Profile: Charlotte Knobloch
Judaism today is returning to the main streets and public squares of Germany, a reality long fought for by the nation’s most influential Jew.
She was 6 years old, holding her father’s hand on a Munich sidewalk. Looking up at the fire-blackened synagogue and stepping around shards of glass, the young girl was confused. And yet she also understood that her life would never be the same. She would soon go into hiding, to emerge only after the war.
Sixty-nine years later, Charlotte Knobloch is the most important figure in the German Jewish community. As president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the first woman in the position, she must speak up for Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants, stand up for Israel and combat anti-Semitism.
To be front and center is not easy for Knobloch, 75. As with many child survivors, being hidden remains a state of mind long after liberation. Perhaps it was to conquer this fear that Knobloch became determined to bring Jewish life in Germany back to the public square. Literally.
Last year, Knobloch realized a decades-long dream, dedicating a new synagogue and community center in the middle of Jakobsplatz in Munich. Named for the synagogue she saw smoldering on Kristallnacht, the Orthodox Ohel Jakob is not set back, hidden, in a courtyard as were so many traditional German synagogues.
“Finally, Judaism can show itself,” Knobloch asserts. “Judaism is something you can touch.”
Knobloch found support for the synagogue project in Munich Mayor Christian Ude. “[In school], I learned about the destruction of the synagogues in Munich,” Ude says, “and so the idea of rebuilding a synagogue was in my mind already. And then Frau Knobloch had the idea to build a new Jewish center at Jakobsplatz, with all the institutions that Jewish life requires. I was totally impassioned with this idea.
“We worked closely together,” he continues, “and I got to know her very well, not only as a public figure but as a comrade in arms. I came to know her fighting spirit, her loyalty, her stick-to-itiveness…. She works long and hard to reach her goal.”
Sitting in her office in the new community center, Knobloch—a petite blonde with a ready smile and expressive eyes who is rarely seen without a fashionable suit and pearls—starts her morning by reading e-mails and answering calls. Though she works out of Munich, council headquarters are in Berlin, and she spends several hours each day conferring with colleagues there and with the approximately 80 Jewish communities in Germany’s 16 states. “I have to expect a 12-hour day, if not more,” she explains.
Her role model is the late Ignatz Bubis, council president from 1992 until his death in 1999. Bubis crisscrossed Germany with the particular goal of meeting as many non-Jews as possible, affording them the opportunity to engage with Jews and survivors face-to-face. “I want to make the Central Council, and the people who represent it, more approachable,” says Knobloch, who succeeded the late Paul Spiegel in 2006.
“I was very much in favor of Mrs. Knobloch,” says Central Council Vice President Dieter Graumann. “It is [probably] the last chance to have a Holocaust survivor at the top of the Central Council. And because I also bear the Holocaust very much inside myself—I am from a survivor family—it means a lot to me to work and fight so that people everywhere not forget.”
By far the biggest challenge now facing the german Jewish community is integration of new immigrants. Over 90,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have come to Germany since 1990, quadrupling the Jewish population, which today stands at approximately 120,000 (unofficially there may be as many as 180,000, but not all Jews are registered with the community). But rather than assimilating, the newcomers have put their own stamp on the Jewish community; Russian, not German, is the common language among the older generation. And whereas East European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries were traditional Jews, the current generation, having grown up under Communism, tends to be secular. Traditional, Orthodox Jews such as Knobloch are facing the difficult task of integrating a new majority into an old minority.
“You don’t only have to integrate, you have to connect them with the Jewish community and also with society,” notes Knobloch. But the newcomers have the right to “keep their own cultural identity,” she stresses.
“When we have programs in the Russian language on Russian themes—art or culture—these events are very well attended,” she comments. “This is how we gain their trust. They will know that they are welcome.”
But one thing they must do is speak German, argues Knobloch, who refuses to learn Russian. “When our emigrants went to America, they learned English and not the other way around,” she asserts.
In recent years, Israel has urged Germany to put greater restrictions on Jewish immigration, particularly after reports revealed that more Jews from the former Soviet Union had moved to Germany than to the Jewish state. Germany has now passed laws making it harder for all would-be immigrants to qualify. Knobloch, however, hopes for some easing, especially in the case of reuniting families.
But she does not discourage anyone from moving to Israel. In fact, the Central Council helps cover the expense of making aliya. “I do not make any advertisements,” Knobloch says, “but personally, if a family comes to me today and says they want to move to Israel, they even get a free ticket.”
Only a few hundred leave Germany for Israel each year, however, perhaps due to the generally welcoming atmosphere for Jews. Though there is suppressed anti-Semitism and some extremism—from the far left, the far right and from Islamists—the threat of violence is minimal.
“There is no danger at the moment, but one has to be careful,” Knobloch says. “Hitler had 12 or 13 years before he came to power, and he began in the same way as right-wing extremism today—whipping up a frenzy among youth and others…. These things don’t happen suddenly.”
Recently, speaking at an event commemorating the liberation of Dachau, Knobloch urged vigilance in the case of Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction. The Jewish community seems to have an ally in this matter in German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has challenged Ahmadinejad’s statements, arguing that Germany in particular cannot remain silent in the face of such threats.
Overall, however, Muslim extremism is not as evident in Germany as in France and England, but there is growing unrest among some Muslim youth, Knobloch notes. Teachers who have met with Knobloch report that some Muslim pupils walk out when the Holocaust is taught.
“They leave the room saying, ‘Too bad they didn’t gas them all,’” Knobloch relates. “One teacher was crying, she didn’t even want to repeat everything the pupils said. She said there is a revolution in the classroom if she brings up the theme.” This reality is why, when schools ask Knobloch to visit, “I always say yes right away, and then I ask, oh God, where is it?” she says. “I am glad to tell young people that there were those in this country who put themselves in danger to save others. There are many examples, not just mine.”
Yet her example, her story of survival, is powerful and must resonate with the children to whom she speaks.
Knobloch was born in 1932. Her mother, Margarethe, had converted to Judaism to marry Fritz Neuland, an attorney and politician. Under pressure after the passing of the Nuremberg laws, Margarethe left the family in 1936; Knobloch has had no contact with her since. Knobloch was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, Albertine Neuland, who was later deported. In 1942, Fritz brought his young daughter to Kreszentia “Zenzi” Hummel, an unmarried Catholic woman who had worked as a maid for a relative. There, in Middle Franconia, Knobloch lived with Hummel and her parents, taking the name of Lotte Hummel and assuming the role of Hummel’s illegitimate daughter until the war was over.
“[Zenzi] always rejected any form of recognition,” Knobloch says. After the war, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, “wrote 10 times to her. She said she already had been rewarded. The family had a reason why they took this risk. Their two sons were soldiers in the war, and they hoped that if they did a good deed, their sons would come back alive. And they did come back.”
Knobloch’s father also survived. After the war, they were among some 20,000 Jews who remained in Germany.
She went to work in her father’s law office before succeeding him as a leader of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the official body of Munich’s Jewish community, which he cofounded in 1945.
In 1950, she married Samuel Knobloch, with whom she had three children (her husband passed away in 1990). Berndt is a lawyer and father of three; Iris is a lawyer practicing in France; and Sonia is a doctor living in Israel and mother to four children, two of whom have served in the Israel Defense Forces.
Knobloch makes it a priority to visit Israel as often as her schedule allows. To unwind from the daily stresses of her work, she bikes, tends to the flowers on her balcony and reads crime novels.
After years of work in the Munich Jewish community, Knobloch became a vice president of the Central Council in 1997, which led to her appointment as president. She also serves as vice president of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress.
Though the Holocaust irrevocably changed her life, Knobloch does not believe the weight of that history should overshadow the loyalty freedom-loving Germans feel toward their country today. “People who have nothing to do with the past, who support democracy and are proud of how this land has developed, they should be able to have pride in their country,” she explains.
“The days are gone when one defined oneself by the Holocaust,” Knobloch says.