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A Jewish Newcomer in Berlin (2000)

Jewish satirist Wladimir Kaminer describes his own decision to emigrate from the Soviet Union to East Berlin, where he landed in the summer of 1990. Kaminer went on to become a successful radio talk-show host, DJ, the author of several best-selling books about the everyday lives of Russian immigrants in Germany, and a symbol of the new Russo-German sensibility. The following vignette was taken from Russendisko [Russian Disco] (2000), a collection of humorous stories describing the Russian-German encounter.

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Russians in Berlin

In the summer of 1990, a rumor was making the rounds in Moscow: Honecker* was taking Jews from the Soviet Union as a kind of compensation for East Germany’s never having paid its share of the German payments to Israel. According to the official East German propaganda, all the old Nazis were living in West Germany. The many dealers who flew from Moscow to West Berlin and back every week on import-export business brought the news back to the city with them. Word got around quickly. Everyone knew, except maybe Honecker. Normally most people in the Soviet Union tried to cover up any Jewish forebears they had, because you only had hopes of a career if your passport didn’t give you away. The roots of this lay not in Anti-Semitism but simply in the fact that every position that carried any responsibility at all required membership in the Communist Party. And nobody really wanted Jews in the Party. The whole Soviet people marched in step, like the soldiers on Red Square – from one triumph of Soviet labor to the next. No one could opt out, unless he was a Jew. As such, in theory at least, one might emigrate to Israel. If a Jew wanted to do just that, it was almost in order. But if a member of the Party applied for permission to emigrate, the other Communists in his branch lost face.

My father, for instance, was a candidate for Party membership four times, and every time he failed to get in. For ten years he was deputy manager of the planning department in a small business, dreaming of one day making it to manager. In that event he would have earned a whole 35 rubles more. But for the director, a manager of the planning department who wasn’t a Party member was the stuff of nightmares. It wouldn’t have worked in any case because the manager had to report on his work to the district committee of the Party assembly once a month. How on earth was he even to get in without a membership card?

Every year my father made a fresh attempt to join the Party. He drank vodka by the liter together with Party activists, he sweated to death with them in the sauna, but it was all in vain. Every year his schemes foundered on the same rock: ‘We really like you, Viktor. You’re our bosom pal for all time,’ said the activists. ‘We’d have liked to have you in the Party. But you know yourself that you’re a Jew and might bugger off to Israel any moment’ ‘But I’ll never do any such thing,’ answered my father. ‘Of course you won’t, we all know that, but in theory it’s possible, isn’t it? Just think how stupid we’d all look.’ And so my father never got past being a candidate for membership.

The new era dawned. Now the free ticket to the big wide world, the invitation to make a fresh start, was yours if you were Jewish. Jews who had formerly paid to have the word ‘Jew’ removed from their passports now started shelling out to have it put in. Suddenly every business wanted a Jewish world. Many people of various nationalities suddenly wanted to be Jews and emigrate to America, Canada or Austria. East Germany joined the list a little later on, and was something of an insider tip.

I got the tip from the uncle of a friend who sold photocopiers he imported from West Berlin. On one occasion we visited him in his apartment, which was already completely empty because the entire family was shortly departing for Los Angeles. All that remained was a large, expensive TV set with integrated video recorder, which sat squarely on the floor in the middle of the room. The uncle was reclining on a mattress, watching porn movies.

‘Honecker is taking Jews in East Berlin. It’s too late for me to change course, I’ve already moved my millions to America,’ he told us. ‘But you’re still young, you don’t have anything, Germany’s just the job for you, it’s crawling with layabouts. They’ve got a stable welfare system. They won’t even notice a couple more lads.’

* Former SED leader Erich Honecker was no longer in power in the summer of 1990. Kaminer seems to use his name as a general reference to the GDR – eds.

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