History Afoot as Jewish Community Plans First Float at Dusseldorf Carnival

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Carnival in Germany
Carnival in GermanyCredit: AP

Carnival in Germany is a time of crazy revelry and political satire. But can the inherently Christian festivities be used in the battle against anti-Semitism?

The Jewish community hopes so and plans to use humor to do it with a slogan-bearing float for the Shrove Monday parade in Dusseldorf on February 12. The star of the float will be the city’s most satirical poet, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).

In German memory there is no recollection, be it among Jewish organizations or historians, of a Jewish float in a Shrove Monday parade. Ever since the Nazi period, when carnival parades, especially in Cologne, targeted Jews for ridicule and satire, it seemed unthinkable that a Jewish group would come anywhere close to carnival activities.

But for Michael Szentei-Heise, administrative director of Dusseldorf’s Jewish community, carnival and the fight against anti-Semitism is not a contradiction.

“We have a period now when anti-Semitism is again becoming socially acceptable and, from the extreme right and extreme left, is slowly making its way into the middle of society again,” Szentei-Heise said.

A signal was needed to oppose this, he said: “We are part of the Dusseldorf urban community. We belong here. And there is no place for anti-Semitism here.”

The Jewish community has launched a campaign seeking donations to finance the 35,000-euro ($42,000) cost for the float project.

The sweets that the people on the float will throw to the crowd will be kosher and vegan. “There are no animal components in them, no gelatin,” Szentei-Heise said. The sweets are made in Belgium.

Carnival is a time when Jewish communities are particularly watchful. All Jewish institutions and buildings are under tightened surveillance and “special security precautions” will also be in place for the Jewish float.

Szentei-Heise says that its appearance will not be particularly different from the other floats.

The float design shows Heinrich Heine, wearing a kippah and prayer shawl, lying atop a silhouette of Dusseldorf and writing. In large letters, the float says, “We are celebrating the greatest Jewish son of our city.”

A prickly detail is that Heine converted from Judaism to Protestantism, a religion which he said he “believed in only in a lukewarm, official manner.” It was a conversion of convenience: By being baptised a Protestant, he hoped for better chances in his profession and in society.

This first Jewish carnival float opens a new chapter in the history of carnival, though historian Marcus Leifeld notes that in Cologne during the 19th century, Jewish citizens were members of carnival societies.

A major figure in Cologne’s carnival after 1919 was the Jewish reveler Hans Tobar. In 1922 he even founded a Jewish carnival club, dubbed the Small Cologne Club. But already the next year Jewish revelers were excluded from the traditional carnival societies.

So now a small renaissance of the Jewish carnival is taking shape. At the moment, a Jewish carnival group is being founded in Cologne, says Tanja Holthaus of the Cologne Carnival Festival Committee.

According to Szentei-Heise, the reactions within the Jewish community to the Heinrich Heine float were “totally individual.” Some people in the nearby city of Krefeld liked the idea and even donated money. But another community in the region was not at all understanding. Overall, the Jewish community’s response to the float ranged from benevolence to amusement.

It was “with a wink of the eye and a grin” that he wanted to point out a serious problem, Szentei-Heise said: “You can constantly moan about or thunder against something in the newspaper. Or you can drive a float in the Dusseldorf carnival parade.”