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Anti-Semitism in the GDR

Carla BleikerMay 12, 2015

In 1965, West Germany and Israel started diplomatic relations. But there was no love lost between East Germany and the Jewish state and anti-Semitism in the GDR was strong, Anetta Kahane told DW.

Poster from an "anti-Semitism in the GDR" exhibition. (Photo: DW/Hardy Graupner)
"We didn't have that!" Exhibition about anti-Semitism in the GDRImage: DW/H. Graupner

DW: You're from a Jewish family and you were born and raised in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. Compared to West Germany, the country east of the wall saw quite a large number of Jews return after World War II. Why is that?

Anetta Kahane: The reason was that most of these Jewish returnees were Communists or Socialists and wanted to have a go at a second start in Germany. Their idea was: "We're establishing Socialism here. People can change. Everything is more a question of class warfare and of the economy anyway, and not of attitude." With this mindset, many Communist Jews returned to East Germany.

As for West Germany, German Jews did not want to return there. They were fed up with Germany, with very few exceptions. A very strong motivation was needed to want to return.

The Communists, including my parents, who both had fought in the Resistance in France, had this motivation. When the summer of '45 came around and Berlin was liberated, my father decided to go into the Soviet occupation zone and help his comrades. That's how my family came to live in the GDR.

What was the situation with anti-Semitism in the GDR?

There was very strong anti-Semitism in the GDR. The East Germans didn't wake up in '45 with the heartfelt wish to build a Socialist nation. There was no miracle cure that suddenly healed everyone of their anti-Semitism. After all, the Germans in the GDR had committed crimes, just like West Germans. There was no difference.

Anetta Kahane. (Photo: imago/ ecomedia/ robert fishman)
Anette Kahane experienced anti-Semitism in former communist East GermanyImage: imago/ecomedia/R. Fishman

But in the GDR, the government had decided that the state was anti-fascist, and thus there could obviously be no anti-Semitism. The motto was: "When we get rid of Capitalism, the source of all evil, then there will be no more anti-Semitism, either." The people latched onto this gratefully, since it kind of cleared them of past crimes.

But this doesn't mean that there were no violent outbreaks, no defilements of Jewish cemeteries, no assaults, no insults. I experienced this myself as a child and teenager. Last, but not least, hostility toward Israel was a national doctrine, so anti-Semitism didn't have to hide.

How did you perceive the political relationship between the GDR and Israel?

It was non-existent. The only relationship with Israel was one of absolute rejection, of hatred even. The way this was handled in the GDR was bizarre. We did an exhibition with the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, "Anti-Semitism in the GDR," and during research for that, we found out that the GDR provided shelter for terrorists. They were supported by the government and were trained there. It's egregious.

That was the relationship with Israel - they sided with people who wanted to destroy Israel. In the GDR, it was very clear whose side people were on during the 6-Day-War or the Yom-Kippur-War and how sad they were that Israel wasn't wiped off the map.

When did that begin to change?

In the early or mid-80s, when the GDR was in terrible economic shape. GDR leader Erich Honecker wanted better trade conditions with the US and somebody told him: "You know, the US is ruled by Jews and that's why you need to play nice with Israel and with the Jews in the GDR and in the US, too. The Jews are the key to getting the money."

Suddenly, things worked out that never did before. Jewish congregations had property returned to them that had been taken away earlier. All of a sudden, cemeteries were kept up. And the government started to use a much friendlier tone with Israel. All of this was to get the trade conditions with the US improved. This didn't end up happening, but it was the original motivation.

With anti-Semitism so prevalent, did your family ever consider moving to West Germany?

That was never an alternative for my family. My father would never have wanted to go to West Germany, where almost every higher-standing civil servant was a former Nazi. This really turned him off.

He reported from the Nuremberg Trials [against Nazi criminals, the ed.] and also went to the trial of former Nazi Lieutenant and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. He was fed up with all these " post-war Nazis" in West Germany. He was way too much of an anti-fascist to move there.

There was never the question for us of whether to leave the GDR. My parents were intellectuals and had made quite the nice life for themselves in the GDR. But if they had thought about leaving, it would most definitely not have been to West Germany.

Anetta Kahane is chairwoman of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation that's fighting racism and anti-Semitism in civil society. She was born in the GDR as the daughter of Jewish Communists and worked there as a translator until the fall of the Wall.

Carla Bleiker conducted this interview.