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Iconic Jewish publication revived in Zurich

The editorial office in New York closed last summer (Aufbau)

Saved from financial collapse by a Swiss publishing house, an American-Jewish newspaper has found new life in Zurich.

Founded in New York in 1934 by German-speaking refugees, Aufbau, or "Reconstruction", was a guiding light for Jewish immigrants trying to integrate into American society.

Beyond practical information about life in their new homeland, the paper featured articles by German luminaries, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.

In its heyday Aufbau boasted a circulation of 100,000 – an impressive achievement for a newspaper that subsisted entirely on donations. But as the decades passed, the publication failed to adapt to a different spirit of the times and to a readership whose needs had changed.

When its current editor Yves Kugelmann, 33, began researching a profile of Aufbau on its 70th anniversary, he realized with shock that the tradition-rich newspaper was on its last legs.

Circulation had dwindled to about 4,500, and Aufbau's small staff was struggling with antiquated technology and sketchy funding.

"I realized that I was witnessing the end of Aufbau, not writing a celebratory piece," Kugelmann told swissinfo.

In Zurich, he asked René and Susanne Braginsky, part owners of JM Jüdisches Medien AG, or Jewish Media, to consider buying the publication.

Jewish society

They obliged, and soon after Aufbau was relocated to Zurich, where it was reworked as a Europe-oriented monthly magazine and website focused on modern Jewish society.

Almost a year passed between publication of the last issue in New York, and the first in Zurich, but in February 2005, the first edition of the new Aufbau rolled off the presses.

In keeping with the old Aufbau tradition of soliciting contributions from established writers and well-known people, the February issue featured articles by the author A.B. Yehosha and former German president Johannes Rau.

But the new Aufbau is resolutely modern. Recent or upcoming articles tackle issues such as dialogue among religions and cultures, divisions in Israeli society, integrating Russian Jews in Germany, and human rights.

Einstein, a naturalised Swiss and perhaps the most famous Jewish resident of Switzerland ever, was the subject of the March issue.

Unlikely location

Switzerland may seem an unlikely location for a new German-language publication devoted to covering modern Jewry, given that only 18,000 Jews live in the country - 61 per cent in German-speaking Switzerland and 36 per cent in the French-speaking part.

Moreover, the number of Swiss Jews has remained stable for decades. The population swelled briefly during the Second World War, but of the 25,000 who were given refuge most later left.

By contrast, the Jewish population in Germany is growing exponentially. In the 1990s, tens of thousands of Jews, mostly Russian speakers, settled in the country after immigration laws were eased following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the publishing house is based in Zurich, the magazine’s philosophy is international. But the Swiss Jewish perspective is unique, according to Kugelmann, who grew up with a French father and Swiss mother in Basel, which has borders with Germany and France.

Persecution

"There are enormous differences between Swiss Jews and those in Germany and Austria, due to the lack of persecution in Switzerland during the war," said Kugelmann. "The sheer continuity of Swiss Jewry is unique and has fostered a different mindset."

Swiss neutrality is also a plus in reportages abroad, he says.

Most importantly, a base in Zurich allows Aufbau to share infrastructure with its parent organisation and thus keep costs down. Aufbau funds itself through advertising and subscriptions.

Ninety per cent of Aufbau’s readers are outside Switzerland, its dominant markets being the US and Germany. The magazine wants to beef up its presence in Austria and Switzerland and is also hoping to attract non-Jewish readers, especially young people who have an interest in all things Jewish.

Most surprising to Aufbau’s multinational staff was the outpouring of positive responses from US readers. "We were astonished," said Kugelmann. "We’ve had all these 80-year-olds sending us their registration by email."

Key facts

The Jewish population in Switzerland is 18,000, or 0.2% of the population.
61% live in the German-speaking area, 36% live in the French-speaking part, 3% in the Italian-speaking part.
All religious communities, including Jews, were granted full rights under the 1874 Constitution.
Switzerland was one of the first countries to have a Jewish president, Ruth Dreifuss, in 1999.

end of infobox

In brief

Aufbau was founded in New York in 1934.

It helped Jewish immigrants integrate in the US.

It was one of the most important Jewish publications in the world.

end of infobox

swissinfo.ch


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