HISTORY AND DEMOGRAPHY
The presence of Jews in Germany dates back to the early 4th century. Little is known about the early German Jews, but by the 8th century, during the reign of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), ‘King of the Franks,’ they flourished amongst the German tribes along the banks of the Rhine. The Jews, for the most part, lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors. They suffered greatly, however, during the Crusades (1096-1291). This period of persecution was followed by further mass slaughter as a result of accusations against the Jews of poisoning the wells and causing the outbreak of the Pestilence (‘Black Death’, 1348-1350 in Germany). Nonetheless, the Jews never fully abandoned Germany. Even when a city-state expelled their Jewish population, the non-unified character of Germany ensured that another autonomous city would extend them a charter. The reason for doing so was generally economic: The Jews could be relied on to fill the role of moneylender and were considered to be excellent merchants.
From the time that German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn heralded Germany’s ‘Age of Enlightenment’ (‘Haskala’) in the second half of the 18th century, up until the 20th century, the community gradually achieved emancipation and greater prosperity.
With the rise of the Nazi party to power in 1933, the more than 500,000 Jews living in Germany found themselves severely persecuted and rapidly excluded from the German society of which they had felt so much a part. While about half of Germany’s Jews managed to flee the country, most of those who remained were unable to save themselves. In 1941, the deportations to the death camps began. Only some 15,000 German Jews survived the Holocaust.
After the war, the Jewish community was re-established. In West Germany, Displaced Persons (DPs) from various countries in Eastern Europe accounted for the majority of its members. The number of Jews there remained relatively constant at 25,000-30,000 until the end of the 1980’s. In East Germany, it was the ‘original’ German Jews who comprised the 1,700 members of the new community. They returned to the former Soviet Occupation Zone soon after the Red Army liberated Berlin in order to build their dream of a socialist society. However, shortly after, practicing members of East Germany’s Jewish community found themselves at odds with the Soviet occupiers and the number of Jews in the German Democratic Republic dwindled to about 400 in 1989. Most of the Jews in Germany today arrived from the Soviet Union immediately before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. There are some 105,000 ‘registered’ members of the official Jewish community now living in Germany and nearly the same amount of unaffiliated members. Due to the influx of Soviet Jews, Germany has the third largest and fastest growing Jewish population in Western Europe.
The largest Jewish community in Germany is located in Berlin with some 10,600 members, followed by Munich (9,500 members), Dusseldorf (7,100) and Frankfurt am Main (6,800). Some 108 small Jewish communities are scattered throughout the country.
Approximately 85 % of its members are native Russian-speakers. The mass number of immigrants, mainly from the Baltic States, Russia, and Ukraine, are well-educated but have scant knowledge of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, their presence has injected new life into the aging community.
The Jewish communities are united under the umbrella organization, the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (the Central Council of Jews in Germany). Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the small Jewish community of East Germany was gradually integrated into the larger German Jewish community.
As the official representative of Jewry in Germany, the Central Council’s primary concern is to provide advocacy for the common political interests of the Jewish community as a whole and to foster religious and cultural activities within local Jewish communities. It also works to promote understanding and mutual respect between Jews and Gentiles.
In the early years, one pivotal task for the Central Council was to ensure that the Federal German government adopted legislation on compensating the Jewish population for losses in life and property incurred during the Holocaust period. Today, apart from representing Jewish interests to the German government, a major priority of the Central Council is to help Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union integrate not only within the Jewish communities but also within German society in general. The Council aids in integration by providing support for vocational training seminars, language courses, political education and other activities. It also offers assistance in religious instruction, enabling the immigrants to explore their Jewish faith.
RELIGIOUS, CULTURE LIFE AND EDUCATION
In the major cities, Jews in Germany enjoy a vibrant communal life with a rich variety of cultural and religious institutions and events. There are numerous synagogues, community centres, cemeteries, retirement homes and offices of Jewish organizations in many cities and towns.
Kosher food is available in major Jewish centres, and all major communities have their own rabbis.
There are more than 20 Jewish museums in Germany. Jewish culture weeks, Yiddish culture weeks and Klezmer festivals throughout Germany are held on a regular basis.
Each year for the past ten years, at least one new synagogue and Jewish community centre has been opened. It is often well-known German architects that are involved in planning and building German synagogues.
Germany has more than 20 Jewish nursery schools and nine Jewish primary schools. In 1993 a Jewish high school in Berlin was reopened for the first time since World War II, followed by a Jewish secondary school in Frankfurt in 2006. Due to an increase in interest in Judaic studies, particularly among non-Jewish students, there are around 15 such programs in universities throughout Germany. In many of these programs, the majority of students and faculty are non-Jews. In 1979 a special, autonomous College of Jewish Studies was founded in Heidelberg that offers academic degrees for Jewish studies and programs in community work as well as teacher and rabbinic training. In addition, there are two denominational rabbinical seminaries in Germany. In 2006, for the first time since World War II, rabbis were ordained in Germany once again.
Major Jewish organizations, such as the Zionist Organization, B’nai B’rith, WIZO, and Maccabi are also active in Germany.
The country’s only national Jewish weekly paper, the “Jüdische Allgemeine”, is published in Berlin. In addition, there is a monthly Jewish newspaper, “Jüdische Zeitung,” and several magazines published by the Jewish communities themselves. Recently, the English-language “Jewish voice from Germany” was launched.
Fifty years after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II, there is a new openness and readiness within German society to confront its Nazi past and the school curriculum in German high schools includes Holocaust studies. Moreover, Holocaust denial has been declared illegal and is punishable by law. Still, there are more than 200 extreme-right splinter groups and organizations with a total of about 25,000 members. More than 150 of these groups are classified officially as neo-Nazi. While the quantity of these extreme-right groups is on the rise, the number of right-wing extremists in Germany is declining every year. However, anti-Semitic activities in Germany include desecration of cemeteries and attacks against synagogues, memorial sites, and Jewish property. A special office of the German Ministry of Interior Affairs, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, keeps a watchful eye on such activities and publishes an annual report on the activities of hate groups.
In 1951, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer declared before the Bundestag his readiness to enter negotiations with representatives of the Jewish people and Israel within regards to reparations and in 1952, together with Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, and with Moshe Sharett, foreign minister of Israel, signed the Luxembourg Indemnification Agreement. Full diplomatic relations were established in 1965. In addition to the embassy in Berlin, since 2011 Israel also maintains a consulate in Munich. From its establishment in 1949 until its collapse in 1989, East Germany assumed a hostile stance toward Israel and refused to acknowledge its people’s moral responsibility for the Holocaust. Furthermore, it furnished military aid to Arab states and terrorist organizations. It was only after the political revolution of 1989-90 that the new government acknowledged “co-responsibility for the humiliation, deportation and murder of Jewish men, women and children” and “this burden of German history”. In a parliament session in April 1990 an apology for the “official GDR policy towards the state of Israel” was adopted and “Jewish fellow-citizens” were asked to forgive the discrimination they had suffered in the German Democratic Republic.
In 1996, Ezer Weizman became the first Israeli president to visit Germany. Today, Germany is a close friend of Israel, both politically and socially. There is strong trade, science and cultural cooperation between the two countries, with Germany being second only to the United States in its economic relations with Israel, heavily importing and exporting and providing assistance in the form of grants and loans.
Major Jewish sites to visit include the ancient synagogue in Worms (1034); the adjoining mikva ritual bath (1186); and the Rashi Chapel (1624). All have been reconstructed since the war. The ancient Worms cemetery was saved from destruction. In Speyer one can see the oldest mikveh in Germany, dating from the 11th century. There is a historic synagogue in Odenbach with baroque paintings, and many more historic synagogues throughout Germany that are restored and serve as museums. In addition, there are many ancient cemeteries such as in Würzburg, Heidingsfeld, Hochberg, and Frankfurt am Main. In Berlin, the impressive synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse has been reconstructed as a Jewish centre and museum.
Memorials can be found at the sites of the Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Ravensbrück concentration camps. The Gestapo headquarters and the Wannsee villa, where the machinery of the Final Solution was set in motion, are also museums. In many cities and towns there are monuments marking the destruction of their synagogues in 1938 such as in Munich where there is also another monument commemorating the Israeli sportsmen murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games.