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In Berlin's heart, Jews triumph

The gilded dome of Berlin's New Synagogue, built in Moorish-Byzantine style and largely destroyed by the Nazis, rises amidst the city's gray roofs, gleaming in the rays of the sun.

The renovated facade of this monument, today one of Berlin's prime tourist attractions, and the ongoing reconstruction of its interiors, are proof that Jewish culture is undergoing a revival in what was formerly one of Europe's prominent cultural capitals.

"You can see it from afar," says Elke Melkus, who knows Berlin intimately and runs "art: berlin," an agency that organizes city tours. "People stand in front of the New Synagogue all day long _ to film, take pictures or just look around."

There's a steady stream of tourist buses in front of the brick building. Renovation of the interiors will proceed until May 1995, after which the former synagogue will house a Jewish community center and a library. It was first inaugurated in 1866.

A plaque displayed on a front wall reminds visitors of the persecution of Jews under Hitler and the arson attack on the night of Nov. 9, 1938.

For many Berliners, the elaborate reconstruction of the building is visible proof of a revival of Jewish life and traditions. Almost three decades ago, 6,000 Jews lived in the western part of the city and around 800 in the eastern part. Estimates place the number today at 17,000 total. The community continues to grow, especially through the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The city experienced its largest wave of Jewish immigrants immediately after the Berlin Wall was dismantled and the two Germanies unified in 1990.

Christoph Kreutzmueller, a tour guide, often takes tourist groups on walkabouts in Berlin's historical parts _ past the green stretch of the all-but-forgotten Old Jewish Cemetery (1672-1827) and through the inner courtyard of the partly empty former Jewish hospital. He shows visitors a kosher cafe.

In the 1920s, Berlin was a key center of Jewish life in Europe, with more than 170,000 Jews. Many visitors are not aware of the fact that the area around the New Synagogue was a popular residential quarter.

Jewish scientists and artists in Berlin like Walter Benjamin, Ernst Lubitsch and Max Liebermann enjoyed widespread fame at home and abroad.

This spirit of German-Jewish influence was not revived after the downfall of the Nazis in 1945, when only 3,000 Jews remained in Berlin.

After 1989, the obvious charm of its neglected streets once again began attracting artists and young people. Galleries, Jewish history and new, chic restaurants within buildings needing renovation have created an unusual ambiance in the quarter.

But there is something to mar the harmony. Heavily armed police routinely patrol the area outside the New Synagogue. Unfortunately, right-wing terrorist attacks also form part of day-to-day reality in Germany today.