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New East German Leader’s Ancestry Cause of Pride Yet Concern to Jews

December 12, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

East Germany’s Jewish community has had mixed reactions to the selection of a young reform-minded lawyer of Jewish ancestry to serve as the new chairman of the ruling Communist Party.

Gregor Gysi, 41, was elected Saturday to succeed Egon Krenz as chairman of the party, which has been badly shaken by disclosures of high living and corruption.

Krenz himself replaced longtime party boss Erich Honecker on Oct. 18. But popular outrage over the recently exposed abuses under Honecker forced Krenz to resign on Dec. 3.

Gysi, whose father was born Jewish, is not a practicing Jew, but has attended cultural events sponsored by East Berlin’s 200-member Jewish community organization.

His elevation to leadership of the no-longer-dominant Communist Party has brought pride to the Jewish community, but also apprehension over anti-Semitism, which the old regime denied existed but has now openly acknowledged to be active in the German Democratic Republic.

The Jewish community is also concerned that it is a Jew who is heading a party in decline, not likely ever to regain its all-powerful status in the East German state.

The new chairman’s father, Klaus Gysi, held Cabinet rank, serving as secretary of state for religious affairs until his retirement years ago.

He is remembered for having strived to preserve a modicum of independence for the Jewish community within the rigid Communist system.


Gregor Gysi said on West German television Sunday that he has had no close contact with his father since the age of 18.

But he said he was aware of the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by high-ranking Communist Party officials under Honecker’s tenure.

According to Gysi, he and his friends used the limited channels available to criticize party corruption. He said he could be faulted only for not speaking out louder and sooner.

However, in interviews Sunday and Monday, Gysi defended the erection of Berlin Wall 28 years ago, on the grounds it was needed at the time. He made no mention of his contacts with the Jewish community.

Gysi’s reformist credentials are in good order. As early as 1978 he was defense lawyer for prominent dissidents charged with subversive activities.

The leading opposition group, New Forum, chose him to handle its application for registration as a political party and official recognition.

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