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A Jewish Newcomer in Berlin (2000)

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It was a spontaneous decision. In any case, it was far easier to emigrate to Germany than to America: the train ticket cost only 96 rubles, and for East Berlin you didn’t need a visa. My friend Mischa and I arrived in Lichtenberg station in the summer of 1990. In those days one was still given a most democratic reception. In view of our birth certificates, which bore in black and white the information that both of us had Jewish parents, we were issued special certifications by an office specially established for the purpose in Marienfelde, West Berlin. These stated that we were recognized by Germany as citizens of Jewish origin. With these papers we then proceeded to the East German police headquarters on Alexanderplatz, and there, being recognized Jews, we were given an East German identity card.

In Marienfelde and at the Berlin Mitte police headquarters we met like-minded Russians, the vanguard of the fifth wave of emigrants. The first wave was the White Guard during the Revolution and the Civil War; the second wave emigrated between 1941 and 1945; the third consisted of expatriated dissidents in the Sixties; and the fourth wave commenced with Jews who migrated via Vienna in the Seventies.

The Russian Jews of the fifth wave in the early Nineties were indistinguishable from the rest of the German population by their creed or by their appearance. They might be Christians or Muslims or even atheists; they might be blonde, red-heads or dark-haired; their noses might be snub or hooked. Their sole distinguishing feature was that, according to their passports, they were Jews. It was sufficient if a single member of the family was Jewish, or a half or quarter Jewish, and could prove as much in Marienfelde.

As with any game of chance, a good deal of cheating went on. Among the first hundred were people from every walk of life: a surgeon from the Ukraine with his wife and three daughters, an undertaker from Vilnius, an old professor who had done the calculations for the metal casings of the Russian sputniks and told anyone and everyone all about it, an opera singer with a funny voice, a former policeman, and a whole bunch of younger folk, ‘students’ such as ourselves.

A large aliens’ home was established for us in three prefab blocks in Marzahn that had once served East Germany’s security service, the Stasi, as some kind of leisure centre. There we could now enjoy our leisure till further notice. The first in line always get the best deal. Once Germany had definitively been reunified, the newly arrived Jews were evenly distributed around the federal states. From the Black Forest to the woods of Thuringia, from Rostock to Mannheim. Every state had its own rules governing their admission.

In our cozy home in Marzahn we heard the wildest stories. In Cologne, for instance, the rabbi at the synagogue was asked to assess just how Jewish these new Jews really were. Unless they got a signed testimonial from him, there was nothing doing. The rabbi asked one lady what Jews ate at Easter. ‘Gherkins,’ said the lady: ‘gherkins and Easter cake.’ ‘What makes you think they eat gherkins?’ demanded the rabbi, agitated. ‘Oh, right, now I know what you mean,’ returned the lady, beaming. ‘At Easter we Jews eat matzos.’ ‘Well, fair enough, the fact of the matter is that Jews eat matzos all year round, and that means they eat them at Easter too. But tell me,’ inquired the rabbi, ‘do you actually know what matzos are?’ ‘Of course I do,’ replied the lady, delighted, ‘they’re those biscuits baked to an ancient recipe, with the blood of little children.’ The rabbi fainted clear away. There were men who circumcised themselves purely to avoid questions like these.

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