2016-07-27
window.twttr = (function (d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], t = window.twttr || {}; if (d.getElementById(id)) return t; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); t._e = []; t.ready = function (f) { t._e.push(f); }; return t; }(document, "script", "twitter-wjs"));
DUESSELDORF, Germany, Aug. 17 (AP)--Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the victims of Nazi terror, Jewish life is flourishing in the land of the Holocaust once again.

A wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is fueling the resurgence and breathing new life into a Jewish community that not only is thriving, but is the fastest growing in the world.

Drawn to a country that has spent five decades demonstrating it has learned from history, the newcomers feel safe to embrace their Judaism and welcome the economic opportunities not available at home.

No one foresaw this rebirth--a vibrant slap of defiance at the Nazis who plotted their extermination.

Germany was home to 500,000 Jews before World War II. Only 15,000 of those who survived the war decided to stay, defying the disapproval of other survivors who emigrated to Israel, the United States and elsewhere.

It was a cohesive community that kept Orthodox traditions to hold the core of their faith together--and they remained relatively small in number, growing to just 30,000 by 1990.

But since the fall of communism in eastern Europe, the number of Jews in Germany has exploded to 85,000--and could grow, by some forecasts, to 120,000 within five years.

``It was not imaginable 55 years ago that there would be a Jewish community in Germany. It was said this was 'burnt ground,''' said Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. ``But today it is the third-largest Jewish community in Europe (behind France and Britain). That is unbelievable.''

Yet, since a July 27 bomb attack at a Duesseldorf train station that injured 10 Soviet immigrants--six of them Jewish--the newcomers' feeling of safety has been severely shaken. Jews are talking again of fears not voiced since the end of the World War II.

``Until we can rule out that rightist extremism was behind this, then all Jews in Duesseldorf--and all Jews in Germany--are afraid,'' Spiegel said.

Leaders of the Jewish community in Germany saw their chance for new life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The late president of the Central Council, Heinz Galinski, negotiated with Germany's then conservative-led government to create a special clause in asylum laws for Jews from the former Soviet Union. It took effect in 1991.

While many express relief at being able to express themselves as Jews, perhaps for the first time, most were motivated by economic opportunities to come to Germany. The government provides six months of language school, subsidized or temporary housing and a work permit.

But many were professionals in the former Soviet Union, and lack certification required for most professions in Germany. A disproportionate 70 percent are unemployed, and living on social benefits.

Those who do become active in the Jewish community tend to adopt a more progressive form of Judaism, a fact that has been a source of tension with the established Orthodox community.

The renewal has many forms:

A Jewish community has sprung up from nowhere in the small town of Hamelin, home to the fabled Pied Piper. Led by an American expatriate, they are struggling to make it on their own without the Central Council's support after embracing a more liberal Jewish faith.

Three-quarters of Duesseldorf's 6,300 Jews have arrived in the last 10 years. The synagogue's kindergarten has expanded from 25 children to 65, and the youth center from 170 to 800. Future plans call for building a high school. But with most of the new immigrants having trouble finding work, the community is trying to make ends meet without their new members pitching in financially.

Even in Germany's formerly communist east, Judaism is experiencing a revival. The Jewish population in eastern Thuringia state has grown from 24 in 1989 to 600. The state's main synagogue, in the city of Erfurt, was rebuilt in 1952, replacing one destroyed by the Nazis. The new synagogue was the target of a failed arson attack this year--an incident that reawakened fears of anti-Semitism among Jews.

The largest influx has been to Berlin, where the Jewish community has doubled to 12,000 members. With a 50-50 split of newcomer to native, the community is experiencing a strain over language and culture.

Recently, Rachel Dohme prepared celebrations for Tu B'Shvat, the Jewish equivalent of Arbor Day, in a room at a shopping center where the Hamelin Jewish community meets. Founded just three years ago, they now have 160 members--almost all from the former Soviet Union. Except for Dohme, an American from Pittsburgh who helped bring the community to life.

``Judaism in Germany hasn't been very normal up to now. It needs an input of some kind of new life,'' said Dohme. ``They bring, like every immigrant group, their own special taste.''

Dohme has just 20,000 marks (or about $10,000) to work with each year, money from the state culture ministry. The community follows Reform Judaism, partially in an attempt to encourage inexperienced newcomers to participate, and therefore it gets no support from the Central Council, which is more traditional.

Many of the new arrivals didn't have much experience with Judaism in the Soviet Union. At this community dinner, Dohme has to remind her members to wait to eat until after prayers.

But she reports progress. Many members are participating more actively in the weekly service.

``The fact that they will follow along--they wouldn't do that even a year ago,'' Dohme said.

Helping run the community is Polina Pelts, a former resident of Odessa, Ukraine, who has been living in Duesseldorf since September 1992.

``We worked for 38 years but had nothing to show for it--no house, no car,'' Pelts said. ``There was no possibility to lead a normal life with a pension.''

Pelts said she also experienced anti-Semitism when applying for a job in Ukraine. A trained chemist, she went to the local factory and showed her diploma and internal passport, which under Soviet law listed her nationality as Jewish. The manager said they didn't need any chemists.

In Germany, Pelts said, she doesn't feel any anti-Semitism. ``I am very proud that I can say here, 'I am a Jew.'''

Volodymyr Pesok, 62, moved from Donetsk, Ukraine, to Hamelin two years ago.

``Hitler wanted to exterminate all the Jews, but we live and he is already dead,'' Pesok said. ``This new renewal is against Hitler.''

However, Spiegel, the head of Germany's Jewish community, says those feelings of confidence may be changing. His offices are in Duesseldorf, where the bomb injured the former Soviet immigrants just minutes after their regular German class let out, on their way to catch their train home.

A situation has developed ``that we believed could never again happen in Germany,'' Spiegel said.

Duesseldorf wasn't a center of Jewish life before the war. With the influx of immigrants, there are now more Jews living in this western business city than before the Nazi devastation.

Like most of the other new immigrants, those living here are struggling to get jobs. Community director Michael Szentei-Heise estimates 70 percent to 75 percent of his working age members live off social benefits.

Language is one barrier to finding work. The absence of proper German professional certificates is another.

A young couple from Ukraine, Tatjana and Michail Lerner, were taking on both challenges headfirst. They were the most seriously injured in the attack in Duesseldorf. Tatjana, five months pregnant, suffered a miscarriage.

``I remembered those people who were so satisfied with their life and expected so much for their future,'' said Arnt Hoeller, a social worker at the Jewish community. ``And I realized that everything was destroyed in that one moment.''

The two had already moved to their own one-bedroom apartment away from the transitional home where residents share communal bathrooms and kitchens.

Tatjana could already speak German fluently after just three months of classes, a teacher said.

``They were just taking their first steps,'' Szentei-Heise said.

The mood changed in the eastern city of Erfurt after neo-Nazi teen-agers tried to set the city's synagogue on fire April 20, the anniversary of Hitler's birthday.

Natalya and Mykola Kovalov, who have lived across from the synagogue since arriving from Ukraine nearly two years ago, said they haven't experienced any violence themselves. But the Molotov cocktails introduced a new fear:

``We feel afraid for the children after this event,'' Natalya said. ``We didn't expect that.''

She said they see skinheads now and then on the streets but don't feel too worried because ``there's a lot of police'' around to protect the synagogue. But they're also aware of the potential danger.

``We try to follow the news, political developments,'' she said. ``What happened is not an isolated incident. There was the cemetery vandalism, and the neo-Nazi parade in Gera,'' a nearby town.

In their native Ukraine, she was a teacher, and he was a metallurgist. So far, neither has found real work in Germany--their main disappointment.

Natalya recently started a part-time job teaching folk dancing to Russian children, but is limited to how much she can earn without risking the family's welfare benefits, which include free rent, cash for clothing and a stipend of 2,000 marks ($1,000) a month.

``After the Ukraine it's not bad,'' she said. ``We have no financial problems.''

Until the recent attacks and reports of rising incidents of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community's primary work was helping the immigrants integrate and getting funds from the German government. Now Spiegel and others are focusing on national efforts to fight anti-Semitism and anti-foreigner sentiment.

The attack in Duesseldorf introduced an element of terrorism not typical of previous anti-foreigner attacks--generally carried out by neo-Nazis in groups who physically assault foreigners. On Aug. 7, police in Bavaria reported another bomb found outside the gate to the house of the family of the late former head of the Jewish community in Bamberg.

As anti-foreigner attacks grow more violent, the government has acknowledged a rise in acts of anti-Semitism, encompassing anything from vandalism in Jewish cemeteries to the firebombing of the Erfurt synagogue.

There were 157 incidents in April, May and June--17 more than in the first three months of the year and 47 more than during the same period of 1999.

``It is the most serious situation in the federal republic since its founding, and it's a very dangerous situation,'' Michel Friedman, one of Germany's most prominent Jewish leaders, told reporters after a news conference to launch a public and private initiative promoting tolerance.

Pelts, who lives in Hamelin, said that since the Duesseldorf attack, Jews have for the first time begun worrying about their safety. A police officer has even come to speak with them about security.

``We haven't hidden ourselves here. We have always openly done what we do and shown the public that we are here, we exist, we do our religious things here,'' she said. ``Now, I only hope that it continues this way.''

window.twttr = (function (d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], t = window.twttr || {}; if (d.getElementById(id)) return t; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); t._e = []; t.ready = function (f) { t._e.push(f); }; return t; }(document, "script", "twitter-wjs"));
more from beliefnet and our partners