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Fearlessly Jewish on the streets of Munich

Tom Barfield · 18 Feb 2015, 15:33

Published: 18 Feb 2015 15:33 GMT+01:00

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Terry Swartzberg has been wearing a kippah around Germany for two years – and has never encountered any hostility to his religious headgear from the people he meets.

Swartzberg's experience stands in stark contrast to that of other people who have tried the experiment, with a kippah wearer in Paris recently subjected to curses and spitting attacks while having himself secretly filmed.

A little over a year before, The Local's reporter in Malmö, Sweden, was laughed and stared at and insulted when he tried wearing a kippah around the town for a day.

Born in New York, 61-year-old Swartzberg has been living and working in Germany since 1979 as a journalist and publicist, first in Berlin and later in Munich.

But he never felt driven to wear his Jewish identity for all to see until the 2012 funeral of Mietek Pemper, a Holocaust survivor who helped Oskar Schindler compile his famous list.

“I was at the funeral at the Jewish cemetery in Augsburg, and we were all wearing kippot. I love wearing it,” Swartzberg told The Local.

But as the congregation left the service, others began removing their headgear - and were horrified that he didn't do the same.

“I walked out wearing it, and they start screaming at me, you're putting us all in danger.”

That was the moment when Swartzberg realized that he couldn't go on living with this assumption that he and his fellow Jews faced hatred and even violence in public.

“It just can't be that just by putting this little piece of cloth on my head I'm putting everyone in danger,” he remembers thinking.

“If I think Germany's that unsafe for Jews I have no business being here.”

'Safest country in Europe'

It's now been 27 months since Swartzberg first donned his kippah and stepped tentatively out into his Munich neighbourhood.

On his wanderings through the city with the little patch of cloth on his bald head, the worst he's had from Germans is questioning about how exactly he stops it from sliding off.

That fits with how Swartzberg already felt about anti-Semitism in his adopted home country.

"We're safe everywhere here," he argues.

“I know what anti-Semitism is. I grew up in America, where 34 percent of people describe themselves as being anti-Semitic. I went to school in India and worked as a journalist in Hong Kong.”

Of all the countries in Europe, he argues, Germany is the one where Jews should feel the safest – although that doesn't mean that racism is totally absent.

“Jews are low on the list of hated groups, but you have a really bad time if you're black, or Muslim, or Sinti, or Roma,” he acknowledged.

But for Swartzberg, even travelling to places known to be home to large numbers of neo-Nazis - such as Buchholz, near Hamburg, and Zwickau, south of Leipzig – left him unassailed.

An ongoing project

Wearing the kippah is far from Swartzberg's only campaign to push for loud-and-proud Jewish identity in Munich.

He is also president of the Stolpersteine [stumbling blocks] for Munich Initiative, which hopes to introduce the small brass memorial plaques outside Holocaust victims' former homes that have appeared in Berlin and other cities.

That's why the calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Jews in Europe to return 'home' to Israel following attacks in Paris and Copenhagen have been so frustrating.

“I work every day for the Stolpersteine, I know what Germany did and I will never let Germans forget,” he says.

“But it's such a cheap shot and so unfair [to say Jews aren't safe in Germany], because Germany has done amazing things that I wish my own country, the USA would do."

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Barfield (tom.barfield@thelocal.com)

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