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Analysis: Jews flooding into Germany

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   June 5, 2003 at 5:26 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, June 5 (UPI) -- The turbulent relationship between Jews and Germany is taking yet another stunning turn. Seventy years after Hitler's ascendance to power and 60 years after the Holocaust, more Jews are flooding into Germany than into any other country, Israel included.

This makes Germany the one nation with the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world. Ironically, one reason for this state of affairs is the anti-Semitism in their countries of origin, chiefly successor states of the former Soviet Union, Julius H. Schoeps, head of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam, told United Press International Thursday.

"Of course there are other reasons as well, such as economic considerations and the chance to give their children a better education," Schoeps allowed. "Moreover, they see Germany as a 'safe country.'"

As a result of this accelerating migration, the Jewish population in Germany has swollen from 33,000 in 1990, the year of that nation's reunification, to 200,000 today, according to Schoeps. Before World War II more than half a million Jews lived in that country. At the end of the war there were only 15,000 left.

But in 2002, 19,262 Jews from the former Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States settled in Germany, compared with 18,878 who went to Israel and fewer than 10,000 who were admitted into the United States. German consulates in CIS cities report that 70,000 more Jews have already applied for resettlement visas. In addition, thousands of Israelis, whose parents had fled to Palestine in the Nazi years, are now claiming German passports to which they are entitled by German law.

"Thanks to these developments I believe there is a good chance for the emergence of a new German Jewry," said Schoeps, a historian who was born in World War II in Stockholm, where his parents had found exile. "I absolutely welcome this," Rabbi Carl Feit, a Talmudic scholar and cancer researcher at New York's Yeshiva University, told UPI in an interview.

Feit interpreted the Jews' return to Germany as "a fulfillment of a biblical spiritual theme -- the rebirth and rejuvenation for which there are many examples in history, where Jewish people in one part of the world or another have seemed to have been eclipsed only to reappear against all odds and common expectations."

Feit added, "The biblical paradigm for this rebirth was the return of the Jews to Israel" from the Babylonian captivity in 516 B.C.

There are many ironies in this sudden rejuvenation of Ashkenazic Judaism. The very word, Ashkenaz, which defines German and Eastern European Jews, is the Hebrew term for Germany. This is so, explained Feit, "because the entire Jewish culture in Eastern Europe derives from Jewish communities that lived in three German cities along the Rhine more than 900 years ago."

"The German and Jewish cultures used to fertilize each other," Feit went on. Yiddish, the idiom spoken by 12 million Jews up until World War II, is essentially a medieval German dialect. The two languages are so close that Arnold Beichman, the New York-born writer and political scientist, often quips, "I like to speak German because it is just Yiddish with a better accent."

According to Feit, Yiddish, too, is currently undergoing rejuvenation after decades of decline. This is to some extent also true in Germany, where the ultra-orthodox Lubavichers, coming primarily from New York and London, are doing mission among the mostly secularized Russian-speaking immigrants, most of whom "don't even know the difference between a synagogue and a church," Schoeps said.

The Yiddish-speaking Lubavichers are a Hassidic sect. In their effort to bring immigrants from Eastern Europe to faith, they compete with assorted other religious movements, including Messianic Jews.

Only about 60,000 of the 175,000 Jewish immigrants in Germany are already registered with any of the 84 synagogue congregations, most of which have sprung up in the past decade, Schoeps related. "In some eastern German cities, such as Potsdam, Halle and Rostock, our congregations are now 100 percent Russian-speaking," he said.

Do they fear that anti-Semitism in Germany might once again be on the rise? "They are not really worried," replied Schoeps, who attributed the spate of racist outrages in the early 1990s primarily to hooligans raised without any values in eastern Germany's gray Moscow-style housing estates.

As for the rest of the population, "there are now between 200,000 and 300,000 Russians in Berlin alone, and Germans don't know and don't really care who among them is Jewish and who is not."

But there is another irony in this influx of Jews from the East: Although most are highly educated -- Schoeps described the quintessential immigrant as a mathematician from, say, St. Petersburg -- they cost the German taxpayer money. "Between 60 and 70 percent of them are on welfare because they cannot find work. They don't speak German yet, and their Soviet diplomas are not recognized by Germany."

There are now programs to retrain them. "We have developed projects to turn mathematicians into computer specialists, for example," said Schoeps. But that's only one side. The other side is that now there is a sudden need for teachers, social workers, rabbis and cantors. At Potsdam University, of which Schoeps' center is part, a rabbinical seminary -- the Abraham Geiger Kolleg --has been created.

What will Germany's new Jewish culture look like? Before Hitler, German Jews were among the most assimilated in Europe; culturally they were thoroughly German. Berlin was the first city in Europe with a Jewish high school, created in 1778 along the traditional German "Gymnasium" lines at the instigation of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish Enlightenment philosopher.

This school was closed in 1942 and did not reopen until 1993, when the sudden influx of Jews from the East commenced. But then most of its students and faculty were gentiles, and the Hebrew teacher was a Protestant pastor.

Reflecting on the rich cultural history of Jews in Germany, which this school represents, Schoeps mused, "The intellectual heritage of German Jews included Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich Heine, while this new Jewish community is at home with Tolstoy and Gogol."

But then, what about the next generation of German Jews? "Probably Goethe, Schiller and Heine, plus Gogol and Tolstoy -- not a bad prospect, don't you think?"

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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