By Nadine Schmidt and Sheena McKenzie, CNN
During Germany’s Covid-19 lockdown, Rabbi Zsolt Balla earned a devoted online following, live-streaming prayer services on Facebook.
Now, as the country begins to open up, he’s taking on a previously unimaginable job as the German military’s chief rabbi — its first in almost 90 years, since Adolf Hitler expelled Jews from the armed forces in the 1930s.
All this, and he didn’t even know he was Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor until he was nine.
A rabbi proudly joining the German army eight decades after the Nazis orchestrated the Holocaust is a hugely symbolic moment for the Jewish community.
Balla will be sworn in at a synagogue in Leipzig, eastern Germany, on Monday; officials hope his appointment will highlight the open and diverse face of the country’s modern-day armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
But it comes against the backdrop of a series of far-right extremist scandals within the German military and police in recent years, and amid rising levels of anti-Semitism across the country.
Last year the military’s elite commando force — known as KSK — was partially disbanded after a report found far-right extremism within its ranks, though Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced on Tuesday that the reformed unit will continue, despite calls for its dissolution.
A separate elite state police unit — called SEK — was dissolved last week after its officers were alleged to have glorified the Nazis in an online chat group.
“I think every responsible person should be worried about this issue,” Balla, 42, said of extremism in Germany’s armed forces.
Military rabbis will not “solve every single problem within one week,” he told CNN by phone from his Leipzig home. But, he added: “We have to work with a vision for the future, of how we want German society and the Bundeswehr to look like in a decade.”
Balla will eventually be one of up to 10 rabbis providing pastoral care for the estimated 80 to 300 Jewish soldiers currently serving in the Bundeswehr. The estimates are based on voluntary disclosures.
Much like Christian chaplains, the rabbis will hold religious services and offer counselling — open to soldiers of all faiths — in what Balla hopes will be “part of the ethical education of all the soldiers in the Bundeswehr.” There are currently Catholic, Protestant and, from Monday, Jewish chaplains in the German military.
Not the same Germany
The last time rabbis were part of Germany’s armed forces was during World War I, when around 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the country.
Jews were banned from serving in the military shortly after Hitler assumed power in 1933, as part of the Nazis’ early efforts to remove them from public life.
After the crimes of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era military, no Jewish person could imagine serving in the German army, says Anthony Kauders, a professor who specializes in German-Jewish modern history at the UK’s Keele University. Those who continued to live in what he called Germany’s “blood-soaked land” in the aftermath of World War II were even considered “traitors” by some Jews elsewhere, he says.
In the immediate post-war years, a divided Germany opted for a culture of silence around its Nazi-era atrocities, but in recent decades this has shifted to a culture of remembrance — “Erinnerungskultur” — which sees schoolchildren educated about the horrors of the Holocaust from an early age.
Balla says there is an “understanding that Germany really did its best among European countries to face and confront its past, and I think it should be acknowledged.”
That doesn’t mean “everything is perfect,” he says, pointing to the ongoing problem of anti-Semitism and hate crime in the country.
But he believes the way to combat extremism is to work together. Germany’s Jewish community “don’t just want to shout about the bad things,” he says. “We want to do our part.”
The “Jewish community has changed,” Balla says, adding: “We understand that this is not the same Germany.”
Germany is, however, seeing a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. Reported anti-Semitic crimes rose by 15.7% to 2,351 last year, with almost all of these incidents motivated by right-wing extremism, according to the Federal Interior Ministry.
The crimes were “not only worrying but also deeply shameful against the background of our history,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told a news conference last month.
A shooting at a synagogue in Halle in 2019 was one of a series of attacks in recent years that Seehofer said showed “right-wing extremism is the greatest threat to security in our country.”
Meanwhile, the extraordinary case of Franco A., a former soldier accused of posing as a Syrian refugee planning a far-right terrorist attack on politicians, has prompted further scrutiny of extremism within the army’s ranks.
Balla’s historic appointment goes beyond pastoral care for Jewish soldiers, Kramp-Karrenbauer said, explaining that it was a “contribution against growing anti-Semitism, extremism and populism in society.”
A life-changing discovery
Balla was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1979, the son of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father who served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Hungarian army.
His father was the commander of a base near Budapest, and as a child Balla spent a lot of time around soldiers, paving the way for a lifelong appreciation of the armed forces.
Growing up, he says, “religion was not really on the table,” and he only found out he was Jewish at the age of nine, after seeing an advertisement for a church and asking his mother if he could go along.
“That’s when she told me we had to talk,” he recalls.
Balla’s mother revealed that she and her parents were Holocaust survivors.
He says discovering his Jewish heritage was like finding “an old diary in the attic that belonged to your great grandparents,” explaining that it was “fascinating to learn that little story there, is actually yours.”
After the fall of Communism in Hungary, 12-year-old Balla began attending a Jewish high school funded by the American cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder.
Lauder — the son of make-up mogul Estee Lauder, a former US ambassador and president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007 — has personally invested heavily in the rebirth of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe.
Balla reaped the benefits, going on to complete his rabbinical studies at the Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin, becoming one of the first Orthodox rabbis to be trained in Germany since 1938.
He also met his wife in the German capital. The couple settled in her hometown of Leipzig, where Balla is now rabbi of the local synagogue, and have three children.
Like the vast majority of Germany’s more than 100,000 Jewish people, Balla’s wife is originally from the former Soviet Union. Her family moved to the country after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Experts say relatively recent Jewish immigrants to Germany have a very different relationship to the Holocaust than those who are descendants of the pre-war community.
Jewish soldiers who might serve in the Bundeswehr today are “not necessarily the Jews whose parents survived the Holocaust, or whose parents would have been very upset if their children had decided to serve in the army,” said Kauders.
“There’s a different dynamic,” he said. “The Holocaust wasn’t as important to these parents,” he said of Jewish immigrants in the early 1990s.
“They didn’t have the sense of guilt that most Jews felt — those who returned to West Germany for all sorts of reasons in the 1950s and 1960s or had survived underground and decided not to leave the country — for whom it would have been unthinkable to be associated with the German military.”
One Jewish soldier proud to wear the Bundeswehr uniform is Judith Ederberg, a 20-year-old medical student, currently serving in the military’s ambulance services.
Ederberg’s parents were evangelical Germans who converted to Judaism and lived for a while in Israel. She says her family has been generally supportive of her decision to join the military, particularly as she’ll be studying medicine and “on the helping side.”
Ederberg was born in Jerusalem, but grew up in Berlin where, she says, “We talked about the German Nazi past so much at school that we don’t really talk about it much these days.”
She says Germany is “a different state now,” adding that “the army is there to protect democracy and not for anything else.”
“I don’t think that people identify the Bundeswehr now with the military in World War II,” Ederberg says.
The Bundeswehr has more than 260,000 personnel, yet Ederberg says that so far she has only met one other Jewish soldier.
She’s excited to be attending Rabbi Balla’s swearing-in ceremony on Monday. Given Covid restrictions, it’ll be a small gathering, with guests including Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer and the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster.
Ederberg says she’s pleased she’ll now have a rabbi on hand to ask religious or personal questions.
German officials will be hoping it’s not just Jewish soldiers who seek Balla’s insight.