When Israeli and German Troops Fought Side by Side in Bavaria's Trenches

And Gideon Levy was there to witness it and ask uncomfortable questions about the past

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Israeli soldiers training in Bavaria, April 2019.
Israeli soldiers training in Bavaria, April 2019.Credit: IDF Spokesperson
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

NUREMBERG, Germany – N. dons the black wool balaclava he always wears during operational activity. Only his dark eyes are visible. Diego’s jaws are also bound by a black muzzle. N. is an Israeli soldier who lives in Mitzpeh Adi in the Jezreel Valley and serves in Oketz, the Israel Defense Forces’ canine special forces unit. Diego is his dog – a Belgian dog that was trained in Germany. N. barks out his orders in German. “Sitz!” he commands, and Diego sits down submissively next to his master.

Diego has returned home to where he was born two years ago and where he was trained to be an attack dog capable of terrorizing people and of being extremely cruel, as per his master’s orders. N. and Diego are never apart, day or night. Last month, they stood together on a hillside in the heart of a Bavarian forest. Just a few days before that, the two – soldier and dog – had still been doing their thing at home: They participated in a raid in the dead of night on a house in the Palestinian village of Kobar, near Ramallah, that frightened the occupants nearly to death. The children, women and elderly residents woke up to the appalling sight of dog and master that had invaded their home – along with the usual complement of dozens of masked soldiers. Now, in early April, the Israeli and his dog are in a forest in southern Germany, not far from the Czech border, waiting for the imaginary enemy to arrive.

N. and Diego have come here with the reconnaissance unit of the IDF’s Paratroops Brigade to take part in the first-ever exercise of an Israeli battalion on German soil. They are participating in an annual exercise that is now being conducted for the 10th time by a German armored brigade and NATO Alliance forces.

By chance, Diego is not a German Shepherd. Some of the “reservoir dogs” in Oketz are of that breed, but apparently there’s a limit to how much one can mock history and symbolism. An Israeli soldier issuing commands in German to an attack dog that was trained in Germany, on German soil, not far from Nuremberg, the city of the laws and the trials. The only thing missing was for the dog to be a German Shepherd.

Lt. Y., the commander of the two dogs and their handlers, was also quick to put on his black balaclava. And to keep his distance from journalists. “Obviously it’s thrilling to sing ‘Hatikva’ on German soil,” he says, referring to Israel’s national anthem. “Our forefathers were in these forests and fought the way we are fighting here now.”

Kimbo joins us. He’s 6 years old, not an attack dog but has an acute sense of smell that makes him capable of detecting explosives. D. is his handler. At home in Rehovot he has a Doberman pinscher. Serving in Oketz is amazing, says D. “There’s an animal with me that’s dependent on me and I’m like his father, who looks after everything for him.”

Credit: IDF Spokesperson

Is there any chance you’ll regret this service one day, we ask. Do you ever have doubts about what you’re doing?

“No. I believe in the rightness of the path,” he asserts, through his mask.

After parking the red Audi SUV next to the dirt trail, we climbed breathlessly up to this thicket in the woods: this journalist, a deputy commander of an IDF Paratroops battalion who was born in Serbia and immigrated to Israel at the age of 11, and a reservist logistics officer who hadn’t dared to tell his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, that he was headed to Germany. The rented Audi is their operational vehicle here, in a forest whose floor is covered with a thick stratum of dead leaves.

In this war game there are prisoner camps with barbed-wire fences, but it’s forbidden to capture Israeli soldiers. Germany, you know.

The rays of the afternoon sun spread dramatically across the gray sky. Springtime in Germany. The days are getting longer but it’s still bitterly cold here. At night there’s frost. High up on the hill we discover a well-camouflaged camp in the heart of the forest: a dozen small, round tents perched in a circle on the leaf-covered ground, like the campsite of a school outing. Lounging between the tents are a few dozen IDF soldiers, their equipment in a big heap in the center of the encampment. They have been here a week.

Welcome to the vast training grounds of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, aka JMRC, of the U.S. Army in Germany, located in Hohenfels, Bavaria – the Tze’elim base of NATO, so to speak. And welcome to the forest in the heart of “the Box,” as the base’s training area is known –163 sq. kilometers, 319 kilometers of roads and 1,345 structures. Welcome also to the exercise of the German Army’s 21st Armored Brigade, to which forces from eight different NATO countries have been seconded – this time with an innovation: the addition of a reconnaissance battalion of Israeli paratroopers, still considered part of the IDF aristocracy, which was why they were chosen.

A new Germany has been definitively recognized: The army of Israel is training with the Bundeswehr on German soil. Who would have believed, 75 years ago, when this earth was saturated with blood, that orders would be given here simultaneously in Hebrew and German? Who could have imagined 50 years ago that some 300 Israeli soldiers would be training in Germany with that country’s army, without anyone even thinking about protesting?

Credit: IDF Spokesperson

Time heals all wounds; three cheers for normalcy. But still, when the commander of a Bundeswehr platoon orders his troops to go to sleep immediately, or when he snaps angrily at one of his soldiers, “Where did you disappear to for the past three hours?” – it feels like we’re on the set of a particularly bad World War II movie. If not for the patches on the sleeves of their uniforms, it would be difficult to tell American, German or Israeli soldiers apart. There are black soldiers in the German Army, Ethiopians in the Israeli army, Jews in the U.S. Army.

From morning to evening we Israeli journalists wander among the troops, about 5,000 of them deployed in this Bavarian forest. No one has specified who the enemy is meant to be, but everyone knows.

Training activities are in the defensive mode on the day of our visit, the different forces digging into their positions, cut off from each another and barely moving. IDF soldiers aren’t used to defensive drills lasting almost an entire week; they are adept at attacking, that’s what they are trained to do. Germany trains in defense as well, and now some of its soldiers are teaching their Israeli counterparts about it.

“The Germans’ operational concept is different from ours,” one IDF officer explains. “They are preparing for a long war that will last half a year, with half a year’s deployment in the field.” That is alien to the IDF. Indeed, after just one day in the trenches the impatient Israeli commanders start pressing for an offensive. They get their wish. They “capture” a village, clean it out – and earn compliments from the German colonel. Germany, spring 2019.

Without a ‘Heil’

A black Mercedes rolled up to the entrance of my hotel in the Old City of Nuremberg at the appointed time. Lt. Idan from Rishon Letzion, deputy HQ battalion commander, drove the luxurious vehicle naturally, as though he’d been born to it. A couple of weeks ago, he was stationed at an outpost overlooking the village of Jit, in the Nablus district of the West Bank. Idan arrived in Germany ahead of his battalion, along with its rabbi and its kashrut supervisor, in order to kosher the American kitchen on German soil.

Credit: IDF Spokesperson

“Why do we deserve it?” Israeli singers Idan Raichel and Berry Sakharof sang, transmitted by some device to the Mercedes’ radio, on the way to the base, about an hour’s drive from Nuremberg. Meanwhile, Lt. Idan described the wonders of the thermal equipment he’d acquired for his soldiers to cope with the European cold. The footwear that they got after arriving in Germany – fur-lined leather boots – was Canadian but everything else came with them from home. Of course, the lieutenant from Rishon was convinced that it’s the best gear in the world, ‘bro. “We don’t need anything from anyone. Fleece jackets and underclothing and winter coveralls from Israel. We did a presentation and everyone envied us.” That wasn’t the last time we heard Israeli soldiers saying that their stuff was the world’s best.

Before the exercise got underway, they were taken for a short educational tour in Regensburg, a small city most of whose Jewish community perished in the Holocaust, and to the Nuremberg stadium where Hitler delivered his speeches. The soldiers sang “Hatikva” and felt goose bumps, they said. They also voted in the Knesset election from here and felt fewer goose bumps. No one asked or talked about the results, two days after the vote; the future of the party led by self-styled defense minister Naftali Bennett was still hanging by a thread, but not one soldier showed any interest.

They flew here on a leased El Al 747 with 25 tons of equipment, together with four Oketz dogs and two handlers for each dog. Now, with the temperature outside standing at 8 degrees Celsius (46 Fahrenheit), we’re hurtling down the Autobahn, the German freeway with no speed limit. The spokeswoman of the Paratroops Brigade, Lihi Friedman, has already mastered the art of parting with a charming “tschüss” (goodbye) to every German soldier she meets. She likes the shape of a German tank that she saw. “Is Mercedes German, too?” this soldier-girl from Even Yehuda asked.

A German soldier will always start marching with his left foot and will salute with his left hand, 'so they don’t come out with a ‘Heil.’'

Israeli and German soldiers played soccer one evening, but other than that there was limited contact between them, in general. The Israelis did learn, however that a German soldier will always start marching with his left foot and will salute with his left hand, “so they don’t come out with a ‘Heil.’” In this war game there are prisoner camps with barbed-wire fences, but it’s forbidden to capture Israeli soldiers. Germany, you know. American troops made one attempt to snatch a few IDF soldiers, but the latter said they don’t play such games. The Israelis also didn’t train on Friday and Saturday, which the soldiers of other armies undoubtedly found odd.

The barrier at the entrance to the huge multinational training base resembles those erected by Israel in the territories. The inspectors here are civilians. You mustn’t get out of the car. Pull over to the side. IDF Maj. Ivan Cohn, the deputy battalion commander, was waiting at the base next to his red Audi. Tall and thin, he initially gave me the impression of being a German officer; only the patch on his shirt dispelled any possible doubt. Patches with the Israeli flag are in high demand among the other armies. Israeli and Paratroops flags also flap in the wind at the entrance to the IDF’s compound on the base. The last time I saw the Paratroops’ red-and-white flag was on a pillbox at the eastern entrance to Nablus.

Long rows of yellowish barracks, green lawns between them. In the middle is a tall chimney, bellowing white smoke. I seem to be the only person who’s bothered by the sight of it.

David Mahari, a smiling master sergeant of Ethiopian origin who oversees the mess hall, was carrying a bunch of cleaning brushes. The young noncom from Kfar Yona crossed Roosevelt Avenue – the street names on the base are American – as a German armored vehicle bearing a black cross, covered with pine needles for camouflage so that it resembled a mobile tree, slowly approached. For his part, Maj. Ivan was surprised by the high quality of the Germans’ camouflage. Why would the IDF even need such camouflage? For protection against Islamic Jihad aircraft? Against Hamas tanks? The soldiers whose faces are painted black, however, remind one of the Deheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, at night.

A column of German tanks raised clouds of dust. Who knew there was so much dust in Germany, and in this wintry weather, too? By the end of the day, my dark-blue wool coat was covered with a gray-white layer.

Credit: IDF Spokesperson

The Israeli snipers training with their American counterparts are displaying good marksmanship. I can’t help but think about the demonstrations along the Gaza Strip border. The blossoming almond trees and rising dust recalled an Israeli landscape. We’re deep in a forest clearing, with U.S. Army officers and members of the IDF Paratroops engineering company. “Shalom, shalom,” the Americans greeted their Middle Eastern colleagues in basic Hebrew.

Oran Bersano, a reservist officer from Kibbutz Urim in the Negev and a project manager at Electra Construction, didn’t tell his 94-year-old grandmother that he was going to Germany. He wasn’t sure how she would react. He’ll show her photos when he gets back; it’s better that way, his mother had told him. His grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. “I have mixed feelings,” he repeated throughout the day, even when he squeezed his hefty body into a German Wiesel armored weapons carrier that looked more like a toy tank or a souvenir of the world war. Bersano admired its operational capabilities.

Capt. Asaf Peretz is the company commander here, in this part of the forest.

“I feel that with us, things move a lot faster,” he said. “With the Germans, there are plenty of meetings until they decide on something. We understand that if the commander doesn’t push, he won’t get what he wants. I told the German battalion commander a week ago that we wanted to ‘attack’ a German village. In the end we went in and killed 10. Well done, he told me. Now he trusts us. Since then he gives us the best missions.

“An Israeli officer has more experience than a German officer when it comes to handling soldiers. We’re the only ones who went through the forests on foot [the other forces used armored vehicles], and we get results. It’s a bit hard for them to take in our abilities. I try to explain it to him in terms of IDF battle procedures. They are used to waiting for the enemy, we move toward it. It’s important to say that in the end he was very satisfied.” Still, it’s worth mentioning that the IDF officers said there was also plenty for them to learn from their German and American counterparts.

German soldiers didn’t understand why I’d asked them how they felt about training together with Israelis. They had no idea what I was talking about.

A Latvian battalion played the part of the enemy. Six fake villages were scattered across the training grounds, housing German civilians and migrant workers who were each paid 100 euros a day to act the part of an occupied population.

“We killed about 10 terrorists there,” Capt. Peretz related, about his troops’ conquest of one of the villages. “We succeeded both in killing the terrorists – sorry, the enemy – and in winning the population over to our side. That’s something we learned here – to get the population over to our side; in fact, one of the residents gave us an enemy map.”

Israeli war games in Bavaria. Will these soldiers try one day to win over the population of the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh? “In the end, when you enter a village, the locals will understand that we are for them,” said Peretz. Who’s winning the war, Germany or Israel? Peretz: “We’ll win all the time. The German battalion commander told me: Take this. The village is yours. The moment he saw the way we fight, it really put him on our side.”

Peretz, who was born in Kiryat Shemona in Upper Galilee and later moved to Moshav Nir Zvi in the country’s center, tells us that Lt. Col. Schraeder, the German battalion commander, is a serious guy: “We have a good ‘interface’ with him. You only have to be a bit brazen. Israeli chutzpah is very necessary here.”

A German ammunition truck kicked up dust; there’s heavy traffic here. In one day, the IDF engineering company killed 45 enemy soldiers – virtually, of course. Just this morning they killed 27, with no casualties among our forces. Where was the company a month ago? Peretz: “In the Rock Outpost in Samaria, between Mount Bracha and [the settlement of] Yitzhar. Upholding the security of the settlements. Manning the forward command post. The security of the roads. Detentions.” How many people did you arrest? “I don’t think it’s possible to count them all.”

Credit: IDF Spokesperson

Turn right, the GPS instructed Ivan in Hebrew on the dirt trails of the Bavarian forest.

Ignoring barriers

We arrived at Kittensee, a mock German village. It looks like the set of a low-budget movie. A semblance of life, plywood police station, clinic, bar, a café with hookahs, a sausage stand, a few stone buildings and a turret – a cross between a mosque a church. There are simulated villages like this on Tze’elim base in the Negev, too, though there they are meant to be Palestinian, of course. Kittensee is also the site of an exercise in combat in a built-up area. Last night our forces raided the place. Most of the inhabitants looked bored. It was a totally fantastical sight. Vinyl records in the clubhouse and a few Arabic-speaking migrants who came into the Sanara-Shisha Café The conquering forces massed at the entrance to the village.

Tostel Kruek, a stocky German from Freiburg, is making a living in the war game by playing a civilian. The Germans did the capturing this time, the Israelis the liberating, and all with deadly earnestness, of course. How did the “conqueror” treat you, we ask the pretend POW. The U.S. Army spokeswoman, who accompanied us the whole day, abruptly terminated the conversation with Herr Kruek. No talking with civilians, by order, she said.

German soldiers who were huddling around their armored vehicles at the village’s entrance didn’t understand why I’d asked them how they felt about training together with Israelis. They had no idea what I was talking about. The German chief of staff was an observer during the exercise, as was the outgoing head of the IDF’s Ground Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak.

In the middle of the barracks is a tall chimney, bellowing white smoke. I seem to be the only person who’s bothered.

Ivan, the deputy battalion commander, tells us as we drive that his grandfather is an Auschwitz survivor. In 300 meters, turn left. A makeshift barrier made of stones and barbed wire lay across the road, just like in the territories back home. The way was blocked. But of course, no road blocks the IDF: Ivan and Oran’s Audi bypassed this barrier, too.

“Anyone who put up this barrier didn’t do a thorough job. They don’t know the Israelis,” Ivan, the driver, said. Take it from the IDF, an organization that knows a thing or two about roadblocks. Again we climbed up a steep hill, on top of which the Orev special-ops team of the Paratroops Battalion was dug in. They’ve been here a week, day and night, without tents and with self-warming field rations. “There are four types of cornflakes, chicken with curry, Tuscan beef, pizza chips – and the beautiful thing is that it’s all kosher,” said Sgt. Chen Spivak, from Mazkeret Batya, rattling off the day’s specials as though he’s trying to lure tourists into his restaurant.

Spivak is a lookout and is in charge of firing rockets and other projectiles. “It’s a special experience to engage in maneuvers here, to be a Jewish-Israeli fighter on German soil, 70 years after our parents were humiliated here,” he said. “Everyone wants us to get them some of our equipment. It’s the best, because we’re defending our home. To sing ‘Hatikva’ here is thrilling. It’s amazing how within zero time we became so strong. How we became one of the strongest countries in the world. Lying in ambush in the cold of the night got me to thinking about the Jews who suffered here in the cold. We on the Orev team are establishing a lookout ambush against tanks and we’re taking them out left and right. We’re infantry special forces, and the other forces aren’t succeeding in defeating us.”

Before coming here, he said, they had manned an area near the settlement of Kedumim for four months, making “lots of arrests” in Nablus. They were also part of the force that eliminated the terrorist who had gone into hiding after he killed two Israelis in the Barkan industrial zone in October.

Alon Hindy from Hod Hasharon took me to his lookout position – a trench in the earth. He was equipped with Spike antitank guided missiles manufactured by Rafael Advanced Weapons Systems, which can detect an enemy tank from six kilometers away (although no live fire was used in the exercise). Below us was a splendid German valley, and I didn’t see any tanks on the horizon. But Hindy’s team and another team had already destroyed six enemy Panzers. They’d never before fought against real tanks, only simulators.

Credit: IDF Spokesperson

“I’d never seen an enemy tank with my own eyes. The fact that it’s in Germany only adds to this whole experience,” said Hindy. “It gives me a sort of pride that we’re actually doing an exercise like this on German soil. With an army like we have and together with the Allies, we could have prevented the Holocaust. A month ago, I was doing arrests in Nablus, and that was an amazing time, too, and I only wish it will happen again. It gives you perspective. You see an enemy every day. To wait at the hitchhiking post, even though it wasn’t fun, gives you the feeling of a small victory in that you helped to prevent a terrorist attack – and already you have an achievement.”

The troops are wearing flak vests, heavy with gear. “A complete response vest, the kind that [former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi] Eisenkot decided that every soldier should have.” Modular, Hindy explained. This is the vest he wore in the demonstrations of rage in the Gaza Strip. “It was a strange thing. I’m used to arresting people in their home, and suddenly you’re facing a mass of people.” In Germany he experienced cold more intense than anything he’d ever known, during five consecutive days in a trench.

Back on the base. We’re at a glatt kosher dining room on General Patton Avenue and Third Street. Tahini, matbuha, grated carrots, hummus, Arab-style salad, chicken in sweet-and-sour sauce, chicken wings, rice with raisins. Officers’ table, noncoms’ table, soldiers’ table. Fadi, a Druze cook from Yanuh, cooked and served. Soldiers in the U.S. Army’s public affairs unit, from Wisconsin and Kansas, couldn’t get over the Israeli food.

John Rider also came here to eat. He’s a Jewish-American soldier who served for two years in the 202nd Battalion of the IDF’s Paratroops Brigade, and now he’s doing reserve duty in the U.S. Army and taking part in the exercise as a combat soldier. Because he is also in the National Guard reserves, he’s not allowed to give interviews. Rider sat alone at the far end of the Israeli dining room, which was by now empty. In civilian life he’s a police officer in Chicago. Among the Israelis here, he goes by the name of Yonatan and speaks Hebrew. He comes to eat mainly on Sabbath eve.

Ensconced in a position camouflaged by pine branches was Roni Cholavsky, a soldier from Kibbutz Ein Hashofet. His grandfather escaped from a ghetto, hid in the forests of Belarus and established partisan units. There’s a photograph of him in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, together with two famous resistance figures: Abba Kovner and Antek Zuckerman. Cholavsky heard stories from his grandfather, who died at age 96, about the heroism in the forests. Cholavsky reflected on him, from his position among the branches in the German forest. Dying rays of the sun. Bersano reported that the official results of the Israeli election would be made public shortly. Noncom David Maklouf related that he was thrilled when four German soldiers who thought he was an IDF officer saluted him.

Eins, zwei, drei – we were counted by a German soldier whose head, with a peculiar crown of branches on it, cropped up from within an equally camouflaged armored personnel carrier to create a particularly grotesque image. The German soldier, concerned about the appearance of strangers in his realm, was quick to radio a report to his commanding officer. Another soldier waved a yellow flag enthusiastically – it wasn’t clear to whom or why. Suspicion of the media is apparently a general army phenomenon.

Col. Jochen Geck, deputy commander of the German 21st Brigade, was ready to answer our few questions after a trek of two hours. An armored corps officer of 53, wearing a black beret like in the IDF Armored Corps, he’s asked what battles were fought in this region in World War II. He squirms.

“For me this is a training zone. I am not here because of the region or the past. It’s important to remember that nine countries are taking part in this exercise – it is not a German-Israeli event. Everyone is delighted to train with the Israeli soldiers. I have not seen them myself, so I don’t know whether this training exercise is suitable for them,” said Geck, who wasn’t willing to answer any questions relating to the past. The woman from U.S. Army public affairs unit interrupted crudely and asserted that the colonel would talk only about the exercise. He’s not here to talk about history. Geck asked for the name of my newspaper so that his wife would be able to read the “interview” with him.

Populations are no longer evacuated in wars, the colonel noted, and therefore armies need to be trained in how to treat a civilian population. Do you share common values with the IDF in regard to the treatment of occupied populations? “This exercise is not about shared values. I think the military mentality is similar in all armies. The focus is on professionalism,” he asserted. “You want to defend your country and you want to do something good for your land. Do the right thing. Soldiers from all armies think they are doing the right thing for their country.”

Sitting in an improvised office was the Israeli battalion commander, Lt. Col. Oded Seemann, who was appointed to the post only a few weeks ago. His predecessor was demoted by the chief of staff after the disaster in which a soldier drowned in the Hilazon stream during a training exercise.

The son of a yekke (German-speaking Jewish) family from Moshav Beit Yitzhak, Seemann said that he was very moved by the cooperation with the German army on German soil. He also saw the exercise as a breakthrough with NATO. He too had arrived here from the occupied territories, four months in the Jenin sector. “But what’s the connection?” he asked.

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