Since first arriving in what would become Germany more than 1,800 years ago, Jews have searched for acceptance. No matter how desperate their attempts to demonstrate their standing as good German citizens — in some cases converting to Christianity, enlisting to fight in World War I, even trying to persuade their American counterparts to be less critical of the rising new leader Adolf Hitler — nothing brought them acceptance by their countrymen.
That, however, may be changing. Seventy years after the Holocaust, as anti-Semitism churns across Europe, the Jewish population on the continent is plummeting to record lows. New strands of hatred foment seemingly justified by the policies of Israel — a sovereign country thousands of miles away. And yet Germany has suddenly reemerged as a home for Jews.
Ask Cilly Kugelmann, the vice director of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Kugelmann is the daughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors who, as it is said, “grew up sitting on packed suitcases.” Today, she says she can’t think of anywhere else she’d rather live than Germany. “Germany is one of the safest places for Jews worldwide,” Kugelmann said.
In preparing to visit Germany for the first time, nothing was further from my own beliefs. In the place where my father’s family was slaughtered, I assumed that no Jew would ever again see Germany as their home. How could they?
After all, a walk down a narrow Berlin street takes one to where the city’s Jewish population was routinely rounded up to be sent to concentration camps — and to the windows of homes filled with complicit onlookers. Nazis used the familiar settings of a Jewish school and community center to lull their victims into a false sense of security, even though by then, many knew they were being sent to their deaths. German residents knew full well the fate of their Jewish neighbors — this street was commonly referred to as “Todes Straße” or “Death Street.”
After the war, the once thriving Jewish community of Berlin, which at its high point reached 180,000, was left with only 7,000. In East Berlin — the section controlled by the former Soviet Union — its population was down to several hundred and predicted to reach zero in a matter of years.
In the late 1960s my father returned to Germany to visit for the first time since being liberated by American soldiers. Despite the celebrated triumphs of Simon Wiesenthal the Nazi hunter, and the prosecutions that were the result of the Nuremberg trials, he found his homeland awash in Nazis, many of whom were back in positions of power in government. When an attempt was made to finally prosecute high-ranking Nazis residing in Germany, it failed miserably. Of 400 perpetrators who were prosecuted, 13 would be convicted, and only six would go to jail.
It took the next generation to demand change. As the civil rights era drew to a close in the United States, a movement of German students, known as the 68ers, was just beginning. These young people demanded answers from their parents and grandparents — generations who started two world wars and were responsible for humankind’s greatest atrocities.
Gradually, Germany began to confront its past. Public schools were required to teach about the Holocaust and make mandated visits to former concentration camps. Reparation payments were made to victims, and laws were enacted to make it a crime to deny the Holocaust or to display Nazi symbols. Immigration laws were finally liberalized to no longer require German blood as a precondition to becoming a citizen.
The Germany of today is a different place, particularly in Berlin, where 45,000 Jewish residents now live. Waves of immigrants have arrived every decade since the war ended. Most recently large numbers of young Israelis are moving here, attracted by arts, culture, and a more reasonable cost of living. Ironically they live quite peaceably in the same emerging neighborhoods as young Muslim emigres. And for the first time since the war, German-speaking rabbis are being trained in seminaries.
Two years ago, one of those rabbis, Daniel Alter, was viciously attacked in front of his 7-year-old daughter as he prepared for the Jewish High Holy Days. I asked him if he believes that Jews will ever be home in Germany. He answered by saying, “My suitcase is definitely unpacked, but I know where it is.”
Today the gilded dome of Berlin’s New Synagogue rises over the Spree River as a prominent landmark announcing that a Jewish community thrives. And it does. For now, it does.
Next: France’s dilemma.