How Jewish life developed in Germany after the Holocaust

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After Nazis murdered 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, the future of Germany's remaining Jewish community was in doubt. As Germany marks 1,700 years of Jewish life, DW looks back at key developments in the postwar era.

Berlin's Neue Synagoge in the background with a passing train in the foreground

The restored dome of Berlin's Neue Synagoge, in a neighborhood that was a thriving center of Jewish life before the Holocaust, now stands as a prominent landmark on the capital's skyline

With more than 200,000 people and counting, Germany's Jewish community is the only one in Europe with a rapidly increasing population — a surprising reality given the near-complete extermination of Jews within Germany during the Holocaust

Today's growing numbers are even more remarkable given that in 1945 most of the world's Jews considered the idea of rebuilding their ruined communities — on the very soil where Hitler plotted and carried out a genocide — to be unthinkable. 

About 15,000 German Jews were liberated by the Allied forces after the war; most of them had survived in hiding, others in concentration camps. Many of those who stayed had a non-Jewish spouse or parent who connected them to the country and perhaps facilitated recovery and integration to some degree. 

Women who survived the Holocaust living in makeshift conditions in 1945 in the displaced persons' camp on the site of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Allies set up camps for survivors, including at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site

'The history of Jews in Germany has found its end'

The German Jewish journalist Karl Marx — namesake of the famous German philosopher and economist — had fled into exile during the war, and was one of the first Jews to return. But the difficulty of that choice weighed on him. He recalled later that, upon crossing into the British-occupied zone in 1946, he asked himself: "How can I possibly, after all that has happened, live in Germany as a Jew?" The choice made by Marx and a few thousand other idealists like him was questioned by many both within and outside the Jewish community.

Surviving Jews holding a Hanukkah celebration in the immediate postwar period at a displaced persons' camp, on the site of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Surviving Jews tried to rebuild lives while housed in the camps for displaced people

The World Jewish Congress held its first postwar gathering in July 1948, at which it passed a resolution clearly expressing "the determination of the Jewish people never again to settle on the bloodstained soil of Germany."

It was a stand backed even by the elite of German Jews, including Leo Baeck, a leading rabbi who emigrated to London after surviving the Theresienstadt concentration camp. "The history of Jews in Germany has found its end. It is impossible for it to come back. The chasm is too great," he said just after the war ended. Baeck remained in London, and in 1955 the international Leo Baeck Institute for the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry was named after him. He served as its first president — but did not return to Germany.

Those who chose to stay and make Germany their home despite the protestations of the much larger international Jewish community had many different reasons, explained Anthony Kauders, history professor at the UK's Keele University. "Some of those who stayed had survived with the help of non-Jewish Germans, and they refused to see all Germans equally culpable. Others were simply too old or too frail to migrate," he said.

Reestablishing German Jewry against all odds 

The efforts to rebuild started immediately after the war ended. By 1948, more than 100 Jewish communities had been founded across Germany.

They were made up of two very distinct groups: There were the German-born Jews, most of whom had been highly assimilated and connected with their German surroundings. On the other side were thousands of displaced Jewish refugees from Eastern European countries who found themselves unwillingly in Germany. With limited means and limited knowledge of the German language, they struggled to find permanent living solutions.

More than 90% of the Jewish refugees who had ended up in Germany left within three to four years, mostly to the US and the newly founded state of Israel. Only about 15,000 of them stayed on German soil. "Some of them found jobs very quickly and they simply made a living," said Kauders. "Staying in the beginning was to certain extent ad hoc, and it came to be permanent."

Many of those Eastern European Jews eventually became naturalized Germans. New to the country, they relied on the community as a support system for their religious, social and cultural needs. "They led very secluded lives," said Kauders. "In the '50s and '60s, as a member of the Jewish community, the only people you really know were other Jews, and you don't mix with others too much."

In July 1950 the disparate communities joined forces and established an umbrella organization to represent them: The Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Heinz Galinski (center), head of the Berlin Jewish Community, carries a Torah scroll amid a crowd at a ceremony opening a the new Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin

Heinz Galinski (center) was head of the West Berlin Jewish Community

The defiant insistence of the German Jewish community led to pragmatic cooperation from the international Jewish institutions. "While it was the opinion and policy of the World Jewish Congress that Jews should leave Germany, those who chose to stay in Germany would be gladly given advice," the WJC said upon the German Central Council's founding. By 1954, the WJC and several other international Jewish organizations had become affiliated with the German body.

Anti-Semitism, meanwhile, continued to be pervasive in Germany. A December 1946 report on anti-Semitism circulated by the US Army found that 18% of Germans were still "radical anti-Semites," 21% were "anti-Semites" and another 22% were "moderate racists." A poll from 1947 found that more than one-third of all Germans felt that it was better for there to be no Jews in Germany.

Focused on rebuilding and recovering, the German public had no interest in confronting the past. A strict code of silence and denial was in place, allowing known Nazis to hold public positions. Though several top war criminals were prosecuted at Nuremberg in the immediate postwar years, it would be nearly two decades until many other Nazi officials faced public accountability during the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. To this day, low-ranking Nazi functionaries are still being tried in court after having enjoyed impunity for decades.

The atmosphere changed as the West German government took a stance against anti-Semitism, said historian Kauders. "For a change the government officially was fighting it, and that of course makes all the difference. That is something [the Jews] hadn't encountered before in Germany or the East European countries they originated from. That gave Jews in Germany a sense of security." 

Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2018 at Berlin's Rykestrasse Synagogue delivering an address marking the 80th anniversary of the 1938 November Pogroms

Since the Holocaust, German leaders have increasingly taken up the mantle of fighting anti-Semitism

The two Germanys

Two German states had been formed upon the ashes of the Third Reich: the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or East Germany), a part of the Soviet-aligned Eastern Bloc, and the western-aligned Federal Republic of Germany (known as West Germany). In each, the successful integration of Jews was considered a litmus test. 

Berlin's Neue Synagoge in ruins in a 1961 photo

Berlin's opulent Neue Synagoge was destroyed during Allied bombing raids. It lay in ruins until after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989

Many of the political idealists and German-born Jews were initially drawn to the East, where the more prominent Jews lived in the first postwar years. 

"Nobody came to live as a Jew in East Germany — they wanted to live as communists," said sociologist and writer Irene Runge, who in 1949 as a young child moved with her parents from the US to Germany. "They repressed everything Jewish."

Runge said that repression was a common thread for Jews in the former East Germany. 

"I think it was the only way you can live here. You had to stay focused on the political goal. The mindset was: 'We are not going to let Germans stay alone in this country, we will make it a better state than ever,'" she said. 

On paper, the Jewish presence in East Germany was almost nonexistent, with only about 1,500 Jews registered with Jewish synagogues and communities in the 1950s. Runge said this figure did not take into account other unaffiliated secular Jews, but the GDR's overall Jewish population was by any measure very small. 

Berlin's Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Strasse

The Neue Synagoge seen in 2008 after the full restoration of its facade and partial restoration of its interior

Post-Soviet influx reinvigorates Jewish communities

When Israel and West Germany established diplomatic ties in 1965, that marked a significant step forward. The German Jewish community took upon itself the mission to foster warm connections between the two nations. "For German Jews, more than other Jews, because of the Holocaust, Israel became very important. There was always the idea of 'living on packed suitcases,' which meant if things get too bad, we are going to leave. And that is why Israel is so important," said Kauders.

An archaeological excavation in of Cologne's medieval Jewish quarter

Over the years, archaeologists have meticulously excavated part of Cologne's medieval Jewish quarter

As the decades passed, a second and third generation grew up. While some left for Israel or other countries, many stayed. "In the late '60 and '70s we see 60% of Jews [practicing] intermarriage, which meant most young Jews were marrying non-Jews," said Kauders, something he noted as a significant step.

"In the '80s and '90s we see the emergence of a younger generation that was fed up with the older generation's mentality that Germany is a provisional solution. This generation is much more vocal and interested in fighting for Jewish rights openly and not just behind closed doors," he said.

Europe's largest Hanukkah menorah is lit every year in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

Europe's largest menorah is lit every year during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate

That post-Holocaust generation was joined by new immigrants from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia Israel, and Iran. Synagogues were built, and new schools opened. A religious pluralism developed, with diverse congregations forming and expanding. Still, the number of people registered as members of Jewish synagogues and religious communities never exceeded 30,000 members, with a predominantly aging population. 

The most significant shift came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Following the opening of East-West and Soviet borders, almost 220,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union immigrated to a newly reunified Germany and were given refugee status. Almost overnight, new communities formed and older ones grew; community centers, schools and synagogues were built all over the country.

The influx of "Russian Jews" invigorated a stagnating community and saved it from demographic collapse. But their integration also posed major challenges, since most of the newcomers were much more secular than the local traditional communities. 

Purim celebration in East Berlin, February 1991 (Archivbild und Text 1991)

Children and adults, many of them from the former Soviet Union, marked Purim together in February 1991

"Their arrival changed everything," recalls sociologist Runge. "They became Jewish life in Germany." Along with them came new attitudes that clashed with the previously insular Jewish community. "When the Russian Jews came, they didn't understand the local communities who were reserved and closed off. They came and wanted to live a good life." 

Today, Soviet-born Jews and their descendants comprise the overwhelming majority of Germany's Jews — up to 90% percent of the community, by some estimates. "The irony is that they were never interested in the debates that occupied the local community, for whom Jewish life in Germany was always complex and problematic. They were more pragmatic, and certainly much less guilt-ridden than those who had reestablished Jewish life after the Shoah," says historian Kauders.

Newly ordained rabbis pose in 2012 at the first rabbinical ordination in Germany since the Holocaust

The first rabbinical ordination in Germany since the Holocaust was in 2012, nearly 70 years after the Nazis were defeated

A new generation 

Today, similar motives seem to be driving Israelis and Jews from Western countries such as the US, Canada, Argentina and England to settle in Germany — and especially Berlin. Many see the booming economic and cultural life as a draw, providing a place where they can seek professional and personal growth.

In one key demographic shift, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 young, highly educated, secular, politically left-leaning Israelis have arrived in Germany in the last two decades. Many of them are related to Holocaust survivors, and some hold European citizenships through their parents and grandparents, facilitating their settling in Germany. 

But the shadow of anti-Semitism has far from disappeared. Just last week, ahead of this weekend's events planned to mark 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany, a new police report has revealed a spike in anti-Semitic hate crime, with over 2,275 incidents in 2020. And in December, a German man was sentenced to life in prison for an attempted massacre on a synagogue in 2019.

That there are Jews moving to Germany today whose own grandparents survived the Holocaust and fled is a stark historical reversal, says historian Kauders. "The fact that it is cool for Israelis to be in Berlin now, without feeling guilty, comes to show the pluralization of Israeli society, and Germany's too. In this sense, the postwar period has definitely ended."

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