Blame It on Berlin

In recent years, increasing numbers of young Israelis have been learning German and spending extended periods of time studying and working in Germany, despite the painful history of that country and the Jews

Anat Balint
Anat Balint
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Anat Balint
Anat Balint

Dor Glick, 24, fondly remembers Friday mornings. In recent years he has devoted those morning hours, which for many Tel Aviv residents are a time for sitting in cafes, to German-language lessons in the city's Goethe Institute. Starting in his second year of military service with Army Radio, Glick received special permission to attend classes once a week at the institute, where he discovered "a wonderful mix of older students who came to study the language mainly because of family ties," and "young people like me who are attracted to the language."

Young people gather in a bar at Berlin's Kreuzberg district on January 9, 2010. Credit: Reuters

Meanwhile, Glick's interest in German, sparked by his participation as a teenager in a youth delegation visit to Germany, has become a central part of his life. Immediately after his discharge from the army, he went on a month-long vacation to Berlin, and then stayed on for an additional month devoted to intensive language study, thanks to a stipend he received from the Goethe Institute. Two years later, he received another stipend, this one named for the late German-Jewish journalist Ernst Cramer, and worked for three months at the foreign news desk of the daily Die Welt in the German capital.

Though he only recently returned home, full of experiences and impressions from the world of German journalism, Glick is ready to pack his bags again. This time, his plan is to stay in Berlin for three months to study the language and work as a journalist. He is also thinking of beginning his bachelor's degree next year at the Free University of Berlin.

There are four classes offered in parallel at the German cultural institute in Tel Aviv, each offering a different level of language instruction. The Goethe classes are not large, but they are full and the presence of young people - many of them having just completed their military service - is prominent. For example, Talia Richter, 21, was born in Germany, lived there for several years and is thinking of continuing her studies, toward a master's degree, there; Gal Moran, 19, and Avi Ingber, 22, tell a similar story - their families lived in Germany in the past and they are thinking of returning there to study and work.

Gal Toren, 23, first visited Germany as part of a youth exchange program between twin cities: "I was in Berlin for two years and was attracted by the language, people's accents. In Israel people don't like German. The connotation is understandable, but behind the accent there are people who speak pleasantly and live normal lives."

"I like the sound of German," adds Glick. "It's a pretty language and it's not frightening, with all my awareness of the connotations. I'm the third generation of a family of Holocaust survivors. The members of the second generation are very put off by German, but it's interesting that the survivors themselves are happy to hear me speaking the language that's connected to their childhood. I haven't encountered any survivors who are deterred by my German - on the contrary. It's an interesting generation gap."

Actress Hadas Calderon, a member of the third generation of Holocaust survivors, grew up in an environment where German was taboo and the idea of visiting Germany was inconceivable. In spite of that, in recent years she found herself studying German regularly, and even traveling to Germany to stage a joint production of Israeli and German actors that deals with the personal stories of each of them, all members of the third generation. The play, "They Call Me Yekke" (a term referring to Jews from German-speaking countries), is the product of cooperation between Tel Aviv's Beit Lessin Theater and the Heidelberg Theater. Calderon describes herself as belonging to the generation that serves as "a memorial candle, in spite of itself." Her grandfather was the noted Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, who died three months ago at the age of 97. Sutzkever, an Israel Prize laureate, was a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a partisan, and served as a witness at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

The flourishing of Berlin as the youthful, lively and inexpensive capital of Europe, combined with the activity of many German foundations in Israel, is causing a redefinition of the attitude of young Israelis toward Germany. One clear sign of this tendency can be found in the statistics supplied by the Goethe Institute, which is responsible for disseminating German language and culture in many countries worldwide. The Israel branch of the nonprofit organization has registered a slow but steady increase in the number of German-language students during the past three years. By last summer their ranks had reached about 500, up from 450 in 2007. That is not a sharp increase, but it is indicative of a trend.

The local Berlitz Language Centers also report an increase in the number of Israelis studying German during the past decade. In 2000, for example, 200 students were studying German, and in 2004 the number reached 380. In the past year the number declined, apparently because of the recession, and totaled 260 students.

The Goethe Institute's most recent survey of its students showed that half were between the ages of 19 and 34, and that 43 percent said their principal motivation for learning the language was interest in German culture and the language itself.

Urban 'miracle'

The institute's director in Tel Aviv, Dr. Georg Blochmann, is not at all surprised by the findings. "There is definitely an increase in the popularity of German studies, a moderate and steady increase. The significant change that I see is in the objectives of those who come to us. Some are still studying German at advanced stages of their lives, after age 40, mainly because of family ties to the language, for example a childhood memory of a grandmother who read them fairy tales in German at bedtime. But at the same time, there's an increase in the number of young people with no connection to German, not even 12 generations back. They simply have an authentic interest in the language."

Blochmann also cites the flourishing of Berlin as a major factor in this change. "I'm 56 years old, a child born after the war. For me it's amazing that Berlin has become so popular among young people. In my childhood, it was New York: Life was there, that was the place of dreams and opportunities. Now Berlin has acquired that halo. There is currently a myth about Berlin - that everything's possible there."

He describes the fact that people view the German capital this way as a "miracle": "The stereotype of Germany is of an orderly country where everything has its place, and this undermines the opportunity for personal growth. But Berlin has become a destination for young people who want to celebrate their freedom. It enables an inexpensive life and it's a city with no particular format: It has a lot of niches and everyone can find his own there."

Blochmann notes that this perception developed slowly during the 1990s, but eight or nine years ago "reached a critical mass that turned Berlin into a destination for young people who are interested in an international atmosphere. In that sense, Berlin is also replacing India, which in the past was the meeting place for young people who wanted to learn about the world."

In addition to the young age of his institute's students, Blochmann also notes their high quality: "We should launch a creative project with our students. Many belong to the future elite - intellectuals, visual artists, musicians, actors ... and that doesn't include some students at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design] who attend the institute in Jerusalem. Some students belong to the business sector, but not a large group. I assume that in those circles the dominant language is English. Beyond the practical aspects, the study of German has become part of a lifestyle that relates to Berlin as a center - the 21st-century mecca of urban and creative life."

Behind the trend exists an informal financial network that fosters ties, via a large number of foundations in Israel. They create the means for individuals considered to be among the "young leadership" to connect with the culture of a country that wants to recreate itself. Some of the foundations represent German political parties, a phenomenon unique to German society, where each party receives a public budget, proportional to its parliamentary representation, for cultural and educational activity outside Germany.

One of the largest of these organizations here is the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which belongs to the Christian Democratic Union. In recent years, it has offered substantial support to projects related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to interfaith dialogue. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, affiliated to the Social Democratic Party, supports projects in the fields of education and civil society. The Liberal Party's Friedrich Naumann Foundation is involved in promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and the Heinrich Boell Foundation, which belongs to the Green Party, sponsors initiatives in the fields of human rights, ecology and democracy. The Left Party also recently expanded its activity in Israel.

At the same time there are unaffiliated groups, such as the German-Israeli Future Forum Foundation and the social foundation of the Bertelsmann Publishing Group. (This writer participated in one of the latter's programs for Israeli and German journalists. ) In addition to these there are many other projects, funded by special stipends granted by the Goethe Institute, the German Foreign Ministry and other government offices, as well as cooperative ventures between universities, research institutes and cultural institutions.

Limor Vides-Yoran, 31, says that her professional identity developed from studing German. She works as a manager of binational projects in the Israel-Germany Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Ramat Gan - the first Israeli to join the German professional staff there. The bureau is an Israeli nonprofit association, based in Tel Aviv and financed by the German government. It is involved in promoting cooperative business ventures between Israel and Germany, as well as mediating between companies and entrepreneurs in both countries.

Vides-Yoran began studying at the Goethe Institute at the age of 19, while doing her military service with Army Radio.

"I began studying out of love for German poetry and literature and my interest in history," she says. "I have no family connection to Germany, but the German story has always fascinated me. It contains all the interesting elements: terror and curiosity, cultural richness and acts of horror, the story of rebuilding a nation."

Vides-Yoran adds that she personally has not experienced the tension of feeling both attraction and repulsion when it comes to Germany. "For years I admired German culture, and I had no conflicts. I wanted to get closer to Germany. I think German's a very pretty language, and I love it. In German you 'chew' the words - talk with your entire mouth and soul. I was exposed to a complex culture. I met young people who are very aware of their past, and that impresses me. They are really confronting the past directly and taking responsibility. On the other hand, they also respect their culture."

'Love affair'

Nimrod Inbar, 35, a doctoral student in geophysics at Tel Aviv University, forged his connection with Germany when he received a six-month research stipend there. Later he found himself reading books in German, watching German films and gradually becoming aware of the relevance of Germany to his identity, and of the ties between Hebrew and German.

"It began with a project I was involved in that included Germans, Jordanians and Palestinians," he says. "Later I received a stipend to do an analysis of samplings from an oil drilling site in Germany. That was the scientific motivation. The stipend was the result of cooperation between the Israeli and German science ministries and involved an Israeli student who went to Germany and a German who came here.

"One professor there asked me why I didn't speak German. I told him that if he sent me to study German, I would do it. He found funding and I studied for three months. At the same time I was living among Germans and made friends. I started to discover all kinds of things, for example that my grandparents spoke Yiddish and German. I suddenly saw that there are lots of expressions and terms in Hebrew that come from German - for example, in the field of building - and there are many family names in Israel that are German in origin. It is a language that is an integral part of Hebrew and Israeli identity."

When Inbar returned to Israel, he took another course in German at the university. "At the moment I'm not studying German, but I'm trying to keep up my knowledge and I continue to read books and stories."

Eliana Schechter, 34, an actress and director, described her relationship with Germany as a "strange love affair." It began, she says, when she directed a play with students from Ironi Aleph High School in Tel Aviv, based on music written by prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia.

"Film director Yehuda (Judd) Neeman saw the play and was enthusiastic about it," says Schechter. "He suggested that we do a joint project with youth in Germany. The Conservatory of Music in Schwerin, in [the former] East Germany, paid for a large part of the expenses, together with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Recanati Foundation and some of the children's parents."

Later, Neeman created the documentary film "Zitra (Tomorrow): Of Truth and Reconciliation," which followed the students' joint work on the play, which tells the story of the imprisoned musicians in the camp.

From this point on, adds Schechter, her interest in German grew steadily. "It's like the tunnel into which Alice in Wonderland falls," she says. "The further you go into it, the more you are drawn by it. I don't come from a family with a Holocaust background, but I'm pulled to the story and it has preoccupied me from an early age."

Her initial visit was followed by another, for the staging of the play. She continued her language study back in Israel for over a year and a half and went to Berlin again, and for two months was studying German and working in fringe theater.

"It was fun," Schechter says. "I returned home and made a short film about five women who lived in the ghetto and I went to stage it in Berlin."

Ultimately, however, it "was already too much. I read Yoram Kaniuk's book 'The Last Berliner,' about his difficulty with being in Germany, and suddenly I couldn't be there any longer, I had an attack of hysteria. During the last visit I walked down the street and said - the paving stones here are bleeding, I can't be here ... On the one hand I'm dealing with the Holocaust, but on the other I'm developing my art."

Shechter then returned to Israel and stopped studying German." At the same time, though, she finds herself preoccupied with questions like, "What was I doing there? What am I doing with the bad guys, the victimizers?"

"I want to go back there," she concludes, "but my 'entry ticket' as an artist is via that issue. You know that if you do plays about the Holocaust you can travel to Germany. You both want to go and are repulsed by the idea. It's an unresolved conflict. The work with youth was very important, but the project ended on a discordant note. The question of whether reconciliation is possible has not been resolved at all."

Literary focus

The questions that preoccupied Schecter during her stay in Berlin have been raised in recent years in a series of Hebrew books dealing with the renewed relations between the two countries. The first to put her finger on the Israeli attraction to Berlin was historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, who in 2001 published the nonfiction book "Israelis, Berlin." In 2004 Kaniuk's book "The Last Berliner" was published; it documents his journeys to Germany over 20 years and raises questions regarding the new identity adopted by the country.

In 2006, Oz-Salzberger's father, novelist Amos Oz, who had won two of Germany's most prestigious literary awards - the Goethe Prize and the Heinrich Heine Prize - brought out "The Slopes of a Volcano," a collection of three essays dealing with the question of normalization of relations between Israel and Germany. In 2007 Haim Be'er published "In a Certain Place," a novel that brings together four Israeli and German characters, including the author , on the banks of the Wannsee Lake near Berlin. The following year, author Ruth Almog published the novel "Stranger in Paradise," which deals with the relationship between two women, one German and one Israeli.

Oz-Salzberger, who is currently at Princeton University, on sabbatical from her regular appointment at the University of Haifa continues to deal with these questions in lectures she delivers to Germans.

She calls the current relationship between the two countries "a new anomaly," rather than "normalization" - something that is in her opinion, is unattainable. She agrees that the contribution of the various foundations to strengthening the connection of Israeli individuals to Germany is very significant, but believes that it is not the basis for Israelis' interest in this country. "The closeness and attraction of many Israelis to Germany originate from something profound and genuine, and no foundation can could have invented or encouraged baseless ties," she says.

Oz-Salzberger applauds the growing closeness between the two cultures, "because in Germany there are quite a few things that belong to the Jews and the Israelis in one way or another. Germans who expect normalization are mistaken. Although the Germans didn't go anywhere, the Jews did, and only now are they beginning to return to Germany and Eastern Europe as tourists and visitors. It's a journey of discovery and remembrance, and of a new acquaintance with Germans too. On this journey we cannot talk about forgiveness, forgetting or normalization."

Hadas Calderon, the actress whose career is now intertwined with the German story, is preoccupied with similar questions. She is performing at Beit Lessin in "The Branzha," a play about the media by Boaz Gaon, but already busy rehearsing for a play written by Iddo Netanyahu, a physician and writer - and the prime minister's brother - about a Jewish family in Berlin before Hitler's rise to power. She also plans to continue traveling to Berlin to perform in the play "They Call Me Yekke."

"What's frustrating?" Calderon asks rhetorically. "You arrive in Germany and there's nobody on whom to vent your anger. "We arrived in the beautiful city of Heidelberg, and everyone was friendly and smiling. I looked for Nazi Germany, and this smiling mask created a conflict for me. After all, I know what happened to my family here. These people, who were eyewitnesses to horrors, are now walking among us. So they can be friends and they're on my Facebook page, and I'll sleep at their homes when I come to visit. I'm not encouraging anti-German feelings. But the conflict will always be there.

"Apparently the Germans will always invest money here and encourage creativity. That's their contribution in order to make amends. If we get the money in order to create art, that's not connected to the horrors that were perpetrated. Germany's history exists without me too, and it makes no difference what I say about it. The question of forgiveness doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned. The reason is simple. Forgiveness isn't ours to grant."



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