In the hope of building “the better Germany,” many Jewish artists and intellectuals left their mark in the GDR. A few kept religious practice alive despite all the repression.
A young girl holds her mother’s hand. Behind it rise the socialist workers’ palaces on Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, which was also called Stalinallee for a time. A snapshot from the May Day celebration in 1956.
The monumental boulevard was one of the most important reconstruction projects in the GDR, which was founded in 1949. With him, the young state also wanted to prove itself internationally.
The slide comes from Ruth Zadek’s private archive. It is an important exhibit in the exhibition “Another Country. Jews in the GDR”, which can be seen in the Jewish Museum Berlin from September 8, 2023 to January 14, 2024.
Every year on Labor Day, Stalinallee was the parade mile for elaborate state parades. The workers’ strikes, which went down in history as the GDR uprising of 1953, also began on the boulevard named after the Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
But it’s not just the city view in the photo that marks a key moment in East German history. The small family also represents the theme of the Berlin exhibition.
Back to Germany? Meshugge!
After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, Ruth Zadek’s Jewish parents, Alice and Gerhard, joined a group of resistance fighters in Berlin; In 1939 the couple fled to England.
Most of their Jewish friends and relatives who remained in Germany were murdered by the Nazis. Nevertheless, the Zadeks decided to return to their homeland after the war – a move that their friends in the UK called “meschugge”, meaning crazy. The Zadeks would later use this word to title their memoirs.
Attracted by the idea of anti-fascism, the Zadeks settled in the Soviet-occupied zone, which became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949. The family wanted to help realize the socialist utopia. This is how they integrated into the political system of the GDR. Gerhard worked as editor-in-chief of various newspapers, Alice became a factory director. At the behest of the Socialist Unity Party, both left the Jewish community.
The GDR was the “better Germany”
Working through her family history for the exhibition was an emotional process for Ruth Zadek, she tells DW. She had gone to West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall to pursue her career and follow the man she loved. Her parents Alice and Gerhard were devastated when the GDR ceased to exist through reunification with the Federal Republic in 1990. “For her, a dream shattered,” says Ruth Zadek.
The Zadeks’ story is just one of many told in the exhibition. Many other communist Jews were also drawn to the GDR, which – because of its anti-fascist stance – seemed to them like “the better Germany”. The prominent names include the writer Anna Seghers (1900-1983), who was best known for her novels “The Seventh Cross” and “Transit,” the painter and graphic artist Lea Grundig (1906-1977) and the composer Hanns Eisler ( 1898-1962), who became known through his musical collaboration with the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the composition of the East German national anthem. But many other Jewish intellectuals also had a stake in the culture and politics of the GDR.
The focus is on remembering the victims of fascism
Commemorating the victims of fascism was part of state doctrine in the GDR. The school books recalled the crimes of the National Socialists: pictures of the mountains of corpses in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were shown and the systematic gassing of people in the extermination camps was discussed in class.
However, the anti-Semitic motives of the perpetrators were not part of the discourse, emphasizes historian Annette Leo in the book accompanying the exhibition. Rather, the victims were described as “prisoners from all European countries” and viewed as part of the resistance.
This is also motivated by propaganda: the GDR correspondents sent to Jerusalem for the Eichmann trial (Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the persecution and deportation of Jews in the Third Reich, editor’s note) were instructed to focus on the Nazi crimes West German officials at the time.
When the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors began in 1967, the East German authorities published a letter entitled “Statement by Jewish Citizens of the GDR Expressing Their Indignation at Israeli Aggression and the Israel-Washington-Bonn Conspiracy.” . Not a single member of a Jewish community had signed the paper. The GDR newspaper “Neues Deutschland” wrote that “anti-Semitism in the GDR had been eradicated.” “Israel was seen as the ultimate imperialist state,” emphasizes Ruth Zadek.
Jews as victims of Stalinist purges
The most difficult time for Jews in the GDR began in the early 1950s, when the Stalinist regime persecuted perceived enemies in the Eastern Bloc countries as part of a “Zionist conspiracy”.
A show trial held in 1952 against Rudolf Slansky, general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and 13 other high-ranking officials in the country is considered irrefutable evidence of anti-Semitic oppression by the Soviet bloc. The rhetoric used during the trial was blatantly anti-Semitic and resulted in the death penalty for many of the Jewish defendants.
The chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities of the GDR, Julius Meyer, an early member of the Communist Party and Auschwitz survivor, also came under pressure. In January 1953 he fled to the West with many other East German Jews.
It is estimated that up to a third of the Jews in the GDR emigrated during this time, although historians are still unable to provide exact figures.
A small community remains active
Apart from a few prominent personalities or those who were actively involved in the small communities, there were hardly any official figures on East German citizens with Jewish identity.
At the end of the 1980s, the eight remaining Jewish communities in East Germany had fewer than 400 members.
Nevertheless, they held on to Judaism and its traditions. The exhibition in the Jewish Museum shows various ritual objects that were used by East German Jews. In addition, Renate Aris, the last Holocaust survivor in the city of Chemnitz, reports on her experiences.
Her father, Helmut Aris, became president of the Association of Jewish Communities in 1962 and led the Jewish community in Dresden for more than 30 years. When Renate Aris moved to Chemnitz, then still Karl-Marx-Stadt, she became heavily involved in the small community there. Despite the GDR’s negative attitude towards Israel, she says she was never discriminated against as a Jew in small East German towns.
And despite all the challenges her family faced – many members died during the Holocaust – her father always remained “a committed German Jew” whose credo “we Jews have always survived somehow” sustained him.
A shining symbol for Berlin
In the late 1980s, hoping to improve its relations with the United States, the East German government began rebuilding the New Synagogue in Berlin.
The mid-19th century synagogue was destroyed during World War II but was never demolished. Its facade was preserved as a memorial to the crimes of the Nazis.
The exhibition in the Jewish Museum shows photos of the synagogue from 1987: You can see trees growing between the rubble behind the wall.
Today, the rebuilt synagogue is one of Berlin’s most impressive landmarks and a testament to the Jewish community in reunified Germany.