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Jewish Life Beyond the Shoah

Jewish life in Germany looks back over 1,700 years of history, which has been celebrated with a nationwide anniversary since 2021. Andrei Kovacs, head of the Jubilee Association, talks about the targets for the festival year.

Mr. Kovacs, you are the Executive Managing Director of the Association "2021: 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany". What are the Association's objectives and the associated festive year of celebrations in Germany, which will carry on until summer 2022?

On the one hand, we wish to show that Jewish life in what is now the modern German state has a very long tradition. The festive year refers to an edict issued by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in the year 321, permitting Jews to hold municipal offices in the curia, Cologne's municipal administration. It is regarded as the earliest document which proves the existence of Jews in Central and Northern Europe. However, we also wish to show that today Jewish life in Germany is colourful, diverse and post-migrant. More than 95 per cent of the Jews living here speak Russian, and this stems from Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union after 1990. But most of all we wish to make Jewish life visible beyond the Shoah, the Holocaust. We have concentrated very heavily on this in Germany during the past 77 years. We need a future-oriented culture of remembrance, because for many young Jews it is important to focus our view on today and the future as well.

Commemorative stamp "1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany": enlarged visualisation of a stamp bearing the words, "Chai - to Life - 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany" © picture alliance/dpa/Marcel Kusch

That sounds like a very ambitious programme for just one festival year! How have you implemented this specifically?

More than 2,200 events have taken place since the beginning of 2021, including exhibitions, concerts, readings, and street festivals, just to name a few. Due to the pandemic, we had to postpone some of these, which is why events will continue to take place until summer 2022. It’s important to us to make Jewish life a tangible experience and to talk about it, especially from the perspective of Jewish people. That’s what we’ve done, for example, in an online exhibition and a podcast in which Jews talk about what being Jewish means for them personally. It's always about individual biographies; thus, there will always be many different Jewish perspectives. Naturally, we have also focussed on religion, traditions and religious holidays. Under the title of "Sukkot XXL", the Association invited people to join them in celebrating Sukkot, the "Feast of Tabernacles" commemorating Israel's journey through the desert during the Exodus from Egypt, on the streets of German communities, and this took place in many cities throughout Germany together with non-Jews.

More empathy, less fear of contact

You are, in fact, an entrepreneur and a musician. What motivated you personally to commit yourself by becoming the Executive Managing Director of the Association?

I myself come from a Jewish-Hungarian family; I was born in Romania and grew up in Germany. But I have also lived in France, the Netherlands and England. So today I realise how problematic the relationship between Jews and non-Jews is right now in Germany. You can feel that we live in the country of the inventors of the Holocaust, and this leads to tension. From the very beginning, my personal concern was to reduce the tension in the relationship between Jews and non-Jews and to create more empathy. I know from personal experience how unpleasant it is when people suddenly freeze or stand there at a loss for words when they hear that I'm Jewish.

The not entirely unconstrained dealing with Jewish life in Germany is the subject of "Masel Tov Cocktail", a short film which won one of the most prestigious German television awards in 2021, the Grimme Award. In this film, a Russian-Jewish teenager continuously meets people who hold a certain attitude towards Jews, generally in connection with the Holocaust. How can we succeed in raising awareness of Jewish life beyond the Shoah, even after such festival years?

That's a good question. Personal encounters are important, but we also have to understand that, statistically speaking, the probability of meeting a Jewish person is rather low when we estimate that there are approx. 150,000 people of Jewish faith in Germany. This makes it even more difficult. There have been successful initiatives such as "Meet a Jew", but they only attract a certain group which is already interested in this. The confrontation with Jewish life today must continue after the festival year is over and be incorporated into existing processes, for example in the field of education. Naturally, we also have to talk about the Holocaust, but we need a more future-oriented education as well to build memories: in schools, universities, political education as well as in the media. In the short film which you mentioned they also say, "There is no business like Shoah business," and unfortunately, that’s true.

In what way?

If you want to talk about the "Shoah" on television, you're guaranteed to get a broadcasting slot and good ratings. But interest tends to drop off when you talk about "Jewish life". We need fixed media formats which go beyond anniversaries and ceremonies. And I believe that it's important to break taboos and even to allow yourself to tell a joke occasionally. From the very beginning, I was quite direct. While organising the festival year, I said that we don't want to show just cemeteries and gravestones, but only living Jews. This shocked some people, but others were relieved and even quite moved. We must not forget, but we don't wish to be continuously reminded of the past alone. We want to reflect on life today as well as on a joint future.

Promoting transnational exchange

The festival year was also the reason for your trip to France and a discussion which you took part in in October 2021 for the German government's lecture programme. What were the reactions in France to the anniversary year here in Germany? 

What surprised me the most was the enormous curiosity. The participants, among them representatives of the Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Muslim faiths, asked a great many questions: questions about everyday things, from institutional organisation to how municipal tax is collected in Germany. And that showed me just how little we actually know about each other even though I lived in France for six years!

Andrei Kovacs, Executive Managing Director of the registered association "1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany", holds a speech before signing a contract in the Guest House of the State Government of Lower Saxony. On the occasion of the "1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany" festival year, Lower Saxony’s Prime Minister Weil signed a cooperative agreement with the organising association.

In other words: there's too little transnational exchange among the communities?

That was the conclusion I came to. It would be a good idea to have a kind of "European Cultural Benchmarking" in the form of networking activities. One could compare how certain topics are dealt with and, in this way, learn from one another, especially how others deal with challenges. Antisemitism and racism don't exist just in Germany. However, such an exchange should take place not only between Jewish communities, but also between those government offices which are responsible for schools, political education, culture, commemoration and a culture of remembrance, to give just a few examples. In France, for example, racism and antisemitism seem to be thought of together much more often, while we in Germany still concentrate too much on antisemitism. But both belong together. That was also the tenor of the discussion in Toulouse: whether Islamophobia or antisemitism, what is common to both is racism, and that is something which concerns everyone.

We must not bury ourselves


Which encounter during the anniversary year will you remember in particular? 

A community leader told me that for the first time in 75 years she dared to hold a festival in a public space. That touched me very much, but it also made me somewhat proud, because that was exactly what we wanted to achieve. A lack of visibility is often linked to security concerns, which is understandable, but we must not bury ourselves. It's important to show ourselves and to make it clear that Jewish life takes place not only behind supposedly closed doors.

About Andrei Kovacs
Portrait of Andrei Kovacs
Andrei Kovacs
Executive Managing Director of "1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany"

Andrei Kovacs, born in 1974, comes from a Jewish-Hungarian family. He is a musician and corporate founder, speaks five languages and currently lives with his family in Cologne. As Executive Managing Director of the registered association "1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany" he is responsible for the festival year being held under the same name (#2021JLID), which is organised throughout Germany under the patronage of the Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.