August 10th, 2005

Jews in East Germany

Bar Mitzwa im Kidduschraum der Synagoge Rykestrasse, Berlin, 1985 Foto: T.Sandberg
Bar Mitzwa in the Kiddush Room at the Synagogue in Rykestrasse, Berlin, 1985
Photo: T.Sandberg

The first Jews returned to the former Soviet Occupation Zone very soon after the Red Army had liberated Berlin. Many of those who came back were keen to help build their dream of a socialist society in Germany. However, it was not long before practising members of the Jewish Community in Berlin found themselves at odds with the Soviet occupying power. In 1949 this territory became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the situation here deteriorated in the early fifties following the “purges” in the USSR, which triggered the Laszlò Rajk/Noel Field trial in Budapest and the Slansky trial in Prague, with Jews being persecuted in these and other Warsaw Pact countries as “counter-revolutionaries” and “Zionist agents”. Some of these “Jewish lackeys”, as the Stalinist press labelled them, were executed after show trials in the Soviet Union or else murdered in secret. This repression caused many Jews to leave the GDR for West Germany (the Federal Republic).

After the death of party leader Joseph Stalin on 5 March 1953 discrimination against Jews came to an end in the GDR. The police raids and persecution were halted, Community members detained in prison were set free and most of the Jews who had been expelled from the ruling party were rehabilitated. The communities, now smaller in number, were given grants to renew their synagogues, run a home for the elderly, set up a kosher butcher and maintain the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin’s Weissensee. The Jewish Community in the GDR began publishing its news bulletin, the Nachrichtenblatt, in 1961.

In the eighties the GDR leadership opened up further, although it did not cease its anti-Israeli propaganda with its underlying anti-Semitic prejudice. It was only after the political revolution of 1989/90 that the new de Maizière government acknowledged “co-responsibility for the humiliation, deportation and murder of Jewish men, women and children” and “this burden of German history”.

When this new parliament held its second session on 12 April 1990, it adopted an apology for “official GDR policy towards the state of Israel”. The members of the People’s Chamber asked their “Jewish fellow-citizens” to forgive the discrimination they had suffered in the GDR.

In 1989 the five Jewish communities in the German Democratic Republic numbered about 400 members, the majority of whom (some 250) were living in East Berlin. In 1990 these communities were admitted to the Central Council.