How the Fall of the Berlin Wall Rehabilitated Jewish Germany

With 220,000 members, Germany has become of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, due to the mass migration of Jews from Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Every year on November 9, teachers throughout Germany ask their classes: What do we remember today?

In 1918, there was a revolution that saw the creation of the Weimar Republic.

In 1923, Hitler attempted a coup d'etat in Munich.

In 1938, synagogues were burned during the Kristallnacht pogrom.

And exactly 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall was brought down.

Every school child knows these events.

November 9 is the German "Day of Destiny", both the happiest and the saddest in the history of the country. It is the day when every school child it is asked: Is it possible to celebrate on a day so sad?

These days, Berlin is celebrating. There are concerts in front of the Brandenburg Gate, exhibitions throughout the city, conferences and TV Debates.

The festivities reached their peak on Tuesday November 9, beginning with a church service in the morning, followed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's symbolic walk over the Bridge on Bornholmer Strasse, where in 1989 an East German stormed west for the first time.

Merkel was accompanied in her march by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, former Polish president Lech Walesa, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and former GDR Human Right activists.

At night, some 300,000 people - including world leaders - gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate for the Festival of Freedom.

Chancellor Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Russian President Dimitri Medvedev were on hand for the celebration, which went until the wee hours of the morning.

To the cheers of the crowd, 1,000 oversized painted dominos fell one after another along the former border line - the Berlin Wall fell again.

But as the festivities raged, another moment in history was shadowed. Even as Germany celebrates, the events of November 9, 1938 cannot be forgotten.

And so - as every year - Kristallnacht was mentioned in the speeches, sermons and media. Germany's Jewish newspaper Juedische Allgemeine headed its front page with a declaration that amid the happiness, the pogroms of 1938 must still be remembered.

In an official statement, Charlotte Knobloch, President of the General Council of Jews in Germany, observed with regret that this year, the jubilee over the fall of the wall overshadowed the remembrance of the Kristallnacht.

And in her speech before the masses in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Merkel remembered: "For Germans, November 9 is also a day of admonition. Today 71 years ago the darkest chapter of German history was opened with Kristallnacht: the systematic persecution and murder of the European Jews and many others. This too, will not be forgotten today."

Both events, she said, show that freedom does not come by itself. "Freedom must be fought for. Freedom must be defended again and again."

The fall of Berlin Wall, it was said many times that night, marked the beginning of a new, free and united era for Germany and Europe.

And indeed, Germany has changed.

Today it is run by a woman from East Germany and represented abroad by a gay foreign minister. It is relatively wealthy and a key player in the European Union. It is self-confident, applying for a spot on the Security Council, critical of Holocaust deniers.

But also the Jewish community of Germany has changed.

With 220,000 members, it has become of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, a four-fold increase since 1989 due to the mass migration of Jews from Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In 1991, official immigration rules were adopted, admitting Jews from the USSR as so-called quota refugees. Tens of thousands came, half of them Jewish according to the Halakha.

As a result, new communities emerged, new synagogues were built and the number of community rabbis tripled. Some were ordained in the two newly established rabbinical colleges. The new immigrants changed the image of the country's Jewish communities drastically.

Before this wave, most German Jews were Holocaust survivors and refugees, many of them unsure if they would stay in Germany. These Jews saw their community as provisional.

When the thousands of Soviet immigrants arrived, the community was hardly prepared. "There was nobody that could have integrated them," said Rabbi Joel Berger, a leading clergyman in Germany who has been serving the community for some 30 years.

New communities were formed across the country, some consisting exclusively of immigrants.

"Until today, there were communities with members, but no rabbi or Torah scroll or organized religious life," Berger said. And although today some of the community rabbis received their education in Germany, most of them are "imported" from Israel.

These "imports" lack experience in dealing with the Diaspora, especially Germany, Berger said: "This is an inevitable result of earlier failure."

As a growing community, Germany's Jews are trying to catch up and reclaim the Jewish nature that once was. The establishment of a Jewish university, with a disproportionately high number of Gentile students, is one example of this effort.

"The wave of immigration was a psychological turning point," the Central Council of Jews in Germany says in its report about the issue. "Unexpectedly, the Jewish communities, initially considered to be temporary, became an anchor for the newcomers. This gave many veteran residents a feeling of being vindicated in their choice to stay in Germany.?

Twenty years later, east and west are not entirely merged - this includes both Jewish and non-Jewish Germany.

The result of 60 years of socialism, oppression and atheism has left its trace. Many Russian immigrants still feel alienated from their Jewish identity. Many East Germans are disappointed by the Federal Republic - some 35 percent of the East German population believes there is more social injustice today than before the fall of the wall.

Despite government investment, unemployment in the east is still almost 5 percent higher than in the west and salaries differ by up to 40 percent.

Perhaps it is due to this frustration that the right-wing party NPD has been gaining more support in the east, and finding its way into local parliaments. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the swastikas sprayed on a synagogue just the day before the Kristallnacht anniversary was in Dresden, not in Cologne.

The right wing nevertheless remains comparatively small, and when racist or anti-Semitic incidents occur in the country, they are widely debated and condemned, and the memory of the Holocaust remains a stain.

Germany indeed has changed. And nothing reflects this more than the fact that the events of 1989 were brought about by the people, in a peaceful revolution.

This year there might be a bit more celebration than sadness, but the message is nevertheless the same: democracy. The pride is well deserved. That does not mean 1938 is forgotten - it never can be. Every school child knows about the German Day of Destiny.