The struggle to be both Jewish and a German

Rafael Seligmann represents a demographic that has it far from easy. By Tony Paterson found out

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The Independent Online

Rafael Seligmann has reasons enough to despise, if not loathe, the Germans. The Nazis murdered his aunts and uncles. At school in post-war Munich, his teachers boasted that Hitler was a "brave soldier" and his first German girlfriend's parents said his relationship with her "defiled" the German race.

With experiences like these in his luggage, it might seem remarkable that 64-year-old Mr Seligmann – who happens to be both German and Jewish – has just launched an English-language Jewish newspaper from Berlin to show the rest of the world how Jewish life is enjoying an extraordinary renaissance in Germany. "My own life as a German Jew brought up in post-war Germany and the dramatic changes in Jewish life that have occurred since the fall of the Berlin Wall prompted me to start the paper," he told i. "I was adamant that Hitler should not have the last word on German-Jewish history."

Jewish Voice from Germany was launched at the beginning of January. The paper claims to have a readership of around 150,000 with the bulk in the United States and the remainder spread across Britain, Canada, Australia and Germany. It contains a broad cross section of contributions from independent commentators and journalists, many of whom are not Jews.

The first edition features a front-page article by a well known liberal (non-Jewish) journalist calling for a ban on Germany's neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. It also contains a commentary by Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann, proclaiming pessimistically that there will be "no rebirth of German Jews", and a piece by a young Israeli Berliner celebrating the arrival of young Israelis in the capital.

The paper is published four times a year and Mr Seligmann, a well-known German author, newspaper and television journalist, funds it himself with the help of advertising and subscription fees. He says the project is an attempt to reflect the way Jewish life has begun to flourish in Germany in a way never deemed possible. Before Nazi rule, there were about 600,000 Jews living in Germany. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, their number was down to a mere 30,000. Then in 1990, the government of reunified Germany made what may be regarded as one of its most significant acts of atonement for the Holocaust: it declared immigration a right for anyone able to prove that they were Jewish. The upshot has been an unprecedented influx and now Germany's is the only growing Jewish population on earth.

It is a far cry from 1957, the year in which Mr Seligmann, aged 10, arrived in Germany. His parents were both German Jews who had fled Nazi rule and escaped to Palestine before the war. His mother's brothers and sisters did not escape, perishing in the death camps.

By the mid-Fifties, Mr Seligmann's father decided to move back to Germany with his family. The young Mr Seligmann was told by his father: "You will like Germany". But for a long time "liking Germany" was something Mr Seligmann found difficult, if not impossible. "I was dreadfully unhappy," he recalls. The Germany of the late-Fifties and Sixties was a country still heavily infected with the poison of Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism.

It could be argued that even today, reunited Germany has still not got all that much to be proud of when it comes to shedding the influences of Nazism. Neo-Nazi violence has increased massively since reunification. The majority of Germany's new Jewish immigrants are not openly acknowledged as such. Instead they are almost universally referred to as "Russians".

Only five years ago, Daniel Alter, the first rabbi to be ordained in Germany since the Holocaust, said he felt more comfortable wearing a baseball cap over his skull cap in public because he feared being identified as a Jew.

Nevertheless, most Jews, including Mr Seligmann, say they live in relative safety in Germany, even if every synagogue and Jewish school in the country is under a constant police guard.

Mr Seligmann says the most important change wrought by Germany's new generation of Jews is that they are dispensing with the negative perception of themselves as victims. "They feel much easier about expressing themselves than Jews did two decades ago," he says. "In Germany, perhaps more than anywhere else, Jews should be allowed to become as self-confident as anyone else in society."

Jewish Voice from Germany and the man behind the paper are evidence enough that such ideals are being realised. "Fifty years ago I was afraid of the Germany of the Nazis that murdered the Jews," he writes in his autobiography. "Nowadays I feel as if I have found my place among these people as they have with me."