Is the ban on communist memorabilia good for Ukraine?

Germany archive

Alina Gromova


Dr .; is a research assistant for the academy programs of the Jewish Museum Berlin. She studied Jewish studies and English in Berlin, Potsdam and Melbourne and did her doctorate in European ethnology at the Humboldt University in Berlin on the subject of identity and urban space among young Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants in Berlin. From 2010-2012 she was on the board of the Foundation Returning for the Promotion of Jewish Women in Art and Science.

The article deals with the situation of women in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Germany after 1990. The author investigates questions about the drafts of professional life, engagement in the Jewish communities and the specifically female culture of remembrance. Here, stories, memories and positions of Russian-speaking Jewish women become visible and offer a new view of Jewish history and the present from the perspective of women.

The board of directors and the active members of the WiGB discuss the program of the reporting seminar WiGB-2002.V. l. right: Dr. Fenja Kropman, Dr. Bella Lurik, Chairwoman of the WiGB, Dipl. Ing., Alla Kochergina, Dipl.Ing. Genrietta Liakhovitskaia, Prof. Dr. Victor Mairanowski, head of the seminar, Dipl. Ing. Ari Kropman. (& copy Scientific Society at the Jewish Community in Berlin)

At the beginning of the 1990s, increased immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to Germany began. Various aspects of this migration have already been published in the past fifteen years, such as the cultural, religious and urban identity of the young generation, the transnational cuisine within the Jewish-Russian-speaking community, their humor and consumer culture or their handling of anti-Semitism and Racism in Germany. [1]

The media often convey the image of Jewish immigrants that they did not live their Jewish traditions and beliefs in the Soviet Union and its successor states. Therefore, this article will first briefly outline the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union, how they lived in this situation and how characteristic biographies and life paths relate to this reporting.

Little is known about the situation of women in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Germany after 1990. On the one hand, this article is devoted to the question of how the professional life of women in the former Soviet Union and later in Germany was shaped: Were they able to build on the professional qualifications and experience they acquired in Germany before immigration? What paths did they take to achieve a fulfilling life after immigration? Furthermore, the engagement of women in the interests of Jewish communities in Germany is considered and a brief look is taken at their role in the German cultural landscape.

And finally, the question of the specifically female memory culture of Russian-speaking Jewish women is posed: What memories of persecution, survival and resistance in World War II did they bring with them to Germany, and how can these be intertwined with the German-Jewish memory discourse in Germany? The aim is to make the often invisible stories, memories and perspectives of Russian-speaking Jewish women visible.

Jewish Life in the Soviet Union - A Brief Overview

The image, which is often conveyed in the media, that the Jews who came to Germany in the Soviet Union in the 1990s were neither allowed nor wanted to pursue their religion or their Jewish traditions, by no means applies to all people who came to Germany after the fall of the Iron Curtain . During the seventy years of Soviet times from 1922 to December 1991, Jewish rites and customs were intertwined with Soviet holidays and traditions in most families. In this way, many families cultivated the Jewish element in their family and friends' circles and thus preserved their identity. For political reasons, however, a vital and public Jewish life, and above all community life, was hardly possible in the Soviet Union for many decades under the communist leadership, which generally rejected the practice of religion and tried to prevent it. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had already formulated in 1905, following Karl Marx: “Religion is the opium of the people.” The Jewish religion was not officially prohibited, but the number of synagogues in the Soviet Union decreased significantly over time.

Jewish communists, who until 1929 formed their own section within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, wanted to establish a secular Jewish culture and identity in socialism after 1918, which was to break away from religion. In addition, the Yiddish language was promoted through the establishment of theaters as well as through literature and newspapers. During this time, numerous Jewish scholars left the country or continued to work underground. Overall, the policy towards the Jewish minority changed several times in the Soviet Union, so that one can speak of a rather ambivalent relationship. During the Second World War, for example, bans on religious institutions and rites were briefly lifted in order to generate loyalty to the state. For example, many Jews in the Red Army fought against Hitler's Germany. [2]

From 1948 to 1953, Josef Stalin had Jews persecuted and murdered through the so-called cosmopolitan trials and because of an alleged medical conspiracy. Many Jewish institutions were destroyed during these years. Under Nikita Khrushchev, more synagogues were closed in the 1960s. Church services and religious celebrations were seldom held in public, but rather in secret. Officially there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, but Jews encountered rejection, resentment and exclusion in everyday life.

Being Jewish was considered a national belonging in the Soviet Union. As with members of other ethnic groups and nationalities who lived in the Soviet Union, this has been noted in their national passports since 1932 with the word "jevrejka" or "jevrej" [3]. As with other nationalities, membership of the Jewish nationality was passed on through the father.

Jews met in private, exchanged experiences of discrimination, talked about social and economic survival strategies, discussed the possibilities of leaving the country or told each other jokes in order to create an outlet in their monitored everyday life. [4] Many of the older generation mixed their Russian with Yiddish and served matzo or gefilte fish on Jewish holidays like Passover or Rosh Hashana. Some lived on Judaism underground, for example with self-published literature, whose writings were passed on among each other. In addition, there were seminars in the living rooms to impart the Jewish religion, especially in the kitchens. Jews brought Jewish culture and traditions closer to one another. Religious occasions such as bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah were also celebrated in private living rooms. [5]

The Economic Situation of Russian-Speaking Jewish Women in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s are significant in several ways in the history of the Soviet Union. These decades, in which the collapse of the Soviet Union was initiated and finally completed, were marked by political and economic upheavals, instability and crime. The rampant latent anti-Semitism brought job restrictions for Jews. Among other things, it was impossible to enroll as a Jew at universities for certain courses in the Soviet Union. Quotas for the occupancy of university places that applied to members of different ethnic groups, including Jews, were an unwritten law. If a Jew did not get a place at university, this was often justified with the quota.

In addition, Jews were unable to enter the diplomatic service. People with Jewish names experienced discrimination in schools, in the workplace or in public spaces because their appearance was viewed as non-Slavic. Women, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, were particularly affected by the hostile conditions of the Soviet existence. They earned almost a third less than men in the same professions and positions and were only represented to a small extent in management levels, although more women than men had a university qualification.

With glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), the general social upheaval began in the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991. The reforms of the political system set new social currents and opinion processes in motion, which led to the formation of new groups. This also included the women's movement, whose members were known as Leningrad dissident feminists and were grouped around the editors of the samizdat magazines [6] such as "Maria" or "Woman and Russia". [7] For the first time, Soviet women were able to protest publicly against being treated as “second-class citizens”. [8]

During this time, the American Jewish women's organization Kesher was able to establish its first contacts with Jewish women in the Soviet Union. The Kesher project, in which around 3,000 Jewish women are active in 150 locations in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Israel, opened Kesher offices in several (ex-) Soviet republics for the first time in 1994. The Kesher activists wanted to familiarize Jewish women with Jewish traditions again, as many of these traditions had been forgotten by the restrictive Soviet policy. Today, Kesher also provides information about the prevention of breast cancer, campaigns against violence against women and offers leadership training for Jewish women. [9]

Currently, more and more young Russian-speaking women scholars of Jewish origin in Germany are devoting themselves to Jewish (post) Soviet culture and tradition. These include Darja Klingenberg, Julia Bernstein and Sevil Huseynova.

The great emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to Germany in the 1990s

When the Soviet government lifted the Iron Curtain for a short time in the 1970s thanks to the brief thaw in East-West relations, around 3,500 Jews first came to the Federal Republic. The majority of them went to West Berlin. [10] Since 1991, this relatively small group has been followed by around 220,000 Jewish immigrants who came to the Federal Republic of Germany with the fall of the Iron Curtain on the basis of the Quota Refugee Act.

They received a residence permit for humanitarian reasons and did not have to go through an asylum procedure. In this way, it was hoped in this country to strengthen the Jewish communities with few members and to revive Jewish life in Germany, which had almost been wiped out by the Shoah. The immigrants, for their part, looked confidently to the future and hoped to continue their careers, a non-discriminatory life and more attractive prospects for their children.

In the local Jewish communities, it was mainly women who volunteered and helped with clothing donations, made beds in accommodation and helped their Russian-speaking Jewish sisters and brothers to find their way around Germany. In addition, the congregations made rooms available to them so that they could meet and contribute to the Jewish congregations.

Jewish women as self-determined actors in science and research

Most of the Jewish women who came to Germany had worked as academics in the Soviet Union, such as engineers, university lecturers or doctors. They obtained their academic and professional qualifications at universities and institutes in Ukraine and Russia, Latvia and Lithuania, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The immigrants, who were repeatedly discriminated against as women and Jews in the former Soviet Union, assumed that with their professional and university degrees they would get adequate jobs in Germany and that they would be needed in society. Like many other immigrants, however, the Jewish women from the former Soviet Union in Germany were confronted with the fact that their foreign qualifications are still not recognized today.

Employment agencies classified those who were unable to produce a certificate of recognition of their foreign qualifications as "unskilled" and placed them accordingly. [11] The women affected often had to make a living with poorly paid jobs that were far below their qualifications and had no meaningful function for them. It was not uncommon for an academic who financially had to keep herself and her family afloat as a cleaner. The Jewish women experienced and are experiencing a further financial disadvantage in that, unlike ethnic repatriates, they are still unable to claim any pension claims from their professional activity in the former Soviet Union in Germany, which the community perceives as a great social injustice. [ 12]

However, many Russian-speaking Jewish women scholars are unwilling to accept their forced passivity in academic life. That is why they continue to devote themselves to research and teaching in their free time, individually and collectively: The Scientific Society (WiGB) at the Jewish Community of Berlin is an example of an association of immigrant Jewish scientists. When it was founded in 1996, it became the first association of its kind in post-war Germany. In contrast to the Russian-Jewish Scientific Association, which was founded by emigrants in Berlin at the end of the 19th century and whose members were almost exclusively men, the WiGB has numerous women.

Among them is the chemist Bella Lurik. She came to Germany in 1993 and co-founded WiGB in 1996. The scientist, who was born in Makhachkala (Dagestan - ASSR) and specializes in “Chemistry and Technology of Biologically Active Compounds”, has headed the Scientific Society since 1998. Together with Bella Lurik, a total of 17 women belonged to the WiGB in 2018. They thus formed more than a third of the 52 members that the WiGB counted in 2018. [13] In the former Soviet Union they worked as mathematicians, chemists, psychologists, geographers, biologists and polytechnicians. With the WiGB, the immigrant Jewish scientists have created a space for themselves in which they can continue to research and publish.

In addition, the members of the WiGB are committed to the education of the young generation, they organize seminars and give tutoring for children and young people. Women from the young generation of immigrants report that they discovered their passion for the MINT subjects (mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology) at the mathematics and physics Olympiads of the WiGB. Julia Klebanow, now a medical student at the Berlin Charité, writes:

I remember very clearly how, as a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, I became aware of the Mathematics Olympiad of the WiGB and registered to participate. The Olympics were not only a complete success for me with a wonderful book award, not only a very pleasant experience with many interesting people in a nice, relaxed atmosphere, but above all opened up a wonderful collaboration with professors and lecturers from the former Soviet Union [... ]. Seminars were soon relocated, for example, to the deck of a ship that was sailing through Berlin, which also made it easier to establish contacts with other students and members of the scientific society and made the facts explained more clear.“[14]

Research into Jewish history is an important part of the work of the Scientific Society. With the publication “On the History of the Potsdam Synagogue” or with the exhibition “German-Jewish Scientists”, to name just a few examples, the members of the WiGB want to promote a stronger bond between the young generation and their Jewish roots. With an admirable balancing act between paid work and voluntary research and teaching, Jewish immigrants contribute to the continuation of their academic work and to the promotion of Jewish history and culture in Germany.

Engagement of Russian-speaking Jewish women in socio-cultural Jewish organizations and cultural life in Germany

The commitment of Jewish women from the Soviet Union to the promotion of Jewish life and culture, which began soon after their arrival in Germany, often remains invisible to the public. Today there are more and more women among the immigrants who act as founders and patrons and who are committed to maintaining Jewish traditions. Among them are mainly women who took an active part in Jewish life in the post-Soviet republics. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Jewish international organizations set up Jewish communities and Jewish cultural centers on the post-Soviet territory.

Anna Bekkerman-Chernobelskaya, who immigrated to Germany from the Ukraine, founded the Jewish socio-cultural center Yahad Chaverim in Bochum in 2013 and specialized in working with children, young people and families. With topics such as the “History of the Jewish People”, but also “Environment and Sustainability in the Jewish Tradition”, the development of Jewish self-confidence among Jewish youth is supported in accordance with the association's statutes. In an interview, Bekkerman-Chernobelskaya says:

The tradition of the wedding, the funeral, the information about the traditions, the thread was torn. […] We are interested in everyday traditions, we are that kind of people. It wasn't until later that I understood why we had a pot at home in which you could only boil milk, and a special cutting board only for meat. It's the same at home today. We are practical people, so it makes sense to explain this side of the tradition. How has that happened for generations and since ancient times, to what extent has it passed into our lives?“[15]

In retrospect, Bekkerman-Chernobelskaya regards the founding of Yahad Chaverim as essential in order not to lose her Jewish self-confidence in Germany: "The way of life, the pace, the overload here in Germany made it impossible to keep to tradition today. And that's why I founded the club because I understood that a disaster would happen. The routine just kills everything. Before the association was founded, my Jewish self-confidence weakened a lot.“[16]

Valentina Ivanidze, who founded the youth center “Lifroach” of the Jewish community Potsdam in 2010, also led an active Jewish life in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, where she was born and volunteered to help rebuild the local Jewish community in the early 1990s. In Germany, she supports young people in realizing their ideas in relation to local, national and international events and programs related to Jewish history, present and culture.

Ilana Katz, who immigrated to Germany from the Latvian city of Riga in 1999 and is now the chairwoman of the Jewish community in Kassel, plays an outstanding role in the discussion and interpretation of the Jewish present and future.
Ilana Katz (& copy Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Stephan Pramme)
In 2015, the studied biophysicist and entrepreneur founded the “Sara Nussbaum Center for Jewish Life” [17] in Kassel and provided space for it. Like many other entrepreneurs from the former Soviet Union, she runs a multicultural day care facility for around 50 people in the same building that Katz acquired. The “Sara Nussbaum Center for Jewish Life” was financed from the private assets of the Katz family. An extensive cultural program is organized there and exhibitions about the life of Kassel Jews today and in the past are shown.

The director of the “Sara Nussbaum Center for Jewish Life”, Elena Padva, was born in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and came to Germany with her family at the age of 16. She studied marketing and worked in market research before starting curating exhibitions. A wonderful example of her curatorial work is the temporary exhibition “Contingent refugee was yesterday. 25 years of Jewish-Russian immigration to Kassel ",
First room of the exhibition “Quota refugees was yesterday - 25 years of Jewish-Russian immigration to Kassel” in the Sara Nussbaum Center for Jewish Life. (& copy Sara Nussbaum Center)
which was shown between 2015 and 2019 in the exhibition rooms of the “Sara Nussbaum Center”. The title of the exhibition makes it clear that the immigrants today see themselves as Kassel Jews and not primarily as contingent refugees - a term that is still frequently used in the German public today and which has a strong focus on the framework conditions of these Immigration directs.

“Quota refugee was yesterday” is the self-confident voice of a generation that articulates its issues and concerns from its own perspective. This includes private moments that are expressed in anecdotes about discrimination on the job market, the insidiousness of the German language or the bizarre situations in dormitories. This includes an image of Germany that the immigrants initially saw in the guise of rules and prohibitions such as “Smoking forbidden! Do Not Enter! Access forbidden! No parking! ”Encountered. This also includes the zeitgeist that comes up when dealing with farewell and home, as for example in this quote: "You're uprooting, you're losing your home. You lose the ground under your feet, float in the air, in complete uncertainty ...“(R. Ostrovskaya).

In this exhibition, the lives of Kassel's Jewish families are lovingly and effectively interwoven with places such as the kitchen, dormitory or home, making them important coordinates for Jewish-German migration topographies. Without this documentation, objects or conversations from the dormitories, in which most of the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union were housed, often for many years after their entry, would have been forgotten.

Migration history as a motor for activities in culture and science

A number of Jewish women, whose family history is connected to the Soviet Union and who often came to Germany as children or young people, work today as writers, essayists, playwrights and dramaturgists. Her novels, essays and plays have found a considerable audience in Germany, some of which have received multiple awards. To name just a few, they are Lena Gorelik, Olga Grjasnova, Alina Bronsky, Lana Lux, Katja Petrowskaja, Alexandra Friedmann, Sasha Marianna Salzmann and Marina B. Neubert. In their works they all deal with identity, origin, homeland and gender. They are usually multilingual, have completed an international education and their novels or essays also take place between Berlin and Baku, Istanbul and Moscow, Lviv and Munich.

These topics are also taken up by young artists and literary scholars. Anna Schapiro, who was born in Moscow, is the co-founder and co-editor of the magazine Yalta - Positions on the Jewish Present, [18] which has been published since 2016. Kristina Omelchenko, who was also born in Russia, conducts research on transnational memory narratives in contemporary German and Russian-language literature. The main contribution of the second generation of authors, artists and scholars to contemporary German-language literature, art and research lies in the transnational and intersectional perspective and topics such as diversity and post-migrant culture of remembrance that shape their work.

Memory culture of Jewish women from the former Soviet Union in the context of the Second World War

The Federal Republican remembrance discourse on Jews during the Second World War is characterized by commemorative events. For example, on November 9, the day of the pogrom night of 1938, or on January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jews are traditionally remembered as victims of the Holocaust. The Jews from the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, as veterans of the Red Army are often associated with the narrative of the victors. In numerous photographs in the reports on the events leading to the victory over Hitler's Germany, women are also visible as former Red Army soldiers. In this way, a dichotomous victim-winner narrative manifests itself in the German-Jewish culture of remembrance, which depicts the suffering under National Socialism and the struggle under Stalinism as two opposing memories.

Group portrait of Jewish war veterans in front of the Soviet memorial in Berlin's Tiergarten, 2005. (& copy Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Florian Willnauer)
However, the winner's narrative is a traditional heroic male tale that is measured against military criteria. Although women also took up arms, the majority of them usually took part “as volunteer Red Army soldiers in World War II, mostly as paramedics, nurses or office workers […].” [19] The history of Jewish women in the Red Army has not yet been told in detail to this day. [20]

The stories of the vast majority of Jewish women were not shaped by the Red Army during and immediately after World War II. In his project “Object Days. Memorabilia and Stories of Migration - Portraits of Jews living in Germany ”, the Jewish Museum Berlin is bringing together many of these previously barely visible stories.

In the online documentation of the project, Sofiya Haradzetskaya reports on how she survived the ghetto in Dubrovno, Belarus, as a child and was later driven from Dubrovno to Orsha by the Wehrmacht. Her mother joined the partisans and did not find her daughter until April 1945. Viktoria Shtivelman remembers another defining chapter in the history of Soviet women at the time of the war: her family survived the blockade of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, and was subsequently evacuated to Siberia. [21]

During the Second World War, more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union were evacuated by the Soviet authorities or were able to escape into the interior of the Soviet Union alone. [22] Most of those who found refuge in the north or central Asian part of the Soviet Union were women and children. Men who can be seen in the family photos from this period usually came on a short flying visit from their army service. Most of the photos were taken for this occasion.

Looking at the history of these women, the Eastern European historian and gender researcher Anika Walke can say that “the survival and continued existence of Jews in the (former) Soviet Union have hardly been documented or even investigated. […] Neglected, 'forgotten' memories have long been those of women. As subjects of historical processes, they were not visible. As a result, experiences that differed from those of men were ignored or did not exist in the collective consciousness. This must also be stated with reference to the National Socialist genocide against the Jewish population of Europe. "[23]

The diverse escape and survival stories of Jewish women from the former Soviet Union thus expand the victim-winner perception that shapes the German-Jewish culture of remembrance in Germany. Against the background of women's memories, the German-Jewish culture of remembrance must be thought of more as an intertwined history of Stalinism and National Socialism.
Sofiya Haradzetskaya with her husband Ilya Haradzetski. (& copy Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Stephan Pramme)


If the situation of women in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Germany after 1990 is viewed, it reveals itself to be a narrative of the - often contradicting - interweaving of experiences and memories. For example, the non-recognition of professional qualifications in Germany ensured, among other things, that Jewish women from the former Soviet Union looked for creative ways to continue doing their original professions on a voluntary basis. The suppression of the religious life faced by women in the Soviet Union did not necessarily lead them to turn away from Jewish tradition.

As examples of founders of Jewish associations, exhibition organizers, writers and dramaturges show, dealing with Jewish identity and tradition plays an important role for many women. A look at the German-Jewish culture of remembrance from the women's perspective also reveals that the Jewish persecution and survival stories under National Socialism and Stalinism cannot be thought of as irreconcilable opposites, but as an intertwined, multidirectional narrative. Such intertwining stories allow invisible lives of Jewish women with Soviet experiences in Germany to be told and create a new look at Jewish history and the present in Germany after 1990.

Citation: Alina Gromova, “En-Gendering Jewish Migration: Narratives of Jewish Women with Soviet Experience in Germany after 1990”, in: Germany Archive, February 5, 2021, Link: