The Jews Who Cried When the Berlin Wall Fell 30 Years Ago

Among those who did not welcome the wall’s fall were a few Jews serving in senior government positions, including superspy who operated a network of 4,000 spies

East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate, Berlin, November 11, 1989.
LIONEL CIRONNEAU,AP

Not all of the tears that flowed when the Berlin Wall came down 30 years ago on November 9, 1989, were tears of joy. On the dark, eastern side of the wall there were a few people who shed tears of pain and fear while the world watched on television and celebrated as the bricks were toppled.

It was the pain of the end of the “democratic” ideology promised by East Germany, established in the Soviet occupation zone in 1949 as an alternative to Western democracy. It was the fear for their personal futures as the Communist regime collapsed that they would be punished for the crimes of the totalitarian regime. The most senior and best-known of these was Markus “Mischa” Wolf, who became No. 2 in East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, or Stasi.

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Wolf was born in 1923 to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. His father, the writer and physician Friedrich Wolf, descended from a Jewish family that was expelled from Spain in the late 15th century and came to Germany in the 17th century, by way of Holland. His family was secular and bourgeois.

Markus Wolf was 10 when the Nazis came to power. His family fled, finding refuge in Russia. After the war he returned to his homeland and joined the Communist Party, but in the wake of the Soviet occupation during the war Germany split in two.

Like many Jews under communism, Wolf did not advertise his religious heritage. He hewed to Moscow’s pro-Arab stance and did nothing to advance Jewish or Israeli interests.

As head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service, Wolf operated a network of 4,000 spies who infiltrated corporations, NATO headquarters and the West German government, bringing down Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Israeli journalist Yossi Melman once called Wolf “one of the most talented, daring and brilliant intelligence operatives in the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War period.” He was known in the West as “the man without a face” for his ability to escape being photographed, and his character has been documented in dozens of books, documentaries and action movies.

The Jewish issue was not high on East Berlin’s agenda. The Communist regime left it to West Germany to deal with the crimes of the Nazis. The leadership avoided, almost until the end, contacts with Israel and with Jewish organizations. It was not until November 1988 that East German’s parliament, the Volkskammer, marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which like the fall of the Berlin Wall took place on November 9, and established an institute for Jewish study in East Berlin’s New Synagogue. On that date in 1938, Jews were terrorized throughout Germany and Austria. At least 91 people were killed, hundreds of synagogues were burned to the ground, some 7,500 Jewish businesses were vandalized and up to 30,000 Jewish men were arrested.

On November 9, 1989, when the wall fell, Wolf fled to Russia, returning after unification. In 1993 he was convicted of treason and sentenced to six years in prison. The conviction was overturned by a higher court that accepted Wolf’s argument that he had been following the laws of a sovereign state.

In 1997 Wolf accepted an invitation from Ma’ariv journalist Gad Shimron and visited Israel, meeting with the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service and other intelligence officials. In 2004, two years before his death, he gave an interview to Haaretz, telling Melman that he never spied against Israel despite requests by the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.

East Berliners get helping hands from West Berliners as they climb the Berlin Wall which has divided the city since the end of World War II, near the Brandenburg Gate November 10, 1989.
Jockel Finck,AP

“The KGB approached me on several occasions and asked me to send agents and spies to gather information about Israel and in Israel. As Germans, it was easier for us to enter and operate in your country than it would be for Russians, Poles, or Czechs. But I always turned them down,” Wolf told Melman. “In retrospect, I am happy to say that my Jewishness may have contributed to my lack of desire to operate against Israel, but it was mostly due to professional considerations. I preferred to concentrate all the effort on gathering information in West Germany and in NATO.”

He also told Melman that he considered asking Israel for asylum and denied involvement in the Stasi’s cooperation with Palestinian terrorists, a claim that experts question due to his senior position in the organization.

Cosmetician in Tel Aviv

Wolf wasn’t the only highly-placed Jew in Communist East Germany. Some were openly anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, such as Albert Norden, a senior figure in the Politburo who was in effect the minister of propaganda until 1979. Norden’s father was a rabbi. A sister who became a cosmetician in Tel Aviv told Ma’ariv in 1963 that their mother came from a long line of rabbis. Asked how it was that the scion of rabbis came to scale the heights of the East German Communist regime, she gave a simple, direct answer: Their father was a very liberal rabbi.

Over the years Norden lost touch with his family.

“All of our friendship is given to those in Israel who work toward and seek peace. The German Democratic Republic distinguishes between the ruling cliques in Israel and the Israeli people, which opposes Nazism and is for peace,” Norden said at a 1965 press conference. But his views soon became more extreme. After the Six-Day War he likened Israel’s actions to Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. In 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, he called Israel “aggressive” and said his nation stood with the Arabs.

One of East Germany’s foreign ministers, Otto Winzer, came from a Jewish background. During his time in office, from 1965-75, the GDR cultivated ties with Palestinian terrorists, giving them funding and support. Winzer invested large amounts of time and resources in developing East Germany’s relations with Arab leaders, traveling between Egypt, Syria and Iraq in order to improve his country’s international standing while stressing that East Berlin, in contrast to Bonn, supported the Arabs rather than Israel.

Klaus Gysi, who served as East Germany’s culture minister from 1966-73 and state secretary for church affairs from 1979-88, was raised in a Jewish home but did not emphasize his religious heritage. In 1989 he claimed it would be silly to call his family Jewish, despite the three Hanukkah menorahs on the bookshelf in his own home. Only his maternal grandmother was Jewish.

Gysi’s first wife was also Jewish, from a family that was murdered in Auschwitz. Their son, Gregor Gysi, was elected head of East Germany’s Communist Party after the fall of the wall. Unlike other Jews in the party, he did not turn his back on his roots. On the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he joined a group of young people, the children of Holocaust victims and survivors, that had begun to learn about Judaism, Jewish culture and Hebrew. “Jewish to the core” is how a prominent figure in Germany’s Jewish community described him.