Looking back: International relations

An unusual school reunion is coming together in Jerusalem.

 Anglican International School, Jerusalem students 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Sonia Zink)
Anglican International School, Jerusalem students 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Sonia Zink)
As long as Israel, and prior to that British and Ottoman Palestine, have been a locus of world interest, foreign journalists, diplomats, missionaries and aid workers have flocked to this land to engage in their respective professions. Often they bring their families.
During the 1950s and ’60s Sonia Zink, the daughter of Rudolf Kuestermeier, a German foreign correspondent – and, at one point prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations, the unofficial German envoy to Jerusalem – was one of the many children of foreigners who lived and worked in the newborn State of Israel.
From 1958 until 1963, from age 11 to 16, Sonia attended the Anglican International School Jerusalem on Hanevi’im Street along with the children of many of the United Nations personnel stationed in Israel and Jordan, which at the time controlled the eastern half of the city.
“The kids at school were mainly children of UN members and only stayed in Israel for a very short time,” Zink says. “Most families lived in Jordan and crossed over through the Mandelbaum Gate to bring their children to school in the morning, picking them up in the afternoon.”
“As most of the parents were members of the UN and the diplomatic corps, the kids did not spend too long at the school – a few months at the most,” she recalls when explaining why, after half a century, she has organized the first reunion of the children of the diplomatic corps in the school’s history.
As most of the children would move on, she says, they lost touch. But Zink was curious about what had happened to the diverse group that had been thrown together and formed friendships in Jerusalem all those years ago.
“I was always very curious and anxious to know how everyone is and where everyone went to... I started my search in June last year and thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn and XING I was very successful in finding quite a few of them in a number of countries,” she says.
On Thursday, some 15 alumni of the Anglican school will meet and exchange stories over three days of dinners, touring and reminiscences in the capital. They have all gone on to live in the far corners of the world, from the US to northern Europe to Australia, but they are all bound by the shared experiences of living through the revival of an ancient nation in its land.
This revival, says Zink, was very important to her as a child of Holocaust survivors and one of the few Jewish students to attend the school.
Born to a Jewish mother, her father was a German Christian who spent 12 years in various jails and concentration camps for his opposition to the Nazis and their racial policies.
Attending an international school instead of an Israeli one was a pragmatic choice for her parents, who met at Bergen-Belsen, Zink says. Not knowing how long he would remain in Israel as a correspondent for the Deutsche Presse-Agentur wire service, he preferred to send his daughter to a school in which she would learn English.
Speaking only German when she arrived, Zink recalls how she and her mother were confronted, only a few short years after the Holocaust, by a survivor who objected to hearing them converse.
“German was the only language I knew and we spoke and this man with tears in his eyes confronted us,” she remembers. “We stood together and my mother tried to comfort him and to explain to him that at this stage I didn’t speak Hebrew yet.”
This experience, she says, brought home the Holocaust and the importance of the State of Israel to her in a visceral way that has stayed with her for her entire life.
Like many of the children of diplomats, Zink recalls being heavily influenced by the political currents in Israel at the time. As her father, a founding member of the foreign press association and at one time Germany’s unofficial envoy, informed her about much of his work, she says, she experienced an early political awakening.
“So my father, besides being a foreign correspondent, was a friend of prime minister David Ben-Gurion and we were actually neighbors in Jerusalem,” she reminisces.
“So that was also a great political influence for me, [and] all these things had a great impact on me when I was growing up.”
It was an interesting and valuable experience to grow up in Israel as both an Israeli and a German Jew, Zink says. “Of course, I always knew that I am Jewish, having had contact with the Jewish community in Hamburg after the war and celebrating Jewish feasts in the synagogue. But it was coming to Israel that really made me feel Jewish, in the sense that I knew from then on that Israel is my emotional home. I live in Germany mainly for business reasons and indeed feel comfortable here, but going to Israel, as often as I do, always means coming home.”
The international school, Zink believes, improved her life by enabling her to “learn to understand and respect so many different religions and cultures.” At the time of her attendance, there were only some 40 children at the school.
“As a smaller group of pupils we had a very intensive time together at school, as much as children can possibly have, but didn’t really meet that often after that,” she says. “That is why – in spite of that – I am so very moved by the fact that when I contacted them after more than 50 years, every one of them was so excited and happy to hear from me again. They also realized that they too were now able to contact others after so many years.”
“So far, most of them had had absolutely no idea of how all the others had gone through life,” Zink adds. “I was the only one who stayed friends over the years with two girls: Marianne in Denmark and Yolanda in Australia.”
It seems that Zink, as both a German graduate of the international school and a Jew who lived in Israel through university, feels that she can act as a bridge to bring both the ideologically and geographically disparate together in Jerusalem, known in Jewish tradition as the center of the world. With her classmates gathering later this month to celebrate half a century since their time together in the Holy City, it seems she had indeed made herself into that bridge. •