Thousands of Soviet Jews seek to settle in Germany

October 28, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Denied a job and threatened by anti-Semitism, Alia Lapitzky decided that the Soviet Union's new freedoms held nothing for her. She arranged a visa through acquaintances in Germany and left Kiev three months ago.

"There was a pogrom atmosphere, and we couldn't lead a normal life. For us, Germany's [Nazi] past wasn't as bad as the Soviet Union's present," said the 26-year-old doctor.

Nearly 3,000 other Soviet Jews have made similar decisions and arrived in what was then East Germany over the summer and early fall.

After Germany united Oct. 3, the processing of visas in the Soviet Union was stopped but the German government said Thursday that it was prepared to resume and even speed up this process. As soon as a policy is formulated, Soviet Jews will be allowed to enter "unbureaucratically," the government announced.

At least 10,000 Jews have applied in Kiev for a visa to Germany, and they alone would boost Germany's small Jewish population by one-third. At present, 30,000 Jews live in former West Germany and about 300 in former East Germany, excluding the recently arrived Soviet Jews. There was a flourishing Jewish community of 500,000 in Germany before the Nazis took power in 1933 and started implementing policies that resulted in the killing of 6 million Jews across Europe.

Horst Waffenschmidt of the German Interior Ministry said the immigration could lead to a "revitalization of the Jewish element in German cultural and spiritual life."

But he said that Germany does not see itself as an "immigration country" and would only accept the refugees because of their extremely difficult situation. He did not say if a quota would be introduced, something strongly opposed by German Jewish organizations.

Heinz Galinsky, chairman of the Central Council of German Jews, said he was not satisfied with the government's new position.

"We want all the Jews who want to come to be allowed to come," he said. "People there need to get out. The society in the Soviet Union is breaking up, and Jews are being made scapegoats."

Because of the "sensitive" nature of past German-Jewish relations, there would have to be a non-partisan consensus in Parliament, Mr. Waffenschmidt said. The opposition Greens and Social Democrats said that they favored the proposal but that it should be more liberal so that absolutely anyone who wants to come should be able to.

Mr. Waffenschmidt said his ministry would develop an admissions procedure in conjunction with the German Jewish community. A policy could be in place next month, he said.

One of the main problems is where to put the new arrivals. East Germany had put them in former army camps, and many are still there, although Ms. Lapitzky, for example, has found an apartment in Berlin. Other problems include organizing German language courses and bringing the immigrants into German society.

Irene Runge, a teacher at the East Berlin Humboldt University and author of a book on racism in East Germany, said most of the immigrants adapt well. Although most would rather go to the United States, which has limited their immigration, they prefer Germany's prosperity to the uncertainty of Israel and its very different climate, she said.

Racism in their new home is not such a problem for them as it is for more visible minorities, such as African students, Mrs. Runge said.

"We have 160 Jewish immigrants participating in a language course, and none have problems with racism. It's certainly there, but nothing like they were experiencing in the Soviet Union," Mrs. Runge said.

Ms. Lapitzky, for example, said anti-Semitism used to be a daily fear. Not only was she forced to go to Siberia to study medicine but was denied a job afterward. The Russian nationalist movement Pamyat has distributed leaflets blaming Jews for everything from food shortages to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Others also felt threatened. Elina Levin lived with her two sons and husband in Riga, the capital of the Soviet republic of Latvia. Although the political movement for the republic's independence has helped Jews to freely practice their religion, it also has mobilized nationalistic and sometimes anti-Semitic feelings.

Mrs. Levin's children, for example, were singled out by a teacher in school and told that they were responsible for the deportation of thousands of Latvians by the Russians. Anonymous telephone calls and the threat of violence finally caused them to give up any hope of living a normal life.

Germany's history doesn't make Mrs. Levin excited about having moved here. Still, she doesn't fear another Holocaust.

"It's different from 50 years ago because now we know we can always go to Israel if it starts up," she said. "That's our insurance in our pocket just in case it doesn't work out here."

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