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Scenes from the Parallel Universe Once Known as East Germany

Scenes from the Parallel Universe Once Known as East Germany

In the fall of 1980, nine years before the Berlin Wall came down, I was part of the first official delegation of American Jewish journalists to visit East Germany (German Democratic Republic, or GDR). Jewish life on the Communist side of the divide was coming to an end.

“Our work is with the dead, not the living,” one Jewish leader in East Germany told me. Funerals far outnumbered births and weddings in this remnant community of 600 mostly elderly members. They had no rabbi, no cantor, no religious schools. In East Berlin, the synagogue often remained empty on Shabbat for lack of a minyan (the quorum required for Jewish prayer). Still, the Communist government financed the Jewish community, refurbished or rebuilt eight synagogues, and maintained cemeteries. Why? Because of its intense competition with West Germany, which it viewed as the evil capitalist successor to the Third Reich. For the GDR to become Judenrein (a Nazi term for “clean of Jews”) first would have been an embarrassment to a regime that prided itself on having eradicated anti-Semitism and fascism.

While Judaism was condoned for propaganda purposes in the GDR, Zionism was condemned as a racist ideology comparable to fascism. During a visit to the Jewish library inside East Berlin’s Rykestrasse synagogue, I inquired about a closed off room and was granted permission to enter. Inside I found two categories of books considered so subversive that they had to be kept out of public view – Nazi literature and Zionist literature. Among the restricted volumes were both Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, written by the founder of Zionism.

It was at the synagogue library that I encountered the only Jew I met who was not a government agent or official. When we were alone for a minute, he whispered, “Don’t believe a word they are telling you. It is a terrible life for us here. Please help me get to Israel.”

The three concentration camp museums I visited at Buchenwald, Ravensbruck, and Sachsenhausen all propagated the Marxist analysis that Nazism was the logical extension of capitalism, and that the true perpetrators of mass murder during the war had acted on behalf of West German and American industrialists who had profited from slave labor. The fact that Jews were singled out for destruction was never acknowledged. The Ravensbruck museum, for example, highlighted the martyrdom of the young Communist women who died resisting fascism, but no mention was made of the Jewish women who were murdered there in the thousands.

The denial of Jewish victimization extended to the theater. After viewing a stage performance of The Diary of Anne Frank in Leipzig, I asked the young blond women who played Anne if she had tried to imagine her character as a Jew. “I just tried to portray a girl in that situation,” she replied. She then asked me how I had reacted to her hair color. When I told her that blond hair is not uncommon among Jews, she expressed amazement, saying, “But everyone I asked assured me that all Jews had brown hair.”

On the last day of my 10-day tour, I attended a performance of Fiddler on the Roof at the famous Komische Oper. It had been running for four years straight to sold-out audiences. As the all-non-Jewish cast sang “Tradition, Tradition” in German, I conjured up the images of the emaciated women I had seen earlier in the day at Ravensbruck. I looked around at the white-haired people in the audience and wanted to scream out, “It was you who tried to destroy the very tradition you find so delightful!” I then imagined myself being dragged to a mental hospital and released only after admitting that Nazism equals capitalism and Zionism equals racism.

So ended my visit to a parallel universe once known as the GDR.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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