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News Analysis: Opening of Jewish Office is Hottest Ticket in Berlin

February 11, 1998
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The hottest ticket in Berlin this week was an invitation to the gala dinner to celebrate the inauguration of the American Jewish Committee’s European office here.

The event attracted more than 500 American and German government officials, businessmen, and community leaders.

It was accompanied by a media blitz, including lead coverage on evening newscasts and front-page headlines in newspapers.

The unprecedented attention surrounding the office’s opening on Monday turned it into a major political event, comparable to the opening of a national consulate.

Many of the visiting AJCommittee staff officials and the 100-member delegation of the organization’s board of governors say the extraordinary public interest in Germany took them by surprise.

Many commentators hailed the new AJCommittee presence as the return of Jewry to Germany and to Berlin, a city whose cultural identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries was heavily influenced by Jewish scholars, artists and writers.

Another reason for the unusually intense public interest is the symbolic value of a major American political and civil rights organization opening an office in the center of a city still struggling to forge a identity in the post-Cold War political landscape of Europe.

The opening also comes at a time of heightened interest in Jewish topics in Germany, the growing self-assertiveness of Germany’s own Jewish community and increased German and international media coverage in recent years of issues relating to the Holocaust.

The new AJCommittee office in Berlin, according to the organization’s officials, will serve as a base to foster ever closer relations between Germany and American Jewry, between the German and American governments and support the development of Germany’s rapidly growing Jewish community, which now numbers about 70,000.

The organization plans to sponsor exchange programs between Germany and the United States and conferences on German-Jewish relations, as well as to support research on Jewish topics.

The Berlin office will also coordinate the organization’s expanding outreach program with Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.

At the inauguration of the office, the AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris, said the organization believes in the stability of German democracy but will nonetheless act as a watchdog on matters of civil rights and political extremism.

Germany’s foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, who delivered the keynote speech at Monday’s dinner, emphasized Germany’s responsibility for the Nazi era, promising that Germany will never forget the victims of the Holocaust.

“Indeed, the desire in Germany to remember and face up the to the past is not waning but growing in strength. Young people, especially, are demanding to know what happened,” he said to guests sitting in an overfilled ballroom in the prestigious Adlon Hotel.

Kinkel made numerous deviations from his printed speech to emphasize the extent of Jewish suffering under the Nazis as well as Germany’s commitment to prevent the re???wed spread of racial hatred and anti-Semitism.

Despite the clear language, the message contained no new analysis of German- Jewish relations and seemed more geared for a domestic audience than for the visiting guest.

Many of the visitors also had one question after the dinner: Where was Helmut Kohl?

The German chancellor, who has often met with AJCommittee representatives during their visits to Germany, was invited but did not attend events.

He reportedly sent a message of congratulations on the office opening too late for it to be read aloud during the 3 days of events surrounding the inauguration.

Both German and Jewish officials attributed his absence in part to tensions surrounding the recently completed negotiations between Bonn and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which resulted in Germany’s agreement to pay Jewish Holocaust survivors living in former Soviet-bloc countries.

Before the agreement was reached — and after several years of fruitless discussions with German officials — the AJCommittee went public with the issue, taking out large newspaper ads criticizing the German government for its behavior.

There was another possible reason for the chancellor’s absence: In private discussions, government officials in recent months have expressed disapproval of the AJCommittee’s decision to expand its working partners in Germany to include members of all political parties.

For many years the AJCommittee worked closely with foundations linked to the ruling conservative coalition.

German President Roman Herzog held a reception for the 100 members of the AJCommittee board of governors who traveled to Berlin for the office opening.

Committee members said they were impressed by the sincerity and strength of commitment to German-Jewish relations voiced by Herzog.

But his warm tones did not cover up differences on crucial issues. While Kinkel reiterated Germany’s support for Israel and condemned Palestinian terrorism, he also called for a moratorium on the construction of the disputed Har Homa settlement in southeastern Jerusalem.

AJCommittee president Robert Rifkind said American Jews brought mixed emotions to the gathering in Berlin, warning that the opening of the new office did not reflect any absolution by American Jewry of German responsibility for its past.

“We close no books, we settle no accounts,” he said to the mixed audience of Germans, Americans, Israelis and representatives from European Jewish communities.

“American Jews do not have the authority or the power to do that. What we can do is build a bridge to the future.”

Looking toward the future was a major theme of the deeply personal speeches that marked many of the events.

At the gala dinner, Harris, of the AJCommittee, talked about his father, a Berlin-born Jew who later lived in Vienna and spent 3 years in a work camp in France.

When he asked his father what he thought about the opening of an AJCommittee office in Berlin, he said his father told him that “opening such an office is the step in the right direction because we are increasingly living in one world. It is time to remove barriers.”

Lawrence Ramer, a Los Angeles benefactor whose financial support will facilitate much of the Berlin office activities, told the story of his grandfather risking his life in 1936 to go back to Germany from the United States to rescue relatives. He returned with two cousins.

“We have a heartbreaking photograph of him with five others who refused to leave because they thought it would all blow over,” said Ramer, who added that he said he made his contribution in honor of his grandfather and for his children and grandchildren.

Dottie Bennett, from Falls Church, Va., donated money to start a library on American Jewry in the AJCommittee office.

She said at the office dedication that she decided on her contribution after visiting a memorial in Berlin commemorating book burnings by the Nazis.

When she saw the empty bookshelves symbolizing the burnings, she said, she wanted “to put books back on the shelves where they belonged. We are a people of the book and I am proud to bring this full circle.”

Other visiting members of the AJCommittee said they were deeply moved by the office opening.

Martin Bresler said that when he watched the mezuzah being affixed to the door of the new AJCommittee office suite he found himself saying involuntarily, “`Take that, Joseph Goebbels.’ What he represented is gone and we are still here, and that makes me weep.”

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