Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa who used to boycott Germany because of the
Holocaust, is now receiving one of Berlin’s highest honors.
parents fled Cologne when the Nazis came to power in 1933, will be awarded
Germany’s Grand Merit Cross, it was announced on Monday.
will be bestowed upon the mayor of Israel’s third-largest city for his part in
fostering ties with German sister cities including Arnheim, Bremen and
“As mayor, you worked extensively to advance and strengthen ties
between Israel and Germany,” the German Embassy in Israel wrote in a letter to
“You have managed to foster municipal exchanges on several levels
in the fields of economy, politics, culture and interpersonal
Yahav told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that he was honored
to receive the award from Germany, a country he refused to visit for ideological
reasons until he became mayor.
“I was born and educated in Israel,” said
Yahav, whose parents were German Jews. “I learned a lot about the Holocaust and
decided I would not go to Germany under any circumstances.”
As a longtime
aide to the late mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek and as a Haifa city councilman,
he was not under any pressure to do so. But after Yahav was elected mayor in
2003, he faced a dilemma: his principled stand began affecting joint programs
with sister cities in Germany.
“I consulted with various people who told
me that as a public official, I cannot behave the same way that I did when [I
was] a private person.” he said. “When then-German president Horst Kohler
heard about my story, he made my trip to Germany into a state
Yahav traveled to Germany for the first time in 2007, where he
was given a warm welcome, and has been back many times since then. On one
occasion, he visited Cologne, the city where his family was from.
mayor of Cologne organized a tour and showed me documents detailing my family’s
history,” he said.
“They even showed me documents detailing the Gestapo’s
interrogation of my uncle, who either died during his ordeal or committed
suicide shortly afterward. Nobody knows for sure.”
In the wake of
his visits, Haifa has stepped up its cooperation with several German
cities. Yahav said his municipality has helped Erfurt restore Jewish
sites that had fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, he said Bremen helped
raise money to renovate Haifa’s German Colony. The historic neighborhood built
by the Templers, a German Christian movement that settled throughout Palestine
in the 19th century, is now one of the city’s top tourist
Yahav has not forgotten the persecution that caused Jews
like his parents to emigrate, but he seems to have turned over a new
Asked what his mother and father would think of the medal he will
receive, he said that he believes they would feel pride.
remembered Germany as a hate-filled place of persecution,” he said.
I think this tremendous gesture has helped me get some closure with that
previous generation. I feel deeply honored by the Germans and am certain my
parents would feel the same.”