November 09, 2013

The Strange Case of Mario Offenberg

A friend of mine had heard about a film made by an Israeli chap called Mario Offenberg which had won an award from the Palestine Liberation Organisation back  in the 1970s.  Offenberg had been involved with the Israeli trotskyist group, Matzpen and had penned an article against zionism with veteran marxist academic, Moshe Machover.  But the more my friend looked for this guy the more weird the details were that emerged.  His old muckers from Matzpen knew nothing of him and there were some lurid tales swirling around cyberspace.

Here's what I have found on line (well actually in a book) by a Ruth Gay called Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II.  I can't figure out how to copy and paste from google books so I found the extract I'm looking for here.

Now at some point in the late seventies Mario Offenberg fell off of the leftist radar and re-emerged ten years later reinvented as a religious Jew.  It is at this point that his story overlaps in a big way with the resurrection of an East German Jewish community, Adass Israel (Jisroel).  Now here's the extract:
In 1939 all the Adass Israel property was confiscated by the Nazi government, and then after 1945 these holdings became the property of the successor government, the German Democratic Republic. In time the GDR turned the synagogue's property over to the Berlin Jew­ish Gemeinde (East), though this was largely a paper transaction, be­cause the community had no use for what remained ofthese facilities. In fact, the old Adass Israel synagogue was remodeled into offices for a variety of GDR businesses, and the hospital was converted for use as the headquarters of the Deutsche Reichsbahn—the German railroad.

For four decades after the end of the war the community seemed to be extinguished, remembered only by its widely dispersed former members. The reemergence of a legally recognized Adass Israel in the last years before the collapse of the gdr owed its existence to the will of two men with wildly divergent purposes: Erich Honecker, the head of the state, and Mario Offenberg, a descendant of an Adass Israel family, who had grown up in Israel but moved to West Berlin to complete his education. How Offenberg became the beneficiary of Honecker's ambitions, assuming the leadership of a phantom Gemeinde, richly supported by the GDR, still remains in many ways unexplained.

In 1975 Offenberg completed his studies at the Free University in Berlin and presented his doctoral dissertation, titled "Communism in Palestine: Nation and Class in the Anticolonial Revolution." The anti-Zionist thesis proposed a union of Arabs and Jews against imperial­ism. For the next three years, Offenberg worked as a documentary filmmaker, screening his films about the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Israel at Leipzig film festivals. In 1977 the Palestine Liberation Organization gave him an award for his documentary The Struggle for Land, or Palestine in Israel.6"

A decade later a very different Mario Offenberg appeared in East Berlin, now intent on reviving Adass Israel. Whatever old Adassian-ers still survived in East Berlin were well hidden. The result was that Mario Offenberg and his father, Ari, constituted the entire resident Gemeinde. But this was a crucial moment, for a portion of the old Adass Israel cemetery in Wittlicher Strasse was in danger of being used for a new building for the STASI. Although the cemetery was nominally in the hands of the Jewish Gemeinde (East), it had been neglected since 1974, when its single caretaker retired.

Because the rear portion of the cemetery was not fenced in and the rest of the walls were crumbling, it had become easy prey for vandals. It was this seemingly unused rear portion that the Gemeinde in December 1982 sold to the Ministry for State Security, which planned to build offices and apartments there.

In November 1985 Mario Offenberg claimed that during the war this area had been used for illegal Jewish burials and was therefore hallowed ground. His trump card in approaching Honecker, however, was the news that he had invited Adassianers from all over the world to come to a reunion in Berlin in June 1986. What Honecker did not want at this point was the report abroad of a neglected and vandalized Jewish cemetery.

What happened next was astonishing. In January 1986, by Honecker's order, the best resources in Berlin were galvanized to work on the cemetery. During a hard winter the craftsmen even brought in special warming devices to make possible the fine restoration work on the stone. By June the walls had been rebuilt, the gravestones righted, the brush cleared. When one hundred Adassianers arrived from abroad to visit their family graves, they saw only a well-tended ceme­tery, which was solemnly rededicated in their presence.7

68 During this visit the surviving Adassianers and their descendants formed a new Society for the Advancement of Adass Israel in Berlin, whose pur­pose was the reestablishment of the Gemeinde and the reclamation of all its property.69 They also gave Mario Offenberg their proxies au­thorizing him to continue his work.

But neither the West Berlin city government nor the Gemeinde in the West was willing to recognize the legitimacy of the Offenbergs or to acknowledge that their Adass Israel was the successor to the Gemeinde extinguished by the Nazis in 1939. After Offenberg's first brilliant coup in restoring the Wittlicher Strasse cemetery, the East German regime became more cautious about offering support. The Offenbergs retained a lawyer, Lothar de Maziere, to present their cause to the government. There was division, however, at the highest levels. While State Secretary Klaus Gysi wanted to recognize the new Adass Israel as the successor to the prewar Gemeinde, the Central Committee of the Party was unwilling to restore the "People's" prop­erty to private hands. In addition, the heads of the established Gemeinden, both East and West—Peter Kirchner and Heinz Galin-ski, respectively—made no secret of their view that Offenberg was an interloper and that the property of the old Adass Israel should not be turned over to his committee.

 But all the principals were overtaken by history. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall fell and a new provisional government came into power in East Germany. By a great stroke of fortune, the new minister for religious affairs was none other than Lothar de Maziere. With a friend in a high place in the government, things began to go rather better for the Offenbergs.

On December 14,1989 the Council of Min­isters of the newly formed government voted to restore all rights to the Adass Israel Gemeinde and offered it all necessary government help.70  The following March, the council voted to support the Adass Israel Gemeinde with a budget of 810,000 marks for the year, including salaries for fifteen employees—among them three caretakers for the cemetery, a librarian, a Hebrew teacher, a rabbi, and a kosher slaugh­terer.  Mario Offenberg retained the position of executive director.

At this point two of the rooms in the old Artilleriestrasse com­plex (renamed Tucholskystrasse by the GDR) had been cleared and placed at the disposal of the new Gemeinde.  Eventually the entire building was returned to Adass Israel, which reestablished the syna­gogue, restored the ritual bath, and began to build its communal life, hoping to attract Orthodox Jews from both East and West. The most significant source of new members were the Russian Jews who began arriving in increasing numbers as a consequence of the rising anti-Semitism and governmental chaos at home.

When the East German government in the spring of1990 passed a resolution "to offer asylum to persecuted Jews," it encouraged them to pack up and leave. By February 1991 some four thousand had taken advantage of this offer.71

72 Actively seeking out the newcomers, by the end of 1990 Adass Israel claimed two hundred members, most of them Russian immigrants.73 As newcomers to the West, they needed an introduction into two cul­tures: the new German world in which they hoped to live and the old Jewish tradition, which many were discovering for the first time. Whether they would remain with the rigors of Orthodoxy as prac­ticed by Adass Israel once they were established in Germany was something that would be resolved in the future.

Whether the current Adass Israel is finally determined to be the legal successor to the institution founded in 1869, there is no doubt that the modern congregation is of a very different order from the original, which was composed of scholars and those committed to the wholehearted practice of Orthodox Judaism; the new congrega­tion is largely made up of those trying to find their way, and of new­comers to Judaism, learning its basic precepts.

The strained relations of Adass Israel with the Gemeinde of Berlin were resolved only in 1997......
Apologies for the haphazard footnote numbers.  I've no idea where the actual footnotes are but by all means follow the link above or check out the actual book.

Now that book was first published in 2002 but the plot seems to have thickened some time after 1997.  See this article on the FringeGroups website about "what amounts to a sham synagogue":
In the meantime, this new Adass Jisroel continues to exist, at least on paper.  No rabbi is mentioned on its website.  It runs what it calls a kosher restaurant, but when I visited this establishment last month there was no Jewish personnel to be found in it.  All inquiries are to be directed to its office, I was told.  But this office, when I tried to visit it, just happened to be closed, as it also happened to be closed when others tried to visit it.  AJ is said to have a synagogue, but attendance there is allowed only by appointment.  The large AJ cemetery, which was given to Offenberg by the GDR government, cannot be visited except by appointment;  people I know tried to make such appointment but were told that 6:30 in the morning is the one and only time for which an appointment can be considered.

Last year there were press stories that the Berlin government is demanding proper accounting of the funds that it has channelled to Offenberg, as required by law, but apparently refused by Dr. O.  Then the story was quietly dropped.  When I was in Berlin now, I met with a reporter from one of the Jewish papers (who, of course, was not Jewish himself).  I was interviewed most courteously, and a most courteous account of my visit was published.  But there was not a word about the main interest that I expressed in the interview, viz. Adass Jisroel.  The reporter later told me why this was red-pencilled by his editor:  let sleeping dogs lie.

UPDATE, March 26, 2012:  It now seems that a new court judgment has recognized the fraudulent nature of Offenberg's operation, and that this so-called synagogue may well be forced to shut down.
Following the last link to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency site we find:
An investigation found that the congregation had claimed government subsidies for nonexistent personnel and for a fleet of cars without submitting a drivers’ log. Synagogue director Mario Offenberg and his wife also reportedly charged the state for their annual business-class flight to Spain, claiming they were visiting the local Jewish community.

Tagesspiegel reported that the Berlin Senate told the court it doubted that Adass Yisroel actually had any members other than Offenberg.

So Israeli becomes Trot, Trot gets religion, religious ex-Trot is accused of fraud on a super-chutzpahdich scale of which you can also read more in Ha'aretz and presumably elsewhere.

I suppose I could have simply said that at the outset and spared you the details so I know I got completely carried away there with what I found to be a fascinating story which has been available on line for a long time. 

All I really wanted to know is what happened to the movie, The Struggle for Land, or Palestine in Israel?  Are there any surviving copies?  Is it on video, DVD or what?  Ok, I wouldn't mind knowing what happened to Mario Offenberg but I really would like to locate the documentary.  Any offers?  Let me know.



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