Is Berlin Jewish Museum second only to Yad Vashem

The new head of the Berlin Jewish Museum, W. Michael Blumenthal, was riding a taxi across Berlin when he learned that his driver was a Russian Jewish emigre.

"I asked, `Why of all places would you come to Germany?' He said, `Listen, it's better than Russia.'"

Certainly, the cabbie could have asked the same question of Blumenthal, a Nazi war refugee and American businessman who had just returned to his birthplace. His mission: to make an impact on future German-Jewish relations.

In a recent phone interview, the new director explained how his museum could prevent the revival of virulent anti-Semitism in Germany. (The building already has changed Berlin's landscape with its distinctive shape of a broken Magen David, even though it is not yet completed.)

Blumenthal's theories behind present relations are laid out in his new book, "The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews; A Personal Exploration," which he discussed during a visit to the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center last week.

Blumenthal, an amateur historian, had just finished writing the book when he was offered the Berlin post. He recognized the job as an opportunity to influence the future.

"It's up to us to give people a chance to learn from the mistakes of the past," he said. "I like to think that if the relatives that I lost were around to pass judgment that they would say it is the right thing to do."

While Germany's 70,000 Jews pale next to prewar figures of about 600,000, Blumenthal said the population has been rising and is expected to hit 100,000 by the end of the millennium.

Only a quarter of the country's Jews today are original members of the prewar Jewish community or their descendants, he said. Half of Germany's Jews are emigres from the former Soviet Union. The remaining 25 percent is comprised of foreign-born Holocaust survivors, Israelis and, as Blumenthal calls them, "New Germans," Jews born to parents of foreign origin.

The author reports that German-Jewish relations have been amicable for many years.

"Very few people who were alive as adults in the Hitler years are alive [now]. The younger generation is the third generation," and many may not know a Jew.

The younger generation, however, is the group that grapples most with the legacy of World War II, he said.

"They know about the Holocaust and it's a heavy burden on their souls. Sometimes, their grandfathers and fathers were involved and that is traumatic."

Blumenthal notes that Jews in Germany are cautious and watchful. They congregate primarily in the larger cities and most do not socialize with non-Jewish Germans.

Germans, on the other hand, walk on egg shells trying not to offend the Jews — except for the neo-Nazis, who account for some 5 percent of the German population, he said.

While the xenophobic groups are worrisome, Blumenthal feels that the government and its laws are adequately punitive toward any person who publicly praises Hitler or engages in anti-Semitic behavior, he said.

They're also seeking to make amends, often through cultural and educational efforts.

"The city [of Berlin] and the state are very anxious to have an outstanding [Jewish] museum which depicts the contributions of Jews on German history," he said.

The new museum will depict not only public figures of prewar Germany such as physicist Albert Einstein and composer Kurt Weill, but also those who became famous after escaping, such as Hollywood director Billy Wilder.

Many Holocaust survivors have expressed interest in the museum, believing it to be the most important Jewish memorial after Yad Vashem, Blumenthal reports.

Both the survivors as well as Jewish foundations have offered money, but the museum director has refused the donations –"It is the responsiblity of Germans to finance this."

So far, the government has picked up the tab in its efforts to rectify the past.

It is expected that up to 80 percent of the museum's visitors will be non-Jewish Germans. School officials are talking about sending students to the museum on field trips. And with the striking building located just off a major traffic artery, tour buses already are stopping to give tourists a gander.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.