KOBLENZ, Germany —Sixty-eight years after the end of the Holocaust, Germany is asking itself what it still owes its Jews.
The answer, as measured by a vote in this small southwestern city, is very little.
In a decision that leaders said was about their future not the past, the cash-strapped city government opted to sell the site of an old synagogue to an investor, disregarding the desires of the Jewish community to buy back its pre-Holocaust home. The property in the city’s center will be turned into a restaurant and apartments.
But Jewish leaders say that they are part of the future, too. Reduced to a handful after the Holocaust, Jews in Koblenz now number 977 — more than before Hitler came to power in 1933. They have outgrown their modest postwar synagogue on the outskirts of town. The city’s decision to sell their old home to someone else has infuriated some in the community.
“As long as it’s dead Jews, it’s fine,” Ephraim Bayramov, 44, said of predominant German attitudes. “But live Jews with their real problems and their real needs, we’re not so interesting.”
For decades, Germany has tried to make amends for the murder of more than 6 million Jews by supporting survivors and descendants, at home and around the world, including an unusual program to offer citizenship to nearly any Jew from the former Soviet Union — which has built the Jewish community back to more than 100,000 people. But that help must come with a limit, the leaders of this city in Germany’s rolling wine country said in making their decision. Most of the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust are now dead, and the mayor said he has a duty to look after the best interests of the city.
Once-taboo questions about what responsibility Germany has to Jews have come with increasing frequency in recent years, as Germans grow more comfortable talking about their past and feel less personally culpable for the sins of their parents or grandparents. The citizenship program for Russian-speaking Jews was dialed back a few years ago. Reparations programs are shutting down because there are fewer survivors to recompense.
Prominent German voices also remain in favor of honoring past tragedies by working to build bridges with contemporary Jews around the world. But relations have been more complicated with the tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews who have come to Germany, many of whom have little money and tremendous needs.
In Koblenz, a city of 106,000 that was largely leveled by Allied bombing at the end of World War II, then rebuilt, the decision to sell the former synagogue building to an investor was easy, Mayor Joachim Hofmann-Göttig said.
“The topic of reparations isn’t in play here. Things were rectified after World War II,” when the devastated Jewish community took possession of the remnants of the synagogue and decided to sell them to the city, he said in his office in a 16th-century whitewashed gabled building.
“It can’t be that suddenly, after 70 years, something that had been settled becomes unclear again,” he said, adding that his grandfather was Jewish.
The Jewish community moved into the four-story 17th-century building on a central Koblenz plaza in 1851 and converted it into a synagogue. The interior was destroyed in November 1938 in a nationwide pogrom known as Kristallnacht. The remains were ruined by bombing during the war.
After the war drew to a close, the German government gave the site back to the devastated remnants of the Jewish community, which could not afford to rebuild it and sold it to the city. A replica of the old structure was built on the site, which was used as a library until earlier this year.
“We did not count on a Jewish community developing back then,” when the original synagogue remains were sold, said Heinz Kahn, 91, who is the head of Koblenz’s Jewish community and whose six-digit number from Auschwitz is tattooed in blue ink on his left arm. “The Jewish community of Koblenz had been completely destroyed.”
But community rolls have been growing, and 35 children put on pageants and study stories from the Torah every weekend at the cramped postwar synagogue on the grounds of the old Jewish cemetery. Some observant Jews refuse to pray there because they say it goes against teachings to have a synagogue at the same place where the dead are buried.
So the community leapt at the chance to bid on the old building when the city said that it and two nearby properties were for sale. But the community has little of the estimated $7.4 million needed for renovations.
“The Jewish community in 2013 truly is poor,” said Avi Avadiev, 50, the community’s deputy head, who immigrated to Germany from Azerbaijan. “But before 1945, it was rich. And the people were killed.”
Leaders of the city government, which is $675 million in debt, say they cannot do anything to help — nor, they say, are they under any obligation to do so. They have said they would try to help the community move into another local building.
The investor who won the bid is one of the richest men in Koblenz. Peter Goerlitz made a fortune from founding, then selling, a company that makes devices that help renewable energy integrate into the electricity grid. Now he wants to start an institute that would study sustainability — and, city leaders hope, bring desperately needed euros into the local economy.
Goerlitz bought the old synagogue site, an empty building next door and a third one down the street. The former synagogue building would hold student apartments and a restaurant, and it would connect to classrooms and lecture halls next door. Apartment rentals and food sales would help fund the project.
As Goerlitz sees it, he is doing the city a service by purchasing the empty buildings and pouring what he says will be $20 million in renovations into them. Without the former synagogue building, he said, his plans are a no-go.
“If the Jewish community had applied for [all three buildings], they would have gotten it,” he said. “Of course you can say it would have been a good idea to reestablish the community at that place.” But the city needs money and investment, he said, which the Jewish community is unable to provide.
But there are dissenting voices within city leadership.
“It’s not just an economic question, it’s a moral question, it’s a historical question,” said Uwe Diederichs-Seidel, a member of the city council who is in the opposition Green Party. “If there hadn’t been the Holocaust, then there’d be a synagogue there and we’d have a Jewish community here. They’re the heirs to the German Jewish community.”
Petra Krischok contributed to this report.