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Holocaust Never Forgotten, But Germany's Jewish Population Has Skyrocketed

28/01/2015 17:57 GMT | Updated 29/01/2015 07:59 GMT

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Huffington Post UK is running a series of pieces looking at how we remember the Holocaust: The victims and perpetrators and the untold stories, on what's likely to be one of the last major commemorations with living survivors.

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Showing off how much cheaper Berlin was than Tel Aviv earned Naor Narkis this response on Facebook: "See you in the gas chambers."

He insists he understands this reaction. His grandfather fled Strasbourg in 1940 as the Nazis advanced into France, and if he were alive today, Narkis admits he "would not be happy" to hear his grandson lives in a country that tried to exterminate its entire Jewish population.

But the cosmopolitan 26-year-old's attitudes are emblematic of the gradual change in the relationship between Jews and Germany. He is one of thousands of Israelis who have made Berlin home in recent years. He acknowledges the long shadow the Holocaust casts among his people, but while older Israelis still boycott German goods, living in the country or interacting with its culture is not, to him, a problem.

After serving in the military for six years, he left Israel in 2014 because of the high cost of living, initially moving to Paris and Strasbourg before heading to Berlin. He says he went to Germany to learn another language, having already learned Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, English and French.

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While there, he took a photo of his grocery bill to show that his shopping cost him a third of what it would in Tel Aviv. He set up a Facebook group called Olim Le Berlin - 'Let's Ascend to Berlin', a deliberate play on the Israeli notion of Jews who "ascend" by emigrating to Israel and "descend" by leaving it. At its peak, the group was reportedly reaching 600,000 people a week.

The storm in Israel was huge. Narkis initially posted anonymously, wanting people to hear his arguments about how expensive the Jewish state had become but the press became "really violent" in trying to unmask him. "I started to imagine maybe the Mossad was after me," he tells The Huffington Post UK.

"The Israeli press started a race to find out who was behind it. They said I would be sad when I come back to Israel, it will be humiliating for me to be back."

He says he was "terrified" when some of the criticism came from Holocaust survivors and understood their point - but said they had to appreciate where he was coming from.

He says: "They have to understand one thing: our government should understand people in Israel can't afford themselves a life in Israel."

"If they're criticising me for telling people to move to Berlin, maybe they should criticise the government for creating a country where only rich people can live."

Narkis was dubbed "pudding man" because of the desserts included on the receipt he used as a picture. Even a government minister was moved to comment: "I pity the Israelis who no longer remember the Holocaust and abandoned Israel for a pudding."

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Naor Narkis: 'The younger you are, the better your opinion towards Germany and Germans is'

If this level of anger does not surprise you, this might: Jewish life is thriving in Germany and the population has skyrocketed in the last 25 years.

When Germany was reunited in 1990, there were 28,000 Jews in the country. Since then, the number has more trebled to 107,000, largely due to an influx from eastern Europe, after Germany passed the "Quota Law". Enforced until 2004, this gave those from the former Soviet Union who could prove they were Jewish, or had a Jewish parent, the right to settle. Germany now has now the third largest Jewish population in western Europe after Britain and France.

With violence against Jews worldwide dominating headlines, the Israeli government has dialled up the rhetoric about the importance of Israel as the Jewish homeland. In Paris, the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told French Jews "Israel is your home" after terror attacks saw four Jews die after being taken hostage in a kosher supermarket.

But the appeal of Israel does not appear to have resonated with German Jews. According to Israeli government statistics, 100 emigrated there from Germany in 2012 and 79 in 2013. By comparison, 1,603 and 2,903 people arrived from France in the same years.

Last week, the president of the Central Council For Jews In Germany Josef Schuster said: "The Jewish community in Germany is certainly unsettled by recent events. But I'm confident that we are not packing our bags, not even mentally."

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Josef Schuster said Jews in Germany 'are not packing our bags' to emigrate to Israel

Narkis acknowledges his Facebook page broke the taboo of encouraging Jews to emigrate from Israel and "the second taboo" of encouraging them to go to Germany. But they are not his taboos. He grew up without antipathy towards Germans.

His first introduction to them was at school, when he spent a month there as part of a exchange with his hometown's German twin city. "This is where I saw, Germans and Israelis have a lot in common," he says, adding that both countries, in different ways, are strongly influenced by the Holocaust. State history syllabuses in Germany place strong emphasis on the teaching of its tragic history.

Narkis adds: "There are mostly older people in Israel that criticise Germany, don't buy German products. I think that, the younger you are, the better your opinion towards Germany and Germans is.

"Every city (in Israel) here has a twin city in Germany. I think there's a lot of interest between the countries. Most young people are favourable of Germany. They are considered to be a very important ally of ours, while other European countries are less favourable towards Israel."

He lived in Berlin for around six months, and lived the pretty typical life of a young expat in a world city. He taught languages and pursued his interest in designing mobile phone apps on the side. "My experience of Berlin - it's one of the cities with one of the greatest experiences you can get...It's really cool," he says.

He says he encountered no anti-Semitism in his time there and made "tonnes" of friends. Did he seek out Berlin's Jewish community? "Not at all, actually," he says. "It's an international place...with people from everywhere."

When asked whether Germany or France was more tolerant of Jews, he speaks only from his own experiences in each country, judging them on what he knows. He says recent events have shown it's "more dangerous" for Jews in France. "Germany's history, they have more tolerance towards minorities in general, specifically towards Jews, but French people...they are not too enthusiastic about any one religion."

"Minorities are assimilating better in Germany because they accept them. While in France, they stay minorities, they force people to try to be unique because they don't want to accept uniqueness... They try to force everyone to be the same."

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A photo uploaded to the Olim Le Berlin Facebook page

"Pudding Man" triggered a series of headlines in the Western press about Israelis moving to Berlin late last year, most of which portrayed it as something very new. But Israeli historian and essayist Fania Oz-Salzberger says the trend began in the late 1990s and estimates up to 20,000 Israelis live in the German capital.

"Few of them came for cheap beer and cheap housing alone; many were attracted to Berlin's aura of freedom, individuality, sexuality and state-of-the-art creativity, topped indeed by the beer and the housing," she wrote last year as an updated 2014 edition of her book 'Israelis In Berlin' was released.

"No other European city...can offer the same setting of an affordable, hyperactive world-city where Jews are uniquely welcome. Make no mistake: for many Israelis, Berlin is still the ultimate icon of evil. But for many others, it is the friendliest of cities, offering the best kind of globalisation."

She tells HuffPost UK: "Times have changed...Berlin has become a global icon of openness and pluralism and its rejection of its Nazi past is deep and honest, thereby making Israelis feel far more at home in it than they did even two decades ago."

But she adds the Israelis there have not "forgotten" the history of the Holocaust. "They are very conscious, and rather knowledgable...In Israel, they can still meet holocaust survivors in person, but, because many victims were younger than the perpetrators, the oldest person you meet on the bus is in Berlin no longer a suspect ex-Nazi."

As well as being young, Israelis in Berlin are "mostly secular" and tend to "keep their distance" from the city's established community, she says, which reflects Narkis' experience.

But it is not just secular Jews, who feel comfortable living in the country.

When Orthodox Rabbi Mendel Gurewitz was growing up in France, his grandparents' view on Germany was uncompromising. “My grandparents boycotted German products, anything made in Germany," he says. "My grandmother lived on the outskirts of Paris and if she had to take a bus and it was a Mercedes, she waited for the next one.”

Eight months after he got married, Rabbi Gurewitz moved to Offenbach, near Frankfurt, to do what he calls "outreach" work for the growing, now 1,000-strong, Jewish community there for one year. His uncle suggested he would be a good fit, partly because of his knowledge of Yiddish and Russian.

Sixteen years later, he's still there and his eight children are all attending mainstream German schools. He says the country "completely" defied his expectations.

“We grew up with the idea that Germans were bad. I understand my grandparents. I understand them… [They thought Germans] won’t be nice to us when we move there. I saw it was completely different," Gurewitz, 40, tells HuffPost UK.

"It was very hard [at first], whenever I walked outside in the street, I looked at people and wondered ‘what were they doing in the Second World War?'... I thought I was going to walk in the streets, they’re going to curse at me. But it was completely not what I was thinking."

“I feel safer than in other European countries. People are very tolerant here and very nice.”

He speaks to me while supervising someone who is making kosher sushi. Three years ago, he approached a major supermarket in Frankfurt to ask why they served no kosher products. They replied they would, if he helped ensure the proper standards were met.

“That’s something very interesting... No one expects to find any Kosher products in a non-Jewish supermarket.”

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'We Love Our Jewish Fellow Citizens' and 'Never Again' - signs held during a rally against anti-Semitism last September in Berlin

He agrees that the differences to attitudes to Germany are generational and says he "understands" older Jews' views.

“They were completely persecuted by the Germans. They grew up with fear. They walked in the street they saw uniforms they were scared of. I understand them. They would never imagine things could be different, they could never imagine that a German can be a nice person, they would never imagine that a German can be a human like they are."

As an orthodox rabbi, Gurewitz is a much more visible target for anti-Semites. When asked if he has suffered any attacks, he concedes he has, but trying to choose his words carefully, says the most common perpetrators are other recent immigrants.

Eighteen months ago, he was attacked by a group of six boys aged between 11 and 15, who called him "a shitty Jew". The Jerusalem Post covered the story and reported the attackers were "Mediterranean looking". Gurewitz says: "[Anti-Semitism] doesn’t come from the people who are German for more than two generations, [they] don’t feel that." He says attacks like the one he suffered can happen "all over Europe".

He describes feeling "really scared" while visiting his family in France. "You can get slaps on the back, [people saying] ‘get out dirty Jew’," he says. "But here in Germany, it’s not happening... it’s not like in other countries. Here, people are much more tolerant. There’s a difference between Germany and other countries in Europe. Why? Because they’re being taught and getting the standard education in the Holocaust. That’s why they start to understand, they start to open their eyes."

The rabbi is well travelled - he was born in New York, grew up in France, got married in Canada and moved back to the US before moving to Offenbach. But he is fairly sure he has found his home for the rest of his life.

"I’m here on an outreach mission, I’m assuming I have to stay here until they don’t need me anymore. I feel if I’m not here, there will be a void for the next 20 or 30 years. That’s why I’m thinking of staying.”

Narkis, meanwhile, has returned to Israel, saying he wants to be with his family and, besides, for all its expensiveness, Tel Aviv has "the best weather". He imagines he will go abroad again, probably to learn another language.

What would Narkis say to an Israeli who wants to move to Germany but fears incurring the same wrath he did? He treats this as a practical question rather than a moral one, saying he warns people that being an immigrant anywhere is "not easy" and that, without speaking the language, they will struggle to get work or, without an EU passport, a visa.

"I always tell people that the taboo is the last thing they should be afraid," he says. "The things people should be afraid of are not what our people think."