BERLIN, Nov. 4 (JTA) — The battle to overcome Germany’s Nazi past is being fought over many issues, including one that might at first blush seem innocuous — street names. A recent street-naming ceremony here proved anything but innocuous, however. During the Oct. 30 ceremony, at which a street was renamed Judenstrasse, protesters shouted, “Jews out” and “You crucified Jesus.” The shouts interrupted the speech of Alexander Brenner, leader of Berlin’s Jewish community, who told the protesters, “Whether you like it or not, you have placed yourself alongside the Nazis.” Brenner later told reporters that the protesters had opened old wounds, but added that thankfully such people are not in power today. The street originally had been named Judenstrasse, German for “Jews’ Street.” But in 1938, Nazi officials — objecting to names that had a Jewish reference or glorified representatives of opposing ideologies — renamed the street Kinkelstrasse after Gottfried Kinkel, a 19th-century German revolutionary figure. Wolfgang Huber, the Protestant bishop of Berlin, said this was the first time he had heard anti-Semitism erupting at a public event. The head of the Berlin legislature, Walter Momper, who heard about the incident while visiting the Stutthof concentration camp memorial in Poland, called it shameful. Since the mid-1980s, the local branch of the Free Democratic Party has campaigned to restore the original name of the street, located in Berlin’s Spandau district. In recent decades, many pre-Nazi names — as well as names changed by Communist officials in the former East Germany — have been restored throughout Germany. But not all the renamings have gone smoothly. About 40 people turned out for the Oct. 30 ceremony, including members of a local opposition group, Citizens for Kinkelstrasse. The group said it is against renaming the street, saying the decision had been made without consideration of their concerns, including the fact that they would have to change their addresses on business cards. Siegfried Schmidt, a spokesman for the group, said he had not heard any anti-Semitic statements at the ceremony. He added that he had asked 15 people in the crowd whether they had heard anti-Semitic outbursts, and all said no. Television cameras recorded the event, however. City officials are investigating the charges and countercharges surrounding the event. Elsewhere in Berlin, politicians and religious leaders are fighting to change the name of another street. According to them, the street should be named for Protestant Bishop Kurt Scharf, who died in 1990. It currently is named for 19th-century historian Heinrich von Treitschke, who coined the phrase “The Jews are our misfortune.” On Oct. 21, the 100th anniversary of Scharf’s birth, some activists pasted the bishop’s name over a local street sign. Another case revolves around a street in the Grunewald section of Berlin. A street there likely will be renamed next month to honor Jewish educator Toni Lessler, who founded a school there in 1939. The street currently is named for the late theologian Reinhold Seeberg, who wrote anti-Semitic texts.
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.