Exhibition in the Jewish Museum Berlin: Jewish life in the GDR

Jewish leftists were welcome in the GDR. Although they fled the Nazis in 1933, they soon faced anti-Semitic discrimination in the GDR.

Barbara Honigmann: “A friend from before (Thomas Brasch)” 1997. Brasch’s father co-founded the FDJ Photo: Roman March

From 1933 onwards, the Nazis drove many Jews into exile. After the end of the war in 1945, some of them deliberately went to the Soviet occupation zone in order to help build the “better Germany” that was hoped for at the time. A special exhibition in the Jewish Museum Berlin is dedicated to Jewish life in the GDR. This is also about the history of Jewish communists in the GDR – and their children.

The Zadeks are an example of this. The married couple Alice and Gerhard Zadek were born in Berlin in 1919 and 1921, respectively. They were considered the last surviving members of the Jewish-communist resistance group around Herbert Baum.

“Another land. Jewish in the GDR.” Jewish Museum, Berlin. Until January 14, 2024

The group, which consists predominantly of Jewish young people, created during the Nazism leaflets and underground newspapers and supported Jewish forced laborers. In 1942 she even carried out an arson attack on an anti-Soviet Nazi propaganda show in Berlin. Almost all members of the group were then captured and murdered by the Nazis.

FDJ founded in England

By then the Zadeks had already fled to England. There they were founding members of the Free German Youth, which emerged as a result of emigration during the Second World War. Local branches of the group were also founded in France, Czechoslovakia and Scotland, which would later become the largest youth organization in the GDR.

In British exile, the FDJ’s main task was to support the often young Jewish emigrants. Another well-known founding member was Horst Brasch, father of the writer and director Thomas Brasch and the artist and journalist Marion Brasch.

After their return, the young communists were often able to rise quickly in the Soviet occupation zone. Gerhard Zadek became foreign policy editor for one year in 1947 Boys worldin 1949 he took over the management of the magazine Young generation, an organ for FDJ officials.

Head of Glass and Ceramics Squad

Afterwards, Albert Norden, another Jewish communist and remigrant, appointed him head of the press reporting department of the Office for Information, the GDR’s provisional press office. Alice Zadek became a manager for the two large trading companies “Glass and Ceramics” and “Printing and Paper”.

The Zadeks’ story was not an isolated incident. Given the small number of Jews living in the Soviet occupation zone and the GDR, they were disproportionately represented in leadership positions. That changed when massive controls began to be carried out on all party members and officials in 1948.

For this purpose, the Central Party Control Commission (ZPKK for short) was set up before the GDR was founded. According to Hermann Matern, who led it from 1949 to 1971, the ZPKK had the task of guaranteeing the “internal consolidation of the party” and “expelling hostile forces and elements”.

Identify scapegoats

The ZPKK thus took on the function of identifying scapegoats as part of self-purification rituals. Matern explained: “That is what we understand least, showing the enemy to the common man. We have to show the enemy in the party personified.” Against the backdrop of the Cold War, they wanted to suggest to their own people and possibly themselves that they had the situation under control.

“Western emigrants” in particular were targeted by the party. Western emigrants were those who initially fled to the West from National Socialism or became prisoners of war in the West. The mere fact of emigration to the West was enough to raise suspicions of being an “imperialist” or “American agent”. If this was not enough to support an accusation, the people were also accused of “Trotskyism” or “Zionism”.

The purges of the CPSU under Stalin served as a model for the SED’s party control procedures. The controls culminated in Stalinist anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Trotskyism, an anti-Western attitude and a scapegoat discourse.

Bizarre purification rituals

Without explicitly naming Jews as enemies, they often became the de facto victims of the bizarre purification rituals, which were essentially unfinishable because of their inherent logic. Every further problem and every public case could become a reason for further investigation. While this was accompanied by arbitrary death sentences in the Soviet Union, in the GDR there were demotions and occasional prison sentences.

Gerhard Zadek was also transferred to Mecklenburg in 1952 after the Office for Information was dissolved. At this point he had only been back in Germany for five years. From now on he was supposed to be the representative of the SED district body in Mecklenburg Free Earth lead – a demotion. When he was asked to become a foundry worker in 1953 despite his studies, he refused. He switched, studied patent engineering and then became director of VEB Schwermaschinenbau. Alice Zadek was demoted to training director for the National Front.

The party did not officially give reasons for their transfers. “But it was clear what was behind it,” says daughter Ruth Zadek to the taz. “This deep distrust of everyone and everything has destroyed this state,” she explains. Her parents only told her about her demotion after the fall of communism. Until then, they kept their injuries under wraps: “Because they always believed in the party and its mission,” says Zadek.

Grotesque party discipline

The strong party discipline of many communists sometimes took on grotesque features. In some cases, people preemptively accused themselves even before they were summoned by the ZPKK. Nor were Jews exclusively affected by the purges, although they were often affected. Eastern emigrants, on the other hand, were generally spared, even if they were Jewish.

In the exhibition in the Jewish Museum, party control procedures and their own logic are unfortunately neglected. It would have been useful to take a closer look here in order to give an idea of ​​the diversity of anti-Semitism. The topic would also have offered the opportunity to highlight this possibly historically unique connection between communism and anti-Semitism.

Although the parents remained silent about their injuries caused by the Party, the children sensed that something was wrong in this state. In her youth, Ruth Zadek was deputy manager of a youth clubhouse in Weißensee. In a series of events taking place there called “Kramladen” the aim was to expand the artistic possibilities of the GDR. That’s why the jazz, artist and intellectual scene was invited.

The daughter becomes a class enemy

But the events were banned. “We weren’t interested in destroying the GDR; we wanted to change the structures in the country,” says Zadek. In 1979 she applied to leave the GDR and in 1981 she left the GDR for the West. This made her a “class enemy” for her father. The contact was lost. The question of how to understand anti-Semitism also divided the generations.

The artist Peter Kahane, whose father, the journalist Max Kahane, was also a victim of the purges, speaks in a podcast on Deutschlandfunk that his parents were not particularly interested in anti-Semitism in the GDR – even though they themselves were affected by it. “What did they know about everyday life in the GDR?” he asks, “what did they know about xenophobic and anti-Semitic suggestions?”

And he answers himself: “Not much.” Kahane is also alluding to the fact that anti-Semitic statements were part of everyday life for his parents’ generation, while it was only the children who really became aware of their hostile nature.

What has persisted despite the generational conflict, says Ruth Zadek, is the “commitment to family history.” After reunification, she became closer to her father again. At this point he was finally open to questioning his role in the GDR and also the GDR itself. For Ruth Zadek, being Jewish means passing on and understanding anti-Semitism – which every generation experiences differently.

Jean Harris

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