Berlin-Jerusalem relations revisited – at the First Station

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany.

The exhibit in its glory at the First Station. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The exhibit in its glory at the First Station.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We have been reminded countless times over the past year or so that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany. Israelis & Germans: The Exhibition, currently on display at the First Station, offers a multifaceted view of the often troubled, and certainly emotion-laden, emerging relationship between the Jewish state and the country that created the Holocaust.
Some of the regular milestones in the bilateral relations are in there, such as Menachem Begin’s staunch opposition to Israel accepting reparations from Germany in 1952, but, the exhibition’s principal added value is the way in which it presents more intricate individual stories, including of people with mixed cultural baggage who had to work their way through – and, in some cases, are still processing – gray areas.
Israelis & Germans: The Exhibition was initiated by the German-Israeli Association (IDG), which was created in 1966, just one year after Israel and Germany established an official relationship.
The show looks at “the wellknown and less well-known ‘bridge builders’ who have forged and expanded civil ties between the countries over the past five decades.”
The exhibition’s content runs along a timeline that charts historical events from 1949 to 2015, incorporating modules that address six thematic slots: prologue, chasm, rapprochement, trailblazers, connections and tilt. The sections portray the stories of around 160 politicians, cultural and media figures, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs from Germany and Israel, via texts, quotes, photos and correspondence.
“The idea was to focus on the personal and interpersonal aspects, and not so much on politics or economics,” explains IDG president Grisha Alroi-Arloser, who was born in Siberia, grew up in Germany and made aliya in his 20s, in 1978.
“It is not so much about the chronology of the ties between the countries. The exhibition also looks at crises that occurred between the countries, how they were covered by the media, and how they impacted on the delicate fabric of the bilateral connection.”
That certainly comes across, and the overriding sense of the venture is that, betwixt the familiar items, you gain a fresh angle on what ties between Germany and Israel entail, on a range of levels. It is fascinating, for example, to listen to the video interviews of various personalities from there and here.
Representatives from different generations relate parts of their own stories, as well as touching on their professional output and how this has been colored by the enormous shadow cast by the Holocaust.
Internationally feted playwright Joshua Sobol, for instance, talks about taboos associated with the Holocaust and how, true to his rebellious nature, he addressed troubling topics in his work. He mentions his early 1980s play Ghetto, which includes some painful content connected to the Vilna Ghetto.
Fellow writer Nava Semel, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, brings the discourse down to a definitively mundane and personal level, mentioning a trip she made to Germany and how she marveled at the vast changes for the better that had taken place in Germany since World War II.
Interestingly, the contribution of Semel’s father, Yitzhak Artzi, to promoting closes ties between Israel and Germany is also noted. Artzi was born in Romania and was incarcerated in Auschwitz. He was a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, and was a Knesset member in the 1980s.
The German-Israeli identity crossover plot thickens with an intriguing video interview featuring actress-playwright Sara von Schwarze. While the exhibition features a number of multifaceted vignettes, von Schwarze’s story is a strong candidate for the biscuit award. Von Schwarze was born in Germany to parents who had recently converted from Catholicism to Judaism.
The family made aliya when she was small and she grew up in a haredi neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Von Schwarze’s video spot touches on the sense of guilt felt by her parents’ generation in Germany, and how she has come to terms with her dual cultural baggage.
Other interviews in the exhibition module include writer and former left-wing politician Uri Avnery; Avital Ben-Chorin, whose parents died in Auschwitz and who, for many years, has been a driving force behind forging closer ties between Jerusalem and Berlin; German artist Christine Mähler; and German film director and writer Carsten Hueck. The latter two, who were born long after World War II, talk about what it means to grow up with the burden of the Nazi atrocities in their national lineage.
The story of late iconic Israeli actress Orna Porat, who died last year at the age of 91, is also a standout of the exhibition. She was born in Germany to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother and, despite her parents’ opposition, she became a member of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. After the war she met a soldier from the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, and the two made aliya in 1946. She converted to Judaism in 1957.
Alroi-Arloser says that one of the main ideas behind the exhibition, which has already done the rounds of several cities around the country, was to spotlight the complexities of relations between the two countries, through the personal stories of people who worked to bridge the yawning Holocaust-fueled divide between Israel and Germany.
“There are, in fact, quite a few instances of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but who actually forged the basis for the later establishment of diplomatic ties. If you look, for example, at the business of the reparations agreement in 1952, there was a blanket ban, by the Israeli government, on all the members of the Israeli delegation to Germany from speaking German. Remember, this was only seven years after the end of the war, when the memories of the Holocaust were still so fresh. All the negotiations were conducted in English, despite the fact that all the delegation members spoke German as a mother tongue. That was very difficult and it was considered a very important thing to do.”
Other thought-provoking spots in the exhibition include the confluence of Viennese-bred Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek with iconic German singer and actress Marlene Dietrich; the about-face of Axel Springer, a German media tycoon who later in life became a staunch supporter of closer binational ties; as well as the popularity of several Israeli entertainers, including Esther and Avi Ofarim, in Germany of the 1960s and 1970s. • Israelis & Germans: The Exhibition is due to close at the First Station on December 25, although Alroi-Arloser says there are plans to extend the run and, after it leaves these shores, the show will go on tour around Germany throughout 2016, including a showing at the Bundestag.