Berlin’s Jewish time line

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For human beings, time is not neutral. It necessarily creates and conveys meaning - different meanings from different perspectives. For American kids in American schools, the year 1492 stands for Christopher Columbus. For Jewish kids in Israeli schools, the very same year stands first and foremost for the expulsion from Spain - in fact, one could also differentiate between the Christian year 1492 and the Jewish year ה׳ תר״ב (which means 5252) as different concepts of time, while still referring to the same event (the expulsion from Spain).

Such differences result from choices: In this example, the Israeli school system chooses to prioritize the expulsion from Spain just like the American school system chooses to prioritize Christopher Columbus. It's always about choices, because time is not neutral. Time is never objective. Time is always subjective and specific, representing the subjective values of a specific culture. Even the very same thing, such as the German defeat and surrender in 1945, necessarily conveys different meanings in different contexts: The defeat of the Germans meant liberation for the Jews. The same goes for 1806, when Napoleon defeated the German royal houses, resulting in civil rights for the Jews for the first time; or for 1990, which for the Germans symbolizes the end of their decade-long division, but for the Jews it means the beginning of the most significant immigration to Germany since the Holocaust (and probably ever).

To put it simply: “Gentile time" is not the same as Jewish time, and in Germany, German time is not the same as Jewish time, even when referring to one and the same place: Berlin. In this sense, you'll find below our overview of important events in Berlin's Jewish time (while using, admittedly, Gregorian/Christian years, because, well, even for Jews it has become the “Common Era").


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For the first time in history, the presence of Jews is indicated, though very indirectly, in a written document. At that time, Berlin is hardly a place to write home about. Consequently, we hardly know anything about those Jews and the limited information available doesn't come from a Jewish source, but from a German document about Jews: a decree issued by the local wool guild forbade its members, the wool manufacturers, to buy yarn from Jews merchants. Did those Jews actually live in Berlin? Or were they just travelling merchants? In any case, such an order only makes sense if there were actually some Jewish yarn merchants around.


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First evidence of Jews living in Berlin, as six Jewish families settle in the “Judenhof” - the Jews' Court - essentially a ghetto, where the Jews are locked up at night.


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The medieval community comes to an abrupt end with a libel, claiming the Jews had desecrated the holy host (and thus, in the catholic understanding, the body of Christ) of the town's St. Mary's church. 41 Jewish men are burned at the stake at the local marketplace in front of the church, and the rest is expelled - at that time, a very common practice.


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The modern Jewish community is established by 50 families coming from Vienna, whence they were expelled. The royal decree issued by prince Friedrich Wilhelm I on May 21st 1671 also forbade the Jews to create any synagogues (as in buildings dedicated to that purpose) - services were thus limited to private rooms ("shtiblach" in Yiddish, the spoken language of ashkenazi Jews at the time).


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One of the Jewish immigrants from Vienna dies and with that, the very first Jewish institution in Berlin is opened: The cemetery. At that time, the Jews constitute a kind of legal corporation - they are not taxed as individuals, but the community is taxed as such. In criminal cases, the community is punished as such. The legal situation of Jews is as members of the community or as parts of a corporation, but not as individuals or citizens. Jews don't have civil rights in the modern sense of the term. Having said that, the vast majority of gentiles don't have civil rights in that sense - the whole society is made up of such groups that define one's status (nobility, clergy, burghers, peasants etc. - and Jews).


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After the prohibition of synagogues had been lifted, the community starts building its first dedicated synagogue in 1712, which is inaugurated in 1714. Unsurprisingly, it would later become known as the Old Synagogue.


Association of Jewish Guides in Berlin

Moses Mendelssohn, at the time just 14 years old, enters Berlin. Here he would later become very famous as a rabbi and a philosopher. Greatly because of Mendelssohn, 18th century Berlin is a center of enlightenment, interfaith dialogue and tolerance - the notion that people who reject each other's ideas and lifestyle can still live next to each other (nowadays, tolerance is often misunderstood as the acceptance of others, but actually one can only tolerate what one thinks of as bad or wrong - what's good and right, doesn't need to be “tolerated").


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Napoleon enters Berlin - indeed not a Jewish person, but still very important for our Jewish time line, because with Napoleon come the values of the French revolution. In legal terms, the Napoleonic era ended the Jewish middle ages in central Europe: The multiple defeats of the German royal houses, including Berlin's Hohenzollern dynasty, at the hands of Bonaparte meant liberation for the Jews and opened a new vision: civil rights and emancipation. Tragically, from the German perspective, the notion of Jews as equal citizens was henceforth deeply related to the their defeat by the victorious French.


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Under French pressure, king Friedrich Wilhelm III issues a royal decree granting the Jews, for the first time, civil rights - essentially turning them from guests to locals. This meant that now, Jews were taxed as individuals and had to assume last names so the state could differentiate between them. It also meant that Jews had to demonstrate their loyalty by fighting with the German forces against Napoleon.


Jewish guiding association of Berlin

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the European dynasties convene at the Congress of Vienna to agree on the future of Europe and, specifically, the future of the German kingdoms, now liberated from Bonaparte's yoke. At the expense of the Jews, many of whom had just fought for the German dynasties against Napoleon, the old system is restored and the Jews lose the legal equality they could gain thanks to Napoleon.


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In order to keep their position as equal citizens, many Jews begin to convert to Christianity, including the Mendelssohn family. Felix, the grandson of the very observant, yet open-minded Moses Mendelssohn, is just seven years old at his baptism in 1816, in Berlin. The decision was naturally made by his father, Abraham, who was Moses Mendelssohn's very son. Abraham renounces his Jewish heritage and takes on a new, very gentile name: Bartholdy. In the following decades, thousands of Jews convert to Christianity, while others try to regain equality without converting. They do so by reshaping - literally: reforming - their identity, culture and religion, thus starting Reform Judaism in Berlin and elsewhere. The Germans react by debating the “Jewish Question” in newspapers, magazines, books as well as in politics.


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Karl Marx - himself the grandson of a rabbi, yet baptized in 1824 at the age of 6 - writes his (in)famous text “On the Jewish Question". During the 19th century, the Jewish Question becomes an ongoing, permanently unresolved public debate, continuing well into the 20th century with various left- and right-wing parties offering their own solutions to this seemingly crucial problem (ultimately resulting in the “final solution" of the Nazi regime).


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A new association is formed in Berlin: The association for a Reform in Judaism. The new vision is all about integration into the German society and culture in order to be accepted by the Germans as their fellow countrymen. Three years later, the association will publish its official Reform prayer book. Unlike the Catholics at the time, who still use Latin, and just like the German Lutherans, the Reform prayer book is printed strictly in the German language. Renouncing the traditional Jewish hope of a return to the homeland, the Reform prayer book simply erases every reference to Jerusalem.


Fantastic Jewish Tour of Berlin

Under King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, a new law restores some of the civil rights lost after Napoleon's defeat, granting the Jews more economic liberty while still maintaining their political exclusion. The law also instructs the Jewish community to provide religious education to all Jewish children.


Reform Temple in Berlin

The Reform congregation opens the first “Temple" in Berlin in 1854 with services on Sundays, in German, with organ music, exposed heads, and no gender segregation. Its very name conveyed the idea of a new theology: No longer expecting a return to Zion and a revival in Jerusalem, the creation of a new “Temple" made Berlin seem as if it were the new Jerusalem, as if Germany was the new promised land (Germany destroyed the “Temple” in 1938).


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Berlin's “New Synagogue" is inaugurated, the largest that ever existed in Europe. Not as radical as the “Temple", its name still referred to the new way to be Jewish and to the new kind of Judaism, with services combining both Hebrew and German.


History of Jews in Berlin

A new law by King Wilhelm I now insures the equality of all religions - in fact, the law doesn't even mention the Jews specifically, but simply states that all civil and political limitations depending on religion are now void. It seems as if the Jews finally achieved their long-awaited emancipation. But the German debate about the “Jewish Question” doesn't stop, in fact it becomes worse, no longer focusing on religion but on “blood”, i.e. on race. In hindsight, therefore, it is necessary to differentiate between legal and social emancipation: legal equality is not the same as social acceptance. In reality, many Jews still need to convert in order to be accepted, specifically for higher social positions, such as university professors: Even though the law doesn't require baptism by now, refusal to do so often leads to one's academic marginalization.


Jewish History of Berlin

For the lack of appreciation as a worthy field of study at German universities, the “Higher Institute for Jewish Studies" is opened in Berlin as an independent, separate initiative with 12 students: 8 men and 4 women. Jewish studies would become an established academic field at German universities only in the “remorseful decades" following the Holocaust.


Berlin Rabbinical Seminary

Azriel Hildesheimer opens Berlin's Rabbinical Seminary, a decisive moment for the emerging modern orthodoxy. The relative success of the Reform movement - still fighting for appreciation by Germans, but having already become the majority among Jews - forces the traditional Jews to react: Hildesheimer wants to show that Jews don't have to choose between their heritage and the modern world, but can combine both - in other words, living according to Jewish law while partaking in the general society. In Hildesheimer's own words, the seminary's philosophy was: “Unconditional agreement with the culture of the present day; harmony between Judaism and science; but also unconditional steadfastness in the faith and traditions of Judaism.”


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Almost half a century before the Holocaust, while Germany is still debating its peculiar “Jewish Question”, Herzl publishes his vision of Jewish revival and sovereignty - but very tragically, in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, too many Jews fail to read the writing on the wall.


Jewish politicians in Germany

Walter Rathenau, Germany's minister of foreign affairs after the first World War, a well-integrated politician and literally a living symbol for Jewish-German coexistence, is assassinated. He was (and, to this very day, still is) the only Jewish minister ever(!) in German history. His murderers were no Nazis - nobody in Berlin has even heard of Hitler yet - but the German hatred of Jews and their influence is very much there, more so than ever before, in light of the humiliation by the treaty of Versailles.


Nazi Book Burning in Berlin

Only 100 days after Hitler's appointment as chancellor, many Jewish texts are burned at Berlin's Opera Square. Book burnings were no Nazi innovation, but a much older European tradition. While the Nazi version of a public book burning also includes many gentile authors whose texts didn't match the Nazi vision, in the case of Jewish texts it wasn't really about the texts in themselves as much as it was about the Jewish identity of the authors. The Jewish community amounts now to about 160,000 members, most of whom will emigrate in the following years.


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With the “Nuremberg Laws", the Jews lose, once again, all the civil rights their grandparents had gained just several decades earlier. The Nazi jurist in charge of implementing the laws, Dr. Hans Globke, would continue his career after the war, in West Germany, as an incredibly successful and powerful politician: The chief-of-staff at the chancellors office under Konrad Adenauer. Having been awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Globke died very peacefully in 1973. In light of the new laws, a Jewish exodus takes place to wherever Jews are welcome. Many of the refugees go to Israel/Palestine, where eventually about 90,000 of them can survive the war.


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The 10th Olympic Games of the modern era are held in Berlin. Even though many Jewish athletes can't compete, the summer Olympics bring a short-lived positive change to local Jews: The Nazi regime is so keen to give the world the impression of a civilized Berlin, that it temporarily pauses its anti-Jewish activities, for example by removing signs and plaques forbidding the Jews to use facilities, enter places and so on. For a short while, Berlin's Jews can pretend that life is okay again.


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“Kristallnacht" or the Night of Broken Glass - many, though not all synagogues are attacked and often, though not always, destroyed. Jewish stores are looted, thousands of Jews are imprisoned in concentration camps and then released, in a Nazi attempt to increase Jewish emigration even further. The Arabs aren't very happy about the massive Jewish immigration and neither are other countries. In 1938, an international conference about the Jewish refugee problem is held in the french town of Évian. Golda Meir (yes, the Israeli prime minister three decades later) attends the Évian conference, but... is not allowed to speak. The conference results in complete failure as no country wants the Jews.


Jewish Emigration from Germany

The British government, in itself very restrictive about Jewish immigration, allows a private initiative to sponsor at least the children - Jewish children, whose parents aren't allowed to come to the United Kingdom, may leave their families behind, say goodbye to parents and siblings, and come to the UK in the “Kindertransport", an operation that saves about 10,000 children. At the same time, the British government publishes its infamous "White Paper", significantly reducing the quota for Jewish refugees in British-controlled Palestine. At the onset of the war, the British “White Paper” practically forces many Jews to stay in Nazi Germany and perish.


The Holocaust in Berlin

Berlin's Jews, now trapped in the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question", are forced to wear the Jewish star. Consequently, the deportations begin with trains heading east, arriving at top-secret destinations, whence nobody returns. In the following years, more than 50,000 Jews will be deported from Berlin - and murdered.


Jewish Tours of Berlin

Following massive deportations, Berlin is now declared “judenfrei", i. e. free of Jews; in fact, about 7,000 Jews are trying to survive illegally in the city, hiding, submerging as so-called “submarines", with several thousands more that can stay in Berlin legally because of their marriage with Germans. In the same year, the American air force bombs the New Synagogue, once Europe's largest Jewish sanctuary.


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The remaining Jews, mostly those married to German spouses, are liberated by the Red Army. About 80,000 Soviet soldiers die in Berlin fighting the Germans, on whose side about 150,000 lives are lost during the infamous Battle for Berlin. Out of about 7,000 Jewish “submarines" in Berlin, just about 1,700 are still alive. In the following decades, a new Jewish community gradually emerges, more so in West Berlin than in East Berlin.


Jewish Guides Association of Berlin

Konrad Adenauer, the West-German chancellor, agrees to pay “reparations” and signs the Luxemberg Agreements, Germany's first step in rehabilitating (and rebranding) itself. At the same time, Adenauer keeps Globke, the architect of the Nuremberg Laws, as his chief-of-staff.


Jewish Association of Guides in Berlin

The “Tupamaros”, a group of German terrorists, place a bomb at the new Jewish Community Center in West-Berlin. Emerging from the West-German student movement, there were quite a few terrorists groups - most infamous is the “Bader-Meinhof gang”, led by Andreas Bader and Ulrike Meinhof, who actually called their gang “Red Army Faction” - but there were other gangs like the “Tupamaros”, aiming specifically at Jews. The various gangs had one thing in common: They were all anti-capitalist radical left-wing gangs, understanding themselves as “anti-fascist” and revolting against the conservative values of their parents (the Nazi generation). In addition to the attack against the Jewish Community Center in West-Berlin in 1969, the German anti-fascists also burn down the Jewish old-age home in Munich in 1970, murdering 7 people. The Jewish victims survived the Holocaust only to be burned to death by young Germans who thought they must fight “Jewish imperialism” in the Middle East... Their idea was to prove how different they are than their parents - yet they ended up doing exactly the same as their parents: killing Jews. Ever since the left-wing attacks, Jewish locations are protected by the German police.


Association of Jewish Guides in Berlin

The last government of the GDR (which was also its first democratically elected government) is making lots of decisions for a country that is about to disappear. In that chaos, East Germany's first (and last) democratically elected prime minister, Lothar de Maizière, allows Soviet Jews to relocate from the Soviet Union to East Germany. His decision lacks any legal foundation and is thought of as a gesture to somehow correct the GDR's refusal to accept any historical responsibility, shortly before it simply ceases to exist. Hardly noticed in real time amidst all the diplomatic turmoil, his decision will actually change each and every Jewish community in Germany for years to come: After Germany’s reunification and the disappearance of the GDR that year, nobody dares to stop Jewish immigration, so the policy continues for qualified individuals - based on their Jewish nationality and regardless of their religious situation.


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Thanks to the massive immigration from the former USSR, the Jewish school reopens in Berlin, the very first in Germany since the Holocaust - well fenced and protected by security cameras and armed policemen, Jewish life begins again in Berlin's old Jewish quarter.


Jewish Association of Guides in Berlin

The new community center is inaugurated at the original location of Berlin's former New Synagogue, which was bombed in 1943 by the American air force. Although the sanctuary hasn't been rebuilt, the community center offers a variety of activities both in religious and non-religious terms.


Jewish Association of Berlin Guides

The government immigration program ends - “Jewish nationality" no longer qualifies for immigration, but by now the vast majority of Jews in Berlin and anywhere else in Germany are Russian speaking immigrants from the former USSR. In fact, Germany's Jewish communities are now 5 times larger than just a generation ago, and in Berlin 85% of the Jews are Russian speaking, so on the community's website, for example, everything can be read in Russian (there's also a version with German translations). But the tremendous increase in Jewish presence also creates new conflicts, both within the Jewish community as well as in German society at large.


Jewish Association of Berlin Guides

Mass demonstrations take place in Berlin (“Hamas Hamas, take the Jews to the Gas") without intervention by the German police. With Germany's demography changing and antisemitism on the rise, many Jewish immigrants begin to wonder: Have we made the right choice?