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    Jews PDF Print E-mail

    Marcia Sachs-Littell
    Temple University

    delivered at the
    International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
    "Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
    Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

    As we approach the new millennium, we realize that the mass murders that have taken place in Rwanda and Bosnia, the recent bombing of a synagogue in Moscow, and particularly the rise of neo-Nazi groups in many European countries, seem to prove that the world has learned very little from the Holocaust—Hitler’s attempt to destroy all of European Jewry. These killing machines were built and engineered to eliminate any persons who committed the “crime” of having a Jewish parent, one Jewish grandparent, or in some cases if you were a Gentile, because you were married to a Jew.

    Commemoration programs, such as the one Germany has put into place, the education programs present in numerous European schools and universities, and the building of Holocaust museums and monuments around the world are only first steps in teaching and learning about what took place during World War II. Within our schools and universities, our churches and our communities, we still lack sufficient awareness of racism, antisemitism, and religious intolerance, which were in good part responsible for the Holocaust.

    I will begin with Poland, which was the center of world Jewry prior to the Holocaust. It is also the place where Hitler built most of the concentration camps. The end of communism brought a revival of Judaism, with klezmer bands, kosher cooking and reclaimed synagogues. However, the past still casts a shadow, and Poland has remained a country without Jews, and yet still prevailingly anti-Semitic.

    Yet, the end of communism in Poland, bringing the revival of Judaism and creating a free market for religious and cultural experiences as well as consumer products, has brought Judaism into a new form of chic, a very odd situation. Bookstores in Poland are full, and well stocked in Judaica. There is wide study of the Yiddish and Hebrew languages, and the annual festival of Jewish culture has taken place in Krakow each year in June since 1995. All of the Jewish day schools, which have been established in Poland, are oversubscribed. A Jewish literary magazine flourishes, and tourism from Israel and Jewish communities in America is at an all time high. These are some of the positive effects of the end of communism.

    In pre-war Poland, Jews were historically viewed as sinister aliens. Today there is more acceptance and tolerance, but as I said, prevailing antisemitism remains. No one really knows the exact number of surviving Polish Jews left in the country. Estimates range from seven to eight thousand, who are officially registered with the community, to ten to fifteen thousand people of Jewish ancestry, who have shown interest in rediscovering their heritage, to possibly as many as thirty to forty thousand people of Jewish ancestry. Some say there are probably thousands of Madeline Albrights still around. Since 1990, the actual number of real Jews has been rising. This is no doubt probably due to old age prompting parents, who were passing as Gentiles, to tell the truth to their children.

    Another sign of heightened awareness in Poland, more than a decade after they were placed on the grounds of Auschwitz; Catholic crosses were finally removed last year. The convent also moved, and the Jewish claim to the largest Jewish graveyard in the world has thus finally been honored.

    Some religious leaders, however, are still turning a deaf ear. Father Henryk Jankowski, the Archbishop of Gdansk, has been suspended for a year for his ongoing, overt, antisemitic remarks.

    There seems to be revival and a lingering of antisemitism that parallels this new tolerance for Judaism, and this new discovery on the part of Poles. In Hungary, which has the largest and most assimilated Jewish community outside of the former Soviet Union, estimates range from 54,000 to 134,000. Again, precise figures are very difficult to come by, because the vast majority of Jews are so greatly assimilated, and have no contact with the organized Jewish community. There is a cultural revival. There is a very strong Jewish life, including active synagogues, kosher restaurants, and kosher food shops. There are Jewish publications and three Jewish day schools: an Orthodox Jewish day school, a secular one, and a Jewish community school.

    Although antisemitism and neo-Nazi skinhead activity in Hungary are cause for concern—there are estimated to be approximately 500 skinheads in Hungary—most of the violence has been directed against Roma, the gypsies, with only rare attacks in Hungary against Jews. There is a subdued atmosphere of violence against minorities. However, in 1994, the Christian churches in Hungary issued a joint statement calling the Holocaust the most shameful event of the twentieth century, and asking for forgiveness for Christians who failed to act against the deportation, persecution, and killing of 600,000 Hungarian Jews during the last months of the Holocaust.

    The Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic represent the smallest surviving Jewish communities. While there was a prewar population of more than 350,000 in the now divided Czechoslovakia, the estimate is that there are now less than 12,000 surviving Jews. The restitution of Jewish property, seized by communists and the Nazis, remains an open issue, and is still a subject of debate. There has been legislation for the return of synagogues and cemeteries. The most notable has been the Czech government, returning the Prague Jewish Museum, one of the largest and most beautiful collections of Judaica in the world.

    There is rising concern caused by the activities of extreme right wing groups, directed mainly against Roma and Jews in this country. There are estimated to be approximately five hundred skinheads in Prague, and at least ten different skinhead factions in operation in the Czech Republic. In the famous town of Karlovy Vary, Adolf Hitler remains an honorary citizen. He has not been removed from the rolls.

    In Bulgaria, the Jewish population is estimated between 3,200 and 7,000. The rise of nationalism has created a major problem. The question of the restitution of Jewish property remains an open issue, and it has brought out formerly very latent antisemitic expressions.

    France has been recalcitrant in facing its Nazi complicity in the Vichy government, and in bringing war criminals to trial. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Beate Klarsfeld, has tirelessly hunted and hounded these criminals and individuals such as Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon. Klarsfeld has insisted that there is no statute of limitation on murder. France’s powerful far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was convicted last December for his often-repeated antisemitic rhetoric. The heroic DeGaulle myth of the universal resistance is giving way to nuanced reflections on the France of Vichy, Petain, Papon and Mitterrand.

    In Sweden, the rise of neo-Nazi activities has caused concern and alarm. A recent Stockholm University study showed that nearly a third of the 12-18 year-olds in that country doubt that the Holocaust took place, and so they have embarked on a massive educational program in Sweden.

    In Denmark, where religious tolerance and cooperation have been a matter of national pride, there has been increasing restlessness about immigrants. Many Danes are experimenting with far-right parties. Three Danish neo-Nazis recently were convicted of terrorism in Copenhagen for sending letter bombs.

    In the Netherlands, Dutch Justice Minister Winnie Sorgdrager launched a legal battle to ban the anti-foreigner Center Party, known for its Nazi salutes. Florentine Rost van Tonningen-Heubel, the 83 year old known as the “Black Widow” of a top Dutch Nazi, is about to turn her villa in the Dutch town of Velp into a museum glorifying the Third Reich.

    In Switzerland, the myth of Swiss neutrality during World War II has been totally shattered. It is estimated that 200,000 dormant accounts of Jewish victims of the Holocaust were absorbed by Swiss banks following World War II. Further, it was uncovered that Switzerland was the banker of choice for top Nazis, and their collaborators in occupied Europe. These revelations have caused unrest in Swiss society and, as a result, there is a new wave of antisemitism on the rise in Switzerland. Verbal assaults against Swiss Jews are a common occurrence these days.

    In Great Britain, authorities were recently scurrying to prevent racist skinheads across Europe from gathering for a scheduled Aryan Music Fest. A synagogue in Willesden had the sanctuary recently defiled and spray-painted with graffiti. A member of a north London synagogue and a rabbi were shot.

    In the Confederation of Independent States (CIS), antisemitism is still prevalent. The recent Moscow bombing of the Marina Roscha synagogue was not the first, but the third in three years. Jewish cemeteries are routinely vandalized and desecrated. Many have felt that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Jews have either left the region or are prospering. This is simply not true! Antisemitism is prevalent in the press. In the Ukraine, where I still have family residing, one fifth of all references to Jews were made within an anti-Semitic context. Antisemitism in the former Soviet republic is so pervasive, and so persistent over the decades, that it is almost considered normal.

    I’ll just get to Germany, in conclusion. The Jewish community in Germany has continued to grow, largely due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are now 54,000 Jews residing in Germany. The largest community is right here in Berlin. The Federal Republic of Germany has not only attempted to purge public expressions of anti-Semitism, but also to maintain supportive relations with the state of Israel. One encouraging fact is that the German societies for Christian-Jewish cooperation have expanded rapidly into the former German Democratic Republic, and into the other recently liberated areas of Eastern Europe. In the post-war situation, the German Council of Christian-Jewish Societies has become the strongest national agency, with nearly two dozen national membership associations in the International Council of Christians and Jews.

    The authorities’ efforts against antisemitism have been generally good—much better, in fact, than recent policy toward new religious movements. While it is against the law in Germany to deny the Holocaust, neo-Nazi groups still grow and flourish. Authorities acknowledge there are over 37,000 right-wing extremists, many prepared to use violence to further their cause. Chancellor Kohl has just announced even stronger measures: more severe legislation, and longer prison terms. This is against the backdrop of the increasing concern over the ability of extremists to obtain weapons very easily from the former Yugoslavia.

    In general, I would say that Germany can be praised for its efforts to work its way out of the shadow of Auschwitz, and to maintain right relations with Israel and the Jewish people—including those who have migrated from Russian since 1989. One may hope that, in the light of this progress against antisemitism, a parallel progress may be made in attitude and actions toward new religious movements.