Visitors often remark that Berlin has in many ways dealt remarkably well with its grim Nazi past. Whether you take the gigantic Holocaust memorial right next to the Brandenburg Gate — memorably described by former chancellor Gerhard Schröder as “a place one likes to visit” — or the less visible small Stolpersteine, the cobblestone-sized memorials for individual victims of Nazism that are embedded across the pavements, the city’s manifold gestures of remembrance are seen as impressive rather than oppressive.
However, Berliners seem to be in two minds about just how its Jewish heritage should be conserved. Jewishness is still a delicate subject. A recent survey suggested that as many as 20 per cent of Germans harbour latent anti-Semitic feelings, with another 20 per cent agreeing with statements claiming that Jews had too much power in business. While polls in Britain or France might show similar results, anti-Semitism will always have a different, more sinister ring to it in Germany, no matter how much Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) has occurred.
Take the public outcry over the scandal that recently gripped the country when it emerged that a right-wing terror cell had managed to operate for more than ten years without being detected by the authorities, who, some are inclined to believe, deliberately turned a blind eye. But for every shocking revelation about the country being unable to shake off its ghosts there’s a story that’s ultimately more compelling.
The past five years have seen an influx of foreigners coming to live in Berlin. A large proportion of them are urban, well-educated Americans, some of whom are Jewish. Israelis are reported to be moving to Berlin in increasing numbers too. As a friend of mine recently observed, this love affair with Berlin seems almost like a counter-reaction to previous generations’ feelings about Germany. Their grandparents had fled the Nazis, their parents boycotted all things German, but their children — now in their twenties and thirties — flock to Berlin, perhaps not only attracted by cheap rents and a lively arts scene but out of curiosity about their families’ roots.
Imagine my surprise recently when a new restaurant, Pauly Saal, opened in the former Jewish girls’ school in Berlin Mitte, the popular haunt of young Berliners. The listed building is in Auguststrasse, a street that was once part of the Jewish quarter — the synagogue is still nearby — and it’s now dotted with galleries and fancy shops. Pauly Saal is supposed to bring together art and gastronomy. The former classrooms and corridors display exhibitions, while in a dining room called “The Kosher Classroom”, kosher cuisine is offered, including a traditional Sabbath dinner. Surely nothing peculiar about a new restaurant opening, one might have thought at the glitzy opening night, perhaps it caters mainly for tourists or the Jewish community, which owns parts of the complex — and why shouldn’t anybody, Jewish or not, enjoy a kosher meal once in a while?
What troubled me about this thought, I realised when I left the party and walked past the recently restored synagogue on Oranienstrasse, was not the eagerly self-certified normality of Jewish life in Berlin. Rather, it was the clumsy self-confidence with which Berlin has come to present itself as a cultural capital. “Berlin’s golden years of the 1920s and ’30s serve as the inspiration. The sophisticated decor and the cuisine of the era are reinterpreted,” boasted the restaurant’s press release. Lavish decor and sophisticated cuisine are perhaps not the first things that spring to mind when one thinks of that era. That, however, wasn’t the main reason for my irritation. Rather, it was the combination of a kind of easy, ahistorical pop-cultural referencing with the kitschy indulgence that yearns after organic cattle grazing on lush meadows, slow food and microbreweries. Was this Jewishness served as a themed dining experience? And thus a mere continuation, albeit in a jollier guise, of the postwar treatment of Jewish life in Germany as a museum piece.
I posed this question to one of my best friends, who happens to be an American Jew. He too wondered whether the hip crowd that had gathered for the opening would return for quiet Shabbat dinners, and how the Jewish community of Berlin would respond to it. Surprisingly, however, he didn’t see a problem in principle with hipsters jumping on the latest bandwagon. Maybe this is the real challenge for today’s Berliners, for whom the city’s exalted place in Jewish intellectual history is at best something dimly remembered from sombre lessons in school: how to respond to Jewish culture without diluting it to a lifestyle choice.