Tragic past, rebirth in Berlin's Jewish community

By Denis D. Gray

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The boy's school, now co-ed, reopened in 1993as the Gymnasium Moses Mendelsohn. Like at most Jewish sites, there is substantial security, but outside the elegant building, knots of students snack, check their mobile phones and sprinkle their German with hip English phrases.

Only a few tombstones remain in the neighboring 17th century Jewish Cemetery, burial site of some 12,000. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Down the street, set in a small park, is the Deserted Room installation — a table and two chairs, one knocked over — that symbolizes the sudden eviction of Jews from their homes.

And within a narrow courtyard, in what is known as the Haus Schwarzenberg, are three small museums, probably the most moving dedicated to an Otto Weidt. Nearly blind himself, the Christian owner of a workshop producing brooms and brushes hired blind and deaf Jews and protected them from the Gestapo. The museum includes a room hidden by a cabinet where he secreted an entire family.

Several agencies offer walking tours of this quarter, but tourism here is low-keyed and free of the reconstituted "Jewish villages" and cultural shows found in some East European countries to attract visitors in search of a vanished way of life.

Those wishing to delve deeper into real and current Jewish life in Berlin can visit the functioning synagogues, check on ongoing community activities, eat kosher and hang out at restaurants like Shiloh, Zula and Sababa favored by young Israeli residents.

Visitors who do will find a diverse and sometimes divided population: ultra-Orthodox to various reform branches to non-believers, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and those with roots in Germany (fistfights have broken out between the two).

"As the city of Berlin is recreating itself, Berlin Judaism is. There are so many fights, but also many opportunities, a lot of creative people, new ideas. At least it is never boring," says Gabriele Noa Laron, general manager of the well-established Honey and Milk Tours.

Still, today's Jewish Berlin is still a far cry from the pre-Nazi era with its population of some 160,000. Only 8,000 were left when the war ended.

"If people come to Berlin they don't see real Jewish culture, but they see landmarks of the Jewish past, landmarks of destruction of Jewish culture," says Kugelmann. "When you visit you have to be a kind of archaeologist to decipher the Jewish past here, like reading the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone."

If You Go...

KOSHER FOOD IN BERLIN: http://www.jewish-berlin.com/kosher.php

JEWISH MUSEUM IN BERLIN: http://www.jmberlin.de/main/EN/homepage-EN.php

MILK AND HONEY TOURS: http://www.milkandhoneytours.com

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