Who Integrated Whom?

25 Years of Russian-speaking Jewish immigration in Germany

I came to Germany as a secular Jew who had been persecuted in the Soviet Union, and I did not know a word of German. Today I am a religious Jew and a poet and writer in German and Russian. In my case, you couldn’t talk of failed integration.” Boris Schapiro was born in Moscow in 1944. He is a successful natural scientist and is currently working on what he calls a rational theology of Judaism. He came to Berlin in 1975, fifteen years before the major influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union began in the summer of 1990. Still, he is quite representative: Like a majority of these immigrants who number about 212,000 in all, he hails from a big city and has a university education.


Russian passport: nationality Jewish


For many, starting a new life in Germany was accompanied by a renewed interest in Judaism: About half joined a synagogue. But tens of thousands of others who had been considered ethnically Jewish in the Soviet Union and had therefore faced discrimination were suddenly confronted with the fact that they did not count as Jews under Jewish law because their mothers were not Jewish.

For the small Jewish community in Germany – in 1989, West-Germany just counted 30,000 registered members, and a couple of hundred in the East – the new arrivals heralded a revival, though it was a great challenge trying to integrate such a huge number. Since the immigration regulations were changed in July 2006, hardly any more Jews have come here from the former Soviet Union.

Nowadays there are 108 Jewish communities of various denominations in Germany affiliated with the umbrella organization, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and they have 100,500 members in all. 90 percent of the members are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

“The influx has done a lot for both sides. The local Jews received reinforcements. Sometimes, as in Chemnitz, the new arrivals actually saved a tiny dying community. And we immigrants found a new home,” says Mascha Lyamets. She is head of the Atid Jewish culture club in Chemnitz. “Two things annoyed me about the locals: First, they reproached us for not being religious enough and not the real thing. But we don’t have to justify ourselves, given the hard times we often endured as Jews in the Soviet Union. Despite discrimination and repressive measures, our Jewish networks there were at least as authentic and stable as the ones in Germany, where it is very easy to pursue your faith and your culture openly.” She says immigrants with Jewish fathers have been poorly treated: “They were ignored. It is very sad. And in the long term that will backfire.”


The New Synagogue, Berlin

Michaela Michalowitz, a Christian Democrat local politician in Hanover, views things differently: “At first, I saw that period as one of inner emigration. Many of the German congregations were unlikely to survive. But they did constitute a community of Jewish survivors. Jewish and survivors – that is what united the members, who after all had come from many different countries.” Michalowitz says the situation nowadays is very different.

Barbara Fuchs from Frankfurt am Main sees it like this: “The Jews from the former Soviet Union strengthened the German Jewish community and gave it a new lease on life. They had fought in the Red Army against Germany and therefore had a very different perspective on the Holocaust than those who had survived it or had come back after the war. It is not easy in the communities, but it works.”

A two-way process

Mary Sofer is an administrator at the association of Jewish communities in the state of Lower Saxony. “On Rosh ha-Shana I had the opportunity to meet people who came here 20 or 25 years ago. The younger generation went to school here, and to university. Many have good jobs. But I have the impression that their background is stronger than the German culture they live in. It is not a matter of language. They speak perfect German.”

One member of this younger generation is Renate Pal. “I think it was a reciprocal undertaking: The newcomers integrated as well as they could at the time. The Germans helped with the integration and in the process they changed too; they became a bit Russian perhaps. Now they eat pelmeni and piroshki. As to culture and religion, the fast pace of life and modern media have such a strong influence that things like that fade into the background. You could say a hyper-integration has taken place, at the expense of tradition.”

Has integration changed both the newcomers and those already here – and changed them for the better? Looking back over the past quarter-century, one could say it has been a success. Jascha Nemtsov certainly thinks so: “My impression is that the integration was successful – for both sides. Whoever was still able to learn, learned a lot from German culture. And the locals adopted a little Russian culture.” Nemtsov is a pianist and musicologist who grew up in what was then Leningrad, came to Germany in 1992 and is now professor of the history of Jewish music in Weimar. “Many immigrants have developed a complex identity,” he says. Alla Vollodarska-Kelmereit, a social worker at the Liberal Jewish Community in Hanover who comes from Ukraine, would agree: “Wherever they realized that only reciprocal integration can work, integration in the communities has been a success.”

Photo Credit: Pedelecs by Wikivoyage and Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode), David Shankbone/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode)

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