Crowds greet opening of Jewish office in Berlin

BERLIN, Feb. 9 (JTA) — Seldom has a mezuzah in Germany attracted as much attention as the one nailed this week to the door of the newly opened American Jewish Committee office here. There was such a crowd of television journalists and photographers jostling for a good vantage point that few of the invited guests could even view Monday’s dedication. The office is the first branch in Germany of a major American Jewish defense organization. Its location in the heart of Berlin symbolizes the growing importance of German Jewish affairs both within Germany and among American Jewry. David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee, told reporters at the opening that the organization expects its new office to facilitate contact between Germany and American Jewry, strengthen ties between American Jews and German Jews and monitor anti-Semitism and racism in Germany. “Our ultimate aim in Berlin is to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust will ever happen here or anywhere else, ever again. When memory fades, it strengthens those who want to repeat history,” he said. The AJCommittee’s European director, Rabbi Andrew Baker, said the Berlin branch will help the organization expand its European outreach through conferences, exchange programs, research ventures and publications. The office will also help coordinate activities in Central and Eastern Europe. The opening comes at a time of renewed focus on the Holocaust because of a debate in Germany about a planned national Holocaust monument in Berlin — and amid international controversy about the role of Swiss banks in accepting gold stolen by the Nazis from Jewish victims. Other American Jewish groups with Berlin representatives are the Lubavitch movement and the Ronald Lauder Foundation, both of which do educational outreach. The AJCommittee office is in on Leipziger Platz, near the Brandenburg Gate, on property that was returned to the Mosse family, a prominent Jewish publishing family in prewar Germany. A printed statement from family representative George Mosse, a professor of history in the United States, said the presence of the AJCommittee in the building on his family’s property preserves a continuity in German Jewish tradition. Before the war, he said, Jewish organizations frequently met at the site, then occupied by his grandparent’s home. The new building is the first one since Germany’s unification in 1990 to be completed on Leipziger Platz, a central plaza in Berlin that was destroyed during World War II. The developer, Hans Roeder, donated space to the AJCommittee rent-free for 10 years. A 100-member delegation of the AJCommittee board of governors visited Germany for the inauguration of the office. During their stay, they attended receptions sponsored in their honor by the president of Germany, Roman Herzog, and the mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen. At a dinner Sunday sponsored by Berlin’s Jewish community, Jewish and German officials exchanged views about Jewish community life in Germany and the future role both sides envision for the AJCommittee in Germany. The office’s opening was hailed by local Jewish leaders, with the head of Germany’s Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, calling the step “an enrichment of Jewish life in Germany.” The leader of Berlin’s Jewish community, Andreas Nachama, said the new office “signifies a rebirth of Berlin as the center of Jewish life, not just for Berlin but for Europe.” The brief dedication ceremony included benedictions by Baker and Berlin cantor Estrongo Nachama. There were also brief, moving speeches by benefactors Lawrence Ramer and Dottie Bennett, who spoke of family ties to Germany that convinced them to support the work of the Berlin office. “I am overwhelmed by the attention being given to the opening of our Berlin office,” said Ramer. “There were even journalists calling my wife and myself in Los Angeles before we came to Germany.” At a luncheon Monday, two ambassadors praised the AJCommittee for its decision to base an office in Germany. The U.S. ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, said he expects the organization to be a catalyst for discussion and debate, “helping with the continuous process of dealing with the wounds of history.” Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, called the opening “a breakthrough — something new. It represents a new spirit.”

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