To be well-fed or happy: a painful choice for post-Soviet Jewish immigrants in Germany  

Since January 9, 1991, the “law on contingent refugees” adopted by the German government has allowed Jews from the post-Soviet space to move to a permanent place of residence in Germany. The conditions of the program are not particularly tough: immigrants need proof of Jewish origin and a language certificate at the A1 level. And for those born before January 1, 1945, knowledge of the language is not necessary.

Immigrants then receive a perpetual residence permit and the right to employment.  In cases of unemployment, the new residents are guaranteed benefits, social support, paid housing, and other social service. On face value, this service is highly desirable; getting to live in one of the most prosperous European countries with full benefits. But is satisfying one’s basic life needs enough for a happy life?

I talked to one of those immigrants, Dr. K., who was a respected psychiatrist in Ukraine. Arriving in Germany at the age of 53, he graduated from a language course, and was already engaged in the re-confirmation of his diploma, because for Germany it is important to additionally prove his high qualification and education. Dr.K. was practicing medicine when he had a stroke, and his plans collapsed. Now, because he is an unemployed immigrant living through social support, Dr. K. gets the allowance of 360 euros per month (the minimum salary оf German’s resident is 1,500 euros), but he still continues to help compatriots who have moved to Germany, as a volunteer. And a lot of them need the psychiatrist’s help.

One of his patients is a former director of a factory in Ukraine. Having moved at the age of 60, he was unable to go through the abrupt change of social status that comes with immigrating to Germany. The thought that he is “nobody” in Germany brought him to a severe depression. He has not gone out for a long time, refused to communicate with friends. But the hardest time is the night — when insomnia, fears and obsessive suspicions torment him.

In homeland, his life was going completely in the different way.  This patient was engaged in charity work, introduced a number of reforms, which not only improved the working conditions of employees, but also made the factory one of the most prosperous in the region.  

Unfortunately, this is just one of many cases. Jews from the former Soviet Union often become “Praxis” (clinic) regulars, living from one “Termin” (doctor’s appointment) to another, as they begin to suffer from physical and mental diseases.

Accustomed to work hard and achieve high results, they unexpectedly face the problem of self-identification and cannot cope with it. Therefore, only the simple pleasures of their life remain. They enjoy the expectation of discounts in German shopping centers, and trips to the flea market (“Trödel”) — where good things can be purchased at low prices, or even given for free. “Tafel” helps the food budget, where German stores deliver expired food.

However, the number of diseases are growing and mental state is worsening.  As one immigrant said: “Germany is a well-fed death. Here they will not let you die of hunger. But the soul dies every day, due to the awareness of its own uselessness.” Therefore, they communicate only with other Russian speaking immigrants, avoiding contact with the indigenous people.

And the Germans have no keen desire to communicate with immigrant Jews either. According to 2018 research data of Leipzig University, every tenth German considers the influence of the Jews too great. Every fifth German feels that way in part. Just as many Germans agree in part that Jews are somewhat “peculiar” and that they’re “not very comfortable with them.”

However, in Germany there are not so many Jews as the Germans might assume. Looking at the statistics published on the German portal “Statistia,” the number of Jewish immigrants decreases from year to year. In 2008, there were 106,435 members of Jewish communities in Germany, and by 2017 this figure had decreased to 97,791. Taken together, a total of 117,000 Jews live in Germany, according to 2017 Institute for Jewish policy research data.

Most German Jews do not feel that they’re important society members, so their need for respect and social belonging isn’t being filled. This is largely due to the fact that 47% of Jews registered in communities are 60 years of age or older, and another 13% are between the ages of 51 and 60. At this age, integration of people from the former Soviet Union is not so easy, although in many respects it depends on their particular mentality. For example, seniors in Germany have a lot of hobbies — they attend dance and fitness courses, are members of many social and charitable organizations, and can even enter the university.

Most Soviet people, on the other hand, believe that after 50, life comes to an end. They feel it is extremely hard to learn a foreign language, and impossible to begin their life from scratch in a new country.  An everyday language course for them is similar to pure physical effort. Many complain that they do not have time to learn the material so quickly, and the program is not adapted for older people. Even having passed the exams, they make grammatical mistakes and do not remember much that they have learned. And also, they are absolutely afraid of speaking German.

But the root of the problem seems to be the loss of social status. The Pew Research Center’s study, “Religion and Education Around the World”, shows Jews to be one of the most educated groups, especially those between the ages of 55 and 74 years. Having moved to Germany, they are not only highly educated, but also have an established career as a doctor, engineer, teacher, or other professional.

But in Germany, their status is “immigrant,” forcing them to forget who they were before they emigrated. And in order to start working in their normal job, they must go through a diploma confirmation procedure, along with some additional practice and training. The majority never return to their past professional activities. Immigrant occupations in Germany usually fall under cleaning, assistance in “Altersheim” (nursing homes), “Caritas” (hospitals for seriously ill patients), posting advertisements, and doing other work that Germans consider unenviable for themselves.

Nevertheless, a completely different future awaits the children and grandchildren of immigrants. They learn the language very quickly, study at prestigious German universities, and become respected citizens of Germany. For example, Dr. K.’s son fulfilled his father’s dream: he founded his own clinic and now receives a “real German salary,” and doesn’t depend on a small allowance from the government.  

What is the way out of the present dilemma of the older immigrant generation? Barbara Dietz, one of the leading experts on migration in Germany, indicates that among the most important factors for successful integration — on an equal basis with knowing the German language — is participation in the activities of social institutions. After having completed language courses, it would be wise if Germans engage immigrants who can’t work full time, for example, in activities of charitable organizations and volunteering. This could help them not only to use the acquired knowledge, but also to find their own path toward becoming part of German society.

Julia Bondarenko




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