Scotland on Sunday, June 22, 2003
ALLAN HALL IN BERLIN
In his native country his identity card was stamped with the word “Jew”, Jewish youngsters were barred from university and rampant anti-Semitism posed a constant threat of violence.
That Valeriy Bunimov should chose to leave Ukraine, where he says “there was no future for Jews”, is not surprising. What is, however, is that he chose to emigrate to Germany, the country where many of his family were exterminated by the Nazi regime along with six million other Jews.
Bunimov admits: “When I packed for Germany, I was mindful of the irony. I was seeking refuge in a country against which my father had fought, and in whose concentration camps my cousins had perished. Fifty years later, that country was offering my family asylum, the chance for new life.”
Bunimov is far from alone. He is part of an extraordinary revival that is taking place in Germany today – a country where Jewish communities are being reborn at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.
New statistics reveal that Germany has overtaken Israel as the most popular destination for Jewish émigrés, less than 60 years after the Nazis sought to exterminate Jews forever in the Final Solution.
Before the Second World War, the half a million Jews in Germany were the most assimilated in Europe. By the end of the 12 murderous years of the Nazi regime, only 15,000 were left.
Now, each month, 1,200 Jewish people are arriving in Germany. As a result of this accelerating migration, the Jewish population in Germany has swollen from 33,000 in 1990, the year of reunification, to almost 200,000 today.
Last year, 19,262 Jews from the former Soviet Union settled in Germany, compared with 18,878 who went to Israel and fewer than 10,000 who were admitted into the United States. German consulates worldwide report 70,000 more Jews have already applied for resettlement visas.
In addition, thousands of Israelis whose parents had fled to Palestine in the Nazi years are now claiming German passports to which they are entitled by German law.
Most Jews in Germany are concentrated in a few urban areas: Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Dusseldorf. The rest are scattered throughout the country in just under 80 small communities.
In Chemnitz for example, which was renamed Karl Marx Stadt under the communists, there were just 12 aging members of the Jewish community in 1990. Now there are 80.
And the story is being repeated across Germany. While other asylum seekers are turned back, the Jews are still welcome for at least another 10 years – atonement from the modern day rulers for what was done by Hitler and his cronies a little over half-a-century ago.
Bunimov, an electrical engineer, arrived in Schwerin, the capital of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in 1996. Since then he has held a steady job as chairman of the Rostock and Schwerin Jewish community group and its 840 Russian-Jewish members.
The state of Mecklenburg, once a robust agricultural region, has fallen on hard times. Its rate of unemployment, 21%, is the second highest in the country, a hard fact of life that Mecklenburg’s younger generation has tried to escape by moving to western Germany. As they have left, the Russian-Jewish immigrant community has expanded. Some 40% are on welfare and they know all too well prosperity’s elusive nature.
“But then, few immigrant families are spared a struggle,” says Bunimov.
“They face an endless course of challenges, the initial and most difficult of which is known as the Dreaded First Month. Imagine a German citizen coming to Russia with no language, no concept of the native culture, with every detail he encounters feeling to him completely foreign. It’s like coming to another world altogether.”
But the 40-year-old adds: “This is not paradise but it’s a safe Western democracy. We do not feel fear here but hope.”
Most of the Jews emigrating to Germany have never had links with the country.
They come for the infrastructure of a modern state and the benefits, rather than abstract notions of avenging the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Germany, in turn, is generous in its treatment of the newcomers. A wide range of Jewish institutions are supported by federal, state or municipal funds.
Yakov Maekov, a former university professor from Orel in Ukraine, admits: “I did it for my sons. Both my sons work here, one as a doctor and one as a manager at a company in Stuttgart.
“I feel free to live as a Jew here. It was a religious identity I was forced to suppress for fear of discrimination in the old Soviet Union. Here there are economic opportunities that simply were too good to resist too. Many Jews feel like me; that Israel, with its clashes with ultra-Orthodox Jews not to mention the threat of violence every day, was simply not an option.”
Synagogues gutted in the madness of Crystal Night in 1938 – the first state-sponsored pogrom against the Jews – are being rebuilt along with Jewish schools, Jewish theatres, Jewish restaurants and Jewish meeting houses.
Ironically, many of the immigrants from former Soviet countries have had to be taught ‘Jewishness’ by Germans. Under the Soviet system, religion was banned.
Bunimov admits he did not have much of a Jewish identity when he arrived in Germany. He has since been involved in Talmudic studies and enrolled in Yiddish courses.
“Most Russian Jews learn their Jewishness when they are here, it’s a learning curve,” he explains.
Bunimov adds he has encountered neither bigotry on a large scale nor wholehearted acceptance.
“We just are,” he says. “We are part of a people just making our way. But the freedoms we have here, these are tangible, and this is why I say I have hope for both my family and for Jewish communities in Germany.”
This hope is shared by 26-year-old Cologne resident Alex Nitusov. He emigrated from Moscow four years ago and has a comfortable job working for a German wholesaler of paper-pulping machinery.
“We sell them in Russia,” he notes wryly.
His life is a good one, he says, and he gives his excellent German credit for this.
He also knows he is an exception. German society, he says, is reluctant to grant foreigners admission: “Germans as a people are wary of foreigners. They welcome them, but they’re also careful.”
He adds: “It’s a process of interaction, of talking up the locals, telling jokes; things like that are very important. It’s the best remedy for culture shock.
“Take a German synagogue, for instance. It’s crammed with Russians who are just going to gossip with other Russians. Excuse me, but it has nothing to do with integration, and definitely not with religion.”
About 60,000 of the 175,000 Jewish immigrants in Germany are registered with any of the 84 synagogue congregations, most of which have sprung up in the past decade.
Julius Schoeps, a historian who was born during the Second World War in Stockholm, says: “Thanks to these developments I believe there is a good chance for the emergence of a new German Jewry.”
While hate crimes perpetrated by the far-right have been a big issue in Germany, the climate generally doesn’t threaten a people who believe they have lived through much worse.
Boris Feldman, who emigrated from Latvia 10 years ago, said: “The situation is not too tragic compared to what we had to live through in the past.”
But Harry Levi, a 60-year-old Jew who lives in Berlin, points out a kindergarten with security cameras, barbed wire on the walls and police patrolling it 24 hours a day.
“German guns are still pointing, only they’re not pointing at us,” he says dryly.
“It is a daily reminder of what might happen to us if we weren’t protected. The past is never far away.”