Behind the Headlines: Jews Born in Berlin Return to City That Betrayed Them
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Behind the Headlines: Jews Born in Berlin Return to City That Betrayed Them

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For Germany’s Jews, the shadow of the Holocaust loomed over this week’s commemorative events marking the 50th anniversary of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany, but the occasion also served to promote reconciliation and revival.

Jews from around the world participated in ceremonies that included the opening of a new Jewish museum and cultural center in Berlin’s partially restored New Synagogue; memorial services; commemorative meetings; and the groundbreaking for a new museum about Gestapo terror.

U.S. Vice President Al Gore, British Prime Minister John Major, outgoing French President Francois Mitterrand, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin – – representing the four nations that united to defeat the Third Reich — were on hand for the ceremonies commemorating the May 8, 1945, victory in the war in Europe.

Some 400 Berlin-born Jews who fled Nazi persecution and now live in countries around the world attended the ceremonies in their native city at the invitation of Berlin authorities.

The group included the 30,000th former Berlin Jew to return at the invitation of the city. Berlin. authorities began inviting Berlin-born Jews back to the city in 1969.

Repentance, reconciliation and hopes for a better future were recurrent themes at the ceremonies.

But the attempted firebombing early Sunday of a synagogue in the northern German city of Lubeck, which 14 months ago was damaged by a firebomb set by neo-Nazis, cast a long, angry shadow on the events.

“Unfortunately, when I read the news I get the feeling that people have hardly learned anything,” Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told a German television station.

Early Sunday morning, arsonists set fire to a shed attached to the synagogue in Lubeck, located on the Baltic coast, and an unexploded firebomb was found in the building.

Firefighters prevented serious damage, but the incident — similar to last year’s attack — provoked anger and embarrassment, particularly at a time when the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Nazi barbarity have been at the heart of German public and private debate.

Citizens in Lubeck placed flowers against the wall of the synagogue, and 3,000 people staged a protest against the attack.

Heide Simonis, the governor of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Lubeck is located, said the perpetrators of the attack “must be mentally deranged.”

Newspaper editorials as well as Jewish and non-Jewish commentators condemned the attack, which authorities said appeared to be deliberately timed to coincide with V-E Day commemorations.

On Monday, authorities posted a $73,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, who are suspected to be neo-Nazis.

On Sunday evening, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Roman Herzog, Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen and numerous political and religious leaders and diplomats joined Jewish leaders and hundreds of Jews at a rain-soaked, open-air ceremony dedicating the new Jewish Museum and culture center in the reconstructed New Synagogue.

“This is a sign of the re-establishment of Jewish life in Germany and Berlin,” Bubis told the audience during the ceremony, which was televised live nationwide.

The New Synagogue, built in 1866, was once Berlin’s largest and most ornate Jewish house of worship.

It seated 3,200 people, and its 1,650-foot-high dome, glittering with gilded buttresses dominated the city center.

It was set on fire during Kristallnacht, the pogrom of Nov. 9-10, 2938.

But the New Synagogue was saved from destruction by the head of the local police precinct, Wilhelm Krutzfeld, a non-Jew who ordered the first to be extinguished.

A 24-member delegation of Jewish New York City policemen — members of a Jewish police association called Shomrim — took part in the rededication ceremony, where they paid tribute to Krutzfeld’s deed.

“This act ruined his career,” said New York Police Dept. Chaplain Rabbi Alvin Kass, who led the delegation. “For this act of courage, we honor him.”

Although it survived Kristallnacht, the New Synagogue was severely damaged during an Allied bombing raid in 1943.

Reconstruction of these ruins took seven years. The restoration included work on the huge golden dome and the creation of the museum, which concentrates on the centuries-long history of Jews in pre-Holocaust Berlin.

But the bulk of the synagogue remains a memory — an empty space behind the reconstructed section.

“The reconstruction of the synagogue and opening of the museum is a very big signal of an attitude that points in the right direction,” Norma Drimmer, a leader of the Berlin Jewish community, said in an interview.

The restored New Synagogue “will serve as a statement that there will be an active Jewish life an revival here,” Drimmer said.

Some 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin when the Nazis took control in 1933, Only a few thousand remained at the war’s end.

Today, the Berlin community numbers more than 10,000, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union. About 43,000 Jews live in Germany.

On Monday, Berlin officials began ceremonies on the actual anniversary of V- E Day with a groundbreaking ceremony for another museum — on the site where the former Gestapo and SS headquarters once stood.

The new building will be the seat of the Topography of Terror Foundation and will include documentation and exhibits about Nazi terror.

“We cannot be permitted to suppress and forget the horrors of the Nazis, the nadir of German history,” Berlin Mayor Diepgen said at the Berlin Senate hall. “All Germans, even those born after the war, the share responsibility.”

Bubis told the gathering that the experience of history shows that people learn slowly and forget quickly.

“A museum here will help show future generations where terror can lead,” he said.

At a luncheon later Monday, Berlin Senate member Ulrich Krueger thanked 400 Berlin-born Jews for accepting the city’s invitation to return to Berlin for the commemoration.

Some of the guests were making their first trip back since they fled Berlin in the 1930s.

Krueger thanked them for overcoming their fear of returning to “the place where you had the best of your life and the worst of your life.”

“I face you with fear,” he said. “Looking into your eyes, I see that you were and are our brother Abel, and we were Cain. Thank you for coming.

“Go back and tell your children that there are many people who feel deeply ashamed about what happened here and want it never to be forgotten, and pledge that it will never happen again.

“Please forgive us for what we did to you and your families.”

The 400 former Berlin Jews, some of whom brought their children, appeared to have a positive view of their return to Berlin and of developments in Germany since the war.

But they stressed that what the Nazis did must not be forgotten and that vigilance must be retained.

“It was nice to be here and see that the Jewish people are finding a place here, but I myself would not live here,” Lily Zucker of Miami said in an interview.

She was making her first trip back to Berlin since she fled in 1938, and she said it was an emotional return.

“I am one who cannot forgive or forget,” she said.

Kurt Olden, who is from New York, was more positive.

“I think Germany has made great progress in democracy,” he said.

“I can’t feel at home here,” said Berlin-born Max Flesch, who left Berlin in 1933 for Tel Aviv.

“My parents, my family, were deported. I feel very strange here, but for the future we have to have peace between our people.”

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