Jews in Berlin

Andreas Nachama, Julius H. Schoeps, and Her­mann Simon
  • Review
By – November 15, 2013

What a title! Jews in Berlin: No sub-title, no hint of the tor­tured rela­tion­ship being exam­ined. If you didn’t know the his­to­ry, those three words might seem as innocu­ous as Jews in Hobo­ken. But of course we know the his­to­ry … or think we do. The sto­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple in the Ger­man cap­i­tal is one of incred­i­ble achieve­ment and recur­rent hor­ror. It also encom­pass­es aston­ish­ing twists and turns.

Exam­ples from Jews in Berlin:

  • Mass con­ver­sion from Judaism to Chris­tian­i­ty was a wide­spread phe­nom­e­non among Berlin’s Jews in the nine­teenth century.
  • By the ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, con­ver­sions among Jews had large­ly disappeared.
  • Jews were promi­nent elect­ed offi­cials in the post-World War I city: Hugo Heiman was head of Berlin’s City Coun­cil, and Paul Hirsch was gov­er­nor of Prussia.
  • At the same time, anti-Semi­tism was stronger and more fanat­ic than it was at the time the Nation­al Social­ists took pow­er in 1933,” observed his­to­ri­an Golo Mann.
  • In the 1920s, the empow­ered Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty poured resources into a muse­um to hon­or its past. Years in the mak­ing, the Berlin Jew­ish Muse­um opened on Jan­u­ary 241933
  • Six days lat­er, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.

That dual­i­ty resounds through­out Jews in Berlin.

Trans­lat­ed from Ger­man by Michael S. Cullen, Alli­son Brown and Cindy Opitz, this is an updat­ed edi­tion of Juden in Berlin, pub­lished in 2001. All of its mul­ti­ple authors have per­son­al con­nec­tions to the city. The book offers well over 100 images – some in full col­or, includ­ing pho­tos, paint­ings, post­cards, and doc­u­ments. They add immea­sur­ably to its value. 

Sev­en chap­ters review Berlin Jew­ish his­to­ry. Dur­ing the late mid­dle ages, Jews are tol­er­at­ed, taxed, exploit­ed, mur­dered, burnt at the stake, and expelled. Despite the ongo­ing may­hem, a select few Berlin Jews serve as influ­en­tial physi­cians and finan­cial advis­ers. More Jews gain rights in the late 1700s and 1800s. Bar­ri­ers fall; by World War I, Jews have become Ger­man army offi­cers. Aston­ish­ing afflu­ence emerges: Twelve of Berlin’s twen­ty most pros­per­ous indi­vid­u­als in 1911 are Jews or of Jew­ish heritage.

Then calami­ty slith­ers in. The har­row­ing chap­ter, Jews Dur­ing the Peri­od of Nation­al Social­ism,” sen­si­tive­ly exam­ines how Jew­ish Berlin­ers tried to nav­i­gate the encroach­ing infer­no. And chap­ters on the post-war years and life after reuni­fi­ca­tion nev­er ignore the shad­ow of the Shoah: Near­ly every street, build­ing, and stone in Berlin is linked to the Holo­caust in some way.”

Now Berlin is again a world cul­tur­al cen­ter, and appeal­ing to Jews: Since the wall fell in Novem­ber 1989, Jew­ish life in Berlin has expe­ri­enced a ver­i­ta­ble quan­tum leap.” Israelis and Russ­ian Jews are bring­ing ener­gy to the tiny, dam­aged Berlin Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. And, as the foreword’s author, Car­ol Kahn Strauss, points out, Berlin is now a major des­ti­na­tion for Amer­i­can Jew­ish tour groups.

Jews loved Berlin – a city that alter­nate­ly freed and destroyed them. In care­ful­ly recount­ing this con­found­ing tale, Jews in Berlin hon­ors the com­plex­i­ty of an unfath­omable rela­tion­ship. Appen­dix, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index.

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

Discussion Questions