Explosive growth

Despite the shadows of the past, the Jewish community in Munich is thriving.

Munich 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Munich 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Among the spotless streets and ornate churches in Munich, a modern building with expansive windows stands tall in the heart of the city. Even from across the plaza, the windows are so large you can see straight inside the new Jewish community center. The windows were built this way on purpose, explains Ellen Presser, head of the Cultural Department of Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (Jewish community) of Munich and Upper Bavaria. "The big windows are so people can look out and the city can look in," she says, gazing out at the rooftops of the city, across to where Munich's old synagogue used to stand before it was destroyed on Hitler's orders. "We wish to show open-mindedness. You can see everything, you can have a look to the city, and that means something." Hitler's legacy is peeking from behind many corners in Munich, in the beer halls where he used to hold National Socialist meetings, or the concentration camp Dachau, 30 minutes away. But despite the shadows of the past, the Jewish community is thriving, a rich cultural hub opening its doors to the greater German public. In the past few years Germans have shown a huge surge in interest in Jewish culture. Almost every day, between 130 and 600 people come in large groups to take a tour of the Jewish community center and the synagogue. On days when tours are open to the public, upward of 200 people will come at once. "Children of survivors of the 'murderer generation,' they were blocked, and very introverted. Jewish history was off limits somehow," said Ruth Snopkowski, chairwoman of Gesellschaft zur Förderung Jüdischer Kultur und Tradition e.V., a Jewish cultural organization independent of the community center. She credited government and school efforts to educate children about the Holocaust as part of the rise in interest. "The third generation is very interested. They want to know, was my grandfather a guilty person or not? And they want to know the history before [the war]," she said. For Snopkowski, sharing culture is an important part of building bridges between the Jewish community and German public. Her organization coordinates Klezmer concerts, lectures, exhibits and an annual Jewish Culture Day in November. These events provide opportunities for Germans to learn about Jewish culture as well as a chance for Jews to celebrate their heritage in a public space. The community center, museum and synagogue are located in St.-Jakobs Square, in the heart of the city. The central location exemplifies "the newfound, self-confident Jewish/German identity," explained Chanie Diskin, a New York native who has been a Chabad representative in Munich for nearly 20 years. "It's a sign to the Germans we're here to stay, here to rebuild vibrant Jewish life in Germany." THE MUSEUM and community center were dedicated in March 2007. The new synagogue, Ohel Jakob, was dedicated on November 9, 2006, the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Named after the former main synagogue destroyed by Hitler, it is a breathtaking piece of architecture. To walk inside is to feel like you are outside: Underneath the glass and steel ceiling the sky opens before you and the sun casts shifting shadows as it travels across the sky. The base of the synagogue, made of a white stone similar to the Jerusalem stone of the Western Wall, symbolizes the Temple - stationary Jews, who built and prospered and claimed a part of the world for their own. The top represents the tent that housed the tabernacle during the years of wandering in the desert. These two themes come together in celebration of the Jewish community of Munich: wandering and building, persecution and then creating anew. Directly after World War II, Munich was often a transfer point for Holocaust survivors on their way out of the country - to Israel, to America, anywhere but Germany. It was surrounded by displaced persons' camps, but few Jews chose to stay in what they called "land of the murderers." The handful of Jews that lived in Munich stayed because they could not leave. For decades after the Holocaust, families lived under what the community calls a "packed-suitcase mentality." They were reluctant to establish anything permanent, because everyone thought they were leaving momentarily. Religious services were held in homes and backyards, and no one thought of building a permanent synagogue. Today the buildings tell a different story. The Munich Jewish community has reached more than 9,000 members, the same size as before the war. Three synagogues and an additional liberal congregation with around 250 members serve the expanding community. The rabbi of Munich's liberal congregation, Dr. Tom Kucera, is one of the first rabbis ordained in Germany since the Holocaust. The explosive growth of the 1990s is due to the influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Jewish leaders credit Russian immigration with jump-starting the renewal of the community, but acknowledge there are many problems integrating the two groups who have different languages, traditions and values. Talking about the future challenges is a sign that the community is looking forward, while still pausing to honor the past. On one side of a memorial passageway connecting the synagogue with the community center, 4,500 names of Holocaust victims from Munich are inscribed in layers of glass. A book accompanies the display, with photos and biographical information for many of the names. Ellen Presser flips through the pages, until she stops at a photo of a five-year-old boy, biting his lip, his eyes wide with terror as he tries not to cry. The boy is Hans Koppel; the photo was taken just before his deportation along with his mother and two younger sisters. Presser, who has worked for the Jewish community for 24 years and is a child of survivors herself, says she stops to look at this one photo every time she walks by. "When I come, I look at his photo to not forget. This photo shows everything." Her voice, which before was earnest but steady as she described the challenges the Jewish community has overcome, suddenly becomes heavy with emotion. But then she straightens, and walks quickly to the lobby, where a group of 50 teachers waits to begin their tour. The sounds of children playing drift down as people hurry though the plaza, their jackets turned up against the winter cold. At dusk, the synagogue lights up with an amber glow on the outside. From here, the future looks very hopeful indeed.