Hope and fear in Germany

Posted: Apr 01, 2004 12:00 AM

BERLIN - Berlin is an ugly city of considerable beauty. Historical memory, like its architecture, is an aesthetic mix of emotions - crude and sumptuous, vulgar and ambitious, hateful and generous. A Jewish visitor walking through the modern metropolis is aggressively assaulted by monuments testifying to the evil of the previous century, while declaring the 21st-century German's willingness to reflect on this cruel past while looking with an energetic spirit to a better future.

Nothing about Berlin is static. A tourist rides a roller coaster of attitudes through an artless design that challenges the spirit to accept that the past is past. The subway station at Hausvogteiplatz is a metaphor for the New Berlin. The visitor climbs from the underground into the light on steps memorializing each of the textile factories that were "Aryanized" by the Nazis in the 1930s.

"Aryanization," or "transfer of Jewish businesses to Aryan hands," was how Jews were forced to sell their businesses for prices far below their actual value. The Berlin fashion industry disappeared from this neighborhood with "Aryanization."

Several generations of the Mendelssohn family presided over the family's bank in the neighborhood until the Nazis "Aryanized" it. Though the Mendelssohns had converted to Christianity, the Nazis considered them unreconstructed Jews anyway. Berliners recently placed a bronze plaque at the entrance of the building that once housed the bank. It's engraved with a crane, the Mendelssohn family's logo, emblematic of vigilance, duty and responsibility.

The Mendelssohns were typical of Jews often regarded by others of their race as more German than Jewish, contributors to the business and cultural life of Berlin before Hitler. The Mendelssohn women held salons for great German writers, artists and composers.

Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the family dynasty, entered Berlin in the middle of the 18th century through the only gate open to the Jews - the gate for pigs and cows. Although he became known as the "German Socrates," and once edged Emanuel Kant for first prize in a contest sponsored by the philosophical society of Berlin, he suffered many personal indignities simply for his race, indignities illustrated in the city's Jewish Museum.

More than any other European country, Germany confronts its history of anti-Semitism (sometimes with a heavy hand) through museums, monuments, libraries and conferences, extensively documenting the horrors of the Holocaust. But anti-Semitism survives, in two varieties.

The weakest variety is expressed by the neo-Nazis, who spread their venom to include the homeless, the punks, the leftists and gays as well as Jews. Most anti-Semitic incidents are aimed at links between Jews and the politics of Israel and the United States, incidents often perpetrated by radical Muslims.

A report on anti-Semitism in Europe, commissioned last year by the European Union and conducted by the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University in Berlin, describes both varieties. In one example, two Jewish women, walking on a Berlin street, are attacked because each wears a Star of David on a necklace. In another example, a leaflet decrying "globalization" depicts Uncle Sam with a stereotypical Jewish nose.

The European Union initially suppressed this report on anti-Semitism because "the focus on Muslim and pro-Palestinian perpetrators . was judged inflammatory." (But isn't "inflammatory" the whole point of anti-Semitism?)

When I attended Friday night services at the Fraenkelufer synagogue in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin, the security guards asked for identification. A Molotov cocktail had been thrown into the courtyard. The service was held in what had been a small wing of the original synagogue, built in 1916. The larger structure was set on fire on Kristallnacht, "the night of broken the glass" in November 1938, when Nazis attacked Jewish synagogues and businesses.

The congregation of about 100 now worships before a simple wooden ark that holds the Torah. Plain white walls, with spare neoclassical columns and graceful candelabras, project an ancient piety in spirited voices raised in song and prayer.

After the service, I joined a small group of young adults, both Christians and Jews, to celebrate the Sabbath. The hosts were recently married. The husband, born in Germany, and his wife, a Russian Jew who recently came to Berlin, had met as tour leaders at the Jewish Museum. They're expecting their first child and they rejoice in being able to raise their baby as a Jew in Berlin.

We said prayers for bread and wine in Hebrew and enjoyed lively conversation amid the shimmering Sabbath lights like so many Jews had done before us in Berlin. Our prayers and songs kindled ancient memories of hope ... and fear.