Skip to main content

“Quota Refugees:” Russian-Speaking Immigrants to Germany

Between 1991 and 2005, Jews and people of Jewish descent from the territories of the former Soviet Union were entitled to immigrate to Germany by claiming what was known as “quota refugee” status.

The immigration of Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union marked a major turning point in the post-1945 history of Jewish life in Germany. In the successor states of the Soviet Union, Jewishness was considered a nationality, not a religion. All Soviet citizens had been prohibited from the exercise of religion. Jewish religious practices were therefore unfamiliar to most Russian-speaking Jews who had been born in the Soviet Union.

Thus, the new immigrants arrived with passports marked “Yevrey” and a Soviet variety of Judiasm. And ever since the 1990s, they have altered and enriched Jewish communities in Germany, which saw major growth as a result but also faced significant challenges.

The relationship between long-established residents and newcomers has not been without tension. For example, in the USSR, the nationality of “Yevrey” was passed down from a father to his children – in contrast to Jewish religious law, which considers Jewishness to be inherited through the maternal line. The children of many immigrant families are so-called “paternal Jews.” This leads to clashes with institutional Jewish communities that abide by religious law.

Hands holding a book with an inscription in the Cyrillic and Hebrew alphabets

Anatol Benjamin Schapiro brought this very old Hebrew-Russian dictionary to tell his migration story for the Object Days project (learn more); Jewish Museum Berlin; photo: Stephan Pramme.

There are also differences between long-established German Jews and more recent arrivals when it comes to remembrance and commemoration. While 9 November is the most important anniversary for the Jewish community of the former West Germany, Russian-speaking immigrants prefer to commemorate 9 May, the day of Germany’s unconditional surrender and the anniversary of the Red Army’s triumph, which Soviet-Jewish soldiers shared with the entire Soviet Union.

Today, those who arrived in Germany as children or teenagers or were born here are integrated into German society, educated, and politically and culturally active. Especially in literature, younger authors have been particularly prolific. In part, their work offers literary reflections on their own migration stories that underscore the group’s polyphony.

Unlike the ethnic German repatriates from the former Soviet Union, “quota refugees” were not granted German citizenship automatically, but were permitted to apply for it after a certain amount of time had passed. They were eligible for work permits, social security benefits, and “integration assistance” such as a free language course and help with finding housing.

Hands holding a photo of a man wearing a uniform adorned with many ribbons and medals.

“They call me a ‘hero of the Soviet Union.’” Lev Agranovich, who immigrated to Germany in 1991, has been decorated with twenty-eight honors and medals (learn more); Jewish Museum Berlin; photo: Stephan Pramme.

A compasses case, a child's painting, a kosher pan—what do these exhibition objects tell us about the migration experiences of Jews who came to Germany from the former Soviet Union? Theresia Ziehe, a curator of the new core exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin, talks about a daughter's longing gaze backwards and a woman's sense of connection to religious tradition in her family; Jewish Museum Berlin 2020. More videos with Our Stories

When the Immigration Act of 1 January 2005 went into effect, the Quota Refugee Act lapsed. In 2007, the further admittance of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union was resolved, albeit with stricter requirements than before.

Share, Newsletter, Feedback

Cover with collage showing a chaotic crowd of different people

Contemporary Russian-Jewish Life in Germany

available in hardcover & open-access editions, in German

Online Publication
2015

The tattoo artist Myra Brodsky

Kosher Portraits

Among the people portrayed in this photo series are many Russian-speaking Jews.

Photo Project
2019

Blue and white tea bowl, inside with gold rim

About a Tea Bowl

Interwoven experiences of post-Soviet Jewish migration, in German

Video Recording
27 Nov 2019

Exhibition space with numerous screens on the walls, each of which shows a person looking at the visitor.

After 1945

This tour through our core exhibition comprises the section about Russian-speaking immigration from 1990 onwards.

Guided Tour
By appointment

Heritage of Religion in Migration Societies

Interpretations: On the Transformation of Religious Objects

Online workshop
Sat 12 Sep 2020, 1 pm

Book cover with illustration of a laid table and the title: “Everyday Realities. Russian-Speaking Jews in German Immigrant Society”

Everyday Realities

Russian-Speaking Jews in German Immigrant Society by Karen Körber and Andreas Gotzmann, available in hardcover & open-access editions, in German

Publication
2021

Russians Jews Germans

Photographs by Michael Kerstgens from 1992 to the Present

Exhibition
20 Apr to 26 Aug 2012

“Everyday Realities: Contemporary Jewish Life in Germany”

Fellow Dr. Karen Körber researched the transformation of the local Jewish community.

Fellow
2012–2014

Russians Jews Germans

Publication accompanying the exhibition Russians Jews Germans. Photographs by Michael Kerstgens from 1992 to the Present

Publication
2012

Our Contemporary History Collection

Holdings regarding the immigration of Russian-speaking Jews to reunified Germany, among other topics.

All About ...

Object Days

Memorabilia and migration stories – portraits of Jews living in Germany

Photo Project
2017