'I was afraid I'd be treated like a murderer'
In the school where 27-year-old Theresa Bauerlein, from Bonn, studied, there were two subjects that were spoken about as if they were holy: sex and the Holocaust. But while she could speak about the first openly with her mother, she says that "it was very difficult to speak at home" about the Holocaust. Today, as a columnist at a number of serious German newspapers (including Sud-Deutsche Zeitung), it is a great deal easier for her to speak openly about everything, including sex ("They wanted to turn me into the German Carrie Bradshaw") and the Holocaust.Bauerlein's semi-autobiographical first work, Das war der Gute Teil des Tages ("That Was the Good Part of the Day") tells the story of a German girl with a Holocaust complex, who falls in love with an Israeli; he wants to leave his country "because of the situation," and convinces her to marry him so he can get a German passport.
"This is a book that speaks about Germany, about Israel and about the Holocaust from the point of view of today, not from that which we studied at school," she explains. Our conversation is taking place in a typical Tel Aviv apartment, near Sheinkin Street, which she has been sharing during the past few months with her Israeli boyfriend, Tom Shinan, also 27 (a writer for the "Eretz nehederet" - "Wonderful Country" satirical TV program) and his roommate Arik ("who also had a German girlfriend once")."Both of us grew up with the trauma, but we feel stronger than history," she says of her relationship with Shinan. "In Israel, the third generation [after the Holocaust] grew up with a feeling of victimization, while in Germany we grow up as murderers." She explains that the gap between victim and hangman, as she puts it, is bridged by their love.Bauerlein met Shinan two years ago during a trip to Guatemala. "I went up to him in the hostel and asked him what his name was," she says, describing the moment they met. "When he said it was Tom, like the name of the hero in the book I was writing then, it was clear to me that there was more than a mere coincidence there."
She had gotten to know Israel a few years earlier in the midst of the second intifada, when she worked as a volunteer in a home for autistic people in Tel Aviv.
Already on the last Holocaust Remembranc Day she was in Israel and stood at attention during the siren, in the Tel Aviv apartment. "I feel at home here, it's fun here," she says. But she hastens to add: "It's also a little exhausting" The national anthem, the flags and the siren during the moment of silence made her feel a little uneasy.
"In Germany, there are things like that only at a football field and not outside of it. Anyone who walks around with a flag and sings the anthem is immediately cataloged as being a right-wing extremist."
The air force fly-over on Independence day, which took place right above her, also scared her a bit. "It sounded like a war. I didn't believe the army was holding a show like that, but everyone thought it was something completely normal," the young writer says.
Like the heroine of her book, Bauerlein also suffers from what she calls "a guilt complex." "They constantly told us about the Holocaust at school. It's not easy. There are young pupils in the classroom who are the third generation, and the teacher explains that we have a responsibility for everything that happened and that we must take pains to ensure it won't recur," she explains, adding that the reactions in the classroom were divided in two. "There are some who immediately feel guilty and whenever a tone of criticism is voiced against Israel on any subject, they rush to stop the discussion. And there are those who shut their ears and say: 'We have no connection with what happened.'"
One of her most difficult moments with Shinan was when he met her grandmother, who is over 90, in Germany. "She was very wary about the meeting. She always told us - and I believe her - that she was a housewife in the village during the Nazi era and didn't have anything to do with politics, which in those days was a man's affair. But now she is ashamed that she didn't do something," Bauerlein says, noting that in the end, things went smoothly.
The encounter between Bauerlein and Shinan's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who was in the Theresienstadt camp and today lives in Tivon, was no less emotionally charged: "We sat in the living room and spoke German. She was very happy to meet me and was very nice. I was afraid she would accuse me of what had happened, but we had a person-to-person talk, and in the end she told Tom she understands that I'm not responsible for what happened to her."
The jokes about the Holocaust helped to break the ice. "I couldn't believe it was happening. When I came to Israel, I was afraid they would treat me like a murderer, and suddenly I saw that Tom was telling jokes about the subject. In Germany it's completely taboo," she says.For instance, when Shinan showed her his kitchen and saw that she liked the gas stove, he said to her: "It's obvious that you would like gas, you're German aren't you?" She didn't like the nickname he gave her, however, when he first met her - "Theresienstadt, because it sounds like Theresa."
She also found it difficult to swallow the way they portrayed Avigdor Lieberman in "Wonderful Country": "He lifted his arm and said 'Heil Lieberman.' That would not have gone across well in Germany. I thought that in Israel in particular there would be a great deal less tolerance toward that kind of thing. In Germany, anything that smells a little of xenophobia immediately becomes a forbidden subject, both in school and at home. Here I discovered that laughing at the Holocaust sometimes is a good way of dealing with it. After all, it's not possible to cry all the time."
Her experiences with Shinan also appear in her book. "I wanted to share my experience," explains Bauerlein. In the book, as in her daily life, the Holocaust is constantly in the background, despite the fact that this is not a book about the Holocaust at all, but about the shared life of a young Israeli and a young German.