The Nine Lives of the Lorenz Cafe

Adi Schwartz
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Adi Schwartz

Like a stubborn and battle-scarred Prussian sergeant, the two-story house stands on 57 Eilat Street in Tel Aviv. Its days of glory are behind it, and nobody in the neighborhood appreciates it any more. All its decorations have been removed: The windows on the second floor are exposed to the wind, two rusty eaves twist on its facade like huge snakes, and the entrance is blocked with bricks. On the eastern side of the house, which faces Chelouche Street, there is a drawing of a red mermaid, wearing a lascivious expression. The recently built cement Neve Tzedek Towers look down from above, and a merciless traffic jam blocks the busy street.

This urban mix, which is so Israeli, conceals a historical and cultural gem. The first floor of this house was once the site of the Lorenz Cafe, one of the most popular meeting places in Tel Aviv during the first half of the 20th century. Author S.Y. Agnon used to sit here, and the local Rotary Club held its regular meetings here every week. The building, which was built by members of a Protestant sect who hoped to speed the advent of the Messiah, turned into a place of entertainment over the years, perhaps the only one in the city with real German beer on tap, and ended its life as the first home of the Soldiers' Welfare Association in Tel Aviv.

Since the mid-1970s, when the new Beit Hahayal (Soldiers' House) was built near Kikar Hamedina, this building has been deserted. At a certain point, the Tel Aviv Municipality was planning to demolish the entire area in order to pave an expressway. But meanwhile the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, at the cafe's north, began to flourish. Cafes and galleries cropped up on every corner, the prices of land in the area skyrocketed, and real estate entrepreneurs began to fight like sharks over one lot after another. The houses in the area, including the Lorenz Cafe, became a popular item. Only a stubborn battle by several preservation groups, seeking to prevent the erasure of the area's unique historical character in favor of huge high-rises, managed to rescue some of the houses.

Now it's the Lorenz Cafe's turn. The place will be renovated and restored, and will serve as the Schechter Center for Jewish Culture in Neve Tzedek. The project will cost an estimated $3 million, and will be funded by donations from abroad raised by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies; also participating are the Masorti (Conservative) movement, the Iyun Academy for Jewish studies and Kehillat Sinai. The place will include a kindergarten, a synagogue, study rooms, an art gallery and a cafe. The renovation itself will be done by Kimmel Eshkolot Architects.

It too will be a very Israeli mix: A house built by German Christians, a meeting place for Jews and Arabs during the Mandate period, and for Nazi Party members during the 1930s, will become a Jewish cultural center. And of the Conservative community, yet.

German order

The house on 57 Eilat Street was built by the Templers, an evangelical Christian sect founded in southern Germany in the mid-19th century. The members of the sect yearned for the Holy Land, and their intention was to prepare people for the End of Days. In 1868 the first two Templer colonies were established in Palestine - in Haifa and Jaffa - followed by Sharona (now next to where the Kirya military complex sits in Tel Aviv), Wilhelma (today Bnei Atarot), Bethlehem in the Galilee, Waldheim (today Alonei Abba), and a subsidiary of the colony in Jaffa, called Valhalla, where the Lorenz Cafe was located.

Historian Dr. Michal Oren, from the school for Land of Israel Studies in the Schechter Institute, points out that the meaning of the neighborhood's name is "the paradise of the gods," an important place in German and Nordic mythology, which marks the resting place of dead fighters, where the god Odin entertains them with rich meals of wild boar and goat's milk liquor until the end of days.

Community member Franz Lorenz was the first to buy land in the neighborhood, in 1886. He bought three lots, on one of which stood an Arab house (55 Eilat Street) where his family lived until he built a home.

The house had one story, and only after Franz's death in 1909 did his son Kurt add a second floor. Over time, other houses were built in the neighborhood, as well as the German Consulate (on 59 Eilat Street) and the Wagner engine manufacturing plant, which was one of the first industrial plants in the country and in 1913 employed more than 100 workers.

Many consider the Templers to be responsible for bringing technology to Palestine, in architecture, agriculture and industry, and as a symbol of progress and modernity. In Yehuda v'Yerushalayim, the newspaper of Yoel Moshe Salomon, he himself wrote about the Templer colonies: "We have also noticed the colonies established over the past few years by the Germans from Wittenburg (not of our people) and their homes are built in good order, as in all the cities of Europe, with wide streets and magnificent buildings, so that anyone who walks along their streets will forget that he is walking in the country of the soul, and will feel as though he is in one of the populated cities of Europe."

Writer Zev Smilansky, the father of writer S. Yizhar, in 1905 described the Valhalla neighborhood, and compared it to the Jewish neighborhoods in Jaffa: "When we passed the small neighborhood of Germans built opposite Neve Tzedek, we enjoyed seeing pretty houses built in good taste ... as compared to our arrival in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jaffa, we felt sorrow. How poor are your tents, O Jacob, and how goodly are the dwellings of the Germans."

According to Oren, the Templers did not copy the design of their homes in Palestine from Germany. Their goal was to promote the material situation of the country by teaching methods of work and construction, but insofar as possible with local materials. The houses, two- or three-story buildings on an average area of 300-400 square meters, with flat roofs, were usually built with local stone. The Lorenz house itself was among the first in the area to be illuminated by electric light, by means of a private generator. Shai Farkash, an entrepreneur who is involved in restoration and who helped to prepare the building's documentation, discovered electricity was installed during the 1920s.

The cafe first opened at 55 Eilat Street, and later in the new house at 57 Eilat. The cafe operated on the ground floor adjacent to Chelouche Street, whereas the kitchen was in the western rooms. In his book "Tmol Shilshom" ("Only Yesterday") Agnon mentioned the cafe: "And when Orgelbrand is feeling good, he invites Yitzhak to the Lorenz Cafe ... most of whose customers are Germans ... and Jews who come there also want a break from business matters. Orgelbrand orders a glass of whiskey or a glass of punch for his guest, and for himself he orders a cup of tea and drinks two or three drops and puts it aside, because these Germans who are experts at everything don't know how to make tea."

The Lorenz Cafe also played an important role in the history of cinema in the country. The newspaper Hatzvi reported in 1909, "In the halls of Masters Lorenz and Schinkel, films are screened regularly." According to the building's preservation file, which was prepared before the restoration, in 1925 the Kessem cinema opened on the second floor of the building, and was run by Yerushalayim Segal. The silent films screened there were accompanied by talking and piano playing by a member of the Templer community, David Ettinger.

Fading glory

The Lorenz Cafe's location, on the main road heading north from Jaffa, quickly turned it into a very convenient meeting place. After the first neighborhoods of Tel Aviv were built in 1909, and as the city continued to develop, the Lorenz Cafe was a landmark between Arab Jaffa and Jewish Tel Aviv, more or less at the midway point. The newspapers of the time are full of references to the cafe: houses for rent "next to the Lorenz Cafe," meetings and lectures, official receptions and notices about evenings of dancing in the cafe's Palm Courtyard.

A notice in the Palestine Post from August 13, 1937 presented a new menu for the restaurant: chicken soup, asparagus in butter sauce, filet steak, fries with salad, and Turkish coffee. Real beer from Munich would be served on tap, and all this for 150 mils. Evidence of the mixed crowd there can be seen in a notice in the same newspaper from February 17, 1936: "A cafe in Jaffa was attacked: A group of about 40 young people and two women, dressed in the clothes of Brit Trumpeldor ('Betarists') yesterday broke into the Lorenz Cafe and caused significant damage. Windows were shattered and furniture was broken ... The reason was apparently a fight that broke out at the entrance to the cafe between Betar members and plainclothes British officers." Five months earlier, in September 1935, a complaint was filed against the owner of the cafe for serving alcohol after 9 P.M., in violation of his business license. Frederic Kish, a member of the Zionist movement, spoke in November 1935 at 1:30 PM about "The Peace Convention and the League of Nations."

But alongside the flourishing cultural institution, in the 1930s Nazi propaganda began to filter into the Templer colonies. A branch of the Nazi Party was established in Haifa, and swastikas were hung on houses and cars. In 1934 the Templers decided not to rent apartments to Jews and to greet one another with a Nazi salute. At the Lorenz Cafe, Herta Wieland spoke about "Danzig and the East Germany," the first in a series of lectures about the renewed German nationalism. A week later, to the sound of cheers, the swastika flag was raised over the nearby German Consulate building.

In 1935 there were 250 members of the Nazi Party in Palestine, and in January 1938 the number had grown to 330 (17 percent of German nationals in Palestine). But the outbreak of World War II was the beginning of the end of Templer settlement in Palestine. The British government declared them enemy nationals, and they were placed under arrest in the colonies of Waldheim and Sharona, or were sent to the detention camp in Atlit. In the summer of 1941, 665 detainees were expelled to Australia, with 1,052 remaining in the detention camps in Palestine.

The Jewish community did not forgive the Templers for the Nazi period, and after the establishment of the State, in May 1948, the last of the Templers were exiled to Australia. The Knesset German Property Law determined that German property in Israel would not return to its owners, but excluded property that had served directly for religious purposes. In the end, says Dr. Oren, due to international pressure involved in reaching the reparations agreement with West Germany, Israel agreed to pay for the non-religious property it had nationalized: 32 dunams in Jaffa, including in the Valhalla neighborhood (46 lots) and about 1,700 dunams in Sharona. Most of the property was secular, and therefore for the most part it was supposed to come into Israeli hands in return for payment. In order to prevent private lawsuits, Israel preferred to conduct concentrated negotiations, which continued until June 1962. In an arbitration agreement, Israel was obliged to pay 54 million DM, which were deducted from the reparations payments.

The story was still not over. Early in 1949 the Soldiers' Welfare Association received the house from the custodian general. On August 7 of that year, in the presence of the first chief of staff, Yaakov Dori, the temporary president Yoseph Sprinzak and mayor Yisrael Rokach, the official opening of a Soldiers' Welfare Association branch took place in the Palm Garden of the Lorenz Cafe; the branch included a restaurant, a barber shop, a clubroom, a culture room, and the association's main bakery. The place also hosted parties for military units and was rented out for private events such as weddings. Every Wednesday the program for soldiers, "Noah's Ark," was broadcast from the building.

But the glory days of the neighborhood and the cafe were a thing of the past. Oren says that the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, including Neve Tzedek, the Templer Colony and Jaffa, suffered from neglect and from social and economic problems. Poverty spread, crime increased and the beautiful buildings, testimony to the fascinating past, began to disintegrate. After the new Soldiers' House opened in 1965, the place suffered another blow. There was no more need for the branch on Eilat Street, and it was closed in the late 1970s. Since then, the house on the corner of Eilat and Chelouche streets has been abandoned.

Until one day Roberto Arbiv, a Masorti rabbi who lives in Neve Tzedek, passed by. Arbiv heads the Iyun Academy, which is trying to teach Jewish studies to as wide an audience as possible. Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, the president of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, says that in the wake of this, the Conservative Movement began to take an interest in the house, and five years ago won the tender issued by the Tel Aviv Municipality. Now that the Schechter Institute has raised the money, the plan will get underway within a few months, and is scheduled to be concluded in 2009.

Meanwhile someone wrote a simple graffiti slogan on the wall: "Am Yisrael Hai" (the Jewish people live).