1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany celebrates 1,700 years of Jewish life

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
July 31, 2022

Jewish life in Germany goes back to the days of the Roman empire. This year, the country has been marking the centuries-long heritage with countless events and festivities, both looking back and ahead to the future.

A glowing Hannukah menorah
A Hannukah menorah on display at an exhibition at the Old Synagogue in EssenImage: Roland Weihrauch/dpa/picture alliance

The first documented presence of Jews north of the Alps dates back to 321 CE, when the Roman emperor Constantine issued a decree allowing Jews to be members of Cologne's town council. The documents are stored in the archives of the Vatican today.

The Roman edict provides definitive evidence that Jewish communities have been an integral part of European culture since ancient times.

On the occasion of the edict's 1,700th anniversary, the association 321-2021: 1,700 Jahre Jüdisches Leben in Deutschland (1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany), together with the German government, decided to mark the event through many projects and festivities.

An overwhelming exercise

Speaking to DW about the year gone by, Andrey Kovacs, executive director of the association, said his group was overwhelmed and thankful for the participation of civil society and political figures, with the resulting number of events far exceeded initial expectations.

Andrey Kovacs
Andrey Kovacs wants to bring Jewish life closer to the peopleImage: Verein 321

"We had over 840 project partners in all 16 states," he explained. "That really overwhelmed us. And then there were also projects that took place without sponsorship and did not show up in the statistics. These also included events in over 20 German government representations abroad, because the foreign office also participated in the festivities," Kovac said. "It became probably the biggest post-war German cultural festival."

Altogether, far over 2,400 events were held all over Germany. Included were exhibitions of Jewish artefacts from the Middle Ages as part of the "Shared History” project, and celebrating the Jewish festival of Tabernacles, or "Sukkot XXL," in 13 cities across Germany.

According to Kovacs, the celebration of festivals like Sukkot and other smaller events played an extremely important role in bringing Jewish life closer to people.

"Yes, it was the small events, aside of the big cities. That was very special because many people there engaged for the first time with Jewish life in Germany today and with different Jewish perspectives in the present," Kovacs said.

An awareness of Jewish life

In North Rhine-Westphalia's Münsterland region, for example, members of the regional association, LWL, organized a project in which children and young adults looked for traces of Jewish life in the area and documented them.

The idea of the project, called "Jüdisch hier" ("Jewish here"), was to make participants conscious of the centuries-long Jewish-German history by tracing the lives of Jewish members in their towns.

In one such search, students traced the life of Nana Kahn, who was born in 1910 and finished her "Abitur" or high school in 1929 in a town called Attendorn. They created a map of her whereabouts at the time and documented her life in text.

Users can now access Nana Kahn's story by logging into an educational app called BIPARCOURS, and find out what she looked like, when she was born and which school she attended.

The app also shows users how to geographically trace their way to Kahn's school in Attendorn, while describing Hitler's antisemitic laws and finally leading them to a commemorative plaque for Jews deported from the area to concentration camps.

"In other words, [the idea of the project was] to become aware that there were Jewish people living there and that there were also positive moments in Jewish history, in Jewish-German history and not just negative experiences. And that was very exciting," Kovacs said.

Marking Jewish life in Germany

Space for a new identity

Meanwhile, the head of the 1,700 years of Jewish life association is satisfied with how the commemorative year has turned out. The festivities not only opened up new perspectives about Jews in Germany, but was a journey of discovery for both non-Jews and "Jewish people who wanted to locate their own identity in German society," Kovacs added.

But there are some challenges that still need to be overcome, the activist says.

"When I was young, it was such in my Jewish home that one could not think of a future in Germany. That has changed and the festivities have demonstrated that," he explains, elaborating that there is a new self-image, with which young people want to be perceived and, above all, respected in a modern, future-oriented society. And that is a chance for change, but it needs space to grow."

2021 marks 1,700 years of Jewish contributions to Germany

The second challenge is keeping the memory of the Shoah, or the Holocaust alive, considering that very few survivors are left, he said.

"The third aspect is the rise of antisemitism and conspiracy theories, which are becoming visible again both abroad, such as in Russia, and in Germany," Kovacs added. "One only needs to look at the discussion around Documenta," Kovacs says, referring to the art exhibition where antisemitic artworks have repeatedly surfaced and caused considerable controversy in German cultural and political circles.

For the future, he is planning to launch a Jewish music festival, called "Shalom Cologne," and also has a pan-European project in the pipeline.

Most importantly, he says, the commemorative year has given Jews and Jewish associations in Germany the courage to come out and celebrate their religion. And Kovacs hopes things will continue that way.

Edited by: Stuart Braun

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.