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Foreigners in Wonderland:
Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union

By Judith Kessler

Out of almost one million Jews that have left the USSR and the successor states since 1945, a large group of around 170,000 people have immigrated to Germany starting in 1990, as a consequence of an admission regulation within the framework of the "Law of refugees in groups." It is estimated that there are another 100,000 wanting to arrive.

A wide range of REASONS (among which anti-Semitism is considerably important) leads Soviet Jews to emigrate in the 90’s: conflicts over nationalities, environmental crisis, a bleak outlook for the next generation, a lack of social security, employment limitations, an unstable political and economic situation; and on the other hand, great expectations as to the new life and trust in a secure future. In the initial stages, to many people the choice of Germany was determined by pragmatism – one could arrive as a tourist and settle down there– and between late 1989 and mid-1991, two thirds of migrants had decided to emigrate either spontaneously or for a short term, traveling almost "at random." However, more than 75% of those who later arrived in Berlin already had relatives there, so it could be said that there was also a great effect of absorption, a kind of chain reaction. The impression that "everybody’s leaving" led to the emigration of people who had had no plans to leave the country, saw it as a betrayal or could not make up their minds.

The decision by the Federal Republic of Germany to authorize their admission consolidates the opinion of most migrants that the Germans had learnt from the past. Almost no one was conversant with local affairs; in the USSR there was hardly any access to foreign media, no one relied on the local media (although they provided accurate information) and the few people who had already visited Germany or were living there harbored the myth of the Federal Republic and idealized their life there. Because the United States, the dream country for Soviet Jews, has severely restricted immigration and Israel is seen and feared by many as too unsafe politically and economically, or as too unknown/Eastern/distant and as always going from one situation of insecurity to another, Germany is the place that is perceived by immigrants as the most favorable alternative: the country of "poets and thinkers," wealthy, open to the world, close, similar, European.

More than 90% of the migrants we are analyzing also come from the European part of the former USSR. The larger EMIGRATION QUOTAS are –in a decreasing order– from the cities of Moscow, Dnepropetrowsk, Odessa, Kiev, Riga and Leningrad/Saint Petersburg; more than half the immigrants come from these. In accordance with the high degree of urbanization of the Jewish population, before their trip abroad the migrants lived almost without exception in cities – especially in localities, where there were reliable sources of information and the necessary institutions and networks to go abroad (besides, there seems to be a selectivity of migration, measured by the migrants’ position in the Soviet distribution web). But only 34% of "Russian" Jews are Russian natives; 39% are from Ukraine, 13.5% from the Baltic republics, 6% from White Russia and Moldavia, 5% from the Caucasian republics and 2.5% from central Asia. The geographic closeness and the cultural and linguistic similarities contribute to the intense immigration of people from parts of Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic, whereas proportionately much fewer Jews from more far-off regions (central Asia) have emigrated.

The AGE STRUCTURE of the group of migrants is –due to the gradual migration of whole groups of people related by family, social and regional ties– a reflection of the part of the ethnic group that has settled, characterized by aging and by minimal birth rates. Compared to both local and foreign populations, the over 60 age groups are overpopulated and the under 25 groups are underpopulated; 14% of the group is between 0 and 18, 56% between 19 and 60 and 30% more than 60 (up to 90). The "average immigrant from Berlin" is currently 45 years of age. If at the beginning the arrivals were mostly young people who reported that their parents would not want to go to Germany, at the same time we can see that also older people, over 60 years old, are arriving. To many people, the emigration pressure builds up due to the economic situation, and the children are the starting point as well as a source of information.

The SEX DISTRIBUTION is fairly level with 49% men and 51% women, with a clear predominance of men aged 30-50 years (7%) and women over 60 (14%); single men immigrated mainly at the beginning of the "wave" whereas many older women followed later and disproportionately. These older women account for two thirds of the 12% of widowed immigrants. Not counting underage people, 58% of migrants were married upon arrival; out of these, some 8% were in their second marriage. 18% were single and 12%, divorced. The single-child FAMILY is the most frequent pattern among immigrants. Those with more than two children generally come from the Asian part of the USSR, or from Eastern countries. Thus, households of 4 or more people account for only 11%. At the top are 2-people households, with 33%, followed by 29% of single-people households, and 27% of 3-people households. In larger households, underage or adult children live together with their parents and other relatives.

With regard to their FORMAL EDUCATION LEVEL, migrants were substantially no different from the Jewish population throughout the world. Those with university-level studies predominate, at 68% (comparatively, the proportion of academics among Russian Germans is about 19%). Only 2% have never learned a trade. At 20%, engineers are by far the largest individual group (the most frequent combination is that of "the civil engineers from Dnepropetrowsk"), followed by teachers, doctors, farm workers and musicians. Overall, most migrants worked in the field of technology, construction and industry (29%), crafts, services and gastronomy (18%), medicine and pharmacy (15%), economy (11%), education (10%) and arts and the media (10%). In the field of research, only 3% dealt with the area of social sciences; and 4% with natural sciences. Professions related to agronomy, forestry and mining are totally lacking.

Men and women are equally well-educated. The group has female electricians, mechanics, physicists, electronic and aircraft-building engineers. Some 15% of women have had a noticeably better education than their husbands; only 1.4% have no professional training. Immigrants of both sexes at working age were in general employed, and those that had reached the regular retirement age often also worked. Society’s acceptance was seen in that they had good professional positions, had a relatively high social status and were comparatively privileged financially.

The bulk of immigrants had unrealizable EXPECTATIONS as to the new life. In the first place, there was some kind of attitude aimed at getting things through formal requests; there is also unemployment and life in very confined quarters. In connection with this, the failed expectations, the fact that the "homo Sovieticus" was not used to being responsible for himself, the loss of their homeland and social contacts, the foreign language and culture, the bureaucracy, a different set of rules and an unexpected need for change – all lead part of the migrants, after a short euphoria, to lethargy or hyperactivity, somatic illnesses and mental crisis.

ELDERLY migrants, who often arrive with some kind of illness, speak frequently about their feelings, about the loss of confidence and even the sudden devaluation of a whole life’s experience. Now they can hardly rely on what they have learned or had in their lives. Having to go to the Social Service Agency after working for a lifetime is felt as a humiliation. Most elderly migrants have worked until their departure from the country; people used to seek their advice, and as war veterans or exemplary workers they were revered and privileged. They bring with them their medals, awards and stories but, because of their pride in their (partly idealized) past, they come up against incomprehension. Many have an unfavorable result when they take stock of their lives and have a distorted self-image. They have often emigrated just for the sake of their children, so as not to be alone, although here they were often more alone than in their country. The family ties start to crumble and the proverbial solidarity that has only existed within the community of socialist need seems to have faded away and now is replaced in part with cost-benefit analysis. With their hectic lifestyle and the rapid acceptance of local "rules" and possibilities, the children send their parents to old people’s homes, transfer responsibility elsewhere and give them the feeling that also within the family they are no longer needed, except as childminders.

But at the same time, more often than not the parents inform their CHILDREN about this decision just before departing,. The children seldom take part in this decision and they see it rather as a betrayal. Suffering the loss of well-known friends and places, they are often left alone and facing the parents’ frustrations, which arise when the fulfillment of "all the dreams" is hard to come by (often only one of the parents wanted to emigrate so there was an increasing number of couples separating). The children quickly turn to peer-groups of their same age and adopt points of view and especially consumer tendencies that some of the parents cannot handle. They learn the language faster and become "managers" for the whole family, therefore they are usually overburdened. In turn, the parents project their hopes and demands onto their children. This way, the children’s capacity to deliver and adapt themselves is overrated, and also the reasons for learning impediments and behavioral disorders are not ascribed to the children but to the local educational system, which is substantially different from the Soviet system in terms of discipline, teaching methods, teachers’ authority, curriculum, etc.

The "YOUNG ELDERLY," i.e. those aged about 50-65 years, are the third problem group. Work meant for them the highest vital value and for Jews very often their profession was one of the few chances to assert themselves positively and achieve acceptance. Whereas young migrants were largely conscious that they did not necessarily have to work to "survive," strikingly, it is the "young elderly" who suffer unemployment, the division between those "fit" or "unfit" for the labor market and the accompanying loss of status. This also applies to many women, whose earlier potential for prestige and power was based –beyond the intra-familiar role– on economic and social roles.

Regarding the LABOR SITUATION, we see that more than three quarters of the polled immigrants with professional education at working age are still or once more unemployed (not counting paid informal activities). Most of those who belong to the active population work in a trade other than the one they learned, and often they are not employed full-time, because they have unrecognized degrees (teachers, nurses, doctors), or because they do not have a degree or the necessary qualifications. This is why women are more willing than men to accept jobs that are out of keeping with their education or to pursue a new training period. Technical specialists or professionals in natural sciences (mathematicians, space technicians) and people from the field of arts (painters, musicians) reintegrate into the labor market more frequently; whereas professionals in social sciences and people over 50 years old rarely do it. Especially teachers, doctors and scientists are willing to accept lengthy, unpaid practices or assistant positions, in the hopes that this investment will pay off in the future. Migrants with manual labor skills and from the area of services have better chances of getting a job, but rarely in German companies (except in the construction industry). In proportion, more people work for "Russian" employers (in gambling dens, shops, doctor’s offices) or become self-employed, for example as cobblers, tailors, gastronomes (these are often people from the Asian part of the USSR). In a large number of cases, people switched professions, for instance, those who used to be engineers now start up business companies and service firms. The motivation to improve their chances by pursuing advanced courses and learning specific languages is halted due to forced inactivity and seemingly unattainable perspectives. Besides, they are inexperienced at filling applications and looking for a job, and through the relations with the former Soviet Union, certain tendencies have developed such as a lack of flexibility and of personal initiative.

Migrants from the high or middle classes usually have an unrealistic level of aspirations as to their job or education. Immigrants that cannot find a proper employment in the German labor market do intense and informal jobs, with longer hours and a reduced sense of security, and swing between the Federal Republic and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Some have started relatively self-employed activities in the German labor market, favored by the size of the Russian-speaking group (which demands certain wares and services, offers cheap labor and in which a knowledge of German is not very necessary), by the regional closeness to the CIS, by the difference in the exchange rates (in connection with the purchase and sale of wares) as well as by the specific interests of the country’s natives (in connection with Russian/Jewish cuisine, art and culture).

Some signs of the gradual "SETTLING DOWN PROCESS" are, among others, the births: insofar as the parents reported them, the number of births per year increased in Berlin from 5 in 1990 to between 20 and 30 at present. Marriages occur in general among people aged 18 to 30, but also in the case of some older migrants. Until now they have occurred almost exclusively between migrants, who do not necessarily belong to the Jewish group but to the Russian-speaking people.

Informal CONTACTS with Germans barely increased even in longer staying periods. They are made in general at school or at work, usually without leading to a positive relationship. Frequently, one-to-one contacts are of a formal kind (at the Social Assistance Agency or the Employment Office) and are considered unsatisfactory; work mates are seen as unkind, bureaucratic and restrictive. Migrants perceive in "Germans" a lack of a sense of humor, a certain arrogance and selfishness, and are convinced –to that extent– that they do not ever want to be "Germans" or "like Germans." The limited possibilities of participating and the exclusion hamper the formation of interest, loyalty and personal participation. Besides, the migrants have a rather individualist ideology that results, among other things, from the rejection of the old socialist order, from a new competitive envy and the new preference for material aspects and contents. A considerable part has an insufficient command of German and an extremely sketchy knowledge of the social and political structures (except for data and laws referring to the person or group, which can be beneficial or otherwise).

On the other hand, it was proven that the migrants’ life in no way depends only on "external" prerogatives and offers. The wish to "settle among them" is very frequent. The longed-for segregation goes hand in hand with the extremely high value put on social relationships, communication and bonds within the family or group and with the estrangement from parts of the total group. Social behavior resembles that in the old homeland – relationships are built or continued according to the regional origin, political affiliation, education and social status. Factors that favor "settling among them" or the partial "formation of gangs" are the great "density of relatives and circles of friends" (in some families one can see web groups of over 50 people each), the closeness to the homeland, which enables contacts and visit trips, and especially the "ETHNIC COMMUNITY."

So far Berlin seems to have been unique regarding this shutting in process (parallel cases can be seen in Frankfort and Munich). Only here –in east and west Berlin– was there a large "former-Soviet" and "Jewish" infrastructure or group (the number of ex- Soviet citizens currently living in Berlin both legally and illegally must be around 200,000). This infrastructure has spread massively and as a whole is able to meet most needs – from video rentals to the selling of computer software to commission agents and marriage bureaus (which is why the "run" to Berlin is partly understandable). Added to this, there are new forms of self-organization, clubs, radio shows and newspapers.

The relative size of the "colony" enables a mental and partly social guarantee, as well as the maintenance of subcultural preferences, and it is the base of power for the protection of interests and a requisite for integration, yet at the same time it hampers it. A large part of migrants keep here almost all their primary contacts and most of their secondary contacts. The existence of their own webs, structures of offers and relationships does not only allow gaining access to certain sectors (employment, housing, leisure time, education, religion) but also remaining within the line of relationships brought along, thus avoiding more intense external contacts and orientations. Thus, to many migrants, it is enough to adopt basic tendencies and skills of the "functional" kind. Learning the language fully and acquiring secondary behavioral patterns is not necessary to get by. On the other hand, retreat is made easy to those who failed in their attempts to find a job, contacts, acceptance. In some cases, the Russian-speaking or the Jewish background is beneficial to the migrants’ motives and needs of having bonds, security and reorganization without having to re-adapt themselves; in other cases, it makes up for them. The "internal integration" of the groups of migrants can thus be considered relatively high, intact and satisfactory for each part "according to the place of origin."

The appreciation of the new environment is to many people more difficult when they experience equal amounts of rejection and ignorance or dedication and subvention, and they are barely capable of finding the "middle ground" and discovering their own limits and misjudgments. From time to time, unpopular decisions by the authorities are denounced as anti-Semitic, or some people set themselves up as victims. "Defensiveness" as well as "open-armed welcome" go counter to "normality" in the form of treatment and give rise to insecurities and distrust. But also among long-stay migrants and Jews we can see reciprocal limits and failed expectations.

On the one hand, for many immigrants the help of JEWISH COMMUNITIES –which should be help for self-help– is not enough, and in spite of their numerical superiority they are still barely represented in deliberating bodies (however, the wish to participate in profit-making activities is so far underdeveloped). On the other hand, some of the long-standing residents feel uncared-for and disadvantaged regarding the allocation of resources, or they feel neglected due to the migrants’ cultural and linguistic domination, and have the impression that these are coming from a large prison in search of freedom (which is why here they should be satisfied, grateful and active). Also, some of the immigrants do not aspire to have contact with local Jews and communities, or according to the Halachah, cannot be members. Some of the local Jews, in turn, regard the migrants as homogeneously "Russian" or too "non-Jewish."

Anyway, their self-definition is not strong: in over 70 years of Soviet power, mostly estranged from Judaism, most of them maintained their identity only because of the words in the passport: "Nationality: Jewish." The group of migrants has a large number of inter-ethnic families – about one third of all the new members of the Berlin community have a non-Jewish spouse, and because many are not Halachic Jews anymore due to an affiliation different from their parents’, the total number is presumably way over 50%. Only some of the older migrants speak Yiddish (and often they cannot read or write it), and the cultural and religious knowledge about Judaism and the corresponding bonds are minimal.

Besides the elderly migrants, who still have original relations with Judaism, the community’s feeling in a country that remained foreign to the majority sparks interest in Judaism and their own roots, and it often becomes the "psychological anchor." Overall, however, the middle generation is busy with the creation of an economic existence and "leaves" Judaism mostly to the children. These visit Jewish entities, and the focus of the communities is centered specially on them as the true "culture transmitters" to their parents. Although migrants are less oriented toward religion than toward festivities, literature, history, folklore, or even though they have just a mild "internal" relationship with Judaism, their "external" bond is sometimes strong (Bar Mitzvah, etc).

Concern for (formal) conservation of the Jewish community was temporarily pushed into the background with the massive "launching" of the immigration wave. The NUMBER OF MEMBERS has multiplied between 1989 and 2003: it rose from under 28,000 to nearly 90,000 people; in Berlin alone the number rose from 6,500 to 11,000 people. Currently, the USSR’s non-natives living here account for just one third of the members. Small communities have multiplied their member base and both in West and East Germany, communities were re-founded. However, the number of migrants in the new states is considerably larger than the number of members in the new communities. Not counting the strong shifts, their places of residence often have no connection to communities, or the incentive to affiliation is lower than in the "western communities," which can have more social, cultural and religious aspects to offer. Also, the hope for a rejuvenation of the community is justified only in part: the proportion of those over 60 years old is still higher than 30% and the group aged from 41 to 50 is the most important group, at 18%. 10% are children under 11 and the ratio of mortality rate to birth rate is circa 5:1 in the whole Federal Republic.

The SOCIO-CULTURAL WEB of most communities increased during the immigration; therefore some entities (for instance the Berliner Gymnasium) could only be formed due to it. In Berlin and some large districts there are course offers, meeting places for youths and seniors and leisure-time activities. Some starting points to smooth the path of artists toward independence in Berlin are, among others, the installation of a Jewish art gallery, the incorporation of migrants to pottery, dance and music courses, the drawing-up of subsidized projects, the revamping of performing rooms or the creation of a Jewish theater. The ZWST organizes integration seminars and supra-regional workshops as well as field trips and relaxation programs for seniors.

However, the demand is not satisfied, among other reasons because the structural and financial capacities (sometimes also the willpower) of the communities are overburdened. In many smaller communities there is still emergency supplying and improvisation. Also, the immigration’s dimension creates new problems; for instance, in the primary schools of Berlin there are in some classes up to 75% of children of new immigrants. This results in quality reductions and problems of acceptance.

It is understandable that financial matters are to the newly arrived more vital than getting close to Judaism, something which, given the case, is only imaginable as a gradual process. It can be disappointing that wishes are too often exclusively limited to getting social assistance, financial aid, solution of conflicts with the public administration, vacancies in schools, kindergartens and geriatric homes as well as living quarters and jobs, and at the same time, certain educational openings, jobs and living quarters are rejected as not being "good enough."

The large communities, within the framework of international Jewish aid, together with immigrants’ demands and needs, became the "Jewish self-service shops," often also as a substitute for (instead of a complement of) re-delegated state responsibility. The empathetic kind of treatment, centered on people, favors "ideologizations" and "double binds" from assistants and customers, leads to overprotection or exploitation of the staff or the institution and collides with real demands and possibilities. The newest concepts in Israel, which attempt to eliminate the dependency on integration entities and the existing passivity and which are against "holding the migrants hands," still have to catch on here. The need to transmit to the new members activities and obligations that build the community has not worked well for the communities so far. And until now, their real wish to transmit and join Judaism has been successful with the youngest and oldest generation. Wanting more is also unrealistic.

Judith Kessler, a Social Sciences scholar and staff writer for the institutional magazine "Juedisches Berlin" from the Jewish community of Berlin, is the author of several studies and publications on Jewish sociological and migratory subjects.

From Baku to Berlin - the other side of the Caucasus

Jews and Jewish Life in Berlin (entrance page) 30-12-2003


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