Forty years ago this week, a wall rose dividing East and West Berlin.
East Germany said at the time the Berlin Wall it was erecting would protect the divided city from “fascist” forces in the West. But, in fact, ultimately it blocked East Germans — particularly skilled workers — from fleeing to the West.
When it was finished, the 96-mile-long wall divided the city into two, separating families and friends — including members of the city’s Jewish community.
The wall remained in place until nearly 12 years ago, when jubilant crowds took sledgehammers to what was perhaps the most enduring symbol of the Cold War.
Now, on the anniversary of the wall’s construction, only a few graffiti-covered slabs of reinforced concrete stand along the old dividing line, reminders of some 800 people shot to death by East German border guards while trying to escape to the West.
They also are reminders of how Germany’s tiny postwar Jewish population, consisting mostly of Holocaust survivors and their children, was forcibly divided.
Jerzy Kanal, a West Berliner and president of Berlin’s Jewish community from 1992 to 1997, said the Berlin Wall reminded him of the division of Jerusalem prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, but with an important difference.
On the eastern side of the barriers dividing Jerusalem, “there were enemies.” But on the other side of the Berlin Wall, “there were our own people, our own families.”
Rabbi Andreas Nachama, president of the Berlin Jewish community from 1997 until May 2001, remembered the first images he saw of the wall’s construction.
“We were in Italy and we saw pictures from Berlin on the evening news,” he said.
“We thought that it would be the beginning of World War III,” he added. His father, Estrongo, an Auschwitz survivor born in Greece, was the chazan, or cantor, of the Berlin community until his death last year.
“My father asked the rabbi in Venice if they needed a chazan there. We were convinced we would not make it back.”
But they made it back.
Estrongo Nachama became one of several Jewish leaders in West Berlin who was given permission to cross the border to officiate at funerals, weddings and circumcisions in the East.
When the wall went up In 1961, 16 years after the end of World War II, Germany’s tiny Jewish community already was divided along ideological lines.
Most in the East were committed Communists. Others had fled to the West during Stalin’s post-World War II anti-Jewish purges, or because they abhorred the lack of freedom in the Communist system.
In 1953, separate official Jewish communities were established in the two Berlins.
“The separation basically crushed the Jewish community in East Berlin,” said Andrew Roth, co-author of “The Goldapple Guide to Jewish Berlin.”
“Almost all of the religious Jews left for the West, leaving a minuscule community intact in the East,” Roth said. “And that applied not just to East Berlin, but all of East Germany, which was in effect judenrein,” he said, using the Nazi term for “rid of Jews.”
Kanal, who was born in Poland in 1921, survived the Warsaw Ghetto and several concentration camps. He and his late wife, Serena, moved to West Germany from Paris in 1953.
“At first there were many people from the displaced persons camps” in postwar Germany, Kanal said. “Most went on to other places. Those who stayed in the East were a lost minority. They had very little to do with the Jewish community.”
By 1961, there were some 20,000 Jews in Germany.
About 800 were in East Berlin and about 6,000 in the western part of the city. Only one synagogue was used in East Berlin, while several were in use in West Berlin.
After the wall went up, “we always had contact. We tried to send prayer books over,” Kanal said. “You had to have a special pass to go to the east. I could not go.”
Andreas Nachama recalled accompanying his father on trips to East Berlin.
“My father was a Greek passport holder, so he was able to go to East Berlin,” said Nachama, a historian who directs the Topography of Terror document center on the history of the Gestapo.
As a boy, Nachama wanted to accompany his father on his eastward trips, but “it was a problem because I had a German passport.
“So my father would say, ‘If you want me to come and sing you have to get a permit for my son to come.’ And I always got it,” Nachama recalled. “We would travel with the S-bahn” elevated train “to Friedrichstrasse, where there was a special entrance for permit holders.”
Salomea Genin, 69, is an author and performer whose family fled Nazi Germany to Australia. She returned as a young woman with Communist ideals and made her home in East Berlin.
She joined the East Berlin Jewish community in 1972 after having “the painful realization that people around me were forgetting the Holocaust. I felt a need to be together with those people who would know what I was talking about.”
In East Germany, “the subject of being Jewish was a taboo subject among non-Jews,” she said.
The Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989. By coincidence, this was the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs ransacked Jewish-owned shops and set synagogues ablaze across Germany and Austria.
Now, the two anniversaries compete each year for the attention of Germans.
From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall was surrounded by mines and barbed wire, watched over by sharpshooters in guard towers.
Some of those towers still stand today, with their once-ominous “No Trespassing” signs still posted — but their glassed-in observation rooms now are empty.
The fall of the wall brought relief and new anxieties.
“We had mixed feelings,” Kanal said. “We feared that the right-wing scene would grow. And other countries all had that feeling.”
In fact, there has been a troubling increase in right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic crimes since German reunification in 1990.
But there were no mixed feelings about being reunited with East Berlin’s Jewish community, Kanal added.
“Of course there were Jews in the East German secret police, but there also were Jews who were opponents of the Communist state. This was not a problem,” he said.
“After the reunion, many people from the former East Germany rediscovered their Judaism,” Kanal said.
Some found a spiritual home at the Jewish Cultural Club, started by East German Jews before the fall of the wall.
Today, the Centrum Judaicum in the former East Berlin is the official headquarters of Berlin’s Jewish community. It also houses an archive, a museum, meeting rooms and a small chapel where an egalitarian Conservative congregation holds services.
Berlin’s Jewish community today numbers some 12,000 members, about half of whom are former Soviet Jews who arrived in the past decade. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, there were 175,000 Jews in Berlin.
Kanal reflected on Jewish life before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“There was a time when they tried to hide the fact that they were Jews, because of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in East Germany.
“Back then, they had to be more Communist than the Communists,” he said. “Now, they are Jews. They are free.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.