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For Jews in East Germany, a Lifetime of Contradictions

Simply earlier than her 14th birthday, Cathy Gelbin requested her mother and father for a pendant necklace with a Star of David to have fun her “Jugendweihe,” a secular coming-of-age ceremony for German younger folks.

Nevertheless it was the Seventies, and no such image of Jewish religion might be discovered the place she lived in East Berlin, within the communist German Democratic Republic, or G.D.R. Her mom requested a neighborhood jeweler to soften down silver to make a star, however he was scared and refused.

“Carrying any spiritual symbols was type of stigmatized,” Gelbin defined just lately in an interview, “as both opposition to, or a diversion from, East German ideology.”

Gelbin’s story is certainly one of practically 20 private narratives within the exhibition “One other Nation: Jewish within the G.D.R.,” working at Berlin’s Jewish Museum by means of Jan. 14, 2024. The present explores the often-overlooked historical past of Jewish life in East Germany, a rustic that existed for roughly 40 years following World Warfare II till shortly after the autumn of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Gelbin remained dedicated to Jewish tradition and faith, despite state ambivalence towards all nonsecular teams. As she grew older, she usually questioned the G.D.R.’s socialist doctrine at college, and her academics handled her with rising suspicion. When she later got here out as queer, she resolved that remaining within the nation was merely untenable. She left for West Berlin in 1985.

However for the co-curators of “One other Nation,” Tamar Lewinsky and Martina Lüdicke, there was no singular method to describe life for Jews in East Germany. They as an alternative selected to function a number of contrasting first-person testimonies, together with objects akin to a silver torah defend, a home made flag, a Seder plate and a prayer scarf, to light up this vary of experiences.

“It’s extra like a mosaic,” Lewinsky stated. “The main target was telling the story from totally different views, and tales that generally contradict one another.”

Hetty Berg, the Jewish Museum’s director, stated that the museum hadn’t centered on the experiences of Jews in East Germany very a lot earlier than. However, she added, “We don’t wish to present a single pink thread, as a result of then you definitely oversimplify. Folks ought to discover their very own.”

The catastrophic historical past of the Jews in Germany within the Nineteen Thirties and ’40s is healthier identified than the second half of the twentieth century, Berg stated. Earlier than Adolf Hitler’s rise to energy in 1933, there have been greater than half one million Jews in Germany, however in the course of the first six years of the antisemitic Nazi regime, half fled to different international locations. Amongst those that stayed, about 170,000 have been murdered within the Holocaust. By the tip of World Warfare II, solely about 15,000 Jews remained.

After the Third Reich was defeated in 1945, the Allies divided Germany into 4 occupied zones. 4 years later, the British, French and American sectors grew to become a parliamentary democracy, the Federal Republic of Germany, whereas the Soviet zone, led by a Marxist-Leninist occasion, grew to become the G.D.R.

Whereas few Jews needed to reside in Germany, or what they considered “the land of the perpetrators” within the battle’s aftermath, denazification proceeded extra rapidly within the Soviet zone than within the West, and a few Jews have been interested in the utopian imaginative and prescient of rebuilding a greater society within the East, Lüdicke stated: a “simply, antifascist society, the place being human was crucial worth.”

The story of 1 such optimistic household is advised by means of a touring trunk owned by Josef and Lizzi Zimmering, painted with the cities that marked their journey again: “London, Brussels, Berlin.” After surviving the Holocaust in exile, they returned to the Soviet occupied zone in 1946. The trunk contained all the household’s possessions after the battle.

“It actually stands for the optimism and hope — the exile and return — of people that believed on this utopia,” stated Lewinsky.

The variety of Jews within the newly fashioned East Germany was just some thousand, most of them dedicated communists, however inside that inhabitants there have been seven or eight distinct Jewish communities, every trying to revive Jewish tradition in its personal manner.

In 1952, when 14 Jews have been tried in Prague in an antisemitic present trial generally known as the Slansky Trial, Jews all through the Japanese bloc have been vilified. Within the G.D.R., they confronted hostility from broad segments of the inhabitants, stoked by the Soviet Union, in line with the exhibition catalog. Jews have been accused of being a part of an “imperialist spy ring,” fired from jobs within the G.D.R., and compelled to admit to espionage and condemn Zionism.

A pair of picket skis tells the story of Werner Kussy, who returned to his hometown Dresden after surviving the Holocaust. In 1953, fearing antisemitic repression, he and his household pretended to go on a ski trip, and as an alternative defected to the West, in the end transferring to america.

There was a shift behind the Iron Curtain after Joseph Stalin’s demise in 1953, and “focused antisemitic persecution by the G.D.R. authorities ended,” in line with a catalog essay by Annette Leo, “however the accusations and suspicions have been by no means formally withdrawn.”

Whereas Jewish spiritual observance was allowed in East Germany, any broader sense of nationwide and ethnic Jewish identification was discouraged, as was contact with the state of Israel. In keeping with Ostow, the historian, the G.D.R.’s Jewish communities existed for many years “in a state of hibernation.”

Within the late Eighties, whereas a lot of the nation celebrated the fortieth anniversary of East Germany, the eight Jewish communities have been “on the verge of demographic collapse,” with solely about 400 members, in line with the catalog. However then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the G.D.R. started to break down. Within the republic’s final months, tens of hundreds of Jews from the Soviet Union — one other nation on its final legs — traveled to the G.D.R., the place they utilized for political asylum, strengthening the Jewish group there as soon as once more.

At the moment, Cathy Gelbin is a movie historian and cultural research scholar residing in Manchester, England. She finally acquired her Star of David pendant, by means of pals from West Berlin who introduced it to her within the East. It’s on show in a vitrine on the Jewish Museum, subsequent to {a photograph} of her sporting it, in 1978.

“I wore the necklace consistently,” she recounts in an oral historical past within the present. In school, she stated, “folks used to cease me and requested what it meant, and why I used to be sporting it.”

Within the interview, she stated she at all times took the time to elucidate. “They usually fell silent and needed to suppose for some time,” she stated. “I had hostile reactions on one or two events, however principally folks have been impressed, or intrigued.”

One other Nation: Jewish within the G.D.R.
By Jan. 14, 2024 on the Jewish Museum, in Berlin; jmberlin.de.

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