The Rebirth of Jewish Life in Berlin

The Rebirth of Jewish Life in Berlin


InterContinental Berlin.
Bar and bat mitzvahs are again frequently hosted in Berlin, today in top-flight hotels such as the InterContinental Berlin.

Once the infamous Berlin Wall came down in 1989, spectacular shopping complexes, elegant new hotels and office towers made over the face of what had been the Communist-controlled East Berlin. At the same time, throughout the area the horrendous fate of Berlin’s once-thriving Jewish community – among the largest in Europe, numbering around 160,000 – was observed with somber, often heart-wrenching memorials.

Included are the moving Holocaust Museum; the “Stumbling Stones”; the Topography of Terror on the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters; and Platform 17 at the Grunewald Station, from which men, women and children were loaded like cattle into rail cars to be transported to their death. Wall murals with the names and locations of all the infamous concentration camps are in building lobbies.

All these and others remind visitors as well as residents of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis against what had been a thriving Jewish community; at the war’s end, it had essentially vanished. In the view of many Jews living elsewhere, Berlin could never – should never – again be a home for Jews.

But the fact is, today it is a home for Jews again; and it’s a lively, growing community at that. Upon hearing that as many as 30,000 Jews have settled in Berlin, an elderly woman in the Fairfax District in Los Angeles asked almost in disbelief, “Have they forgotten?”

By way of response, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, chairman of the Chabad Jewish Educational Center, in Berlin by way of Brooklyn, says flatly:

“That is an irrelevant question. The fact is that they are here and they should be welcomed with love and warmth and we should invest every resource to enhance their Jewish awareness.

“It’s not in our interest to seek revenge,” he concluded.

His Chabad Lubavitch Center opened in 2007; at a cost of $7.8 million, it was the first Jewish facility in Berlin built entirely with private funds.

Once Germany was politically, socially and economically again unified in 1990, the face of the tiny surviving Jewish community began to change dramatically. First was a wave of thousands of Jews, mainly from Russia but some from other countries of Eastern Europe who came to escape discrimination and who were welcomed by the German government.

Adding to their numbers soon came entrepreneurs from abroad – including the U.S. – who found in Berlin’s booming economy attractive business opportunities. Then, most recently, some 15,000 mostly young, secular Israelis, moved to Berlin, where the cost of living is far less than back in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Before the advent of Nazism, Berlin boasted 34 synagogues. Most were closed by the Nazis and either destroyed or badly damaged in the war, but today nine – including the impressive Rykestrasse Synagogue – again are part of the Jewish community.

Badly damaged and desecrated synagogues like the Moorish-style domed Neue (New) Synagogue and its Centrum Judaicum museum and venue have been restored as much as possible. Shabbat services are conducted there by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, one of only two female rabbis in Berlin.

As with almost every Jewish institution in Berlin (and in other European cities, as a matter of fact), the Neue Synagogue is distinguished outside by no-nonsense barriers, usually concrete or massive steel stanchions. Uniformed German police are also always present, often supplemented by young armed Israel guards in civilian dress, authorized for such duty by agreement with the German government.

Upon visiting Berlin, many Jewish visitors who perhaps came reluctantly express a change in attitude. One of these was Bernard Valier, a French-born Israeli whose father was deported from France and killed in Auschwitz.

“I sensed a feeling of genuine remorse on the part of the German government,” he said, reflecting on a visit to Berlin a few years back. “Unlike the situation in some other countries in Europe, I felt in marking the Holocaust with the many memorials throughout Berlin that the authorities actually meant it.”

Awaiting Berlin visitors these days are social, gastronomic and artistic venues that are part of today’s Jewish life there. Just opened in February is a red brick building that was formerly the Jüdische Mädchenschule, the Jewish Girls’ School, but remained deserted in recent years. A simple plaque near the main entrance recounts the horrible fate of the teachers and the young women who once studied, laughed and played here.

It now has been redeveloped by art dealer and entrepreneur Michael Fuchs at a cost of some $6.5 million to be a center for art and gastronomy. On the main floor is the Pauly-Saal, a fine dining restaurant and bar with seating outside in a garden area.

Down the hall, Oskar Melzer and Paul Mogg run a lively New York-style delicatessen that features what Chef Joey Passarella (until recently of New York’s Upper East Side) claims is the only homemade pastrami to be found in Berlin. Also on the premises is the Kosher Classroom – actually an elegant kosher restaurant and catering service – while all of the upper floors are galleries whose space is given over to exhibitions by local and international artists and photographers.

After 60 years, live Jewish theater returned to Berlin in 2001 with the opening of the Bimah under creative director Israel-born Dan Lahav. Presented now in its 250-seat theater on the smart Friedrichstrasse are cabaret acts and original plays, usually satire and comedy, mostly written by Lahav.

Another quite lively example of the future face of today’s Jewish community in Berlin is the Jewish High School in Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It reopened behind the usual security fences in 1993 as a co-ed private school offering classes from fifth through 12th grade; initially, it had just 27 students. Today the school has 430 students, of whom 70 percent are Jewish.

Just as significant, Barbara Witting, principal of the Jewish High School, estimates that more than 80 percent of the school’s graduating seniors go on to university and, additionally, others take a year off before starting university to participate in humanitarian programs abroad.

To accommodate the increasing number of Jewish tourists coming from abroad is Milk & Honey Tours, started nine years ago by German-born Noa Lerner. She has seen her business expand some 20 times and today has 20 guides in Berlin alone.

Such traditional family events as weddings, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs are celebrated in top Berlin hotels. The InterContinental Berlin is particularly popular because its main ballroom can accommodate up to 1,200, although 250 to 400 is a more typical guest number for event parties in the Pavilion Room.  The hotel hosts an average of two such Jewish events a month.

Charlotte Knobloch, former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a Holocaust survivor, is quoted this way: “Germany is once again a homeland for Jews. Berlin Jewry can now regard the city in which they live [as a] Haimat, their ‘home city.’”

Editor’s note: Norman Skalrewitz is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles

By Norman Sklarewitz
For The Atlanta Jewish Times

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