Jewish Life Booms in Cologne
As immigrants revive the German city’s historic community, new ideas emerge about Jewish engagement
While both Fischer and Chabad are trying to create new Jewish institutions in Cologne, another local activist is trying to resurrect the ghosts of the city’s prewar community. Unlike most of the Jews of Cologne, filmmaker Sarah Burkhard, 38, was born in Germany. Her grandmother hid in a priest’s attic during World War II. Her father, born in 1931, survived Theresienstadt. Burkhard was born in Heidelberg and moved to Cologne to pursue film.
Today she is a mother of four. When two of her children were in Jewish kindergarten a few years ago, she noticed some of their friends’ Russian parents had a faint grasp of Jewish tradition. “They told us about Christmas trees, and about cooking lasagna with milk and pork,” she said.
In an effort to educate the city’s foreign-born Jews, Burkhard started a website and a Facebook page with basic information about keeping kosher. Then she wanted to offer recipe ideas. Now she and her husband are using the stovetop to build a bridge between Cologne’s Jewish immigrants and the city’s venerable Jewish heritage. She is collecting testimony and recipes from Jewish Holocaust survivors. All these go up on her site, Kosher Culture Club, a whimsical if disorganized space that also hosts video interviews with modern German challah bakers.
“The Jewish community where I grew up was very small, and there were still some Holocaust survivors in Heidelberg,” she said. “I knew those people, and they still live in me. I don’t want to forget it.”
But cooking in Cologne with old recipes raises some new challenges—like finding kosher meat. Today only one local butcher carries it; any other kosher meat comes by special order from Antwerp. And the changes in the Jewish community aren’t always easy for Burkhard to handle. It’s difficult, for instance, to keep up with the announcements from the Roonstrasse synagogue when they are printed in Cyrillic. She wishes the community were bigger. “There’s only two synagogues [in Cologne],” she said. “In America there are so many, you can always choose. And I wish the school would be bigger. And there is no high school for older kids.”
For now, Burkhard is doing what she can, hoping that the city’s revived Jewish community can hold on to some of its long historical legacy. She still gets a thrill when she sees the Chabad rabbi downtown. “I think: Cool, Jewish people on the streets,” she said.
Fischer, for her part, wants to keep expanding the Jewish options in Cologne. She spoke about a Yiddish course starting this month in the city. Beyond connecting new Jewish arrivals with the past, it can also spark the imaginations of the German residents. “We have to find things that are interesting for both Jews and Germans. That’s the point of meeting, where we start,” said Fischer. “We were already here. We are here again.”
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My husband’s great-uncle was generous and entertaining—and a member of Detroit’s Jewish crime syndicate