Behind the Headlines the Jews of East Germany

– The government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) treats its Jews as an “endangered species,” offering support for cultural events, and synagogue, memorial and cemetery upkeep. There are Jewish lecture series, with non-Jewish lecturers. There are Jewish movies, records and books. There are popular plays such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

In East Berlin, there is a kosher butcher and a Jewish old age home (which also has non-Jews because there are not enough Jews to fill it). The largest Jewish cemetery in Europe is in East Berlin, the size of 120 football fields; the final resting place for 114,000 Jews. But there are pitifully few Jews living in the GDR.

Of a total population of 17 million, the Jewish community today has only some 600 members. Soon there will be even fewer. Despite government efforts to preserve Jewish culture, religion and memorial sites, the number of Jews is too small to insure a viable future for the community. The Jews of the GDR are like fossils–reminders of the rich past of German-Jewish culture, with no possibility of restoring this past.

“The Third Reich didn’t interrupt the glorious traditions of German-Jewish culture. It destroyed them forever,” one “Communist of Jewish descent” explained to me.

A VERY REAL QUESTION

In the words of Klaus Gysi, State Secretary for Church Affairs, (whose mother, incidentally, was Jewish): “The question of how the Jewish community will continue to live is a very real question. Frankly speaking, it is unpleasant to ask, because we might be blamed (for its demise), but it’s not our fault. I wish the process (of attrition) were not so rapid and intense.” Very few members are below the age of 25, he noted.

STANCE OF UNREALISTIC OPTIMISM

When leaders of the Jewish community are asked to predict the future of Judaism in the GDR, most take a stance of unrealistic optimism. Helmut Aris of Dresden, Chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in the GDR, said: “When we review the history of the Jews, we notice there are ups and down. We survived the Holocaust, and we hope we will survive in the future… We do not think about it so much. I already have two grandchildren who are members of the Gemeinde (community).”

Aris admitted, however, that there was no Jewish wedding in Dresden in recent years, and none in the entire GDR last year. “By living today and working for our community, we are preserving Judaism… We will do our best,” he said.

Eugen Gollomb, head of the Leipzig Gemeinde, said simply: “Jews live with hope.” But statistics belie his hopefulness. In his community of 54 Jews, the most recent Jewish wedding took place in 1955. There are only five Jewish children in Leipzig. Twin boys, sons of a Jewish mother and a father who converted to Judaism, became Bar Mitzvah two years ago. Their parents are now divorced, their father no longer Jewish.

Gollomb is the Hebrew and ritual teacher. An Auschwitz survivor, he laughed as he recalled his father forcing him to study in a yeshiva in his native Lodz, Poland. Now the once reluctant scholar is the only source of traditional Jewish education for his Gemeinde. Gollomb’s wife is not Jewish. The wife of another community leader, Aaron Alderstein, converted to Judaism, as did his daughter’s husband.

SOME PRESSING PROBLEMS

In East Berlin, the numbers of Jews are larger, but the future is no brighter. Of the 285 members of the Jewish community, only 11 are children, most of them girls. There have been three Bar Mitzvahs in the last two years; the next is 10 years off. Twin girls celebrated their Bat Mitzvah recently.

In a summer camp serving all of the Jewish communities of the GDR, there are only 20 campers between the ages of seven and 14. Will these children, the next generation, remain Gemeinde members? “Because of the small number, it’s very hard for Jewish boys and girls to find each other,” a community leader commented.

Even the resting places of the dead Jews of the GDR suffer because of the dearth of living Jews. The small East Berlin Gemeinde simply cannot cope with the care required by such a huge cemetery. Since there is virtually 100 percent employment in the GDR and cemetery maintenance is not a desirable job, the graves are badly overgrown. “The West Berlin Gemeinde is lucky the cemetery is on our side of the wall,” quipped one official.

Recognizing that the Gemeinde cannot manage the cemetery on its own and that many of those buried there have no relatives to attend to their graves, the Office for Church Affairs helps with maintenance. But State Secretary Gysi admitted that not enough is done.

In addition to demographics, isolation from other Jewish communities is a serious problem for the Jews of the GDR, Dr. Peter Kirchner, a 45-year-old neurologist who heads the East Berlin Gemeinde, attributed this to the negative image among Western Jewry of the GDR as a Communist state. “They do not know of our unhindered life as Jews here,” he said. “There is no anti-Semitism, as in West Germany.”

With the world’s Jewish population severely diminished by the Holocaust, it is ironic that many American Jews have “written off” the brave remnant of Jewish people in the GDR, nearly all of them survivors or children of survivors. Some of the possible explanations for this may be the Communist East German government limits compensation for Holocaust victims to those who live in the GDR; the government is pro-Palestine Liberation Organization; political accomodation to West Germany on the part of American Jewish leaders and their disapproval of East Germany’s politics, although disagreements with government policies in other countries have not prevented American Jews from building bridges to those Jewish communities.

Perhaps the neglect results from lack of information about the Jewish community of the GDR. Whatever the cause of the neglect, the time to reach the Jewish community of the GDR is now. In a generation or two, there may be no one at the other end of the bridge.

(Tomorrow: Part Four)

NEXT STORY