Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Stonemason's Stand against Racism in Berlin

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Stonemason's Stand against Racism in Berlin

Article excerpt

In Germany, rarely a day goes by when a Jewish cemetery isn't desecrated. Still, many Berliners were shocked when vandals toppled 103 gravestones last October in Weissensee, a former East Berlin neighborhood where Europe's largest Jewish graveyard is located.

The vandalism troubled Otmar Kagerer, a local stonemason, enough that he and eight other members of his trade agreed to volunteer their time and skills to repair the damage.

Since then Mr. Kagerer, who is not Jewish, has learned firsthand about anti-Semitism and the strength to be gained from opposing it.

First, he began to receive telephone death threats at night. Then, in November, his workshop in eastern Berlin was attacked by intruders, who smashed 150 tombstones - $30,000 worth of uninsured show pieces.

"At first I was speechless when I saw the chaos in front of me," says Kagerer, running a hand through his thick, gray hair. "Only after the first shock, did I make the connection to the Jewish cemetery. It looked similar, the way the tombstones were lying about," he says, referring to the topsy-turvy appearance of many older Jewish graveyards.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the destruction. But the office was left untouched, indicating that it was not an attempted burglary. Kagerer says he felt very alone at that moment. The soft- spoken, broad-shouldered German had become a victim of an anti- Semitic crime.

There are 2,100 Jewish graveyards in Germany. In many parts of the country, they are are the only reminders of a proudly assimilated minority that Hitler's "Final Solution" nearly erased from German life during World War II.

In Berlin, the Jewish population today is less than a tenth of the 170,000 Jews who lived here before 1933 - despite a revival following immigration from the former Soviet Union in the past decade.

Since the late 1980s, the number of anti-Semitic crimes, including Holocaust denial - which is illegal in Germany - have quadrupled to a yearly average of about 800, according to Werner Bergmann, a sociologist at the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at Berlin's Technical University.

And only last week in Britain, a High Court judge ruled against historian David Irving. Mr. Irving, who claims that Hitler did not mastermind the mass slaughter of Jews, had brought a libel suit against an American professor who wrote a book that labeled him a "Holocaust denier." In his verdict, the judge called Irving "anti- Semitic and racist."

France, meanwhile, is due to publish a report today on Jewish assets seized between 1940 and 1944 by the Nazis and their French collaborators. The assets include bank accounts, gold, artwork, and real estate.

In Germany, some 10 percent of all right-wing crimes are classified as anti-Semitic. The rest are largely targeted against foreigners, who in contrast to Jews are a large and often conspicuous minority. …

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