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Preserving the story of German-speaking Jews

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Executives from the Leo Baeck Institute were in Minneapolis recently to discuss the Jewish experience in Germany, past and present

By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor

On April 21, the Germanic American Institute in St. Paul, in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), hosted “Jews in Germany: Then and Now,” a discussion of the Jewish experience in Germany both before and after World War II.

The event featured Dr. Frank Mecklenburg, director of research and chief archivist of the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) in New York, who spoke about the history of Jews in Germany up to 1933; and Dr. William H. Weitzer, executive director of LBI, who moderated the discussion.

Mecklenburg was joined on the panel by Dr. Riv-Ellen Prell, director of the Center for Jewish Studies and of the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota; and Dr. Leslie Morris, former director of the Center for Jewish Studies and of the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota.

Frank Mecklenburg (left) and William H. Weitzer, of the Leo Baeck Institute, talked about the history of German-speaking Jews and what life is like for Jews in Germany today. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Frank Mecklenburg (left) and William H. Weitzer, of the Leo Baeck Institute, talked about the history of German-speaking Jews and what life is like for Jews in Germany today. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

On the day after the event, Weitzer and Mecklenburg talked to the AJW about the role of LBI and how the Jewish community in Germany today looks different from its prewar population.

“We’re going to as many cities as will have us, and we would like them to know the German-Jewish story as we know it, or to know more about it,” Weitzer said. “We’re the keepers of the story and we have many different ways to distribute it.”

The Leo Baeck Institute, which has offices in New York and Berlin, was founded in 1955 — it marks its 60th anniversary this year — by a group of émigré intellectuals to preserve German-Jewish history. It was named for Leo Baeck, a German rabbi who was the last leader of the main umbrella organization of Jewish groups in Germany, and a survivor of Theresienstadt.

Today, LBI is the foremost library and scholarly research center devoted to the history of German-speaking Jews. LBI maintains an 80,000-volume library; an art collection that includes more than 6,000 objects; and 1 million linear feet of archive materials — diaries, letters, memoirs, photographs — all of which is digitized and available online (most is in German).

“We do have documentation from the Holocaust, and we’re even continuing to look at this modern German-Jewish picture, but our greatest strength precedes the Nazi period,” Weitzer said. “The history that we can talk about, the richness of German-Jewish history, is a compelling story that actually adds to an understanding of the Holocaust.”

Weitzer said LBI continues to receive materials and encourages all Jews of German descent to consider donating any letters, diaries or photographs.

LBI is also a founding partner of the Center for Jewish History in New York and shares space with the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. It offers events, exhibitions, family research services, fellowships and the presentation of the Leo Baeck Medal to “individuals whose work in the service of democracy, tolerance and culture resonates profoundly in the tradition of Rabbi Leo Baeck,” according to an LBI brochure.

Mecklenburg, a native of Berlin, supervises the Berlin branch of the LBI Archives at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. He noted that young people in Germany today were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and are the great- or great-great-grandchildren of Jews living in Germany during World War II.

“Germany had or still has, in recent years, the highest increase in Jewish population,” Mecklenburg said. “In a certain way, looking at German-Jewish history then and now, there is Jewish life in Germany again. One of the important issues of Leo Baeck Institute is to bring that history to the Jews in Germany today.”

Though Mecklenburg points out the extremely complex history of Jews in Germany, he said there is a “lingering myth in the German story” that Jews were never part of society.

“In fact, Jewish communities in central Europe, long before there was a Germany, go back 1,000 years, well documented, and even back 2,000 years to the Roman invasion,” Mecklenburg said. “Jews have, in a way, always been part of the German landscape… And in the small, rural communities, Jews have been a very integral part of these societies for many hundreds of years.”

Similarly, in the United States during the mid- to late-1800s, German-Jewish immigrants were accepted as peddlers who served the needs of other immigrant communities.

In 1933, at the peak of Jewish life in Germany, there were about 500,000 Jews; today there are between 200,000 and 250,000, according to Weitzer — still a small percentage of the total German population. About 80 percent of today’s German-Jewish population are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and about 10 percent are Israeli, which is mainly concentrated in Berlin.

(A November 2014 article in the Guardian refers to the “exodus” to Germany, where young Israeli Jews cite the “affordability of cheap and shabby chic Berlin” as compared to similarly cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.)

Though Mecklenburg is not Jewish, his wife and children are. And as a trained historian, he says the German-Jewish story is a “very important aspect of European history.”

Weitzer was raised in a Reform Jewish household in St. Louis, Mo., and feels an affinity to the Jews of the Midwest. All of his grandparents were born in the United States, but his mother’s ancestry is Austrian and German.

This was Mecklenburg and Weitzer’s first visit to the Twin Cities, and they also spent time visiting the Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives housed at the University of Minnesota.

“There is a relevance to this history of the people who lived in Germany and escaped in the 1930s to Jews who have been [in the United States] a lot longer,” Weitzer said. “The more I learn about German-Jewish life in the late 19th and early 20th century, the more interesting I find it in comparison to growing up in the Midwest as a descendant of German Jews — or any Jews. This whole notion of the challenges of being a part of, but not totally a part of, society… I think that’s a fascinating thing that would make people want to know more about German-Jewish history.”

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For information about the Leo Baeck Institute, visit: www.lbi.org.

(American Jewish World, 5.8.15)

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