The girls

Since 1955, 5 Yekke ladies have been meeting at TA cafe almost every day.

By SHULA KOPF
January 29, 2009 11:47
The girls

Yekke ladies cartoon 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The "girls," as the waitresses call them, are a group of Yekke (German Jewish) ladies in their late 80s who have been meeting almost every day for decades at Tel Aviv's Café Mersand. Recently, much to their surprise, they have become quite an item for the German press. Journalists come to the café to interview the "Ashkenazi damen," as they were described in one article. German tourists from nearby hotels strike up conversations. Even the celebrated host of the German version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Günther Jauch, named by Stern magazine as the most famous German person in the world, made a special trip here just to meet them. He read in one of the articles that they are ardent fans and planned to surprise them. "I told him not to surprise them and to let them know he was coming so that they would not faint, and also to give them a chance to put on their jewelry," says Charlotte Misselwitz, who wrote the article for the Berliner Zeitung. In a telephone conversation from Germany, she remembers them fondly. "It was amazing to be with them and talk with them and see them as just being the same kind of people that I'm used to in Germany, much like my grandparents. It was striking. They have the same kind of culture, the same sense of humor and the same habits." Jauch was also affected by his meeting and since his visit has sent them several long, heart-felt letters. "It's a hot day in Germany and it brings back memories of my visit with you in Café Mersand," he wrote in a recent letter. "The article about you has made a lot of waves. Many people talked about it, and for others it opened old wounds." According to Micah Limor, editor of Yakiton, a monthly for Yekkes published since 1932, German journalists discovered the Yekke community while looking for a new angle on Israel's 60th birthday celebrations. Today's Yekkes are the children of Jews who fled Germany in the 1930s and came to Palestine where they contributed greatly to industry, science, higher education, medicine, jurisprudence and many other fields. "If in previous years there were a handful of German journalists, in the last year at least one or two have contacted me every month and asked to meet to hear stories. There have been at least 30 such newspaper articles this year," says Limor. Ruthi Ofek, manager and chief curator of German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in Tefen, also reports a rising interest in Yekkes by the German press. "I think they recognize today what they have lost," she says. "It is hard to imagine the contributions of Jews to Germany in culture, science and in every field. Now these journalists can find in Israel what they can't find anymore in Germany. The Yekkes kept the style of life the way it was once in Germany, and you can hear it in their language, and the way they live with some traditional behavior that no longer exists in Germany because times have changed. Language has evolved, and here it's been preserved as it was 70 or more years ago. The Yekkes still meet each other regularly in their own coffee shops." MERSAND IS one of the few historic Tel Aviv cafes that has survived with its original retro décor intact amid the ubiquitous modern chain cafes that have cropped up in the past decade. The café, which straddles the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Frishman streets, was founded in 1955 by Walter Mersand, a newcomer from Germany, who yearned for the civilized kaffeehaus of Berlin and Vienna with the wood paneling, the cultured conversation and the daily newspaper on a wooden stick. He hired a like-minded architect and Café Mersand became the meeting point for Tel Aviv's German Jews. His son, Mike, took over, and four years ago, Boaz Tregerman bought the place and decided to keep it exactly as it was, with the dark, wooden paneling, the small Formica-covered tables, the low stools and a long, wooden bench covered with numerous scuffs and scratches accrued over the years. The "girls" came with the café. Tregerman gladly accords them the VIP treatment to which they have grown accustomed over the years - their own corner table by the window. "If somebody sits at their table I ask him politely to move. Sometimes people are offended, but I don't care. It's their table," says Tregerman, who bears a red lipstick mark on his cheek from a kiss smacked on his face by Haya Florentine, one of the Yekke regulars. In Hebrew slang a Yekke is a Jew whose family originated from Germany. The word apparently comes from the word for "jacket," referring to the jacket and tie German Jews wore even in the sweltering heat of the Middle East. According to folklore they even wore jackets for work in the orange groves and building sites handing boxes and building materials to one another with a polite "bitte schön" and "danke schön." Today the word Yekke is also used as an adjective to describe any person, not necessarily of German origin, who is pedantic, punctual and meticulous. On a recent Friday, at 10 sharp, dressed impeccably with discreet jewelry to match, the women meet for two hours of pleasant conversation, mostly in German. One of them, Else Junes, 88, never learned Hebrew despite having lived here for more than 70 years, so the group converses in German for her sake. ("Her Yemenite maid of 50 years has learned to speak German, but Else never learned Hebrew," points out one of the women as an aside.) Beneath the chit-chat lies a subtext that is not discussed - the relatives and friends that stayed behind in Germany, the husbands that have passed away. Mimi Frons and Haya Florentine, both 87, are two of the regulars. They have known each other since their childhoods in Berlin, where their parents were friends. They lived on the same street and when Florentine's family arrived in Palestine in 1934, Frons's family soon followed. "It was difficult. We lived five in a room, the roof was corrugated tin, but we were happy because we escaped death," says Florentine. Today the two women still live on the same street, a short walk away from Mersand, and their friendship transcends the generations and continues with their children and grandchildren. "My husband used to meet here with his friends, and after he died I started coming here, and that's how it all started," says Frons. Even though there was a time that Yekkes were the butts of jokes and speaking German in public was frowned upon, the women are proud of their heritage. "We were brought up with etiquette, order, punctuality and good manners, and those things have remained and that's good," says Trude Appel, 88, from Vienna. The women agree that their grandchildren are typical sabras and that not much of the strict upbringing of their own childhoods has trickled down to the new generation. When a young woman passes by the café with arms covered with tattoos, the women cluck their disapproval. At Café Mersand the conversation drifts to one of the favorite topics, the latest episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, that aired on RTL, the German language television station, the previous day. The general consensus is that the contender, a philosopher, was more of an idiot than a philosopher for having given up the chance to go home with 150,000 euros. Their eyes light up when they talk about the host, Jauch. "He spent two hours with us and we were surprised when he sent us all a beautiful letter," says Frons. "When we received a second letter, we were stunned." Exactly at noon, the ladies leave. One buys the weekly apricot cake to take home for Shabbat. Another goes for her weekly appointment at the hair salon. Some go home by themselves, perhaps with the aid of a cane. Filipino caretakers help others. Since it is impossible for the "girls" to sit on the café's low stools, Tergerman keeps white plastic chairs with high backrests in a storage room just for them. As soon as they leave the plastic chairs are stacked and carried back to the storage room, the music is turned way up and Tel Aviv's trendy young people take over.

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