Jewish life healthy in Germany, Berlin leader says here

Rising from his chair and extending his hands high above his head in a mock dramatic gesture, the president of Berlin's 11,000-member Jewish community has a strong message for American Jews: I exist. We exist.

"From the point of view of those who come to visit us, we are always the so-called 'last Jews of Berlin,'" said Rabbi Andreas Nachama, whose serious words are offset by a mischievous, toothy grin.

"We are always in a constant dialogue — or argument — with Israeli or especially American Jews about our existence. They are normally very surprised to see Jewish life in Berlin."

Appearing in San Francisco last week for a speech sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the German Consulate, Nachama said that, despite popular misconceptions, there is a "future for Jewish life in Europe."

What's more, while life for Germany's roughly 100,000 Jews is by no means worry-free, Nachama, who has been president of the Jewish Community of Berlin since 1997, stresses that he does not live in a nation of anti-Semites.

"We're not speaking about a 51 percent situation like you have here in the U.S. with [Gov. George W.] Bush and [Vice President Al] Gore. We're speaking about a 98 percent situation — 98 percent of [German] society is not hostile toward Jews," Nachama told the Bulletin last week. "We know that the number of people that are doing brutal acts, not only verbal anti-Semitism but ready to commit crimes, is very small. Maybe a few hundred.

"But these few hundred can cause a lot of headaches if the police are not able to control them."

Unfortunately, in recent months, that seems to have been the case. Molotov cocktails have been tossed at synagogues in Erfurt and Dusseldorf, and windows have been shattered. Several times, bands of neo-Nazis and anti-racist groups have clashed on the streets of Berlin.

Last year, vandals attacked 103 tombstones in a Berlin Jewish cemetery.

For years, German synagogues and Jewish-affiliated buildings have been under a 24-hour police protection, "sometimes with armored cars, it looks very impressive," quipped Nachama, a native of Berlin whose father survived Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. "Until now, it is effective. But police cannot undo what a society wants to do. There are limits."

But, he affirms, the perpetrators are not mainstream Germans.

"We are speaking here about a tiny minority of people that I have never met in my life, neither at school nor in the university nor in ordinary professional life. Not in the restaurants, bars, cafes, theaters, cinemas, wherever I go. Even in the public commuting system, the metros, the buses, I have never personally met a neo-Nazi. At least not consciously, let's put it that way.

"You won't see them," he added. "What they do is throw the stone, then keep their hands behind their backs. They never would have the courage to tell me [they are neo-Nazis] to my face. They know what they do is politically incorrect."

In Germany, where religious communities receive funding from a government-administered collection, members of the Jewish Community of Berlin pay a "church tax" of 9 percent of their incomes yearly. In return, they receive access to seven synagogues (ranging from Eastern European-style Orthodox to egalitarian progressive), two day schools, three homes for the aged, youth groups, clubs for the elderly and three cemeteries.

"It is as if you have a membership in a synagogue as well as a federation," said Nachama, who is the spiritual leader of a small, liberal Berlin synagogue. The former director of the Topographie des Terrors, a Holocaust museum in Berlin, he holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Jewish studies and European history from the Freie Universitat in Berlin.

He has been acclaimed as one of the most important figures in modern German Jewish life, but he does not limit his focus to the Jewish community alone. He often speaks up when other German minority groups are the targets of xenophobia or racism.

"The Jewish community is an opponent of 'leading culture.' If German culture is the leading culture of Germany, what does this mean for the Turk?" asked Nachama. "If a Turk comes to Germany and cannot accept what is written in the German constitution, then he must find another country. If he cannot deal with the political structure, paying taxes, he must find another country.

"But what he cannot accept is leading culture. Does this mean everyone from Turkey now has to eat Koenigsberger klops [German meatballs]?"

Nachama points out that Berlin is becoming more international in flavor, with sectors of the city filled with delectable Turkish fruit shops.

"The way they present the fruit is wonderful," he said. "When I see a Turkish fruit shop, I go in and buy it out!"

One of Brandenburg's ministers of the interior was less taken with the Turkish decor, however. His statement that the streets would take "decades to be re-Germanized" launched a storm of protest, led by Nachama.

"I was the first one to tell him that this is something that has a neo-Nazi taste," said Nachama.

The rabbi points out that what is "German" does not have to be defined so narrowly.

He mentions that when French Huguenots immigrated to Berlin centuries ago, they startled locals by labeling public urinals with a "P.p." (pissotière publique). Now the term is deeply embedded in Berlin's vernacular.

"One day it was foreign language, now it is Berlin language," he said.

"Jewish life in Berlin or elsewhere can only be as strong as the weakest minority in the country is," he added on a more serious note. "That's why I always try to raise my voice where other minority groups are concerned."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.