Second Life

A storied German-language newspaper remakes itself as a magazine

Even in this era of editorial reinvention, few media outlets have remade themselves as completely as the legendary German-language newspaper Aufbau.

Founded in 1934, the publication’s mission was to help Jewish refugees and their children shed their European past and rebuild their lives in the United States. It was, in the words of longtime editor Manfred George, “an American paper, written and published in America” and “firmly faced toward our American future.” Not anymore. Aufbau has traded in its storied newsprint and remade itself as a glossy monthly magazine based not in America, but in Europe.

Aufbau’s turnabout is part of a larger geographic shift. America was once the thriving hub of the German-speaking Jewry, but that community’s numbers have dwindled in recent years. Meanwhile, central Europe is seeing a resurgence of Jewish life, especially in Germany, where the Jewish population has climbed from about 28,000 in 1990 to around 200,000 today.

Besides relocating, Aufbau has shaken up its editorial mix, with topics ranging from climate change in Papua New Guinea to the gritty vocal rumblings of Amy Winehouse, the troubled pop diva. Yves Kugelmann, Aufbau’s editor, says the goal is to reach those newcomers to the European Jewish scene who don’t fit neatly into long-standing German-speaking congregations: “We want to speak to those who are crossing boundaries—physical, cultural, intellectual—rather than being content to live in a ghetto.”

Aufbau began as the newsletter of the German-Jewish Club of New York. In its pages, immigrants found apartments and jobs, Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion tables, and help unraveling the rules of baseball. Later, they also found pressing news. Aufbau was among the first papers to report on Hitler’s death camps, and among its regular contributors were influential thinkers like Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Einstein.

After the war, Aufbau helped scattered families connect by listing survivors’ names, along with reams of obituaries. Many readers came to see the paper as one of the last fragile links to their former lives. It was, in the words of Hans Habe, a Jewish Austrian writer, a “communal diary” for Europe’s uprooted Jews. As the war years receded, Aufbau tried to stay relevant with topics like Holocaust reparations. But its mortality was tied to that of its readers. By 2004, circulation had fallen from a high of 70,000 to just 2,500, according to its editors, and advertising had dried up.

That year, JM Jüdische Medien AG, a chain of Jewish newspapers based in Zurich, rescued the historic title. Aufbau’s storied Manhattan offices were shuttered, its dusty Rolodexes and teletypes donated to museums. The following year it was reborn as a Zurich-based magazine. The circulation has since doubled to 5,000, with 10,000 more unique readers online each month.

Echoes of the old traditions live on in Aufbau’s pages. Many articles focus on migration or the mingling of cultures, and the Holocaust still looms faintly in the background. One recent story questioned whether lawyers were profiteering from reparations claims. Aufbau also holds true to its U.S. roots, with regular features on the U.S. and articles by well-known Americans, among them Al Gore and the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.

The tradition of service, though, and the deep bond with readers, have waned. “For many people Aufbau was part of the family,” editor Kugelmann says. “That has changed. But then so has the rest of the world.”

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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.