Reborn Jewish communities

September 2018
Susan Roth


Last July my husband and I participated in a leadership mission to Berlin and Budapest sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. The mission was designed to help  Federation leaders understand the challenges faced by Eastern European Jewish communities today and to learn how Federation-funded programs are contributing to the renewal of  Jewish life in the area.                         

Before our departure I felt  a pit in my stomach. How do you go back to a place where such atrocities were committed during the Shoah, when six million were murdered just because they were Jewish, as well as countless others who were gay, disabled, or Roma. How do you walk on the Under de Linden where the Nazis once marched in unison; or walk through the park in the Bavarian quarter where Jews couldn’t even sit on the park benches; or go to the Grunwald Station where at Platform 17, 50,000 Jews were shoved into train cars for deportation to extermination camps?

Many of us are aware that today, Berlin is a thriving metropolis, with great food, music festivals, and lots of Israelis, but what is happening from a Jewish perspective?

When Jews first returned to Berlin in 1945, they referred to themselves as Jews in Germany rather than as German Jews.This terminology remains. Jews felt conflicted and tentative about returning to Germany. Most were not even from Berlin before the war, but it was a place for them to live. They thought it would be temporary. For the most part they kept their Jewishness secret. Often, they didn’t tell their children they were Jewish. Of course they were afraid. Their numbers were small.  

Post-war teenagers who knew they were Jewish lived with the awareness they were surrounded by a generation, some of whom took part in rounding up and murdering Jews. Many moved to Israel to escape this reality.

Germany neither memorialized nor referred to what happened under the Third Reich until the 1980s. The memorial at Platform 17 was the first to be completed in 1987, after much controversy. And even then, the inscription was vague, not mentioning Jews or murder. With the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall that marked the end of communist rule in Germany, there was freedom of movement for the first time in a generation. The Jews who poured in to Germany from the former Soviet Union knew very little about Judaism after 70 years of communist oppression, but in the early 1990s, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, Jews started to experience what it meant to be part of a community. Schools, community centres, and camps started to help those Jews seeking their lost identities.  

Today there are about 300,000 Jews living in Germany, 250,000 of whom come from the former Soviet Union. There are a lot of ghosts from the past here, both from the Shoah and the communist occupation. Natan Sharansky once said of this fastest growing Jewish community in the world, "if we don’t do something fast, this community will disappear.” However, I felt reassured by the rejuvenation of Jewish life in Berlin. This is nothing like your “typical” Jewish community in Canada. Most families have one Jewish parent and very little knowledge about Jewish practices. The community is open to all those who define themselves as Jewish. Very few people have synagogue affiliation. 

I was absolutely amazed at the sensitivity shown to Jewish Berliners by the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Commitee and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. They are not pushing their own agenda, but rather helping people find their own expression of Judaism. They are building a community, with joy and mutual respect. Very often the parents seek out Jewish education for their children with the children ending up teaching the parents Jewish customs.

One of the most effective tools in teaching young adults about Judaism is Birthright Israel. Before the trip, participants attend three seminars that orient them to basic Jewish practices. They visit Israel with some background and, upon their return, their Birthright group becomes a place for learning, celebrating holidays, making friends and welcoming other Jews to the community.

The story of reconciling with the past continued in the second part of our trip in Budapest. Although the Nazis did not occupy Hungary until 1944, the ferocity of the Third Reich’s actions there was unprecedented. In the span of three months between April and July 1944, 490,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps. These were mainly the Orthodox Jews from the countryside. The majority of those who survived the Holocaust were from Budapest and generally unaffiliated. After the war they tried to conceal their Jewish identities by changing their names, joining the Communist party, and trying not to be overtly Jewish. Parents tried to save their children from persecution by hiding their Jewishness. Here, as in Berlin, there are ghosts from the past haunting people’s everyday lives.

What I learnt from this mission is that realities can change and that the generation of Jews living in Budapest today  are seeking Jewish meaning in their lives. Individuals somehow find out they have Jewish roots. They are “coming out of the closet” and want to explore their own Judaism. This is exactly what’s happening at their Jewish Community Centre; a lively place with programming for all ages, including theatre, art classes, holiday celebrations, and Hebrew lessons.  

In Canada, we have a long history of Jewish summer camps that have for generations promoted positive Jewish experiences. Using this model, the Joint Distribution Committee, funded by North American UIA dollars and the Ronald  Lauder Foundation, sends 1,500 children from 20 countries in Europe to Camp Szarvas every summer.  There is also representation from Israel and North America.  

The visit to this camp was absolutely heartwarming. When we came, campers were split up into groups engaged in swimming, sports, Israeli dancing, art, and discussions with the very cool Rabbi Tommy. The children were completely engaged in their activities. For me, the pinnacle experience was seeing the spirit  in the dining hall. One group would start a song and the next group of kids joined in. Children were standing on their chairs, arm movements in sync, their voices pounding out songs in unison in English, Hungarian, Romanian and Hebrew. They bellowed out their tunes with incredible enthusiasm, reaching a feverish pitch. I kept thinking, “Here it is. The ghosts of the past are being smothered." Unfolding before my eyes, was a beautiful renewal, a total juxtaposition to the ugly past.

It didn’t matter that these kids came from different countries and spoke different languages, they have found meaning, fun and acceptance among each other. They have found meaning in their Jewish community and they will bring that home to their respective families. These children are the key to breaking down the barriers of fear of exposure that have plagued generations of Jews in Eastern Europe. It is only through reconciling the past that empowerment truly begin.  

One of the songs the children sang so enthusiastically, written by the legendary Rabbi Nachman, says it all.

Kol Ha’olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal

The whole world
Is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all

I am truly thankful for the opportunity I had to better understand the needs of our people in present day Eastern Europe and to see how our Federation dollars are being wisely spent.  

Longtime community members Susan and Paul Roth live in Dundas.