BERLIN — When you wish to attend Friday evening prayers at the Fraenkelufer Synagogue, nestled along the Landwehrcanal in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, you first walk past a police officer parked inside his cruiser blocking off the street from through traffic for the duration of the services. You press a button in the black metal fence surrounding the synagogue’s grounds and a guard buzzes you in through a small gate.
Arriving inside the complex, you pass through what looks like airport security: take off your jacket, open your bag, walk through a metal detector. One guard stands by with a wand, checking your bag; another sits at a desk in a separate room, keeping watch through a glass partition. If you’re not a regular, they might ask you who you are and what business you have there. Once you’ve passed muster, the second guard opens a set of airtight glass doors and you can enter the synagogue. All in all, the experience is akin to arriving at a military complex or entering a particularly secure government building. It is the same thing you’d do if you visit nearly any synagogue or Jewish site in Germany.
I came to Fraenkelufer on a Friday evening in December to meet members of the congregation at one of the synagogue’s monthly Shabbat dinners, and to get an idea of what Jewish life in Berlin looks like today. Services were just ending as I stepped inside, so I was quickly caught up in a flurry of movement, chatter and activity. A group of young American Jews was visiting that week, part of a weeklong study tour through Germany, and they and others conversed in a mix of English and German as they walked back toward the room that had been filled with long tables and dozens of chairs for dinner.
The mood in the room as they took their seats was warm and collegial, people striking up conversations with their neighbors and filling small kiddush cups with wine and grape juice before the dinner officially began. Nina Peretz, head of the Fraenkelufer community, told visitors about the synagogue’s 103-year history, noting the black-and-white photos lining the walls that depict the first Rosh Hashanah service there after the end of World War II in 1945. She ushered me to a place at the table beside her, chatting and sampling challah and appetizers as her husband and 17-month-old daughter, who has an infectious smile and danced along during songs and prayers, sat down at her other side.
Coming from the United States, where Jewish culture feels more integrated and present, the security at Fraenkelufer—and at the other synagogues and Jewish sites I’ve visited around Berlin in the last few weeks—felt a bit jarring at first. But after a right-wing extremist attacked a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle during Yom Kippur in October, no one would think to question whether it’s necessary. Only the synagogue’s strong door and the shooter’s faulty equipment prevented what could have been a massacre. The 27-year-old gunman shot at the synagogue’s entrance, unable to break through the heavily fortified door before taking out his rage elsewhere, killing a woman on the street and a man at a nearby döner shop.
The attack was a “turning point” for many at Fraenkelufer, Peretz said, largely because several fellow members of their community were in the synagogue Halle that day. Although they were all aware of the challenges of being Jewish in Germany today, the fact that something so horrific had touched their friends and colleagues personally helped make the threats and danger more tangible. “Our best friends were there in that synagogue,” she said. “It really changed something.”
Still, despite that new, occasional nagging sense of unease or worry, “I cannot think about it all the time when I’m there,” she told me. “I cannot do that because that’s my home. I have to feel safe in my home, otherwise it’s not my home.”
While Halle may have drawn more immediate attention to the issue of anti-Semitism, it was only the latest evidence that the phenomenon is on the rise—not just in Germany, but across Europe. Particularly for those who are openly and visibly Jewish, life these days can involve a new level of insecurity; verbal and physical threats against Jews have demonstrably increased in recent years.
“In my opinion, the situation has significantly deteriorated,” Max Privorozki, head of the Jewish community in Halle, told me via email. “Everything has become less secure, and not just for Jews in Germany.”
A December 2018 survey from the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, conducted across twelve countries, found that concerns about anti-Semitism are pervasive in everyday life in Europe: Nine in 10 of those surveyed said they believed anti-Semitism has worsened in their home countries. More than a quarter of the Jews surveyed, 28 percent, reported they’d been subjected to some kind of anti-Semitic harassment firsthand; another 20 percent had family members or friends who had been harassed. A third said they avoided Jewish sites or spaces because they fear for their safety; even more, 38 percent, said they had considered emigrating in the last five years because of rising anti-Semitism.
After Halle, German politicians expressed surprise and outrage that such an attack could have been carried out on German soil. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he had believed something like Halle was “unimaginable” in Germany; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and the country’s defense minister, called it a “wake-up call”; Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the center-left Social Democrats, said German politicians “didn’t see what was brewing again on the right.”
Rather than a source of comfort for Germany’s Jewish community, those words of sympathy were frustrating—particularly to those who deal with issues of anti-Semitism on a regular basis. How is it that the country’s leading politicians didn’t understand the situation for Jews in their own country, they thought? Were they truly unaware of the threats, and the lingering feelings of insecurity, many in their community face?
“I found it so disappointing,” Sigmount Königsberg, the anti-Semitism commissioner for Berlin’s Jewish community, told me recently. “Jewish representatives have all warned over years and years that there’s a problem. There’s a need for action, not a need for talk.”
The son of two Holocaust survivors who grew up near Germany’s western border with France, Königsberg has been involved with the Jewish Community of Berlin for a quarter century and in his current position since 2017. Working from the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin’s upscale Mitte neighborhood, with its gilded dome and intricately patterned front facade, he is responsible for handling members’ concerns about anti-Semitic incidents and working with partner organizations to combat such things.
Shortly before we met, I followed Königsberg on Twitter. His account reads like a news ticker of the various forms of anti-Semitism in the West, small and large: A man accosting a Jewish father and son on the London Underground, yelling anti-Semitic insults at them until a Muslim woman stepped up to diffuse the situation. Vandalism in a synagogue in Beverly Hills, California. An unknown man taking control of the loudspeaker in a local train in Düsseldorf, shouting, “You will all be gassed, the gas chambers should be built again!” A doctor in Hannover writing hate-filled online posts about “Jewish rats.” Italians rallying to support an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor named Liliana Segre after she received anti-Semitic death threats.
For those focusing on anti-Semitism issues, then, Königsberg told me, Halle “wasn’t really a surprise.” “In my humble opinion, it wasn’t a question of if it would happen,” he said, “but when.”
Like many things, rising anti-Semitism takes on a different meaning in Germany than it may elsewhere. This is the country responsible for the deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust, after all; it is the country that has developed a comprehensive memory culture that institutionalizes the shame of Nazi atrocities in an attempt to ensure such a thing could never happen again.
That context and history make it all the more worrying that statistics show a marked increase in anti-Semitic incidents. Germany’s Interior Ministry recorded 1,799 in 2018, up from 1,275 just five years before. And a report from the Anti-Semitism Research and Information Center (RIAS), a Berlin-based organization that tracks anti-Semitic incidents, found that physical attacks increased by 155 percent from 2017 to 2018, and anti-Semitic threats by 77 percent. And significantly more of those incidents are taking place directly near victims’ homes or on public transportation, places they can’t avoid in their daily lives.
“Comparing 2017 with 2018, you can clearly see that anti-Semitism has gotten more direct and more brutal,” Daniel Poensgen, a researcher at RIAS, told me by phone recently.
The increasing anti-Semitism also comes at a time when the far right is again on the rise in politics, and actively taking on Germany’s memory culture. The Alternative for Germany, a far-right populist party founded in 2013, won its first seats in the German Bundestag in 2017; as of last year, it also holds seats in all 16 state legislatures and has often succeeded in setting the terms of political debate here.
The AfD’s primary scapegoats for what it sees as the country’s problems are Muslim immigrants and refugees, but several top party leaders are also calling for a complete restructuring of the way Germany reflects on its past. Former party co-leader Alexander Gauland referred to the Nazi era as “a speck of bird poop” in Germany’s thousand-year history and has said Germans should be proud of their soldiers in World War II; Björn Höcke, leader of the party’s far-right “wing,” called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame” and suggested the country needs a “180-degree” shift in its memory culture. And some party members suggest ending the practice of installing Stolpersteine, small brass plaques lodged among sidewalk paving stones that commemorate Jews who were deported or murdered during the Holocaust.
Many in Germany’s Jewish community believe the AfD’s rhetoric has contributed to the toxic political discourse, including anti-Semitic attitudes. Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, recently told members of the center-right CDU that the AfD’s entry into government would pose an existential threat to Jews here: “If there were a coalition with the AfD, I would have to say: Now is the time to leave Germany,” he said.
Beyond the statistics, anti-Semitism takes a real, human toll on those who have been subjected to it. I recently met Human Rights Watch’s Germany director, Wenzel Michalski, not in his official capacity but because of his family’s personal experiences with anti-Semitism in Berlin. His youngest son, now a student at the Jewish high school, made national and international headlines two years ago when he was badly bullied at a Berlin public school.
Michalski’s son had attended a Jewish primary school in Berlin, but after the family hosted a Syrian refugee for a year, who became “like a big brother” to the boy, he told his parents he wanted to attend a multicultural school. They believed they had found a great one: It was diverse, inclusive, pedagogically strong—“a paradise,” Michalski told me.
When his son casually mentioned to his classmates that he was Jewish, however, things changed. It began with one boy telling him that, although he was a cool guy, they could no longer be friends: Jews are murderers, the classmate told him. Taunts and smaller comments, primarily from a group of young Turkish and Arab boys, eventually escalated to physical threats and attacks. Michalski’s son would come home with bruises; one time, his classmates held what he believed was a real gun to his head, pulling the trigger mock-execution style.
Although Michalski and his wife—a British expat—complained to the school, the bullying grew worse; ultimately, feeling the school’s leadership was not doing enough to solve the problem, they felt they had no choice but to pull their son out and send him instead to the Jewish high school.
“The sad fact is we’re experiencing this in our own lives without having done anything to deserve it,” Michalski told me. “On the contrary: We wanted to be open. We were open—and then were driven inward.”
What happened to Michalski’s son is unfortunately not a one-off episode in Berlin’s schools—nor are such incidents confined to integrated public schools. A Jewish student also faced taunts and persecution at the John F. Kennedy School, a well-known international school in Berlin’s wealthy Zehlendorf neighborhood. Students would leave notes with swastikas on the student’s desk; one blew cigarette smoke into his face, telling him to think of his Jewish ancestors who died in Nazi extermination camps.
After the Michalskis made their son’s experience public in 2017, they were flooded with messages from parents whose children had endured similar bullying and threats. “The Jewish high school is full of children who have had the same experiences,” Michalski said.
Part of the problem with combating anti-Semitism in Germany—or even with talking about it in today’s hyper-polarized political environment—is that it isn’t simply a question of right-wing or left-wing; anti-Semitism can come, seemingly, from all parts of society. There are right-wing extremists like the Halle attacker, who used the newfound extremist communities online to confirm and further radicalize his anti-Semitic hatred. There are Muslims like the classmates of Michalski’s son, either part of Germany’s large Turkish population or those who arrived as refugees, who grow up or come here with deeply ingrained views about Jews. And there are left-wing activists, whose harsh criticism of the Israeli government sometimes crosses the line into anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is not only a problem of the right wing—you can also find it in parts of the Muslim community and also in the center,” Königsberg, the anti-Semitism commissioner, said. “It’s very difficult to speak about it, to be balanced and not in a racist way, but… In our experience, many attacks have been from people where we guess they have a Muslim background. To ignore it wouldn’t be honest.”
That is where the AfD’s argument comes in. Members of the far-right party’s small but dedicated “Jews in the AfD” group argue that the party is the only one speaking about the dangers of Muslim immigration to Germany—and that, by extension, it is best equipped to protect Germany’s Jews.
Artur Abramovych, one of the organization’s leaders, was born in Ukraine; he grew up in the wealthy southern German state of Baden-Württemberg and now lives in Bamberg, in the northern part of Bavaria. During a recent trip of his to Berlin, we met for coffee on a recent afternoon to discuss the party’s pitch to Jewish voters.
Essentially, he explained, it boils down to two things: First, that the AfD opposes Muslim immigration, whose arrival has contributed to anti-Semitism in Germany. And second, the party strongly supports Israel and the Israeli government, even as some other German political parties criticize it. “The left’s anti-Zionism and the Muslims’ hatred of Jews are the two most important criteria,” he said. “Islamic anti-Semitism is significantly more virulent than in the USA.”
Statistics on the motivation behind anti-Semitic incidents are sometimes contradictory, and provide little clear conclusion about which groups commit the majority of offenses. While the data from Germany’s Interior Ministry attribute the overwhelming majority of such incidents to right-wing motives, some Jewish groups argue that many of those crimes were miscategorized and actually committed by immigrants. (Just because a Syrian refugee paints a swastika on a building doesn’t make it a “right-wing extremist” attack, Abramovych said by way of example.) By contrast, RIAS’s researchers couldn’t determine the motives in about half of all reported incidents; of those they could, the most frequent was right-wing extremism (18 percent), though that’s hardly a conclusive finding when so many incidents can’t be categorized.
Germans think of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, the victims of the Nazi regime, not those actually living in the country today.
Others I spoke with dismissed arguments from AfD members like Abramovych—as with many populist arguments, of course there’s a kernel of truth in them, they said, but the party takes it too far with its openly xenophobic rhetoric. “Yes, there’s an additional element of anti-Semitism in Germany with people coming from other countries,” Michalski said. “But that’s no excuse for what the AfD is trying to do—it’s fearmongering.”
* * *
After World War II, Germany’s Jewish population was decimated: fewer than 15,000 members remained, most of whom had survived in hiding or married to non-Jews. Today that number has grown to approximately 200,000, comprising about 0.2 percent of the country’s 82 million people.
Ezra Waxman, a 31-year-old postdoctoral student in mathematics, is a recent addition to that community. He has lived all over the world: After growing up in Boston, his academic and professional life has taken him to South Africa, India, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Israel. He was excited about the prospect of coming to Berlin partly because of the city’s reputation as a young, creative, open city—and in part because he wanted to help expand and build up Germany’s Jewish culture.
Perhaps it was those expectations that made his experiences in the three months since he arrived so jarring. He and a group of fellow American Jews had traveled down to Halle to celebrate Yom Kippur; instead of enjoying a short trip to the eastern German city for the Jewish holiday, he found himself barricaded upstairs as a gunman sought to attack the synagogue.
While it was certainly the most extreme example of anti-Semitism Waxman has experienced since moving to Germany earlier this fall, Halle “was not my first anti-Semitic incident… which is kind of insane,” he told me one December morning over tea in Berlin. “I’m trying not to have those experiences define my time here, but they are a part of the reality, especially if you’re openly Jewish.”
Waxman took me through that day in Halle, describing the slow dawning realization within the synagogue that something was amiss and how the congregants worked to keep each other calm, locking themselves in a room upstairs and continuing to pray. He told me of their sense of shock that night, staying in rented accommodations only a few hundred meters from the synagogue, and simultaneously their joy that they were alive. And he described his misguided expectation the next day that he could simply return to his regular life—and that it wasn’t until he had fully realized what had happened that he understood he needed time to process it.
Now that he’s had two months’ mental distance from the events of Oct. 9, Waxman is looking to the future: How can he and the others who were in the synagogue in Halle that day work to improve Jewish life and culture here? A big part of the problem, he said, has to do with the common association with Judaism as something historical: Germans think of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, the victims of the Nazi regime, not those actually living in the country today.
“The perception of Judaism in Europe is more of this dead culture, in some sense,” he said. “So that also affects the living Jewish culture.”
At least in Berlin, the living Jewish community includes a range of nationalities and backgrounds. Some congregants are Jews who grew up in Germany; others came from former Soviet countries in the last few decades and have begun to raise families here; others have come from abroad, primarily the United States and Israel; yet others have converted.
The community at Fraenkelufer illuminates the diversity, and the journey it’s taken to get there. When Peretz and her husband began attending the synagogue nearly a decade ago, she said it wasn’t especially welcoming; the congregation was older and it wasn’t a vibrant place. But when the rabbi’s wife mentioned that Fraenkelufer “had no future” and would eventually close unless it were revitalized, she and her husband took up the challenge.
“We realized, wow, this is what’s going to happen if we don’t do anything,” she said. “And then we started just very low-key to organize Friday night Shabbat dinners… seven years ago, in November 2012.” Those dinners helped bring new members to the synagogue, more families and young people, who in turn started requesting and organizing other activities; now, the synagogue has so many programs it constantly runs out of space for them. To solve the issue, they’re planning to rebuild the old synagogue, destroyed during the war, for use primarily as a community center.
Peretz and her husband also illustrate this new brand of German Judaism themselves: She grew up in southern Germany in a non-Jewish family. It wasn’t until she met her husband Dekel, who is from Israel, that she converted to Judaism. “I would never have thought it would be going where it’s going now, and that we would spend most of our spare time at synagogue or around synagogue,” she told me. “It just kind of happened.”
* * *
A few hours into my visit to Fraenkelufer on that recent Friday evening, dinner had finished and many of the visiting guests were bundling up and heading out. The Peretzes sat at the table with about 15 people who remained, passing around a bottle of vodka as each started up a different song. Gathering my things to leave, I found Nina Peretz to say goodbye and thank her for including me in the dinner; she enveloped me in a hug and wished me a good evening, then reentered the singing fray.
On my way out, the guards at the front indicated I should leave through a large wooden door next to the security setup at the entrance. The door was heavy in my hands, barely budging; I was reminded of the door in Halle, the one that held despite an onslaught from the attacker, the one Königsberg called a “miracle.”
And yet, as the sound of singing voices faded away with each step, I was struck again by the two seemingly contradictory undercurrents that ran through my research these last few weeks: This was simultaneously the most disheartening and, oddly, also uplifting topic I’ve explored during my time as an ICWA fellow. There was the unconscionable attack in Halle, and the video of the congregants’ joyful dancing in a van that evening, filled with gratitude that they had survived. The horrible prejudices and taunts of schoolchildren against Michalski’s son and other young Jewish students in Berlin schools, and the optimism at Fraenkelufer of trying to build a vibrant, living Jewish culture here.
I thought about the end of my conversation with Waxman, and about his belief in that culture. Despite what he’d experienced in Halle, he wanted me to know that he and others aren’t leaving anytime soon—and that they are excited about the prospect of growing such a community going forward.
“Even for me, who’s been here for just a few months and had some kind of weird experiences, [anti-Semitism] is not the defining feature,” he said. “I’m here because of the appeal of Jewish life, particularly in Berlin… I think all these people are coming together with some sort of intention to build a Jewish future here.”