Report from Germany: A Quest for Normalcy

Remnant of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

By Robert Israel

Germany’s quest for normalcy – its ongoing effort to achieve harmony and stability among its neighbors, foreign residents and citizens – begins here, in Berlin, the city of stones.

There are stones everywhere, unearthed boulders, open trenches, as this city continues a mad pace to rebuild from the still visible mortar shelled scars that mar the crumbling buildings in Pottsdammer Platz.

Everywhere one walks, from the Scheunenviertel in the former eastern sector, where the Jewish Quarter is located, to Checkpoint Charlie at the gateway to the western sector, one sees the rubble of crumbling buildings, streets under construction, vacant buildings slated for demolition. Berlin is in a state of constant metamorphosis.

But it is in the Judischer Friedhof, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, where the missing stones tell a different story. It was here, in 1943, that the Nazis removed 3,000 tombstones, robbing even the dead of their identities. Moses Mendelssohn, spiritual leader of German Jewry in the pre-Kantian period, is buried here. A place-holder grave
has been erected, and visitors leave behind pebbles on the tombstone that stands alone in the secluded glade.

If there is eeriness to Berlin’s constant clamor of rebuilding and restoring, it is because one senses that there is no grand city plan in effect here. Too much has to be done. There are blocks in the former eastern sector that feel like a set on a movie backlot. At night, walking past the Neue Synagogue to the kosher restaurant, there are only sudden splashes of light and laughter on an otherwise ink-dark street. Silence prevails. Prostitutes, wearing Day-Glo hot pants that sparkle under the glare of headlamps, busily flag down passing motorists.

“The Jewish community in Berlin is a protected minority,” says Ernst Cramer, an editor at Axel Springer Verlag, publishers of several of Germany’s largest daily newspapers. “The community is supported by the state. It is a newly re-established community, and, like all communities, it is fighting, not only among itself, but with others, because it is unsure of the outside world. And how could it be otherwise? How can you build on a future when so much has happened from the past?”

Jonathan Kaufman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a study of European Jews titled A Hole in the Heart of the World, disagrees with Cramer’s assessment of Berlin’s Jewish community.

“Jews fighting with Jews,” Kaufman says, “is a good sign. It shows discourse. It shows strength. The Jews of Germany are vocal, visible, and no longer contributing to an obituary, but, rather, to a birth announcement. Russian Jews are clambering to attain German citizenship. This is a community on the upswing.”

Upswing or downswing, one thing is certain: the ghosts of the Holocaust dominate a foreigner’s perspective. Within that search for context between what was and what is, the Holocaust and modern-day Germany undergoes comparisons, contrasts, and personal examinations. It is impossible not to draw on one’s own personal history while wandering the streets here. My grandparents, immigrants who escaped Eastern Europe in the years preceding World War II, referred to the Holocaust not as the all-encompassing fire, but as the all-consuming darkness. They said they were grateful they got out “before the lights went out,” meaning, literally, blackouts. But they also meant a metaphorical darkness, especially when they used a phrase that is synonymous in Yiddish and German: schwarze jahre – black years.

The new Jewish museum in Berlin graphically chronicles the era. You leave the building feeling as if you have personally – just barely – survived those dark years. So, too, with the Topography of Terror – an excavation of Gestapo headquarters on Prinz Albrecht Strasse – that brings visitors to the very subterranean rooms where Eichmann and Himmler and their ilk practiced evil. The nineteenth century British writer Thomas Carlyle wrote about “the blackness of darkness,” an apt description of these excavated rooms from which the condemned would never return.

What troubles newspaper editor Ernst Cramer and other Jewish leaders here is that in spite of the fact that the most unspeakable of National Socialism’s crimes against humanity are on display in costly new public museums and in the concentration camps that have been faithfully restored, the message still hasn’t permeated German consciousness.
How else can you explain, Cramer asks, why his newspapers repeatedly chronicle violent anti-Semitic and other xenophobic incidents throughout Germany – and nothing changes? If Germans get it, why won’t the hatred end? Why won’t these incidents cease?

In the late 1990s, I went to Germany to report on the national elections. The Jewish population at that time was under 30,000. Yet, despite being such a small minority quietly existing in a nation where the big news was reunification, Jews were a popular subject of discussion – and attack.

Author Jonathan Kaufman, living in Berlin then, attributed the preoccupation with Jews to an awakening by the Germans who realized what they were missing. Jews were historically responsible for bringing to Germany a sense of cultural ethos. Kaufman’s thesis: after awakening from a long slumber, the populace was now acknowledging the Jewish roots of this influence.

But how badly do the Germans truly want Jews and others – whom they often disparagingly refer to as ausländer, or foreigners – to flourish, and at what price?

During my first visit, I read in the International Herald Tribune about the village of Dolgenbrodt, located 100 kilometers from Berlin. Some residents there had hired right-wing hoodlums to fire-bomb the home of asylum-seekers from Turkey for the sum of around US $1300. No one was killed in the incident, but it – and others like it – so incensed Helmut Kohl, then Federal Chancellor, that he spoke out: “Jews in Israel and America, as well as here in Germany, are asking the simply put question: ‘Is it [Nazism} starting up again [in Germany]? Haven’t they learned anything?’”

Good question. Today, several years after my initial visits, the Jewish population has risen to 100,000. But the same problems persist. The German Parliament still struggles with finding ways to silence the National Democratic Party, formed in the 1960s from ideologies fostered during National Socialism. During a recent visit, Jewish leaders pointed to a published an article calling for “an uprising of the upright” to combat neo-Nazis and skinheads.

The debates over censure of these deviant groups continue, without noticeable change. And among many young people, a sense of clinging to political innocence abounds. Take, for example, the young protestors I met in the public square in Bonn near Beethoven’s birthplace, holding placards on the heavily traveled pedestrian walkway that leads past fountains and picturesque gardens to outdoor cafes and exclusive restaurants and shops.

“We want peace, total peace, and total universal disarmament,” a young man says is the theme that unites him and twenty of his fellow university students to the plaza for their demonstration. He is standing beside a mannequin of a soldier dressed in a blue and white United Nations uniform who holds a cardboard rifle. Beside the mannequin is a burlap sack stuffed with straw. The banner proclaims: “Don’t send soldiers, send grain.”

“The way to establish a harmonious world,” the young man explains, “is to feed people, not to shoot them.”
Indeed, one could make the case that pacifism – some critics call it abdication of global responsibilities – has been embraced: the German Parliament, citing their constitution, recently forbid the nation to support President Bush’s request for aid should the United States proceed with an invasion of Iraq.

But tell that to the Kurdish woman lying feebly on a cot inside a tent in Köln’s cathedral square who has refused all food for several days now. She has many reasons for seeking German citizenship, among them fear of persecution at home. And yet, despite her protest, she will be deported. Protestors with bull-horns denounce the treatment she has received from the government.

The protest is lost on a burly bald man dressed in black leather who holds two Dobermans by a thick chain. Tomas, my translator, explains that the bald man uses the dogs, with their menacing spiked collars, to keep his prostitutes in line.

“Everyone here is disconnected,” Tomas tells me. “You can never quite get the sense of things here. It’s as if people are possessed. They pass one another on the streets as if in a dream or a trance.”

Tomas’ description reminds me of Washington Irving’s classic tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Things were dreamy for the townsfolk of Sleepy Hollow. They walked about “in a continual reverie,” Irving wrote – until a horrific night-rider with a pumpkin head made off on horseback with one of their own.

These haunting images preoccupy my thoughts when I arrive for an appointment with Paul Spiegel, the director of the Jewish community in Bonn. After an initial greeting with his staff, my government appointed translator, Tomas, is separated from me.

“Well, he quite simply can’t come in here,” Spiegel says, emphatically, when I ask why.

“But he’s been assigned to me, he has security clearance,” I insist.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Spiegel says. “If he learns about the layout of our offices, he could lead people in here. He’s a risk.”

Tomas tells me later he is led through a series of small meeting rooms, in one door, out another, upstairs one flight, downstairs another flight, and, finally, into a room with no telephone in the basement.

Spiegel and I sit in awkward silence.

“Look,” he says, finally, “the Storm Troopers are not marching down the street. This is a quiet street, and we have security. You were viewed on closed-circuit television when you turned down the street. But we can never know. You can never be too careful.”

When Tomas and I meet later for dinner, I tell him about the Director’s reaction, and he says he is not surprised or offended. This is not the first time he has been scrutinized in this fashion. He shrugs it off as an isolated example of paranoia. But is it? Could it be that Spiegel has given Tomas a dose of what it feels like to be an ausländer?

Later, at a bar near my hotel in Bonn, Tomas introduces me to several of his friends. They are starkers – Yiddish/German slang for strong guys.

“Look at these guys,” Tomas says. His three friends strike a pose, their beer steins raised in mid-air, muscles bulging. It is like witnessing a reenactment of a scene from George Grosz’s satirical drawings of inebriated German factory workers from the 1930s from his now-famous collection Ecce Homo. The young men sit in mock military attention, with steely blue eyes and white-blond hair neatly combed back from their brows. “Don’t they look like the Waffen SS?” Tomas asks, mocking them. “Don’t they look like Hitler’s master race? Doesn’t Hans over here resemble Himmler? No wonder Herr Direcktor is scared of me. Look at the company I keep!”

I ask Hans, one of the starkers, why young men and women in his generation are attracted to neo-Nazis like the late Rainer Sonntag, who magnetized thousands of skinheads in Dresden and other cities. At his funeral in 1992, many gave him a farewell Nazi salute.

“Many guys join neo-Nazi groups because they are angry they cannot find work,” Hans says. Hans himself has been out of work for over a year. Unemployment nationally in Germany hovers around 11 percent. “They join these gangs because they are afraid of foreigners. They are afraid foreigners will come and take the jobs away. They are ignorant people.”

So, what has he done, personally, to combat these “ignorant people”? He proceeds to tell me of a candlelight march he participated in to protest Nazism.

“A group of us drove to Dachau,” Hans says. “We were joined by thousands of others marching through the concentration camp with candles and torches. There were speakers and entertainers and petitions to sign. We are mobilized. We are planning a similar gathering in Bonn next month. I may be out of work, but I am not out of hope we can be different than our ancestors.”
Chil Rakowski, the director of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, applauds the candlelight march in the now-suburban city of Dachau – only a short train ride from his synagogue-cum-community center in Munich – as a positive display of light against the darkness. But he has other issues that are more pressing, namely combating negative attitudes within the Jewish community about the new Jewish arrivals from Russia.

He introduces me to Adele Plotkina, Nikolai Petkevitch and his wife Tatanya. They have immigrated to Germany from St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectfully. All three are professional musicians. All three are out of work.
“They live in a state-paid apartment,” Rakowski says. “They receive full healthcare benefits, including dental benefits, free of charge. They live rent free. They get food subsidies. And the Jewish community even gives them spending money.”

“I am very grateful to be here,” Nikolai tells me. “There is so much anti-Semitism in Russia today. You don’t read about it in the newspapers. But it is there. So, my wife and I are very happy to be here.”

“My husband is disabled,” Adele Plotkina says. “If it were not for the generosity of the community who pays for his physical therapy, he would be rotting away in Russia. For us, this is a new beginning.”

“The Russian Jews like settling in Germany because they dislike the climate – physical and political – in Israel,” Rakowski says. “The weather suits them here. But I would be less than honest if I did not tell you that there is considerable amount of resentment among German Jews that they are here. They look about the Petkevitches and the Plotinas with disdain. They think they are getting special treatment. So you see my dilemma: if Jews feel this way about other Jews, if they look upon them as outsiders coming in and squandering their resources, how do non-Jews feel about them?”

There is much work to be done before normalcy can be achieved in Germany. Economic stability is the key, and continued efforts to broadcast messages of tolerance are crucial in order to educate the general population that hatred is not the solution to their frustrations. Learning to navigate in a world as a new and unified democracy is challenging, and with it comes fiscal and moral responsibilities. One of the principal messages Germany needs to convey is the story of how it is possible to learn from one’s aggressive past, to never repeat the evil, or to allow it to flourish elsewhere. This is a message I heard many Japanese leaders discuss as their emerging mantra over the years.

The gleaming glass and steel structures that have risen in the shadows of the crumbling bullet-scarred buildings in Berlin’s Pottsdammer Platz may be boastings of stability and harmony. But unless prosperity is shared, these edifices will no longer be seen as beacons of enterprise. Instead, they will be viewed as relics of unfulfilled promises.

There are other signs of hope.

When I traveled to Germany to report on the national elections, I waited for the returns in a bar in the former eastern sector of Berlin. Like the brown bars in Holland,this bar was mahogany dark, dimly lit, smoky, it had a menu of low-priced pub fare, and small tables where men and women sat and drank from tall steins of beer.

Suddenly, the room was pungent with a different smell, familiar, at least to my nose: newspaper ink. A man entered the room holding a stack of the bulldog edition of the daily newspaper. He called out as newsies are wont to do. A crowd huddled around him. Coins were thrust into his ink-smudged hands. Someone read the headlines outloud.

An hour later, another newsie appeared barking the headlines from another bulldog edition, this one from a rival paper. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, and he looked like the late playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Berliner Ensemble is not far from Pottsdammer Platz. He, too, was soon surrounded by the crowd.

Yes, it was the political season and there was much excitement over the early returns. But that doesn’t totally explain the hunger for information. I wondered to myself: Would a crowd at a bar in Boston greet a newsie with such urgency? I saw the excitement as a sign of a people with an appetite to participate in the free exchange of information, because they had been denied it for so long.

The memory of the scent of the newspaper ink in a smoky brown bar succeeded at keeping the Walpurgisnacht demons at bay long after the newsies disappeared into the night.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at A previous version of this report appeared in The Jewish Advocate.


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