German Jewish head loses faith in nation

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BERLIN — The man whom many call the conscience of Germany has announced that he has failed.

In an interview with the weekly newspaper Stern, Ignatz Bubis gave a somber, often pessimistic assessment of his efforts to bring Jewish and non-Jewish Germans closer and to make sure the Holocaust is never forgotten.

Bubis, who is nearing the end of his seven-year term as president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, added that he was wrong to have thought he could call himself a "German of the Jewish faith," as Jews did for centuries before the Holocaust.

Jews remain perpetual outsiders in German society, said Bubis, who was born in Breslau, Poland, and survived several concentration camps.

Perhaps most poignantly, Bubis, who is 72 and ailing, said in a recent interview that he'd rather be buried in Israel than in Germany, where his grave might be desecrated — as happened to the man who preceded him as the leader of Germany's Jews.

Last December, Heinz Galinski's gravestone in Berlin was blown up. An anonymous letter claimed the bombing was prompted by plans to rename a Berlin street for Galinski. The case remains unsolved.

Bubis' frank words, together with photos of the Jewish leader in a contemplative mood, made front-page news across the country.

They drew strong reactions from those within the Jewish community and invited speculation — which Bubis tried to quash — that he was not planning to seek re-election in January.

In contrast to Bubis' pessimism, other Jewish leaders here painted a brighter picture of German-Jewish relations — despite reports of a growth in right-wing activity, increased attacks on foreigners and repeated incidents in which monuments and graves are desecrated.

Two weeks ago, a sculpture depicting Holocaust victims was partly destroyed in Weimar. In another incident, three neo-Nazi youths were arrested outside Berlin, allegedly for beating up a police officer.

But these are exceptions, say many observers.

Miguel Freund, a Jewish leader in Cologne, said the relationship between Jews and non-Jews has actually improved during the last decade, and young Germans are searching towns and cities for traces of the Jewish life that once was there.

Charlotte Knobloch, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, disagreed with Bubis' pessimistic assessment of his own efforts, saying he has brought recognition to Germany's Jewish community.

Council member Michel Friedman also said Bubis has presided over a period of unprecedented growth in the German Jewish community — from 40,000 at the start of his term to some 80,000 today, according to official figures.

Friedman, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible challenger for the presidency, said Bubis should be re-elected.

Council member Michael Fuerst said Bubis was unfair to suggest that today's politicians want to forget about Germany's past. He suggested that Bubis, who recently began using a wheelchair, is depressed because of his current health problems.

In fact, "relations between German officials and Jews have changed for the better" under Bubis, said Richard Chaim Schneider, a Jewish journalist in Munich.

It is "not only a reaction to the Holocaust, but has to do with Jews and Germany today."

But Schneider agreed with Bubis that Jews here still cannot identify themselves primarily as Germans, then as Jews.

"He is an honest man and he is expressing now his deepest emotions that he has been trying to hide."

Andreas Nachama, head of the Jewish community in Berlin, said Bubis should not be so pessimistic. However, he understood Bubis' fears.

"If a society allows gravestones to be destroyed, and not only Jewish gravestones, then it is really an alarm sign," he said.

Nachama's words are significant in light of the attack in Weimar two weeks ago on the work of British artist Stuart Wolfe. Vandals destroyed six of the 16 figures representing Holocaust victims installed at various concentration camp memorials in Germany. The six were on display in Weimar, which is located only a few miles from the former concentration camp at Buchenwald.

This year, Weimar is Germany's "cultural capital," with exhibits and performances attracting throngs of international tourists.

Attacks on memorials have increased in recent years. A stone commemorating the deportation of Berlin's Jews has been vandalized three times since December 1997.

More troubling are the attacks on people — such as the recent brutal beating of a police officer in Eberswalde, near Berlin. The youths whom the officer tried to arrest reportedly kicked him in the head with steel-toed boots when he tried to stop them from singing Nazi songs, which are illegal in Germany.

Such stories rarely make the front page, and most observers say they do not reflect the true state of affairs in Germany.

But Bubis has not been one to let things go. Last year, he took German writer Martin Walser to task for saying it was time to stop haranguing Germans about Auschwitz.

With newspapers covering their argument blow by blow, it became a topic of everyday conversation. Many Germans felt liberated by Walser's views and expressed resentment of being reminded about the Holocaust.

Around this time, someone released a pig on the broad plaza of Alexanderplatz in Berlin, with a Jewish star painted on one side and "Bubis" on the other.

But such incidents have not deterred Bubis from speaking out.

In the interview with Stern, Bubis said he does not want to incite feelings of shame or guilt when he calls on Germans to remember their wartime past. Instead, he said, he wants to instill the responsibility to learn about and fight right-wing extremism.

"I tell young people, 'I don't expect you to take a pile of ashes and throw it on your head, but you have to know what people are capable of doing.'"

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.