I find Uri in a Nahariya park, where we had earlier agreed to meet. A sea breeze off Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast gently rattles the leaves of an overhanging tree. At the age of 67, Uri still has a spring in his step as he leads me to a shaded bench. He is delighted, he says, to share with me the story of his move to Israel from Berlin.
Born in Berlin in late 1942, Uri survived the Holocaust due to the quick thinking of an uncle, who hid him from the Nazis until the war was over. However, most of his close relatives died in Nazi concentration camps. As traumatic as this experience obviously was, Uri chose to remain in Germany throughout his adolescence and most of his adulthood. He was raised by distant relatives in West Berlin. “I was a ‘real’ Berliner,” Uris says with a slight smile. He spoke the local dialect of the area and opened a shoe store in the neighborhood. Business there was brisk, and Uris felt at home in the city of his birth.
“It was important to me,” Uris explains, “to maintain a Jewish presence in Germany. To leave – that felt to me like the Nazis won. And so I stayed.” Uri married and raised his family there. His oldest son, Eli, made aliyah after he graduated from the university, but Uri remained steadfast.
About 30 years ago, Uri began to notice changes in Berlin, which was becoming a more multicultural city. He saw this as a positive sign. The neighborhood in which his shop was located was soon surrounded by shopkeepers from Turkey, Italy, and elsewhere. Muslims became more and more prevalent in the area, but he thought nothing of this until a brick was thrown through his shop window after he displayed the Israeli flag there. Uri had assumed that in a multicultural city like Berlin, such shows of ethnic pride would be acceptable. But he was wrong.
Over the next decade, his shop lost business, as neo-Nazis and Arab teens often scribbled graffiti on the sidewalk in front or shattered his display windows. As his business failed, Uri also found himself feeling more uncomfortable in the streets when he wore his yarmulke or otherwise displayed his Jewish identity. After years of indecision, he and his wife made the decision to join his oldest son in Israel.
The German Jewish Experience
The experience of Jews in Germany is certainly the most documented in modern Jewish history. After the almost complete annihilation of the German Jewish population in the 1930s-1940s, the remaining survivors often elected to leave the country, with many settling in the newly formed state of Israel. However, others chose Uri’s path, re-establishing their lives in the only neighborhoods they had ever known.
In recent years, particularly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Germany’s Jewish population has been replenished by Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries. Today there are approximately 200,000 Jews living in Germany.
For many years after the unthinkable Holocaust experience, Germany created a more hospitable environment for its remaining Jewish population and welcomed new immigrants. Particularly in the last decade, however, the types of incidents which Uri experienced have become more prevalent in certain quarters.
German Jews in Israel
The history of German Jews in Israel is a rich one, dating back to the days of the British Mandate of Palestine, when refugees from Nazi Germany played a critical role in building the cultural and political climate of Israel as it became a modern democracy. While these early immigrants were known as “Yekkes,” meaning “slow,” the German Jews soon demonstrated that they were anything but slow. The Western European flavor they brought with them influenced everything from art movements to the country’s legal system. “Yekke” architects brought the Bauhaus style to Tel Aviv and literally changed the look of a country, and European-style coffee shops flourished on every corner.
Some immigrants chose to build their own colonies or neighborhoods, which helped provide a feeling of home while they began life in a new country. If you walk the streets of Haifa’s old German Colony today, you’ll catch glimpses of that earlier lifestyle. And Uri’s new city, Nahariya, was founded by German immigrants in the early 1930s. Unlike most other Galilee-area settlements, it was established without the assistance of Jewish agencies, through the labor and initiative of German pioneers.
Certainly German Jews are integrated into the full fabric of Israeli life today. And Uri is finding that his own assimilation is not as difficult as he had feared. His homesickness is eased by the presence of so many relatives in the area, including his son Eli and the family he has established here. Uri spends many hours playing with his young grandchildren in the park in which we sit, as well as taking walks along the beach – a new and pleasant experience for him.
Uri is philosophical today. “I stayed in Germany for many years to make my point and reclaim my country, “he says. “And now I have claimed my true homeland, where I will always feel welcome.”