Yom Kippur in Nineveh or the teshuvah of Berlin

In Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, tourists gawk at Assyrian soldiers frozen in an alabaster relief, remnants from the ruins of Nineveh. The sins of Nineveh are overshadowed by the relief’s artistic merit. On Yom Kippur, in synagogues throughout Berlin and the world, we read about Nineveh’s sins and repentance in the Book of Jonah. 

I live in Berlin, this 21st century-Nineveh, a city in the process of teshuvah ever since 1945. As Germany’s capital, the city plays a special role in how it reacts to its murderous past and what it does to ensure that “Never again” is not only a slogan. 

How does a city repent? 

On the most superficial level, Berlin’s public engagement with its past is evident in its many memorials, museums and other explicit references to Nazi crimes. On nearly every street are stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” small brass-covered concrete squares wedged within the cobblestones with the words in German “Here lived …” and the name, personal information, date of deportation and death of the victim who lived at that very space. In horrifying statistical brevity, the stolpersteine demand Berliners to remember their neighbors’ blood.

There are many seasonal memorials in major commercial and tourist areas. For example, last winter, a walk down the touristy shopping boulevard, the Kurfuerstendamm, involved encounters with large photos of the murdered Jews who wrote, sang, danced and acted in the cafes, cabarets and theaters that once lined the street. The Berliner cannot escape his past, even in his leisure moments.

What about these cafes, cabarets and theaters? They have been bombed out of existence, and none of those that remain are anything like what they were before the war. To understand the significance of this, we can look at Vienna, which has a whole industry selling a reified version of an extinct aura. At Vienna’s Cafe Landtmann, a tourist can comfortably sit, admiring an interior made to look like nothing happened between 1939 and 1945, and never know that Sigmund Freud, Max Reinhardt and all other Jews flaunted by the cafe owners as “regulars” either fled, were deported or murdered. In Berlin, there is no equivalent “aura industry.”

Not replicating the Weimar-era cafes reminds the world that the aura of the Jewish Berlin of Walter Benjamin, Kurt Tucholsky and all the other Jews that gave Berlin its special feel, has been extinguished. Because these cafes were completely destroyed, there is nothing original left to renovate. Pathetic enterprises by businessmen seeking to capitalize on Weimar-era Berlin, like the Waldorf Astoria’s attempt to rebuild Berlin’s legendary Romanisches Cafe, usually fail to re-create that special feeling they are aiming for. The aura is missing in this age of chicanery. 

The architecture as a whole in Berlin remains in a wounded state. The ruin of the 19th-century Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with its partially destroyed spire is nestled between a cluster of postwar functionalist constructions. The adjacent new church building is not rebuilt in the original style, but instead completely modernist, and to many Berliners another postwar eyesore, annoyingly ensuring that everybody knows things are different now. There is always a debate when reconstructing a building exactly as it was before the War. Some argue that Berlin must never be the same, that it is a crime to forget the crimes of the past. 

Berlin’s architectural chaos may be as powerful a reminder of the war as memorials, which may soon become objects devoid of meaning like the Nineveh reliefs. Immersed in this tohu vavohu metropolis, without a single major square as it was before the war, every visitor will see something is not right. The question is whether Germany’s capital is different from the architecturally congruent Paris. Absence is the defining factor of Berlin’s teshuvah.

What about the people?  Like Berlin’s Nazi-constructed Zoologischer Garten station, an integral part of the transportation system, fascist elements are still rooted within the populace. Last summer, crowds of German youth shouted “Jew! Jew! Cowardly Pig!” (This time with Palestinian flags instead of swastikas, the latter illegal here.) The far-right National Democratic Party campaigns with racist posters. In recent months, various leaders in the centrist Social Democratic Party have called to cut off arms sales and impose economic sanctions on Israel. Some things haven’t changed.

But if there is some antagonism, there is also acceptance. If you don’t want to be understood in Berlin, don’t think you’re safe speaking Hebrew. You will be surprised that the blonde in the subway car spent a year volunteering to wash dishes in a kibbutz kitchen. Don’t use Yiddish either. Many Yiddish words are still part of the Berlin jargon. Some things haven’t changed.

There are strong voices across the spectrum that, because of the history, are more sensitive to anti-Semitism and Israel hatred than in America. Where else in the world is there a far left who sides with Israel? These inspiring Germans look back to the anti-Nazi side of prewar Berlin that made Berlin one of the most progressive cities in the world.

This return, teshuvah in its pure sense, has been largely successful. A rabbinical seminary has been re-established. Jewish cultural institutions abound. Hipsters from throughout the world flock to Berlin for its cheap rent and inviting art scene. Israelis are everywhere. 

Berlin has succeeded where other cities failed — it has rejected the false teshuvah, and remembers its crimes. By engaging with its history, by choice and by circumstance, that magnetic aura that once made this city so great has returned. Like Jonah, who found difficulty with Nineveh’s teshuvah, many Jews today, understandably, find it challenging to accept Berlin’s repentance. Yet like Nineveh, Berlin is a “great city” that deserves its chance for teshuvah.

Micki Weinberg, a native of Los Angeles, lives and writes in Berlin.

Syria’s Assyrian Christians find refuge with Turkish neighbors

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Miydat's Assyrian Orthodox community is still encumbered with festive cookies and candied nuts from their Christmas festivities. In every home, tables groan with remnants from the recent celebrations, which for many of Midyat's residents found themseslves in situations far safer than the previous holiday spent in Syria.

Often reported to be sympathetic to the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, although all the Christians in Midyat are quick to assert their neutrality, Syria's christian and Assyrian communities have come under an increased threat from more extreme Sunni rebel groups, like Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS); and many have sought refuge across the border in Turkey's south-eastern provinces.

“The Islamists were kidnapping us. It's another kind of terrorism,” said Kalill, a former resident of Al-Qamishli, now living as a refugee in Midyat with the help of the local Assyrian community. A journalist by trade, Kalill had been critical of the Jihadists in the north of Syria near his home. “I didn't know which day the Islamist groups would come into my home. I had been writing against them, so I was threatened,” he told The Media Line.

Turkey is home to nearly 600,000 registered Syrian refugees with hundreds of thousands more living in the country without registering with the authorities. The presence of refugees from minority groups within Turkey is a 'see it to believe it' phenomenon, with most Turks and Syrian's refusing to believe they exist. Abuna Ishok Ergun, a Syriac-Orthodox priest in Midyat, says many of the Christians who end up in Midyat do so because, “In Istanbul they won't accept them as refugees because they say there is no problem.”

But the refugee population of Turkey is not a homogenous group. While the country geographically and politically lends itself to the arrival of large numbers of mainly Sunni Muslim refugees from Syria's north, amongst them live Kurds, Alawites and Christians.

Each group is assisted by their closest Turkish relatives, be that literal – as is the case with many of the Kurdish refugees who arrive in the country and stay with family; or figurative – like the Alevi mosques in Istanbul who aid their Alawite neighbours.

The Assyrian community in Midyat, close-knit and supportive, is initially suspicious of a stranger but they soon open up and welcome the chance to tell their stories.

Sahaleb Mouza, who left Syria seven months ago, says he likes Midyat and has been welcomed by the local Assyrian networks, but he misses home. “It's not like Syria. It's not like my own country,” Saheleb told The Media Line. He said he took his children and left because, “We were in Qamishli; there's no electricity for eight hours a day and no schools for the children. There is no future.”

The Raber family now shares a small apartment in Midyat. Their boys, aged 22, 20 and 19, fled Al-Hasakah with their mother after their father was killed by Jihadist groups who later attempted to kill one of the brothers. They receive help “sometimes from the church and sometimes from family.” Eziky, the eldest son, said, “We are safer here but we don't have the best life. We were studying before and now we don't do anything.”

Around 1 million Assyrians were living in Syria before the conflict. They form a sub-section of the Christian community (although there is very small minority of Muslim Assyrians) of Syria, who number around 2.5 million or 10% of the population.

The Assyrian Christians live mainly across the north east of the country, around Qamishli and Al-Hasakah, towns just over the border from Turkey which are now controlled by the Kurdish military in a place commonly referred to as 'Rojova'. Pockets of Christians also lived in Mal'oula and Saidnaya as well as in the larger cities of Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus and Homs.

In Mal'oula, 11 Christian nuns were kidnapped in early December when the city was overrun by rebel forces. Despite the outcry from the international community and parties within Syria, the nuns remain missing. The incident is cited by all the families in Midyat as evidence of the rising sectarian violence in Syria.

“Every ethnic group has lost everything. It's Sunni vs Shia; all the other ethnic groups have been affected,” said Kalill. “In Qamishli, before the crisis, we were living with our neighbors with no problem.”

For now, the Kurdish military wing called the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is the predominant fighting force in the Rojova area in Syria's north east, works alongside the Christian and Assyrian communities and protects them. Their common enemy, the Jihadist rebel groups of Jabhat Al-Nusra and others, create a reason for their marriage of convenience. But the Christian community is not wholly convinced its interests will be protected by the Kurds who seek autonomy and their own state. “We are worried about President Barzani, that he won't respect our rights,” Kalill says about the President of Kurdish Iraq who is seeking a united Kurdistan: “I expect in the Rojova area it will be a sectarian war in the countryside.”

Father Abuna Ishok Ergun, explains that there were around 130 Assyrian Orthodox living in Midyat before the crisis. Over the last twenty months another 300 individuals have arrived and are cared for in 13 villages in the area. Twenty more had arrived just two days before. The war has been hard on them, according to Father Ergun. “They have different problems like insomnia and depression.”

The response of the church is thorough. Father Ergun says they discussed the likely influx of refugees back in 2012 with the local Archbishop and made a home for the Assyrian Orthodox in a local monastery when they began coming in numbers later that year.

A Turkish refugee camp was built in the region and was to have a sector for the Christian community. After much controversy about whether it was the correct response for the refugees in question, just three Christian families moved into the camp, with the rest choosing to stay within the Midyat community and in the surrounding villages. Many of the families move onto Europe or elsewhere, using the region as staging post.

The act of leaving Syria is, in many cases, sudden and unplanned, Father Ergun told The Media Line. “The Jihadists enter their homes and say you can't take the money or your phone, and if they argue they kill them. They leave so they will not be killed, so they won't kidnap their children and destroy their shops and houses.”

Part of the problem, according to Father Ergun, is that, “The Christians in Syria don't have an organization that is defending them.”  This is a sentiment echoed by all the refugees in Midyat. Their sense of being in it alone is palpable; they feel Syria has now become sectarian with other groups supported by external governments and organizations. Even the Kurds have a strong political and military presence both in Syria and in Turkey.

Once they flee Syria to predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey, the situation again leaves them with little support outside of the church. Yet, despite the difficulties they face in Turkey, Sahaleb Mouza says they would rather be here than elsewhere. “It's better than Lebanon or Jordan. It's bad for Assyrians in Lebanon.”