Jews in West Germany Ponder Their Future
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Jews in West Germany Ponder Their Future

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Are we German Jews or simply Jews in Germany?

That this question is asked 43 years after the fall of the Third Reich is evidence of a deep identity crisis among the 30,000 or so people of German nationality who identify as Jews.

All but a few hundred live in the Federal Republic of West Germany. They are finely tuned to the past and therefore nervous at any manifestation of anti-Semitism.

Periodically, they question their future in this country. Now is one of those times.

It began with a speech delivered to the Bundestag, the lower house of the West German parliament, on Nov. 10 by the then president of the Bundestag, Phillip Jenninger.

The occasion was a special session to observe the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the first organized pogrom in Nazi Germany which occurred the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938.

Jenninger, a rising young politician in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, gave what he considered an appropriate speech.

As he said later, he was trying to illustrate the state of mind of the Germans when they accepted and idolized Hitler.

But to many Jews and non-Jews, his speech sounded at worst like a justification of Nazi racist policies, or at best, as insensitive to Jewish feelings.

More than 50 deputies, mainly of the opposition Social Democratic and Green parties, walked out during the speech.

In the uproar that followed, Jenninger resigned his prestigious Bundestag post.

The incident also stirred a furor within the Central Council of Jews in West Germany, the representative body of the Jewish community here.


Michael Fuerst, one of its leading members, defended Jenninger. Immediately afterward, Heinz Galinski, the outspoken 75-year-old chairman of the council, went on national television to denounce Fuerst.

Fuerst subsequently resigned from the Central Council, but retained the chairmanship of the Jewish community in the federal state of Lower Saxony.

Meanwhile, in the days that followed, neo-Nazis desecrated Jewish cemeteries in various parts of West Germany, while swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti were scrawled on walls.

It forced Jews and non-Jews to reassess the situation of Jews and the heavily guarded Jewish community property in this country.

West Germany’s counterintelligence estimates that there are about 25,000 right-wing extremists in the Federal Republic. But there are only 1,500 outright neo-Nazis and no more than 200 of those are considered militant, the intelligence sources say.

That compares with more than 60,000 leftwing extremists, some of whom show anti-Jewish bias, out of a general population of more than 60 million.

The old Nazis have mostly died out. The new generation of young neo-Nazis that has emerged include the so-called “skinheads,” violence-prone teen-agers who shave their heads and wear bizarre costumes.

They seem to be trying to shock people. They reject society in general. They advocate no policy.

They appear to have adopted the Nazi emblems and slogans because, at least on the face of it, nothing is as rejected and held in such disrepute by West German society as the Nazis.

Whatever faults the West Germans possess, whatever mistakes they may yet make, it is unlikely that they will embrace neo-Nazism.

Communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, took the easy way out after the war. It simply said it had nothing whatever to do with the Nazis and thereby absolved itself of any obligation to pay reparations to Jewish victims.

There are only a few hundred practicing Jews in East Germany.

For years, East Germany slavishly followed the Soviet line of extreme anti-Zionism which at times had elements of anti-Semitism.


Now, East Germany wants to improve relations with Israel, or at least with world Jewry. It has acknowledged belatedly that it owes something, at least symbolically, to the victims of Nazism.

But it is democratic West Germany where the small Jewish community has been under constant pressure to justify its existence.

The Jenninger affair was only the latest example of events forcing Jews and non-Jews to ponder what is widely seen as a community lacking both self-confidence and faith in the future.

Jews live in this country, but they wonder if they are here to stay. Currently they have been given to calling themselves “Jews in Germany” rather than “German Jews.”

They live in 65 communities, with the largest in West Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, Duesseldorf and Cologne.

Many of these Jews are elderly. There seems to be no middle generation, but a young generation is rising.

The days when Jews lived with their bags packed, ready to flee at the first hint of anti-Semitism, are past.


There is no lack of Jewish vitality in the Federal Republic. There are institutions such as the Central Jewish Relief Agency, the Jewish Womens’ League, B’nai B’rith chapters and a Jewish students association. They have been around for a long time.

The young, who refer to themselves as German Jews, play an active role in social and political life.

In late 1985, they were able to prevent the performance of a play, “Garbage, the City and Death” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which many Jews and non-Jews considered anti-Semitic.

They also keep a watchful eye on anti-Semitic remarks of the extreme right and extreme left.

Last spring, the Central Council was shaken by a major scandal when its deceased chairman, the late Werner Nachmann, was exposed as an embezzler of reparations funds.

His successor, Galinski, seems to have gotten the organization back under control. But the Jenninger affair set the stage for new disputes over how to present Jewish concerns to the general public.

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