Jewish History of Berlin

The history of the Jewish community is plagued by episodic persecution, Jews often being used as a scapegoat for economic and social woes. By 1295 Jewish people in Berlin were barred from many professions and effectively forbidden to become members of the artisan guilds. Throughout the 14th to 16th centuries Jews were expelled from Berlin […]

The history of the Jewish community is plagued by episodic persecution, Jews often being used as a scapegoat for economic and social woes. By 1295 Jewish people in Berlin were barred from many professions and effectively forbidden to become members of the artisan guilds. Throughout the 14th to 16th centuries Jews were expelled from Berlin and let back in time and again, accused of acts such as the rampant plague in Berlin and Brandenburg, which had been sweeping across Europe; and host desecration; which meant that Berlin had virtually no Jewish community for a century. Between expulsions and being banned from most other trades, the Jewish people of Berlin successfully engaged in money lending and petty trade. They were confined to living in a ghetto in the Grosser Judenhof (Jew’s Court) area, and on Judenstrasse (Jew Street). Following the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War and in an attempt to achieve an economic upswing by increasing population, the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm allowed 50 prosperous Jewish families that were expelled from Vienna to settle in the Brandenburg region in 1671. They were permitted to stay under the condition that they pay an annual protection fee, engage in only certain businesses and worship only in their own homes. Finally, a Jewish community of Berlin was officially founded. Despite suffering restrictions on religion, residence and family size as well as extra taxes, the Jewish population of Berlin grew and by 1700 the city’s Jewish slums had approximately 1,000 residents. In 1714 the first synagogue of Berlin was dedicated. As excellent merchants and bankers, by halfway through the 18th century the Jewish community totaled close to 2,000 and they had become among the richest people in Berlin.

Philosopher and scholar Moses Mendelssohn arrived in Berlin in 1743, and urged Jews to integrate into secular society and by 1778 these enlightened ideas found expression in the Jüdische Freischule (Jewish Free School) that combined religious learning with general education. Though the 1812 Emancipation Edict that declared Jewish people equal citizens was in the most part quickly retracted, there was a general loosening on Prussia’s restrictions and growing equality for its Jewish population. By 1869 the new North German Confederation passed a law on the equal rights of religious confession and declared the emancipation of Jewish people within its territory and by 1871 German Jews had equal rights. Within a few years members of the Jewish community rose to prominence in government, many as close advisors to the Kaiser. By the turn of the century, there were more than 110,000 Jews in Berlin, comprising more than 5% of the total population.

In the Weimer years (1919-1933) Jewish citizens of Germany and Berlin enjoyed unprecedented levels of freedom, with plays by Max Reinhardt taking the stage, Jewish composers including Arnold Schoenberg’s works being performed, Max Liebermann and Lesser Ury creating beautiful paintings and musicians such as the Comedian Harmonists at the height of popularity. The Jewish population continued to grow and by 1933 160,000 Jews called Berlin home. At the same time anti-Semitism was on the rise and the years leading up to the ascendance of Nazi power saw increasing attacks on members of the Jewish community. Statebacked persecution ensued after the Nazis took power in 1933, and with the 1935 Nüremberger Gesetze (Nuremberg Laws) the Jewish citizens of Germany were effectively deprived of social and economic rights via the introduction of apartheid-like classifications of “racial purity”. Between 1933 and 1939 Jewish community life increased as Jewish citizens were forced to send their children to segregated schools and forbidden from interacting with non-Jews. Those who could see the writing on the wall and had money escaped while they could, though even such escape was a limited opportunity, as other European countries, the US and Palestine all restricted Jewish immigration. In retaliation for the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, who was killed by a 17-year-old Polish-Jew, Herschel Grynsypan, the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels called for a nationwide pogrom on November 9th 1938. This night is known as Reichskristallnacht – Night of Broken Glass, a nationwide attack on the Jewish people that resulted in the death of 36 of Berlin’s Jews, many were beaten on the streets while passers-by looked on; the destruction of 23 synagogues and the wrecking of hundreds of shops and businesses.

German Jewish citizens were then required to pay one million marks to repair the damages. By 1941 it was compulsory for Jewish citizens to wear a yellow star at all times, and the first mass deportations from Berlin marked the beginning of the systematic large-scale genocide of German Jews. Before the end of the war over 55,000 Jewish residents of Berlin were deported. In January 1941 the Wannsee Conference resolved and planned the so-called Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution to the Jewish Question) – the removal of all Jews to the East and, implicitly, their extermination. The Final Solution began to be put into effect, and life for the Jewish citizens in Berlin became increasingly unbearable. All Jewish schools and institutions were closed down, the Jewish community was disbanded, Jewish citizens were banned from public transport, their food rations were reduced and thousands were deported, mostly to the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps.

By the end of the war, Hitler’s mass genocide had reduced Berlin’s Jewish population by around 96 per cent to about 6,500. Survivors managed to escape death often through being hidden by gentile families at great personal risk or by evading final round-ups through legal conditions such as irreplaceable skills vital to the war effort or being married to a non-Jew. Only about 2,000 returned from the concentration camps.

In 1946 the Jewish community was officially recognized again as a public body, and a large number of Eastern European Jews immigrated to Berlin. As a result of intense anti-Semitic persecution in East Germany, many members of the Jewish community fled to the west. As a result, the Jewish community of East Berlin was almost non-existent, and even by 1988 the East German Jewish community had less than 200 members. In West Berlin, the German Jewish community had about 6,000 members, constituting the largest Jewish community in Germany. After the two Berlin Jewish communities were reunited with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the federal government approved refugee status for Jews from the former Soviet Union and since then over 50,000 Jewish people have immigrated to Germany, with Berlin more than doubling its congregation members to over 12,000.

Since reunification several steps have been taken to preserve Jewish history including the opening of the Jewish Museum and the decision by the German Bundestag to erect the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe) according to the design by Peter Eisenman.

Team Berlin Summer 2009

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