Reexamined lives

New exhibition stresses that contempt for Israel is a politically and socially accepted view in Germany.

Julius Meyer 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Julius Meyer 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Anti-Zionism cannot be, or at least can no longer be, a tenable position for the left in general, for the party, the Left, especially," said Gregor Gysi, the co-chairman of the Left, the successor political party to the Socialist Party of the now defunct East Germany (GDR), in mid-April. A newly opened exhibition in Berlin's New Synagogue Berlin Centrum Judaicum Foundation is plunging Germans, particularly eastern Germans, into a reexamination of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism of the post-Nazi period in the GDR. The theme of the exhibit, "Between Staying and Going: Jews in East Germany, 1945-1956, 10 Biographies," is not simply another form of Germans "working through the past"; rather, it is the subject of a simmering debate within Germany's third largest political party, the Left. Gysi broke ranks with the pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab foreign policy of his party, and his groundbreaking speech in which he castigated anti-Israeli sentiments within the party may help to trigger a long-overdue discussion covering left-wing anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. A BBC poll released in early April found 64 percent of Germans view Israel as having a negative influence in the world. While the number declined from 77% in a 2007 BBC poll, the new result, along with Spain (64%), represents the highest percentage of anti-Israeli feelings within the European Union. Contempt for Israel is not merely a current fad in Germany, but a politically and socially accepted view. The Left party has made considerable headway in winning new voters and, according to a recent poll, is supported by 12% of Germany's public. The Left party is the third new manifestation of the GDR Socialist Unity Party (SED) in post-unification Germany. The SED renamed itself the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in 1990 and then joined with a small leftist West German party, resulting in the Left Party/PDS in 2006. The disdain for Israel is a leftover vestige of the SED, which controlled the East German state and refused to recognize the State of Israel between 1949 and 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall led to its demise. Gysi asserts that Israel's existence ought to be defined by the Left as part of Germany's "national interest." That is strong stuff for a party whose co-chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, has no reservations about a nuclear Iran. Internal party arm-twisting forced Lafontaine to cancel his visit to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because the timing coincided with the Iranian Holocaust-denial conference in 2006, thus avoiding a public relations scandal for the Left. The aggressive anti-Israelism of the Left party permeates the majority view of its leading politicians and members. This helps explain the contemporary significance of the exhibit, one of whose overriding themes is anti-Semitism disguised as overly critical anti-Israeli sentiments. Gysi's speech is an attempt to blunt the pervasive loathing of Zionism among a sizable number of the Left party's rank-and-file and many of its parliamentary representatives. Gysi, whose father Klaus was Jewish and served as minister of culture and secretary of church affairs in East Germany, is seeking a break with a deeply anchored leftist dogma that characterizes Israel as an outpost of imperialism in the Middle East. The Representatives' Hall, which lodges the exhibition and is situated on the first floor of the New Synagogue, is a painful reminder of the Jewish cultural and religious heritage that the Nazis wiped out. The New Synagogue was the largest in Germany with 3,200 members, and the hall served as the meeting room for the Assembly of Representatives and the Jewish Community Council. A lively mix of members encompassing Orthodox, liberal and Zionist outlooks met there to discuss community affairs. The state-sponsored November pogroms (Kristallnacht) in 1938, in which the synagogue was damaged, contributed to the rapid demise of the building. The last worship was held in 1940 and it was then used as a warehouse until Allied bombing destroyed it in 1943. Though restoration of sections of the New Synagogue in 1995 may have brought back from oblivion a semblance of the architectural life of German Jewry, the vibrancy of current Jewish life in Berlin (12,000 members of the community) pales in comparison to the 173,000 Jews who resided in prewar Berlin. Currently, the mid-sized prism-shaped hall contains a series of panels, which encircle the presentation of the 10 Jews and document the historical and political background of the period in which they were persecuted. The inner display contains 10 free-standing orange-brown columns, each blanketed with photos, court documents and newspaper articles capturing the new repression faced by each victim. The external panels delve into the "Consequences of anti-Jewish campaigns in the GDR"; the second-class status of Jewish Holocaust survivors who received less victims' compensation than communists and social democrats who survived extermination camps; and the continued desecration of Jewish cemeteries in post-WWII East and West Germany. One panel devotes space to the "political cleansing in Eastern Europe and an anti-Semitic secret trial in Moscow." A television shows East German and Soviet documentary film footage (1945-1952) covering anti-Western propaganda; a show trial involving spy charges against an East German; the reburial of murdered extermination camp victims; and the United Nations partition plan for Palestine in 1947. One exhibition panel treats for the first time one of the most fascinating and painful chapters in the history of East German-Israeli relations, the Paul Merker affair. "I am neither a Jew nor a Zionist, though certainly, it would not be a crime to be either," declared Merker, a member of the Communist Party's central committee, during the final phase of a vicious wave of GDR anti-Semitism in 1956. CAN GYSI'S embrace of Israel be seen as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Merker, whose tragic personal history is on display at the exhibit? A forgotten figure within the German left, Merker was the highest-level official within the party to support the founding of the State of Israel. He was incarcerated in 1952 for his passionate defense of Israel and his advocacy of financial compensation for Jews whose property had been "aryanized" by the Nazis. Following his release from prison in 1956, he was relegated to political obscurity by the GDR regime. His battle for political rehabilitation was an exercise in futility. The American historian Jeffrey Herf, who brought the case of Merker back into German public discourse in a 1994 article in the influential weekly Die Zeit, wrote that "the Merker case is as important for understanding the Jewish question in East Germany as the Dreyfus Affair was for the pre-First World War France." His research helped to undermine East Germany's claim to be "the better German state," which was supposedly free of anti-Semitism because of its self-declared anti-fascism. The debunking of the myth that anti-fascism spells anti-anti-Semitism prompted Die Zeit to highlight that an American historian - in contrast to German researchers - discovered in a Stasi (East German secret service police) archive that the nascent phase of the GDR was contaminated by Judeophobia. Herf's landmark book Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys explores the anti-Israel hostility of the East German regime. Merker's own two volume study of the Hitler movement, Deutschland - Sein oder Nicht Sein (Germany: To Be or Not To Be), is "the first and only work by a leading German communist to place Nazi anti-Semitism at the center of an analysis of National Socialism," wrote Herf. His efforts to support Israel and secure compensation for the victims of the Holocaust baffled his secret police interrogators, who feverishly attempted to prove that he was Jewish, and attacked him as the "king of the Jews." "BETWEEN STAYING and Going" is a stroll through his own backyard for Dr. Hermann Simon, an east German Jew and a high-energy, prolific author who directs the New Synagogue Berlin Centrum Judaicum Foundation. Simon, along with his co-author, historian Andreas Weigelt, published the exhibit catalog documenting the biographies of 10 Jews who survived the Holocaust and lived in the GDR. Determining who was the first Jewish couple to be married by a rabbi in post-Holocaust Berlin had preoccupied Simon since his bar mitzva in East Berlin in 1962. His mentor, Rabbi Martin Riesenburger, who officiated at the first Jewish wedding, avoided his student's persistent questioning. Forty years later, Weigelt's research disclosed the answer: Julius Meyer, a survivor of Auschwitz, for whom the persecution of the Holocaust extended beyond the liberation of the death camps into the newly formed GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany. "After viewing the biographies repeatedly, that's the one that moved me the most," wrote Simon in the preface to the catalog. Simon says Meyer was one of the "tragic figures of the post-war period. People with this number, with the experience of Auschwitz, are very important to the second generation." One of the most heart-wrenching photos of the exhibit shows Meyer revealing his concentration-camp number in West Berlin in 1953. He had fled the GDR to avoid a show trial against the "Zionist agent Julius Meyer," and in West Berlin he attempted to establish his persecution as a Jew. His claims for compensation were rejected by the authorities because he "was a leading functionary of the state apparatus in the Soviet-occupied zone in Germany." The West German rationale for the denial of his claim was a bogus argument that was fueled by the politics of the Cold War. Following his liberation from Auschwitz, Meyer delved into a breathtaking range of activities. He lamented in one of the earliest and best speeches following the Holocaust "that until now the fight against anti-Semitism has been fought only by the victims themselves, while it should actually have been the job of non-Jewish democratic people." While viewing a performance at the Metropol Theater, he spotted the Auschwitz work director Herta Dommann, who was notorious for her barbarism against women victims. Meyer notified the criminal police. He exposed the war crimes of Siemens, the electrical giant, in an article for the trade union newspaper Tribüne by naming Siemens directors Wolf-Dietrich von Witzleben and Hanns Benkert. Top-level managers of Siemens went to Auschwitz and selected newly transported Hungarian Jews for slave labor. As a result of Meyer's article, a committee probing the war crimes of Siemens invited him as witness. The publication of the "Lessons of the Trial against the Slansky Conspiracy Center" in December 1952 created the first state-sponsored wave of German anti-Semitism since the defeat of Hitler. Rudolf Slansky was the Jewish secretary general of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. In 1952, he was put on trial along with 12 co-defendants for espionage. Eleven of the 13 defendants were Jewish. The Slanksy trial as spelled out in the East German position paper showed that "American imperialism organized and implemented its various espionage activities in the people's democracies with the State of Israel and with the help of Zionist organizations." Meyer's work for the Joint Distribution Committee in assisting Holocaust survivors became a natural target for the left-wing anti-Semitism of the Socialist Unity Party. The severity of the repression forced 25% of the Jews in East Germany to flee. In Dresden, the entire Jewish community sought refuge in the West. Meyer relocated to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1954. Simon stresses that the aim of the exhibit is not to present an exhaustive account of East German Jewry; rather, it seeks to capture the lives of 10 Jews who experienced great suffering following the Holocaust. Eva Robinson was born in Belgrade in 1918, and trained as a professional dancer. She survived several extermination camps. In the Soviet-occupied zone, immediately following the end of the war, in 1945, she was jailed and charged with serving as an "agent of the British foreign intelligence which endangers the peace of the German people." The legal proceedings and continued imprisonment caused her health to deteriorate drastically. In 1954, she was released and applied for compensation as a victim of the National Socialist regime. Her claim was dismissed because she was not a German citizen. "I'm very sad and alone... It is difficult and everything is hopeless here... I am no longer a human being," wrote Robinson in 1958. She lived in abject poverty in West Germany and her fate in England, where she later relocated, is not known. ANETTA KAHANE, an east German Jew, calls Paul Merker "my personal hero." For her, the question is not why Paul Merker put his reputation on the line in his work on anti-Semitism in National Socialism and his support for Israel. "The question is why the others didn't do it." In her office at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin, an organization devoted to combating anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia she founded, Kahane discussed the social meaning of her organization's touring exhibit "It Didn't Happen Here" as well as the synagogue's "Between Staying and Going." The touring exhibit generates a deep analysis of anti-Semitism in the GDR with such powerful examples as Jewish cemetery tombstones used for construction material, anti-Jewish graffiti, neo-Nazi activity and the razing of a Jewish cemetery for the purpose of parking refuse trucks. A group of 76 high-school students participated in the research for her exhibit. Its demonstration of the state-sponsored anti-Israel propaganda of the East German government, including indifference to anti-Semitic activity on the regional level, met with fierce resistance from many sectors of formerly East German society. "We have three or four guest books and they are filled with hatred," commented Kahane. "We were accused of delegitimizing the GDR, falsifying history and being financed by Zionistic organizations." But she was not surprised by this response: "I expected it," she says. She described "Between Staying and Going" as a "look into a family album," a "wonderful and impressive" exhibit. She sees such exhibits, which raise uncomfortable questions for many east Germans who tend to glorify or romanticize the GDR, as an expression of a vibrant democracy: "The opposite of fascism is not anti-fascism. The opposite of fascism must be a diverse democracy, a lively examination of history, biographies and one's own life."