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Coming to Terms with the Jewish Past. EAST BERLIN: REBUILDING THE TEMPLE

THE New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse, an ornate red-brick building topped by two swirling red-brick bulbs, is coming back to life. Built between 1859 and 1866 as the main place of worship for Berlin's then large, prosperous Jewish community of 175,000, the synagogue was desecrated by Nazis 50 years ago on Kristallnacht. An air raid during World War II completed the destruction, and for years afterward, the grand building stood desolate and deserted.

But every day now, workers are scampering up the scaffolding. When they finish the renovation, the New Synagogue will serve as a worship place for East Berlin's remaining 350 Jews - and as a museum of Jewish history for all 16 million East Germans.

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``Until now, Jewish history, the role Jews played in Germany and in the struggle against the Nazis, has not been emphasized enough,'' says Siegmund Rotstein, president of East Germany's Jewish community. ``Young Germans must learn.''

Coming to terms with their Jewish past is an important issue for many East European countries. Before World War II, the region represented the center of world Jewry.

Now young East-European Jews, brought up as atheists, are rediscovering their faith. Both Jewish and non-Jewish youngsters are packing courses on Jewish history and culture. Adults too are getting involved.

``These meetings are cathartic,'' says Krzysztof Sliwinski, a journalist at Roman Catholic monthly Znak, who helped organize a seminar on Polish-Jewish relations last spring in Krakow. ``We have so much to learn about each other.''

Nowhere do the emotions run as high as here in Germany, the country that ordered and carried out the annihilation of Europe's Jews. After the war, the fledgling West German state admitted moral responsibility for the tragedy and paid billions in reparations to Jews.

East Germany's communist leaders refused to accept guilt. German communists resisted the Nazis, and Aldolf Hitler persecuted them along with the Jews. The East German head of state, Erich Honecker, spent 10 years in Nazi jails. His regime refused restitution payments, claiming that, unlike West Germany, it had expunged all vestiges of the Nazi past and provided its remaining Jewish community with large pensions.

``We don't have any moral responsibility for Hitler,'' says one East German diplomat. ``The German Democratic Republic has done everything to uproot fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism - our state is an antifascist state.''

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But this explanation has left a bitter taste among Jewish survivors of Naziism.

``We must rediscover this Jewish past,'' says Hans Wilke of the Office of Religious Affairs. ``That is why we are restoring the Jewish Center, not only creating a prayer room, but a museum, a library, a place to do research.''

``We now realize that we can't just break with history, we have to deal with it,'' Dr. Wilke says.

Another reason to restore contacts with the world Jewish community is to improve East Germany's image in the world, especially in the West. The East Germans badly want to win Most Favored Nation trading status from Washington, say diplomats here.

``This is a question of prestige, understanding,'' says one Western diplomat. It's also a question of making an investment that will pay off.''

Partly because of these mixed motives, misunderstandings still mar relations with the world Jewish community.

In September 1987, the authorities permitted an American rabbi, Isaac Neuman, to live in East Berlin and serve as the spiritual leader. He left several months later, complaining of censorship. (Some Jews here blame Rabbi Neuman for the problems, saying he was an insensitive, publicity-seeker.)

Talks on reparations are also bogged down. Mr. Honecker has met with Rabbi Israel Miller, president of the Jewish Claims Conference, and offered to pay $100 million to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But the East Germans refuse to accept ``responsibility'' for the genocide.

``It's like trying to square a circle,'' says the Western diplomat. ``Honecker is willing to set up a Jewish cultural center, and do almost anything to respect the role of Jews, but he won't stand up and say he or his state was guilty of murdering them.''

``We have made a lot of progress recognizing Jewish life here,'' says Mr. Rotstein. ``Honecker has even told me he wants relations with Israel. It will take time. We just have to continue working to improve relations between Jews and Germans.''

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