Stasi Spies and neo-Nazis: East German Jewish Life Before and After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Members of the Jewish community reflect on events before and after November 9, 1989, including an unlikely Jewish renaissance in eastern Germany and the disturbing rise of the far right

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The original synagogue of Halle was destroyed in Kristallnacht. In 1948, the city's Jewish funeral home was made its new synagogue.
The original synagogue of Halle was destroyed in Kristallnacht. In 1948, the city's Jewish funeral home was made its new synagogue.Credit: Felix Adler
Steffi Hentschke
Steffi Hentschke

History doesn’t make appointments; it just happens. On November 9, 1989, Jutta and Max Schwab were at home in Halle — at the time, one of the industrial capitals of the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany). As they did every year on this date, they were remembering Max’s father, Julius, who was one of 120 or so Jews deported from Halle to Buchenwald exactly 51 years earlier, on Kristallnacht.

“We sat in the living room, the TV was on,” recalls Jutta Schwab. “Then, suddenly, we saw people climbing the Wall. What a crazy moment!”

When Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Saturday, East German Jews will be remembering a moment of release, and hope.

After living under an anti-Semitic regime since the formation of the GDR in 1949, Jewish life was soon reestablished in the east. Thousands of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union headed west and settled in the area, and greater awareness about the Holocaust was generated.

But for the region’s Jews, the 30th anniversary is not only about remembering the past but also facing the future. After neo-Nazi riots in the eastern city of Chemnitz last year, a deadly attack on Halle’s synagogue last month and the success of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in east German states, they worry what may come next.

People visiting the Stasi Memorial Museum 'Runde Ecke' in Leipzig.Credit: Felix Adler

Haaretz spoke with several members of the Jewish commiunity living in the former GDR to find out about life before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

‘There is something wrong with this lady’

Max Schwab has spent his entire life in Halle, a small city situated 150 kilometers (93 miles) southwest of Berlin. The 87-year-old former geologist was born here in 1932 and survived the Holocaust. When his father was taken to Buchenwald, never to return, his mother (herself a convert to Judaism) filed for divorce, in order to protect her children from a similar fate.

After the war, when Germany was split into separate capitalist and communist states, Max decided to stay in the east for one simple reason, his wife Jutta explains. (Max’s 86-year-old, non-Jewish partner speaks for him these days since he is in poor health.) “He always said he stays in the GDR because there are Nazi judges in the West,” she says.

The narrative in East Germany was simple: capitalists are fascists and communists aren’t; the West is bad, the East good. Indeed, it is widely recognized that while in West Germany a number of former Nazi officials resumed their old prewar positions, the GDR was far more diligent in its denazification process.

This wooden door saved the life of more than 50 people praying inside the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur.Credit: Felix Adler

Although Max Schwab and his family stayed in the east for a reason, he never stopped worrying. Working as a professor at the local university, he hid his Jewish identity from his colleagues. For him and his family, being Jewish meant staying active within the city’s tiny Jewish community.

“In the beginning, we had a very nice [community] chairwoman,” recounts Jutta. “But when she left and a new one arrived in 1968, my mother-in-law stopped joining the services. ‘There is something wrong with this lady,’ she always used to say. Well, then we figured out that this woman was not Jewish but a spy.”

The Stasi, the GDR’s notorious state security apparatus, maintained surveillance on all religious groups, including the various Jewish communities. During its 40-year existence, most of East Germany’s Jewish communities were dissolved by their congregants — the mistrust and struggles the members faced simply too great to overcome. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Halle’s Jewish community numbered fewer than 10 members, not even enough for a minyan.

In July 1990, the East German government recognized Russian Jews in the former Soviet Union as refugees (reunified Germany followed a year later), and more than 150,000 Russian Jews immigrated over the next decade, most of them settling in eastern Germany. “Without them, I don’t think there would be any Jewish life in Halle today,” says Jutta Schwab.

For Jutta and Max, the reunification brought a huge Jewish revival and active community life. “Most of the new members are from Ukraine,” says Jutta. “They’re all so sweet with my husband — although it is hard for us to follow the services now because we don’t speak Russian,” she adds, referring to the lack of German-language services at Halle’s synagogue.

Flowers left in front of the synagogue in Halle.Credit: Felix Adler

‘I tried at least to be a good communist’

Anetta Kahane, 65, is a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Her parents had fled Nazi Germany for France in 1933, but when the GDR was founded in 1949, they returned “home” — for ideological reasons. As communists, they believed in the idea of a “workers and peasants” state, although their daughter (born in 1954) soon started questioning its anti-fascist narrative.

At home, Kahane says, she was faced with traumatized parents and whispered conversations about relatives being murdered in the war for being Jewish. But in the outside world, at school, she was being bullied and attacked because she was Jewish.

“‘Why are you always having so much trouble? You’re surrounded by good communists,’ my father used to ask me,” Kahane recounts. “He told me just to adapt.”

So, in 1973 she took him at his word — and started spying for the Stasi.

As Kahane explains it, when a close friend of hers tried to escape to the West, the regime blamed Kahane for not denouncing her — a crime punishable by imprisonment. After being questioned for several hours, a Stasi official entered the room and offered her a very common deal in a system where blackmail was often seen as the easiest way to create loyalty: spy for the state.

“I agreed to work with them for two reasons,” says Kahane. “First, I had no other option. Second, and I know this is not an excuse, but I kind of wanted to — because since I could not live my Jewish identity, at least I could try to be a good communist.”

In the months following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kahane was part of the so-called Round Table — where leading civil rights activists tried to find a way not to finish the GDR but to reform and sustain it.

Already regretting her Stasi activity, it was now the fight for a new awareness of the Holocaust and Jewish life in East Germany was taking shape. Instead of acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, the GDR’s official position had always been to ignore it and point the finger instead at its major enemy: the West. “That was what made the GDR anti-Semitic in a structural way,” Kahane reflects.

During its first session in April 1990, the first (and final) democratically elected Volkskammer (East German Parliament) made a declaration no West German parliament had ever made: “We, the first democratically elected parliament of the GDR, in the name of the citizens of our country, admit responsibility for the humiliation, expulsion and murder of Jewish men, women and children. We feel sorrow and shame and acknowledge this burden of German history. … We ask all Jews of the world to forgive us.”

Max Schwab, 87 and wife Jutta, 86, at their home in Halle. Since the attack on the synagogue, Jutta says, her husband became very quiet.Credit: Felix Adler

In subsequent decades, Kahane has been chairwoman of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, one of the most famous German nongovernmental organizations fighting right-wing extremism. She went public with her Stasi file and talks openly about it. For Kahane, who lives in Berlin, the decades in which East Germany refused to recognize or acknowledge its wartime crimes are visible as never before nowadays. “I’ve been saying this for the last 30 years: The reason why the far right is doing so well in the east is its GDR history,” she says.

‘Maybe I’ve been a bit too optimistic’

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Uwe Dziuballa saw it as a sign that it was time to come home. He had spent his formative years in Karl-Marx-Stadt, before his family moved to the then-Yugoslavia in the 1980s. When he returned to the city in 1993, neither the name of his hometown nor any Jewish life remained. Dziuballa decided to stay and to reestablish Jewish life in Chemnitz (the city is situated close to the border with the Czech Republic).

In 1999, he and his younger brother Lars Ariel Dziuballa opened a kosher restaurant in Chemnitz, calling it Schalom. “I wanted to make Jewish life visible, in the most simple way,” Uwe explains.

For 20 years, he has operated one of the best kosher restaurants in eastern Germany, regularly featuring in the “Michelin Guide.” But it wasn’t the quality of the food that made Schalom headline news in 2018: On August 27 last year, during one of the biggest neo-Nazi riots in Germany since World War II, Dziuballa’s restaurant — the most visible sign of Jewish life in Chemnitz — became a target for the far right. A group of neo-Nazis converged on the restaurant, shouting, “Get out of Germany. Jewish Pigs.”

'I have stronger windows now,' says the owner of 'Schalom,' Uwe Dzuiballa. Credit: Felix Adler

“Now I have a safe word in case I have to call the police; I have stronger windows,” says Dziuballa. “And I know that if something like this happens again, even The New York Times will report on it.”

Dziuballa is an optimist. He has tried to be, anyway. After the Chemnitz riots, he spoke to many journalists, went to events where AfD party leaders were also invited, tried to hold discussions with them. The rise of the far right party isn’t just an east German problem. In fact, most of its leading politicians are from the West, while many of the estimated 6,000 neo-Nazis rioting in Chemnitz also reportedly came from there. “I live here and I’m surrounded by nice and warm people,” says Dziuballa.

Yet late last month, the former East German state of Thuringia held its federal election and although the socialist Linke party won, the AfD received more than 23 percent, becoming the second-largest party. Björn Höcke, the local head of the AfD in Thuringia, previously made headlines after labeling Berlin’s Holocaust memorial “a monument of shame” and stating that Germany must move away from “culture of remembering Nazi crimes” and stop apologizing for its past. Höcke is a former history teacher.

“I always thought that not all them support Nazis, that they’re just disappointed because of all the problems the reunification [of Germany] caused,” Dziuballa reflects. “Maybe that’s the reason I’ve been a bit too optimistic — and maybe I was wrong.”

‘I never felt as Jewish as I feel now’

The Schalom is the only kosher restaurant in the former East German federal state of Saxony and is recommended in the Michalin’s Guide. In some German Food guides it is listed as "foreign cuisine."Credit: Felix Adler

Dmitrij Kapitelman is a 33-year-old writer who moved with his parents from Ukraine to eastern Germany in 1994. Growing up in the post-communist east meant dealing with well-drilled, hate-filled skinheads and a police force that routinely ignored right-wing violence. “For me, living in this east German reality meant living a more dangerous, more aggressive reality,” says the Leipzig resident.

Recently, the first generation of Germans from the post-reunification era has started to explore its East German roots. We Are the East, for example, is a new initiative by journalists and professionals with the aim of creating a more positive image of the area. Kapitelman says he “kind of” feels East German, but for him it's a more intangible thing. “Most of these initiatives now are nothing more then self-assurance; they won’t solve any problems,” he says.

Since the October 9 Halle attack — which left two dead and 80 Jewish worshippers grateful that the reinforced doors had prevented the gunman from gaining entry — and the Thuringia election results, Kapitelman says he has started commenting on the political situation from a Jewish perspective.

While the media has in recent years tried to discuss the reasons why Germans (and especially eastern Germans) are supporting the AfD, he is now demanding more solidarity for minority groups, like Germany's Jews, than more calls to understand the far right.

“I never felt as Jewish as I feel now,” says Kapitelman. “I think I have to fight for my parents, I have to protect them. While Germany now debates what its political center is, the minorities find themselves in the center of this storm.”

One simple change

“‘Never again,’ they said — but I’m not sure we can still say that,” says Jutta Schwab, still in shock following last month's attack in Halle. This Saturday, she and husband Max will visit the ruins of the city’s old synagogue, which was burned down on November 9, 1938, where they will mourn the deportation of Max’s late father.

“If you want a simple example of how Jewish life has changed because of the fall of the Wall, this is it,” says Jutta. “During the years of the GDR, we weren't allowed to hold this mourning ceremony. Now, at least, we are.”

Right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former district headquarters of the Stasi in Leipzig became a Memorial Museum, the 'Runde Ecke.'Credit: Felix Adler

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