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Out of the ashes: A new German Jewry?

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Originally published in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture:


Dateline: POTSDAM, August, 2005--I am in Germany as part of a collaborative three-nation research study of the Russian-Jewish diaspora. The entire seven-person research team is meeting in Potsdam to go over our findings, discuss implications, and, yes, iron out the various disagreements that are an inherent part of collaborative work.

I am standing in front of a large building with many doors, one of which leads to the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, which had written the grant for this project. All the doors have signs, but my few words of German (guten tag) are grossly insufficient to determine which bell to ring, so I stand in front of the building trying to decide which door looks most Jewish. Fortunately, despite the light drizzle, I spot several pedestrians walking along the street. I walk toward them, intending to ask for directions, but as I draw near, I notice that their faces are wrinkled with age. It occurs to me that they were probably alive during the Shoah, and I find myself wondering what they had done those many years ago, how they felt about Jews back then, how they feel about Jews on this day. I am Jewish. This information seems important. I don’t want to talk to these men; I don’t want to ask them for directions to a “Jewish Center.”


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I am somewhat uneasy about my feelings. My politics are liberal. I teach and write about stereotypes, prejudice and racism. I recognize my thoughts and feelings for what they are – prejudicial and irrational. The men on the street, old as they are, were probably in their preteens when the war ended. It is unlikely that any of them personally did anything worth holding against them, certainly not sixty years later. But what of their parents? Their uncles and aunts? They were old enough. What, I wonder, was their involvement? I have no way of knowing, of course. They could have been righteous gentiles. For that matter, they could have even been German Jews (a few remained after the war). I know avoiding the men would be irrational – well, mostly irrational. Truth is, many Germans didn’t much like Jews in those times. From what I hear, many still don’t. I let the men pass and wait in the rain for someone else to come by.


My wait in the rain was a fitting introduction to Germany, since the purpose of our study – at least in part – was to understand why Russian Jews were migrating to Germany in large numbers and how they experienced their host country and host people once they arrived. A comprehensive treatment of this question would fill a book – ours, and even then we do not pretend to have captured the entirety of this particular immigration experience.

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In many ways, Germany’s decision to open its doors to Russian-speaking Jews is even more surprising than the Jewish immigrants’ decision to settle there. To begin with, it is no secret that Germany, like much of Europe, had a long history of anti-Semitism that predated Hitler by many hundreds of years. Then came the Shoah, which reduced an estimated Jewish population of 750,000 in 1933 to about 10,000 at the conclusion of the war. The few who returned from the camps or from hiding were hardly welcomed. Their homes vandalized or occupied, they were a reminder of both Germany’s defeat and its shameful behavior. Even if the passing decades have lessened the anti-Semitism and increased the remorse, Germany’s long-standing antipathy toward immigration of any sort (just months before the legislation passed, Horst Waffenschmidt, the Parliament’s State Secretary to the Interior Ministry remarked that “the Federal Republic of Germany is not a country of immigration) made an immigration policy that specifically targeted Jews, and only Jews, preposterous to even consider.

Interestingly, the initiative originated in East Germany and, for its proponents, became the nation’s moral imperative. In April 12, 1990, newly elected East German parliament (Volkskammer) issued a revolutionary declaration on the responsibility of Germans for Nazi crimes:


“The first freely elected parliament of the GDR acknowledges, in the name of the citizens of this country, that it shares responsibility for the humiliation, persecution, and murder of Jewish women, men, and children. We feel grief and shame in accepting responsibility for this historical burden on Germany. We ask the world Jewry for forgiveness. We ask the people of Israel for forgiveness for the hypocrisy and animosity of official GDR policy toward the State of Israel and for the persecution and degradation of Jewish citizens in our country, which continued after 1945. We declare we will do everything possible to contribute to healing the physical and emotional suffering of survivors, and to speak out for just compensation of material losses.” (Jarusch and Grasnow, 1994:138-139, cited in Harris, 2001)


Within short order, the decision was made (reportedly behind closed doors, with considerable opposition, and not necessarily with the support of the majority) to rebuild the German Jewry. Knowing that more than 1.5 million Jews might be enticed to leave the Soviet Union following USSR’s collapse and subsequent lifting of the emigration ban, Germany decided to specifically target Russian-speaking Jews. (I refer to this group as Russian Jews for convenience, but it should be noted that this immigrant group originated from not only Russia but Ukraine, Latvia, and all of the other former members of the Soviet Union.)The resulting Contingency Refugee Act of 1991, which came on the heels of the unification of East and West Germany, not only allowed almost unlimited immigration for Russian Jews, but gave them an express lane to German citizenship.

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Dateline: JERUSALEM, June, 1997 – I am visiting Israel as part of a predissertation grant to study Russian Jewish immigration. In between the work meetings, I am doing some sightseeing, mostly with some relatives in Tel Aviv, but on this day, feeling the need for some space, I insist on taking a tour of Jerusalem on my own. Well, sort of. Although English is my best language, I decide to save money by taking a Russian-language tour of the city.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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