Russian emigres breathing life into German Jewry

BERLIN — Inna Orlowski sits at an outdoor cafe near the Jewish high school here, sipping a cappuccino. It's a long way from Russia's Ural Mountains, where the 20-year-old with close-cropped blond curls and a ready smile was born. And it's a long way from Israel, where she wants to be.

Across town, Inna Slavskaja, a 44-year-old Yiddish singer from Birobidzhan, smokes another cigarette. Her husband, Igor, died three years ago and she is raising their son, Genja, now 11.

"I see myself as Jewish," says Slavskaja, a small, dark-haired woman with sad eyes. But her Ukrainian-born son feels like a German.

In the evening, Lyonia, an engineer from Lithuania, sits in a grocery store and watches his wife, Marina, count the pfennigs of another drunkard making a small purchase. Lyonia, who is 53, had wanted to immigrate to America. For now, the two, who requested that their last names not be published, live in Germany.

These people are among the tens of thousands of Jews who, instead of going to Israel, caught the wave of freedom that swept the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism and rode it into the land they always associated with Hitler and death camps.

In the last decade of the century, their arrival has dramatically changed the Jewish landscape of Germany — the only country in Europe with a significantly growing Jewish population.

Since 1990, Germany's official Jewish population has grown from 35,000 to 75,000. That is nearly a fifth of its prewar level.

With Germany settling its immigrants on a per-state quota basis, new Jewish communities are being established virtually overnight in towns and cities where no Jews had lived since World War II. In some cities, like Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt, the Jewish population has soared.

"I believe in the year 2004 we will have 100,000 Jews in Germany, making it one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe," said Michel Friedman, a Frankfurt attorney and member of the board of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

There are now nearly 12,000 Jews in Berlin alone, a tiny minority in this city of 3.8 million. Yet Berlin's Jewish community is larger than that of Milan, Italy, and many other major European cities.

"The immigrants brought back to life a community that was in danger of being very over-aged, to put it lightly," said Nicola Galliner, director of Jewish adult education programming in Berlin. "We have two Jewish junior high schools and one high school in Berlin, and none of these schools would have been possible without these immigrants."

Pushed to leave the former Soviet Union because of economic hardship, anti-Semitism or fears for the future in chaotic new conditions, all have personal reasons for choosing Germany over Israel, where hundreds of thousands of other ex-Soviet Jews have immigrated since 1990.

Their reasons include Germany's liberal policy in accepting ex-Soviet Jews, and a desire by many to live in a country which is both a solid democracy and a firm member of the European Union.

"It's very difficult to get to America; you can't get into England," said one Berlin Jewish activist. "Germany has the highest standard of living in Europe. It's Germany or Israel. And if you are desperate, you will go anywhere."

The Slavskajas, for example, left Ukraine in 1991 after learning that their son's playground had radioactive sand in it, probably from Chernobyl.

"I knew Germany took Jewish families," said Slavskaja, who had cousins in Berlin. "We came with two suitcases."

Germany's open door for Jews is no accident. It is connected with its responsibility for the Holocaust. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Germany established a liberal immigration policy for Jews. They are eligible for housing, financial aid, language instruction and help in finding work.

They are also placed on the fast-track to become German citizens — a right usually extended only to immigrants from ethnic German families.

The influx has presented major challenges as well as rewards.

How does the established Jewish community integrate a largely non-religious population? And how does Germany justify its liberal policy toward Jewish immigration when more than 4 million Germans are unemployed and when Israel, too, wants these Jewish immigrants?

To be sure, Germany's Jewish newcomers often have little connection to the Holy Land, and little more than a piece of paper certifying their Jewishness.

Raised in the communist/atheist tradition, they usually have more cultural than religious bonds to Judaism. But the Hebrew stamp on one's passport — once associated with discrimination — is now virtually a ticket out of a world whose poverty and growing xenophobia outweigh the advantages of free speech and free enterprise.

With enough rubles, one can buy proof of a Jewish maternal grandmother on the black market.

"It's true that a lot of people would like to be Jewish because they have a better chance to get out," says Michael Liokumowitsch, the official trouble-shooter on integration issues for Berlin's Jewish community. Liokumowitsch, 40, is a dental surgeon whose family emigrated from Russia in 1974.

In some cases, he said, the community does something to check, such as asking people who are visiting Russia to see if a certain person is known in a Jewish community.

But Jewish leaders say fakers pose less of a challenge than does the task of integration.

Newcomers need to learn German, and find homes and jobs. Jewish leaders would like them to show an interest in religion, and not just to use Judaism as a ticket for social help.

For some, the process has produced resounding success.

"In Frankfurt we have had an unbelievable infusion of oxygen into Jewish life with these former Soviet Jews," Friedman said. "They are creative, a lot of them are artists, and the younger generation is very quickly integrated."

But others who work with new immigrants express frustration or cynicism.

"After 10 years, people here still make their Passover seders in Russian," said Judith Kessler, who has been handling immigration issues for the Jewish community in Berlin since 1990. She coordinates language classes, vocational training and social clubs, and publishes a German-Russian Jewish magazine.

"We have done something wrong," said Kessler, who came to Germany from Poland in 1972. "We took them by the hand and served them in their own language."

Andy Steiman, who until recently was acting rabbi for the former East German state of Mecklenberg, dismissed the idea of a real "Jewish revival." It's just numbers, he said.

He told of a young couple who met at a Passover seder that they'd attended because it meant a free meal.

"When they got married," he said, "they didn't want to have a chuppah because they think it is antiquated. And when they had a baby boy, they didn't want to have him circumcised because they claim it is a human right not to be harmed bodily."

Ironically, some of the immigrants who most want to be involved Jewishly are, as children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, unable to do so according to Jewish law. Thus, they cannot take part in official communal activities.

"It's a big problem," Kessler said. "They say, rightly, 'In Russia we were Jews, and here we are Russian. Why will no one have us?'"

But some, she said, are getting "closer to Judaism" in a variety of ways.

Slavskaja's Yiddish cabaret performances attract good-sized crowds around Germany, mostly non-Jewish. Her identity is more cultural than religious. But her son is talking about having a bar mitzvah.

"I have nothing against it," she said. "It will take a lot of practice, but I am happy."

And Orlowski, a member of the first graduating class of Berlin's new Jewish high school, is part of a back-to-Judaism movement among young people.

"My grandparents had decided against Jewish life and for communist ideals," she said. "Now, we can begin again to rebuild the relationship to Judaism. If I don't do it, then for my children it would not be possible."

Whether Jews should live in post-Holocaust Germany is eternally debatable. Sometimes, ironically, immigrants encounter more overt discrimination in Germany than they faced at home. Two years ago, citizens of the economically depressed eastern German town of Gollwitz demonstrated against plans to place 50 Russian Jewish immigrants in their midst.

A spate of recent anti-Semitic episodes, including the desecration of the largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, has put the community on guard.

Still, Jews here are building new lives.

"It's certainly good that Jews want to live in Germany and are no longer afraid," Orlowski said.

"Maybe in 15, 20 years, when the young extremists come to their senses, it will be better here," Lyonia said. "Whoever doesn't take a risk, gets nothing."

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.