"Growing up in Berlin means a lot to me," says Greta Zelener. "As far as Judaism is concerned, it is the German city that has the most to offer." Zelener is Jewish, the 28-year-old is currently writing her doctoral thesis at the Humboldt University of Berlin. She has lived in Berlin for 20 years. She and her parents moved here from Odessa. Her great-grandmother lived in Berlin before fleeing to the Ukraine. But Berlin is also the city where the Nazis planned to exterminate the Jewish people.
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80 years ago, synagogues were burned all over Germany, including Berlin. Crowds across the country broke and ransacked the windows of Jewish businesses. The bandits dragged the Jewish men through the streets by the beards and beat them. Soon after, the mass murder of Jews began. Now, 80 years later, the city is training rabbis: liberal, conservative and orthodox. Today, more Jews live in Berlin than at any time since the Holocaust. And this week, around 1,000 Jews from all over Germany attended a conference on the future of Judaism titled "Why I want to live here."
Introduced to her Jewish heritage in fifth grade.
Greta Zelener says that she is "not religious". When she is asked about places of Jewish identity in Berlin, she refers to a memorial. The permanent memorial exhibition in the Anne Frank Center at Hackescher Markt is very important to her, she says. "That was the first place I became aware of my Jewish heritage, when I was in fifth grade," she says. She then mentions Charlottenburg as another example. Zelener now lives in the neighborhood, as did her great-grandmother before she ran away. One of the reasons Charlottenburg is a place of Jewish identity, she says, is the city's largest kosher supermarket.
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Michael Beynisch also came to Germany from the Ukraine a few years ago. He came from the city of Kharkiv. The 42-year-old belongs with his wife and his children to the strictly religious Chabad-Lubavitch community in Willmersdorf. He remembers hearing about the Nazi extermination of Jews "almost daily" when he lived in the Ukraine, even during the Soviet era. "But we could never really imagine how people must have felt during those dark days."
I don't step on stumbling blocks
For Beynisch, who works in the security sector, the obstacles in Berlin have a special meaning. The name literally means "stumbling blocks" and you can see the square bronze signs embedded in sidewalks throughout the city. 1992,German artist Gunter Demnighe began putting up signs in front of houses where Jews lived before they were deported and murdered by the Nazis. "I try not to step on them out of respect," says Beynisch. He also reflects on the fate of the Jews in Germany when he visits the Track 17 monument at the Grunewald station. Here tens of thousands of Jews were packed into wagons and sent to be killed. "The atmosphere on the track fills me with a deep sadness: the plants that grow along the track, the silence."
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Beynisch and Zelener are aware of anti-Semitism in Berlin, but say they are not overly concerned. Beynisch says that he has traveled to many countries and that "anti-Semitism is the same everywhere." He says that he has seen much more open anti-Semitism in the Ukraine and Russia than in Germany. "It's not that open in Germany, maybe people talk about it more freely at home."
The state does everything possible to protect Jewish life in the capital. In 2016, the Berlin city government announced that 65 facilities were under constant police protection. Walking through the east center, you will see numerous uniformed guards, barricades, "no trespassing" signs, high fences, and surveillance cameras. Many institutions are protected from vehicular attack by huge concrete barriers and heavy iron chains. Yes, this is Berlin in 2018; 80 years after the November pogroms known as Kristallnacht, 73 years after the Holocaust.
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But there are also several Jewish institutions that are not under police protection. One such place is a nice Jewish restaurant in Mitte, run by a woman who came here from Jerusalem a few years ago. When she was asked her opinion on anti-Semitism in Germany, she immediately brushed it off: "Sorry, I don't care." You may be thinking of Yorai Feinberg, a Jewish restaurant owner in Schöneberg, who denounced a particularly disturbing case of anti-Semitism in 2017.since then the target of insults and threats.
Michael Beynisch also experienced first-hand anti-Semitic hatred in Germany. Beynisch plays soccer for the amateur club TuS Makkabi in Berlin. The situation escalated dramatically once, he says, when his team played several Arab players. The fans at the game were openly abusive. "He was afraid of hurting me," he says, but adds that he doesn't feel that fear in his everyday life in Berlin.
Greta Zelener also says that the police presence in front of Jewish institutions is part of everyday life. "You get used to it when you grow up here." Of course, she says, we wish Judaism was just normal and didn't need to be protected. But the deadly anti-semite shoots thatrecently took place in Pittsburghit's a reminder that bloody attacks are always possible. She says she was "quite relaxed" about anti-Semitism "until [the far-right Alternative for Germany]was elected to parliament.” Since then, he has feared "that anti-Semitism will seep into society and that insults will become normal." Then normalcy began to unravel.
When eyewitnesses die...
Zelener is writing his thesis on Jewish adult education. However, the theme is not primarily related to Holocaust remembrance. But the 28-year-old, sponsored by the Ernst-Ludwig-Ehrlich-Stipendienfonds, a federally funded Jewish institution, still thinks about the Holocaust. She supports the idea that school-age children should visit Jewish museums, memorials and former concentration camps. "And it becomes even more important to preserve those memories when eyewitnesses die," she says.
Greta Zelener and Michael Beynisch, both from very different religious backgrounds, are just two examples of what Jewish life is like in Berlin today. However, they have one thing in common: Zelener remembers the first day of school and says that she did not understand a word of German; she is now a doctor. Candidate. Beynisch, who speaks German slowly and with a heavy accent, tells me about his three children, ages nine, seven and five. He says that he speaks Russian with them at home. They speak Hebrew at the synagogue, English at school, and German among themselves.
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They are all part of a new generation of Jewish life in Berlin. The city has been a magnet for people of the Jewish faith for years, for Jews from Eastern Europe, Britain, France and even Israel. There are no hard numbers on how many Jewish residents the city has. Still, more than 12,000 people belong to Jewish communities in the capital, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Jews call Berlin home today. The city's supermarkets offer kosher products and the number of Jewish or Israeli restaurants is growing every month. Eighty years later, a cautious normality has taken hold.