Germany mixes memories of evil and triumph


BERLIN, Nov. 9 (JTA) — While headlines here trumpeted the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a small group gathered amid a cold drizzle to commemorate another, more somber, anniversary.

In the wake of two recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries in Germany, speakers said the anniversary of the Nov. 9-10, 1938, Kristallnacht pogrom, when Nazi thugs ransacked Jewish-owned shops and set synagogues ablaze across Germany and Austria, holds even greater significance.

“It is not only Jewish people who are asking, ‘Are the Nazis coming back?’ ” said Reinhard Kraetzer, mayor of one of Berlin’s districts.

“The problem of extreme right-wing developments among our youth” includes “much greater numbers than we want to admit,” said Peter Kirchner, the former leader of East Berlin’s Jewish community. “It is a known fact that it is very difficult to win back such youth for democracy.”

Despite the weight of history, the general atmosphere in Berlin was festive. The events commemorating the fall of the wall included rock concerts and a performance of 166 cellists led by Mstislav Rostropovich, who 10 years ago spontaneously gave a solo concert here.

But even amid the festivities, Kristallnacht was not completely forgotten.

The ceremony, held at one of the two Jewish cemeteries recently desecrated, was one of several in Berlin.

Later in the afternoon, an anti-fascist demonstration and commemoration of Kristallnacht was held at a Holocaust memorial on the west side of town.

The Kaddish, Judaism’s traditional prayer for the dead, chanted by Berlin’s senior cantor, Estrongo Nachama, a Holocaust survivor and father of Andreas Nachama, president of the Berlin Jewish Community.

A crowd of 2,000, including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former President Bush, gathered for the annual memorial, which featured remarks by Andreas Nachama as well as local and national politicians.

Nazi crimes “went ahead because there was no outcry in the land,” said Wolfgang Thierse, president of the German Parliament, who also called on contemporary Germans to speak out against the growing tide of right-wing extremism.

The numbers supporting this tide are alarming. At a recent symposium on youth violence, sponsored by Berlin’s Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, researchers reported more than 50 percent of youths in some towns identify with extreme right-wing views, blaming social and economic problems on democracy and foreigners.

Virtually every day brings fresh news about attacks on foreigners. Confronting such problems is “the greatest challenge for Germany in the coming decades,” Andreas Nachama said in a recent interview.

Many observers agree that the rising xenophobia in what was Communist East Germany resulted from its inability to confront the Nazi past.

“The theme was practically a taboo during the years,” of East Germany, “so there is very little knowledge,” wrote Werner Schubert in the Lausitzer Rundschau newspaper over the weekend.

He called on fellow residents of Weisswasser, a former East German town near the Polish border, to share remembrances of Kristallnacht and local Jewish history.

But the lack of attention paid to the Holocaust in eastern Germany doesn’t mean that the events commemorated this week are far from residents’ minds.

“I don’t think Kristallnacht is far from Germans’ thinking,” said Salomea Genin, a Jewish Berliner who returned to this city of her birth after World War II. “People are riddled with guilt feelings and they don’t necessarily confront it, but it is there,” said Genin, who is behind another commemoration to take place Nov. 17.

It will be the first time that Berlin will hold a special service remembering 35 Jews burned at the stake there in 1510.

“The Germans have always liked to forget dates like Nov. 9, 1938, but they cannot deny that they burned synagogues, pillaged Jewish stores and killed hundreds of Jews,” said German writer Stefan Heym, 86, who had come to the afternoon ceremony from his home outside Berlin, and sat wrapped in an overcoat, his walking cane leaning against his chair.

Heym, who is Jewish, fled Nazi Germany in 1933. He later left the United States during the anti-Communist hunts by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and returned to Germany in 1953.

Briggite Rothert, 71, has not forgotten Kristallnacht.

Rothert, whose mother was a Jew who converted to Christianity, recalled walking through the streets of her home town, Dresden, with her mother on Nov. 10, 1938, and seeing the “destroyed shops, the broken display windows.”

A Jewish friend had opened the door of her corset shop and collapsed. “Someone had put gas into the shop through the keyhole, and when she went in she had no idea and fell unconscious,” Rothert said.

“I feel it is my duty to be here, and the duty is getting more important,” said Lucie Rosenberg, 77, a non-Jewish Berliner who married Holocaust survivor Werner Rosenberg after the war. “Unfortunately, there are new dangers.”

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