Germany's Russian revolution

1989 was the year when Jews returned to Germany - except they came from Russia


In Germany this autumn, there has been a tremendous build-up to Monday’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A generation has passed since the sound of chisels rang out across that divide, when colourfully dressed youths clambered onto the concrete barrier and set about removing it.

In one generation, the entire landscape of Jewish life in Germany has changed. After the wall collapsed, and then the Soviet Union, thousands of Jews poured into Germany, welcomed by the government and by Jewish institutions. The Jewish community here today is overwhelmingly Russian.

Writer Wladimir Kaminer came to Berlin in 1990 from Moscow and today lives only steps away from where the Wall used to be, in former East Berlin.

“I never saw the Wall,” he said. By the time he arrived, “it was already gone, torn down by East Germans who just wanted stuff from the West. But if they hadn’t done it, I might never have been here.”

Mr Kaminer, 42, whose latest book is My Russian Neighbours, said his entire generation was afflicted with wanderlust. But they could only travel within the USSR. Once he took part in a demonstration outside the Moscow Synagogue. “We held up a white sign that said, ‘Let us go to Israel.’ But only one of us really wanted to go. We were just expressing the need to protest, for any reason at all.”

Recently, the Frankfurt Jewish Museum asked Mr Kaminer to lend some objects for an upcoming exhibition on the ex-Soviet Jews in Germany, focusing on the items that people brought with them when they set out for a new life.

The curator, Dmitri Belkin, who arrived from Ukraine in 1994, “was looking for things with a religious content. I found my father’s kippah,” Kaminer said. “But I also lent him a cast-iron frying pain and a huge photo-enlarger for a dark room.”

“It will be the first big exhibition on the Russian-Jewish emigration to Germany from 1989 to 2005,” Mr Belkin explained. “It is a new, very fresh story.”

The exhibition, which opens in March 2010 at the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, will tell the story of Jews in the Soviet Union, life under Perestroika, and emigration to Germany.

Mr Belkin’s aim was to gather “objects to show the rooms and lives of people”, he told me. “If I plan such an emigration, what kind of object would I need for my new life?”

“As a result of this emigration, we definitely have a new Jewry in Germany. It is not the ‘German’ Jewry, because that was destroyed by the Holocaust. Sometimes people took with them objects that were absolutely not Russian, because their expectations and what they imagined about the new country had nothing to do with reality, with everyday life.

“A lot of intellectuals came to Germany. The books of German culture emigrated with them, by Goethe, Heine, Thomas Mann. These they brought with them — in Russian.

“Another very important point is the generation of the victors in the Second World War. This is a major identification factor. For German Jewry, the Holocaust is the dominating factor. So we have these two perspectives.”

Many objects concern points of transition: “People often had three or four passports, because there was the USSR first, then Ukraine or Belarus, and then the first transitional passport in Germany, and finally a real German passport.”

Rabbi Salomon Almekias-Siegl of Dresden says that many Russian families came to Germany on false papers. “Things like that I call helping to rescue people who live in a bad situation, or bringing members of a family together. Why not? If you rescue a human being to give him the chance to live in a proper way, that for me is not a criminal act.”

Svetlana Agronik, who works for the Jewish community of Berlin, came to Berlin in 1991 with her daughter and one suitcase.

They were planning to stay for a couple of weeks, but ended up staying, only visiting Russia for the first time after 12 years. “Life had been good in Russia. But suddenly, there was no bread. My friend in Berlin said, ‘Bring your papers with you, just in case’.”

Irene Runge grew up in East Berlin, daughter of American ex-pat socialists. She remembers the Jewish community as deadly quiet before the Wall came down. “There were only funerals,” she recalls. But during a book promotion trip to New York in March 1989, Ms Runge was introduced to “the Rebbe” — Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson — “and he told me the Berlin Wall will collapse.

“I thought, how would he know, sitting there in Brooklyn?” Ms Runge had started cultural and social clubs for Jews in East Berlin, and the Rebbe told her to keep on with her work. “Of course — he was wise, and he understood that the Russian Jews would be coming.”

Sure enough, “all of a sudden they have to build kindergartens and schools and have barmitzvahs. Without the Russians, there would be no Jews in Germany”.

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