Misgivings follow Jews to Germany

BERLIN – Mary Ann zu Klampen moved to Germany 19 years ago but making friends still isn’t easy for her. Even today, Germans she’s never met introduce themselves with an apology.

“I just want you to know how sorry I am,” one man said to her.

“You are?” she asked. “For what?”

“The persecution,” he answered. “My family had nothing to do with it. We gave bread to a Jewish family during the war.”

She’d never told him she was Jewish, that she’d moved from Israel, but he knew anyway. Somehow, they always do.

zu Klampen, 46, married a German and their two children have never lived anywhere but Germany. But she still feels like an auslander, a foreigner, though not because Germans treat her unkindly. Sometimes they’re just so friendly it makes her nervous.

“They’re very nice to me,” she said. “I have close friends at work who treat me like a regular person. But if not for my husband, I would leave Germany right away. Many Germans are uncomfortable around Jews.”

Germany’s Jewish population, 499,000 before World War II but small and stagnant for decades after the Holocaust, has nearly doubled in the last six years. Some 48,000 Jews live today in this nation of 80 million people, up from 27,000 in 1989.

A few, like zu Klampen, moved for a spouse or a job. Thousands of others came from former Soviet states to find new lives in the west. With assistance from the German government, a Jewish school opened in Berlin this year for the first time since the Nazis came to power.

But the campus stands behind a tall fence, protected by three guards. Violence against foreigners, while decreasing, is four times as common as it was before Germany’s unification in 1990; 1,233 attacks were recorded in 1994. Non-violent anti-Semitic crimes, such as harassment and vandalism of Jewish graveyards, increased to 1,040 last year, a jump of 60 percent. Twenty percent of Germans polled recently said they think Jews have “too much influence.”

Though Jews are finally coming back to Germany, tensions can still run high when Jews and Germans mix.


“They didn’t make it easy”

That was clear to zu Klampen when she met her future husband in 1974, while he was visiting Israel with a volunteer group. Her parents were, she said, less than excited about their relationship.

“When they found out he was not a Jew but a German, they didn’t make it easy,” she recalled. “They hoped it wouldn’t work out. But I went with him anyway.

“It was hard, and not just because of the language,” zu Klampen said. “I was afraid of big cities, not to mention a big city in Germany. I didn’t know what to expect.

“When I went certain places or met certain people, the questions came to me,” she said. “I wondered ‘What happened in this building? What did he do earlier?’ I still feel funny when I go to the doctor.”

Though she often feels uncomfortable, zu Klampen thinks she and other Jews living in Germany serve an important purpose: “to let the Germans know we are still here, that they didn’t destroy us.”

“I think many Jews have forgiven the Germans, but they haven’t forgotten,” she said. “While we are here, they can’t forget either.”

Xaviere Jacob, a French Jew, had similar experiences when she moved from Paris to Germany 22 years ago and married a German. Her mother “didn’t like it,” but said nothing. Her father refused to go to the wedding.

Jacob, 44, lost both of her grandmothers and two aunts in Auschwitz, and her parents fled to avoid the same fate.

She learned German in school and moved to Germany, partly “to show them that there still are Jews.” She’s raised two children in the northern German city of Bremen where she’s lived since 1974.

“But I’m not at home here,” she said. “There’s no normality for me. Here Im a French Jew and in France, I’m a German. That’s the problem when one changes countries.”

Howard and Jessica Rosenteil did just that in 1988, moving from England to Bremen where Howard, an orthodontist, hoped to find a better living than he made in Great Britain’s regulated health care industry. They feel more comfortable in Germany than most other Jewish emigrants, though many of their relations opposed the move.


“Will you be safe there?”

“Obviously we thought about the Holocaust,” Howard said. “But that was almost 45 years after it was over, and most of the people responsible were either very old, or not there anymore. My parents never bought anything German their whole lives but we didn’t think it was justified to feel that way.

“Some friends and family would say, ‘How could they go there?’ Not to my face, but I heard it,” Howard said.

“One man looked at me in shock and said, ‘Will you be safe there?’ Jessica recalled with a laugh. “But the ones who knew more about Germany understood that it’s silly to blame people for what their grandparents did. The ones who had the most to say didn’t really know very much about it.”

While they “don’t mix much” with their German neighbors – “Everything they like to eat, we can’t eat,” Jessica explained – the Rosenteils feel very welcome in Germany.

As did Shelley Timmins, an 17-year-old Jewish high school senior from Groveland, California, who went to Stuttgart as an exchange student last year.

“If anything, they were nicer to me after they found out I was Jewish,” he said. “They all tried to be ambassadors; they were very open to talking about the war, Neo-Nazis, anything.”

But the first time Timmins went to the synagogue near his home, he was reminded that he wasn’t in California anymore: he found a security camera staring him in the face and an inner and outer security doors.

“A man came on the speaker said, ‘Who are you? I don’t recognize you,’” Timmins said. “He wanted to see my passport; luckily, I had it with me. Once I got inside, the rabbi came and met me to make sure I was OK. It was a big shock for me. I was brought up to think that these places should be open.”

Timmins felt the tension again when he called one of his Jewish friends, whose mother told Timmins he wasn’t home. When he asked where the boy was, she didn’t want to tell him.

“She was suspicious and wanted to know who I was,” Timmins said. “I’d say she was more cautious than the average parent.”

Many Jewish parents feel they have to be. Jacob said her kids feel like they’re “in a zoo.” Children called zu Klampen’s son a “Jewish pig” and made fun of his nose. Most Germans grow up without ever meeting a Jew; kids naturally lack the sensitivity their parents have learned.


Teaching tolerance

That’s one problem the Heinz Galinski School hopes to tackle. Berlin’s first Jewish school to open since the war accepts both Jewish and non-Jewish students, with 220 children aged 5 through 12 enrolled in its first year.

Roman Herzog, Germany’s federal president, praised the lesson of tolerance the school imparts, speaking at the opening celebration in September. Berlin contributed $31.7 million towards its construction.

Another of the school’s missions is to teach its many Russian children the meaning of their religion, said director Miron Schumelda.

“Many of them know nothing about it. It was just a stamp in their passports,” Schumelda said. Though the crowded nation has cracked down on immigration in recent years, the government still grants unlimited entries to Jews. Russians and others from the former Soviet Union have used this offer to escape the east’s anti-Semitism though most have never practiced Judaism.

“For us, it’s important to teach not just the children but their parents about the traditions,” Schumelda said. On top of writing, math and science, all students get lessons in Hebrew and the Bible.

“They got very little chance to be Jewish in the former Soviet Union,” said Norma Drimmer, a director of the Jewish Community of Berlin. The organization tries both to teach emigrants Judaism, which takes “about a generation,” Drimmer said, and to find them jobs, which can take almost as long in the post-unification era.

With 20 percent of the nation’s Jews in a single city, it’s not easy to keep up. “We try to be of help as far as we can, but we can’t help everyone,” she said.

Drimmer, who was born and raised in Germany, herself embodies one of the community’s greatest problems in adapting to German life. Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is still considered a Jew and not a German. She works in a guarded building and worships in a guarded synagogue.

While even Jews with German citizenship feel like outsiders, while guards and fences separate Jews from their neighbors, how can they feel at home, or as the Germans say, gemutlich? Tensions seem likely to persist.

“For me, it feels natural to live where I grew up,” Drimmer said. “Only when more feel natural again will we be over the bulge.”


The Union Democrat, 1995