Gustavo Rymberg has strolled down streets where Nazi thugs once strutted and Jews walked in fear.
When the executive director of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, along with Dundas, Ont., residents Paul and Susan Roth, donned kippot and marched through Berlin recently, it was with Jewish pride. Rymberg and the Roths were the only Canadians who took part in the Kippah March, which was held in Berlin, as part of a conference of North American Jewish federation leaders.
“For me, being in Berlin was difficult, but it was also amazing at the same time,” Rymberg said. “For me, the picture of Berlin has always been black and white, with Hitler standing where there are now monuments. But there is another side to Berlin, where there is a thriving Jewish community living openly.
“There are monuments and memorials everywhere in Berlin today.… There are constant remembrances, you can’t avoid it. It’s always in your face and it is very impactful.”
In addition to Jewish communal leaders, Muslims and Jewish-German students also joined the march. The event was partly a reaction to recent anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, including an attack in which two men wearing kippot were insulted and attacked by Arab-speaking passersby on the street.
The incident was part of a rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents in Germany in recent years. German police registered 197 anti-Semitic offences in 2016 and 288 in 2017, an increase of 47 per cent.
Despite this, Rymberg found a thriving Jewish community in the German capital. Once destroyed, the community started to recover in 1990, with the fall of the former Soviet Union and the immigration of as many as 200,000 Russian Jews. Berlin is home to the third-largest Jewish community in Germany. Nationally, the community includes 120 synagogues with 120,000 members and 23 Jewish associations.
The German Jewish community draws support from North American fundraising efforts. The Financial Resources Leadership Development Mission, Rymberg said, “Was a chance for us to see how our money is helping the community.”
The Kippah March moved from a memorial to the Berlin Wall, which once divided the city, past a war memorial, the city’s main synagogue and through the Jewish quarter, to the train station where statues memorialize both the adults who were shipped from there to Nazi death camps and the children who departed the station on the famous Kindertransport.
“We did this to make a statement through the streets of Berlin, but it wasn’t just about us,” Rymberg said. “We walked proudly, showing Jewish pride in Berlin, showing that Jewish life is still here and Jews from around the world are supporting it. That is an experience I will never forget.”
The extent of Jewish life in Berlin was highlighted after the walk at an erev Shabbat service in a synagogue that lay dormant from 1933 to 1947, but was revived by the city’s resurgent community.
“I’m not sure how the synagogue survived, but they are there and alive. The synagogue was packed with people singing Hebrew prayers,” he said. “It was an emotional and inspiring moment to see all the effort people are making to live Jewishly.”