The Jews of Germany: a Tale of Two Cities
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The Jews of Germany: a Tale of Two Cities

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More than a wall separates the Jewish communities of West and East Berlin; they seem poles apart in terms of beliefs and objectives, attitudes and communication. Perhaps nowhere else in the diaspora are the differences so striking in contiguous Jewish groups, a conclusion reached by this reporter after a 12-day visit to this pivotal region.

Of the 28,000 Jews in West Germany, 6,500 live in West Berlin. However, almost half of the Jewish West Berliners have emigrated from the Soviet Union within the past five or 10 years and “they play no great role in the community because they were alienated for so many years,” according to Heinz Galinski, director of the Gemeinde (Jewish community).

Galinski also revealed that his relations with his East Berlin counterpart, Dr. Peter Kirchner, are quite formal and remote. Indeed, Kirchner regretfully informed this reporter that he doesn’t speak to Galinski, who later confirmed this statement and added that indeed he doesn’t speak to Kirchner.

It seems quite evident that West Berlin Jewry may be in a sound financial and political condition, but its moral and psychological well-being is open to question. At the same time, East Berlin Jewry, now a pitiful remnant of some 200 “declared” Jews, is managing bravely, but will inevitably decline to 100 within the next five to eight years, and probably be extinct before the turn of the century.


Kirchner, 48, who works as a doctor in a large hospital, has been head of the East Berlin Gemeinde for the past 12 years. He is pessimistic about the future of his 204-member group, but he works steadily with the 84 younger people (those under the age of 60). They meet for services in a chapel of the Peace Temple (Reform) in the Rykerstrasse, built in 1904 for 2,000 Jews, destroyed during the Kristallnacht.

Kirchner calculates that for every “registered Jew” in East Germany, there are 10 others who are “closet Jews,” because of Communist Party membership or careers in government service. He estimates the presence of another 200 “declared Jews” in seven other East German cities, including Leipzig, Dresden and Halle, all of whom are permitted to observe their faith.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) grants the Jews of East Berlin 170,000 Marks to maintain the synagogue, community center, library and old-age home. As for the Weissensee Cemetery, with 115,000 graves, the state authorities spend 100,000 Marks for maintenance and dispense millions of Marks to repair the dilapidated walls encircling the celebrated cemetery. Classical Hebrew is taught at Humboldt University as part of its Middle Eastern studies, by Prof. Heinrich Simon.

Kirchner has friendly relations with the Secretary of State for Religious Affairs, a half-Jew who ceased practicing Judaism after 1939, and he is also on most cordial terms with the Magistrate of East Berlin, who dispenses civic funds for its handful of Jewish citizens.

Some of the elderly Jews are permitted by the GDR to visit Israel, but the remainder are discouraged from doing so. It seems apparent that East Berlin Jews consider themselves to be German first. They are reconciled to live out their lives in the GDR, and thoughts of Israel can rarely be put into practice, except through the medium of prayer and observance. Kirchner told this reporter that there is little overt anti-Semitism, no desecration of temple or cemetery, and that no security is employed or needed.

One cannot but help admire the tenacity of Kirchner and his tiny band of members in struggling to keep the torch of Judaism alive and glowing in an alien region that was but a generation ago a strong bastion of world Jewry.


On the other side of the wall, Rabbi Ernest Stein, who ministers to the religious needs of West Berlin’s Reform Jews — by far the largest denomination, numbering at least 4,000 — insisted that “we are not a community, but an organization. We have no inner vitality as a group, we have no real peace of mind. We are stagnant, hovering as we do between conviction that it was right to return to Berlin, and our feeling of impermanence and insecurity.

“Our future as a viable force is still very much in doubt. Most of our people are elderly, with no possible natural increase. Assimilation and intermarriage are reducing our numbers as well. Unemployment and economic problems aggravate the situation, and the thin veneer of good will on the part of non-Jews cracks when, as during the war in Lebanon, a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment came to the fore, including obscene telephone calls and distorted reporting on TV and in the press.”

Stein, who spent his first years in Mannheim, Germany, and left in 1940, has lived in Israel, New York and London. He is an intense, charismatic figure, and speaks out bluntly and vigorously on all pertinent issues, including Israel. A severe critic of Israel’s current administration, he insists that it is “my right and duty to criticize Israel when it does something wrong, just as I would criticize a member of my family for some objectionable activity.” Unlike some of his colleagues, he has excellent relations with the East Berlin Jewish community, and gives it every support.


At least on the material level, the West Berlin community is a great success. Its 6,500 members enjoy access to four synagogues. There is a fine kindergarten and a day center for older children, an old-age home, a senior citizen center, an institute for adult education, all types of cultural activities, a youth center, an imposing community center in the Fasanenstrasse housing a fine library.

Relations with the Berlin and West German government are very good, but the authorities are not obliged under law to be supportive; there is a delicate balance of good will linking the small number of Jews (there were 170,000 in Berlin in 1933) with Protestants, Catholics and the government.

Jews as well as other citizens pay a nine percent surtax as their religious contribution, and the government aids the Gemeinde to the extent of approximately one million Marks a year. The Gemeinde, in turn, supports Israel through the purchase of bonds, youth aliya, and substantial contributions to the “Machbit” and the Jewish National Fund.

The youth center has a summer program where 60 to 100 boys and girls over the age of 15 visit Israel during the long school holiday. However, there are more Israelis of German descent coming to Berlin than Berliners touring the Holy Land.

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