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Germany

Central Council for Jews in Germany celebrates 60 successful years

The Central Council for Jews in Germany was founded on July 19, 1950. Since then it has built up a Jewish community of over 100,000 in Germany and has been a leading moral voice when it comes to the country's Nazi past.

The cupola of the Berlin Synagogue

The Central Council was integral in the rebuilding of Germany's Jewish population

The Central Council for Jews in Germany is the main reason Germany has a Jewish population of over 120,000 today, after being all but eliminated by the National Socialists in the Holocaust by the end of World War Two.

Germany's Jewish population has increased ten-fold since the Central Council was formed, a fact current president Charlotte Knobloch can still hardly believe.

"That there are over 120,000 Jews living here in Germany today is really nothing short of a miracle," Knobloch told Deutsche Welle.

'Sitting on packed suitcases'

Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

Knobloch calls Germany's Jewish population 'a miracle'

A third of the 15,000 Jews estimated to have been in Germany after World War II survived Nazi persecution in hiding, with most returning from concentration camps or from exile. Others were so-called "displaced persons," Jews from Eastern Europe who were disallowed re-entrance to their home countries.

For the vast majority of Jews who remained or returned after the war, Germany was only meant to be a temporary station. Heinz Galinski, the first head of the Central Council, said there were few perspectives for Jews after the atrocities, if any at all.

"At the beginning the Central Council was faced with the task of conveying a sense of confidence to the Jewish community, to give people the possibility of living a life in Germany," he said. "This was extremely difficult, as most Jews were unwilling to stay in Germany. As the saying went, most were sitting on packed suitcases."

Moral obligation

In addition to helping the Jewish population rebuild its communities, one of the most important functions of the Central Council was to establish legislation for compensation of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Until today, the Central Council assumed the moral duty of keeping Germany aware of its Nazi past. This culminated in a public debate in 1998 spurred by controversial comments made by the German author Martin Walser.

Walser had criticized Germany's preoccupation with the guilt of its past, something the Central Council - at the time headed by Ignatz Bubis - interpreted as "morally incendiary."

"I never tried to say that the Holocaust was a shared issue for all German people or that they bore responsibility for it," Bubis said. "I just wanted to convey the message: 'You have to know what happened.' I had realized that it had become a thing of the past. It didn't matter anymore."

Growth through immigration

A police van in front of a synagogue in Essen

The German government plays a role in protecting the Jewish community

Germany's Jewish population increased dramatically in the 60s and 70s with the influx of Jews immigrating from Poland and former Soviet republics. In 1990, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, tens of thousands of Jews came to Germany in search of a new community and home.

"It may sound odd, but the immigrants from the former Soviet Union were actually the ones who really established Jewish life in Germany in the long-term," Knobloch said. "After these people came to Germany, Jews here received a boost of self-confidence."

Still, the individual communities were faced with great challenges. Conflicts between orthodox, traditional members and new, liberal members ensued. In addition, many of the new members of the Jewish community couldn't speak German, nor were they familiar with Jewish religious rituals.

"The new members had to be educated in many ways," Knobloch said. "They needed to learn about their religion, and acquire a new Jewish identity. The future development of the Jewish community depends greatly on whether we will be able to convey this Jewish heritage to our new members."

In 2003 relations between the German government and the country's Jewish population received a legal foundation, as the Bundestag passed a law cementing its partnership with the Central Council for Jews in Germany.

The law not only solidified the Jewish community's presence in German society, but also contained a government pledge of 5 million euros ($6.5 million) per year for the building of further communities in Germany.

Changing of the guard

A Holocaust survivor

Fewer and fewer people who survived the Holocaust are still alive

Until today, the Central Council has been led by people that were directly affected by the Nazi's persecution of the Jews. Its chairmen and presidents have all been people who were forced to live in hiding or exile during World War Two or were held prisoner in concentration camps.

Knobloch, whose term as president ends this autumn, said she is aware that soon this will no longer be the case.

"In a few years there will be no more victims or perpetrators left," she said. "We have to realize by then, at the latest, that our purpose is not to remind Germany of its guilt, but much more to convey a sense of historical responsibility."

Indeed, the Central Council is not only faced with a mere change in the nature of its leaders. Many Jews, especially those in new liberal communities against the orthodoxy of the Central Council, have raised objections to be represented by the Council in Germany.

Author: Cornelia Rabitz/glb

Editor: Sean Sinico

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