Last week I came back from a trip to Germany. The experience was organized by the Berlin-based organization Germany Close Up, in coordination with NY’s COJECO. The program takes a group of young Jewish professionals (I technically still fit the “young” label) to Berlin in order to expose participants to modern Jewish life and to show us that the past has not been forgotten.
This was my second time in Germany, first time in Berlin, and the first trip outside of U.S and Israel where the topic of Jewish life was the main theme. To share these experiences and conversations with native Germans, some of whom had grandparents who fought in WW2 against the Red Army, where my own grandfathers fought, felt at times, surreal.
To say that Jewish life in Germany is thriving, as is reported by some sources, would not be accurate. According to most experts we spoke with, Germany’s Jewish community has a population of roughly 150,000 people. Around 90% of them are Russian-speaking Jews who arrived after the Soviet Union collapsed. Berlin’s Jewish population is between 10,000 – 30,000. A Berlin-based graduate student who we met at a prearranged dinner stated that we were the first Jews that she met in her life. Ironically, the book Unorthodox – an autobiographic tale of an ex-Orthodox Jewish woman, is the central topic of this graduate student’s masters thesis. During our brief conversation I stressed the point that the experiences described in that book are not representative of most Jews.
Most Jewish institutions and buildings have no Jewish symbols or hint at the activities happening inside. At the same time, all Jewish buildings, schools, synagogues, and community centers, have armed police officers posted at the entrance around the clock. A Jewish school in the city of Hamburg was surrounded by a high fence and guarded by a policewoman with a a machine gun.
Despite all the security precautions it was not clear if antisemitism was a serious threat, and if it was, what was the cause. Our group met with a number of politicians and representatives of NGOs to discuss the issue. A frequent topic was the rise of right-wing political parties, specifically the AfD (Alternative for Germany.) Most of the presenters and even the left-leaning politicians admitted that these political groups are not antisemitic in policy or in their message. However, the rise in populism and nationalism now makes antisemitism less of taboo and individuals who harbor anti Jewish feelings are less inclined to keep them a secret.
Another frequent topic of discussion was the issue of refugees. Every presenter we talked with admitted that Germany did not have a strategy in place when the refugee crisis hit. The initial assumption was that Germany was taking in refugees on a temporary basis and so no effort was made to provide jobs or build a path to assimilation. Now that the problem has become evident, Germany is rushing to upgrade its education system to accommodate people who will most likely be staying for the foreseeable future. Most of the Germans we met with stated that antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment is a serious problem within the recent refugee population and that Germany will need to do a lot more to combat this problem, especially on the school level.
We visited many Holocaust related institutions, memorials, museums, a concentration camp. A guide in one of the museums shared a unique observations as we were standing next to photos of Jews being executed by SS officers. He said that many of the Russian and Jewish groups who visit the museum relate personally to the victims in the photos, thinking that they could perhaps be distant relatives of theirs. He told us, it is not so with the German visitors. They, he told us, do not relate to the German officers shown in the photos, and can not imagine that some of them could be a relative. Perhaps the past and present does feel for them like it happened in different countries.