New life for Germany's Jews: Adrian Bridge reports from Berlin on a community's joy as it opens a

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE OLD MAN at the back of the assembly hall broke into a grin as the accordionist struck up a traditional Israeli folk song and the crowd began to sway and clap along in tune. 'It is incredible,' he said. 'Here, on the very ground where Jewish life once pulsed, it is beginning to blossom again. For those of us that survived the Holocaust, this is a very great day.'

The beaming faces all around him conveyed the same message, the same sense of astonishment. Nearly 50 years after it was almost wiped out, Germany's Jewish community at last had its own secondary school again. Yesterday, the doors of the school, located in the Scheunenviertel of Berlin, a Jewish heartland in the pre-war city, opened to its first pupils. The intake may have been small - just 24 for this year - but its symbolic significance was vast.

'This shows that, despite everything that happened in the past, the Jewish community in Germany is here to stay,' said Tsafrir Cohen, a member of the official Jewish Community in Berlin organisation. 'Rather than dying out, this shows that our community is alive and young.'

The new sense of vitality that has entered the Jewish community in Germany over the past three years is almost wholly attributable to the large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. In Berlin, the size of the community has risen from 6,000 to 10,000; in Germany as a whole, it has gone up from 30,000 to more than 40,000. Moreover, whereas many of the pre- 1989 members of the community were over 50, the newcomers tend to be much younger.

'At last we are opening a secondary school because at last we have the children,' said Jerzy Kanal, the leader of the Berlin Jewish Community. 'We want our young people to be in touch with their history and religion, to know properly what it means to be Jewish.'

At the school, a Jewish boys' school before the war and the point from which thousands of Jews were rounded up to be deported to concentration camps in 1942, Hebrew and Old Testament Bible studies will feature prominently on the syllabus. In other respects, however, the school will offer the same subjects as mainstream German secondary schools.

Of the first year's intake, a third are non-Jews. It is a trend which the school directors hope will continue, keeping the school open to all-comers and, in the words of Mr Kanal, 'a centre for tolerance and understanding'.

With the addition of the secondary school, Berlin's Scheunenviertel is now, outwardly at least, beginning to resume something of the look of a Jewish district. Close to the school, the magnificent gold-plated domes of the recently-renovated 'New Synagogue' have become one of the city's more stunning landmarks. The district also has two or three cafes and restaurants serving kosher food and a shop selling menorahs (candelabra), Israeli wine and Passover matzos.

Given the city's not-so-distant past, such developments appear extraordinary. But they do not add up to a real revival of the Jewish community. Today's community is still nothing compared to its 170,000-strong pre-war predecessor. The New Synagogue, moreover, impressive as it is from the outside, is being transformed into a museum and centre for archives rather than a place of worship. And most of the clientele at the kosher restaurants are young Germans who, for a variety of reasons, have decided that to be Jewish is to be chic.

'We can create all sorts of marvellous institutions and facilities for Jews, but we can never replace the people who were here,' said Mr Kanal. 'It is great to have our own school and to see a few obvious signs of Jewish life again in the city. But the community will never again be what it once was.'

Comments