This rabbi is joining the German army, 90 years after Hitler expelled Jewish soldiers

Rabbi Zsolt Balla will be the German military's first chief rabbi in almost nine decades.

Berlin (CNN)During Germany's Covid-19 lockdown, Rabbi Zsolt Balla earned a devoted online following, live-streaming prayer services on Facebook.

Now, as the country begins to open up, he's taking on a previously unimaginable job as the German military's chief rabbi -- its first in almost 90 years, since Adolf Hitler expelled Jews from the armed forces in the 1930s.
All this, and he didn't even know he was Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor until he was nine.
    A rabbi proudly joining the German army eight decades after the Nazis orchestrated the Holocaust is a hugely symbolic moment for the Jewish community.
      Balla will be sworn in at a synagogue in Leipzig, eastern Germany, on Monday; officials hope his appointment will highlight the open and diverse face of the country's modern-day armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
      But it comes against the backdrop of a series of far-right extremist scandals within the German military and police in recent years, and amid rising levels of anti-Semitism across the country.
      Last year the military's elite commando force -- known as KSK -- was partially disbanded after a report found far-right extremism within its ranks, though Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced on Tuesday that the reformed unit will continue, despite calls for its dissolution.
        A separate elite state police unit -- called SEK -- was dissolved last week after its officers were alleged to have glorified the Nazis in an online chat group.
        This photo postcard, issued around 1915 to 1916, shows military Jewish chaplain Dr. Jacob Sänger (middle). A Catholic and Protestant clergyman stand either side.
        "I think every responsible person should be worried about this issue," Balla, 42, said of extremism in Germany's armed forces.
        Military rabbis will not "solve every single problem within one week," he told CNN by phone from his Leipzig home. But, he added: "We have to work with a vision for the future, of how we want German society and the Bundeswehr to look like in a decade."
        Balla will eventually be one of up to 10 rabbis providing pastoral care for the estimated 80 to 300 Jewish soldiers currently serving in the Bundeswehr. The estimates are based on voluntary disclosures.
        Much like Christian chaplains, the rabbis will hold religious services and offer counselling -- open to soldiers of all faiths -- in what Balla hopes will be "part of the ethical education of all the soldiers in the Bundeswehr." There are currently Catholic, Protestant and, from Monday, Jewish chaplains in the German military.

        Not the same Germany

        The last time rabbis were part of Germany's armed forces was during World War I, when around 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the country.
        Jews were banned from serving in the military shortly after Hitler assumed power in 1933, as part of the Nazis' early efforts to remove them from public life.
        After the crimes of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-era military, no Jewish person could imagine serving in the German army, says Anthony Kauders, a professor who specializes in German-Jewish modern history at the UK's Keele University. Those who continued to live in what he called Germany's "blood-soaked land" in the aftermath of World War II were even considered "traitors" by some Jews elsewhere, he says.
        In the immediate post-war years, a divided Germany opted for a culture of silence around its Nazi-era atrocities, but in recent decades this has shifted to a culture of remembrance -- "Erinnerungskultur" -- which sees schoolchildren educated about the horrors of the Holocaust from an early age.
        Balla says there is an "understanding that Germany really did its best among European countries to face and confront its past, and I think it should be acknowledged."
        That doesn't mean "everything is perfect," he says, pointing to the ongoing problem of anti-Semitism and hate crime in the country.
        But he believes the way to combat extremism is to work together. Germany's Jewish community "don't just want to shout about the bad things," he says. "We want to do our part."
        The "Jewish community has changed," Balla says, adding: "We understand that this is not the same Germany."
        A post-World War II displaced persons camp football team, in Berlin 1949.