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Having Escaped the Dustbin, Venerable Paper Finds New Readers

February 14, 2002
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Three flights above the Fairway supermarket, a hub of Manhattan’s upscale Upper West Side, is a landmark of the neighborhood’s German-Jewish past.

The offices of the bilingual Aufbau even have a whiff of a bygone era of newspaper journalism — stale cigarette smoke, mainly.

The two large, crammed rooms where editors, reporters and interns churn out the fortnightly paper is a charming but dreary palette of dull greys, greens and yellows. Scuffed, cracking linoleum tiles cover the floors; rickety metal filing cabinets and bookshelves line the walls; stacks of yellowing papers are piled high; suspended from the high ceilings are tungsten tube light bulbs, many of them burnt out.

The larger room contains three huge sepia-toned portraits — of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein — that reflect the newspaper’s heyday.

Smoking, by the way, is permitted in the office.

But the throwback appearance of Aufbau’s newsroom belies its renaissance: Nearly shuttered two years ago, the paper created in 1934 to help German-Jewish immigrants rebuild their lives in America is unveiling its first-ever office in Berlin.

The Feb. 14 opening formally acknowledges a remarkable trend of recent years.

As Aufbau’s core readership of aging immigrants understandably has dwindled, the paper, fueled by the creation of its Web site,, has gained new readers among young, well-educated — and non-Jewish — Germans.

At the same time, Germany has one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the world. The community dwindled from 600,000 before World War II to about 20,000 after the Holocaust, but Germany today has about 100,000 Jews, thanks to an influx from the former Soviet Union.

In addition, more and more children and grandchildren of German-Jewish exiles in America, many of whom speak little or no German, are picking up the paper.

Because of that, Aufbau, which currently prints just four of its 24 pages in English, may soon increase the ratio to as much as half, and give greater coverage to events in Germany.

One Aufbau staffer explains the interest among young Germans with the German term “phantomschmerz,” or phantom pain — the medical phenomenon whereby a person who has had an arm or leg amputated continues to feel pain where the limb once was.

“It’s a yearning for the Germany that was lost, when it was a country you could be proud of, that didn’t have this burden of guilt for the Nazis’ horrific crimes,” says Andreas Mink, the deputy editor and a writer for the Aufbau since 1997. “It’s also a yearning to learn about this big, vibrant Jewish community that contributed heavily to the cultural richness that was Germany.”

In other words, the more a young German studies German history and culture, the more he realizes how integral Jews were in Germany’s pre-Holocaust development, in the arts, sciences, economy or industry.

To some degree, emigres from the prewar period have retained their Germanness, a cultural identity stronger than that of Germans today, says Mink, who is not Jewish.

That appeals to the newer readers and Aufbau staffers alike. Young German readers “are looking for a way to learn who these people were, who they are now, how they think, and how do they relate to Germany today,” Mink says.

With news of the opening of its Berlin office, Aufbau has bloomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon in Germany.

It has stirred a media frenzy, with at least 15 stories appearing in German publications, TV and radio in recent weeks, Aufbau Editor Lorenz Wolffers says.

One Berlin radio station even intends to broadcast the office-opening live.

All this for a paper with only about 2,000 subscribers in Germany, and roughly 10,000 overall.

“It’s a little crazy, but we are like the darling of the German media,” says Wolffers, as he sipped espresso in a cafe near the Manhattan office last week, a few days before he was to fly to Berlin for the ribbon-cutting. “Everyone thinks we’re so nice and exotic; I really hope it’s not going to change.”

The reaction may expose something deeper in the German psyche.

Wolffers says he is continually reminding the German media that this does not mark Aufbau’s “return” to Berlin — the re-established capital of a unified Germany along the lines of the recently opened branches of the American Jewish Committee and the Leo Baeck Institute.

“We always try to correct that: We’re still an American paper based in Manhattan,” says Wolffers, 39, a Swiss Jew whose mother escaped from Germany as a child on the eve of World War II, and whose father was born in Holland and schooled in Berlin. “They think it’s symbolic, that a fraction of Jewish life is coming back to Berlin.”

Wolffers admits he cannot fully understand the German enthusiasm for Aufbau. A lawyer and long-time journalist based in Bern, he has been with the paper for only one year, and this week’s trip was just his second time in Berlin in his life.

Mink is a native of Baden-Baden, the German town famous for its spas and hot springs. He has a clearer idea of what’s behind the enthusiasm.

“It’s a big question in Germany today: Can we put the past behind us? Have we paid enough? Can we even begin to discuss the path to normalcy? There’s anguish and massive insecurity there,” he says.

“For these people, the opening of Aufbau, the AJCommittee, the Leo Baeck, is a positive thing: ‘See, Berlin is not the place where Himmler and Hitler planned the Final Solution, but a city where everyone is welcome, an open, cosmopolitan city once again.’ ” Mink said. “For them, it adds a little color and contour to their self-image.”

For Aufbau, having a Berlin office enables the paper to continue in what it sees as its historic role as a bridge builder.

Founded in 1934 as the German-American Club of New York’s newsletter, Aufbau — which in German means “reconstruction” — helped many German exiles adjust to their new home.

The paper offered advice on where to find jobs or English classes, how to set up a telephone line, and clues to etiquette at an American dinner table.

After the war, the paper and its classified advertisements helped reunite family members separated during World War II and the Holocaust.

In the early 1950s, when Germany began returning “Aryanized” property to their original Jewish owners and compensating victims, Aufbau helped readers navigate the maze of bureaucracy and paperwork.

The paper’s circulation peaked in the 1940s and 1950s at 50,000 readers spread across 30 different countries. With time, though, the numbers declined dramatically, to as low as 8,000 in the 1990s. Aufbau hemorrhaged money, and nearly succumbed.

Another German-language broadsheet, The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, also struggled. It packed up earlier this decade and relocated to Florida.

“Several times Aufbau really thought about turning off the lights, locking the door,” Wolffers says.

Instead, it decided in 1995 to introduce the English-language pages.

But the turning point came three years ago, as restitution for Nazi slave labor and the burgeoning Jewish community became hot topics in Germany. Aufbau experienced a rise in readership, aided by the creation of its Web site.

Still the paper would have shut its offices in 1999 without the financial support of Chaja Koren, a 40-something Israeli daughter of Holocaust survivors, who responded to the paper’s emergency appeal.

The paper is now a nonprofit institution. In addition to the traditional revenue sources of subscriptions and advertisements, Aufbau has a fundraising consultant hunting for donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. Daimler-Chrysler, for one, is now a corporate sponsor.

And so Aufbau is enjoying a resurgence.

In addition to the couple of thousand subscribers in Germany, Aufbau claims 6,000 to 7,000 in the United States, with the remainder sprinkled in 20 nations, from Argentina to Zimbabwe.

“I hope she hasn’t passed away,” Wolffers says of Aufbau’s lone reader in Zimbabwe, an elderly German-Jewish emigre.

Each issue typically contains an eclectic mix of articles — historical pieces on German Jews and current pieces on German-Jewish Americans, local and national politics and, most appealing to young Germans, the New York cultural scene.

The paper also addresses hot-button American social issues as the death penalty, or the post-Sept. 11 response to terrorism, from a liberal European perspective.

With such seemingly different core readerships — an octogenarian German-Jewish immigrant versus a 20-something German Gentile — one wonders how the paper manages to deliver editorial content that appeals to both.

But the young German readers aren’t the typical soccer and hip-hop crowd.

“Our experience is that our young readers really love our old-fashioned approach, while our older readers really like some of the crazier things we write about New York culture,” Wolffers says. “If you’re a classic, you’re never outdated.”

A lifeblood of the paper is the three to four interns the paper continually rotates in from Germany; they bring fresh perspective to covering the community and city, while keeping in mind what might be of interest to contemporaries back home.

The fact that the interns are not Jewish — in fact, most of the staff is not — does not make them less qualified to, say, interview Holocaust survivors about German restitution to slave laborers, says Monika Ziegler, Aufbau’s longest-serving editor.

“What you need is a skilled journalist who is highly sensitive to our readership, of their fate, of their suffering, of their feelings,” says Ziegler, a native German who is not Jewish. “For that, you don’t have to be Jewish.”

As for the future, the publicity over the Berlin opening may translate to another boon in German readers. But Wolffers and his team have devised another strategy for spreading the word: “Aufbau in the Classroom.”

Possibly within a year, German high schools may start using the newspaper as a tool to educate students about Jewish contributions to German history and culture.

“We never were just a newspaper,” Wolffers says. “We’re working to keep memories alive, while trying to build bridges — between different generations, different religions and different continents.”

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