Rebirth of Jewish Life in 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 Communist-controlled East Berlin. At the same time, the horrendous fate of Berlin’s once thriving Jewish community of some 160,000, the largest in Europe, 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, the Platform 17 at Grunewald Station from which men, women and children were loaded like cattle into railcars 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 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, it is 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.” He adds, “It’s not in our interest to seek revenge.” His Chabad Lubavitch Center opened in 2007. At a cost of $7.8 million, it was the first Jewish facility in Berlin built after the war 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 other countries of Eastern Europe who came to escape discrimination and who were welcomed by the German government. Adding to their numbers, entrepreneurs from abroad found attractive business opportunities in Berlin’s booming economy. More recently, some 15,000, mostly young, secular Israelis, have moved to Berlin where the cost of living is far less than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Badly damaged and desecrated synagogues like the Moorishstyle 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 two female rabbis in Berlin. Before the advent of Nazism, Berlin boasted 34 synagogues. Closed by the Nazis, most were either destroyed or badly damaged in the war. Today nine, including the impressive Rykestrasse Synagogue, are again part of the Jewish community.

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 Israeli guards in civilian dress, authorized for such duty by agreement with the German government.

Upon visiting Berlin, many reluctant Jewish visitors frequently 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. Of a visit to Berlin a few years ago, he says, “I sensed a feeling of genuine remorse on the part of the German government. 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.”

Also awaiting Berlin visitors are social, gastronomic and artistic venues that are part of today’s Jewish life there. For years the building that was home to the Jüdische Mädchenschule, Jewish girls’ school, remained deserted. 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. On the premises, too, is the Kosher Classroom, actually an elegant kosher restaurant and catering service. All 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, Jewish Theater Berlin under its creative director, Israel-born Dan Lahav. Its 250-seat theater on the smart Friedrichstrasse now features cabaret acts and original plays, usually satire and comedy, mostly written by Lahav. Another 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 for students in fifth to 12th grade. Initially, it had just 27 students. Today the school has 430 students, of whom 70% are Jewish. Barbara Witting, principal of the Jewish High School, estimates that more than 80% of the school’s graduating seniors go on to university, though some take a year off before starting university to participate in humanitarian programs abroad. To accommodate the increasing number of Jewish tourists coming from abroad, Milk & Honey Tours started nine years ago by German-born Noa Lerner. She has seen her business expand and today has 20 guides in Berlin alone.

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 people, 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, notes: “Germany is once again a homeland for Jews. Berlin Jewry can now regard the city in which they live a Haimat, their ‘home city.’ ”

Norman Sklarewitz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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