German Jews to elect leader from post-Holocaust generation

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Germany's Jewish community, which has grown by leaps and bounds due to immigration from the former Soviet Union, will Sunday elect its first post-war leader who is not a survivor of the Holocaust.

Dieter Graumann, vice president of the Central Council of Jews, Germany's main Jewish organisation with nearly 110,000 members, is the sole candidate to replace 78-year-old Charlotte Knobloch, who is not standing for re-election.

"It is a generational change," historian Julius Schoeps told AFP.

Born in Israel in 1950, Graumann "does not belong to the generation bearing numbers tattooed on their arms," referring to the Nazis' practice with concentration camp prisoners.

Knobloch was born just months before Adolf Hitler rose to power in January 1933 and survived the Holocaust in hiding with a Roman Catholic family.

Graumann arrived in Germany at the age of one and a half. His experience of the Nazis' genocidal campaign was limited to his Polish father's accounts of the concentration camps where he was imprisoned.

He will take charge of a community that has transformed at breathtaking pace since the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years ago.

In the years that followed, Germany threw open its borders to Jews from the ex-Soviet Union, where they had suffered virulent anti-Semitism, and granted them German citizenship.

Before 1933, Germany had one of Europe's strongest Jewish communities with about 600,000 members.

Since 1989, when there were about 30,000 Jews living in Germany, some 220,000 Jews have arrived from the former Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, more Jews were immigrating to Germany than to Israel.

However the new arrivals, many of whom speak little German, have presented problems of their own for the community, making it less homogenous and thus more difficult to lead.

Jews whose families never left Germany or who returned in the immediate post-war years say that the newcomers are unaware of Jewish traditions and often not particularly observant.

"Those who immigrate to Germany are confronted with the challenge of a double integration," Graumann, who declined interviews ahead of the election, said in September.

"They must first integrate into German society and then... into the microcosm of the Jewish community."

Graumann said the self-perception of Jews in Germany depended in large part on their heritage.

"Those of us who were already here always underlined our status as Jewish victims during World War II and justifiably so considering our family histories," he added.

"Among the immigrants, it is different -- they see themselves as victors (of the war) or as children or grandchildren of the victors."

But in a sign of its new dynamism and diversity, the Jewish community this month ordained its first female rabbi since the Holocaust, 31-year-old Ukrainian-born Alina Treiger.

Schoeps, historian at the University of Potsdam, said the Central Council "will need to find its own identity" in light of its shifting constituency and perhaps evolve from its current role as an "admonisher" reminding Germany of its fascist past and hand this responsibility over to the German government.

"When there is an act of anti-Semitic violence, you always expect a reaction by the Central Council," he said.

"But in fact it is the mandate of the federal interior ministry."

© 2010 AFP

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