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Europe

Goldschmidt: 'We are not free of the past'

On the eve of the Conference of European Rabbis' Kristallnacht memorial, the president of the conference, Pinchas Goldschmidt, speaks to DW about memory, religious freedom and the rebirth of the German Jewish community.

DW: During the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9, 1938, the Nazis plundered Jewish businesses, burned synagogues, and rounded up Jewish men for deportation to concentration camps. Rabbi Goldschmidt, what is the significance of the fact that the Conference of European Rabbis is meeting in Berlin for the first time on the 75th anniversary of the historic pogrom?

Pinchas Goldschmidt: We decided the time has come to come back to Germany; for the sake of memory and also for the sake of continuity. We are witnessing today a rebirth, a renaissance of Jewish life in Germany, which we are going to celebrate, along with the memory of Kristallnacht.

What does this gathering mean to you personally, as one of the leaders of Europe's Jewish community?

It is no secret that my father's family originated from Germany. I myself grew up in Switzerland as a German-speaker with a lot of cultural and religious attachment to German Jewry and to the German-Jewish tradition. So, for me, it is the feeling of trying to touch the past and restart the future.

There are events planned in the capital to mark the anniversary of the so-called night of broken glass, which include German President Joachim Gauck visiting a workshop for blind and deaf Jews and Berliners being called upon to clean the 'Stolperstein' memorials, brass "stumbling stones" embedded in the streets for victims of the Holocaust. Do you welcome such gestures?

Seven Stolpersteine in Berlin-Schöneberg are embedded in the pavement in memory of Jewish victims of the Holocaust

These stumbling stones are embedded in the streets of many German cities in memory of Holocaust victims

Yes. I think that memory is our greatest tool against indifference and against a repetition of the atrocities of the past. And it is the duty, the historical responsibility, of the German government to do this. We are going to have our central memorial event of Sunday evening in the Brunnenstraße, a synagogue which was destroyed during Kristallnacht and was rebuilt and today houses a working synagogue. And we're going to memorialize this event there: on Monday evening, close to midnight, 250 rabbis from all over Europe are going to come to the Brandenburg Gate. And they're going to light candles. And we're going to walk towards the Holocaust memorial.

Speaking of the German government and its duty, Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on all Germans to protect against anti-Semitism on the anniversary of this infamous night. Do you find it worrying that essentially all Jewish institutions in Germany still need police protection?

Yes. It is a sign that we are not free of the past and we can never say for sure that some dark forces out there are not going to try to repeat the past. And I think that every German and every citizen of Europe with a conscience has to do something and has to be vocal against any manifestation of racism, of anti-Semitism. And I'm also including racism of a different kind: Islamophobia. Any kind of intolerance that might put the new united Europe in jeopardy.

How do you see the situation in Germany compared to the rest of Europe?

Jews are being forced to walk with the star of David during the Kristallnacht in Nazi-Germany on the night of 9-10 november 1938. (Photo: http://naziwarcrimes.files.wordpress.com)

The Kristallnacht pogroms saw synagogues and Jewish businesses burned and many Jews deported

I think that Germany because of its history is more aware of the problem and responds in a very efficient way to the challenges. As you know, Chancellor Merkel received the Lord Jakobovits Prize from the Conference of European Rabbis this May as recognition for her efforts in rebuilding the Jewish community and against anti-Semitism.

On the agenda of this year's conference is the recession of religious freedoms in Europe. How is this recession being felt in the Jewish community?

In different countries and also on the central level in Europe, we're experiencing an attempt to curtail or to demonize religious practices that have existed for thousands of years. For example, if we take the practice of circumcision, which is practiced by one third of humanity on this planet: It is a practice which has existed for thousands of years. Actually the original name of New Years in the Anglican as well as in the Orthodox tradition was "the feast of the circumcision of Jesus." So this is an old tradition.

And now, suddenly, because of a new militant secularism - or call it a reaction to the great influx from the Middle East and from Northern Africa - we see religious freedoms, which we have been guaranteed for thousands of years, under a new flag, under a new face. This kind of anti-Semitism is surfacing again.

DW: You mentioned this weekend's gathering as a chance for you to touch with the past and also as a celebration. Can you give us a sense of where the Jewish community is in Germany and Europe today, 75 years after Kristallnacht?

What we lost during the Holocaust, the six million Jews that were killed, those Jews never came back. Many of the communities which were decimated and destroyed - especially in Eastern Europe - do not exist anymore. In most of those countries synagogue buildings are today used as theatres or maybe for other purposes. And in some of those places you just see the ghost of the past.

In Germany, there is a new Jewish community. It is a Jewish community which actually has very little to do with Germany because 90 percent of German Jews today are from the former Soviet Union. They are trying to build the future as Jews and as Germans. And we see a tremendous renaissance in terms of building synagogues, in terms of new communities, new congregations.

However if you look at Berlin before World War Two, it was one of the big centers of Jewish thought and Jewish learning. You had many of the greatest Jewish scholars who shaped world Jewry. Berlin was the center of learning for the rabbinate in all of western and central Europe. So in order to recreate that, much has to be invested. On the one hand, we need the help of the German government and the German Jewish community to recreate the structures which were destroyed. On the other hand, we have to import great Jewish leaders and rabbis to be able to recreate at least some of what was destroyed.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis. He is the Chief Rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue and represents the Russian Jewish community politically.

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