, was an intimate of John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, and wrote numerous books on government economic policies and international relations; and Felix's son Frederick (1897-1973), secured much business for Kuhn, Loeb through his well-placed connections and continued his father's high-level identification with Jewish philanthropy.

The most successful of all the Warburgs, incidentally, was not a son of the five brothers but a nephew, Siegmund (1902-1982). Having apprenticed with Uncle Max in the 1920s, he later fled the Nazis for London, where he eventually developed this century's foremost global banking firm.