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Learning Nothing from History: In Germany, Syrian Refugees Seek Out a Jewish Welfare Organization


A steady trickle of refugees from the Middle East is systematically seeking out Germany’s national Jewish welfare organization.

Located throughout the heavily migrant-trafficked eastern Germany, in the first six months of 2015, the ZWST or the Central Board of Jewish Welfare in Germany’s five immigrant absorption centers have seen some 1,000 adults seeking advice about settling in the country. Almost evenly split between genders and aged 18 and up, these potential immigrants have one thing in common — they speak Russian.

And while the majority of ZWST’s clients are Russian citizens or from other former Soviet Union countries, there is a growing number of asylum seekers from Muslim countries turning to the Jewish welfare organization. Reflecting Russia’s deep ties with Syria and the ongoing civil war, the agency has seen an uptick in applications from Russian-speaking Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Germany.

The Times of Israel approached over a dozen German Jewish organizations, journalists, individual activists and communities in the past week, asking what, if anything, German Jewry is doing for the influx of refugees and migrants. Although there are innumerable individual initiatives, the communities, largely not actively aiding the refugees, are keeping a very low profile with their aid efforts, deliberating their first steps or waiting until the November 15 annual Mitzvah Day to volunteer.

But the ZWST is already in the trenches, and has been for years.

As part of the Federal Association of Independent Welfare Agencies, the ZWST is one of six national bodies tasked with immigrant intake and its doors are open to all.

“This [immigration counseling] is an open offer for people coming to Germany with the will to stay here,” said Günter Jek, who coordinates the ZWST’s intake centers. All of its counselors speak German and Russian, and some Syrians, along with some other potential immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, seek out the ZWST with the help of Russian-language skills learned during higher education abroad.

“Funny as it is, Syrian refugees visit Jewish counselors because they speak Russian,” said Jek.

The ZWST processed the large Russian Jewish immigration wave that began in the early 1990s and continues to work with Jewish immigrants today, including over 100,000 Israelis and several thousands of Americans who have sought German passports based on their families’ expulsion during World War II.

The ZWST is the smallest of the six national bodies tasked with immigration counseling for the seemingly endless rivers of migrants and asylum seekers flooding the country. At least 800,000 are expected this year, and the government is scrambling to accommodate their varied needs.

But when asked how the agency is dealing with the sharp increase of refugees in the past few weeks, Jek, who has worked with ZWST for 12 years, gave an unexpected response.

“This ‘boom’ is media made,” said Jek, adding that the immigrants are constantly seeking asylum in Germany. “If you are in the migrant counseling business, this started to increase enormously at the beginning of last year. What’s happening today is a media-made thing.”

In addition to opening people’s pocketbooks, however, the heightened media awareness has several other positive aspects, said Jek.

“If you take a look at Germany several weeks ago, there were protest against migrants, burning of their houses. Now the media is full of people helping migrants. Chancellor [Angela] Merkel is visiting refugee camps, they’ve opened the border for migrants from Hungary. It works,” said Jek.

Founded in 1917 to aid Jewish World War I veterans and their compatriots’ widows and orphans, the ZWST was instrumental in helping Jews leave Germany under early Nazi rule until it was shuttered in 1939 and its staff taken to camps. After the war, it was revived by German Jewry’s umbrella organization, the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany) and began its work of resettling Jewish Holocaust survivors.

“We have one thing in mind in our work — that 90% of the Jewish people in Germany came here as refugees, and were accepted and integrated. And still, our greatest work is to integrate people, into the Jewish community — and German society,” said Jek.

Today, ZWST’s resettlement work continues, albeit with a broader mandate. And for ZWST’s Jek, a non-Jew, this work is not fed by “Jewish values” but rather by humanitarian ones.

For the broader German Jewish community, however, the refugee issue seems to involve a stifling mixture of compassion, guilt, and fear.

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