The following article is from our January 2008 issue.

A Symbol of Hope The Jewish community in Berlin elects a new chairwoman - By Rafael Seligmann

The election of Lala Süsskind as the leading representative of the largest Jewish community in the country is an encouraging step toward the normalization of German-Jewish relations. Following a long period of conflict, members see the election of the 61-year-old as a sign of change: Süsskind, in her new leadership role, is expected to offer the Jewish community in Berlin and also in Germany new opportunities. As a result, it could once again become a dynamic part of German society and of the international Jewish community.

Traditionally, the Jewish community in the German capital has been the largest and most important not only in the country but also in Europe. At the turn of the 19th century, Berlin was home to a wealth of big names including the Nobel prize winners, Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber; industrialist and former foreign minister, Walther Rathenau; the painters Lesser Ury and Max Liebermann, who was also president of the Prussian Academy of Arts; Rabbi Leo Baeck; composer Kurt Weill; writer Lion Feuchtwanger and the department store dynasties, Tietz and Wertheim. With half of all Berlin lawyers and a quarter of doctors also Jewish, about 175,000 Jews lived along and around the river Spree.

The Jewish cemetery in the Weissensee district of Berlin is the resting place for 115,000 Jews, 10 times more than make up the community living in the capital today. The massive decline is symbolic of the Jewish community's lost significance, the result of the genocide that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 Berlin Jews.

Tens of thousands of Jews managed to flee the capital, among them Einstein, Weill and Feuchtwanger, who went to America as well as to Palestine, Britain and other countries. By the time the Nazi regime was brought to its knees in 1945, there were but a few thousand Jews left in Berlin. Of the half a million who had once lived in Germany, fewer than 10,000, almost 2 percent, came back.

After his liberation from the Terezin concentration camp, the religious mentor of German Judaism, Baeck, immigrated to Great Britain. He declared the history of Judaism in Germany, which had already spanned more than a thousand years, over. And almost all German Jews who survived the Nazi atrocities shared his view.

But there were still more than 200,000 holocaust survivors left in Germany after liberation. Most of these "displaced persons" had endured life as concentration camp slave laborers or had been packed off on the notorious death marches through the shrinking Nazi empire during the final weeks of the war. Come 1945, they wanted nothing more than to leave Germany as quickly as possible but they weren't given the chance.

The United States and Canada refused them entry, as did Britain, which had been given the mandate by the League of Nations to create a Jewish and Arab state in Palestine. But following the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 and the relaxation of American immigration policies, 90 percent of these Jews could finally leave Germany.

Their exit reduced the German Jewish community to less than 25,000 the largest concentration immigrating to Berlin. This postwar Jewish community was a mere shadow of former self.

Fearing a resurge in murderous anti-Semitism, Berlin's 6,000 Jews kept their beliefs to themselves. Few of them were originally German Jews, so it was those born in Eastern Europe who now set the tone. And there was no hope of these traumatized people providing intellectual or social impulses.

Jews in West Berlin were granted the small mercy of a confident and compassionate figurehead. Heinz Galinski stood at the helm of the community there for 40 years, and in 1988, was eventually elected as chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. By that time, however, he was already ailing and didn't have the necessary strength for radical reform.

Around the same time, the political situation in Germany was in a dramatic state of flux. The collapse of East Germany (GDR) in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991 created a new situation for Germany's Jews, particularly those in Berlin.

In 1989, around 1,000 Jews, most of them elderly, were living in the German Democratic Republic. The regime had restricted their activities so the Jewish community in East Berlin amounted to fewer than 500 people. It wasn't until the end of the 1980s that renovation began on the New Synagogue in the eastern half of the city.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the peaceful downfall of the East German regime, the new GDR government under Lothar de Maizière allowed Jews from the crumbling Soviet bloc into Germany. When the two Germanys later reunited in October 1990, this ruling was upheld.

Since then, about 150,000 Jews or spouses of Jews have moved to Germany from former Soviet countries, and roughly 80,000 of them have become members of Jewish communities. It wasn't long before Russian Jews formed the majority in the Berlin community and now more than two-thirds of the capital's 12,000 Jews come from the former Soviet Union. Most of them are too old to work and need social care from the community, and many of them don't speak much German.

Following the death of Galinski in 1992, the Russian Jews called for more say in the activities of the Jewish community in Germany, a demand that was met with resistance by many of the established German Jews. The conflict led to tensions, which the community has tried and failed to resolve with the appointment and subsequent dismissal of a string of chairmen.

For a while, the former diplomat Alexander Brenner was seen as the man for the job. He was elected as community leader on the basis that he could speak Russian and had spend several years in the Soviet Union. The last chairman, Gideon Joffe, came from the former Soviet Union but he was too inexperienced to coerce the fighting factions toward reconciliation.

The majority of Russian voters have now recognized that it is more important to elect a leader with skills than it is to insist on a fellow countryman. The election of Lala Süsskind proves that Berlin's Jews are now putting a candidate's qualifications before their individual interests.

Süsskind, like her husband, Arthur, comes from Poland. He survived the Nazi years disguised as a Catholic child and later went on to establish himself as a successful businessman in Berlin. Süsskind, who spent many years as chair of the Women's International Zionist Organization, is a pragmatist. She sees as her main task to mend the rift within the community but is also keen to open the Jewish community up to the non-Jewish world around it.

The new chairwoman knows that cultural and religious identity is key for the Jewish communities both in Berlin and in Germany. "We mustn't forget the Holocaust but we have to make sure our young people in Germany develop cultural, societal and religious self-confidence," she said.