Professor Dr. Esther Weitzel-Polzer
University of Applied Sciences

This article deals with two subjects, both of which focus on Jewish life in Germany. The first topic concerns the development of the Jewish communities and their efforts in integration politics concerning the new migrants from former Soviet Union and the Jewish migration into Germany after the Holocaust. The second topic concerns intercultural problems in an institution such as the largest home for elderly Jews in Germany.


Introduction – Overview of the Jewish migration into Germany after the Holocaust


TheJewish community in Germany is growing and with the exception of Israel has the largest growth rate worldwide. Considering Germany’s history, it is unlikely that anyone would have predicted this. Hitler’s most atrocious desire was well known: Germany should become a country free of Jewish citizens. However,500,000 Jews survived the war in the concentration camps, or in the dark and cold Polish forests, or in other hiding places. The survivors of the Holocaust who reached Germany after the end of World War II did not want to stay there. They were ina state of transition, but the allied occupies authorities placed them in so-called Camps for Displaced Persons (DP Camps) until 1953, and in some places even until 1957. For most of the survivors the Camps for Displaced Persons had only one importance: from there they could attempt to obtain a visa for the country of their choice. However, destiny forced a small number of them to stay in the country of the mass murder: 21,000 Jewish survivors settled in Germany after World War II and most of them had made their decision to stay after a long odyssey through several countries. My colleague Marlene Bock and I interviewed Jewish survivors living in Germany. I focused on those who were born in eastern Europe and my colleague interviewed elderly German Jews who had decided to return to Germany in their old age after having spent some decades in those countries where they had been accepted during the Nazi persecution.


Those who came back to Germany from Israel or from other countries had something of mental struggle, akin to a nightmare, which lasted a lifetime. Rebukefrom relatives or other Jews from all over the world gave nourishment to self-doubt. Further, the Israeli reaction on the foundation of the Jewish Council in Germany in 1950 serves to exemplify how adamantly the Israeli and the Jewish entities refused the resettlement of Jews in Germany. The Jewish agency succeeded in provoking the Israeli Government to instruct all Jews living in Germany to leave the country within six weeks. Anyone who refused to follow this instruction would lose the right to Israeli citizenship. Salomon Korn (2003), Vice-President of the present-day Jewish Council in Germany, characterized the situation of Jews living in Germany as ‘sitting on the fence’.


In addition to these factors we have to consider the research concerning post-trauma stress syndrome and in this respect our evaluation draws upon the design of the AMCHA (National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of the Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation). According to the AMCHA’s training programmes (Bulman 1992), the basic feeling of the survivors is one of ‘Shattered Assumption’ (Bulman)  and their mental balance is destroyed. They lost their belief that the world is a good place, a place where it is possible to predict what will happen in the near future, where their personal life will be protected and where they will be able to make their own decisions and find a way out from dangerous situations.


During our research we met and consulted Nathan Durst, the chief psychologist of the AMCHA in Tel Aviv. Concerning the mental struggles of Jews living in Germany, he determined that elderly Jews are paying a high price for having taken the decision to live there. The post-trauma stress syndrome – like insomnia, depression and fear – strike survivors independently of the places where they are living. Yet elderly Jews in Germany have had to struggle with their mental balance and are constantlyunbalanced. The negativeexperiences they had with Germans forced them to convince themselves that ‘the reality they see is not reality’. Rather, it is an experience they know from the time when they struggled to live. If, in that time, they had understood the reality, the only way out would have been to commit suicide. Abnegation of reality is an ability which Jewish survivors living in Germany feel a greater need to express than Jews elsewhere. Hence, according to Nathan Durst, ‘elderly Jews in Germany are paying a high price for their decision to live there and they have more gastric ulcer, more cholesterol, more diseases, but that is their own choice’.


There is also another aspect revealed by both our own results and also the research by Aron Antonovsky (1987) who generated his thesis of Salutogenese, based on research concerning the self-healing processes of survivors. Some of the elderly Jews that we interviewed did not show any signs of mental disorder. On the contrary, we found out that they were not mentally destroyed, but powerful people who had managed their lives very successfully. In this respect we have to focus on one political fact: in 1954 the German Government started the so-called reparation payments. The Jewish society regarded this political decision with scepticism: Why would the Germans would pay money for what they had done? Did they want to pay for forgiveness? Could there be enough money to pay for murdered lives? A significant number of survivors refused the reparation payments, but nevertheless when payments started the climate between Germany and the Jewish people began to change.


Both the German and Israeli authorities started negotiations and again Jewish people came into contact with German entities. Not all of these contacts were positive encounters. In my research I studied a small sample of medical certificates and I found, in accordance with the results of the oral history research, that in the 1950sGerman experts in the medical care system were still incriminated by the past. To underline my assumption, I will cite a precedence case concerning a Jewish woman who in 1954 asked for reparation payment. She had been born in Warsaw and was a survivor of the concentration camps, so the reparation payment had to be based on the health and mental damage resulting from the persecution. From the medical certificate it was clear that the woman had described her life as suffering persecution. In 1939, when she was 17 years old, some Germans had picked her up in the streets of Warsaw and from then until 1944 she was prisoner in concentration camps and lived in unimaginably bad conditions of hard work, hunger, rape, and a boundless fear of ending up in a gas chamber. After the liberation of Poland in 1944 she tried to find her family and realized that she was the only survivor. All this was noted by the German experts in 1954, yet the results of the medical examination showed that they had assigned her depression to separate causes: 60% was attributed to persecution and 40% to endogenous cases. On this basis the payment rate was set at 60%.


Nevertheless, in the following years significant numbers of Jewish migrants settled in Germany for the first time, having left south-eastern European countries such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In the decades of the 1960s and 1970s,40,000 Jews came to Germany and enriched Jewish life there. The initial hope was that with this migration Jewish life would reach the level of importance it had before the Shoah had suddenly come to an end. Most of the children of the new migrants left Germany and the Jewish community in Germany decreased again, falling to 27,500 members in 1985 (ZWST-Report: Jüdische Wohlfahrtspflege in Deutschland 1917-1987).


Migration from the former Soviet Union


Without the development which took place in the years after 1991, only 12,700 Jewish citizens would be living in Germany today (ZWSt-Report 2004). In 1991 the German Government came to an agreement with the Jewish Council in Germany and the members of states of the former Soviet Union, that Germany would grant Jewish people permission to stay in Germany if they wanted to leave the countries of the former Soviet Union. Since then more than 200,000 Jews have left these countries and settled in Germany (Jaspers 2005). Today the Jewish community in Germany numbers 100,000 (ZWSt-Report 2004). Not all of the new migrants decided to become members of the Jewish communities and this was not only for financial reasons.


Religious and cultural reasons precluded the completeintegration of the new Jewish citizens into the Jewish communities. The Halacha contains the religious rules and states that only the mother can prove the Jewish descent. In the former Soviet Union the ethnic descent was noted in passports according to the father’s origin. Thus, in Germany we now have a very complex situation. People coming from Russia and the Ukraine have Evrej (Hebrew) given as their ethnic derivation in their passports, yet in Germany the Rabbi does not agree with this practice. Hence many of the new migrants cannotovercome the first obstacle. Nevertheless, they remain in Germany, and legal Jewish migrants to Germany coming from the former Soviet Union number more than 200,000. Most of them have become an important part of the Jewish society in Germany, while Jewish communities were re-established after 1991. However, the traditional Jewish communities where not prepared for this new challenge.


Considering the anti-religious orientation of the Soviet society, it is not surprising that most of the new Jews in Germany do not know what it means to be Jewish. In commemoration of the demise of Jewish life in the Soviet era, I focus on the issue in the epoch before and after the Soviet Revolution. The Jews in Eastern Europe had their own culture and since they had left ‘Ashkenaz’ after the pogroms which followed the crusades, their language was Yiddish. After the Soviet Revolution in 1917 and until 1923, the Yiddish language and Jewish culture revitalized with growing influence, and even Jewish schools were newly founded. With the consolidation of the Soviet political system and mainly during the Stalin governance, religion and all ethnic autonomy were deleted. As a consequence of the political suppression, Jewish life in the former Soviet Union had to admit defeat (Gladilina & Brovkine 2005). In spite of this fact, Jewish communities in Germany have one goal for their integration politics, namely the revitalization of Jewish identity and culture.


Next I will give a brief overview of the different activities of the Jewish community in Germany and emphasize that these are done as a contribution to the integration of the new members into the Jewish society. The religious education does not focus on faith, but on knowledge of traditional Jewish life and history. In the larger German cities, the Jewish communities organize this education in kindergarten and primary schools.


The Jewish Welfare Organization organizes youth camps to educate the participants in Jewish religion and traditional ceremonies (ZWSt-Report 2003/2004). Due to the failure of professional and social integration of the migrants into German society, the Jewish communities place emphasis on the development of professional social work. The main task is to establish professional social work in the smaller communities. Jewish communities have even been newly founded in the eastern part of Germany, in the so-called ‘new countries’ which were the former German Democratic Republic. Approximately 6300 migrants are living in the eastern part of Germany. These places were not the first choice of the new citizens, but rather their settlement is a result of the German government’s regulations on the geographical distribution of the new migrants (ZWSt-Report 2004). In general, the living conditions are more difficult in this part of the country and unemployment has the highest rates.


The aforementioned circumstances force the development of professional social work to have its main focus on integration politics. If we consider the basic professional education of the migrants, we find that c.70% of university graduates (Schoeps & Vogt 1999, Dulina 2004). However, since Germany does not consider itself to be an emigration country, the German authorities have refused to recognize the professional qualifications of the migrants. Hence, new migrants are unemployed for 7 years on average (Schoeps & Vogt 1999). Such circumstances impose a strain on social work and the Jewish communities have some difficulties in placing Russian-speaking professional social workers at their disposal. Thus it can be concluded that the integration work in the Jewish communities has a lot of obstacles to overcome. The main places to make integration easier for the adult population are the factories and offices, i.e. the places where people work.


Considering these facts it is not surprising that the results of the research concerning the living conditions of the new Jewish migrants are as follows: 52% of the new Jewish migrants under 60 years are employees; 48% remain unemployed (Schopes 2005). If this figure is compared with the unemployment rate of the foreign population in Germany, there is a significant difference. Only 18% of the foreign workers (Gastarbeiter) in Germany are without employment, although their knowledge of the German language is neither better, nor the level of their professional education than that of the Jewish migrants. Concerning the professional education, attention should be focussed on the fact that 70% of the Jewish migrants are university graduates. However, 50% of the university graduates who are initially successful in finding a job within three years after emigration end up as unskilled workers or employees (Dulina 2004).


In our research we interviewed social workers in the Jewish communities as experts in their own field. One of the findings is the statement that the younger emigrants have better chance to succeed, but nevertheless the professional relegation is a fact. A survey started in 1999 by the Moses Mendelssohn Centre in Potsdam found that 57% of the new migrants believed that their main problems concerning integration and professional development have not been resolved. Further, 23% sincerely believed that they would not be successful in resolving these problems (Jasper 2005). This is a relegation of hope, since one of the main reasons for migration was the hope of better living conditions in terms of economy: 25% of the migrants confirmed that their reason for migrating was the hope for a better life; 18.6% mentioned personal reasons; and 15% feared the growing hostility and anti-Semitism in the states of the former Soviet Union (Jaspers 2005).


The experts we interviewed complained about the bad quality of schools, which teach in the German language, and the lack of readiness of German authorities to accommodate the professional skills of the migrants attempting to enter the German market. As a consequence of these experiences, the migrants feel not welcome in the country and the Jewish communities have to compensate for this lack of appreciation. Thus, in order to understand the demands confronting Jewish social work, it is necessary to stress the psychoanalytic point of view. The unexpected difficulties concerning the professional integration cause people to be dependent. In a certain way they cultivate their dependency and they ask for assistance. One expert complained that the migrants remain in their status in order to be managed and they even accept their continuous dependence on the job centres, or the social welfare organizations and the social workers in the Jewish communities.


Some statements give insights into individual circumstances. For instance, one job centre offered a Russian IT expert the opportunity to train as a gardener. He did not accept this offer and after a social worker helped him to write a letter of complaint to the authorities, the job centre offered training in IT then found him a suitable job. This example makes clear what abilities the migrants need for successful integration. On the other hand, with regard to social work and help, there is a noticeable lack of professional social work. As mentioned earlier, the Jewish communities were not prepared for this challenge and therefore it is evident that there is a shortage of professional staff. In fact, the majority of the social workers in the Jewish communities are not graduates. However, some of the students conduct their fieldwork in the Jewish community in Erfurt and have generated a number of reports.


The daily social work is overloaded with consulting needs. Social work students observe that migrants perceive their situation as hopeless. On the professional side, there is a shortage of abilities to develop a plan for the empowerment of the migrants. Therefore the Jewish representatives and the director of the Federal Jewish Welfare Organization, together with the Department for Social Work at the FH-Erfurt, have agreed to develop a project to improve the professional education of Jewish social workers in the Jewish communities. On behalf of the Jewish Council, the Erfurt University and the Department for Social Work at the FH-Erfurt started a study of intercultural problems in German Jewish communities and the development of integration of the new migrants. Another programme has been started to improve integration for the younger emigrants concerning Jewish religion and traditional Jewish life.


Discussions in the scientific community have identified one important area of research as the development of transcultural identities and the contrasting development of the so-called ‘parallel-society’ of the migrants. The Jewish migrants from the former Soviet Union are building ethnic colonies independently from the places where they are living (Schoeps 2005). This is the finding resulting from the research undertaken by the Moses Mendelssohn Centre in Potsdam. The Russian language and culture of the former Soviet Union remain the main support of identity and it seems that the migrants are developing a parallel society. Until now, researchers have not been able to find an explanation for this, i.e. whether this development is an expression of self-determination, such as a reaction to the lack of feeling beingwelcomed in the country of migration, or whether this is an indication of future development of the Jewish communities in Germany, and even in the state of Israel.


In the Jewish world this is a new experience. For hundredsof years Jewish communities located all over the world have had a transcultural nature. Outside Israel, diaspora and Gallut (exile) are the connotations of a life seeking mental balance through cultural integration on the one hand, and retaining the Jewish roots and tradition on the other (Jasper 2005). Jewish life is thus highly developed in transcultural abilities. Concerning this fact, it is evident that the development of Russian ‘mini-states’ causes concern among the Jewish representatives in Germany. This may be the reason why the conceptual design for other studies is prepared to focus mainly on integration of the migrants.


A comparative study has been designed by the Moses Mendelssohn Centre with the aim ofcomparing integration efforts in this matter in Israel, the USA and Germany (Jasper 2005). The assumption is that even in Israel the Russian migrants are building their own frame and surrounding, with visible influence in public life, culture and politics. Ultimately, it seems that they are labelling their cultural identity as a member of the worldwide Russian diaspora, with their Jewish descent and political identity relating to their Israeli citizenship. Further, the Russian Jews living in Israel quickly improve their knowledge of Hebrew language. In Germany, the process is the opposite. The migrants do not improve their language knowledge and they feel less integrated into their German surroundings. Most of them only maintain relationships inside their own ethnic group; 70% of the migrants mentioned bad experiences with Germans (Gladilina & Brovkine 2005), and 54% of the Russian migrants living in Germany would prefer to hold duel citizenship. Given the choice, 32% would prefer to hold European citizenship and this fact gives rise toDiana Pinto’s assumption (Jasper 2005). The new Jewish migrants from the states of the former Soviet Union are in a process of evolving a new Jewish European identity. Further, the Russian Jews will build a creative subsistence in a pluralistic and open-minded Europe (Jasper 2005).


The first part of this article is concluded by focusing on a general Jewish view concerning integration and assimilation. Shulamit Volkov of the University of Tel Aviv focused her essay on the interdependence between assimilation and dissimilation in the history of Jews in Germany. In her research she found that the emigration of eastern Jews into Germany was, in the course of history, always overloaded by a certain mental rupture within the German Jewish community. The first Jewish migrants from the eastern countries to Germany in the 19th century coincided with the emancipation of the Jewish population in Germany. The German Jews experienced a new rise in the German society. During this period, they realized the danger of losingtheir Jewish identity. The new migrants from the eastern countries revitalized the Jewish tradition, but on the other hand the Jewish communities which highly identified with the German culture feared that the poor newcomers would revitalize anti-Semitism. In the course of Volkov’s research it became clear that in German society anti-Semitism was always prevalent. Nevertheless the mental rupture and the discord in the Jewish community concerning the attitude towards the newcomers, forced two different orientations: the progress of assimilation and the intensification of dissimilation.


Finally, it should be noted that before the Shoah, Jews in Germany had a very strong identification with their German surroundings and culture, yet at the same time there was an important and growing Zionist movement (Volkov 2000). Considering the historical experiences and the discussion concerning the self-determination of the migrants, it is evident that the contemporary Jewish Council forces their integration, with the main focus on religious and cultural education with the aim of helping them in the process of finding first a Jewish identity, and secondly a German one. In addition to this we have to realize that German migration politics are not appraised by the Israeli Government – one more fact that the Jewish Council in Germany has to consider when planning the integration concepts.


An intercultural institution and intercultural problems


The residents of the Jewish centre for the elderly in Frankfurt are typical of the Jewish migrants after the Holocaust. They originate from more than 10 different countries and more than 40% of them are not able to communicate in German. The centre was formerly a Jewish hospital and it was the first shelter found by the survivors of World War II and the concentration camps – the place where they found kosher cooking and where they could feel secure among their equals became the most attractive place for the survivors to come to. Within a few years, the institution changed because only the weak and feeble persons who were unable to start a new life were forced to reside there. For more than five centuries the Jewish centre has been a place of refuge for elderly Jews coming from all over the world. Hence it is understandable that this institution has a perturbed development and it represents a perfect setting for psychosocial studies. Next I will highlight three issues concerning the framework of the institution and its inner life: group processes and management; ethnic conflicts and organization development; and results of biographical research. These will be discussed under respective headings in the following.


Group processes and management


First I will focus on the development of group processes and the demands that the management of this institution involves. Concerning the group processes, it should be noted that it has always been the biggest ethnic group of residents that has assumed the role of leadership and has tried to influence management and politics.


In the Jewish centre for the elderly we first have to consider the group processes when focusing on the experience of persecution, and the consequent struggle for balance mental and physical health as a starting point. In the first period after World War II, the residents of the centre were survivors of the concentration camps and most of them came from Poland. The descriptive and scientific literature concerning the post-Shoah life of Jews in Germany records an unusual compliance resulting from both that the survivors’ frame of mind had been ruptured and their failure to find a new identity. (The difficulties the survivors had in finding a new place to stay has already been mention in the Introduction).


In the design of the AMCHA, in the first and second period after the Shoah, the survivors tried to conquer their nightmares through hard work and generating something akin to a secret society of silence. They were convinced that nobody without the same fate and experience would believe what they had suffered. When they became old and weak, this kind of repression failed. The instruments they had used for repression, such as hard work, were no longer at their disposal due to the fact that their physical condition became feeble. In old age survivors are entirely overwhelmed by reminiscences of the barbaric time and this triggers a rude awakening. This is the one side of the process. The other side is that survivors are masters in overcoming problems and risks. They survived even in circumstances of high risk. One concomitant phenomenon is –which is a congruent result of research – that surviving was only possible with help. Every survivor can give an account of one person who helped them to survive. For the management of the Jewish centre it is important to pay attention to these experiences. In the nursing process it is necessary to avoid actions which bring back the sense of déjà vu. Accordingly, for some survivors it is impossible to take a shower, since they carry fears of the gas shower. Other survivors need light 24 hours a day, because they survived for months in darkness. These are just a few of the déjà vu experiences that the management and nursing staff have to be constantly aware of.


Up until the end of the 1960s, the elderly Jews coming from Poland represented the majority in the Jewish centre. At the end of the 1960s a new re-emigration took place, of elderly German Jews coming from South America. The course of life of both groups had differed, but they had in common the experience of surviving. The elderly German Jews tried to influence the management and politics while they tried to reconstruct the world and habits they were forced to leave behind. The management had to find out what both groups have in common, namely their power and ability to win the struggle for existence. Within the institution, both groups of residents agreed to find a common discrete way to organize their individual lives. With respect to the knowledge that in difficult situations one needs another person as support, they organized the staff and created their own working routine, always making sure that it was still possible to win in a conflict situation. The management needed considerable abilities and flexibility because the inner institutional practice did not correspond to the increasing number of prescriptions concerning how to run a nursing home in Germany. Without the respect toward the survivors and their intention to prove that they are still able to assert themselves, the management would risk generating mental disorder among the survivors. On the other hand, during all this time it was necessary to improve knowledge in nursing dealing with post-trauma stress syndrome. The aforementioned mental rupture of the survivors who decided to live in Germany is one more thing that both groups have in common. Considering this complex situation – one definition of the Jewish centre has been the complexity of complexity – it can be concluded that the management and the staff in this institution must be skilled with complex knowledge and abilities.


The last issue relating to this topic provides a link to the next section. The survivors had dramatic life-experiences when they lost relatives and places. Also, in the course of life, old age is the period of loss. Hence, for the survivors the feeling of damage is stronger than it is for other comparative groups of elderly people. Kernberg points out that the loss of human relations and frames poses a threat to identity. Bearing in mind what we heard about the feeble identity of the survivors living in Germany, we can evaluate Kernberg’s conclusion that this process provokes the feeling and the habit of dependence. Persons who are passing through this process have the tendency to develop groups and to nominate a leader. In an institution such as a nursing home, this duty is often reserved for the director. Consequently, all the hopes and needs are concentrated on this person; he or she is thus responsible for individual happiness and disaster. In cultivating the dependence, the residents develop a kind of avarice and each satisfaction creates new unsatisfied desires. This is another view of the previously described process. It is mainly dependent upon the personality of the director or the leader as to what precedes this process, and usually it is possible to observe the development of recurring conflict patterns, which influence the structure and the inner life of the institution.


Before moving on to the next section, attention should be drawn to a new discussion concerning the item survivors. Members of the so-called second generation (children of survivors) have started to emphasize that they would like to see their parents as persons, who enjoy life and they interpret the term ‘survivor’ as the expression for mental disorder and grief.


Ethnic conflicts and learning process


In the Introduction, I outlined the course of the Jewish migrants into Germany. After 1991, Jews from the former Soviet Union states came to the Jewish centre for the elderly and gradually they became the biggest homogeneous ethnic group there. For the staff, it became important that Russian-speaking nurses were employed, and currently 56% of the staff come from the former Soviet Union. Concerning group processes, it is possible to observe nearly the same prescript development, such as trying to influence the management and to dominate politics. The difference we realized is that the elderly migrants coming from the former Soviet Union have a stronger sense of group identity and it is evident that they have shared a lot of experiences in their struggles. In our interviews the previously dominant group of the German Jews told us that they felt themselves to be more and more strangers in this environment and they complained that the newcomers claim their share from the German government and the Jewish community without having contributed much: ‘They think that they are coming to the rich people and they make unjustified demands’ is one opinion we heard, and other researchers have heard similar responses.


The management of the centre and the authorities of the Jewish community have made some efforts to clarify this difficult situation. They decided to start a learning process by organizing developments. Before presenting some of the results of my analysis, I will outline the framework and methods. According to the design of a learning process created by Kurt Lewin, who described the three steps ‘Defreezing – Moving – Refreezing’, the management started with the first step. This was to describe the general perception of the situation and to pronounce on all the opinions and prejudices we had heard.


In the second step these results were presented and discussed in workshops and in meetings. The workshops are organized with different groups:

1. Members of staff

2. Members of the different groups of residents

3. Group investigation of the residents concerning the level of satisfaction


The third step will be to improve the results of the learning process and to establish small groups of residents which are composed of group members speaking the same language. The focal point of the group is a common living room and where a group manager is responsible for organizing their individual daily life.


Next I will provide an overview of some of the most remarkable results concerning ethnic conflicts. The workshops have been organized twice a year for the last three years, and one question is always repeated: ‘Please describe how you see the good and the bad attributes of the Russian-speaking elderly living in the nursing home’. Concerning the answers, which are anonymous, we have found no change. On the negative side it was stated:

  • Their avarice is overwhelming.

  • They demand medical care and equipment, even if they do not need it.

  • If their neighbour receives some help or some goods they insist on having the same, even if they do not need it.

  • If they are disappointed because one of the demands could not be fulfilled, they do not hesitate to make denunciations.

The positive side it was noted:

  • They have an affectionate acquaintance among themselves.

  • They show an interest in the private life of the staff and they want a relationship and friendship with the Russian-speaking staff.

Matters which changed are located in the part relating to comprehension. Changes were felt in the first workshop and the staff expressed anger and aggressiveness. In the subsequent workshops this attitude changed to one that was more comprehending. The issue of one workshop that represented a turnaround was to find out what gives nourishment to anger.


The answer we found was that first of all the demands that the elderly migrants have concerning health care were overwhelming and impossible to fulfil. We asked the Russian-speaking staff to find out what could be done to ensure that the migrants would have the feeling of being in a good health condition. The answer was found very quickly: they needed a health check. In the former Soviet Union every citizen had a complete health check once or even twice a year, which included all medical examinations. After the check-up, the doctor gave a stamped certificate which gave the assurance (security) that the health provisions were perfect. This example served to clarify the background to the demands and to recognize the importance of this process for other situations. Further, the example also shows that some of the intercultural differences cannot be solved because they are part of the mental order of human beings. The feeling of living under bad health conditions seems to be a continuous frame of mind of the elderly migrants. What the management of the centre could do is to intensify development of the soft skills of the staff and to help them to increase their abilities in terms of communication and understanding.


The example also reveals another point of view. If the economic life was one of the main reasons for emigration, it is hard to realize that in some cases life-conditions are going from bad to worse. To win this struggle determines whether emigration was a good or a bad decision, and this question is stressful for all migrants, the young and the elderly. Thus it can be concluded that the learning process in the institution should be accompanied by a complex psychological process where emotions are allowed to dominate from time to time.


Results of biographical research


Finally, I wish to raise the issue of some of the results of the biographical research. To do this, I will give an overview of the typical answers that the interviewees gave to the question concerning their life in the former Soviet Union, and the sentiments they cultivate whilst they stay in Germany. My sample was 15 elderly Russian migrants who were living in the Jewish nursing home. They were born between 1912 and 1928, and all of them left Russia or the Ukraine in old age to start a new life in Germany.


Reasons for migration


Apart from one interviewee, all informed that the only reason for emigration was that they were following the decision made by their children. Evidently, it is impossible for elderly people to live in their countries of origin without either financial help from their children or their support in the organization of daily life.


Life in the former Soviet Union


All of the interviewees gave accounts of persecution and pogroms in the short era of the Soviet Revolution. They remembered or learned from their parents’ memories the first time after the revolution when Jewish life revitalized. As a consequence, most of the interviewees were able to communicate in the Yiddish language. Most of the interviewees remembered grinding poverty in the time after the revolution, and also the increasing influence of the Soviet educational system on their personal life. Due to Stalin’s educational politics some of them acquired university degrees. ‘Stalin’s-scholarship’ made it possible for them to attend college. Subsequently, they held careers as, for example, physicians, artists, musicians, opera singers, scientists, and engineers. Two of the interviewees had learned a trade and only after the War did they study and acquire a university degree. Most of the interviewees were able to resume a very successful life. To illustrate this, I will briefly present some accounts of individual fates.


Mrs ‘K’ was responsible for the price-fixing of all Soviet products. Her life was rabota (hard work). She was appreciated and entirely content with her professional life, yet in her private life she failed. The most shocking experience of her life was the evacuation of Moscow during World War II. The best days of her life were during the era of the Brezhnev governance and if she could turn back the clock today she would do it. She assumed that ‘people don’t understand each other any more’, and ‘[in] former times the willingness to help one another was highly developed’. When Gorbachov started perestroika she was delighted and full of hope, ‘but now, you can see the results; it turns from bad to worse’.


Mr ‘O’ was an officer in the Red Army and an alumnus of the military academy in Moscow. He started his military career in atomic research and his health was affected as a consequence. Due to the fact that he was unable to continue his job at the army’s nuclear base, he became responsible for organizing the astronautical program of the Soviet Union. When he was 58 years old his health problems worsened and he went into retirement. His disability which was caused by contamination was never recognized, so he could not claim compensation: ‘it was top-secret; nobody would dare to speak about it’. Mr ‘O’ identified strongly with the Soviet political system until he realized in the 1980s ‘that the representatives didn’t tell the truth’. His personal life turned from bad to worse when his wife, a physician, was deployed to Chernobyl after the atomic accident there. A few months later she died, destroyed by radioactivity. Now Mr ‘O’ has changed his mind: ‘they stole our life … we didn’t know what it is to have a good life which could be compared with Western life style’. Until then, Mr ‘O’ had not known what it is to be Jewish. Then he remembered the Jewish descent of his mother and he asked for the required documents to enter Germany. Accompanied by his son, he reached Germany and his son, who is a physician like his mother, found a job straight away. Mr ‘O’ asked for admission to the nursing home.


Mrs S. lost her father during the post-revolution confusion in 1919, when soldiers killed 7 Jewish families in her small native town in Ukraine. She was a very good student and until old age she had felt grateful to Stalin, since she was convinced that he was responsible for the good quality of her life. Through the so-called ‘Stalin-scholarship’ she was able to gain a university degree and later she was responsible for the so-called Agit-Prop Program of the Communist propaganda in Shitomir, Ukraine. She declared, ‘My godfather is Lenin’, and as she was speaking her eyes filled with tears. She recalled the most difficult event in her life, which was to discover Lenin’s Jewish descent, since his mother was Jewish. When she published this ‘precious news’ in the propaganda newspaper she was immediately discharged from the Agit-Prop Program. For seven long years she remained without employment, until her rehabilitation.


Mrs ‘B’ is Jewish in the sense of Halacha, because her mother is Jewish. Her father’s family emigrated from Germany in the era of Tsar Alexander II. They had special order to establish the Russian public finance and banking business. After the Revolution the family had to leave the Soviet Union, but Mrs ‘B’s’ father decided to stay in Russia because he related strongly to the Russian culture. As a scholar of Rachmaninov, he became a famous pianist. All her life, Mrs ‘B’ was grateful that her father had insisted on her registration as a Russian so that she too could live in comfort. In her self-perception, Mrs ‘B’ is part of the Soviet upper-class. During World War II she saved her life by evacuating and even then she was able to continue her studies at the Kiev conservatory, which was evacuated to Sverdlovsk.


During World War II all the interviewees survived on account of evacuating or as members of the Red Army. They felt a strong relationship with the Soviet people during that time. Contemporary history research has revealed the mass murder of the Jews when the Germans occupied the Soviet Union. Following the occupation of the Soviet Union, the Nazi leaders abandoned the plan to build concentration camps; instead they killed people by shooting them. The ritual act was repeated: German soldiers drove Jews and Communist leaders to a place where they were forced to dig their own grave and then they were shot. Nearly all of the interviewees hadsuffered the loss of family members, or they gave accounts of eyewitnesses, or they recounted having been in great danger and that they had had to struggle to survive.


Migrants in Germany


Following on from the previous section, in this section I will focus out how the elderly migrants in Germany feel today.


Mrs ‘B’ is the only one who left her country because she had felt an increasing uncertainty in daily life as a result of the increasing crime rate. The other interviewees did not give an account of such experiences. They left their country because their children or relatives had decided to leave. Their narratives reveal a common conformity when they related the reasons for emigration: ‘it is impossible to survive in the former Soviet Union as an elderly person without help’. Thus, it was the emigration of their children and relatives that ‘forced’ the elderly migrants to follow them into an unknown country. What are their narratives concerning their feelings and hopes? They are living in Germany, but they do not know anything about the place in which they live. Most of them have not been anywhere outside the nursing home.


They are all in agreement regarding the feeling of homelessness, and this feeling is nourished by the fact that even their ‘mental homeland’ does not exist any more. Their hearts and feelings are still linked to the former Soviet Union. During the interviews they praised the social security and benefits in Germany, expressing gratitude and how their hopes are concentrated on perfect medical care. Here a contradiction can be detected, since the staff give a contradicting account. The staff noted avarice and ingratitude in the daily life of the centre and the nursing process. When we discussed this contradiction in a workshop, the participants offered an explanation for this duality.


In the Soviet Union people were masters in using and distinguishing two codes of living: the private and the public one. The Russian-speaking staff are persuaded that the interview-narrative follows the public code and the truth is only spoken in privacy. However, whether the code is private or public is of no consequence when following declaration is considered, which the interviewees expressed concerning how they would spend the remaining years of their life in Germany, in view of German history: ‘Germans are able to show repentance about what they have done in the past. It’s the only nation able to do that and that’s the reason we have confidence in this country and its people’.


Harald Welzer (2002) declared that Germans have also perfected the use of two codes when coping with the past. The public code is even an ‘article of exportation’ and available as Germany’s contribution to consulting services in countries suffering from ethnic and other conflicts. Young people in Germany are careful when expressing the coping of the past. This process differs in typical German families. This is the place where grandfather becomes a hero and grandmother a victim and where the million murdered lives are not mentioned very often. Nevertheless, new social science research has identified that the majority of young Germans are committed to the fact that the Nazi regime was a reign of terror and that the heroes of this epoch were the members of the resistance. Despite the increasing anti-Semitism worldwide and in Germany which is evident from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the rise of a new Jewish society in Germany provides proof of confidence and that is a challenge for German politics and civil society.




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Welzer, H. 2002. Opa war kein Nazi.




Thanks to Deborah Friedman and Sofie Lewinson for the support and help they provided by lecture and correction of the script.



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