It was mid-September 1988, and while shuffling through the mail in my Budapest apartment, I came upon an oversize envelope inviting me, as a journalist, to cover the events of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht on Nov. 9 in Berlin. That was not unusual since the city of West Berlin and the rest of the Federal Republic—West Germany—marked the event in scores of towns, villages and cities. As well they should, of course.
I did a double take. This envelope came from the press office of the East German government, the German Democratic Republic, and after a few phone calls to friends in the press corps in West Germany, they were as surprised as I was.
When did the GDR start commemorating Kristallnacht, I asked a friend at Reuters in Budapest, who called his bureau in West Berlin.
“You mean in its entire 38-year history?”
“Yes,” I said.
Word was that Erich Honecker, head of East Germany’s Communist Party, was trying to secure legitimacy for his country, and since Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, had managed to secure Most Favored Nation Trading status from the United States—mostly because he allowed the Jewish community to function and receive financial support from America—Honecker was keen to deal a Jewish card he’d never played before.
And did he ever play it. Over a two-day period in East Berlin there would be an exhibition on the history of Jews in Berlin (the first in East Germany’s history), a special session of the East German parliament, a rededication of the giant, ruined synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse, which was going to be rebuilt as a Jewish museum, and an evening performance by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.
Honecker would never see a return on his investment, because exactly one year later, on Nove. 9, 1989, Berliners would be tearing away at the Berlin Wall, and he himself would be sitting at home, watching history unfold on TV. Having been fired a few weeks earlier, he would soon be on trial and the German Democratic Republic would be erased from the map.
But that lay in the future. It was fall, 1988, I had my permission, an official invitation, and a few weeks later I drove up from my home in Budapest to East Berlin, arriving on Nov. 9.
I spent two weeks in East Berlin getting to know East German Jews at official functions, scribbled down their addresses and phone numbers, and while there, I secured official permission to return for a month in March 1989, and again in June. I was even granted permission to travel around this very closed-off country unescorted. That allowed me to stay in homes, listen to stories, and take pictures.
The riddle I wanted to solve was: Who were East Germany’s Jews and how did they differ from their counterparts on the other side of what the Communists called “the anti-fascist protection barrier.”
In the late 1980s, before the arrival of over 150,000 Jews from what was about to become the former Soviet Union, some 28,000 Jews lived in West Germany. Except for a very small minority, communities in cities like Frankfurt, Munich, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Hamburg and West Berlin were resettled after the Second World War—not by German Jews–but by Jews from Poland and other eastern countries fleeing worse antisemitism there. Of the estimated 523,000 Jews in Germany in 1932, over 300,000 managed to flee before the doors slammed shut in 1939. Some 160,000 could not get out of Germany and were murdered. But of those who did flee, some were not able to get far enough away and were subsequently dragged back into the Third Reich and murdered. Of the German-born Jews who managed to get to England, mandate-Palestine, the US and elsewhere—and there were well over a quarter million of them–only a tiny fraction could bear to return home.
These (mostly) Polish arrivals in the late 1940s had stopped off in West Germany—some just to spend time and get their bearings in displaced persons camps—yet found themselves swept up in the aptly named German economic miracle of the 1950s and ’60s and decided to stay. “We are living on packed suitcases,” they would tell themselves, yet these were the families that rebuilt Jewish life. They never referred to themselves (or their institutions) as German Jews. They were Jews in Germany (there was the Central Council of Jews in Germany, for instance, not the name it used prewar, the Central Council of German Jews). And they never identified with the West German state.
Of the 500 or so Jews in East Germany, however, well more than 95% were German born. They had fled abroad in the 1930s—to Shanghai, Palestine, the U.S. or on Kindertransport—and returned home to build das bessere Deutschland (the better Germany), the one making a fresh start. And they very much identified with the GDR, which billed itself as the world’s only anti-fascist state.
These were the Jews I wanted to meet and they all had remarkable stories to tell.
I remember sitting in Roman Koenig’s kitchen in the town of Bautzen, just under a looming medieval fortress, when I asked how many Jews lived in the town. He held up one finger. Roman told me that he had been born in Hamburg to an Orthodox family recently come from Poland, survived several concentration camps, and had been walking from Theresienstadt back to Hamburg. But with no one in his family left alive, he had little incentive to go home. In Bautzen, a family known for its anti-Nazi sympathies invited him in, told him he was welcome to stay with them, and in Bautzen he met a Soviet Jewish officer who offered him a job as his chauffeur. Not only that, but Roman would translate for him—from Yiddish to German. When the officer was posted elsewhere, he left Roman the car. From then on, Roman Koenig became Bautzen’s only Jew, and only taxi driver.
An hour west of Bautzen, in Dresden, I met the 74-year-old Rudolf Lappe, who had been born in Chemnitz, and his wife, Sofie, who came from the Austrian city of Graz. Rudolf’s father took the family to England in 1933, where Rudolf studied electrical technology at University College London, then at the University of Sussex and the London School of Economics, all while doing social work with poor Jews in East London.
Interned briefly as an enemy alien, as more than a few German Jewish men were in 1940, he continued his studies, met Sofie, and at an Austrian Jewish youth group, learned about and decided on Communism.
Sofie said, “My parents sent me to England in 1939; my father, who had been born in Poland, was deported from Austria, which was then in the Reich, in November 1939. My mother managed to flee to Palestine, but she was going blind, she had been told my father was dead and things got ever so much worse for her. She tried to cover it up in her letters but her last one came in 1948. Then she killed herself.”
Sofie and Rudolf’s son Herbert was born in London in 1946, and in 1948 they returned to Germany and settled in Dresden. “It was quite satisfying,” Rudolf told me, “to have the university that refused me as a student take me on as a full professor.” Rudolf Lappe became active in local party politics while becoming one of the country’s leading experts on technology. The night I visited him, he was banging away on his desktop computer, writing programs. And keep in mind: This was in 1989, and he was 74, not to mention in East Germany.
East Berlin had more Jews than the rest of the GDR—combined. Many were in high-placed positions, especially in academia, literature, and music. A Canadian historian writing about East German Jews, Robin Ostow, introduced me to one academic, Helga Ehlert (born Dresner), who told me, “I was born in 1923 in Leipzig and my father had two fur stores. Leipzig was the furrier capital back then and this was a Jewish business, as I hear it still is, but not in Germany.” When the Nazis came to power, Helga’s family applied for American visas. “And we got our date for emigration, 1947.”
Helga was sent to Northern Ireland on a Kindertransport. The rest of her family perished. “I lived on a farm outside of Belfast. It’s where I learned to slop pigs and speak Yiddish, not just English!” Helga finally did go to relatives in Chicago after the war, but a young man she met in Ireland told her about going back to that part of Germany that was making a fresh start, “and I said fine. I’m going. I mean, the very last words Hitler wrote were about warning about world Jewry. So at least I could do my part and go back.” Helga studied in Dresden, became an academic in its technical university and later transferred to East Berlin’s Technical University.
Gisela Lindenberg and her husband, Walter, also went back to Berlin. Both had been born in Germany, both were sent on Kindertransport and lost everyone in their families to the Nazis. They met in a youth hostel in London in 1942. “I worked in a factory, and that’s where I heard so many socialist ideas. There were Dutch people and Czechs and it all made sense,” said Walter, who joined the British Army and served in Germany briefly after the war.
Gisela, who was born in 1924 and left on a Kindertransport in April 1939, said, “You cannot fathom the unhappiness of the children I was with in England. Me included. To be separated from your parents at such an age, and then comes the war, the bombing, and the news reports, and of course, their letters all ceased.”
Gisela added, “My parents were deported to Minsk; that’s all I know about them, other than through friends I received a postcard. ‘We’re going on a journey,’ is all it said.”
The Lindenbergs settled in East Berlin. Walter became an engineer specializing in heavy equipment. They had two sons and a daughter. “We never denied our Judaism but we told our children we were socialists, that religion was behind us and that was that. This lasted until one day I came home and Werner was on the sofa with a book. I asked him, ‘What are you reading?’ He told me, ‘A book on Christianity.’ And I yelled, ‘In my house!?’ Today he lives in Jerusalem, he’s become quite Orthodox and he’s changed his name to David Asher.”
During my conversations with East German Jews, it became clear many of them held privileged positions, and they enjoyed something the vast majority of East Germans didn’t: They could travel. But of all the countries these East German Jews mentioned in their travel stories and travel plans—Greece, Spain, the U.S. were chief among them—there was one country most of them never wanted to visit—ever: West Germany. “Why would I go there?” an incredulous Herbert Lappe said as he shook his head. “I have no family there. I really have no interest.”
But soon after Nov. 9, 1989, they didn’t have to visit West Germany. It came to them. It swallowed their country whole.
Gisela and Walter Lindenberg, already in their mid 70s, took the changes more positively than most, even though the faith they placed in the East German regime went down in flames.
“I could not even grasp the level of corruption of the Honecker people,” Gisela said as we chatted in early 1990. “We really were naive, I suppose. More than I like to admit.” Walter, who had had nothing to do with Jewish community life in Communist times, joined the board of Berlin’s Jewish community and attended every meeting. He passed away in 2004, age 80, while Rudolf Lappe remained a member of the reformed Communist Party, die Linke (the Left) and stayed active–in the party and on his computer–until he passed away, age 99, in 2013.
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Edward Serotta is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker specializing in Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the head of the Vienna-based institute Centropa.