Three Jewish women, each the wife of a German Christian, celebrated Passover together this year and invited me to the feast. One of the wives is a classical pianist from England who brought dark brown eggs boiled with onion skins, prepared from a recipe her Sephardic mother had taught her. An American woman, a translator, brought eggs with glistening white shells. She joked that they could have been colored for an Easter egg hunt for her little girls. The third wife, a German who grew up in Dresden in the communist East and now organizes cultural events for the Jewish community of Berlin, conducted the Seder. She explained to the children how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt in ancient times and traveled through the desert to a life of freedom in Israel.
This particularly eclectic Seder, borrowing from different traditions, was organized by these mothers, determined that their children learn their religious origins in a European city diminished of Jews by the Holocaust. If it was hardly orthodox, it reflected the tenacious Jewish spirit of renewal in the heart of the nation that once tried to destroy the Jews. Germany is now home to the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, a mix of the religious and secular, orthodox and liberal.
More than 2 1/2 centuries have passed since Moses Mendelssohn, then 14, in 1743 walked through the Rosenthaler Tor, the only gate to Berlin where Jews and cattle were allowed to pass. He became the great Jewish philosopher who taught that our ability to reason was a gift from God. His scholarship helped write an end to a history of isolation for Jews and opened up new possibilities of culture and assimilation. But in our own time, Jews would be treated again like cattle, herded into cattle trains and slaughtered in death camps.
The lessons of history are strange and rarely predictable, and Jews have returned to Germany for many different reasons. The sad generation of survivors who lost so much has given way to younger immigrants eager to build new lives from roots about which they know little.
The Jewish Voice From Germany, a new English-language publication, celebrates what German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle calls “the new blossoming of Jewish life in Germany.” Many Jews I’ve met here say that “springtime for Jews in Germany” is an exaggeration, but Rafael Seligmann, the founder of the new publication, promises that his quarterly will reflect the “rebirth of German-Jewish life,” showing the creative work of Jewish artists, writers, scientists, journalists and businessmen. “I don’t want Hitler to have the last word,” he says.
The growth of Jews in Germany is mainly the result of policy after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reunification of East and West. The government made it easier for Jews who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain to make Germany their home, tempted by generous financial incentives. There was genuine remorse, even repentance, for what had happened during “the thousand-year Reich” that lasted barely two decades. Nearly 200,000 Jews have arrived from the old Soviet Union; in one year, more Soviet Jews immigrated to Germany than to Israel. But on arrival, few knew very much about their ancient faith because they had been forbidden to practice it in the Soviet Union. Perhaps more surprising, an estimated 15,000 Jews have immigrated to Berlin from Israel.
The waves of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have subsided, and a third of the Jews in Berlin are now older than 65. How many of those immigrants actually have embraced Judaism as a faith and a way of life is unknown; that’s a story only their children will be able to tell. Jewish Voice From Germany emphasizes cultural issues and glosses over complex, conflicting voices. It reflects a strong left-leaning editorial bias, urging, for example, Israeli recognition of Palestine.
With a particular Passover irony, Gunter Grass, now 84, Germany’s most celebrated German author (“The Tin Drum”), once a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS and the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1999, beat a tin drum of his own with a widely circulated poem denying the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. He describes Jews as the greatest threat to global security.
A recent government commission finds that anti-Semitism persists in Germany, and it’s not enough to teach about Nazi persecution. The commission wants more emphasis to be placed on the threat of renewed anti-Semitism growing from the conflicts in the Middle East and Islamism. The current international financial crisis also has restored in some quarters old images of conspiracies and “greedy Jews.” The more things change …
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.