Around the Jewish World: Eastern German Town Celebrates Jewish Rebirth, Stages Weill Opera

Statues of eight boys once graced the facade of the high school here, sculpted images of perfection to be admired from below.

But in 1936, the headmaster removed the top two statues and had them destroyed because they were modeled after a Jewish boy named Moritz.

He and his family had already fled Germany. They were lucky. By the end of the war, only 57 Chemnitz Jews returned to this small city near the Czech border, which had a prewar Jewish population of 4,500.

Now the city is part of the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany. Mayor Peter Seifert is planning a new synagogue for the Jewish community, which now numbers 300, and a local sculptor is creating new statues to replace the two that were destroyed.

Last weekend, Chemnitz became the focus of international attention with the German premiere of a Kurt Weill opera that is a collaboration of the Chemnitz Opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New Israeli Opera and the Opera Krakow.

The staging of “The Eternal Road” was a longtime dream of the New York-based Kurt Weill Foundation for Music and of John Mauceri, the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles. It tells the story of frightened German Jews during the 1930s who, hiding in their synagogue, watch biblical scenes of faith and betrayal play out before them.

It is hard to believe such a premiere is taking place here, in a city stunted under 40 years of communism. Chemnitz, which had been renamed Karl Marx Stadt, has reclaimed its name and its history — the glory and the dark side.

Amid all the fanfare, Mayor Seifert remembered the past. “On the pogrom night [November 9, 1938],” he said, referring to Kristallnacht, “Chemnitzers burned the old synagogue. And now we are going to give it back,” he told guests at a pre-opera news conference.

In many ways, Chemnitz, with 265,000 inhabitants and 19 percent unemployment, is a typical eastern German city struggling to rebuild after communism. It is also typical in terms of Jewish life.

While the general population has dropped since the fall of communism, the Jewish population of Chemnitz has grown. A huge influx from the former Soviet Union has brought the number of German Jews to an official total of more than 70,000, double what it was 10 years ago, but only a fraction of the 1933 population of some 500,000.

To accommodate the newcomers, several cities, among them Mannheim, Heidelberg, Freiburg and Darmstadt, have renovated old synagogues or built new ones. Along with Dresden, Chemnitz is one of the few former East German towns to do so.

The city is also one of the first in the former East Germany to invite former Jewish citizens to visit, something that former West German cities have done for decades. And — like the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Munich – - Chemnitz also hosts an annual week of Jewish culture, with klezmer music, readings and dance workshops. The eighth such festival began last weekend, with the opera’s premiere.

Today, in the town’s old tree-shaded Jewish cemetery, a stone in a flower bed marks the spot where the ashes of a Torah scroll are buried.

It is to such places one retreats for reflection. Surrounded by a wall and fence, the cemetery’s stones mark the graves of rich and poor, from the 19th and early 20th century. Some bear the marks of vandalism, moss growing along the cracks of old wounds.

It was in the cemetery chapel that Siegmund Rotstein had his Bar Mitzvah 61 years ago.

“It was supposed to be in the synagogue on November 30, 1938,” said Rotstein, 73, who today is president of the Jewish communities of the state of Sachsen. “Instead, I saw the fire, because I passed by on my way to my Bar Mitzvah lessons.” Rotstein, who ultimately was deported to Theresienstadt, is one of the few Chemnitz Jews who returned to live here after the war.

Mayor Seifert, 58, was inspired to build the synagogue after his first trip to Israel three years ago. “The memorial to children at Yad Vashem was staggering to me,” he explained. “I went out and said, `We have to try a little bit to repair what can’t be repaired.’”

His dream was shared by Rotstein. The building provided by the communist state is no longer sufficient. “We need a house of prayer with a mikvah, a library and a community room,” Rotstein said. “One must assure that in the Diaspora, Jewish life can exist.”

More than $4 million is needed for the synagogue project, says Andreas Bochmann, a spokesman for the mayor. A fund-raising committee has been created, and a benefit concert was held earlier this month to help raise seed money. The state will make the biggest contribution.

Mayor Seifert wants to see the project completed before the end of his term in 2001.

All is not sun and light in Chemnitz. As in other former East German towns with high unemployment, extremist parties are gaining members here.

A membership of 1,800 in the local far-right National Democratic Party may not sound like much, “but 1,000 joined in the last year, most of them youth,” said Barbara Ludwig, spokeswoman for youth policies of the Social Democratic Party in Sachsen, the party of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and of Mayor Seifert.

Last summer, when the xenophobic party planned a rally in Chemnitz, some 6,000 citizens formed a human chain so the NPD could not gather in front of the Opera House.

Only 300 extremists showed up.

But not everyone is convinced that the synagogue is a good idea. “There are countries in Europe that Jewish people should not go to,” said Ami Ma’ayani, the former director of the Israeli Academy of Music, who came to Chemnitz for the opera premiere.

“They should build no cemeteries, no synagogues, no Hebrew schools,” he said, echoing the ongoing tension between Germany and Israel over Jewish emigration. “The place for Jews is in Israel,” he said.

Perhaps Moritz, who posed for the statues at his high school before the war, would agree. Today 86 years old, he has never been back to Germany, and protects his privacy.

“He heard about the destruction of the sculptures from a friend,” says Erick Neukirchner, the local sculptor, who had spoken briefly with Moritz in New York. Neukirchner, 26, has not been able to find any photos of the original figures, so he has used a new model for the replacements.

“It is craziness of the Nazis that one had to tear down a statue because the model was a Jew,” he said. “One would never have known it was a Jewish person.”

“The Eternal Road” will be performed in Chemnitz through June 18, and again Nov. 17-19 this year. It moves to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Feb. 28-March 5,2000; to the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, April 20-28, 2000; and to Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, in July 2000. The Opera Krakow is hoping to stage the production as well.

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