Jewish Culture in Germany New Start After the Catastrophe

Synagoge at Oranienburger Street – Berlin, Germany.
Synagoge at Oranienburger Street – Berlin, Germany. | Photo: ©

The Leo Baeck Institute is the leading institution for research on German-Jewish history and culture. Since 2013 the Munich historian Michael Brenner is international president of the Institute, which has centres in Jerusalem, London and New York. Tobias Birzer spoke with him about Jewish culture in Germany.

Professor Brenner, what are the tasks and goals of the Leo Baeck Institute?

The goal of the Leo Baeck Institute is to preserve for posterity the cultural heritage of German-speaking Jews in archives, libraries, publications and public events, a heritage that was nearly completely destroyed by the Nazis. It was founded in 1955 by German-Jewish intellectuals who had survived the Nazi persecution. It takes its name from the former Berlin rabbi and Holocaust survivor Leo Baeck. In addition to the three branch institutes, there has been a branch of the New York archive in the Jewish Museum in Berlin since 2001.

German-Jewish history between integration and anti-Semitism

What is the history and culture of the Jews in Germany?

Prof. Michael Brenner Prof. Michael Brenner | Photo: © Jeff Watts (American University) The Jews have been part of German society since the Middle Ages, though it was only in the nineteenth century that they became equal citizens under law. At the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, Jews integrated themselves more and more into German society. In the First World War many Jews volunteered for service at the front so as to prove they were patriots. But the hope that their social acceptance as good Germans would follow their equal legal status wasn’t to be fulfilled. After the war, anti-Semitism even increased. Many Jews sought to continue to assimilate and completely abandoned their Jewishness. Others returned more to their religion and there was a renaissance of Jewish culture. This was all almost completely destroyed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

Was there any Jewish life at all in Germany after 1945?

Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. | Photo: © Of the some 600,000 Jews who lived in Germany in 1933, only about 15,000 remained. In addition, there were Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe who found themselves stranded in Germany after the Second World War. These two very different groups formed the basis of the new Jewish communities. Many of their members, however, regarded this time only as a transitional phase before emigration to Israel or the United States. You couldn’t really imagine that Jewish life was possible on a permanent basis in Germany after the Holocaust. It was only in the 1970s that Jews began again to think they had a future in Germany. Yet in the 1990s Jewish congregations in the Federal Republic had fewer than 30,000 members; in East Germany in 1989 the official figure was only about 350 members. It was only after 1990 that the number of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union strongly increased. Today Jewish congregations in Germany have again around 110,000 members.

Diversity of Jewish life in Germany

What does Jewish life in Germany look like today?

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany | Photo: © There is again a lively Jewish culture in Germany, especially in the big cities. Not of course to the same extent as before 1933, but plenty has happened in the last twenty years. Particularly in Berlin there’s a great diversity of Jewish life. In addition to the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Berlin has, for example, a large group of Israeli Jews. They have again developed, largely apart from the institutional life of the congregation, new, alternative forms of Jewish culture. And the perception of Jewish life in Germany has changed. There is a great interest in Jewish culture and history on the part of non-Jewish society. This can be seen, for example, in the opening of many Jewish museums – for instance, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the museum of the Jewish Centre in Munich. They too have contributed to the new Jewish life in Germany.

Prof. Dr. Michael Brenner, born 1964 in Weiden as the son of two Holocaust survivors, teaches Jewish history and culture at the University of Munich. Since October 2013, he has been the International President of the Leo Baeck Institute. The position is on an honorary basis.

Book tip

Brenner, Michael (ed.): Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart (i.e., The History of the Jews in Germany from 1945 to the Present), C.H.Beck, 2012.