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Germany

Foundation Stone Laid for Munich Jewish Center

Home to Germany’s second-largest Jewish community, Bavaria’s capital begins construction of a synagogue and cultural center that organizers hope will help the city’s reestablished Jewish population flourish and grow.

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Laying the cornerstone.

German President Johannes Rau on Sunday called on Germans to join together to fight for freedom and tolerance in the wake of a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in the country. Rau traveled to Munich to lay the foundation stone for a new Jewish Community Center in the Bavarian city. The presence of police and sharpshooters, however, focused attention on less fortunate developments in recent weeks.

Two months ago, police foiled plans by right-wing extremists to bomb Sunday's event. Since then, 14 extremists have been arrested total – a fact not lost on the German president.

"Whoever attacks minorities is planting a bomb in the foundation of our society," Rau said while laying the stone at the future synagogue and community center. Rau said he had been "distraught" by the idea that "right-wing extremists set on murder" had again planned an attack on a Jewish center on the 65th anniversary of the Kristallnacht Nazi pogroms.

The extremists arrested in the incident are part of a group organized by 27-year-old Neo Nazi Martin Wiese. Prosecutors say they will seek to charge the group’s followers with membership in a terrorist organization, following the discovery of 14 kilograms of explosives, including 1.7 kilograms of highly explosive TNT, they believe were intended for use in the planned attack.

"We have to show that intimidation and violence don’t set the climate in our country," Rau told the more than 600 people gathered at the event.

Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber also attended, warning that "anti-Semitism can never again be allowed to become socially acceptable in Germany or anywhere else on the Continent." Stoiber added that all legal tools at the state’s disposal must be used to fight what he called the "criminal lunacy" of right-wing extremists. "We won’t accept that Jewish life has to be hidden out of fear of attacks," he warned.

Meanwhile, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, called for increased vigilance in combating Germany’s anti-Semites and warned against the "minimization of right-wing extremist" crimes.

Remembrance and reconciliation

Taking place on the anniversary of one of the Nazi’s worst crimes against the Jews – which led to the destruction of synagogues, the murder of hundreds and the plundering of Jewish businesses – Sunday’s event served as both a remembrance of the horrid event as well as a symbol of reconciliation.

"This isn’t just a day of unclouded joy," said Charlotte Knobloch, chairwoman of the Munich’s Jewish community organization.

Still, there was much to celebrate on Sunday. With the €57 million project, community leaders are seeking to restore Jewish life "where it used to be, in the city center." In addition to the new synagogue, a museum and cultural and community facilities will also be constructed by 2007. A kosher restaurant, Jewish school and daycare center are also planned.

Despite the revelations in September of a possible attack against the facility, the local Jewish community has decided not to install high-security barricades, as cities like Berlin have assembled at Jewish facilities. Instead, organizers want a "meeting place of the cultures." To ensure the safety of visitors, center officials say they will work closely with police and install security cameras.

"There won’t be any walls or barbed wire," Munich Culture Community vice president Jehoshua Chmiel told the public broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk.

9,000 and growing

For the local Jewish community, Germany’s second largest after Berlin, the center can’t come soon enough. The 9,000-strong Jewish community grew quickly after the fall of the Wall, with a major influx of Russian Jews with German ancestry. The community's existing facilities are buckling under the pressure of a growing population and, already, they are having trouble finding enough space to hold language and religion classes that aid the integration of newcomers.

More importantly, perhaps, is that many see the construction of the complex as a further sign of the recovery of Munich’s Jewish community. The city’s original synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis on June 8, 1938.

Shortly after, mass deportations of the city’s Jews began to concentration camps. By April 30, 1945, American forces occupying the city were only able to register seven living Jews in the city.

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