Don't be late

Everything in the German embassy has a pristine look, from striped satin drapes to neutral seating areas.

german living room 88 248 (photo credit: Uriel Messa)
german living room 88 248
(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
At the residence of the German ambassador, they don't stand on ceremony. When I arrive at the gate in Herzliya Pituah - this is one appointment for which I really don't want to be late - it's opened by two men. One is a pleasant, ordinary looking gent in dark pants and open neck shirt, the other a tall and very handsome Cary Grant lookalike in a blue designer shirt which matches his eyes. A little confused and slightly uncomfortable as I often am in the presence of Germans, I manage to work it out as I am ushered into the residence. The Cary Grant one is Albert Graf, counselor in the press department, and the other one is the ambassador, Dr. Harald Kindermann, who brings me a glass of cold seltzer as we sit down to talk. Although the plan is to talk about the house and its contents, within minutes the conversation has turned to German-Jewish relations. The ambassador seems to want to talk, about his family, the past, what happened and how he came to be here. "Everyone knows what it is to be German in Israel," he says. He was born in 1949 in Bielefeld. "I grew up in postwar Germany when everything was destroyed," he says. His family would never talk about the past, but as a small boy he thought it was very odd that to see a doctor they would have to walk across town, when they had a doctor living in the same apartment building. "Why don't we go to Betty Lichtenstein's daughter, she's a doctor?" he asked his mother. He encountered what he calls "a wall of glass" and he felt the distance between his family and the neighboring Jewish one. But other than telling him that Betty Lichtenstein survived "it," his mother refused to explain. "She told me they were Jews, but I didn't know what that meant. There were not many Jews in Germany in 1958/9. So since neither my parents nor grandparents would explain, I went to the library and found out all I could on my own about what happened." Attracted by the secrecy of it all, he read everything he could get his hands on and by the time he had completed his studies as a lawyer, he had become an expert on German-Jewish relations, a fact which also facilitated his appointment as ambassador to Israel after postings in Bulgaria and Saudi Arabia. "To this day I have not discussed anything about the Holocaust with my father, who is today in his 90s," he says. "However, I often wonder about their involvement, and I think there are indications that the family was Nazi-related." In the three and a half years he has been here with his wife, he has found people to be extremely friendly. "People make a lot of effort to make my life easy in Israel," he says. "Today many new chapters are opening in our relationship, politically, economically and culturally." HE MAINTAINS contact with the people he refers to as "old yekkes" - the word has apparently entered the German language - and also with survivors, and he feels that this is a good thing. "You can't build a future by ignoring the past," he says. He gives lectures on the subject, both here and in Germany and understands the reservations he sometimes encounters among Jews. "If after such a catastrophe there would not be difficulties in our personal relationships, that would be out of order," he maintains. "As German ambassador I feel obligated to deal with the past." Diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany were established in 1965 and the residence was purchased then. Graf, who seems greatly relieved that we have moved on from talking about Nazis to décor, tells me that every new ambassador's wife thinks her predecessor had bad taste and insists on buying new furniture and accessories, so everything in the living areas has a pristine look, from the striped satin drapes to the neutrally shaded seating areas. The overall look is certainly minimalistic, and there is a pleasant blending of contemporary with several antique pieces brought over from the fatherland. The ambassador points out that the house was designed as a continuation of the classical Bauhaus style so prominent in Tel Aviv, so that the rather square look, the preeminence of glass and the overall sober atmosphere are all expressions of this continuity, as are the smaller items like art-deco lamps and glass-topped tables. He is particularly proud of his art collection, which graces several walls in the house. While some are family paintings from home, he has acquired many examples of Israeli art, all of which he bought in Tel Aviv. Sadly, because of the propensity of artists to write their signatures illegibly, I can't report on any of the artists hanging there, but I can say it is an eclectic selection. "I follow my taste," says the ambassador. To be even-handed he also has a collection of memorabilia from his jaunt in Saudi Arabia. On German National Day, a thousand people crowd into the house, the balcony and the gardens. "The guests are invited for seven, and at one minute to seven all the yekkes are lined up outside, the men all in suits and ties. Exactly at seven they all walk in," Kindermann tells me. "I often don't dress formally, but when I know I'm meeting with yekkes I take a tie and jacket with me." He points out a part of the garden which he sets aside for the elderly Germans who will attend his reception, where he puts out chairs so they can all sit. Sometimes he goes to lecture in a retirement home where German Jews who came here in the 1930s now live. "They serve me coffee and apple cake on small china plates and speak perfect high German. I feel like a child again and know I must be on my best behavior." Kindermann escorts me to the door and we say good-bye. He tells me he feels optimistic for the future. "If we have been able to overcome that kind of conflict - the Holocaust - then humans can end all conflict," he says. "It makes me hopeful for the future of peace."