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Around the Jewish World: Following Mendelssohn’s Steps, German Group Fosters ‘haskala’

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Heinz Baldermann is a bearded 40-something man in wire rimmed glasses who sports an unusual blue-and-white sweat shirt.

On the sweat shirt is a design of tiny Hebrew letters, with the word “Haskala” in both Hebrew and Latin characters superimposed on it.

Haskala was the name of the Jewish Enlightment movement started more than two centuries ago by the great 18th century Jewish scholar Moses Mendelssohn.

Haskala is also the name of a new German Jewish cultural action group that Baldermann helped found in the northwestern German city of Hanover as a means for strengthening knowledge of the Jewish experience, both past and present, and for fostering a firm sense of multiculturalism in Germany.

He also helped found Haskala, he said, in order to help overcome what he and his fellow Jewish friends saw as a serious problem among Jews in Germany: basing their Jewish identity on the destruction of the Holocaust and largely ignoring Judaism’s rich and lively cultural heritage and contribution.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m part of the first post-Shoah generation,” said Baldermann, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

“My problem was the Jewishness for me was always sad – there was always the emphasis on Auschwitz and Majdanek. I have a daughter, and she says that if Jewishness is only sadness, then she doesn’t want to be Jewish,” said Baldermann, who directs and adult education program near Hanover.

“Many of my friends have the same problem,” he added.

“We Jews of the Diaspora have to remember where our sources are – in the Holocaust and recognition of the Holocaust, or in Torah and Jewish tradition?” he said.

If Jews see their tradition only in the Holocaust, then Hitler invented the religion,” he said.

Baldermann stressed that Auschwitz and the Shoah must never be forgotten – but neither should Jewish life, both per- and post-Holocaust.

He said it was also important to broaden knowledge of Jewish life and culture among non-Jewish Germans.

The results of these needs led to last year’s founding of Haskala, “consciously putting ourselves in the tradition of Mendelssohn,” he said.

One of its aims is to give Jewish actors, composers, artists, musicians and performers the chance to present their work to a broader public.

During the past year, he said, Haskala has sponsored theater performances, classical concerts, literary evenings, debates and klezmer concerts.

Baldermann, whose family comes from Poznan, a city now in Poland but before World War I was a Germany, was also involved in the organization of the weeklong workshop on klezmer music and Yiddish culture for 40 mainly German, non-Jewish participants.

The workshop, held earlier this month in nearby bad Pyrmont, was led by the American klezmer group Brave Old World and other performers. A Haskala- sponsored public concert by Brave Old World drew a full house.

Most of the 40,000 to 50,000 Jews who lie in Germany today came to Germany after World War II. This includes a large influx of Russian Jews who have come in recent years.

“Before 1990, about 300 Jews lived in Hanover,” Baldermann said. “Now there are 800, thanks to the arrival of 500 people from Russia.”

Baldermann, who also runs Jewish events and courses through his adult education program, said he and his Haskala friends are committed to building Jewish life in the Diaspora.

“We don’t want to go to Israel,” he said. “We want to stay in Germany as log as we can stand being in Germany in order to work on our identity as a permanent process.”

In addition to his work with Haskala, he is involved with the religious community in Hanover, where he functions as a kosher cook.

Baldermann said his attempt to use Jewish culture as a means of fostering dialogue has had unforeseen results.

“Five years ago, I used to get anonymous threats,” he said. “Now I still get threats – but they are signed.

“I see something positive in this,” he added. “I know who is my enemy. My offer of conflict – or dialogue – is accepted.”

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