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Identities in Flux: Jewish Consciousness Under Communism and Today


There is a Jewish saying that when three Jews come together, you will find four different opinions.  The same can be said concerning Jewish identities.  This article investigates the shifting identities of Jews in Berlin today who lived under the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and the GDR.  In these countries, communist repression of religion made it difficult to maintain an active Jewish life.  Now, in democratic Germany, many have developed a deeper consciousness of their Jewishness, a change caused by a variety of different reasons and expressed in many different ways.

In discussing these issues of Jewish community, integration, and identity, it is of course crucial to resist generalizations and to keep in mind the tremendous diversity within and between each sector of the Jewish community.  As Rabbi Spinner, head of the Lauder Foundation in Eastern Germany, puts it, a tailor from Uzbekistan and an academic from St. Petersburg are both considered to be Russian Jews, but they have almost nothing in common.  As for any ethnic or religious group, the experience of being Jewish varies according to one’s age, level of secularization, socioeconomic status, and so forth. As such, we do not attempt to define one “Jewish experience” of the transition but rather to uncover individuals’ stories and their unique ways of searching for Jewish identity within a new society.

Jewish Life in the Soviet Union

For Russian and East German Jews alike, the experience of living under a communist regime shaped their Jewish identity and practices.  Immediately after World War II, Stalin initiated a massive anti-Semitic propaganda campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, anti-Jewish terror subsided.  Nevertheless, a system of prohibitions and restrictions made life for Jews very difficult. “Although my mother’s sister passed the entrance exams for medicine at the university three times with the best grade, she was never accepted, because she was Jewish. So she could only become a nurse. They only allowed a small restricted number of Jews to enter higher positions in science and society. These Jews were there only for show as proof that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union,” remembers Arkadij Gorelyk, a 23-year-old Jewish immigrant who lived in the Ukraine until 1995. 

If Jews did not became members of the Communist Party, it was impossible for them to reach certain professional positions. Arkadij, whose father was a major in the Red Army, states that “It was a miracle that my father was so successful. Normally a Jew would not go to the Army and especially would not get such a high ranking position. It would not have been possible at all if my father had not become a Party member.” Asked whether his father was a  believing communist, Arkadij answers, “I think that the only people who believed in communism were Lenin and Stalin and some old Red Army fighters. But the people tried their best to work within the system.”  

Only in large cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Minsk could one find small practicing Jewish communities and synagogues, but these were attended only by the elderly, who retained some Jewish tradition from their youth.  Younger Jews did not participate because they feared discrimination in the workplace.  Jana Wolotschij, a 22-year-old immigrant from the Ukraine, recalls that a Jewish community still existed in her childhood—all of her family friends were Jewish—but this community was divorced from any religious practice.  After decades of state suppression, Soviet Jews were highly assimilated and most knowledge of Jewish tradition had fallen into oblivion.  Mikhail Vorobiev, a 40-year-old Jew from Moscow who works today in the Jewish community in Berlin, remembers that “I could not answer my friends’ questions in my childhood about what it meant to be a Jew.  I just did not know.  I knew nothing about Judaism.  And nothing besides my grandmother’s few stories could help me to answer this question. In exterminating religion, communism was quite successful.”  Despite this religious repression, however, it was impossible for Jews to conceal their identity. According to Mikhail Vorobiev, “Point number 5 in your passport, which stated your nationality, indicated that you were Jewish. This classification was also called the ‘handicap of the fifth degree.’” 

Life in the Soviet Union was characterized by incidents of daily discrimination.  Arkadij remembers being called a “dirty Jew” in school.  Long-standing anti-Zionist propaganda targeted not only the new state of Israel but also the Soviet Jews, who were accused of supporting the imperialist Israeli enemy.  Thus, Jewish identity in the Soviet Union was unified not through religious practice but through a common experience of suffering under state repression. 

In 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev started his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, a slow renewal of Jewish life began. Synagogues were built, Jewish Sunday schools were established, and Jewish newspapers were founded.  Alexej Tarchis, a 22-year old immigrant from Minsk, remembers, “In 1992, practicing Judaism was allowed, so my brother and I wanted to get to know our heritage and attended a Jewish Sunday school. It was just a new world. Our parents supported us in doing so.”  Despite this newfound freedom, however, most Jews remained disconnected from Jewish observance.  “I didn’t know what was going on during service in the synagogue, so I didn’t participate,” says Jana. 

In 1990, facing a worsening economy and a new wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, many Soviet Jews decided to emigrate, despite the fact that Jewish life was undergoing a revitalization.  Many Soviets encouraged such emigration; Arkadij recalls hearing the slogan, “Rescue the Soviet empire and throw the Jews out.”  For Arkadij’s family and for thousands of others, “There was no reason to stay.”  Between 1988 and 1992, nearly 460,000 Jews left the USSR, most heading for Israel. When in July of 1990, prompted by Jewish community leaders, German policy changed to allow Soviet Jewish immigration in unlimited numbers and with few bureaucratic complications, a wave of Russian Jewish immigration began which catapulted the Jewish community in Germany into a new era.   

Russian Integration into German Jewish Life

Russian immigrants, now numbering around 154,000, make up the overwhelming majority of Jews living in Germany today.  70 per cent of Berlin’s Jews are Russian, and in other cities the percentage is even higher.  As such, discussing the integration of Soviet Jews into German Jewish society in some ways misrepresents the demographic reality.  While the two communities remain sharply divided, and while many Jewish institutions and influential political positions remain firmly in German Jewish hands, some German Jews find themselves defending their identity as a new minority within the Jewish community.  Judith Kessler, editor of the  magazine “Jüdisches Berlin” and social scientist, quips that she is happy to find a Jewish office which still speaks German.  Within Jewish circles, “You don't need German in Berlin if you can speak Russian,” she says.

For Arkadij, who immigrated to Leipzig before moving to Berlin, the question of integration into a German Jewish community was initially irrelevant.  “Before the Russian immigration there were about 10 Jews in Leipzig.  Now there are 1,000,” he explains.  Many Jewish communities in Germany today, particularly outside the major cities, are almost exclusively Russian.

It is important to note, as well, that the very notion of a “German Jewish” community is itself problematic—as Rabbi Spinner puts it, “There is no ‘German Jewish’ life.”  Most Jews now considered German are in fact immigrants themselves from Central and Eastern Europe.  Russians are simply the most recent—and numerous—wave of Jewish immigrants.  For comparative purposes, we will use the term “German Jews” in this article, but we ask the reader to keep its problematic implications in mind.

Each person interviewed agreed that the relationship between German Jews and Russian Jews in Berlin is highly segregated and frequently strained.  The German Jews did make some efforts to integrate Russian immigrants into their communities, or at least to foster a reawakening of Jewish commitment within the Russian community.  Jana remembers that when she arrived to Germany in 1991, the German Jews planned events for the newcomers, particularly for young families, such as concerts with Jewish music, activities and Jewish education for the children, and chess clubs for the adults.  

Despite these efforts, however, Jana says that a strong division has always existed between the Russian and German communities, with little interaction between the two.  A power inequality remains: despite the huge number of Russian Jews, few have attained positions of leadership in the hybrid Jewish community.  Genuine mixing occurs only amongst children.  Jana herself has almost no contact with German Jews.  One root of this segregation is a class disparity: “Germans have what Russians don’t,” she says.  Russians are struggling to build up their social status and catch up to their German Jewish peers.  Yet Jana is quick to point out that the gap is more complicated than economics: cultural differences make the segregation mutually enforced.  She remembers that when she was a child, the Russians wanted only to play amongst themselves at recess.

Distrust exists on both sides of the divide.  Many feel threatened by the numbers of Russian immigrants and the changing demography of the Jewish community.  On the other hand, some Soviet Jews are equally frustrated.  Mikhail Vorobiev expresses his great dissatisfaction with the German Jewish political leadership: “The German Jews in the leading positions ignore the Jewish community. Their leadership is areligious and inadequate. They do not live and act according to the Jewish traditions.”

However, despite the clear separation and conflicts between Russian and German Jews today, Arkadij has hope for future integration with the new generation of Jewish youth.  He says that some Russians who came to Germany when they were five or six years old don’t even speak Russian anymore.  Arkadij himself got his German citizenship two months ago.

Generation Gaps

As we look at the transition from communist repression to Jewish community life, it becomes clear that each generation of Jews has experienced this shifting identity quite differently.  Many Jews under 30 are eagerly learning and are successfully integrating Judaism into their lives and future.  Rabbi Spinner believes that Germany is a good place for Jewish identity formation because Jewish youth don’t really want to see themselves as German, with its problematic history – “That's a little too much,” he says.  Somewhat polarized from mainstream German society, Jewish youth work to create a positive Jewish identity that they can claim.  Jana puts it in simpler terms: it is natural that when children are educated, they will develop a religious identity and know more about their heritage.  

On the other end of the spectrum, the elderly remember the Jewish traditions that their grandparents taught them, speak some Yiddish, and have the time to forge relations with other older members of the new Jewish community.  “Something appears again that they remember,” Jana says. 

While the oldest and youngest generations are quickly revitalizing their Judaism, however, the middle generation is missing as a visible or active presence in the community.  Sometimes the younger generation’s religious identity forms in spite of the opposition of their parents, who are concerned about the limitations that Judaism will place on their children’s future and who feel detached from Judaism, themselves.  Having grown up into adulthood under communism, they have difficulty integrating Judaism into their established identities. “You can’t make a believing Jew out of a communist immediately,” Kessler says.  This middle generation has neither the memory of a religious past nor the confidence in their ability to make a new start.  Jana, though she is only 22 years old, views herself as part of this middle generation.  She sees some Russian Jews three years younger than herself who fit securely into the younger generation.  They are much more involved religiously than she, and though their education was similar to hers, some of their interests are quite different.  The hope for a vital Jewish community in Germany, Jana believes, lies not within her age group but within the Jewish youth.

Evolving Jewish Identities

Not surprisingly, for many Jews coming from the USSR, the transition to a democratic society has facilitated a shifting sense of Jewish identity.  For some, of course, establishing a flourishing Jewish life was less of a concern than improving their economic status.  For others who wanted to explore or reclaim their Judaism, however, Germany’s open society provided the political and social space to do so.  Many latched onto Jewish culture, rather than religious rituals, in order to forge a connection with Judaism despite their lack of education or practical experience.  Judith Kessler states that Russian Jews tend to place great importance upon traditional notions of what it means to be Jewish – for example, embracing Klezmer music or images of bearded rabbis – instead of integrating modernity into their Jewish identities.  Rabbi Spinner views the situation in different terms, objecting to the use of the word “traditional” in opposition to “modern.”  He sees that Russian immigrants do not yet have a “developed Jewish identity.”  It is easier for them to become involved in social or cultural Jewish life than to revitalize a religious identity when they are starting from phase one.  

Jana’s experience holds true to this theory.  When asked to describe her Judaism today, Jana responded that she feels more like a Jew than she did in the Ukraine, and that Judaism is now extremely important to her. When she first arrived in Germany, a teacher asked her if she was Catholic or Protestant, and after thinking for a moment, she answered that she thought she was Protestant.  Now, she strongly identifies with her Judaism and has a close connection to Israel.  But while Jana is a believing Jew, she does not practice her religion actively.  She believes in God and knows some Jewish rituals, but she cannot read Hebrew and feels uncomfortable in synagogue.  Her lack of religious education continues to make her feel insecure and alienated.  Most people that she comes into contact with are equally lacking in religious knowledge.  And, while adult education is available, little things always come in the way and act as barriers to her participation.  However, pregnant with her first child, Jana is determined to provide her child with a religious education and a traditional Jewish upbringing – a very conscious decision, since her partner is not Jewish.    

Arkadij and Alexej, both of whom are approximately the same age as Jana, have established quite a different religious identity in Germany as orthodox Jews.  For Arkadij, coming to Germany did not immediately stimulate his Jewish identification.  However, after  attending Jewish summer camps he began seriously thinking about his Jewish identity and became driven to do something for Judaism.  He and other motivated, young Soviet Jews began to establish Jewish youth centers in their communities.  Through this work, he met Rabbi Spinner of the Lauder Foundation, who invited him to study at the Yeshiva in Berlin.  For the past four years, Arkadij has spent three hours every day learning Jewish text at the Yeshiva, in addition to studying business law at university.  He knows that his experience is relatively unusual; few Russian Jews have developed such a religiously observant Jewish identity.  Many place no value on Judaism or claim they have no time to actively pursue a Jewish life.  Alexej, who also studies at the Yeshiva, places his traditional Jewish identity in contrast to the “party Judaism” and “three-day-a-year Judaism” that predominates the Jewish community in Germany.  For orthodox Jews like Arkadij and Alexej, Germany is a difficult place to be, because the strong religious community that they are looking for simply does not exist here.  They both state that many young orthodox Jews are leaving Germany for Israel, America, and England, where they can find better social conditions and Jewish infrastructure.

Mikhail Vorobiev has come to a similar religious awakening in Germany.  When he left the former Soviet Union in 1993 at the age of 30, he was not Jewishly active.  “Why did I start to learn more about Judaism? My father motivated me and suddenly, I had time to think about our identity. In Soviet times, we spend our time just thinking how we could survive. My search for Jewish identity was neither esoteric nor mystic. In the beginning I was even rather anti-religious. Now I have discovered the intellectual aspects of Judaism.”  

It appears that, on the whole, there has been an increase in Jewish identification among Soviet immigrants throughout their time in Germany.  The extent of this increase varies tremendously, and there are certainly many Soviet Jews who dissociate themselves completely from Judaism.  Jana believes that German Jews are still more religious than Russian Jews—the discrepancy in Jewish education has not yet been overcome.  However, in just over a decade since the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of Russian Jewish immigration to Germany, significant signs point to a community which is fostering fuller Jewish identities and to the hope that lies in a younger generation growing up Jewish.

Jewish Life in the GDR

While Russian Jewish immigrants evolved new Jewish identities within the context of a foreign society, East German Jews faced the effects of German reunification within their home country.  Previously, Jews under both communist systems confronted obstacles to free Jewish life; however, in the GDR, the history of the Holocaust and East Germany’s commitment to anti-fascism created a somewhat more hospitable, though still precarious, environment for Jewish life.  

Jews who decided to come back to the Soviet Zone after the Holocaust often made a conscious decision to do so in order to help rebuild a new Germany. “These Jews believed in the idea of communism, in the idea of equality.  For them, religion didn’t really matter,” says Eva Nickel, a member of the Jewish community in East Berlin from 1949 until reunification. By the 1950s, however, many of these Jews realized that, far from a communist democracy, the GDR was becoming a repressive Stalinist state. Anti-Zionist campaigns in the Soviet Union splashed over to the Soviet Sector in the early 1950s. Jewish citizens who had survived the Holocaust in Western countries came under suspicion, accused of being poisoned with Western political thought.  Threatened with interrogations, arrests, and other repressive measures, hundreds of Jews fled to the West in 1953, including most of the leadership of the East German Jewish community.  “Only a small number of Jews remained,” Judith Kessler says, “And the ones who stayed were mostly convinced communists.”

Eva Nickel’s acknowledgment of her Jewishness in the GDR was highly political.  Her mother survived the Holocaust in the underground in Berlin—the only survivor in her entire family.  Eva’s two sisters died in a concentration camp. Her father, a communist and non-Jew, was also persecuted by the Nazis. It was he who defined Eva’s political agenda as a Jew.  “You have to be Jewish,” he told her. “You have to help to prevent Nazism from returning.” 

Both Eva Nickel and Oljean Ingster speak of a very small but very active community life in Berlin.  Eva Nickel remembers going to synagogue with her mother, celebrating Simchat Torah and Passover, and attending religious lessons.  “We tried to do our best to keep the congregation alive. We had a little kosher butchery and a Jewish nursing home.  We organized lectures on Jewish themes, music, and cultural events,” remembers Oljean Ingster, cantor of the conservative synagogue on Rykestraße since the 1960s.  Of course, maintaining an active community with such a small membership was not an easy task.  In the 1980s, the community consisted of approximately 250 members with an average age of 64, he explains.  Eva Nickel believes that the community survived because “Everyone helped whenever he or she could.”  She describes the Jewish East Berliners as being “like a little family with much love.”

The Jewish community in East Germany occupied a precarious position within the communist state.  “Being Jewish in the GDR gave us both protection and discrimination,”  Eva Nickel tells us. On the one hand, Jews were considered to be VDN (Verfolgte des Naziregimes, or persecuted of the Nazi Regime) and therefore held a special protected status.  On the other hand, Jews were frequently associated with negative images. “Judaism and Israel were often intermingled,” Oljean Ingster states. East German politicians condemned Israel as an aggressive state which practiced racism under the guise of Zionism. According to Mr. Ingster, prominent Jews were asked to sign an anti-Israel resolution in 1968, although most refused to do so.  

Judith Kessler also remembers experiencing anti-Semitism in the GDR.  Fleeing from persecution in Poland, her mother decided to come to the GDR, and the family stayed there for several years.  Kessler remembers one occasion when she wore a necklace with the star of David to school.  She was immediately sent to the principal, who forbade her from wearing this “symbol of Israeli aggression.”  

Other Jewish citizens were required to demonstrate loyalty to the party if they didn’t want to lose their jobs. They were forced to decide between their membership in the Jewish community and the party.  Eva Nickel’s mother gave up a high position at the press information office because she would not cut ties with the Jewish community, saying, “I cannot betray my first family [who died in the Holocaust].  I cannot go outside the Jewish community.”  Gabriel Heimler, an artist in the Jewish group Meshulash, puts the situation bluntly: “If you went to the synagogue in the GDR you would not get a job—you were regarded as a Zionist.”  Heimler claims that, except for some Jews who were puppets of the state, it was impossible to practice Judaism. Cantor Ingster, by contrast, argues that many had no problems belonging to both the SED party and the Jewish community. However, he continues by saying that East German policy was often unpredictable and changed quickly.

Despite the policy of discrimination, Eva Nickel says that “Jews were also needed and instumentalized by the state.”  In the mid-1980s, the official policy toward Jews in Berlin changed.  Trying to improve economic relations with the United States, Honecker hoped that fostering Jewish life in Berlin would win him the support of the American “Jewish lobby.”  Suddenly, Jewish citizens were honored with “The Order of Patriotic Merit” (Vaterländischer Verdienstorden).  A foundation was started to rebuild the new synagogue at Oranienburger Straße and to establish the Centrum Judaicum.  All these activities had a positive impact on Jewish life in East Berlin, according to Eva Nickel, yet the change should have come earlier.

Integrating East and West: The Effects of Reunification

After reunification, the East Berlin Jewish community, consisting of only 206 members, was consolidated with a West Berlin community of around 6,000 Jews. “East German Jews feel like they have immigrated within the same country. They still have a strong East German identity,” Eva Nickels says.  As a spokeswomen for the remaining East German Jews, she compares herself with Don Quixote. “The East Berliners wish to be accepted, to be recognized as a Jewish group. We are a minority in the minority.”  Eva Nickel expresses her frustration at the ignorance shown by West German Jews about East German Jewish life and community, and at the inadequacy of their efforts to welcome their East German brothers and sisters. 

Each person that we spoke with strongly differentiates between East and West German Jews, referring to them as distinct groups with distinct problems. Although bridges have been built, both groups hesitate and often feel misunderstood.  Only the children, who grew up in reunified Germany and who consider themselves to be German rather than East or West German, have successfully overcome the division between the communities. 

Oljean Ingster expresses his disappointment that the East German kosher butchery and Jewish nursing home could not be preserved after reunification, and that aid was not ensured to maintain the Jewish graveyard.  In many regards, the predominantly older community in East Germany has been simply overwhelmed by the political and social change. They feel alienated in their new community and miss the intimacy of the former one “where everyone knew everyone.” 

East German Jewish Identities Today

There are many different perspectives on whether East German Jewish identity has changed since reunification.  Eva Nickel emphatically states, “My Jewish identity is stronger than before because I don’t regard this country as my country. I am part of a minority and I am told this by non-Jews almost every day.”  She explains that although she also had problems identifying with the East German state, because she grew up there she felt a stronger connection to it than to today’s Germany, where “policy is made that is not my policy.”  Eva Nickel does not want to be part of a system that allows Walser and Möllemann to openly discuss their anti-Semitic attitudes.  Alienated from a German identity, her Jewish identity has come to the forefront.

In contrast, Oljean Ingster doesn’t see any change in his Jewish identity.  His Jewishness is based on religious practices and not on political considerations. “Religion and politics have to be kept apart,” he says.  His religious experience, however, is not representative for the Jewish community in the GDR.  Many East German Jews do not have any Jewish identity, or have a negative identity based on the Holocaust. Others, perhaps the majority, feel strongly affiliated with Jewish culture (as indicated by the high percentage of East German Jews participating in the  Jewish Cultural Association) but have little or no connection to Jewish religion.  With such variety of Jewish identities, it is impossible to define one  post-reunification Jewish experience. 


As this article shows, there are many ways to define a Jewish identity.  For some, being Jewish primarily means being part of a persecuted people.  Others strongly identify with traditional religious observance, or latch on to traditional Jewish culture, from literature to Klezmer music.  Still others connect with a Jewish community that shares a common history.  Especially among the younger generation, some try to find new ways of incorporating modernity into their Jewish identity, trying to separate themselves from a brand of Judaism that seems to have little to do with today’s world.  

East German and Soviet Jews who have entered a new democratic society in Germany are challenged to renegotiate their Jewish identities.  Although they share no universally accepted understanding of what it means to be Jewish, there has been a general pattern of increased Jewish consciousness, and many are interested in exploring different aspects of Judaism which were not accessible to them during communism.  Particularly for the Russian Jews, arriving in Germany on the “Jewish ticket” was itself a first step toward establishing a more conscious Jewish identity: no matter what their background, each person was arriving in Germany as a Jew.   While it is a challenge to integrate multiple Jewish identities within one unified community, it is a reflection of the freedom of modern German society that these multiple identities are emerging today.




Arkadij Gorelyk, Jewish student. Interviewed June 22, 2003

Gabriel Heimler, Artist, Member of the Jewish group Meshulash. Interviewed June 23,2003 

Oljean Ingster, Cantor of the Rykestraße synagogue. Interviewed June 24, 2003     

Judith Kessler, Editor of the Jewish magazine “Jüdisches Berlin.” Interviewed June 19, 2003

Eva Nickel, Active member of the Jewish community in the former GDR. Interviewed June 23, 2003

Rabbi Joshua Spinner, Lauder Foundation in Berlin. Interviewed June 20, 2003

Alexej Tarchis, Jewish student. Interviewed June 23, 2003

Mikhail Vorobiev, Jewish community worker. Interviewed June 23, 2003

Jana Wolotschij, Jewish student. Interviewed June 20, 2003

Articles and Publications

Manfred Behrend: “Zwischen Wertschätzung und Diskriminierung – SED-Führung und Juden” In: http://www.glasnost.de/autoren/behrend/sedjuden.html, 26.June 2003.

Judith Kessler: “Ein hoffnungsloser Fall?”, “Umfrage 2002” der Jüdischen Gemeinde Berlin. In: http://www.berlin-judentum.de/gemeinde/mitgliederbefragung.htm, 26.June 2003. 

Monika und Udo Tworuschka: Religionen der Welt. In Geschichte und Gegenwart, Gütersloh/München, 1992.



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