Jewish congregation in Berlin, supposed dead, claims its place again

June 13, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- The story goes that the Jewish community of Adass Jisroel died when its members fled or were murdered during the Holocaust.

For years, people believed the story. East Berlin used some of Adass Jisroel's property as offices, West Berlin built apartments on other pieces of its land, and the official Jewish Community of Berlin gave its seal of approval to the actions.

But Adass Jisroel never really died.

Much to the surprise and embarrassment of the Jewish Community of Berlin and Berlin authorities, Adass Jisroel has re-emerged after 50 years as a small but vigorous Orthodox Jewish community. It has fought back to re-establish its traditional role as Berlin's second Jewish community and is slowly reclaiming its confiscated property.

Adass Jisroel's story also raises the unpleasant question of why Germans kept demolishing synagogues after World War II ended.

Although many people helped the community back onto its feet, much of the credit goes to its tenacious chairman, Mario Offenberg, the sonof a prewar Adass Jisroel rabbi and grandson of a founder of the community.

Along with new Jewish immigration to Berlin made possible by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr. Offenberg's efforts have reconstituted a community that now boasts a school, a day-care center and a renovated cemetery. It is rapidly outgrowing its makeshift synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of what was East Berlin.

The community's newfound strength is surprising. Founded in 1869, it was banned by the Nazis in 1939 and largely destroyed duringthe Holocaust.

The community's affairs were taken over by the Jewish Community of Berlin, an organization of Jewish representatives in West Berlin formed in 1952. Without consulting surviving Adass Jisroel members, it turned over property in the western half of the city near the Tiergarten to the Jewish Trust Corp. for tTC Germany in 1953. The property was sold to a housing corporation, and the community's school and synagogue were torn down and replaced by apartment blocks.

In East Berlin, the community center and another synagogue weregiven to a state export company that ripped down the building's facade and closed up the wells used for ritual washing. The synagogue in the back courtyard was demolished.

With the community's property sold off and its buildings largely demolished, that was to have been the end of Adass Jisroel's story. But things began to change 15 years ago, when Mr. Offenberg moved to West Berlin from Israel, where he was born after his parents fled Berlin.

The 45-year-old university lecturer pressed the Jewish Community of Berlin for the return of the property, pointing out that Adass Jisroel still existed legally and that it had hundreds of interested former members overseas.

When he got no response, Mr. Offenberg went to East Berlin, site of the community's cemetery, and secured top-level East German government help for its care.

Mr. Offenberg then organized young volunteers from East and West Berlin to come over to work on the cemetery and got Hebrew students from East Berlin's Humboldt University to help him decipher inscriptions on some of the smashed and overturned tombstones.

"We wanted to do everything not to allow the destruction of the Jews by the Nazis to be accepted as an eternal and accomplished fact," Mr. Offenberg said.

Mr. Offenberg then won a big battle shortly after the East German hard-line government fell in 1989. East German bureaucrats disregarded protests from the Jewish Community of Berlin, recognized Adass Jisroel's legal existence and returned its cemetery and community center.

Mr. Offenberg's plans were givena tremendous boost last year when East Germany allowed thousands of Soviet Jews to enter the country. The community grew to 250 families and reopened its synagogue for the first time in 52 years.

The community is planning to open a kosher butcher shop and hopes one day to reopen Adass Jisroel's famous rabbinical school.

Mr. Offenberg has also made himself a pariah with the established 7,000-member Jewish Community of Berlin, which still does not acknowledge Adass Jisroel's modern existence. He fought vigorously against what he saw as the community's smothering role, arguing that Berlin and Germany never had a central Jewish council until the Nazis established one.

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