Jews have been living in Berlin for the last 800 years, and the history of the Berlin Jews is important in understanding the history of Berlin itself. Jewish life in Berlin has seen ups and downs, from being the center of the Jewish Enlightenment movement in the early 20th century, to the horrors of the Holocaust in the 1940s.
History of Berlin’s Jews
Berlin’s iconic New Synagogue. Image KatherineKenny via Flickr
Until the eighteenth century, Jews in Berlin had similar experience to Jews around Europe, sometimes being tolerated, with restrictions on what they could buy and own, and occasionally being killed and expelled from the city. In between expulsions, they generally lived in separate ghettos, in the area now known as Jew Street (Jüdenstrasse) and Jew’s Court (Judenhof).
After Napoleon, Jews were given civil rights, and despite restrictions and hostilities still in place, Jews became more integrated in Berlin’s life, working as merchants and bankers. Moses Mendelssohn, a German-Jewish philosopher, believed in integrating the Jews into secular society, and opened a school in Berlin with this aim in mind. Berlin also became the center of a movement known as Haskalah (‘enlightenment’), promoting secular values and integration. By the beginning of the 1900s, Jews made up 5% of Berlin’s population, and were involved in every aspect of the city’s life.
Antisemitism never fully disappeared, even through the years of Jewish integration, and sporadic attacks against Jews continued up to the 1930s. Jews were also barred from several official positions. Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I, and with the rise of the Nazis in 1933, their position worsened drastically. The Kristallnacht riots that broke out in November 1938 destroyed many Jewish synagogues and businesses, and in the months that followed, thousands of Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. In 1943, Berlin was declared Judenrein, clear of Jews. Out of 160,000 Jews living in Berlin in 1933, only 8,000 survived.
After the Holocaust, the surviving Jews worked on rebuilding the community. They were based mainly in the American sector of West Berlin, and their numbers grew after the end of the Cold War, when they were joined by Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Today there is a vibrant community of 20,000 Jews in Berlin.
Seeing Berlin’s Jewish history
You can see the Jewish history of Berlin in many museums, memorials and cultural sites. Perhaps the most famous is the Jewish Museum, detailing two thousand years of Jewish life in Germany, as well as its near-decimation during the Holocaust. There are also a number of Holocaust memorials around the city, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (and its extensive information center), and the Topography of Terror museum.
As you walk through Berlin, you might encounter small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk. These ‘stumbling stones’ (Stolpersteine) mark places where Jews used to live, and are part of a project by the artist Gunter Demnig to symbolically bring back the Jews to the places they were removed from.
You can also visit modern Jewish life in Berlin. The New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse is open to the public, as is the renovated Jewish Theater on Friedrichstrasse. There is an annual Jewish Film Festival, as well as numerous Jewish cultural events throughout the year.
Walking tours of Berlin’s Jewish History are also available:
4 hour walking tour running every day showing Berlin’s Jewish history through the ages (12 Euros)