Under The Dome Of Berlin: The Return Of Jews To Berlin

Eighty years after Kristallnacht, Jewish life returned to Berlin. More than 30,000 Jews currently live in the city, despite anti-Semitism and police protection. ‘It’s very important to me that I grew up in Berlin,’ says Deborah Levine. ‘In terms of Judaism, this is the German city with the most to offer.’ Levine is a 28-year-old Jewish woman and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at Humboldt University in Berlin. She has been living in Berlin for 20 years. She and her parents moved here from Odessa. Her great-grandmother once lived in Berlin before fleeing to Ukraine.

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About eighty years ago, synagogues burned throughout Germany, including in Berlin. Crowds across the state shattered the windows of Jewish business and looted them. Thugs dragged Jewish men on the streets by their elders and beat them. Soon after, mass murder of Jews began. Now, 80 years later, rabbis are being educated in the city – liberals, conservatives and Orthodox. Today, more Jews are living in Berlin than at any other time since the Holocaust. In November 2018, about 1,000 Jews from all over Germany attended a conference on the future of Judaism called ‘Weil ich hier leben will’ (because I want to live here).

Zellner writes her thesis on Jewish education for adulthood. The issue is not primarily related to the Holocaust, but it clearly supports the need for schools to visit Jewish museums, memorial sites and concentration camps. ‘It is even more important today to keep those memories alive when most of the witnesses are dead,’ she says. The state is struggling to protect Jewish life in the capital. In 2016, Berlin’s city administration said 65 institutions were under constant police protection. Anyone passing through the downtown area sees uniformed guards, checkpoints, ‘no entry’ signs, high fences and surveillance cameras. Many institutions are protected from vehicle attacks by concrete barriers and heavy iron chains – yes, this is Berlin in 2019; 80 years after the pogroms in November, 73 years after the Holocaust. David, the Jewish Agency envoy, argues that police presence in front of Jewish institutions is also only part of daily life. ‘You get used to it when you live here.’ ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘everyone wants Jewish activity to be just something normal and not something that should be protected. But the deadly antisemitic shooting in Pittsburgh is a reminder that assaults are always possible’. ‘Until the far-right members of parliament are elected.’ Since then, he fears that ‘anti-Semitism may enter the mainstream of society, and insults will become the norm.’

However, there are also a number of Jewish institutions that are not subject to police protection. One such place is a beautiful Jewish restaurant in a bed run by a woman who came to Berlin from Jerusalem a few years ago. The capital of Germany is also full of reminders of the Holocaust. The Jewish Berlin map has 132 separate sites. The two most prominent – the New Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial – look more like architects’ ego monuments than anything else – but the simplest statements are exciting. The ‘quiet’ created in recent years has recently broken. After an incident in which a Jewish man was attacked because he was walking around with a skullcap, a stir was caused by the Jewish community and the local government in Berlin. After the incident, the victim told the German press that he was not Jewish, but grew up in an Arab family in Israel. He said a Jewish friend gave him the dome, but warned him that he was not safe to wear it in Germany. He said he filmed the video for the police and the German people – and even to show the world – how awful these days are to walk around as a Jew on Berlin’s streets. The attacker was arrested and charged with attempting to cause physical harm to the other.

In response, Germans of all religions wore domes on Saturday after the attack as a symbol of solidarity with the Jewish community as a protest against the sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks. The Ombudsman in the fight against government anti-Semitism has initiated protests across Germany after the government warned the Jews not to wear domes because of the increased chance of attack. Felix Klein, the new Commissioner for Anti-Semitism, plans to establish a national network to help identify the causes of discrimination and racism against Jews as a first step in the fight against the problem. He also wants to set up a system where people can turn to report incidents. Klein said in a radio interview, ‘Because to develop an effective anti-Semitism strategy, we need to know exactly where it is.’ The tabloid newspaper, Bild, was one of the supporters of the demonstrations, and even published a dome for his readers to download and print. ‘Today the dome is a symbol of Berlin that we want,’ Mayor Michael Muller told a crowd of hundreds of people who came to the rally outside the Jewish Community Center in West Berlin. It is a ‘symbol of tolerance’.

Despite the protests, many of the thousands of Jews living in Berlin are concerned that the display of external solidarity will remain symbolic. They don’t expect it to change the threats they face every day, in the political climate in which the far-right has emerged, and anti-Semitic and racist reactions have increased, even though they live in a city that celebrates its diversity of identities. ‘It’s nice and it’s significant, to see people getting up and saying that Jewish life should be here,’ said Ilya – a messenger from Bnei Akiva worldwide and a member of the young Orthodox Jewish community. ‘But in the end, tomorrow morning, I’ll still put a hat on over my dome because I don’t feel safe walking bare on the streets of Berlin.’

In contrast, something extraordinary is happening again to the Jewish community in Germany. It grew, faster than anywhere else in Europe. The city has been a magnet for Jews for years – for Jews from Eastern Europe, Britain, France and even Israel. There are no exact numbers about the number of Jewish residents in the city. Still, more than 12,000 people belong to Jewish communities in the capital, and it is estimated that between 30 and 40,000 Jews call Berlin ‘the home.’ The city’s supermarkets offer kosher products and the number of Jewish and Israeli restaurants continues to grow every month. Eighty years or so back, so to speak, cautious normality was established.

14 May 2021

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