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Around the Jewish World Leader of German Jewry Sees a Decades-old Dream Fulfilled

November 23, 2006
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The new head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany now has more time to bring her dreams to fruition. Elected in June to serve out the term of Paul Spiegel, who died last spring, Charlotte Knobloch was unanimously confirmed Sunday for a full four-year term. The council’s 120 delegates met in Dusseldorf, Spiegel’s former home town, in his memory.

Like her predecessors Spiegel and the late Ignatz Bubis, Knobloch is a Holocaust survivor. As a former hidden child, she represents a bridge to the next generation of Jewish leaders, those who grew up after World War II.

As a bridge, she carries hopes for the future together with somber remembrance of the past. Those sentiments sometimes seem to clash: While Knobloch saw a dream come true with the opening of a new Jewish community center in Munich on Nov. 9 — the 68th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom that Knobloch witnessed as a child — she also has spoken out against rising right-wing extremism in Germany.

Knobloch remembers when Jews in Germany never thought they’d see a new synagogue open in the heart of Munich. Of the handful of German Jews and tens of thousands of displaced Eastern European Jews stranded in Germany after the Holocaust, most wanted out.

“After 1945, none of us wanted to stay in Germany. Everyone wanted to leave, especially the young ones,” Knobloch recently said in an interview with JTA. “Everyone who stayed has their story. They weren’t staying voluntarily.”

Knobloch’s story begins with her birth in 1932: Her mother, Margarethe, had converted to Judaism to marry Fritz Neuland, an attorney and politician, but she left the family in 1936 under pressure from the Nazis’ racial policy.

Young Charlotte was sent to live with her grandmother, Albertine Neuland, who later was deported.

Desperate to save his daughter, Fritz Neuland brought 10-year-old Charlotte to Kreszentia “Zenzi” Hummel, a Catholic woman who had worked as a maid for a relative. There Charlotte went by the name Lotte Hummel and lived as Zenzi’s illegitimate daughter until the war was over.

A devout Catholic, Zenzi “lived in her own world,” Knobloch recalls. “She always rejected any form of recognition” after the war.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, “wrote 10 times to her” hoping to recognize Zenzi’s heroism, but in vain.

“She said she already had been rewarded. The family had a reason why they took this risk,” Knobloch says. “Their two sons were soldiers in the war, and they hoped that if they did a good deed, their sons would come back alive. And they did come back.”

Knobloch’s father survived the war, and Charlotte later went to work in his law office. She also followed him as leader of the official body of Munich’s Jewish community, which he had co-founded.

She later became a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany before becoming president this summer. She also heads the European Jewish Congress and is a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

Knobloch married Samuel Knobloch when she was 18. They have three children and three grandchildren, two of whom currently serve in the Israeli army.

“Mrs. Knobloch is a world class Jewish leader in every one of the endeavors she undertakes,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Policy Council. “She stands between two generations, both as a Holocaust survivor and as a person who is building for the next millennium in Jewish life. She is a woman filled with contradictions and positive creativity.”

Knobloch has not always drawn applause from other Jewish leaders. She recently opposed Germany’s decision to send peacekeeping troops to Lebanon, bending only after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came out in favor.

And her recent statements comparing today’s right-wing extremism to the situation in 1933, when the Nazis assumed power, were contradicted publicly by Central Council vice presidents Salomon Korn and Dieter Graumann, who expressed concern in more measured tones.

Crime statistics show an increase in right-wing extremist incidents over last year. Recently, pupils in a former East German town forced a schoolmate to wear a sign reading, “I am the biggest pig of all because I hang around with Jews.”

During Israel’s war with Lebanon this summer, a demonstrator in Munich carried a sign that read, “Jews are murderers of children.”

Knobloch defended her approach.

“I was not expressing a personal fear, but I’m responsible for 120,000 registered Jewish citizens of this country, and I have seen that just raising a finger in warning is not enough,” she says. “If I have to see how a young person is paraded with a sign, like Jews were forced to do” during the Nazi period, “then it is not enough to raise one’s finger. One has to use very drastic words, words that I hope will also have a lasting effect.”

Right-wing crimes are not the only problem: Neo-Nazis have used elections to gain a footing in a handful of state parliaments in Germany.

“I sometimes have the feeling that they come and go. But the intensity of the situation today has nothing to do with the jackboots and bomber jackets” of old Nazis, Knobloch says. “It’s more subtle; it has to do with the influencing of young people, of influencing unhappy people, people who are not coming to terms with the state of the economy.”

It may be a passing situation, she says, “but one has to pay enough attention so it does not become a permanent situation.”

Ever watchful, Knobloch also is ever the optimist. One of her chief hopes was to see Jewish life here flourish, and to some extent it has, especially since Jews from the former Soviet began to arrive after 1990.

Their integration has been a challenge, but the quadrupling of the Jewish population has prompted the building of new synagogues, the opening of Jewish schools and competition among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform institutions.

One might call Knobloch a seer: Some 20 years ago, when she first entered Jewish public life, she asked herself why no one had ever proposed a new main synagogue in Munich.

She told herself, “It’s your job to do that.” She went to city authorities and suggested that they lay a cornerstone on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in 1988.

“They were very polite and nice and friendly, but there was little understanding for my idea. The notion of a ‘living Jewry’ was not a theme at the time,” she says. “I naturally did not give up. I pursued it, and the result is that now, in 2006, a synagogue and community center and museum are opening here. It’s important that Jewish life can show itself openly.”

Jews and non-Jews helped raise money for the $51 million project — some gave millions, but many gave $5 or $10, Knobloch says. The center reportedly already has the nickname “Charlottenburg.”

“I hope that we in Munich will give a signal to all other institutions working hard to bring a certain normalcy back to Jewish life,” Knobloch says, “so that Jews can feel the acceptance of the non-Jewish society, and not only on paper.”

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