Skip to main content

Jews and the Berlin Wall

Center for Jewish History (map)
15 W. 16th St.
New York, NY 10011
German Consulate General NYC logo

Jewish life took different paths on either side of the Berlin Wall. In the East, Jews fled or faced East Germany’s anti-religion, anti-Zionist polices. In the West, Jews sought normalcy but lived “with packed suitcases.” A panel discussion featuring leading scholars and eyewitnesses will examine the impact of the Berlin Wall on Jewish communities on both sides, as well as the enormous growth in Germany’s Jewish Community after the fall of the Iron Curtain due to migration from the former Soviet Union.


After WWII, about 8,500 German Jews who survived in hiding or returned from concentration camps, plus about 200,000 mostly Polish-Jewish “displaced persons” sheltered by the US military administration, faced stark choices. Was Jewish life possible again in Germany? If so, which Germany—the fledgling liberal democracy under the protection of the Allies, or the anti-Fascist workers’ and farmers’ state established in the Soviet Occupation Zone? Was emigration to Israel, Canada, or the US preferable to a life among the perpetrators?

Although the vast majority of Jews in Germany after WWII opted for emigration, the few thousand who remained established Jewish communities that were recognized by authorities in the Allied Zones in 1946 and in the nascent German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) in 1952. The new Jewish community was tiny compared to the one that had existed before 1933, largely Orthodox whereas its predecessor had been largely Liberal, and socially marginalized whereas the pre-1933 community had once been confident and internationally influential. Nevertheless, Jewish life would continue to exist on both sides of the Wall until it fell, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, reunified Germany’s Jewish Community became the fastest-growing in Europe due to the immigration of former Soviet Jews.


Moderator Jeffrey Peck is Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College in New York and a scholar whose work explores the complex relationship between German and Jewish culture. Peck has held the Walter Benjamin Chair in German-Jewish Culture and History at Humboldt University in Berlin, where he was also the director of the Leo Baeck Summer University in Jewish Studies. His books include Being Jewish in the New Germany (2006) and a work in progress entitled Romancing the Jew: Intimate Relationships and Complicated Histories Among Germans and American Jews and Israelis.

Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich. He is the International President of the Leo Baeck Institute and a member of the Bavarian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has published extensively on German-Jewish history and is co-author of the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times (1996-98) and editor of a volume on Munich’s Jewish history Jüdisches München: vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart.

Andreas Nachama is the executive director of the Topography of Terror Documentation Center in Berlin. Between 1997 and 2001, he was the president of the Berlin Jewish community. He has published extensively on topics of Jewish history and also serves as the volunteer rabbi for the Hüttenweg congregation in Berlin. Andreas Nachama is the founder and, since 2005, the dean of the graduate program in Holocaust Communication and Tolerance at Touro College in Berlin.

Liliane Weissberg is Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor in Arts and Sciences and Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her interests focus on late eighteenth-century to early twentieth-century German literature and philosophy. Much of her work has concentrated on German, European, and American Romanticism, but she has also written on the notion of representation in realism, on photography, and on literary and feminist theory. Among her book publications are a critical edition of Hannah Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (1997), Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race (with J. Gerald Kennedy, 2001), and Über Haschisch und Kabbalah: Gershom Scholem, Siegfried Unseld und das Werk von Walter Benjamin (2012). Recently, she curated the exhibition Juden. Geld. Eine Vorstellung (2012-13) at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, and is the editor of its accompanying catalogue.