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The Reconstitution of Postwar German Jewry – Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany 1945-1953 by Jay Howard Geller, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 330 pp.

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)  

 In April 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was officially commemorated. Paul Spiegel, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, praised the Jews who had stayed in Germany after the Holocaust. He stated that, despite inner doubts and strong criticism from Jews abroad, they had dared to rebuild Jewish communities there. He added that one should remember them on this day with great gratitude and respect.

The promotion of this myth should be carefully examined. Those Jews who remained in postwar Germany were not necessarily heroic pioneers with a mission. Geller’s book details many discussions among the Holocaust survivors in Germany as to whether any Jews ought to stay in the country. Several conferences were devoted to this subject, partly sponsored by the occupying forces. The mood at these gatherings is manifested by a remark during one of them by the American Jewish leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz. He opposed the opinion, expressed by many discussants, that those who stayed were the “apathetic dregs of Jewry” (p. 76).

Today, the German Jewish community numbers well over one hundred thousand members, of which close to 90 percent are relatively recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This is the result of a liberal immigration policy introduced in 1990 by the then chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germany now has the third largest Jewish community in Western Europe after France and the United Kingdom.[1]

Geller, who teaches history at the University of Tulsa (Oklahoma), had access to many archives including that of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. He describes the continuing discrimination against Jews during the initial months after the German capitulation. This resulted from the fact that being Jewish was not considered a specific nationality. In those months, Hungarian Jews often were placed in camps with non-Jewish Hungarians who had been Nazi collaborators. The American general George Patton, who referred to Jewish survivors as “lower than animals,” gave orders to forcibly repatriate Jews to Poland (p. 23). The Allied authorities considered that no group should be given special privileges and treated German Jews as former enemies, just like non-Jews (p. 22).


German and East European Jews

An important theme in this book is the relations between the Jews of German origin and the much more numerous East European Jews who had been liberated in concentration camps or immigrated to Germany from Eastern Europe in the first years after the war. The preponderant majority of the latter left Germany yet still the majority of the remaining community were born abroad.

Another of the book’s central subjects is the reconstitution of communities. Originally, all organization was local and gradually developed into regional groupings, conforming to the zones of the occupying forces. Finally, on 19 July 1950, the Central Council of Jews in Germany was created as a national roof organization (p. 84).  

Geller devotes substantial attention to the Jews in East Germany, where some Jewish leaders were leading members of the Communist Party. Several were arrested after the 1952 Slansky affair in Czechoslovakia. Their situation deteriorated after accusations against Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union in January 1953. Some prominent East German Jewish Communists were arrested and when freed fled to West Germany, as did many other Jews in the months thereafter (pp. 174-75). These included the Communist Julius Meyer, who headed the roof organization of East German Jewry, the State Association of Jewish Communities in the German Democratic Republic.

Other issues that Geller examines in detail include the relations between the West German community and the occupying forces, and between the German authorities and international Jewry. Initially, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) called for an end to Jewish life in Germany. In the spring of 1950, having realized that many thousands of Jews would remain there, the WJC leaders reestablished a German office (p. 83). This reviewer recalls that, twenty years after the war’s end, German Jewry had representatives on the board at the WJC’s European section, but they hardly took part in the discussions. The World Union of Jewish Students at that time still did not admit the German Jewish student union.


Restitution Issues

Immediately after the war’s end, restitution became an important issue both for individual German Jews and the emerging communities. The fate of the possessions of those Jews who had been murdered and left no heirs was also a topic of discussion. In 1951, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer began to address the broader subject of reparations to the Jewish people. On the Jewish side, the main negotiator was Nahum Goldman. Also that year steps were taken to initiate reparation negotiations with Israel, which Germany recognized had taken in many Shoah refugees. On 27 September 1951, Adenauer made an official declaration in the German parliament about his government’s intention to pay restitution to Israel (p. 226).

A year later, in order to gain the support of his party, he used realistic arguments that some may have considered anti-Semitic, saying that if there were no reparation payments:

“Not only would it be a political catastrophe, it would also impair our entire effort to receive foreign credits again. Let us be clear about it. The power of Jewry in the economic field continues to be extraordinarily strong, so that this-well, the expression is perhaps a bit exaggerated-this reconciliation with Jewry is a necessary requirement for the Federal Republic from a moral standpoint as   well as a political standpoint and an economic standpoint.” (p. 245)

The reparation negotiations began in the Dutch town of Wassenaar on 21 March 1952 (p. 233). After substantial difficulties, they led on 10 September to the signing of the Luxembourg Agreement between West Germany, Israel, and the Claims Conference (p. 243). Organized German Jewry was kept on the sidelines.

Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany 1945-1953 is a valuable addition to the literature on the reconstruction of European Jewry in the postwar era and to the emerging discipline of post-Holocaust studies.[2]