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  • Writer's pictureMatti Geyer

Exploring Jewish Berlin: A Journey Through History and Resilience

Hey there! I'm Matti, a private tour guide in Berlin specializing in Jewish Berlin tours. Even though I'm not Jewish myself, my family has a deep connection to Berlin's Jewish culture. Growing up in East Germany, my mother's proficiency in Russian became invaluable after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the city was experiencing an influx of Jewish immigrants from former Soviet countries, and they needed Russian translators. My mother stepped up to the plate and eventually rose to become the Personal Assistant to the head of Berlin's Jewish community. Join me as I share the untold stories of Jewish Berlin, offering a unique perspective shaped by personal experience and historical insight.

History of Jewish Life in Berlin

Even though Berlin had a small Jewish community from medieval times onwards, the foundation of the modern Jewish community can only be traced back to the 17th century. That's because in 1573, Berlin's first Jewish community was completely expelled. But in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War, which left Berlin devastated with a loss of almost half of its population, the Great Elector sought to rebuild his country. As part of his efforts, he permitted 50 Jewish families from Vienna to settle, albeit with certain limitations.

As the 18th century unfolds, Berlin blossoms into a hub of intellectual and cultural fervor, guided by luminaries like Moses Mendelssohn. In 1812 a new law led to the partial legal equality of Jews living in Prussia. Jews in Berlin were exceptionally well integrated from the 19th to the first third of the 20th century. The roots of Reform Judaism can be traced back to this era, where Jewish communities grappled with issues of assimilation, secularization, and the desire for greater integration into wider society. One little known fact is that Berlin was home to the world’s first ordained female rabbi, Regina Jonas. A plaque commemorates her in Berlin today. 

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, 160,000 members were enrolled in Jewish communities in Berlin, now facing discrimination, violence and death. Due to increasing persecution, the affected individuals suffered more from poverty and unemployment than the rest of the Berlin population. Attempts were made within the Jewish community itself to alleviate the situation through restructuring. An emigration wave began. In 1938, as a result of the nationwide organized pogrom against the Jews, synagogues were set on fire. Jewish businesses and homes were vandalized, and many Jews were arrested. Forced emigration coupled with confiscations was pushed forward. Around 75,000 Jews lived in Berlin by 1939. In 1941, the first transport with about a thousand deported Berlin Jews left Grunewald station and took them to the former Litzmannstadt ghetto. In the following war years, more than 55,000 people classified as Jews were deported from Berlin to ghettos and extermination camps, where most of them perished.

Unsurprisingly, neither East nor West Berlin had a thriving Jewish community in the decades after the Holocaust.

Jewish Berlin Today

According to assessments by the American Jewish Committee, Berlin was the world's fastest-growing Jewish community between 1990 and 2010. This was due to the immigration of Russian Jews. Over 80 percent of the community members in 2015 were immigrants from the Soviet Union or its successor states. The community newspaper, Jüdisches Berlin, is published bilingually in German and Russian. One striking observation is that many of these Jews appear to have either forgotten or abandoned their traditions during communism. This becomes evident when visiting Jewish cemeteries: while modern graves are adorned with flowers, teddy bears, and kitschy items, older graves are marked simply by stones placed on top.

The 14th European Maccabi Games were held in Berlin in 2015, marking the first time the European Maccabi Games were hosted in Germany. In 2016, the Jewish Student Union of Germany was established as the nationwide political representation of Jewish students and young adults in Germany, with its headquarters in Berlin. A Jewish theology faculty opened at Potsdam University, just outside Berlin. There is an annual Jewish Film Festival, a Kosher Food Festival and the Day of Jewish Culture.

Despite Berlin's relatively small Jewish community of around 30,000 people, the presence of Jewish life is notable and draws attention due to its complexity, marked by police protection and ongoing discussions of historical accountability. The Jewish Community of Berlin provides its members with a wide range of Jewish infrastructure, including nine synagogues, ritual immersion baths, several schools, adult education, a nursing home, assisted living, a senior citizens' home, and an outpatient nursing service.

In addition, there is the small Orthodox community of Adass Jisroel with 1,000 members, as well as several thousand Jews who do not belong to any community. For Jewish education, children and teenagers have access to the Jewish kindergarten, the Heinz Galinski elementary school, and the Moses Mendelssohn Jewish high school. There is also a youth center and numerous other activities for Jewish youth.

However, this resurgence is not without its challenges. Antisemitism remains a concern, and security measures are in place to protect Jewish institutions. Yet, amidst these challenges, there is a sense of cautious optimism for the future of Jewish life in Berlin. As the city continues to evolve, with Jewish restaurants and cultural centers flourishing, Berlin stands as a testament to the endurance of Jewish heritage and the importance of remembrance. Through initiatives like educational programs and memorial sites, efforts are made to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten, even as eyewitnesses grow older.

One synagogue stands out as a shining example of this revival: the Fraenkelufer synagogue, currently undergoing reconstruction due to the community's need for space. This development garnered significant attention as it marks the rare rebuilding of a synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht. Led by community leaders and volunteers, the revitalized synagogue will emerge as a dynamic center for Jewish life and culture, symbolizing resilience and the city's steadfast dedication to preserving its Jewish heritage.

From Israel to Germany

After 2005, Berlin also became a magnet for young Jewish citizens from Israel. Nestled primarily in the neighborhoods of Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, and Neukölln, this community adds a unique flavor to the cityscape, blending Israeli culture with Berlin's cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Many Israelis initially planned to visit Berlin briefly, drawn by its allure of freedom and creativity. However, what was meant to be a short trip often turned into an unexpected extended stay. The city's liberal atmosphere, affordable living costs, and vibrant cultural scene make it a magnet for Israelis seeking new experiences and opportunities. Indeed, many Israelis will tell you how much cheaper and more livable Berlin is compared to Tel Aviv.

One of the main reasons why Israelis are drawn to Berlin is the opportunity to explore their German roots. Some come in search of familial connections or to retrace the footsteps of their ancestors who fled Germany during darker times. For others, Berlin represents a fresh start away from the political tensions and security concerns back home in Israel.

Israeli cuisine, with its blend of Middle Eastern and European influences, has become a staple in Berlin's gastronomic landscape. Google Israeli restaurants in Berlin and you'll find plenty!

The Struggles of Berlin’s Jewish Community and Germany's response

The Jewish community in Berlin may be growing, but with one notable absence: there are barely any orthodox Jews compared to other major cities. This is partly due to recent immigration patterns, including individuals from the Soviet Union and young Israelis, who often practice a more secular or liberal form of Judaism. Additionally, tensions in Berlin, fueled by its status as the largest Turkish city outside of Turkey, a huge Arab and Muslim population and its acceptance of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, contribute to a complex social landscape in which Jewish appearances may get you in trouble in certain neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, instances of attacks on Jewish individuals wearing religious symbols like kippahs or Stars of David are not uncommon in Berlin, also reflecting broader concerns about neo-Nazi and right-wing extremist threats. In response to these challenges, many synagogues and Jewish sites have implemented increased security measures post 9/11, including 24/7 police protection.

In light of escalating threats, Jews in Berlin have adapted their routines, with fewer openly displaying religious symbols due to safety concerns. Despite these challenges, there have been gestures of support from political leaders and compassionate individuals, such as the formation of a human chain outside a synagogue.

Regarding Germany's stance on supporting Israel, it has been unwavering, with politicians emphasizing the security of Israel as a top priority. The security of Israel is "raison d'état."

In summary, while the Jewish community in Berlin faces challenges, there are also efforts to ensure their safety and well-being amid a complex social and political landscape.

Jewish Tourism in Berlin

Jewish visitors from the United States and Israel, among other places, flock to Berlin for various reasons. Some come in search of their ancestors' homes, hoping to trace their family history and uncover connections to the past. Others are drawn by a deep interest in the city's Jewish history and culture, eager to explore its vibrant Jewish heritage.

Unsurprisingly, numerous Hebrew and English-speaking tour companies specialize in Jewish tours, offering immersive experiences that delve into the city's Jewish history. These tours cover a wide range of sights and attractions, providing insights into the diverse facets of Jewish life in Berlin.

For those seeking information about their ancestors, Levy's Contor, located in the backyards of Hackesche Höfe, serves as a valuable resource. This unique toy shop also sells a variety of items related to Judaism and maintains a book containing records of where many Jewish people lived in Berlin before the tragic events of the Holocaust.

Exploring Berlin's Jewish Heritage: Must-See Landmarks

The New Synagogue: A stunning testament to Berlin's vibrant Jewish community, this mid-19th century masterpiece was designed by renowned architect Eduard Knoblauch in Moorish style. Despite the devastation of Kristallnacht in 1938, the New Synagogue miraculously survived, thanks to the brave actions of a local policeman.

Synagoge Rykestraße: As the largest synagogue in Germany, Synagoge Rykestraße stands as a symbol of resilience. Its survival during the Nazi regime is a testament to its importance and the determination to preserve Jewish heritage.

Jewish Cemeteries: The Weissensee and Schönhauser Allee Jewish Cemeteries, among Europe's largest, offer serene and poignant reflections on Jewish history and culture.

Old Jewish Schools: These institutions played a vital role in preserving Jewish identity and culture in Berlin, highlighting the community's commitment to education.

Bavarian Quarter: Once a thriving center of Jewish life, this district housed synagogues, schools, and notable residents like Albert Einstein. Memorial signs serve as reminders of the neighborhood's rich but troubled history.

Jewish Museum: Designed by Daniel Libeskind, this renowned institution celebrates Jewish history, art, and culture, embodying the resilience of the Jewish people in Germany.

Liebermann Villa: Former home of Max Liebermann, a prominent Jewish artist, this villa-turned-museum honors his legacy and contributions to Berlin's art scene.

Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind: A poignant reminder of compassion during the Holocaust, this workshop-turned-museum preserves the memory of Otto Weidt's efforts to protect Jewish employees.

Hackescher Markt: Once a bustling hub of Jewish life, this area now blends history with modernity, offering visitors a glimpse into Berlin's vibrant past and present.

Humboldt University and Book Burning Memorial: The university's plaza, site of the infamous Nazi book burning, stands as a solemn reminder of the dangers of censorship and totalitarianism.

KaDeWe: Founded by Jewish entrepreneur Adolf Jandorf, KaDeWe remains a symbol of Berlin's commercial vitality, showcasing the city's rich cultural heritage.

Honoring the Past: Holocaust Memorials

Stolpersteine: These small brass plaques, scattered throughout Berlin's sidewalks, serve as humble yet powerful tributes to Holocaust victims, ensuring they are never forgotten. Every year on November 9th, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, locals and visitors alike gather to clean the Stolpersteine and light candles next to them. This solemn ritual is a reminder of Berliners' commitment to remembering the past and honoring the memory of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe: Designed by Peter Eisenman, this iconic memorial invites contemplation and reflection, preserving the memory of the Holocaust's victims.

Platform 17 Memorial: Located at Grunewald train station, this memorial honors the thousands of Jews deported from Berlin to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Deportation Memorial Große Hamburger Straße: Marking the former site of a collection point for Jewish citizens before deportation, this memorial stands as a reminder of the city's tragic history.

House of the Wannsee Conference: Once the site of the infamous meeting to coordinate the Final Solution, this house now serves as a memorial and education center, providing insight into the Holocaust's planning and implementation.

In conclusion, Jewish life in Berlin today reflects a complex tapestry of history, resilience, and ongoing challenges. Germany has emerged as one of Israel's strongest allies and closest friends, symbolizing a remarkable shift in relations since the atrocities of the Holocaust. While the Jewish community in Berlin is not yet comparable in size to its pre-war population, it is steadily growing, fueled by immigration, cultural revival, and a renewed sense of belonging.

However, challenges such as antisemitism and tensions with Berlin's Arab population persist, reminding us of the importance of continued dialogue, education, and mutual respect. Despite these obstacles, Berlin is undeniably on a path toward reclaiming its status as a vibrant and welcoming Jewish city. With a rich cultural heritage, thriving community initiatives, and ongoing efforts to commemorate the past while building a brighter future, Berlin stands as a beacon of hope for Jewish life in Europe.

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