Behind the Headlines the Jews of East Germany
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of East Germany

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When I visited the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for 10 days last October to study the Jewish community there, I often felt like Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland." The situation became "curiouser and curiouser," as I realized I was facing that age-old unanswerable question: "Who is a Jew?"

According to Helmut Aris of Dresden, Chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in the GDR, there are about 650 members registered in the eight Jewish Gemeinden (communities) of the GDR. (Dr. Peter Kirchner, head of the Berlin Gemeinde, used a figure of 550.)

About half of the total Jewish community is in the East Berlin Gemeinde, with the rest in Dresden, Karl Marx Stadt, Halle, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Mecklenburg and Thuringen. In East Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig, I spoke with the leaders of the Gemeinden and visited their head-quarters, synagogues, cemeteries and memorial sites.

Unlike the United States, where organized Jewry counts "unaffiliated" Jews as part of the Jewish population, only voluntarily "registered" Gemeinde members are considered Jews in the GDR. "Otherwise, we would be following Hitler’s racist theory, " Aris and numerous State officials explained.

But if the "unaffiliated" Jews of the GDR were counted, as they are in America, the Jewish population would rise considerably. One Gemeinde official estimated the number to be as high as 8,000, with half that number in East Berlin.


Most of the "non-Jewish Jews" of the GDR presently consider themselves "Communists of Jewish descent." Ironically, most of these atheistic, high-ranking members of the Communist Party, not members of the Gemeinde, can be considered as authentic Jews. I met so many of these "non-Jewish Jews" that I half-jokingly asked if they were being trotted out on our behalf.

But many of the Communist leaders are in fact, "of Jewish descent." They were in the forefront of the Communist resistance movement in the 1930s, or became Communists in concentration camps or in exile during the war. Returning to the then Soviet sector of Germany in 1945, as Jews and Communists, their "anti-fascist" credentials were impeccable. When the GDR was proclaimed a nation in 1949, many of them assumed important position in the new Communist government.

While all those whom I met were proud of their Jewish heritage, they no longer considered themselves Jews. Among them were: the son and grandson of a Berlin rabbi who was jailed as a Communist from 1936 to 1939, then fled to Shanghai, now retired from 1936 to 1939, then fled to Shanghai, now retired from his Ambassador-level position; a formerly traditional Jew from Silesia who become a Communist in British internment camps, now a deputy-general of the GDR radio; an information director for the Education Office, another who "converted" to Communism in a British internment camp; a leader of the anti-fascist resistance movement who once lived in Palestine and still speaks Hebrew, now also a high official of GDR radio.

Even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the State Secretary for Church Affairs each had one Jewish parent. And the list does not end here. The life story of every one of these individuals, and others whom I met, is incredible. Communism, to them, was the answer to their personal struggles against Hitler’s fascism. Those who would condemn their choice might consider Hillel’s advice: "Judge not your fellow man until you’ve been in his position."


But what about the Jews of the Gemeinde, that small minority of some 600 who are struggling to maintain Jewish identity and tradition? Aris said that about 65 percent of them are now 60 years old, and receiving pensions. As "victims of fascism," they are eligible five years earlier than other citizens, with female victims eligible at 55 and males at 60.

In Leipzig, for example, one sees the nearly total devastation of a once thriving and populous Jewish community. Before 1938, there were 18,000 Jews in Leipzig. With 14,000 murdered during the war and 3,000 escaping as emigrants, only 1,000 Leipzig Jews survived in Europe. Of these, 350 Gemeinde members–that is, one-third–returned to Leipzig in 1945-1946. Since then, the Jewish population has shrunk to 54. Of this number, 25 are above the age of 60; there are only five children. The death rate has been high, the birth rate extremely low.

Many of the affiliated Jews of the GDR, unlike the Communist "non-Jewish Jews, " are not Jewish by traditional standards. Some are the offspring of mixed marriages where the mother was not Jewish. The children of men married to such women, as well as to non-Jews, are not technically Jewish. Yet these people have chosen to identify themselves as Jews and perpetuate Judaism in a country officially atheistic and largely Protestant.


In addition to determining "Who is a Jew" under these circumstances, there were a number of fascinating discoveries:

In both Berlin and Leipzig, a magnificent large synagogue was left relatively intact on Kristallnacht, in order to protect abutting buildings. The insides were gutted. During the war, they were a warehouse and a soap factory, respectively. In other cities, synagogues have been built or rebuilt, but there are not enough Jews to fill them. At the Friday night service I attended in Leipzig, there were less than 30 congregants (a commendable record, percentage-wise). The huge Berlin synagogue rarely gets a minyan, I was told.

The popular Leipzig Synagogue Choir tours the country and abroad, singing traditional synagogue and Jewish folk music. This choir is not now connected with the Leipzig Synagogue, and none of the choir members is a Jew. A recorded Shabbat service is performed by the choir on the GDR radio every other Saturday morning.

In the Berlin Gemeinde library, a back room contains books that can be read only by special permission. The two basic subjects of these "forbidden" books: fascist writings and Zionist writings. Gemeinde leader Kirchner’s wife, Renate, is in charge of the library, censoring books according to government directives.

The Leipzig Gemeinde sponsors a lecture series on Jewish topics. None of the lecturers is Jewish.

"Fiddler on the Roof" is the most popular play in East Berlin, and has been playing there to a full house for several years, to audiences from East and West Berlin.

The Buchenwald concentration camp memorial is just outside Weimar, site of some of Germany’s greatest cultural achievements.


Amidst these and other ironies, the ever-smaller Jewish Gemeinde of the GDR exists, encouraged by the government. The Gemeinde publishes a quarterly magazine, Nachrichtenblatt, a Jewish calendar and informational booklets. A kosher slaughterer comes to Berlin from Budapest regularly, and a rabbi comes for the high holidays. (At other times, Gemeinde members lead services.) There is a summer camp for Jewish children. Kirchner and Aris often represent the Jewish community at international meetings, with observer status at the World Jewish Congress.

There is still a viable Jewish community in the GDR. In the not too distant future, possibly within our lifetime, this once glorious Jewish community may disappear.

Tomorrow: Part Three

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