21st Century Irony: Jews Find Refuge in Germany

By HILARY ABRAMSON Pacific News Service
Friday July 02, 2004

BERLIN—In electric transition, the multicultural capital of Germany is now home to a gay mayor, almost as much sushi as strudel, and more Jews than anyone has seen since Adolph Hitler.  

Six decades after the Holocaust, Germany has Europe’s only expanding Jewish population and has surpassed Israel as the chosen destination of Jewish refugees. While France reels from anti-Semitic violence and a new Moscow Human Rights study predicts that Russia’s 50,000 skinheads could double within the next two years, Jews are settling in nearly every corner of the birthplace of Nazism.  

In an existential twist of history, these Jews—predominantly from states of the former Soviet Union—receive rent, health care, higher education, unemployment benefits, and German language classes. Germany feels safer than Israel to them and has a more relaxed attitude than the Jewish state toward mixed marriages.  

It’s been 13 years since Germany made this commitment to rebuild a Jewish community, and most Germans appear to support official hopes that the country can regain the part of its national identity lost in the gas chambers. But that identity is certain to be as different from the pre-war German Jew’s as Goethe was from Tolstoy. Forging it will be up to people like Tamara and Lion Chamilov and their 23-year-old son, Alexander. 

At 49, Tamara speaks perfect English. Her 50-year-old husband is a violinist and Alexander has been studying clothing design. Before the Russian Mafia strong-armed her husband and his father out of their leather and fur business, they had what Tamara calls a “very good life” in Naltchik, near Chechnya. Tamara taught school with a five-year, post-graduate degree. Unlike most of Germany’s new Jews, Tamara and her family are religious. Known as “mountain Jews,” who originated in Persia, they practiced their religion in a Jewish district alongside observant Muslims and Christians.  

At first, the family of four (one son died in an auto accident) received shelter and the equivalent of $1,200 per month from the government. Today, they live near Berlin in Potsdam in a three-story apartment building with 27 other immigrant families. The state covers their $327-a-month, three-room apartment with one bath. Tamara and her husband each receive about $360 a month in unemployment benefits when out of work, which is most of the time. During their first five years, health care was free; it remains affordable at the equivalent of $10 a quarter. 

With German unemployment at about 10 percent and Russian Jewish unemployment at 40 percent, Tamara lucked out several years ago when she landed a contract job tutoring at a nearby boarding school. But the contract ended, and except for looking after two small children three hours a week for $150 a month, she has been unsuccessful at working in her profession. Lion had no work for four years, then played with a Berlin orchestra on a contract that ended last May. Unable to afford his salary, the orchestra turned to social services, which provided it. Like 75 percent of their counterparts, the highly educated Chamilovs have to accept German welfare to survive. 

“If social services stops giving us money, we cannot live,” says Tamara.  

Her dream is to get permission from the German minister of education to tutor English. Then, the family would petition to move to Berlin, close to Lion’s father and greater job opportunity. Aware that the United States is not accepting Jewish refugees from Russia in the numbers it welcomed when the Soviet Union first collapsed, Tamara still dreams of joining close family in Kentucky.  

“I visited Louisville once,” she says, “Oy vey, Louisville! So beautiful and so much opportunity!” 

Before Hitler, about 560,000 Jews lived in Germany, connected emotionally and materially to its cultural life. Afterwards, 15,000 Jews remained. Today, there are about 190,000 Russian Jews in Germany, only 70,000 of whom are involved in the official Jewish community. They watch Russian television, tune in to Russian radio, and intermingle with Russian cultural groups. The dwindling German Jewish population chafes at the overwhelmingly secular Russian complexion of the state-supported Jewish community. 

“This is not paradise for Russian Jews,” says Judith Kessler, sociologist and editor of the monthly magazine, Jewish Berlin. “They are safe and they are not starving. But they sit in their flats, strangers in Germany. After anti-Semitism and a secular state, they can’t be expected to cross a border and suddenly want religion. I’ve been telling them for over a decade—without success—to lower their career expectations. Only the future will tell if they will create a new Jewish community or break off by themselves.” 


Hilary Abramson is a San Francisco journalist and contributing editor to Pacific News Service.›