Germany to honor mayor who boycotted country

Haifa mayor Yahav, who refused to visit as a matter of principle, says his German-Jewish parents would be proud of award.

Horst Köhler with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav 370 (photo credit: Tzvi Ruger/Haifa Municipality)
Horst Köhler with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav 370
(photo credit: Tzvi Ruger/Haifa Municipality)
Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa who used to boycott Germany because of the Holocaust, is now receiving one of Berlin’s highest honors.
Yahav, whose parents fled Cologne when the Nazis came to power in 1933, will be awarded Germany’s Grand Merit Cross, it was announced on Monday.
The accolade 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 Erfurt.
“As mayor, you worked extensively to advance and strengthen ties between Israel and Germany,” the German Embassy in Israel wrote in a letter to Yahav.
“You have managed to foster municipal exchanges on several levels in the fields of economy, politics, culture and interpersonal relations.”
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 visit.”
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.
“The 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 attractions.
Yahav has not forgotten the persecution that caused Jews like his parents to emigrate, but he seems to have turned over a new leaf.
Asked what his mother and father would think of the medal he will receive, he said that he believes they would feel pride.
“My parents remembered Germany as a hate-filled place of persecution,” he said.
“But 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.”