BERLIN – Once the infamous Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the sweeping reconstruction that began in West Berlin at the war’s end was repeated and even accelerated in what had been Communist controlled East Berlin.
Spectacular shopping complexes, elegant new hotels and office towers dominate the now united city. At the same time, the horrendous fate of Berlin’s once thriving Jewish community of some 160,000, largest in Europe, continues to be observed with somber memorials throughout Berlin.
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 where men, women and children were loaded like cattle into rail cars to be transported to their death at Auschwitz and Lodz.
Wall murals with the names and locations of all the infamous concentration camps are in building lobbies around Berlin. 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, that community had essentially vanished.
In the view of many, if not most, Jews living elsewhere, Berlin could never – should never – again be a home for Jews. Yet, in an odd twist of history, Jewish life today has returned to Berlin. Upon learning that as many as 30,000 Jews have come to Germany and settled in Berlin, an elderly woman in the heavily Jewish Fairfax district of Los Angeles asked almost in disbelief, “Have they forgotten?”
But, Jewish life in Berlin today is diverse and reflects an admittedly complicated, often a confusing tapestry of social, national and economic fabrics.
Only a relatively small number of Jews resided in Berlin after the war and while it was still divided between the East and the West. Once Germany was politically, socially, and economically again unified in 1990 things began to change dramatically. First was a wave of thousands of Jews mainly from Russia and Eastern Europe who came to escape discrimination and who were welcomed by the German government.
Adding to their numbers were entrepreneurs from abroad including the U.S. who found in Berlin’s booming economy attractive business opportunities. Most recently Berlin has seem 15,000 young, secular Israelis seeking a “better life” than what life in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem affords.
Mixed together, the social, religious, artistic, and commercial interests of these various groups from various countries have created something few believed would ever exist again – a Renaissance of Jewish life in Berlin. Physical evidence of this rebirth is seen throughout Berlin, but mainly in the eastern neighborhoods that historically were centers of Jewish life until mid-1930s.
Something of a showplace is Rabbi Teichtal’s Chabad Lubawitsch Center. Opened in 2007 at a cost of $7.8 million, it was the first Jewish facility in Berlin built entirely with private funds. The three story, 25,000-square-foot structure includes a sanctuary accommodating 250, an elementary school, the King David Kosher Restaurant, a ritual bath mikvah, a small religious school yeshiva headed by Rabbi Uri Gamson from Israel, an impressive library, a media center, social hall and a Judaica store. A soup kitchen provides free meals to elderly indigent Jews. Rabbi Teichtal last year opened another Chabad Center in East Berlin using an available office building.
Badly damaged and desecrated synagogues, such as the Moorish-style domed Neue (New) Synagogue and its Centrum Judaicum museum, have been restored as much as possible and now open for Friday night Shabbat services. Its great sanctuary that once seated 3,200 worshipers was destroyed but the upper tiers where women were accommodated is now the main room for services conducted by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, one of only two female rabbis in Berlin. Before the advent of Nazism, Berlin boasted 34 synagogues. Most were closed by the Nazis and either destroyed or badly damaged in the war. Today, nine including the impressive Rykestrasse Synagogue belong again to the Jewish community.
The Neue Synagogue shows few distinguishing features on its exterior other than no-nonsense protective barriers. This motif is characteristic of every Jewish institution in Berlin, as well as in other European cities — usually concrete or massive steel stanchions. Uniformed German police are always present, often supplemented by young armed Israeli guards in civilian dress, authorized for such duty by agreement with the German government. Entry is via a security screening area, not that different from those in airports.
Concedes one Jewish resident, “We do have anti-Semitic graffiti, and there are neo-Nazis here, too.” Nevertheless, while the real threats are quite low, it is clear that the Germany government does not want any international incidents.
Upon visiting Berlin, many Jewish visitors formerly reluctant and critical of Germany, frequently express a change of tone. Bernard Valier, a French-born Israeli whose father was deported from France and killed in Auschwitz remarked, “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.”
Rebirth of Jewish Life and the Search for the Perfect Pastrami
Beyond the memorials and the synagogues, it is not hard to spot examples of lively rebirth of Jewish social, gastronomic, and artistic life in Germany’s capital.
Re-opened in February last year was a red brick building that was formerly the Jüdische Mädchenschule, the Jewish Girls’ School. 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. An adjoining open area was a collection point from which other Jews from the neighborhood were transported to camps to be murdered.
While the building’s name has been retained as a mark of respect, it is now a center for art and gastronomy, a project developed by art dealer and entrepreneur Michael Fuchs at a cost of $6.5 million. 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 the Upper East Side, claims is the only home-made pastrami to be found in Berlin. On his menu, too, find matzo ball soup, chicken liver and New York cheesecake. On the premises is the Kosher Classroom, actually a small restaurant and catering service. Upper floors contain showpiece galleries for exhibitions by local and international artists and photographers.
Also found throughout the city today are specialty restaurants catering to Russian patrons and there are plenty of bars, cafes, and clubs popular with the young Israelis. Many of them reside in the Neukoelln neighborhood, dubbed “Little Israel.” That’s where you will find Keren’s Kitchen along with other restaurants specializing in hummus dishes and Palestinian fare.
A Return to the Action
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. Presented now in its 250-seat theater on the smart Admiralspalast are cabaret acts and original plays, usually satire and comedy, mostly written by Lahav. In the Bimah’s company is a cast of eight. Among its recent productions were Shabbat Shalom, A Friday Evening in a Jewish Family, and Three Lusty Widows and a Dancing Rabbi.
Jews are well represented in Berlin’s entertainment industries, too, by film makers, artists, designers, stand-up comics, young rock performers like Sharon Levy, finalist in the “Voice of Germany” competition, the local TV equivalent of “American Idol”, and a DJ called Mashugana.
Simimlarly, Jews once again hold a prominent place Berlin’s booming business world. High on this list is Michael Zehden, CEO of Albeck & Zehden, a hotel management and consultancy firm with a portfolio of 12 hotels, four in Berlin. Zehden was co-founder of Berlin Tourism Marketing, is on the board of the Berlin Airport.
Charlotte Knobloch, former head of the Council of Jews in Germany, is quoted this way. “The Jewish community has arrived. Germany is once again a home for Jews.”
Visitors looking for in-depth tours of Jewish life in Berlin can contact Milk & Honey Tours: firstname.lastname@example.org
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