After the Holocaust: The History of Jewish Life in West Germany
In July 1945, Rabbi Leo Baeck remarked that the Third Reich had destroyed the historical basis of German Jewry. ‘The history of Jews in Germany has found its end. It is impossible for it to come back. The chasm is too great’. Heinz Galinski, a survivor of Auschwitz who led West Berlin’s Jewish community until his death in 1992, could not have disagreed more strongly. ‘I have always held the view’, he observed, ‘that the Wannsee Conference cannot be the last word in the life of the Jewish community in Germany’. As these diverging views suggest, opting to live in the ‘land of the perpetrators’ represented both an unthinkable and a realistic choice. In the decade after the Holocaust, about 12,000 German-born Jews opted to remain in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and comprised about half of its Jewish community. Rooted in the German language and typically married to non-Jewish spouses, they still had some connections to Germany. xSuch cultural and personal ties did not exist for the other half of West Germany’s Jewish community – its East European Jews. Between 1945 and 1948, 230,000 Jews sought refuge in occupied Germany from the violent outbursts of antisemitism in eastern Europe. Although by 1949 only 15,000 East European Jews had taken permanent residence in the FRG, those who stayed behind profoundly impacted upon Jewish life. More religiously devout than their German-Jewish counterparts, they developed a rich cultural tradition located mostly in southern Germany. But their presence also complicated Jewish life. From the late nineteenth century, relations between German and East European Jews historically were tense and remained so in the early postwar years; the highly acculturated German Jews looked down upon their less assimilated, Yiddish-speaking brothers. In the first decade after the war, integrating these two groups emerged as one of the most pressing tasks for Jewish community leaders.(Published Online September 6 2005)
1 Michael L. Meng is a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation project, ‘From Destruction to Preservation: Jewish Sites in Germany and Poland after the Holocaust’, examines the handling of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and Jewish districts from 1945 to 2000. His forthcoming publications include an article in Central European History, and a chapter in Cities of Memory: Urban Space and the Nazi Past in Postwar Germany, edited by Gabriel Rosenfeld and Paul Jaskot.