German Jewish population explodes


Published September 10, 2001

CHEMNITZ, Germany The soprano voice of a 13-year-old boy singing in Hebrew rang through the Jewish center here, signaling the revival of a community that had once been nearly extinguished.

Alexander Beribes, who is originally from Ukraine, was celebrating his bar mitzvah, the first boy to be so welcomed into Jewish manhood in this city since the Nazis burned the synagogue to the ground on Nov. 9, 1938, and dragged the rabbi off into the Night of the Broken Glass.

"There is Jewish life in this city again," said Siegmund Rotstein, head of the Jewish community in Chemnitz and one of about 80 congregants, nearly all of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

As Rotstein watched, the young man"s voice carried him back to the gutted synagogue and his own aborted bar mitzvah, which was to have been held there on Nov. 30, 1938.

In 1990, the official Jewish community in Chemnitz, a small, industrial city in eastern Germany known as Karl Marx City under Communist rule, consisted of 12 aging members. "I was 55 and I was the youngster," said Renate Aris. Eleven years later, it has 390-more Jews than in all of East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell and a new synagogue under construction. Men chatter in Russian in the halls of the community house and the smell of challah bread wafts from the kitchen where two Ukrainian women are baking for a street festival.

With Germany opening a landmark Jewish museum in Berlin on Sunday commemorating 2,000 years of Jewish life here and recording its destruction between 1933 and 1945 the land that spawned the Nazis finds itself with the fastest-growing Jewish population in percentage terms in the world.

A wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union has at least tripled the number of Jews in Germany in 10 years. In 1990, there were 29,000 Jews in West Germany and 370 in East Germany compared with 500,000 in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power. Today, the Central Council of Jews in reunified Germany has 90,000 members another 60,000 former Soviet Jews and their non-Jewish family members who came with them are not registered with the council. Synagogues are being built across the country, including three in the former East German cities of Chemnitz, Dresden and Leipzig.

"Demographically, there wasn"t much of a future, especially for small communities," said Michael Brenner, professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich. "Immigration has changed that dramatically."

The invitation to Soviet Jews began as an act of redemption by East Germany"s first democratically elected government after the fall of the Wall in 1989 it was incorporated into the reunification agreement between the divided Germanys. Each year since 1991, at least 5,000 Jews and accompanying family members from the former Soviet Union have received visas. German officials predict the wave will not break for another five to 10 years.

With immigration to the United States now difficult and some Jewish families reluctant to emigrate to Israel because of the violence there, Germany has become a magnet as much for economic reasons as religious ones.

"I did it for my sons," said Yakov Maekov, 65, a former professor of education in the Russian city of Orel who arrived here in 1996. "Both my sons work here one is a doctor in Leipzig and the other is a manager at a company in Stuttgart." Maekov said he feels free to live as a Jew here, reviving a religious identity that he had suppressed in Russia for fear of discrimination.

Despite a rise in xenophobic crime in Germany since 1991, the immigrants dismiss concerns about German anti-Semitism as their presence becomes more visible. "I can wear this proudly," said Abram Frandlih, 64, a tailor who moved to Chemnitz from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1997. He was pointing to his yarmulke. "In Moldova it would have been impossible."

"We don"t like anti-Semitic actions, but the situation is not too tragic compared to what many of us had to deal with in the past," said Boris Feldman, who immigrated from Latvia in 1991 and who now publishes a chain of Russian-language newspapers in Germany. "We have experience, believe me, and it"s not a big issue here."

But immigration has not come without tension. The immigrants, often Jews only by virtue of a stamp in their Soviet identification papers, mostly arrive with little knowledge of Judaism and no ability to speak German, swamping small congregations and forcing established communities to act as social welfare agencies. Older immigrants, many of them highly educated but unemployable here, must live on handouts.

And, in some cases, the immigrants are greeted with the startling truth that whatever they may have thought and been persecuted for in the past they are not considered Jewish. The Jewish law of Halacha, rigorously adhered to in Germany, says that religion comes from the mother"s side and immigrants with only a Jewish father must convert or not take part in formal religious activities.

"We lose a lot of people," said Ruth Roecher, an Israeli who teaches religion in Chemnitz. "They say, "All my life I suffered because I was a Jew, so why should I convert now?" They are very proud and they drift away."

In Chemnitz alone, there are about 600 Soviet immigrants who are not members of the Jewish community, many indifferent to religion and here for economic reasons, but some feeling rejected by the interpretation of Jewish law that excludes them. Partly in response, Reform congregations, with a more liberal interpretation of Jewishness, have begun to appear here for the first time since before the war, said Brenner, the professor of Jewish history.

In 1945, when Rotstein returned to Chemnitz, having survived slave labor factories and the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he found 57 other Jewish survivors. Two thousand of the city"s prewar Jewish population of 3,500 had perished and most of the rest had scattered to Israel and the United States.

In West Germany in the first three years after the war, there were 200,000 displaced Jews, nearly all East Europeans, in refugee camps. Jewish agencies appealed to all of them to leave. "The complete liquidation of the Jewish community in Germany by means of emigration is ... of vital importance to the entire Jewish people," wrote the Jewish Frontier newspaper in 1951.

But about 15,000 could not move because of illness, marriage or business ties. By 1989, it was a small, unobtrusive community. Today it is invigorated.

"This new Russian immigration is a virtue," said Albert Meyer, a lawyer in Berlin whose family has deep German roots. "We were a dying community and the children of these new immigrants can bring a new intellectual vibrancy to Jewish life."

And for non-Jewish Germans, the renewal of communities can feel like a form of atonement. "It is not the task of the Jewish community to build a synagogue," said Karl-Hans Moeller, a member of a committee supporting the new Chemnitz synagogue. The $4.5 million building is being paid for by the city, the state of Saxony and $250,000 in local contributions. "Germans destroyed the synagogue and Germans should rebuild one. We cannot bring back one life, but we can do this."

Roecher, the religion teacher, has 50 students in Saxony from age 8 to 18, studying Hebrew and learning about Judaism in after-school classes. Unlike their parents, these young people are already fluent in German.

"I want to follow the traditions," said Yevgeniya Shemyakova, 16, who arrived from Ukraine in 1997 and attends Roecher"s class in Chemnitz. "And I want my children to be Jewish."