Thinking of Germany…

Increased popularity of language and country


Goethe Institute’s installation at the Jerusalem book fair

Friedrich Dürrenmatt once wrote a lovely essay about a trip to Israel. As part of his travels, the author had been scheduled to hold talks in numerous cities across the country. Before his departure, he prepared his lecture. After his first talk, though, he was dissatisfied. He then spent the entire night revising his text. By the morning, he felt his text was much improved. But after his second lecture, in the second city, he again went back to revise his address. This repeated itself after the third lecture. After each talk, new insights compelled him to further go over his text. By the end of his travels, he had revised his talk at every stop along the way.

Revising impressions

Meanwhile I have spent a year in Israel. And I, too, am forced to constantly revise my impressions. But this essay is fortunately devoted to a rather concrete issue. Which image do Israelis have of Germany? The quick answer is: an exceptionally positive one. An attitude that impresses me. That moves me. And that makes me feel at a loss.

Certainly, the passage of time has played a role. Not that time can ever heal the wounds of the Shoah. But alongside this monstrous narrative another one has begun to emerge, one which draws on other experiences.

I meet a choreographer whose grandparents survived several different concentration camps. Long after the end of the war, these grandparents and their children traveled to Switzerland and took photographs of their feet standing just on the other side of the German border: never again would they set foot there. The choreographer tells me she understands that sentiment. But she herself feels differently. “Germany today is one of the freest countries of all. I work there quite often.” She even has a German boyfriend. And what does her family think of that? “The first meeting was difficult, for everyone. But now they really like him.”

And then there’s the creative who lived in Berlin for several years. “In Berlin, no one asks you who you are and where you’re from.” But that comes from a rather limited perspective, I object. He shrugs. “That’s my experience. Here in Israel I always have to be someone. Ashkenazi or Sephardic. Religious or secular. Jew or Arab. Left or right.”

President Reuven Rivlin has come to the opening of the German-Israeli year that marks the 50-year anniversary of diplomatic relations. He’s standing on the veranda of the German ambassador’s residence, addressing the audience. “Fifty years ago, I was one of the leaders of the protests against the establishment of diplomatic relations.” I nod involuntarily. I would have been back then, too, I am thinking to myself. “And today,” Rivlin continues with a smile, “I’m glad that we didn’t succeed back then.”

Our installation at the Jerusalem Book Fair is a major attraction. A frame approximately five meters wide and two and a half meters high encloses a grid made out of Plexiglas holding six thousand small blocks of wood. They are inscribed with German quotes by poets and philosophers of all sorts, in the original German as well as in Hebrew and Arabic translation. The wooden blocks are there for the visitors, to take with them. Watching the many people of all ages read the quotes and discuss them is a lovely sight. After one day, the wall is already empty.

Fania Oz-Salzberger brought two blocks to the podium discussion. “This quotation describes my father’s feelings.” She holds the famous quote by Heinrich Heine: “If I think of Germany at night/I am robbed of my sleep.” Fania explains: “My father often visits his German friends. But at night, at night in Germany, he can’t sleep.” She herself doesn’t feel that way. In Berlin, she perceives more than the years of terror. She also perceives the lingering memories of the 1920s, and the whole nineteenth century. For her, the German language also no longer has negative associations. “Language can be the last refuge of freedom.” A quote by Heinrich Böll, which graces her second wooden block.

The empty wall

The German language. Apart from a few extracurricular clubs, it was not taught at Israeli schools until recently. Now German is officially offered as an elective at some schools. Our language department is advertising at Tel Aviv University. We have brought with us an exhibition coming from the head quarters of the Goethe Institute, which offers all kinds of language materials. The exhibition provides a mildly ironic introduction to Germany and the German language, using the 26 letters of the alphabet. “Germany for Beginners” is the title. I can’t say I’m completely happy with everything in it. But so what? In the end, it’s reasonable enough. The demonstrator who stands in the entryway does not agree. He is holding up a placard decorated with reproductions of photographs of corpses from concentration camps. Nobody is paying attention to him. He’s about 35 years old. He wants to know where I’m from and if I’m Jewish. We start talking. Actually, he’s the only one who talks, and he talks about all kinds of things. Much of what he says seems chauvinistic to me. I try to counter his arguments. “Just stop it,” he interrupts me. “Stop with all your blather about Habermas. I’ve read them all, your idols of the left, and I have only one thing to say about that: Just because your own nationalism ended in a catastrophe that doesn’t mean that no one else is allowed to be a nationalist anymore. Or do you think you get to call the shots all over again?” The conversation leaves me troubled. On the way home, I spend a long time talking to an Israeli friend about it. “Just forget about it,” he says. “Putting up an exhibition like that doesn’t mean you’re relativizing the Shoah. You can’t hold a discussion with someone like that. It’s pointless. And anyhow, times have changed. 20 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to put up an exhibition like that at all.”

Laughing along

My favorite project we do together with Etgar Keret, one of the wittiest and most serious writers there is, and also a wonderfully endearing individual. His father survived the Nazi years spending 600 days in a hole in the ground. His mother was in the Warsaw Ghetto. One time when our project team met, I made a suggestion that must have been rather silly. Everyone started objecting vigorously. Finally, it was quiet again. And then Etgar said with a mischievous grin: “So that’s how it is. You Germans pay money. And we Jews yell at you anyhow.” “And what if I want to yell at you?” “Careful,” replied Etgar, and his smile grew wider. “I’m Second Generation. My parents are survivors.” Then he laughed out loud. I hesitated. And then, yes, I laughed along with him.

Postscript: according to a recent survey, 70 percent of Israelis have a positive opinion of Germany. It is not the same the other way round. Only 35 percent of Germans have a positive association with Israel – a statistic that has remained largely unchanged since the 1990s.

Wolf Iro is the director of the Goethe Institute in Israel

Photo Credit: Goethe-Institut/Noa Ben-Shalom (3)

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