‘Why should I take my kippah off?’

Business is good at Uwe Dziuballa's Jewish restaurant in Chemnitz - but anti-Semitic attacks remain an occupational hazard. The restaurateur is on a mission to put the joy back into German-Jewish life.

'Why should I take my kippah off?'
Uwe Dziuballa (r) with his brother Lars Ariel outside their Jewish restaurant in Chemnitz. Photo: DPA

Forty-nine-year-old Uwe Dziuballa has devoted the last 20 years to breathing fun back into Jewish life in his home town of Chemnitz, in the eastern German state of Saxony. 

At times like this, when emotions over the Middle East conflict are running high, the well-known Jewish entrepreneur finds he has to be particularly thick-skinned.

"The insults on the streets have got a bit more frequent in recent weeks," says Dziuballa matter-of-factly. "I've been spat at a couple of times too. But nothing bad has happened at the restaurant."

"I walk around with a kippah on all the time, I've never seen any reason to take it off," he explains. 

Born in what was then the East German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1965, Dziuballa soon left the Eastern Bloc to study and seek his fortune in the United States.

After making a tidy sum before reaching 30, he returned to Germany when his father's health failed. It was 1993, Germany was still getting its head around reunification as to the east the former Soviet Union teetered on the edge of total economic collapse.

Dziuballa found he was not the only one arriving wide-eyed in the city recently re-christened Chemnitz – many Eastern European Jews were emigrating westwards as the Soviet Union imploded. 

'Characterized by the Holocaust'

Dziuballa was struck by the sombre tone of Jewish life he found returning to Germany.

"I realized there was a very great distance between Jewish life in the USA and in Germany. Here, the Jewish community was still very much characterized by the Holocaust and a strong love of Israel," he says.

Jews first came to Chemnitz, then a bustling textile manufacturing centre, over 125 years ago. The community flourished and soon became a central part of intellectual and business life there. By 1930, there were around 3,500 Jews in the city.

Then came the Nazis, who systematically erased not only the Jewish population, but also nearly all traces of Jewish life. By 1990, the city's Jewish community numbered just 13.

Dziuballa has no wish to play down these tragic events, but says the past cannot forever define Chemnitz's reviving Jewish community, now back up to 1,200.

"If Jews in Germany are still sitting around here in 100 years time and all they can talk about is the Holocaust, well, at some point it might start to look a bit ridiculous," he says.

"Thousands of years of Jewish history can't be reduced to the years 1933-1945."

Eat, pray, dance

Dziuballa says he could see why mourning and remembering were central to German-Jewish identity. But where was the dancing, the music, the food, the literature?

In 1998, he founded the Schalom association, an independent society celebrating all aspects of Jewish life beyond "the graveyards and the memorials." Now boasting 143 members, Schalom organizes regular dances, readings, meetings and talks about Jewish ways of life.

Dziuballa himself often gives talks on Jewish life in local schools – and receives a mixed reaction.

Many older children are "astounded about the diversity of Jewish culture," he says. Sometimes he must face a class of 14-year-olds "many of whom come from far-right backgrounds. There's not much to be done if they just think all Jews are evil."

'Not just victims'

"Maybe it was naive of me," he says, looking back. "I wanted to encourage a kind of normal Jewish life in Germany, for Jews to be a completely normal part of society, without being reduced to victims all the time. It has turned out to be quite difficult."

In 2000, he stepped up his hearts and minds campaign, opening a new front in the fight for normality and acceptance. Schalom was now to also become the name of a family-run Jewish restaurant.

Serving food was a way of opening up his door to the rest of the community, says the entrepreneur, welcoming anyone and everyone in for a Jewish culinary experience. He loves to chat and encourages customers to ask any questions they like.

To start with, some of the questions were rather strange. One customer called up to ask if they could eat at Schalom even though they weren't Jewish. Another was scared to say he hadn't enjoyed his soup in case it was seen as anti-Semitic.

"Just because someone doesn't like the food it doesn't make him anti-Semitic," laughed Dziuballa. Exactly this distance between Jews and the rest of the population is what he has been trying to break down. "It's a serious problem in Germany, this sensitivity."

But although Dziuballa's business is now thriving, with word-of-mouth bringing in customers from all over the world from New York to Tel Aviv, he knows his open door isn't to everyone's taste.

"We know not everyone likes us being here. Sometimes they show it," he says.

Dziuballa still gets the anonymous phone calls. They call him "Jew pig" down the phone or to ask him why he doesn't just leave. The abuse is just a small part of life in Chemnitz, he says, shrugging it off.

Harder to ignore were the attacks. For many years Schalom restaurant was badly vandalized – on average once every couple of months. Outside lamps were repeatedly smashed, the plants ripped out of the soil, insulting graffiti scrawled on the walls. At first Dziuballa was confused.

"I couldn't understand that someone would put so much energy into actually doing that. I was completely baffled," he says.

There wasn't much to be done but clean up and carry on. Over 12 years he coughed up a total of €43,000 in repairs out of his own pocket. He quickly learned not to bother with the police, who didn't seem willing or able to take the attacks seriously.

Claiming on insurance was also a no-go, he says, his premium would have gone through the roof.

In the end, he moved the restaurant to another, livelier part of town and the attacks stopped. "We still get the calls, and nasty things sent in the post," he says.

The hostility would often spike at times like this, when "too many rockets have gotten through from Gaza and Israel has to react," says Dziuballa.

He still gets insults on the street – the recent favourite being "child murderer".

"At these times I get told I should leave or told to stop shooting children. I've been called a child murderer on many occasions," says Dziuballa. But he stays calm, he says, and when he gets a chance, tries to argue his point.

"I remind them that Israel is also a democracy like Germany, that the soldiers there are also people with emotions, families and fiancés, that when they go into Gaza they get scared," he says.

"Above all, I remind them that Israelis aren't machines as some people seem to think of them."

"I don't try and convince them, I just try and open doors."

Solidarity can be 'a bit much'

But isn't just hostility which creates distance between Jews and the rest of the population, he says.

Blind solidarity with Jews and Israel can be almost as awkward.

It's lovely that people want to show kindness at such a time, he says, but sometimes it all gets "a bit much."

"When I'm sitting alone of an evening reading a book in a bookshop someone will come up to me to tell me they're going to stand by me, that they're with me," he says.

"And then they just stand there. It's kind of unpleasant. "

"It gets in the way of this normal existence I want, without playing out the victim role, without being the subject of either blind criticism or blind love," he says.   

Life back in Chemnitz has been difficult and frustrating, both emotionally and financially, but overall, Dziuballa has no regrets.

"I wanted to put my money into social projects. When I was young I had a lot of money but I wasn't really happy. Now I don't have so much but I am."