Living with Dead Jews - an article by Daniela Rusowsky - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Juedisches Leben 11/24/5784 - Beitrag vom 24.02.2013

Living with Dead Jews - an article by Daniela Rusowsky
Daniela Rusowsky

This year Berlin is making a major statement in what I call "the cult of dead Jews" by dedicating the whole year to the theme of the destroyed diversity ("Zerstörte Vielfalt"), ...

... to remember the 80th anniversary from when the Nazi party took power.

Although this is a wonderful initiative, it has the potential to generate the opposite effect. It is not possible to truly honour the memory of the dead by disconnecting their story with the Jewish culture that currently lives in the city.

As a Jew, to live in Germany - and particularly in Berlin - comes inevitably with a price. Quality of life is good, there are nice lakes to swim in the summer, lots of culture on offer, safety on the streets and tourists coming from all over the world. All of this gives the city good bonus points when it comes to a choice of residence. Many might not even imagine that the German capital is particularly attractive to Jews, but it offers a relatively big Jewish community where Jewish life is vibrant and the levels of anti-Semitism are low.

Where there was once a tiny group of post-Holocaust survivors who managed to revive Jewish life in Berlin by slowly building up a new community, things dramatically changed with the arrival of thousands of Jews coming from Eastern Europe in the 1990´s. Today, the community is gradually changing again as a result of a significant migration wave of Jews from Israel, many of which also hold a German passport. Jewish life in Berlin is – as it has always been – full of conflicts and in-fighting, but it is also rich in cultural diversity and creativity. But however good or bad we organize ourselves, we are here. We are alive and part of the city lifestyle and economy.

However, although this new integration may sound loud and clear, it does not seemto be that straight forward for the German society when it comes to understanding that Jewish Berlin is no longer on the edge of extinction. Jews have risen from the ashes, as the city itself has. But despite the city itself being a permanent reminder of the fate of the Jews during the war, its inhabitants know very little - if nothing - about the Jewish faith, traditions, festivities and history, other than the Holocaust period.

I was shocked to hear from a Jewish historian friend of mine that a colleague of hers – who happens to study German history in the 20th Century – told my friend that she was "the first living Jew she has ever met". At the beginning I thought this must be an odd and rare example, but time has shown this to be different for me. One of our acquaintances proudly seemed to demonstrate his knowledge about Jewish life in the city to my husband. Our acquaintance showed my husband where a synagogue stands, but it happened to be an Orthodox Church. My husband was speechless but was too embarrassed to debate over the issue. The average citizen´s knowledge about the Jewish holidays - is very poor, even for those who are truly interested in the Jewish culture. The huge building of the synagogue in Oranienburger Str, is in a way an empty shell rebuilt by the former DDR to divorce itself with the Nazi regime. In the East, the survivors didn´t count on the same level of support to re-establish their Jewish way of life in freedom.

This year the city is making a major statement in what I call "the cult of dead Jews" by dedicating the whole year to the theme of the destroyed diversity, to remember the 80th anniversary of when the Nazi party took power. Even among the Jews we say that in order to to get funding for a Jewish project: "Holocaust always sells". And this is not to ignore the victims or to forget their suffering. On the contrary, I believe that this "commercialization" of the Shoa and the memorial culture, is based on the good intention of the people who seem to care. Unfortunately it has become somewhat superficial or even mechanical and does not necessarily help to prevent history repeating itself. One cannot honour the memory of the dead by disconnecting their story with the Jewish culture that currently lives in the city.

My documentary about Jewish cooking in Berlin ("Each Flavour is a Journey") is one of the selected projects of this yearly cultural programme, which is without doubt a very good start to open the way to the living Jews.

Five million euros have been put into this thematic year, but just a few projects have the benefit of direct funding. To be part of it, your project has to be already funded and then you are provided with the fund´s logo, postcards, are part of the listed projects online and the printed programme. As I am still looking for screening opportunities, I wanted to be able to take as much advantage as I could of this outstanding PR exercise. They told me it is difficult to get it into the exhibition at the Museum because it is focused on 1933-1938 and my film is about living Jews, which I "sold" as proof of the "revival of Jewish Berlin" and of the "defeat against the Nazis".

So far, I have indulged myself by drinking sparkling wine at a couple of events while listening to several long and standard speeches. I also attended the inauguration in the Ku´damm district, which was advertised for the participants as the opportunity for the press to take photographs, but we were actually only invited to be the audience and photos were only taken of the politicians. The last event I was invited to was the great opening at the German Historical Museum. I received an invitation which looked like a booklet made of several layers of paper with only two lines printed on it. There were around seven hundred people who listened to more speeches, clapped and drank more wine. The authorities seemed to applaud the distanced objectivity of both the president of the Jewish community and the representative of the Roma people. There was not a single speech about a living Jew thereby tell the audience about Jewish life in Berlin today.

I have to admit that I felt a little bit like a Dodo, an extinct species of bird walking around an exhibition about the destroyed diversity of the Jews in Germany which is now dead and gone with the wind. The speakers at the event opening mentioned several key cases, talked about Walter Benjamin and cried about his destiny, which pushed him to take his own life in a desperate attempt of freedom while escaping from the Nazis. It didn´t seem to matter that before his terrible end, it was hard for him even to make a living.

Yes, there is a big amount of cultural diversity that was destroyed by the Nazis, but there is a lot of cultural Jewish diversity today in the city, of which the Germans do not seem to be so interested in. The amount of musicians, actors and intellectual talent currently present in the city - mainly among the Israeli newcomers – is quite significant. Many others are involved in real estate, professional services and business. Were they represented in the opening of the Themenjahr?

I checked the list of projects - most of them exhibitions - and my impression was that the focus is like a black and white picture of a moment in time, which cannot be fixed, or recovered. But how can we really connect with it and measure its magnitude if it is not transmitted as something alive? I would have skipped the speeches and made a performance with young Jewish and non-Jewish Berlin artists. I would have filled the space with the music, texts and the spirit of what was lost. I would have transported not only the room, but also the city, into the spirit of what was destroyed and linked it to the current cultural diversity of Berlin.

I agree with Hannah Arendt when she talks about the "banality of evil" – the latest film about her life is a "must see". The Nazis were not demons, just normal people who renounced what makes us human: they just didn´t think… they just obeyed, they rationalized evil, because it was the law. When the Jews were not recognized any longer as a legitimate race, they became part of an abstract category: the Germans versus the Jews. When the other becomes not human, then evil is possible.

And I asked myself what do the Berliners of today think when they hear the words "Jew in Berlin"? Do they think about someone like me, or about the owner of the kosher shop, a Rabbi or a Hebrew teacher? Very likely, the very first image that crosses their minds is a dead Jew, those who haven´t left the city after all these years and who wander like ghosts beneath the memorials and the railways. It is sometimes hard to walk around the city surrounded by the ghosts of dead Jews.

All those Holocaust victims mean something to me, very deeply so, but by remembering them like that, I don´t know if it helps non-Jews to get closer to Jewish life. I just know that there are too many Berliners out there who have expressed that they are tired of the Holocaust, tired of being reminded of all the dead Jews. They say it is time that other minorities be recognized, that the Holocaust was bad, but that it is gone and that we should get over it. For the average citizen there are two types of Jews: the dead Jews from the Holocaust and the bad Jews in Israel. They are nice people, even friends of mine who have nothing against the Jews, who "even have Jewish friends". And that is what we really should take care of, about the connection that these nice normal people have towards Judaism, and to be able to say loud and clear: "never again!"

Please also read:

"A Jewish Style Event", an article about the 1. Presentation of AVIVA-Berlin´s project "Writing Girls" by Daniela Rusowsky

Helga Simon - The lady of the Camera, Daniela Rusowsky´s article for AVIVA-Berlin´s project "Writing Girls"

By Daniela Rusowsky ©

Jüdisches Leben

Beitrag vom 24.02.2013