The first documented presence of Jews north of the Alps dates back to AD 321, when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued a decree allowing Jews to be elected to the Cologne city council. The documents of the imperial decree are now kept in the archives of the Vatican.
The Edict of Rome is definitive proof that Jewish communities have been an integral part of European culture since ancient times, according to the Office of the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism.
On the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of the edict, the association “1700 years of Jewish life in Germany” decided together with the federal government to honor this event with projects and festivities.
In a DW interview, Andrei Kovacs talks about the success of the “1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany” project
An overwhelming task
Looking back, the association’s managing director, Andrei Kovacs, said he was pleased in a DW interview: “We were overwhelmed by the participation of civil society and politics. The number of events far exceeded original expectations.
“We had around 840 project partners in all 16 federal states,” he explains. “That really overwhelmed us. Then there were also projects that took place without funding and did not appear in the statistics. These included events in over 20 German diplomatic missions worldwide. Because the Federal Foreign Office also took part in the festival,” says Andrei Kovacs.
In total there were over 2400 events throughout Germany. Thirteen cities took part in the celebrations, which included exhibitions of Jewish artifacts from the Middle Ages as part of the Divided History project and celebration of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot XXL.
According to Kovacs, celebrating festivals such as Sukkot and other smaller events played an extremely important role in bringing people closer to Jewish life. “It was something special because it was the first time many people had dealt with Jewish life in what is now Germany and also with the different Jewish perspectives on the present,” says Kovacs.
Creating awareness of Jewish life
In the Münsterland region of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, members of the Westphalia-Lippe State Association (LWL) organized a project in which children and young people looked for traces of Jewish life in the region and documented them.
The idea of the “Jewish Here” project was to bring the participants closer to the centuries-old German-Jewish history by tracing the lives of Jewish members in their cities.
In one of these researches, the students followed this Life of Nana Kahn, who was born in 1910 and graduated from high school in Attendorn in 1929. The students created a map of Kahn’s whereabouts at the time and documented their lives in text form.
With the educational app BIPARCOURS, interested users can now look at Nana Kahn’s biography. A photo of Kahn and marginal data from her life can be seen in the app.
In the app you can also track the way to Kahn’s school in Attendorn geographically. It also contains additional information about Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws. Finally, there are also directions to a memorial plaque for Jews who were deported from the area to concentration camps.
The idea of the project was “to become aware that there was Jewish life there, that Jewish people lived there and that there were definitely positive moments in German-Jewish history and not only negative experiences. And that was very exciting,” explains Kovacs.
Space for new identities
The chairman of the association “1700 Years of Jewish Life” is satisfied with the course of the commemorative year.
The celebrations not only opened up a new perspective on the Jews in the country, but were like a voyage of discovery for many non-Jewish people.
This sense of discovery also extended to “Jewish people [in Deutschland]who are trying to locate their own identity in society,” adds Kovacs.
But there are still some challenges that need to be overcome, he says.
“When I was young, it was still the case in my Jewish household that you couldn’t really imagine a future in Germany. That has now changed, which the festival made clear,” he explains, explaining that it is a new one Self-image with which young people want to be perceived and, above all, respected in a modern, future-oriented society. And that is an opportunity for change, but it needs room to grow.
The second challenge is keeping alive the memory of the Shoah, the Holocaust, since there are only a few survivors, he adds. “The third aspect is of course anti-Semitism, yes, the conspiracy myths that are now spilling over Russia again. There are also many ideologies that are now coming to Germany. But also things that have become established in Germany.” You only have to look at the current discussion about documenta15, says Kovacs. He is referring to the renowned German art exhibition in Kassel, at which anti-Semitic works of art have repeatedly appeared in recent weeks and have caused considerable controversy in German cultural and political circles.
For the future, the entrepreneur and chairman of the association “1700 years of Jewish life in Germany eV” is planning a Jewish music festival called “Shalom Cologne” and is also aiming at a Europe-wide cooperation project.
Above all, according to Kovacs, the commemorative year gave Jews and Jewish associations in Germany the courage to open up and celebrate their religion. Kovacs hopes it continues like this.