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Frankfurt’s small Jewish community thriving but alert

(JTA) There were about 30 000 Jews in the city of Frankfurt before World War II, making it the largest community in Germany.

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JOE BAUR

By the time the United States military occupied the city in 1945, there were only about 100 left.

“Jewish life was destroyed,” said Tobias Freimuller, the author of the recently published Frankfurt and the Jews, a history of the community from 1945 to 1990.

Flash forward to 2020, and the Jewish community of Frankfurt is once again a powerful force in the city, one of Germany’s largest and a major business hub.

There are only about 6 600 Jews in the city of 753 000, but they have a political influence that other minority populations don’t. Fighting antisemitism is a city priority. Jewish leaders are in regular contact with city leaders. When there is a tragic or otherwise newsworthy event, a representative of the Jewish community is always involved in the city’s response.

“If we open our mouth, everybody listens,” said Leo Latasch, a professor of medicine who oversees social affairs and security, among other things, for the Frankfurt Jewish community organisation. “We have an excellent relationship with the democratic parties.”

Freimuller, the deputy director of the Fritz Bauer Institute, a Holocaust research centre affiliated with the city’s Goethe University, chronicles the Jewish resurgence in his book, which was published on 15 April.

It’s a complex narrative, say members of the Jewish community and those close to it, because the Nazis’ destruction was so complete, a Jewish presence had to be rebuilt with help from the outside.

“Rebirth sounds like a revival of the community,” said Esther Schapira, a journalist and filmmaker who grew up in Frankfurt. “That’s not the case.”

After the war, the Jews remaining in Frankfurt were of two types. There were the few survivors who founded today’s Frankfurt Jewish community organisation in 1947, and envisioned returning to the roots of the community that existed before the war. That group consisted mainly of assimilated Jews who saw themselves as German and were often married to non-Jews.

Those Jews were called the Alteingesessene, or long-established ones, said 30-year-old Laura Cazes, an employee of Frankfurt’s Zentralwohlfahrtsstelleder Juden in Deutschland, or ZWST, a Jewish social-welfare organisation.

Then there were the displaced persons, or DPs, who came from across Eastern Europe. Many ended up in Frankfurt as a pitstop en route to the United States or then-Palestine, but immigration wasn’t initially possible. Instead, tens of thousands of Jewish DPs spent years in DP camps, such as Frankfurt-Zeilsheim.

The situation changed in 1948, when the British Mandate in Palestine gave way to the founding of the state of Israel and the US adopted the Displaced Persons Act, opening its borders. Most DPs left Germany, but not everyone was able to make the journey.

In 1949, the community organisation combined with the Committee of Displaced Persons. There were about 2 000 Jews in total between the two groups.

“What’s interesting is that hardly anyone in the Jewish community at the time came from the city,” said Freimuller. “The number of alt-Frankfurter [or original Frankfurters] was quite low. That means that few in the post-war Jewish community saw Frankfurt during Nazi rule.”

After the founding of the Bundesrepublik in 1949, West Germany passed legislation to start the process of compensating Holocaust survivors.

With that help, the Frankfurt community began to build and expand.

By most accounts, Jews in Frankfurt avoided the spotlight for the first several decades following the war. Freimuller said that Jewish institutions carefully toed the line and were withdrawn in public life.

But that changed in 1985, during what Freimuller refers to as a key turning point in the history of Jews in post-war Germany.

In the 1960s, city planners redesigned the formerly bourgeois Westend neighbourhood, which was heavily Jewish until the 1930s. The neighbourhood was only slightly damaged during the war and many of its 19th-century upper-class homes were still standing. But in the 60s, the city wanted to build commercial high-rise buildings along the central corridors of Westend because the neighbouring city centre was overcrowded.

The city started by ripping out old homes and putting in office buildings, but this led to protests. Squatters stayed in the homes scheduled for demolition, and other protestors clashed with police in the streets.

Many of the realtors involved in the new developments were Jewish, and that led to what Freimuller calls “antisemitic undertones” in public life.

In the 1970s, prominent playwright Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote a play inspired by the neighbourhood conflict. The play, Garbage, the City and Death, was protested for its perceived antisemitic main character – a real-estate speculator named Der reiche Jude (The rich Jew).

Though the play was published, its premiere in 1975 was cancelled after protests. The play wasn’t performed until 1985, but Jewish objections over the content remained and some took action during the first performance. They forged tickets to get into the premiere, and when the play began, they stormed the stage and prevented it from being performed.

Suddenly, Jews in Frankfurt had found their public voice.

Schapira, 59, whose work typically focuses on international perceptions of Israel, suggests that Frankfurt’s liberal ethos has allowed the new Jewish community to flourish, noting that it has welcomed Turkish immigrants as well. Millions of people with Turkish ancestry live in Germany, and more than half of Frankfurt’s citizens have immigrant roots.

“Frankfurt has a very liberal spirit,” Schapira said, adding that tensions with Muslim communities are not a big issue. “You have quite an open atmosphere that makes it possible for Jews to blossom again.”

The city is home to one large synagogue, three smaller ones, and a prayer room at the airport. Latasch describes these as mostly conservative as opposed to Orthodox or liberal, but adds that there are “possibilities for people who are Orthodox or liberal”.

Schapira’s father was a survivor from Romania who ended up in Frankfurt as a displaced person.

“They never intended to live here,” Schapira said of her father and his peers. “It was just the waiting time until they were able to go where they wanted to go, which was mainly either America, Argentina, or Israel.”

But Schapira’s father was tired. He didn’t have the financial means or physical strength to make the journey overseas. So he established roots in Frankfurt, and married a non-Jewish German woman.

In spite of having been born and raised in Germany, Schapira says “the idea of leaving the country” has always been in the back of her head.

“Don’t mix too much. Don’t get too familiar. Don’t feel too rooted. Be on alert. Be always ready not to miss the right moment to leave again,” were just some of the messages she says she learned from her father and others in the community.

Although moving had been a possibility for Schapira and her family, they ended up staying because, as her father put it, “Right now, this is the safest place for Jews to be, because the whole world is watching Germany.” However, in her next breath, she admits that this could always change.

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World news in brief

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Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism

The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.

“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”

His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.

Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.

Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians

Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.

“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.

A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.

Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.

Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw

The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.

The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.

Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.

Leifer finally extradited to Australia

Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.

After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.

Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions

A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.

The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.

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Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public

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(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.

But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.

Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.

On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.

The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.

It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.

In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.

The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.

The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.

The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.

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Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever

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(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.

Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.

“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.

It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.

Many employed Jewish humour along the way.

Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.

Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.

The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.

An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.

“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.

As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.

But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)

The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.

Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”

Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.

A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.

“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.

Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.

“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.

But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.

“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.

As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?

As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”

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