Jewish life in Germany surprises even the Germans

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“Jewish Life in Germany Today,” at Washington Hebrew Congregation, is a series of 25 panels profiling individual German Jews and an overview of German Jewish history. Photo by David Holzel

Mariana Griff was sampling a miniature apple strudel one night last week and considering the exhibit she had just seen about the surprising resurgence of Jewish life in Germany. “I’m always ambivalent about programs like these,” she said.

The cavernous reception hall at Washington Hebrew Congregation in the District was crowded with some 450 people who, like Griff, had seen the exhibit, “Jewish Life in Germany Today,” a series of 25 panels profiling individual German Jews, and an overview of German Jewish history. An interactive kiosk plays video testimonials.

Inside the Reform congregation’s sanctuary, the Washington National Cathedral’s Cathedra group and the synagogue’s cantors, Mikhail Manevich and Susan Bortnick, had performed choral works by German Jewish composers.

Now performers and guests were dipping into the German fare – smoked salmon on black bread, latkes, pretzels, and German beer and wine.

“The program was wonderful,” Griff said. “I speak German fluently. I’ve read Goethe and Schiller in the original. I cook German.”

Griff, 69, explained that she was born in Argentina. “My father left Germany on the last boat to Argentina” before World War II broke out. Most of the rest of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, she said. “So I’m ambivalent.”

The exhibit is sponsored by the synagogue and the German Embassy. The rapid growth of the number of Jews in Germany – from 30,000 in 1990 to 120,000 today – is a source of astonishment to the Germans themselves. “To us it has meant a miraculous revival,” said Ambassador Peter Wittig, who addressed the gathering.

“The fastest growing Jewish community in the world is in Germany,” said Rabbi Bruce Lustig, whose family came from Germany.

That growth came from Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it’s Israelis, a phenomenon dubbed the Berlin Aliyah.

Johannes Holzwarth, a legal intern at the embassy, learned about the influx of Israelis into the German capital from friends while he was studying in Chicago. He said the exhibit was “a good way to deal with the subject and move forward.”

Kyle Blackstone was sitting near Griff in the reception hall. “Germany is a hot-button issue with the older generation,” he said. “I’m 40 – I’ve grown up learning about the past but not living the past.”
He visited post-Wall Berlin in 1998 and remembered how the whole city seemed to be under construction. “Germany has become a mix of cultures,” he said. “They’ve moved on.”

“Jewish Life in Germany Today” will be on exhibit at Washington Hebrew Congregation through Dec. 11.

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