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Op-eds

Just can’t take Jews out of Europe

  • Geoff
In spite of all the filth in world politics today, at this time of the year, it is not only appropriate but necessary to see some of the positive things happening in Europe, the ancient home of major Jewish populations.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Sep 06, 2018

As one example, contemporary Berlin is one of Germany’s most liberal cities, and the destination of choice for many Israelis for interest and enjoyment. For them, there’s little in the atmosphere to indicate that it was the centre of German life during Hitler’s reign. Sometimes a trip there also includes visiting sites of the Third Reich, but many go mostly for pleasure. Of course, this doesn’t downplay the crassness of the “selfie-takers” at Holocaust sites.

In the city of Lviv in the Ukraine, once a major centre of Eastern European Jewish life, a ceremony last Sunday, attended by the non-Jewish mayor and other dignitaries, marked the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s annihilation of the Jewish population. It honoured people working to preserve what they can of what was left from before the Nazi assault. A poignant illustration was an old metal synagogue key, which an American artist found at the market and recreated in glass. Copies were presented by city authorities to 75 people. The ceremony included a concert amid the synagogue ruins. This project comes amid other attempts to revive memories of the Jews who were once integral to the region’s life.

The list of positive elements continues. Last month, a group of 30 American and Eastern European youngsters, the descendants of Jews who once lived in the tiny shtetl of Zjembin in Belarus, repaired the Jewish cemetery, restoring tombstones and constructing a border fence. In 1941, the Nazis took Zjembin’s Jews into the nearby forest and shot them. The cemetery contains the ashes of Jews who had lived there between the 1700s and the 1900s. For many years, it was neglected, and the graves disappeared under grass and debris. The youngsters were part of the Minsk Hillel’s project MEGA, which has been working to clean up Belarus’ abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and restore, describe, and systematise graves, such as in the towns of Rogachev, Dyatlovo, and Shatsk.

A more personal example of changes in attitudes of non-Jews comes from a Polish, non-Jewish woman, who signed up for the summer Yiddish programme at Columbia University in New York recently, and was one of the most dedicated students. She illustrates the beliefs of many Polish communities that Poland lost something of its soul when its Jews were lost to the Nazis. Jews once made up 10% of Poland’s population. As part of this change in attitude towards “Jewish” culture, a klezmer music festival was revived a few years ago by non-Jewish Poles.

But one must not be naïve. In our confusing era, positive trends live side by side with dangerous revivals in Europe of authoritarianism bordering on fascism. In some places, old-style anti-Semitism is re-emerging, such as in France, where Jews fear wearing kippot in public places.

It is hard for Jews to make sense of all this, to trust the positives while recognising the negatives. One extraordinary change since the Holocaust is the tremendous development of Israel, to the point where it is the second largest Jewish community in the world after America, with a Jewish and non-Jewish population of about 8 million people. It is often the source of acrimonious debate among Jews and others about Palestinian and other issues, and is constantly under threat from its neighbours. But if in 1941 there had been an Israel like we have today, things would have been different for Europe’s Jews.

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