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What was it like to be Jewish in East Germany?

September 7, 2023

Hoping to build "the better Germany," many Jewish artists and intellectuals left their mark in the former communist East Germany. A small community kept religious practices alive, despite Soviet repression.

People standing on a film set during the 1950s, with buildings around.
The Zadek family celebrating Workers' Day on Stalinalle in 1956Image: Gerhard Zadek

A young girl holds her mother's hand, as they pose during a May 1 celebration in 1956. Behind them, you can recognize the iconic architectural style of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee — which was called Stalinallee between 1949 and 1961.

The monumental boulevard was one of East Germany's most prominent reconstruction projects after World War II, designed to showcase the socialist state's prestige.

The diapositive image from Ruth Zadek's personal archive serves as the main illustration for the exhibition "Another Country. Jewish in the GDR," on show at the Jewish Museum Berlin from September 8, 2023 to January 14, 2024.,

Formerly, elaborate state parades were held on Stalinallee every year to mark Workers' Day; strikes that became known as the East German uprising of 1953 , also started on the boulevard named after the Soviet Union's ruler, Josef Stalin.

But beyond the fact that the photo's backdrop evokes key moments in East German history, the family on the picture embodies the themes of the exhibition, too.

People sitting chairs, listening attentively.
From left to right: Renate Aris, Ruth Zadek and Martin Schreier, whose life stories are part of the exhibition 'Another Country. Jewish in the GDR' Image: Sebastian Christoph Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Returning to the 'better Germany'

After the Nazis took power in 1933, Ruth Zadek's Jewish parents, Alice and Gerhard, joined a group of resistance fighters in Berlin.

The couple then fled to England in 1939.

Most of their Jewish friends and relatives who had stayed in Germany were killed during the Holocaust, but the Zadeks nevertheless decided to return to their home country in 1947 — a move their friends in the UK described as "meshugge," or crazy, a term that later served as the title of a memoir they wrote about the period.

Empowered by their antifascist ideals, the Zadeks settled in the Soviet-occupied zone, which would later become the German Democratic Republic, or GDR. To contribute to what they viewed as a socialist utopian project, they worked within the East German political system, Gerhard serving as the editor-of-chief of different newspapers, and Alice eventually becoming a factory director.

Their socialist convictions were stronger than their religious practice, so it was apparently not a major sacrifice for them to officially withdraw from the Jewish community, as required by the East German Communist Party from their members.

Going through her family history for the exhibition was an emotional process for Ruth Zadek, who left for West Germany before the Berlin Wall came down to pursue her career and join the man she loved, disappointing her parents. Alice and Gerhard Zadek were also devastated by the fact that the socialist experiment ultimately failed: "Their dreams were shattered," Ruth says.

But the Zadeks' story is just one of among many told through the exhibition. "Another Country. Jewish in the GDR" aims to shed light on the very different individual experiences of the Jews who chose to settle in East Germany.

A ink drawing of a clenched hand.
'Clenched Hand' by Lea Gründig, drawn in exile in Palestine in the 1940sImage: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

An unmistakable cultural mark

Many other communist Jews were attracted to the GDR, seen as "the better Germany" for its anti-fascist stance.

Prominent people include writer Anna Seghers (1900-1983), best known for her novels "The Seventh Cross" and "Transit," painter and graphic artist Lea Grundig (1906-1977) and composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), famous for his longtime musical collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht and for composing East Germany's national anthem.

Along with them, many other Jewish intellectuals contributed to renewing East Germany's cultural and political landscape.

Remembrance focused on victims of fascism

In the socialist state, remembrance events commemorating the victims of fascism were held every year as of 1945.

Nazi crimes were not kept hidden in the GDR's school books, which showed pictures of the piles of bodies at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and discussed how millions were systematically gassed in extermination camps.

However, the antisemitic background of those crimes was not part of the discourse, points out historian Annette Leo in the book accompanying the exhibition. The victims were rather described as "inmates of all European countries" and generally assumed to be part of the resistance.

The armband of a resistance activist, shows a French flag and a symbol of the resistance, combining two red crosses.
The armband of resistance activist Dora Schaul on show at the exhibition Image: Roman März

In another example of propagandist reporting, the correspondents sent to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem were instructed to focus on the Nazi crimes of then West German officials.

When the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors started in 1967, the East German authorities emitted an official open letter titled, "Statement by Jewish citizens of the GDR expressing outrage at Israeli aggression and the Israel-Washington-Bonn conspiracy," which wasn't signed by any members of a Jewish community. The declaration, which was then published in the GDR's Neues Deutschland newspaper, claims that "antisemitism has been eradicated in the GDR," even though the letter clearly replicates antisemitic conspiracy tropes. "Israel was seen as the imperialist state per se," points out Zadek.

Jews targeted by Stalinist purges

But the most difficult period for Jews had already started at the beginning of the 1950s, when Stalin's regime targeted perceived enemies in East Bloc countries as being part of "Zionist conspiracies."

An irrefutable demonstration of the Soviet bloc's antisemitic repression came in 1952, through a show trial held against Rudolf Slansky, general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, along with 13 other high-ranking officials in the country. The rhetoric used during the trial was blatantly antisemitic, and it led to the death penalty for many of the Jewish defendants.

Pressure was also put on the GDR's chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities, Julius Meyer, an early member of the Communist Party and an Auschwitz survivor. He fled to the West in January 1953, with many other East German Jews.

It is estimated that up to a third of the GDR's Jews left during that period, though historians cannot provide numbers to this day.

A small community remains active

Beyond certain prominent figures, or those who actively took part in the small congregations, the GDR did not keep an official count of East Germans with a Jewish identity.

By the end of the 1980s, the eight remaining Jewish congregations in East Germany counted less than 400 members.

A menorah with electric light bulbs and a cable.
A menorah produced by the GDR's state-owned enterprise, VEB Wohnraumleuchten BerlinImage: Roman März

Yet, they were committed to upholding their religious practice and traditions. The exhibition "Another Country. Jewish in the GDR" features different ritualistic objects used by East German Jews, and Renate Aris, who is the last Holocaust survivor of the city of Chemnitz, details her experience.

Her father, Helmut Aris, became in 1962 the President of the Association of Jewish Communities and led for more than 30 years the Jewish congregation in Dresden. When she moved to Chemnitz, then Karl-Marx-Stadt, she became very active in the small community there.

Despite the GDR's stance against Israel, she says she never faced discrimination for being a Jew growing up in the small East German cities.

And despite all the challenges her family had faced, with many killed during the Holocaust, her father always remained "a committed German Jew" whose credo of "we Jews have always somehow survived," kept him going.

A radiant symbol for Berlin

By the end of the 1980s, as the East German government hoped to improve their ties with the US, they launched the reconstruction of the New Synagogue in Berlin.

The mid-19th century synagogue had been destroyed during the war, but was never demolished, its facade preserved as a memorial of Nazi crimes.

The exhibition at the Jewish Museum shows photos of the synagogue from 1987, displaying how the space was still filled with rubble, trees growing within its walls.

Today, it stands as one of Berlin's most impressive landmarks, a testimony to today's Jewish community in the reunified Germany.

A black-and-white photo of a synagogue without a dome
Berlin's New Synagogue in 1986, before its restorationImage: Eduard Knob/akg-images/picture-alliance

Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture