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Germany halts immigration of Soviet Jews

Eduard's family was killed during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine. This summer, Eduard came home one day to his Leningrad apartment and found swastikas scrawled on the door and a letter on the floor. "You have two weeks to leave the country, you dirty Jews," said the unsigned letter. Eduard and his wife packed a few things and got a tourist visa. To Germany.

In one of this century's unlikeliest waves of emigration, thousands of Soviet Jews have fled their homeland's economic crisis and religious prejudice and moved to the country that attempted to wipe out their people a half century ago.

But the wave lasted only from early summer until last month, when the Bonn government stopped all legal immigration of Soviet Jews. It said too many wanted to move to Germany.

The abrupt halt _ about 4,000 Soviet Jews arrived this summer in what was then East Germany _ has opened a new rift between the government of the reunited Germany and the country's small Jewish community and

its supporters.

While the government is trying to keep immigration to a minimum, possibly establishing quotas, many people believe that the genocide of the Nazi period gives Germany a special responsibility to save Jews from oppression elsewhere.

The new debate, like the history of Jewish-German relations, is a complex web of questions about integration and identity, attraction and repulsion. It has split the German Jewish community, reviving the decades-old rivalry between German and Eastern European Jews. It also has split the German Jews and the Israeli government over whether the exodus of Soviet Jews should be steered to renew German Jewry or to bolster Israel's Jewish population.

The debate over immigration has divided the Germans, who, in a time of reunification and great uncertainty in Eastern Europe, are struggling with their own notions of who belongs to their nation.

When tens of thousands of Soviet Jews crowded German consulates in Kiev and Leningrad to apply for immigration visas, Bonn's Interior Ministry argued it could not absorb that many Soviet Jews for resettlement. The ministry says it is considering admitting only those Jews who can prove ties to Germany's vestigial Jewish community. There are about 40,000 Jews in Germany today. Before the Holocaust, nearly 600,000 Jews called Germany home.

But the state of Lower Saxony this week rejected the federal policy, announcing that it considers a Soviet Jew of German descent to be German just as German law grants automatic citizenship to ethnic Germans throughout Eastern Europe. And the state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced that it is willing to take in 500 Soviet Jews, but warned that Germany should act with caution for fear of fomenting "a new anti-Semitism."

The idea of limiting Jewish immigration in a nation responsible for the death of 6-million Jews strikes some Jewish leaders as nearly obscene. "I reject quotas," said Heinz Galinski, chairman of the official, state-supported German Jewish community. "I have always said that we have a different right from other groups."

"Shutting the door to Soviet Jews is just unacceptable," said Sigmund Rotstein, leader of the Jewish community in the southeastern German city of Chemnitz. "Exceptions must be made just for reasons of history."

The new arrivals avoided Israel in large part because they fear the Arab-Israeli conflict. (On Thursday, Reuters news agency quoted Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Sharon as saying that Israel would settle Soviet Jews along its pre-1967 border to form a buffer between Israeli and West Bank Arabs.)

Few Soviet Jews have illusions about life in Germany. "People can't change in such a short period of 40 years," said Julia, a 27-year-old mother and art historian who arrived from Leningrad in July. "The Jewish people haven't changed for thousands of years. Why would the Germans change so suddenly? I'm not afraid of them, but I'm not going to cry on every corner that I am a Jew."

Julia said she wanted her 4-year-old to live in a Western European country that offers opportunity and rewards work. Germany was the only place she could reach that fit the bill. She said she chose Germany over Israel because "it is hard enough for a Soviet to adapt to capitalism, but to adapt to capitalism . . . in Israel at the same time would be too much."

The German government contends that its decision to stop Soviet Jewish immigration was spurred in part by the desire of the Israeli government to have all Soviet refugees settle in Israel. But a source at the Israeli Embassy in Bonn said Israel had no contact with the Germans about Soviet emigration.

"It is no secret that the state of Israel and many Israelis think that the appropriate place for Jews from all over the world is the state of Israel," the diplomat said. "And no one in the Israeli government would protest if the German government stops accepting the Soviet Jews. But there were no consultations on that issue, and on humanitarian grounds, we want Jews to be taken by any country. We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place."

The Israelis are not alone in their ambivalence. Jews in Germany have tried but failed to keep quiet their internal debate over whether to encourage their government to accept more Soviet Jews.

"It's the old internal conflict between German Jews and Jews from the East," said a leader of a small Jewish community in Germany. "They are different from us and much more different from the Germans. We get along well with the Germans." The leader refused to be named because he said Galinski had ordered Jewish leaders not to say anything critical of Eastern European Jews.

Most of the Soviet Jews know little of the debate that their arrival has caused. Many are engineers, physicians and musicians _ professionals who hope to take part in the economic transformation of eastern Germany. Living on government benefits, most are busy studying German and searching for apartments.

They are largely optimistic, said Tatyana Karol, a Soviet emigre hired by the Berlin Jewish community to advise the new arrivals. "Many of them think the contemporary German has changed. I doubt it. People can be very friendly to us and even understand the fault of their ancestors. But there are also young Germans who are very unfriendly not only to Jews but to all foreigners."

Some of the Soviet emigres have encountered "Foreigners Out!" graffiti in their neighborhoods. Others have expressed surprise that the German authorities have permitted neo-Nazi groups to march through the streets of Berlin and Dresden chanting nationalist slogans and raising their arms in the Hitler salute.

But the main sentiment for many is relief at being away from the chronic shortages and difficult housing situation in the Soviet Union.

Eduard, a 54-year-old machinist, and his wife now live with nearly 1,000 other Soviet Jews in a former workers' housing complex in the forest of faceless high-rises on the eastern outskirts of Berlin.

Offered refuge by the short-lived elected East German government, they are in limbo. Day after day, they line up outside the Advisory Center for Foreign Jews in the former Nazi Propaganda Ministry in Berlin, waiting to see how they will be treated by the reunited Germany.

A few Jews still arrive each day, slipping in on tourist visas, fleeing from the mounting anti-Semitic campaign of Pamyat and other Russian nationalist movements. But the flow of Jewish immigration has been stemmed and it is not clear whether those already in Germany will be granted asylum, citizenship or neither.

Eduard, whose grandparents left Germany for the Ukraine 100 years ago, says leaving the Soviet Union was "the only way out." "Certainly we have some fear about Germany. But there was fascism and there is the German people, and I believe there is a difference. Life will show."