Breaking the Taboo: Russian Jews’ immigration to Germany
In the midst of the Soviet collapse, over a million Russian Jews left their country of origin. Many went to Israel and North America, but a considerable number chose to go to Germany. Estimates of Russian Jewish immigration to Germany in the 1990s put the number at around 120, 000 people. With this, Russian Jews, who now represent the majority of Germany’s Jews, were breaking the taboo: Germany, the “banned land”, the “land of the perpetrators” became a new destination for Jews. I spoke to Isaak B. to understand more about the background and experiences of Germany’s Russian Jews. Here are some excerpts from the interview I carried out with him on the premises of the Jewish community in Augsburg.
Memories of the war and the Holocaust
But the Germans were different in 1941
“Shortly after I was born, my family moved from Birobidzhan [a Soviet Jewish Republic set up after the revolution in Russia´s far east] back to Petrikov in Belarus. Petrikov was a Jewish shtetl; 80% of the inhabitants were Jewish. I remember our Stübele [Yiddish word for house] in a street next to the market square. Everyone spoke Yiddish there, even the Belarusians did.
When we fled from Petrikov, my grandmother didn’t go with us. She didn’t believe in the rumors of massacres of Jews in Germany and Poland. She remembered the First World War and the politeness of the German soldiers. In her mind they were civilized, had a great culture and virtually spoke her mother tongue.
She had experienced Jewish pogroms during the Civil War. A lot of crimes had been committed against Jewish people in this period. But those responsible were the Whites, not the Germans. So she stayed behind.
But the Germans were different in 1941. In the first days, when they came to Petrikov, they assembled all the Jews in town and led them to their execution. And when my uncle visited Petrikov in 1948, he wasn’t able to locate our Stübele. It had been destroyed.”
Jewish Life in the Soviet Union after Second World War
Not prohibited, but repressed
“There was Jewish life in the Soviet Union, but a large part of it was underground. In general, religion was not prohibited, but repressed. Not only the Jewish, but also the orthodox priests were subject to repression. In Orenburg there had been a synagogue since the 1870s, but it had been closed during the 1930s [under Stalin]. It wasn’t destroyed, but closed and used as the archive of the Orenburg Railways.
When I was young, the elderly Jews met in private apartments, behind closed doors, to officiate, bake matzo [a traditional Jewish dish eaten at Passover] and so on. I didn’t take part in this; I knew a bit – not much – about the [Jewish] holidays.
But we used to speak Yiddish at home, and there were Jewish books and Jewish records. One day, my uncle Nathan decided to teach me Hebrew. He drew Jewish letters; and once, he brought a real alphabet – one that had been printed by the publishing company “Emes” in 1947.
Later on, times were hard for Jews. Solomon Mikhoels’ murder and the doctors’ plot – a lot of things happened, and my mother was afraid of speaking Yiddish on the street. When she died in 1967, I had no one left I could speak Yiddish to.
I just wasn’t patriotic
“Life was very hard after the war. My mother worked all day, especially after my father died in 1948. My father had always told her to make sure we studied. Only if we study will we do well, “be good people”, he said. So we studied. It was in our blood, in our minds, that we had to study a lot. I had good marks – except in Russian history. I just wasn’t patriotic.
I then studied Physics at the College of Education to become a teacher. In 1971, I changed to another job following an argument with the director. It was the only experience I had of a conflict that had to do with being Jewish. Within one year, eight Jews had had to leave their posts. In each case, the reason given was different: a second, a third reason, a fourth reason. But basically, it was [anti-Semitic] discrimination.
I then worked as a geophysicist and became an engineer in the field of radioprotection. I worked until I retired. This was right before we went to Germany.”
Immigration to Germany
Crime was rampant
“In 1997 we went to Augsburg. In the 1990s, crime was rampant in the former Soviet Union. There were gangsters and bandits, who wanted to take more than one could give. My daughter was a single mother with two children. She didn’t know how to manage.
She decided to leave for Germany. My sister and her family had gone to Israel and there was no one left in Orenburg. We joined our daughter one year later. We arrived with a bag full of books. What does a poor Jew have, except for his books, his profession and what’s inside his head?!
During the first few months, we were housed in a residential home for refugees. It was like living in a seedy hotel. We had a small room with only bunk beds and a tiny fridge. So we took furniture from the skip, and when we wanted to shower, we went elsewhere. Most of our time we spent at our daughter’s place and looked after the children while she was working.
We never worked in our professions in Germany. Most of us [Russian Jews] did not. We were skilled. But our qualifications were not accepted. Besides, I think they were afraid. Once, when I asked if I could work as a lecturer, they said they were worried I would teach communism. Can you imagine?!”
The person who has a community behind him feels better
“When we arrived, the first thing we had to do was to go to the Jewish community. We had to introduce ourselves and show all of our identification papers as evidence of our Jewishness.
In the Soviet Union, we were far removed from all of that. My mother had died, the elderly people, who knew something, were all dead.
Well, what can I say? The person who has a community behind him feels better than the person who doesn’t. There’s something there, a place I come from, a language I speak…
But it is difficult for Jews to say where home is. The alphabet my uncle gave me is the only thing that reminds me of a time when we thought, spoke, read and wrote Yiddish. In Europe and Russia there’s no Yiddish-land left. It was destroyed by the First World War, the Revolution, the Holocaust and Soviet power.”
From June, the Jewish Museum in Augsburg will be exhibiting portraits of Jewish life in Germany including that of Isaak B.: “Transition. Contemporary Jewish Life, 1990-2010”.
Becker, Franziska: Migration and Recognition: Russian Jews in Germany, in: East European Jewish Affairs 33 (2003) 2, p. 20-34.
Dietz, Barbara: German and Jewish migration from the former Soviet Union to Germany: Background, trends and implications, in: Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 26 (2000) 4, p. 635-652.
Panagiotidis, Jannis: „The Oberkreisdirektor Decides Who Is a German“. Jewish Immigration, German Bureaucracy, and the Negotiation of National Belonging. 1953-1990, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 38 (2012) 3, p. 503-533.