In May 1990, when the World Jewish Congress had organized a three-day conference in Berlin to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, a substantial number of invitees refused to attend, many arguing that it was still too early for a major international Jewish organization to meet in Germany. In September 2014, the WJC Governing Board met in Berlin, Germany. According to WJC President Ronald S. Lauder, there were still serious discussions on whether the 2014 meeting—which took place in close proximity to the Wannsee Villa, where the mass murder of European Jews was conceived— would indeed be the right choice almost seven decades after the end of the war. In the end, Lauder concluded: “This was the best decision.” The 2014 meeting gave the final stamp of approval not only for decades of German-Jewish reconciliation but also for the legitimation of Jewish life on German soil.
Sixty-six years earlier, at the first postwar plenary assembly of the WJC in Montreux, Switzerland, no one could have foreseen the possibility that there would ever again be a meeting of worldwide Jewish leaders in Germany. In 1948, the political commission of the WJC made clear what its representatives thought regarding any future for Jews in Germany when it passed a resolution stressing “the determination of the Jewish people never again to settle on the bloodstained soil of Germany.” There was broad consensus that no Jews should live in Germany, and certainly that no international Jewish meetings should be held on this “bloodstained” soil. This article tells the story of the gradual change in recognition and acceptance of Jewish life in postwar Germany by the WJC and the slow process of German-Jewish reconciliation to which the WJC, and especially its president, Nahum Goldmann, contributed considerably.
It is one of the ironies of history that Germany became a center for Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe. The officially registered number of Jewish displaced persons or DPs (concentration camp survivors, Jews who had survived in hiding or on forged papers or who had fought in partisan units, and Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union during the war) in the American Zone of Germany alone increased from 39,902 in January 1946 to 145,735 in December of the same year. Until the late 1940s, about a quarter million Jewish DPs from Eastern Europe lived at least temporarily in Germany, the vast majority of them in the American Zone, even though the single largest DP camp, Bergen-Belsen, was located in the British Zone.
Most had barely escaped the Nazi death machines and were in dire need of assistance. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other American and British Jewish organizations were able to help them on the ground, as it were, to start a new life. The WJC, too, gave priority to questions concerning the national and political rights and demands of the survivors, as well as their wellbeing, their material indemnification, and their resettlement in Israel, the United States, or elsewhere. As Zohar Segev wrote in his account of the WJC, “What set the WJC apart from other Jewish organizations was that its leaders sought not merely to institutionalize the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, but involved themselves in the Jewish world as a whole, particularly in Europe where they worked vigorously to rehabilitate the Jewish Diaspora and to assist those survivors wishing to reestablish their lives there.”
Josef Rosensaft, the chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and of the Jewish Committee that in essence ran the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, observed: “The World Jewish Congress engaged itself in political aid, which was given us not in the spirit of pity on poor Jews in reduced circumstances, but in true brotherly fashion, in full cooperation with us and through continuous consultations as between equals. This is what made the assistance of the World Jewish Congress so different from that of other Jewish organizations.” The WJC was involved in influencing the policies of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) toward the DPs and tried to shape policies for the future. In this respect, its leaders disagreed with the JDC’s philanthropic approach, which they considered shortsighted. In contrast, the WJC was interested in long-term political strategies that would result in a lasting solution for the Jewish survivors in Germany and the rest of Europe. The WJC did, however, also undertake steps to facilitate immediate relief for the survivors, such as training American Jewish social workers who could help survivors and providing assistance to children, many of whom were orphans. The WJC encouraged the adoption of Jewish orphans by Jewish families in the United States and Palestine, and initiated long-term strategies for Jewish life in Europe. As the 1948 Montreux resolution demonstrated, however, long-term planning for Jewish life in Germany was not on the WJC’s agenda.
In the meantime, however, it became clear that Jewish life in Germany had not come to a complete end. While most Jewish survivors had left Germany after the State of Israel was established in 1948 and the United States lifted its strict quotas for Jewish immigration in 1949, approximately 10 percent of the 250,000 Jewish DPs, who were temporarily living in Germany, remained there. They were joined by a small group of German Jews who had survived the Nazi terror within Germany itself. Approximately 15,000 German Jews were liberated in 1945, some of whom had been in concentration and death camps, others in hiding. Most of them had had only very loose contacts with the Jewish communities before 1933, and a high percentage of them had survived only because they had been protected to a certain degree by a non-Jewish spouse or parent.
A considerable number of Jewish communities were officially reestablished as early as 1945. By 1948, more than 100 Jewish communities had been founded, and a total of some 20,000 members were registered in the reestablished communities in 1948. This reality was acknowledged in the same resolution adopted by the WJC plenary assembly in Montreux, which demanded that “[t]he legal status of Jews and their communities [in Germany] be guaranteed internationally.” It is a psychologist’s task and not that of a historian to analyze the reasons why Jews stayed or settled in postwar Germany. It may suffice to state here that there was more than one reason. Some were just not able to move again to a foreign place and to learn a new language after all they had been through; others had found German non-Jewish partners; still others had established themselves economically; and, finally, there were those German Jews who returned immediately after the war to help build a new and democratic Germany. Those political idealists could be found more frequently in the East, where the more prominent Jews lived in the first postwar years. The writer Arnold Zweig returned from Palestine, Anna Seghers from Mexico, and quite a few leading Communist politicians were of Jewish descent. In absolute numbers, however, the Jewish presence in East Germany was almost negligible, especially after many Jews had left in the tumultuous weeks of anti-Semitic propaganda in the final Stalinist years of 1952 and 1953. This wave of emigration left only about fifteen hundred, mainly elderly, Jews in the Jewish communities of East Germany, a number that was further reduced to 350 by the late 1980s.
The WJC’s 1948 de facto ban on Jews residing permanently in Germany is often mentioned in connection with an analogous reciprocal ban allegedly issued by Jewish authorities after the 1492 expulsion from Spain. Apart from the fact that no credible evidence exists of such an official rabbinical ban or herem, the situation was indeed quite different from that in post-1945 Germany. After all, it was the Spanish monarchy that expelled the Jews and did not allow them to resettle in their realm for a few centuries. Even if some rabbis had declared a ban on Jewish life in Spain in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, it would not have made any difference. They could not have settled there anyway.
In Germany, the situation after 1945 was quite the opposite. As two German states arose a few years after the war had ended, the presence of Jews served as a litmus test for the new states. John J. McCloy, the US military governor (and later high commissioner) for Germany, stated at a conference on the future of the Jews in Germany, convened in Heidelberg in 1949: “What this community will be, how it forms itself, how it becomes a part and how it merges with the new Germany, will, I believe be watched very closely and very carefully by the entire world. It will, in my judgement, be one of the real touchstones and the test of Germany’s progress towards the light.”
As the Declaration of Montreux indicated, most of the Jewish world thought differently. Chaim Yachil (Hoffmann), the first Israeli consul in Munich (who was accredited with the US authorities), declared categorically: “All Jews must leave Germany.” Those who stayed were, for him, “a source of danger for the entire Jewish people Those who are tempted by the fleshpots of Germany must not expect that Israel or the Jewish people should provide them with services for their convenience.” This, of course, was a thinly veiled threat signifying that the world Jewish community, and Israel in particular, were about to isolate the few remaining Jews in Germany. The American-Jewish writer Ludwig Lewisohn shared this opinion and predicted that the remaining Jews not only of Germany but of Europe as a whole would become “outcasts, paupers, untouchables, in separate quarters of Europe” who would live a “life without dignity, creativity, and hope.”
Perhaps the clearest expression of rejection concerning the Jewish community of Germany was a letter from the second Israeli consul in Munich, Eliahu Livneh, to his foreign ministry, in which he wrote, “The Jewish world considers this Jewish community to be a result of chance selection and will under no circumstances grant it the right of its own political will.” The response from the foreign ministry was telling, however. After acknowledging that it would be ideal but unrealistic to believe that the Jewish community would dissolve itself, the foreign ministry official suggested that “you continue with your policy of resistance [to official relations with the Jewish community], which you had practiced so far, with the inside knowledge, however, that in the long run this position is untenable. Thus, it is not worth that you put too much energy into the matter.” It goes without saying that the WJC did not always speak with a single voice on this, as on other matters. There were different offices—the most important ones at the time were in New York, London, and Geneva—all with their particular perspectives, and even within the various offices the position on this question was not always uniform. One may divide the different views inside the WJC into three general categories:
- Those who were categorically opposed to a permanent or lasting Jewish presence in Germany
- Those who had no ideological objections to Jews living in Germany but did not believe in a future Jewish life there
- Those who in principle were against rebuilding a Jewish future in Germany but who argued pragmatically that as long as Jews were living there, they would have to receive support from international Jewish organizations
The first of these positions was taken by a broad variety of Jewish officials, but most prominently by those in Israel, a state that, after all, forbade its citizens to travel to Germany. The Israeli passport contained the well-known stamp: “Valid for all countries except Germany.” If Israel did not want its citizens even to visit Germany, how could they be agreeable to the idea that other Jews would make their living there? Thus, in 1950, the Israeli office of the WJC broke all ties with the Jews remaining in Germany. This was a minority position within the WJC.
The second position may have been best expressed by an official report of the WJC-sponsored Institute of Jewish Affairs, in 1949: “Despite the intensive social and cultural activities of the Jewish Communities in Germany, the conclusion appears inescapable that German Jewry will cease to exist.
. . . Those who are able to leave will leave the country. The others will die off.” Jewish leaders made similar statements over the years. One example was British Rabbi Isaac Chait who toured Germany in 1962 and, according to the Jewish Chronicle, reported that there was no future for Jews in Germany. “When the old people die and the younger ones leave for Israel,” he wrote, “there will be nothing left save the beautiful synagogues.”
The third position was adopted by Nahum Goldmann and became the WJC’s dominant position. During a meeting with the London members of the WJC Executive in October 1948, Goldmann argued that “the slogan that no Jew should live in Germany after the Hitler catastrophe was unrealistic.” Thus, the WJC took a rather pragmatic position. In 1949, the WJC decided to establish its own office in Frankfurt to assist Jewish organizations and communities in Germany; to maintain a liaison between them and the WJC; to maintain contact with the Allied authorities; and to collect material on the revival of anti-Semitism.
A crucial moment came in 1949, when West Germany was about to become a sovereign state. At that time, much of the discussion among the European members of the WJC Executive was dedicated to the future of Germany in general, and Jews in Germany in particular. Guest speakers at this session included delegates representing the DPs still living in Germany and raising critical voices about a future in Germany.
Thus, Chaim Eife of the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in the US Zone expressed his hope concerning the remaining DPs that “steps be taken to ensure they remain under the jurisdiction of the occupying authorities.” His colleagues from the British Zone, Josef (Yossel) Rosensaft and Norbert Wollheim, both of whom were planning to leave Germany, also stressed the problematic side of staying there in the face of continuing anti-Semitism. On the other hand, Hendrik George van Dam, the main spokesman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, expressed a more confident position when he “favored the establishment of an overall representative body of Jews in Germany” and stressed that the WJC “should restrict its action on Germany to two matters: the legal protection of the Jews in Germany, and the protest against the reinstatement of Nazis.” Similarly, Heinz Galinski, chairman of the Berlin Jewish community, expressed his belief in the construction of a new democratic German state in which Jews would find a place, too.
These discussions were embedded within more general positions toward postwar Germany, with some delegates advocating the boycott of German goods. Not surprisingly, those in favor of a strict boycott envisioned a Germany without Jews. As one delegate, Dr. S. Levenberg stressed, “The Congress should advocate the evacuation of the Jews from Germany.” Maurice L. Perlzweig, the WJC’s Director of International Affairs in New York, echoed this sentiment when he demanded that “we should take all Jews out of Germany, so that they should not remain there as hostages.” Rabbi R. Kapel went so far as to state that “Germany constituted danger no. 1 for the Jews in the world.”
In 1950, on the eve of the establishment of the Central Council of Jews in Germany as the umbrella organization of those communities that were there to stay, the WJC majority opinion was expressed in the following statement by Alex L. Easterman, Director of International Affairs in the WJC’s London office: “While it was the opinion and policy of the World Jewish Congress that Jews should leave Germany, those who chose to stay in Germany would be gladly given advice, if they should call on the World Jewish Congress.” It was in fact the Central Council that initially did not want to be associated with the WJC, as it had taken up contact with other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee. Only in 1954, four years after its establishment, did the Central Council officially approach the WJC concerning terms of affiliation. There was some controversy among the London WJC European Executive members, ranging from strong advocacy of the affiliation to the opinion that it “would be a mistake, since it would encourage Jews to remain in Germany.” In general, there was agreement that while it was not a good thing for Jews to remain, those who did should be affiliated with the WJC.
Once the Central Council was established, conflicts arose again and again about the question of who should represent Jewish issues before German authorities and politicians— the German-Jewish representatives or the WJC. Thus, a 1951 meeting of the London members of the WJC Executive criticized the Central Council for writing a letter to West German President Theodor Heuss. The Council had asked to establish formal relations with the government, without prior consultation with the WJC.
The WJC representative in Germany, Saul Sokal, reported to the London office in May 1952 his concerns about a new self-confidence on the part of Jews living in West Germany:
Some German Jews are beginning to develop a new “ideology” according to which German Jewry is called by history to assume the role of a mediator between Germany and world Jewry The very small group of people who speak for the Jews would like to establish a standing for the Jewish community in Germany. The attitude of the postwar forties, even of 1950, has been reversed. They do not consider the existence of Jews here as transitory, nor do they pretend their stay is transitory. Just the opposite is now the prevalent philosophy. “The history of the Jews in Germany is not finished.” This is the slogan. Although they do no know what is the mission of the Jews in Germany, or what they would like it to be, they want it very emphatically.
This new attitude among German Jews is confirmed by other sources. Thus, in 1951, the Association of Jewish Communities in northwestern Germany passed a resolution “rejecting all attempts to denounce the Jews who remained in Germany The Jews in Germany consider themselves an integral part of world Jewry.”
When the next WJC plenary assembly was held in 1953 in Geneva, Jews were still living in Germany. Among them was a group called the “hard core,” referring to those DPs who for a variety of reasons still had not moved out of Germany. The most visible of this group were the two thousand Jews living in the Föhrenwald DP camp. In this connection, it is fascinating to examine the minutes of the early postwar WJC plenary assemblies, where different languages, including Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and French, were spoken. While quite a few delegates—namely exiled German Jews— spoke in German, a delegate from Germany, Maurice Weinberger, chose to speak at the 1953 WJC plenary assembly not in German but rather in his native Yiddish, which can be taken as symptomatic of the new situation. He stressed more than anything else that the remaining Jews in Germany were old and sick, and that 90 percent of them wanted nothing more desperately than to leave Germany. It was, he said, the WJC’s duty to help them get out. Weinberger, himself a DP in Munich, did not distinguish between German and East European Jews and represented the position of the communities in the south of Germany, to which few pre-war German Jews had returned. Several other observers referred to the postwar German-Jewish community as a “broken people who were earning a precarious living.”
These different views were still reflected during a special session of the 1966 WJC plenary assembly in Brussels. By that time, after the restitution accords of the early 1950s, the first major German trials against Nazi perpetrators in the early 1960s, and especially after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bonn and Israel in 1965, West Germany had become more accepted in the Jewish world. Against much resistance from both the right-wing (Herut) and left-wing (Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avoda– Poalei Zion) delegates from Israel, Nahum Goldmann insisted on a session that would be dedicated to the question of “Germans and Jews.” In an emotional statement, made in Hebrew and in Yiddish, the Herut delegate Isaac Remba explained why he could not be present for this discussion, as Jews should not help Germans to rehabilitate themselves among the family of nations. He was not only supported by the left-wing Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avoda-Poalei Zion delegations, but also by the delegation of mizrahi Jews— that is, Jews originally from Arab countries— from Israel, who stressed that while they had not suffered directly from the Nazi atrocities, they remained steadfast in their opposition to a German-Jewish reconciliation at this early point in history. And Hungarian-born, Orthodox, New York Rabbi Bernard Bergman sent a letter to the WJC leadership in which he declared: “We call upon every Jew to limit the relations with Germany to the minimum. The blood of our brethren is crying out and demanding from us not to have any treaty with Germany.”
It was again Nahum Goldmann who called for a pragmatic approach toward Germany. “This symposium has caused some doubts and many misunderstandings,” he declared in a statement released to the press prior to the opening of the plenary assembly. He continued:
The leadership of the World Jewish Congress regards the open and frank discussion of this difficult and delicate problem as necessary, just because the problem is far from being solved, despite the indemnification payments and the normalization of relations between Israel and the German Federal Republic.
After what happened in the Hitler period, it is obvious that it will take quite some time until German-Jewish relations will be psychologically and spiritually normalized, and recent symptoms of a new anti-Semitically colored nationalism in Germany have given cause to worries and fears. On the other hand, to ignore this problem and not to take note of Germany’s growing importance is a most unrealistic attitude, based on pure emotionalism.
In his introductory remarks at the beginning of the session, “to avoid distortions and misunderstandings,” Goldmann elaborated further: “the problem of German-Jewish relations exists; it is unresolved. It is both historically and realistically one of the most complex and important problems of our Jewish generation of today.” That was precisely why the WJC leadership had put the topic on the agenda despite opposition.
We shall not find a solution tonight—I am not so naïve as to believe that we will— but I think it is much better that the problem be discussed by people from both sides— by Germans whose record is perfect and who opposed Hitler, and by Jewish historians and scholars who can give us the historical background of the problem. The purpose of what is on the agenda here tonight is to find a way of coexistence between Jews and Germans in a world in which the Germans exist and are growing in importance, and in which— thank God— the Jewish people exists despite the Nazi attempt to annihilate it; to find a way of coexistence between two peoples who, in light of the realities and in spite of whatever happened, must find means of dealing with one another. All the sentiments behind it are a matter for the individual. It is not for the World Jewish Congress or the State of Israel or the Knesset of Israel to determine these emotional and sentimental aspects. We have to deal collectively with the hard realities.
Goldmann assured the delegates that this special session was not to be an “orgy of reconciliation,” and that “our people will never forget what happened in the Hitler period. I would be ashamed to be a Jew if Jews could forget it.” At the same time, he also opposed “being broiges”—that is, being angry—as a policy, and rejected “the advice to ignore Germany” as being “unrealistic and not practical.” A people that wants to be the master of its own fate, Goldmann proclaimed in essence, cannot conduct politics by “being broiges.”
Speakers at the meeting included Jewish scholars Gershom Scholem and Salo Baron, as well as Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who would be elected chairman of the WJC Governing Council at the end of the 1966 Brussels plenary assembly. The speakers on the German side were historian Golo Mann— a son of Thomas Mann and on his mother’s side the descendant of a family of Jewish background—and the speaker of the German Bundestag, Eugen Gerstenmaier, known for his anti-Nazi past. While Scholem emphasized the complex history of Jews in Germany, Gerstenmaier spoke about the German efforts toward reconciliation. Among the Jewish speakers, only Baron, the respected professor of history at Columbia University who had also presided over the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction after the end of the war, expressed his conviction that Jews would remain in Germany, and would even increase in numbers.
The most notable fact about the remarks delivered by Hendrik George van Dam, Secretary-General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was not what he said, but that he was invited to speak at all. He was not on the original list of speakers and it was only after much pressure from the Central Council, even involving threats that it might leave the WJC altogether, that a German-Jewish representative was added to the panel. In his speech, van Dam took a clear position against any collective punishments or bans, such as in the case of Spanish Jewry half a millennium earlier. “History has shown that the Jews are not interested in the isolation of peoples,” he concluded.
The words spoken by Rabbi Prinz, who had been a courageously out-spoken anti-Nazi figure in the early Hitler years before being expelled from Germany by direct order of Adolf Eichmann, were especially poignant. “It is very difficult,” he said, “to talk about an encounter of Jews and Germans if there are no Jews in Germany. It is fair to say that for all practical purposes there are no Jews in Germany today, because their number is so small and their spiritual influence so limited that the average German rarely meets a Jew. There are hundreds of German communities in which no single Jew exists. Therefore the image of a Jew, both physically and spiritually, has disappeared for Germany and it will remain so for a long time, certainly as long as our generation lives and probably much longer.”
As it turned out, Rabbi Prinz was mistaken. By the mid-1960s, the Jews in Germany felt a growing acceptance among the worldwide Jewish community. An official report of the Central Council in 1964 made this clear: “The Central Council has been insisting since its establishment that the Jewish community of Germany has a right to exist. We fought for this right against much resistance, especially against world opinion. Now we see success in that we are represented in many world Jewish organizations.”
By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that Jews would remain in Germany. A second generation had grown up, and while many of them had left for Israel or other countries, quite a few stayed. They were joined by new immigrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Israel, and Iran. New synagogues were built, new schools opened. Even in East Germany, the tiny Jewish community was briefly in the spotlight in 1988, when WJC president Edgar M. Bronfman led controversial talks with the last Communist party leader, Erich Honecker, which involved the restoration of the ruined Oranienburger Strasse synagogue.
The brief encounter between the WJC and East Germany proved inconsequential, while the fall of the wall in 1989 brought 150,000–200,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union to a now unified Germany, thus increasing the total German-Jewish community six to sevenfold. A new chapter of German-Jewish life had begun. To the surprise of the rest of the world, Germany was now the country with the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world. This was the new reality at the time of the 2014 WJC meeting in Berlin, which seemed a world apart from the 1948 plenary assembly in Montreux and even the 1966 symposium in Brussels.
3. “Resolutions Adopted by the Second Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress, Montreux, Switzerland, June 27th– July 6th, 1948” (hereafter “Montreux Resolutions”) (London: World Jewish Congress, 1948), p. 7. Also in Tamara Anthony, Ins Land der Väter oder der Täter? Israel und die Juden in Deutschland nach der Schoah (Berlin, 2004), p. 123. For a discussion of the position of German and world Jewry, see also Shlomo Shafir, Ambig- uous Relations:The American Jewish Community and Germany Since 1945 (Detroit, 1999); and Anthony Kauders, Unmögliche Heimat: Eine deutsch-jüdische Geschichte der Bundesrepublik (Munich, 2007).
4. Wolfgang Jacobmeyer, “Jüdische Überlebende als Displaced Persons,” Geschichte und Ge- sellschaft 9 (1983): pp. 429– 444, here: p. 436. This number is of course not to be taken literally, as these counts overlooked a considerable number of non-officially registered displaced persons.
10. There is by now a long list of publications on Jews in the GDR, most recently Detlef Joseph, Die DDR und die Juden (Berlin, 2010), with a 311 bibliography by Renate Kirchner. In World Jewish Congress 1936–2016 English, see Robin Ostow, Jews in Contemporary East Germany:The Children of Moses in the Land of Marx (NewYork, 1989).
11. There is by now a long list of publications on Jews in the GDR, most recently Detlef Joseph, Die DDR und die Juden (Berlin, 2010), with a bibliography by Renate Kirchner. In English, see Robin Ostow, Jews in Contemporary East Germany:The Children of Moses in the Land of Marx (NewYork, 1989).
14. Letter from Livneh to the Western European Division of the Foreign Ministry, Febru- ary12, 1951, quoted in Anthony, Ins Land der Väter, p. 173. Letter from Gershon Avner to Livneh, May 16, 1951, ibid., p. 174.
24. Memorandum from S. Sokal to A. L. Easterman, May 27, 1952, RG-68.059MWJC London, reel 164. Relations between the WJC and the Central Council remained tense for over a decade. Much of the tension around this time was based on theWJC’s accusation that the Central Council belittled the anti-Semitic incidents starting with the swastika graffiti atthe Cologne synagogue in 1959. See also the letter of Dr. Hans Lamm to WJC, London, January 19, 1960, RG-68.059M WJC London, reel 165.