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The Visible Jew – Observations on Jewish Life Between Germany and Switzerland

shutterstock_179177252 In 1996 my parents decided to leave Ukraine, our place of origin, and move to Germany. In the very same year they decided to tell me that we were Jewish. At first, being “Jewish” only meant having a free ticket to Western Europe, and it aroused the envy of my Ukrainian classmates. But Germany soon felt like home: I went to school and then university, and built a new family of friends, many of them Jewish immigrants like myself. I had no intention of leaving anytime soon.

However, my husband, our toddler daughter and I packed our bags for Basel in the north of Switzerland last year. We were convinced that moving to a German-speaking country would ease the transition, but even now, a year later, we are still trying to come to terms with the significant differences in culture and mentality of these neighboring countries. I am far away from really understanding Swiss-German – quite different from the standard German I speak – and commit social blunders wherever I go. Germany is so close that I can even take a streetcar there, and yet, we did leave the European Union. The move was followed by a period of euphoria about living in a place where three different countries share borders: France, Germany and Switzerland. Both countries being only ten minutes away from my apartment in the city center, I could buy my beloved dark bread in Germany and wine and cheese in France, which made me feel lavishly cosmopolitan.

During these days of international, multi-lingual delight in Basel, my three year-old daughter committed a small act of transgression. It happened in broad daylight, at the playground. She suddenly came running with a piece of black fabric squeezed between her fingers, and asked me why a child would wear such “silly hat“. Upon closer inspection, I saw that she was holding a kippah and soon discovered its crying owner. We attracted the wrath of a group of very angry, very orthodox mothers who were not prepared to believe that we were Jewish, too. In their world, every Jewish child would know better than to steal a kippah and use it to collect pebbles and leaves.

So why didn’t my daughter know better? The answer was simple: In Germany, mostly elderly men wore the kippah, and the place she’d seen them was in synagogue. She had never before encountered a child wearing a kippah on a playground. My own adult Jewish life in Germany had also been quite private and hidden behind the walls of Jewish institutions. Later it was focused on my activities within the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund, a program for gifted Jewish Students. It was for this reason that during the first weeks in Basel, I was giddy with pleasure every time I met orthodox Jewish families on city playgrounds or at the zoo. The feeling only grew when I met observant men wearing their kippot to work or upon discovering that there was a quite decent selection of kosher wine in several supermarkets. I didn’t actually intend to buy it, but the possibility existed! At first, I was startled to hear people I barely knew shouting “Gut Shabbes“ at the top of their lungs across the street. It caught me by surprise just how liberating the visibility of Jewish life in Basel felt.

However, my enthusiasm soon suffered a reality check. During a Purim party gathering Jewish students and young adults, the conversation inevitably moved towards the topic of anti-Semitism in Europe. Especially us students from Germany were seen as crucial witnesses to a situation that was bound to worsen in time. Asked whether he felt safe wearing a kippah in Basel, an Israeli, who has lived in Basel for over a decade, replied, that indeed he felt safe, but that “They (the Swiss) don´t like us. They don’t like strangers in general. Especially us.“

Though his statement was bold and generalizing, he made an interesting point: A visible Jew remains a stranger amongst the tight-knit social circles in Switzerland. His kippah might not attract the questioning gazes or even dangerous attention it does in other European cities, but it marks him as a foreign element in the social structure of the city.

Yves Kugelmann, chief-editor of the Jewish weekly “Tachles“ described the Swiss anti-Semitism as dormant, but certainly palpable, especially when conflicts in the Middle East heat up (Neue Züricher Zeitung, 30.07.2014). It is because the anti-Semitism is latent, that it needs to be addressed more openly. A recent incident in the Swiss town of St. Gallen shows just how much work there still is to be done: A group of soccer fans mockingly chased a man dressed up as a cliché version of the Hasidic Jew through the streets after their club won the match. The management of the club had been informed about the nature of this event beforehand, but failed to react accordingly.

One could write a lot about historical predicaments of Jews in Switzerland: About the fact that it was the last Western European country which in 1874 gave Jewish citizens full legal emancipation. Or about those Jews, who were refused at the Swiss border during World War II, because they were not granted the status of political refugee (until 1944). But I will limit my account to personal impressions gathered during the last year. Of course Switzerland, as every other country where Jews live, has to deal with different forms of anti-Semitism. But this particular country didn’t experience the same profound disruption of Jewish life as Germany. Of course it wasn’t untouched by the horrors of the Holocaust, but the murderous isolation and systematic annihilation of European Jewry happened beyond the borders of the this neutral country, and it showed in the deep roots of many Jewish families in Switzerland.

There is a big comfort deriving from the fact that many of the families of my Jewish friends from Basel have been around here for over a century. That they haven’t suffered a family history of flight, emigration and violent death during World War II. I like the easy-going manner in which Jewish topics are addressed in public and the naturalness of Jewish life in this city. Talking about or with Jews in Germany can be difficult, and the topics and conversations can be stiff with the weight of history. The haunting past tends to be more important then the possibility of a bright and lively future for Jewish communities.

It took my moving to Switzerland to become more comfortable with my Jewish identity in public. A Swiss friend, one who considers the prohibition of kosher slaughter in Switzerland a scandal and complains about the marginal size of the kosher section in the super market, made a curious observation: Whenever I talked about myself, I would talk about me “being Jewish“ or my “Jewishness“. Not once did I simply say that I was a Jew. At first I dismissed this as a ridiculous observation. But soon enough I had to admit that he was right and that things had to change in order for me to get rid of the rigidity that stifled my speech for such a long time.

Upon further thought, the little incident at the playground appeared more and more like a parable. Whatever small act of childish pettiness happened that day, it happened because of ignorance. My daughter stole the kippah and laughed about it, because at that time, she didn’t know better. There are so many types of anti-Semitism and it is not my intention to generalize, but many acts of anti-Semitism I experienced in my life happened because people simply didn’t know much about Judaism or had never met a Jew before. So more then ever I felt obliged to tackle ignorance concerning Judaism that even made it´s way into my own home when I wasn’t watching.

During the last year I learned to appreciate the complexity of two Jewish worlds that lie so close to each other and yet are so different. I don’t deny the frustrating moments of being a Jew in Switzerland: The loneliness of being the only person who speaks no Hebrew in a room full of Jews or the lack of understanding towards people who came from Eastern Europe, not even knowing what being Jewish was supposed to mean. But the frequent sightings of big groups of people heading to the synagogue on Friday evenings or strolling through the city on Shabbat has, indeed, inspired me. I cherish the Shabbat mornings when we manage to get out of the house on time to join them, even though we are not a religious family. And I learned to laugh about the way people sometimes inquire where I got such a natural-looking wig, after they learn that I am Jewish.


Olga Osadtschy was born in Kiew (Ukraine) in 1985. She has lived, worked and studied in Germany, France and Italy and is currently a PhD candidate in history of art and media studies with the University of Basel. She is also an active member of the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund for gifted Jewish Students (

(Image: The city of Basel. Credit: Shutterstock/Arianda de Raadt)

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