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Tragic past, rebirth in Berlin's Jewish community

Monday - 4/7/2014, 12:19pm  ET

In this picture taken Monday, March 10, 2014 at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Street in the historic Berlin neighborhood 'Scheunenviertel', people pass so called 'Stolpersteine', or stumbling stones which remember to Jews killed by the Nazis. The epicenter of the Holocaust, the city where Hitler signed the death warrants of 6 million Jews, seems an unlikely candidate for the world’s fastest growing Jewish community. But despite this stigma of Nazism, Berlin’s dynamic, prosperous present and its rich, pre-World War II Jewish past initially attracted an influx from the former Soviet Union and has continued with the arrival of thousands of Israelis and smaller numbers of often young immigrants from Australia, France, the United States and elsewhere. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

DENIS D. GRAY
Associated Press

The epicenter of the Holocaust, the city where Hitler signed the death warrants of 6 million Jews, seems an unlikely candidate for the world's fastest growing Jewish community.

But despite this stigma of Nazism, Berlin's dynamic, prosperous present and its rich, pre-World War II Jewish past initially attracted an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The community has kept growing with the arrival of thousands of Israelis and smaller numbers of often young immigrants from Australia, France, the United States and elsewhere.

And this upsurge in the Jewish population -- believed to be more than 40,000 -- has also spurred tourism to an array of monuments, synagogues, museums and workaday places related to Jewish history and present life in Germany's capital.

In fact you can literally trip over this history while walking the streets and looking down on some of the 2,800 shiny brass tiles embedded in sidewalks by artist Gunter Demnig. These palm-sized "Stolpersteine," or stumbling stones, bear the names of those murdered by the Nazis, and are placed in front of their onetime homes.

Like these stones, Berlin's most prominent Jewish sites are connected to the tragic past, but a healthy antidote and probably the best way to begin a tour is a visit to the Jewish Museum, a multi-layered panorama of 1,000 years of Jewish culture, lore and history in Germany. And it's housed in one of the city's most striking contemporary buildings, a jagged structure coated with silvery zinc plates and punctured by slanted windows slits.

"What we didn't want to do is just present the death, persecution, prejudice. There was a great deal of normal life, regular life too. Before you die, you live and we want to stress the living," says Cilly Kugelmann, the museum's vice director.

Exhibits include vivid recreations of family life from 1850-1933 through paintings, writings, everyday artifacts and even a 16mm home movie, showing a family skiing, swimming and playing with their dog before moving to California in the 1930s. Although past suffering is starkly portrayed, there are also games and cartoons for children and displays celebrating prominent German Jews from poet Heinrich Heine to jeans inventor Levi Strauss.

If you want a glimpse of what city life was like in 1929, before the diaspora from Berlin of some 80,000 Jews, stop by to watch "People on Sunday," a short silent film of residents enjoying a sunny weekend made by Billy Wilder, an Austrian-born Jew who was to become one of Hollywood's great directors.

Perhaps the most gripping of Berlin's Jewish sites is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Many do a double-take when in the bustling heart of the city, between the Potsdamer Platz and the Bradenburg Gate, they are suddenly confronted with a vast cluster of 2,711 coffin-like slabs of concrete.

The impact is most visceral when wandering through the labyrinth formed by the greyish rectangles. The sepulchral chill, abetted by a bleak winter sun and a few bare trees, is only lifted by children playing hide and seek within the maze.

Just north of this historic center is the Scheunenviertel, the Jewish Quarter, an area of sedate 19th century apartment buildings, contemporary art galleries and lively side-streets.

The centerpiece is the soaring New Synagogue. With 3,200 seats, it was Germany's largest before it was bombed in 1943. Partially reconstructed, it now serves as a museum about the synagogue and the former surrounding community. Worship does take place at two other synagogues and some 10 houses of prayer -- compared to the 33 synagogues in pre-war Berlin.

Close by, the former Jewish Girls School has been converted to an art gallery, a museum to the Kennedy family and a New York-style Jewish deli, Mogg and Melzer (pastrami sandwiches and New York cheesecake are the hot items).

The boy's school, now co-ed, reopened in 1993as the Gymnasium Moses Mendelsohn. Like at most Jewish sites, there is substantial security, but outside the elegant building, knots of students snack, check their mobile phones and sprinkle their German with hip English phrases.

Only a few tombstones remain in the neighboring 17th century Jewish Cemetery, burial site of some 12,000. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Down the street, set in a small park, is the Deserted Room installation -- a table and two chairs, one knocked over -- that symbolizes the sudden eviction of Jews from their homes.

And within a narrow courtyard, in what is known as the Haus Schwarzenberg, are three small museums, probably the most moving dedicated to an Otto Weidt. Nearly blind himself, the Christian owner of a workshop producing brooms and brushes hired blind and deaf Jews and protected them from the Gestapo. The museum includes a room hidden by a cabinet where he secreted an entire family.

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