All this, and he didn’t even know he was Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor until the age of nine.
A rabbi proudly joining the German army eight decades after the Nazis plotted the Holocaust is a highly symbolic moment for the Jewish community.
Balla will take the oath on Monday at a synagogue in Leipzig, East Germany; Officials hope his appointment will highlight the open and diverse face of the country’s modern 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 rising levels of anti-Semitism across the country.
Last year the army’s elite commando force – known as the KSK – was partially disbanded after a report found far-right insurgency within its ranks, although Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said Tuesday announced that the reformed unit would continue, despite calls for its dissolution.
A separate elite state police unit – called the SEK – was disbanded last week after its officers were accused of glorifying Nazis in an online chat group.
“I think every responsible person should be concerned about this issue,” Balla, 42, said of extremism in Germany’s armed forces.
Military rabbis “will not solve every single problem within a week,” he told CNN over the phone from his Leipzig home. But, he added: “We have to work with a vision for the future, how we want to see German society and the Bundeswehr in a decade.”
Balla would eventually be one of 10 rabbis who provided pastoral care for the estimated 80 to 300 Jewish soldiers currently serving in the Bundeswehr. Estimates are based on voluntary disclosure.
Like the Christian clergy, the rabbis would conduct religious services and provide counseling—open to soldiers of all faiths—which Balla hopes “will be part of the moral education of all soldiers in the Bundeswehr.” There are currently Catholic, Protestant and, since Monday, Jewish clergy 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 approximately 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the country.
Jews were banned from serving in the military shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, as part of the Nazis’ initial efforts to remove them from public life.
After the crimes of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era army, no Jewish person could imagine serving in the German army, says Anthony Couders, a professor specializing in German-Jewish modern history at the University of Kiel, UK. Those who lived in the “blood-soaked lands” of Germany after World War II were also considered “traitors” by some Jews, they say.
In the years immediately following the war, a divided Germany opted for a culture of silence surrounding its Nazi-era atrocities, but in recent decades this has shifted to a culture of remembrance – the “Erinungskullur” – that schools Educates children about horrors. of the Holocaust from a young age.
Balla says that “there is an understanding that Germany really did its best to try and confront its past among European countries, and I think that should be acknowledged.”
This does not mean that “everything is perfect,” he says, pointing to the country’s ongoing problem of anti-Semitism and hate crime.
But he believes the way to combat extremism is to work together. Germany’s Jewish community “doesn’t want to just shout about bad things,” he says. “We want to do our part.”
“The Jewish community has changed,” Balla says, “we understand that this is not the same Germany.”
“The crimes were not only worrisome, but also extremely shameful against the backdrop of our history,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told a news conference last month.
Balla’s historic appointment goes beyond pastoral care for Jewish soldiers, Kramp-Karenbauer 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 wasn’t really on the table,” and he only found out at the age of nine after seeing an ad for a church and asking his mother if he could go along. .
“That’s when he told me we had to talk,” he remembers.
Balla’s mother reveals that she and her parents were survivors of the Holocaust.
He says that 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 is actually yours.” ”
After the fall of communism in Hungary, 12-year-old Balla began attending a Jewish high school funded by American cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder.
Lauder, the son of makeup mogul Estée Lauder, a former US ambassador and president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007, is personally heavily invested in the rebirth of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe.
Balla took advantage, completing his rabbinic studies at the Rabinerseminar 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 their hometown of Leipzig, where Balla is now the 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. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, his family moved to the country.
Experts say that Jewish immigrants who recently arrived in Germany have a very different relationship to the Holocaust than descendants of the pre-war community.
Couders said, Jewish soldiers who can serve in the Bundeswehr today “may not necessarily be Jews whose parents had survived the Holocaust, or whose parents would have been very upset if their children decided to serve in the military.” would have done.”
“There’s a different dynamic there,” he said. “The Holocaust was not that 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 in the 1950s and 1960s for all kinds of reasons or escaped underground and decided not to leave the country—for whom it would be the German military.” Couldn’t even imagine connecting with him.”
One Jewish soldier proud to wear the Bundeswehr uniform is Judith Ederberg, a 20-year-old medical student currently serving in the army’s ambulance services.
Ederberg’s parents were evangelical Germans who converted to Judaism and lived in Israel for some time. She says her family has generally been supportive of her decision to join the military, especially as she will be studying medicine and is on the “help side.”
Ederberg was born in Jerusalem, but grew up in Berlin, where, she says, “we talked so much about the German Nazi past in school that we don’t really talk about it much these days.”
She says that Germany is “now a separate state,” adding that “the military is there to defend democracy and not for anything else.”
“I don’t think people identify the Bundeswehr with the military in World War II,” Ederberg says.
The Bundeswehr has more than 260,000 personnel, yet Ederberg says she has only met one other Jewish soldier so far.
He is looking forward to attending Rabbi Balla’s swearing-in ceremony on Monday. Given the COVID restrictions, it will be a small gathering, with guests including Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer and the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Joseph Schuster.
Ederberg says he is glad he now has a rabbi to ask religious or personal questions.
German officials may be hoping that it is not just Jewish soldiers who want Bat’s insight.