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

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— “It never occurred to me that a Jew is different from anyone else,” the 20-year-old lead in the Leipzig production of “The Diary of Ann Frank” said at a post-performance interview. “We only learn about Jews in connection with Nazis, about the persecution of the Jews during the War.” In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), no one of her generation knows anything about the Jewish religion, she added.

The comments of the young actress summed up what many citizens under the age of 50 know about Jews. Their concept of Jewish history begins in 1933 and ends in 1945, with anti-Semitism as one example of Hitler’s regime. As for the Jews of the present, they are indistinguishable from the other citizens of the GDR. To single someone out as a Jew is tantamount to racism, forbidden by stringent laws.

Virtually every person I interviewed, whether high government official or student, described Jews–past and present–in similar terms. The members of the Jewish Gemeinde (community), a tiny minority of some 600 in a population of 17 million, are an anomaly in the GDR.


At least a dozen “Communists of Jewish descent” (atheists who were born Jews) told me that they, and some 8,000 others like them, do not want to express their Judaism in any way. As atheist-Communists, they are proud to be treated like everyone else.

I attended the “Ann Frank” performance with Werner Handler, a “Communist of Jewish descent” who grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Silesia. During the Chanukah candle-lighting scene, I turned to him and asked: “Don’t you miss this? I can understand your atheism–I’m not talking about religion. But don’t you miss the history and traditions of 4,000 years of Judaism?” His answer: a firm “No.”

His wife told me earlier that she is proud that throughout the last 15 years not one of her nursing colleagues or patients ever singled her out as a Jew. Another “Communist of Jewish descent,” Kurt Goldstein, a leader of the prestigious Committee of Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters, said: “Children don’t know if people are Jewish or not. This is what we are aiming for–respect for others.”

His colleague in the Committee, Gunter Nobel, added: “I, being a Jew, do not feel any anti-Semitism. If it occurs, it will be punished Young people don’t know we are Jews unless they are told. They see no difference, and are not interested.” He admitted, however, there may still be latent anti-Semitic feelings in some GDR citizens.

“As a child, I was a Jewish girl,” Doris Wetterhahn, an official in the Education Ministry said. “Now everyone is a human being. To be proud to be a Jew is reactionary. I never make it a secret I am a Jew, but the first thing is that I am a citizen and a Communist.”


Helmut Aris, head of the Association of Jewish Gemeinden, explained the image of Jews (Gemeinde members) in the GDR as follows: “A Jewish citizen in the GDR is entirely the same as any other citizen in the GDR. He can hold any position. “He cited as an example non-Communist Gemeinde member Dr. Kurt Cohen, a retired Supreme Court Justice. (But Cohen is an exception. Unless a Gemeinde member is also a Communist, he is rarely in government.)

“I stress that anti-Semitism has been eradicated and will be punished by law,” Aris said. “I cannot deny there are still some anti-Semites here, people now 60 years old who sucked up anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” he added.

To insure that anti-Semitism and other forms of racism will not be transmitted to future generations, the Communist regime of the GDR has made antifascism the overriding theme of all education. “After the war, we carried out a democratic school reform,” Rudi Helmer, an Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters’ official explained. “Anti-humanist and fascist ideologies were eliminated from school books. New teachers with democratic views were employed…Nazi sympathizers were removed (from teaching jobs) 100 percent. There are laws to prohibit fascist propaganda, such as the 1950 Law for the Protection of Peace.”

Wetterhahn said that the educational system’s “supreme task is to hand on to the growing generation, which never experienced fascism, our experience with fascism. They must feel responsible as citizens, so that fascism, racism, discrimination against minorities, militarism and aggression will never start again from German soil.”

Explaining that the persecution of Jews was only one form of fascism, she said fascism is always linked with racism. “Fascism is also linked with capitalism,” she said. “Fascism is the extreme aggressive imperialistic stage of capitalism.”

Wetterhahn introduced me to several teachers and a student at the Walter Huseman School in East Berlin. I asked the bright 10th grader to define what a Jew is, according to what he had learned in school. “There is no difference between a Jew and another person, except his religion,” he said. “We do not persecute anyone or accuse anyone of having a religion. Historically, all I know (about Jews) is that everybody who had different ideas (than Hitler) was persecuted… I’m of the opinion that the Nazis used the Jews for someone to blame for everything.” This, he said, was his total conception of Jews.


Like the Huseman School, most schools in the GDR are named after fighters against Hitler and fascism. The heroes serve as examples for the students, Wetterhahn said. Fifty percent of today’s teachers were born after the war. To make the fight against fascism alive for the students, members of the Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters group speak with students about their experiences.

During the eighth grade, in preparation for a consecration ceremony, all students are required to visit a concentration camp memorial usually accompanied by a former inmate, and then write an essay on the visit. The three camps in the GDR are: Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck. All were work camps, where the majority of prisoners were killed by overwork at slave labor. Unlike the extermination camps in the East, other forms of murder were secondary.


A visit to two of the camps in the GDR convinced me that their purpose is to promote Communism, as well as to denounce fascism and memorialize its victims. The role of Jewish victims of Hitler is downplayed; that of Communist victims is enhanced.

The guide at Ravensbruck did not even mention Jewish inmates until she was asked a specific question about them. In the 23 rooms honoring by nationality, the memories of the 90,000 women and children who died at Ravensbruck, evidence of Jewish inmates is negligible. Communist officials insist that the Nazis burned the Ravensbruck records, but one official of the Jewish Gemeinde told me that 60 percent of those who died there were Jewish.

At Buchenwald, there is a Jewish memorial which says: “From November 1938 until February 1939, 12,250 Jewish adolescents, adults and old people were imprisoned here. Six hundred of them were brutally killed at this time. They died victims of racial hatred. “This memorial refers only to those Jews arrested in connection with Kristallnacht.

But according to Eugen Kogon, a former inmate who wrote “The Theory and Practice of Hell,”500 Jews came to Buchenwald on June 15, 1938 and 150 of them were dead within two months. In August, 1938, 2, 200 more Jews arrived. Thousands more came to the camp between the fall of 1939 and January, 1945.Toward the end of the war, many thousands of Jewish prisoners died at both Buchenwald and Ravensbruck, after being shipped or marched West from the extermination camps in the East.

Tomorrow: Part Five

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