Shadow over new Munich Jewish centre
This month Munich laid the cornerstone for a Jewish community centre and synagogue. But, as Douglas Sutton reports, the darker side of the nation’s past cast a shadow over events as the country grappled with the ramifications of ugly anti-Semitic claims by an opposition member of parliament.
Controversy over a speech by a parliamentary deputy charging that Jews had a special responsibility for the atrocities of the Russian Revolution is stirring up old emotions and bitterness precisely at the moment when Munich was hoping to start a new chapter in the history of its own Jewish population.
On 9 November — the 65th anniversary of the "Crystal Night" pogrom in which mobs burned down synagogues and Jewish shops and businesses throughout Germany — ceremonies took place in Munich to set the cornerstone for a new community centre and synagogue.
President Johannes Rau joined by Paul Spiegel, president of the Council of Jews in Germany, along with Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber and the president of the Israelite cultural community of Bavaria, Charlotte Knobloch, in the ceremonies.
Under a EUR 57 million project, the new community centre will consist of a synagogue, a cultural centre, a school and kindergarten. The centre is due for completion in 2007.
The new centre at the Jakobsplatz square in downtown Munich is close to the site of a majestic Romanesque-style synagogue which was burned down and razed on 9 June 1938 on the orders of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler — five months before the "Crystal Night" rampage.
That event triggered the start of almost seven years of Nazi persecution, deportation and murder of Munich's Jews, those victims being among the some six million Jews throughout Europe who were murdered during the Holocaust.
When US forces arrived to liberate Munich on 30 April 1945, they counted a total of seven Jewish survivors in the city.
After the war, a new Jewish community was founded in Munich, its initial purpose chiefly to assist concentration camp survivors and help them to emigrate to Israel or elsewhere. But nobody ever thought that Munich would again have a sizable Jewish population.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there came an influx of ethnic German Jews from the erstwhile Soviet regions. Today, the Jewish community in Munich numbers some 9,000 persons, the second biggest in Germany after Berlin.
As hard as post-war Germany has worked to atone for the Holocaust, the dark chapter in history continues to cast its shadows current German-Jewish relations, accompanied by real dangers.
As example of the latter, the ceremonies in Munich will take place under the tight security precautions, with the area around Jakobsplatz to be sealed off, after police recently uncovered a plot by rightwing extremists to detonate a bomb.
But beside such real threats has come the bitter controversy over parliamentary deputy Martin Hohmann, of the opposition Christian Democratic Union party, asserting Jewish guilt in the mass killings during the Russian Revolution and drawing parallels with the Nazi atrocities.
Hohmann's speech on German Unity Day on 3 October before a local audience in his home state of Hessen only reached the general nationwide media several weeks later.
Amid the reaction ranging from shock to outrage, coupled with calls for his resignation from parliament and threats of legal action by the Jewish community on grounds that he had broken the law on espousing ethnic hatred, Hohmann issued an apology but refused to quit his parliamentary post.
The scandal then widened when it was revealed that a top German military general, Reinhard Guenzel, had written a letter to Hohmann in support of his speech. Defence Minister Peter Struck then sacked Guenzel, saying he had "damaged Germany's reputation".
For now, Jewish community officials in Munich are hopeful that the new community centre will usher in a new and brighter chapter in relations between the city's Jews and the general population.
The new glass-and-stone complex should become a centre of exchange between Jews and non-Jews, says Charlotte Knobloch. The head of Bavaria's Israelite community predicted: "It will become the future home of the Jewish community in Munich, a meeting place for all people and an expression of solidarity and tolerance."
Subject: Life in Germany