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70 years of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

July 20, 2020

The Central Council of Jews has been the driving force making Jewish culture part of every day life in Germany again. It's been a history of painful remembrance — but also one of successful integration.

Deutschland Mann mit Kippa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

It was meant to be a provisional set-up, when only five years after the Shoah, the mass murder of six million Jews by Germany, survivors revivified local Jewish community groups and founded the Central Council of Jews in Germany. It was meant to symbolize the continued existence of Jewish life in the country of murderers.

The revival of Jewish communities began within weeks of the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany at the hands of the Allies in 1945. The "Israeli Cultural Community" in Munich, one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany, has just celebrated 75 years since its re-establishment.

By late 1945, 51 Jewish communities had been re-established in Germany. By the time the Central Council of Jews in Germany was founded, 15,000 Jews were living in Germany.

At the council's opening session in Frankfurt on July 19, 1950, the organization notes participation from representatives of communities in former East Germany. Yet the number of Jews living in the GDR, with no comparable institutions representing them, sank steadily. By 1989, when the Berlin Wall would fall, around 500 remained across five communities.

Read more: Retracing Germany's tragic 'Kindertransport'

Helping survivors to stay — or indeed leave

"The Central Council was not founded with a view to what Jewish life might look like in 50 or 70 or 100 years," says the current president of the organization, Josef Schuster. The 66-year-old doctor has been in the role for six years now. Schuster says that the body's top council was envisaged at its founding as "a support organization." Its main task was to help survivors of Nazi persecution in central and eastern Europe to transit through Germany en route to a new home, Schuster says, "and also [to facilitate] emigration" for Jews still in Germany who wished to leave.

Jews and German officers in 1938
In November 1938 Jewish citizens became the victims of orchestrated violence across GermanyImage: KEYSTONE/picture-alliance

Yet that wasn't quite how things played out. Many Jewish people elected to stay where their families had often lived for generations or centuries. Some even returned from other parts of the world that had granted them shelter during the Holocaust. That was the case for Josef Schuster. His father and grandfather survived the concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald and initially emigrated from Germany to what was then Palestine. Schuster was born in Haifa in 1954. But when he was three, his family returned to their old home in Franconia in Germany.

Read more:Germany assumes chair of International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

A conscious choice to return

"For a long time, it was very problematic, also in Jewish circles, to stand up and say that you've consciously chosen a life in Germany," Schuster says. He says that only really began to change in the 1970s when Werner Nachmann led the Central Council. "He was the first who openly stated: 'Yes, Jewish life exists in Germany.'"

Germany: Living with anti-Semitism

He faced plenty of criticism for this stance, not least from Israel. Many simply could not imagine how everyday Jewish life could persist at the site of such persecution. Later, in the 1990s,  another Central Council president, Ignatz Bubis, went a step further by saying: "I am a German citizen of the Jewish faith."

Read more: The ex-gangster in Berlin who hid his Jewish identity

The Central Council is now the recognized group representing the interests of Jewish communities in Germany. A total of 105 communities and almost 100,000 people are members, roughly half of Germany's estimated present-day Jewish population.  Its leaders are seen as an authority in their field, and are well networked internationally. Schuster, for instance, the eighth Central Council president to date, is also a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress.

Daily life, but with police protection

All that said, threats and daily anti-Semitism remain a part of Jewish life in modern Germany. Police stand guard day and night in front of the Central Council's offices in Berlin Mitte, a fortified building in its own right. Similar images can be seen at several sites of Jewish activity in Germany. Hateful graffiti and threats can be part of daily life. Attacks on Jewish people still take place. In most cases, authorities say, the motivation for the crimes tends to be far-right extremism, and the problem of anti-Semitism among Germany's migrant communities is growing.

The most recent major case was in October 2019— the failed attempt of a suspected far-right extremist to commit mass murder at the synagogue in the city of Halle. Unable to get in, he killed a passer-by and an employee at a nearby kebab shop instead.

Muslims afraid after synagogue attack

"I do not have the feeling that the number of people with resentments or harboring anti-Semitic thoughts has grown in the last 10 or 20 or 30 years," Schuster says. However, what he does sense, and he attributes much of the blame to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD)," is that people have indeed become more prepared to articulate these thoughts once again."

Read more: Yiddish — language of remembrance

For a long time the Central Council could only boast around 30,000 members in a country of around 80 million. This figure rose after the end of the Cold War when Jews from central and eastern Europe were able to migrate to reunified Germany. The Central Council repeatedly urged existing communities to help the new members settle and integrate. If you visit a Jewish community event, whether it's an annual gathering of young members or a Hanukkah evening for pensioners, you will likely encounter a mixed and multilingual group. Yet despite their differences, they're unmistakably a community.

Descendants of German Jews disappointed

A necessary voice

On its 70th anniversary, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised the Central Council of Jews in Germany as a "meaningful voice that is needed and is listened to." He said that Jewish life had developed in the country over the past decades "in all its diversity." But Steinmeier too noted the ongoing threats.

For Schuster, what's important today is "a self-confident Jewry, and a self-confident Jewish lifestyle." He'd like the communities to become a more natural and integral part of the society. Two current Central Council projects are working towards this goal: Bundeswehr soldiers will again have access to Jewish chaplains in a few months, with all the legal hurdles now cleared. And in the city center of Frankfurt am Main construction work has begun for a new Jewish academy, which is expected to have an impact on all of Germany.

For the Jewish communities in Germany, a far larger anniversary is also approaching. In 2021, the Central Council will commemorate 1,700 years of Jewish life on what is now German soil. The Central Council says it will seek to strike a tone balanced between past, present and future.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C