'Tel Aviv Was Built With Raw Materials From Nazi Germany'

Two parallel exhibitions in Tel Aviv and Dessau tell the strange story of an agreement between early Nazi Germany and the Jewish leaders in Mandate Palestine

Porters hauling German immigrants' belongings under the 1933 Transfer Agreements with the Jewish authorities in Mandate Palestine.
Estate of photographer Frieda Mayer Jacobson, Courtesy of Rivka Mayer

Among the myriad documents and photos on the walls of Israeli artist Ilit Azoulay’s studio in Berlin, a picture of Chaim Arlosoroff, a Zionist leader in the '20s and '30s, stands out. Arlosoroff was a proponent of a 1933 cooperation agreement between Nazi Germany and the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine; it's not clear if this cooperation was the motive for his assassination that year.

The so-called Transfer Agreements of 1933 let German-Jewish families sell their assets and deposit the money in a bank account in Germany. Amid the economic crisis at the time, Jews weren't allowed to take their money out of Germany. But in return for some of the money deposited, they were issued certificates allowing them to immigrate to Palestine.

The plan also included the purchase by the departing Jews of German products such as concrete and machinery, which was sent to Palestine, where the new immigrants were compensated for some of their former assets. The immigrants were permitted to send over a shipping crate with some of their belongings.

The newcomers actually received just a small portion of the sums they deposited, and often the crate arrived damaged or was delayed by red tape. Still, the Transfer Agreements enabled more than 50,000 German Jews to immigrate, in addition to the transfer of huge amounts of goods from Nazi Germany that helped develop the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Ottoman and then British Palestine.

Arab workers opening a container of belongings of a Jewish family Immigrating from Germany, Jaffa,  1933.
Estate of photographer Frieda Mayer Jacobson, Courtesy of Rivka Mayer

The Transfer Agreements have been at the center of art research over the past three years by five Israelis: artist Azoulay and her partner Jonathan Touitou, designer Lou Moria, playwright Nir Shauloff and curator Hila Cohen-Schneiderman.

They had the support of two academic advisers from the University of Potsdam, Joachim Nicolas Trezib and Ines Sonder, who are researching the Fifth Aliyah immigration wave to Palestine between 1929 and 1939. This year they published a study on the role in the Transfer Agreements of a construction company that built a number of new Jewish towns around the country.

The results of the art study are on display both in Israel and Germany, though the exhibitions are a bit different from each other. They are both called Transferumbau, a German word that combines "transfer" and "rebuilding."

The Israeli exhibition is being shown at Tel Aviv's Liebling Haus, funded by the Tel Aviv municipality, the Construction and Housing Ministry and the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. The German exhibition is being shown at the Bauhaus school in Dessau. A book published in conjunction with the project has come out in Hebrew, German and English and provides background on the Transfer Agreements.

Customs officials examining belongings sent by German immigrants to British Palestine under the 1933 Transfer Agreements.
Estate of photographer Frieda Mayer Jacobson, Courtesy of Rivka Mayer

Cohen-Schneiderman, the curator, notes that the agreements have been studied before — for example by historians Yehuda Bauer, Tom Segev and Yoav Gelber — but most of the research focused on the politics rather than the culture. The personal experiences of the immigrants are represented in the exhibition through the story of a fictional immigrant named Fritz Zelig.

Zelig was born in 1884 and in 1920 earned a law degree and began working as the in-house lawyer of a large company in Frankfurt. In the late '20s he got married, and in 1935 he immigrated to the Yishuv as part of the Transfer Agreements.

A Zionist he wasn’t; Trezib and Sonder note that before the Nazis' rise to power in 1933, Zelig hadn’t shown an interest in the Jewish community in Palestine. But the Nazi takeover changed his life overnight. He was barred from practicing his profession and by the winter of 1934 he realized he had no future in Germany.

He was well-to-do, and he didn’t stay in British Palestine for long. In 1938, after his mother died, he emigrated to South Africa. In a letter to a friend, Zelig describes his immigration to the Holy Land.

A work by Ilit Azoulay in the Transferumbau exhibition on the 1933 Transfer Agreements between Nazi Germany and the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine, 2019.
Yael Schmidt

"The amount of bureaucracy exceeds the wildest imagination. In a competition for bureaucracy champion, the Jewish Agency rivals any German agency.

“You also know that I, like you, am skeptical about the prospects of settling in Palestine,” he writes his friend, noting his concerns about the desert climate and his isolation from the culture that was so much a part of him. “Under other circumstances, I never would have left Europe, but it’s clear that we have to flee that part of the world, which will soon be ruins and ash.”

In his last letter to his friend, Zelig describes his encounter with the Levant. “Tel Aviv is a modern city but with a kind of demonstrativeness that to me makes its modernity look suspicious. The buildings are beautified with the last word in modernist style, as if they had to prove something, and strangely, they look like last year’s avant-garde, and their pretentious cosmopolitanism places them in a provincial light.”

Trezib and Sonder believe that many of these Jews perceived their life in Palestine as exile; in Germany they were inferior as Jews, in Palestine they were inferior as Germans.

Door handles sent by German immigrants to Mandate Palestine as seen in the 2019 Transferumbau exhibition in Tel Aviv and Dessau, Germany.
Yael Schmidt

Bolstered economy

The Transfer Agreements injected life into the Yishuv's economy; the volume of imports, Trezib told Haaretz, was huge; in the 1933-1939 period this number doubled the export volume of the longer period of 1919 to 1933. The securities market, which had barely existed, also flourished.

The interest in Dessau in Jewish artists and architects of German background isn't new, but it got a boost around this year’s 100th anniversary of Dessau’s Bauhaus school, which spawned the architectural style that, with the immigration of German Jewish architects in the '30s, came to define Tel Aviv.

According to the director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, Claudia Perren, despite Germans' awareness about their country's crimes during the Third Reich, it's important to discuss complex subjects like the Transfer Agreements, which are unfamiliar to most Germans. The exhibition has sparked interest and has challenged some of the visitors, she says.

Israeli artist Ilit Azoulay, 2019.
David Bachar

Perren says the exhibit isn't designed to heal wounds; Trezib adds that though the study of history isn't designed for such a purpose, looking at history from various angles may lead to healing.

Sonder says nothing can heal the past, but she adds that young Germans can learn from it, including about the Transfer Agreements and the accompanying art and artifacts in the exhibition.

Along with protests in the Yishuv in the '30s against the ties with the Nazis, the imports from Germany created tensions because of the threat to manufacturers, both Jewish and Arab, in the small local market.

The book that accompanies the exhibition includes detailed information that tells a wealth of stories; for example, 15-by-15-centimeter ceramic tiles made by Villeroy & Boch that were used by architect Dov Karmi at Liebling Haus on 29 Idelson St. in Tel Aviv, and on 126 Ahad Ha’am St. Cement was also imported from Germany in exchange for oranges — which triggered a serious clash between the Jaffa citrus company and a British entity that controlled 75 percent of cement imports.

Designer Lou Moria's two-sided fabric representing Jews' stylistic preferences in Germany and Mandate Palestine, in the 2019 Transferumbau exhibition.
Yael Schmidt

Meanwhile, foundry owner Alexander Kremener accused the representative of the Transfer Agreements in Palestine of badly harming his bathtub business; his products were slightly more expensive. Ironically, he had started his business thanks to the agreements when he immigrated from Germany in 1933.

The textile industry also flourished because of the Transfer Agreements. A factory that was started by a Jewish family in Fulda, Germany was nationalized with the rise of Hitler and reestablished in the Yishuv. The factory made cleaning rags and later became the main textile supplier for hotels, hospitals and airlines in the country. The plant was about to be closed when designer Lou Moria came over and wove a large curtain there currently on display at the exhibition in Dessau.

The exhibition is located in a space that in the past was used for a Bauhaus school weaving workshop. One side of Moria's curtain is a tribute to the modernist style in the spirit of Bauhaus, while the other side is in the Biedermeier style reminiscent of the Romantic interior design of the homes of German immigrants. The fabric in the exhibition is the last product created at the plant, which was bought by a Palestinian businessman from Jenin and moved to the West Bank.

Curator Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Cherishing the old country

Until two years ago, Cohen-Schneiderman curated the residency program at Liebling Haus. The program, in cooperation with the Tel Aviv municipality preservation department, reexamined the concept of preservation.

"In our study of the Transfer Agreements, we saw that researchers hadn't focused on the material consequences of the agreements. We began to accumulate materials and noticed that many of the immigrants didn’t arrive with modernist ideas," Cohen-Schneiderman says.

"Thus, even though their homes were modern in their external style, the interior design was heavy and decorative. This ostensibly minor disparity represents a clash between two cultures. People lived in bubbles of German bourgeois-classical culture and actually withdrew from the place they had come to."

Cohen-Schneiderman says there's something metaphorical about the fact that German-made materials are now being sent back to the country for the exhibition in Dessau. “We could only return pieces and fragments of the raw construction materials,” she says. Materials and construction waste that were taken from Liebling Haus when the building was renovated are now part of an archaeological display.

Also on display in Tel Aviv and Dessau are large photomontages by Azoulay of items discovered in the apartments in Liebling Haus, all of them made in Germany. Or as Azoulay puts it, “We are revealing that most of Tel Aviv’s White City was actually built with Nazi raw materials and goods.”

Touitou also scattered diagrams in the exhibition space, alongside texts that don't make for pleasant reading. They describe criticism of the immigration waves to the Holy Land, including the increased pollution and the tension between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim after the establishment of the state — such as the spraying of Mizrahi immigrants with disinfectants.

“There was sustainable Palestinian agriculture here, and when the Jews arrived they tried to maximize profits and introduced fertilizers,” Touitou says. "This exhibition contains criticism. There’s always the unfounded statement about ‘making the desert bloom.’ How can you say such a thing? There were businesses here, and there was a population here.”

So why did Cohen-Schneiderman opt for such an explosive — and some might say anti-Semitic — exhibit in Germany?

“It’s impossible to talk about the Transfer Agreements without understanding the context in which they were signed, as well as their influence in Germany and Palestine. You have to look closely at the information and statistics from before and after the '30s, and to study the climate that they were created in and created," she says.

"One thing that’s clear is that the immigrants from Germany came from a country where industrialization was very advanced to an agricultural region that was still in the first stages of industrialization. This accelerated processes and developed the region, but it also created ecological damage and social rifts that later developed between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and between Jews and Palestinians.”