Aufbau Must Relocate or Close

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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For the Jewish immigrants who founded the German-language newspaper Aufbau in 1934, America represented the future and Germany the past. Things certainly have changed.

Just days after the Jewish newspaper’s 70th-anniversary issue was published last week, editors said the paper’s financial situation in America had grown so tenuous that it faced the stark choice of either shutting its doors or moving to Germany in hopes of finding a new sponsor and new readers.

“The soil is tough in America for our little seedling,” said Andreas Mink, Aufbau’s editor. “In Germany now, the environment for a Jewish paper is much more positive.”

The New York offices may produce one more issue of the biweekly newspaper, said Mink, but after that, the money will run out. Negotiations are under way with the Berlin Jewish community to join forces with its Jewish newspaper, Juedisches Berlin, which would make Aufbau, at least partly, into the local Jewish paper it never was. But it is either that, or the end.

Aufbau, which means “construction” in German, was founded by refugees fleeing the Nazis who wanted to help fellow newcomers adjust to life in the United States. Manfred George, the paper’s most storied editor, wrote that Aufbau “is an American paper in which American problems and the future in America are given first consideration.” Thanks to the highly educated German Jewish immigrants coming to New York, the paper also became known for serious writing from such big-name authors as Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt.

But the paper never outgrew its original immigrant readership, and as those immigrants have passed away in recent years, the circulation has gone with them. In the 1990s, the German-language paper began publishing some articles in English in an effort to attract a younger audience, but the circulation did not rise much above the current figure of 5,000.

The declining fortunes of the paper caused heated debate as staffers discussed the way forward, according to Talia Bloch, one of two editors of English-language material, who stands to lose her job in the upcoming move.

“A few of us felt that we should move to even more English,” said Bloch. “This was a paper founded by immigrants, and so the natural audience was the children and grandchildren of those immigrants.”

But Mink felt otherwise. In 2001, a few years after the transition to a bilingual paper, Aufbau established its first German office, in Berlin. The growing reader base in Germany since then has, in part, reflected the growing interest in Jewish history and culture among non-Jewish Germans — a trend that is exemplified by Mink, who is himself a non-Jewish German with an obvious interest in all things Jewish.

But the paper also found new readers among the growing Russian-Jewish immigrant population in Germany — a community that has grown by more than 80,000 in the past decade and is underserved by local Jewish institutions. Moving to Germany would allow Aufbau, a paper that was originally dedicated to cultivating the Jewish roots of an immigrant community, to return to that project, albeit in a decidedly different setting.

Shifting the paper’s main office to Germany — leaving only a small satellite office operating in New York — would involve some serious compromises for the paper. For instance, in New York, Aufbau has been funded by an independent not-for-profit trust, while in Germany it would become dependent on the organized Jewish community for its funding.

Still, appealing to this new German audience rather than the old American audience makes sense, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“The world does not need another English-language paper,” Sarna said. “In Germany, on the other hand, there is a growing community that is underserviced by Jewish periodicals. No paper can last long on nostalgia.”

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