Berlin: Where Jews want to live
"It means a lot to me that I grew up in Berlin," says Greta Zelener. "As far as Judaism, it's the German city with the most to offer." Zelener is Jewish, and the 28-year-old is currently writing her doctoral thesis at Berlin's Humboldt University. She has been living in Berlin for 20 years. She and her parents moved here from Odessa. Her great-grandmother once lived in Berlin before fleeing to Ukraine. Berlin, however, is also the city where the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jewish people.
Eighty years ago, synagogues around Germany burned, including in Berlin. Mobs around the country smashed the windows of Jewish businesses and looted them. Thugs dragged Jewish men through the streets by their beards and beat them. Shortly thereafter, the mass murder of Jews began. Now, 80 years later, rabbis are educated in the city — liberals, conservatives and orthodox. Today, more Jews live in Berlin than at any time since the Holocaust. And this week some 1,000 Jews from around Germany participated in a conference on the future of Judaism called "Weil ich hier leben will" (Because I want to live here).
Introduced to her Jewish heritage in fifth grade
Greta Zelener says she is "not religious." When asked about places representing Jewish identity in Berlin she points to a commemorative site. She says the permanent memorial exhibition at the Anne Frank Center at Hackescher Markt is very important to her. "That was the first place that my Jewish heritage was made clear to me — when I was in fifth grade," she says. Then she mentions Charlottenburg as another example. Zelener lives in the neighborhood today, just as her great-grandmother did before she was forced to flee. She says one reason Charlottenburg is a place of Jewish identity is the fact that it is home to the city's largest kosher supermarket.
Michael Beynisch also arrived in Germany from Ukraine, several years ago. He came here from the city of Kharkiv. The 42-year-old and his wife and children belong to the strict religious Chabad-Lubavitch congregation in Willmersdorf. He recalls having heard about the Nazi extermination of Jews on an "almost daily" basis when he lived in Ukraine — even during the Soviet era. "But we could never really imagine how people must have felt during those dark days."
I don't step on 'Stolpersteine'
For Beynisch, who works in the security sector, Berlin's "Stolpersteine" have special significance. The name literally means "stumbling blocks" and one sees the square brass plaques embedded in sidewalks throughout the city. In 1992, German artist Gunter Demnig began installing the plaques in front of houses where Jews lived before being deported and murdered by the Nazis. "I try not to step on them out of respect," says Beynisch. He also reflects on the fate of Jews in Germany when he visits the Track 17 memorial at the Grunewald railway station. It was here that tens of thousands of Jews were packed into railcars and sent off to be killed. "The atmosphere at the track fills me with a deep sense of sadness — the plants growing along the tracks, the silence."
Beynisch and Zelener are aware of anti-Semitism in Berlin but say they are not too concerned about it. Beynisch says he has traveled in many countries and "anti-Semitism is the same everywhere." He says he has experienced much more overt anti-Semitism in Ukraine and Russia than he has in Germany. "It's not so open in Germany, maybe people talk more freely about it at home."
The state takes great pains to protect Jewish life in the capital. In 2016, Berlin's city government said that 65 institutions were under constant police protection. Anyone who walks through the eastern city center sees numerous uniformed guards, barriers, "no entry" signs, tall fences and surveillance cameras. Many institutions are protected against vehicular attack by massive concrete barriers and heavy iron chains — yes, that is Berlin in 2018; 80 years after the November pogroms collectively known as Kristallnacht, 73 years after the Holocaust.
Yet, there are also a number of Jewish institutions not under police protection. One such place is a nice Jewish restaurant in the Mitte neighborhood run by a woman who came here from Jerusalem a few years ago. When asked about her thoughts on anti-Semitism in Germany, she immediately waves me off: "Sorry, not interested." Maybe she is thinking about Yorai Feinberg, a Jewish restauranteur in Schöneberg who reported an especially disturbing case of anti-Semitism in 2017. He has been the target of insults and threats ever since.
Hate on the playing field
Michael Beynisch has also experienced anti-Semitic hatred in Germany firsthand. Beynisch plays football for amateur Berlin club TuS Makkabi. He says that things escalated dramatically once while his team was playing against opponents with a number of Arab players. Fans at the game were openly abusive. "I was afraid I would be hurt," he says, but adds that he does not sense such fear in his everyday life in Berlin.
Greta Zelener says the police presence in front of Jewish institutions is also just part of everyday life. "You get used to it when you grow up here." Of course, she says, one wishes Judaism would just be something normal and not need to be protected. But the deadly anti-Semitic shooting that recently took place in Pittsburgh is a reminder that bloody attacks are always a possibility. She says she "was pretty relaxed" about the topic of anti-Semitism "until the [far-right Alternative for Germany party] was voted into parliament." Since then, she says she fears "anti-Semitism might enter the mainstream of society and insults may become the norm." That is when normalcy begins to crumble.
When eyewitnesses die out …
Zelener is writing her thesis on Jewish adult education. The topic, however, does not primarily address remembrance of the Holocaust. But the 28-year-old, who receives support from the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund, a federally-funded Jewish institution, thinks about the Holocaust nevertheless. She supports the idea that school children should visit Jewish museums, memorial sites and former concentration camps. "And it becomes even more important to maintain those memories when eyewitnesses die," she says.
Greta Zelener and Michael Beynisch, both with very different religious backgrounds, are just two examples of what Jewish life in Berlin looks like today. Still, they have one thing in common: Zelener recalls her first day of school and says she didn't know a word of German — now she is a Ph.D. candidate. Beynisch, who speaks German slowly and with a heavy accent, tells me about his three children — ages nine, seven and five. He says at home he speaks Russian with them. They speak Hebrew at synagogue, English at school and German amongst themselves.
All of them are part of a new generation of Jewish life in Berlin. The city has been a magnet for people of the Jewish faith for years — for Jews from Eastern Europe, Great Britain, France and even Israel. There are no hard numbers as to how many Jewish residents the city has. Still, more than 12,000 people belong to Jewish congregations in the capital and it is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews call Berlin home today. The city's supermarkets offer kosher products and the number of Jewish or Israeli restaurants continues to grow every month. Eighty years on, a cautious normalcy has been established.