As a schoolboy growing up in Weiden, a city located at the time in the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany, near the Czechoslovak border, Dr. Michael Brenner often found himself one of only two Jews present in class. Michael Brenner often found himself one of only two Jews present in class. The problem was, as he put it, "the other Jew was affixed to a cross on the classroom wall."
Such is just one of the ironies underlying the often complicated history of German Jews, a history that, according to Brenner, continues to this day.
Brenner, professor of Jewish history and culture at the University of Munich, was in town recently to give a talk on the reconstruction of Jewish life in postwar Germany.
Part of the 22nd-annual Joseph Alexander Colloquium, the presentation was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Jewish Studies Program, in conjunction with Penn's departments of history, and Germanic languages and literatures.
While Jewish life in Germany is hardly what it was before 1933 — the year Hitler seized power — it is still detectable. In fact, its current state can be traced to the days immediately following World War II. Surprisingly, despite the not-so-subtle hostilities that remained at the time toward Jews, a good number of survivors of various backgrounds sought asylum in Germany. Along with the 15,000 German Jews who had managed to survive the war, another 200,000 entered the country, leaving behind the horrors of Poland and other European countries.
During the late 1940s and early '50s, many Jews left for the United States or for Israel, but a good number stayed. Those who did so were criticized by world Jewry. It was felt that any Jew who remained in Germany was simply ignoring the otherwise salient fact that Judaism could no longer flourish on such soil.
These Jews were especially criticized by Israeli authorities, who wanted them to emigrate and strengthen the young, struggling Jewish state.
Those who remained behind amounted to about 30,000 people, who were largely bent on assimilating, but with certain reservations. Many feared intermingling with ethnic Germans, as there might always be the possibility that one's future in-laws had had a direct hand in the Nazi murder machine.
Today, Germany is seeing a resurgence of Jewish residents. Due to a 1990 East German law allowing for immigration based on evidence of Jewish ancestry, more than 70,000 Eastern European Jews have made their way to the country since then.
Germany's is one of — if not the only — European Jewish population that appears to be flourishing. The influence can be seen in many spheres. Berlin has a new Jewish high school, while three other cities in the country have recently opened new Jewish schools as well. In Munich, the newly built synagogue is not only a significant gathering place for Jews, but has symbolic importance since it stands near the point where the Nazi Party first began to gain adherents.
While anti-Semitism is always a concern, Brenner made it clear that such hatred is nowadays more a product of xenophobia among members of the political right wing as the result of Germany becoming an increasingly multicultural country.
The irony lies in the fact that many new immigrants have claimed to be Jewish to gain residence in Germany while not, in fact, having any real connection to Judaism.
"People identify themselves as Jews on their immigration papers, but this doesn't necessarily mean they have any connection to the religion," according to Brenner. "Since so many are from the former Soviet Union, their only connection — having lived in a former atheist state — is through their ancestry."
This has lead to an uncertain, but ironically burgeoning, future for Judaism in Germany.
"It's simply hard to determine where Judaism in Germany is headed," said Brenner.
But one thing is certain, he insisted: Despite the attempt to obliterate Judaism, Germans are again seeing it persevere in their country.