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Apr 2004 Journal

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Exodus and retro-exodus (editorial)

In this month of commemorating the Exodus from Pharaonic Egypt it may not be inappropriate to reflect on exodus as a recurring theme in our historical experience.

The great caesura in Jewish history is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. This cataclysmic event left us burdened with the unique fate of being a people without firm ground under our feet throughout the ensuing 20 centuries.

In the welter of migrations which swept across Europe during the first millennium one wave carried Jews towards Spain (Sepharad) and another towards Germany (Ashekenaz). In both countries they took root and flourished - temporarily. The Crusades devastated the Rhineland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, causing a massive exodus to Poland. Two centuries later Spain and Portugal underwent 'ethnic cleansing' - a process that forced thousands of Sephardim to seek asylum in Holland, Italy and Turkey.

Hereafter only relatively minor Jewish population movement occurred until the age of steamships and pogroms. (The pogroms had been anticipated around 1650 by the horrendous Khmelnitsky massacres in Ukraine which decimated once flourishing Jewish communities.)

From 1880 until the outbreak of the Great War, some 2 million poverty-stricken and persecuted Jews left the Russian Pale of Settlement - der heim - for the USA, Britain, South Africa and South America.

The Great War brought about a small population shift within Austria-Hungary when thousands of Galician Jews fled from the advancing Russians to Vienna, Budapest and Prague. The postwar decade perpetuated this westward drift as France and Belgium encouraged East European immigration to offset wartime population losses.

The year 1933 sounded the death knell for continued Jewish existence, first in Germany and then in mainland Europe. During the last peace-time years, half of Germany's (and two-thirds of Austria's) Jews made their escape. Polish Jewry, the largest community on the Continent, was caught in a trap, although about one in ten escaped to Russia (where about half survived).

The post-1945 period saw a smaller, though highly publicised exodus as several thousand Shoah survivors tried to reach British-administered Palestine. (One of the boats involved was appropriately named Exodus.)

Israeli independence transformed the situation. The promulgation of the Law of Return emptied the Displaced Persons' (DP) camps in Germany and Austria within a short time. Simultaneously a huge exodus of Jews from Arab countries - from Morocco to Iraq - overwhelmed the fledgling Jewish state. In addition, the bulk of the Bulgarian and (the far more numerous) Romanian communities made their way to Israel.

Back in Germany, the Jewish situation underwent several changes in the next half-century. Moribund communities of handfuls of survivors - self-styled Liquidations-gemniden - took on a new lease of life as DPs from Eastern Europe decided to rebuild their lives in the country which, however burdened by its past, offered better economic prospects than their homelands.

Meanwhile, the DP founders of the 'reborn' German communities have spawned a small new generation of German speakers. However, they would have been numerically too weak to ensure a vibrant communal renaissance if it had not been for what might be termed a retro-exodus - the influx of Russian Jews which in the last quarter-century has raised the size of the German Jewish community from around 40,000 to 100,000.

A body of that size is clearly viable. Demographically the future of the (inherently problematical) German-domiciled community therefore seems assured. But there are, of course, huge hurdles to be overcome. On the host society's part, there is the long echo of the epithet 'Hitler's willing executioners' coined by Professor Goldhagen. As for the Jewish community, it faces the daunting challenge of melding together two disparate entities: a German-speaking minority and a majority of Russophone newcomers.

The gulf between the two extends beyond language to lifestyle and even conduct during synagogue services (echoes of the pre-1933 animosity between yekkes and Ostjuden). Whether the evolution of a united community will ever lead to a genuine German-Jewish symbiosis is another matter. Every so often a German public figure with a Judeophobic agenda - a Walser, or Möllemann, or Hohmann - pops up and casts a long shadow and then disappears from view. In other words, the jury on the future of German Jewry is still out.

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