The Jewish Question
What if the head of Hamburg’s Jewish community wasn’t actually Jewish?
For years, Andreas Christoph Wankum was the Hamburg, Germany, Jewish community’s favorite son. A self-made millionaire who made his fortune in real estate, he signed fat checks to Keren Hayesod, the influential pro-Israel charity. When Communism collapsed in Hungary, he was instrumental in helping many of that country’s Jews make aliya. He funded scores of Jewish philanthropies in Israel and Germany alike, including a Birthright-type initiative that sent local Jewish students on their first visit to the Jewish state.
There was only one problem: he may not have been Jewish, and the rabbi who appointed him to the presidency of the Hamburg branch of Keren Hayesod, the global equivalent of the United Jewish Communities, may not even been a real rabbi. As if being a Jew in Germany wasn’t complicated enough, this case of identity wars is threatening to tear apart Hamburg’s Jewish community, which is one of Germany’s most resurgent and influential. And, like so many things in Germany, this affair is all about adhering to the rules.
Born in 1955, Wankum first discovered his Jewish roots when he was 13. Observing that his neighbors, the Wolfs, shut down their dry-cleaning business every Saturday, he asked his mother about this odd business practice. The Wolfs, she said, were Jewish, and so were the Wankums, even though they’d concealed it during the war for obvious reasons.
Enamored with his new identity, Wankum reached out to Hamburg’s Jewish community, and even received documents from its leaders that helped him avoid military service. But his Jewish provenance remained questionable, and he never joined the community as a full-fledged member.
In 1999 when Wankum was offered the presidency of the local branch of Keren Hayesod, he found himself facing an unexpected hurdle. To accept the position, he was told, he needed to be an official member of the community. And to do that, he needed to prove, beyond any doubt, that he was indeed Jewish. He was helped in his quest by Rabbi Dov Levi Barzilai, Hamburg’s chief orthodox rabbi. In December of 1999, Barzilai heard four witnesses, including Wankum’s brother and his wife’s uncle, and then signed a paper declaring, officially, that Wankum was a Jew. Soon thereafter, Wankum accepted his new position.
Under Wankum’s leadership, Keren Hayesod experienced unparalleled success. But in late December 1999, following terrible liquidity problems with his company, Wankum declared bankruptcy, which, in Germany’s unremitting political and economic landscape, is a death sentence: Bankruptcy and debt are unacceptable, and forgiveness is never offered. To anyone, that is, but Wankum. Remembering his charitable past, his fellow community members kept him in their warm embrace, and, in 2003, bestowed on him the highest honor imaginable, the chairmanship of Hamburg’s Jewish community.
It was at that time that Wankum aroused the interest of Stefan Knauer, a veteran journalist for the venerated German weekly Der Spiegel. Nearing retirement, Knauer decided to abandon the hard-edged topics he’d been covering throughout his career and examine instead the state of religion in his local community. The Jewish community in particular struck him as insular, further igniting his curiosity. He was especially fascinated by its boisterous chairman, Wankum. Then, one day, he had an epiphany. “[Wankum] was just looking for rehabilitation,” Knauer said in a recent interview, “a place where no one can criticize him after his bankruptcy, and the Jewish community is the best shelter because any criticism about its chairman is immediately tagged as anti-Semitism and Nazism.”
Guided by his suspicions, Knauer started to ask around about Wankum and his religious affiliations. Wankum, on his end, kept referring the reporter to Rabbi Barzilai, and claimed that 2,000 years of Jewish history gave him the right not to talk to the media.
“We started to look in archives in villages around Hamburg where his family used to live,” Knauer said. “There were registration forms with religion identity and we found that Wankum’s mother was named Ruth Morgenstern and she was registered as Lutheran. But you can’t really know because many Jews hid their identity under the Third Reich. On the other hand, how do you explain that his middle name is Christoph?”
Knauer’s quest might have ended up nowhere if it weren’t for Ruben Herzberg. A local educator and a former beneficiary of Wankum’s funds, he was appointed the community’s chairman after Wankum’s term ended in 2007. Soon thereafter, he said, strange things began to happen. “When I was elected as chairman,” he said, “I found out that we basically don’t have any money to maintain ourselves and that we must find ways to cut our expenses. I might be naïve, but I was expecting our rabbi to care about the situation and take a pay cut.”
Rabbi Barzilai, however, would do no such thing, and an exasperated Herzberg began looking into the rabbi’s conduct. During one such investigation, he learned that several community members, Wankum among them, had no documents certifying his Jewishness. Alarmed, he asked the rabbi to provide proof that Wankum was indeed a Jew.
“After a while we understood that Rabbi Barzilai has no documents,” Herzberg said, “just four witnesses and that only one of them was Jewish himself.” In his defense, Rabbi Barzilai claimed he was not permitted to divulge the names of Wankum’s witnesses, but Herzberg asked around and learned that no such rabbinic edict existed. Suspicious, Herzberg decided to call the central rabbinate in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya, where Barzilai claimed to have gotten his rabbinic certification. They were shocked to learn it wasn’t kosher: the chief rabbi of Netanya wrote Herzberg back, saying that the people who appointed Barzilai had no authority to do so. (Barzilai’s credentials are currently being examined by a German rabbinical court. He refused to comment for this piece.)
At this point, Hamburg’s wars of the Jews escalated. “During our checkup,” Herzberg said, “we found that 20 people were missing documents in their files; 16 responded and brought us the papers, but four, including Wankum and his brother, never answered and were ousted from the community.”
Herzberg fired Rabbi Barzilai, an act he he’s claimed in previous interviews with the press was motivated by financial issues, with the community refusing to pay his pension. Some of his colleagues in the community were so livid about what they perceived to be Wankum’s deception that they suggested digging Wankum’s deceased mother from her grave in the Jewish cemetery and interring her elsewhere. Within months, former collaborators became the worst of enemies.
“I will tell you what Herzberg is according to the Jewish halacha,” Wankum fumed recently. “He is a total schmuck, a pathological liar of the worst kind. He just wants to clean the community from anyone who was there before and he uses methods that Nazis used in order to do it.”
Any attempt to question his sincerity, Wankum added, was malicious. “After all I did,” he said, “the claim that I used Judaism as shelter is a disgusting lie. I have a daughter who volunteered in a kibbutz and lives a traditional life in Israel. So what kind of other proof do I need?” Wankum also said that it was sheer jealousy that motivated his enemies and fueled the fallacious claims against him. “Our fight” he said, “is a fight for Jewish identity.”
Stefan Kramer, the General Secretary of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, agrees. “What Herzberg and his friends are doing is Chillul Hashem,” he said, using the Hebrew term for desecration of the holy. “For me there are more important things in Judaism than whether you mother is Jewish or not. If you support Jewish issues and if you educated a daughter and live in Israel it is much more Jewish to me than people who want to drag you mother out of her grave. Herzberg is Jewish by birth, but him running to the media, letting goyim in, shows me that he lacks Jewish brains. Jews can’t sit in a house of glass and throw rocks outside, definitely not in Germany.”