FEATURE: Home Is Where the Heart Is
Over 10,000 Israelis have moved to Berlin in the past decade, 75 years after the end of the Holocaust. They can tell us a lot about what it means to make a home.
My Israeli mother didn’t want me to go to Berlin. My British father was slightly less bothered. Two years ago, I’d told her that maybe, one day, I might want to live in Berlin, and was worried about losing access to the rest of Europe due to Brexit. She couldn’t have cared less. When I told her we could get Polish passports, because of our Polish ancestry, she spat, “They didn’t want us, so I don’t want them.” When I called to convince her to let me spend the summer before my senior year of college in Poland and Germany, I was happy to accept her safety checklist in lieu of a no. She didn’t want me to be alone. She didn’t want me staying in hostels. She didn’t want me talking to strangers. She didn’t want me wearing my Magen David — Star of David, in English, a translation that ignores the root verb in Magen: to protect.
I arrive in Berlin in early June, having snubbed more than one of my mother’s many rules. On the U-Bahn from Tegel Airport to my Airbnb in Neukölln, I notice everyone in my train carriage is blond. I sit with four blond girls on two parallel fabric benches. They are all friends, chatting enthusiastically in German. They look the same, save a freckle here, a piercing there. Occasionally, one girl’s eyes will flicker in my direction, catch me, return to her friends. I’m coddling a backpack on my lap, one arm stretched out, gripping the handle of a huge suitcase to my side, which partially blocks the internal corridor of the train carriage. People have to squeeze past, and I loudly and clumsily whack my suitcase in some direction, attempting to clear the way. The blond girls look over, look back, say something to each other in German. I find myself fearful of this innocuous group of girls, who are more likely to be judging my travel clothes than any part of me that’s identifiably Jewish. Still, I tuck my Magen David under my T-shirt.
I’d flown from Poland that morning, refusing to take the train. I can’t help but feel some ancestral weight on trains. Especially between Germany and Poland. My grandmother’s entire extended family was murdered across concentration camps in Poland. Her one surviving cousin, Freddy Diament, watched his brother — my first cousin, twice removed — hanged at Auschwitz after his escape plot was uncovered by German guards. Freddy and his brother, Leo Yehuda Diament, both Polish Jews, grew up in Germany, born in the coal-mining town of Gelsen Kirschen. Their parents’ furniture store was destroyed during Kristallnacht as part of the Nazi campaign of violence and terror. The other corners of my grandparents’ lives —in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Lithuania — are also filled with violence, stories of pogroms and exiles. Leo Yehuda Diament spent six weeks with three of his friends in Auschwitz’s Block 10, the torture bunker, before the gallows were erected. He had been building an underground resistance, using his position as a commandant’s assistant to spy and report back to his team of resistance fighters.
Leo Yehuda Diament was hanged last of the three, after Janek Grossfeld and Chaim Nathan Weissman. Before the hangman yanked away his crate and the erected gallows took his life, he shouted out: “Courage, comrades! We are the last victims! Long live liberty!”
When I arrive in Neukölln, I schlep my suitcase up four flights of stairs, only to find a clogged toilet. I really need to pee, so I hop back downstairs to use the loo in the Turkish place across the road. And there, in the back corner, I overhear a mother and daughter talking about some relationship troubles. Both of them have curly hair. And it takes me a second to realize they’re speaking in Hebrew.
I’m in Berlin for six weeks — and I hear Hebrew every day.
In the past decade, around 10,000 Israelis have moved to Berlin. Many have done so by virtue of a law passed by Germany to grant German passports to Jews whose families were persecuted, murdered or exiled during the Nazi era. Many of these Israelis, therefore, have German citizenship. Since the floodgates of Israeli immigration have opened, Israeli restaurants, magazines and nightclubs have erupted throughout the city. For a country whose Jewish culture was more or less obliterated during the 1930s and 1940s (reduced from around half a million in 1933 to 20,000–30,000 in 1950), the sudden spike in Israeli immigration is a dramatic development.
Israelis offer Berlin a new kind of Jewish culture. And Berlin offers Israelis something too: an expansive, creative metropolis; a haven of progressive politics; and a new framework for healing. On almost every street of Berlin sits a small memorial to victims of the Holocaust: 4-by-4-inch brass plaques by Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, each adorned with an individual name. These plaques are called Stolpersteine memorials, translating to stumbling blocks. We stumble upon them, or groups of them: whole families. These footsteps of the past help direct us to the present, the future. Walking around Berlin, I think of Jews and Germans, of traumatized nations and nations bred into violence. I think of Israel, too.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, many of my Israeli friends and family put me in touch with Israelis they know living in Berlin. Everyone in Israel has a cousin or childhood friend who’s made the big move. They assume we will become friends, because that’s what Israelis do. They find each other.
I meet Tom Castel, my friend’s roommate’s brother, in a small outdoor park, a concrete square with a shallow pool in the center. The park is bordered by a green hedge along its perimeter, but inside it’s all gray. On one bench, I notice a pile of abandoned clothes. Children splash in the water, cooling off from the harsh German heat. We are in Friedrichshain, a gentrified neighborhood in former East Berlin. Castel, one of its inhabitants, is gruff and sporting a short ginger beard. He tells me about his job, working in various craft beer and specialty coffee companies. He’s currently opening a new café, a German installment of an Israeli favorite, Cafelix. I immediately know what he’s talking about, recognizing the café as one of my mother’s go-tos, about a 15-minute walk from our apartment in Tel Aviv (I grew up in both Tel Aviv and London, before moving to the U.S. for college). It’s a small place, on the corner of a fairly residential street in Dizengoff. We always get our coffees to go, perch on some bench in a nearby street, and chat as we slurp. And now there’s a Cafelix in Berlin.
Castel, who grew up in Tel Aviv, came to Berlin to study architecture in 2015. He picked Berlin fairly arbitrarily, hoping to find a European city to relocate to during his studies. Originally, Castel began his degree at Bezalel Academy, a prestigious art and design school in Jerusalem. His matriculation corresponded with the Second Intifada, a prolonged period of Israeli-Palestinian violence (for many Israelis, this was seen as a terror campaign; for Palestinians, a fight for liberation). Around 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis died. Israel erected a separatist wall to stop the flow of suicide bombers from the West Bank, splitting families. Palestinian bombers blew up buses. The gas station café in Haifa where my parents had their first date was blown up. Israeli backlash was violent, deadly. “I don’t want to live in a warzone,” Castel told me.
But he found something else when he moved to Berlin; he felt more at home than he ever did in Israel. Castel is soft-spoken and polite. His mannerisms are gentle. He shows me his backpack, which he made himself using a small burlap sack and two thin ropes. He tells me he likes making things with his hands. He likes German orderliness and punctuality. He speaks German fluently and likes to practice his English with me, since he spends most of his time speaking Hebrew with other Israelis. Israelis have a reputation for being rude, direct and emotional. “I kind of always felt a bit misplaced,” he told me. He describes a general feeling of unbelonging; an alienation from an excessively “aggressive” as well as excessively “warm” culture. He didn’t always want to “hug” or “fight” to get what he wanted. “Whenever I went to Europe or visited or whatever I felt kind of like I was coming back home.”
Castel rock climbs twice a week and invites me to join him. We’re immediately friendly: catching up on Israel-related stuff, figuring out who our mutual friends are. Tel Aviv is a small place. He tells me that one of the reasons so many Israelis move to Berlin is because of Israel’s size: Germany is around 17 times bigger. “One of the things I hear a lot for some reason is that people have already slept with the whole community so they cannot be part of it anymore,” he jokes. Berlin, on the other hand, feels unimaginably big. “I can walk in Tel Aviv really freely and feel like all the world is the same and… like it’s so free and so nice but in the end, this is just because everyone is like me. And if I go a few kilometers either way, I just find different people who accept me less and I’ll probably accept them less.”
He’s right that Berlin is an incredibly multicultural place. I notice people default to English often, and some restaurants serve exclusively English menus. In 2014 and 2015, millions of refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia poured into Europe, often fleeing violence. Germany opened its door, wide. Over 1.4 million people — the majority of whom are Syrian — have applied for asylum since then. Many people from many places are confronting what it means to build a new culture, a new home. And what it means to build one in the context of violence or xenophobia, since some Germans have responded to the refugee crisis with Islamophobic violence and rhetoric, reigniting a right-wing force that has shaken Germany’s post-War notion of self.
Castel tells me he’s not planning to move back to Israel. He’s found a leftist, multicultural community here. I wonder if he’s found something in Berlin — along with some 10,000 others — that Israel needs, too.
On another night, Castel invites me to meet his friend, Itay Cohen, at a makeshift music festival in Neukölln. When I arrive, Cohen is wearing a black T-shirt and black shorts, his arms are covered in tattoos, and both his beard and hair length are of fantasy proportions. The boys are there with Cohen’s long-term German girlfriend, Ricki, and a few of her German friends. From the concert we go hunting for beer, eventually finding some in a sliding fridge at the back corner of a falafel place. We get on the U-Bahn, and I watch the Germans among us debate which end of the train we need to get on, so that when we get out at the station we’ll be right by the exit of the platform. “This is the most German thing ever,” Cohen tells me, referencing the Germans’ obsession with condensing travel time. Eventually, we arrive at the club. Entering it feels like passing through that little door in “Alice in Wonderland”: The place is huge, with several outdoor bars and dance floors. We find a small corner, between bushes and trees, with a few benches. The music is quieter there. A few people come around to pee in the greenery, avoiding the long queues for the toilets.
We divide up: Israelis on one side, Germans on the other. I ask Cohen some questions about Israel, and that’s enough to launch him into a passionate speech. Another uniting theme of Israelis in Berlin: “They’re lefties” (as Castel put it). I learn that Cohen and Castel left Israel not just because Berlin is cheaper and cooler and bigger than Tel Aviv is, but because they didn’t want to take any part in the Israeli occupation.
Cohen explained that he just couldn’t handle all the politics anymore.
“It’s not just the government,” Castel added in a later conversation: “The things that are okay to say or okay to think in a matter of like racist ideas, or even fascist ideas… are kind of a general way of thinking.”
I asked about staying in Israel, about getting active and fighting the occupation.
“Whatever you do is not enough,” Castel explains, “whatever you do, everything around you is — I don’t know, kind of wrong.” I know exactly what he means. Growing up in London, I felt like a kind of minority as a Jew. In Israel, I’m the majority. And as a member of the majority, I’m also the oppressor. The time I spend in Israel — even as an Israeli — is always hard; the weight of the occupation, its violence and destruction, and especially its guilt, are heavy on your shoulders. It’s easy to feel powerless and despairing. I don’t blame them for wanting an escape — I have one myself.
Cohen explains to me that he’s not a Zionist by any means. He is against all forms of nationalism. He refuses to conform to any “us” and “them” mentality or language, even in terms of safety. Does he understand wanting to be safe, wanting to find a safe place, if someone’s trying to kill you? Yes. But it could be Norway, or wherever else. “It’s like fighting nationalism with nationalism. You know, it’s like fighting fascism with fascism. I don’t think that’s the solution.” When I ask him if he would ever move back to Israel, he says no without hesitating. “If the Nazis now will rise again and I will need to flee I will probably move somewhere else. Like not to Israel — to a different country.”
The night grows darker. I wait in line for the toilets; there’s a crowd everywhere. In my stall I notice a bloody tampon on the ground and “FUCK NAZIS” stickers on the walls. I try to avoid touching anything. Tom later walks me to the U-Bahn. It’s getting late but I’m the only one to leave. He invites me to come rock climbing with him tomorrow and we hug goodbye. The U-Bahn pushes out of the platform, pulls me home. When I leave the train, I’m on the wrong side of the platform, but I don’t mind the long walk to the street exit.
Berlin feels like it’s leaking. Leaking with memories, histories, memorials, museums. I also feel like I’m leaking, sweating profusely as I walk through the large concrete slabs that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I leak as I spend hours trailing the outdoor exhibition of Nazi history at the Topography of Terror. I leak as I wait in line for hours to enter an all-weekend dance party, watching the large German bouncer at the door with a shaved head and a septum piercing accept and reject the load of young people in mesh and make up. I imagine him looking at my ID, recognizing my name, and telling me they don’t take Jews here. I practice my impassioned response (“WELL MY ANCESTORS….”). When the bouncer asks me something in German and I stare at him blankly, he shakes his head, and I walk-of-shame back toward the U-Bahn. I find myself calling my mother, who immediately tells me to stop speaking in Hebrew, lest I have a death wish.
For the first few weeks in Berlin, I feel like the Holocaust follows me everywhere I go. I can’t stop thinking about it. I wonder if I’m the problem — has my family poisoned me with irrational fears? My mother is afraid of everyone, convinced Jew-hating runs deep in the blood of all our non-Jewish neighbors. Sometimes I think she’s right; sometimes I get sad: she’s so afraid. I want her to breathe easy. I want to breathe easy.
In a follow up conversation, I ask Cohen if he ever thinks about the Holocaust. He explains to me that he thinks of the Holocaust less after moving to Berlin. “[In Israel,] I was obsessed. Like, we were always making Holocaust jokes or, you know, references to the Holocaust … There is not one day without me thinking about the Holocaust … We are this traumatized and obsessed nation.” Again, I know what he’s talking about. Israelis live for Holocaust humor. My best friend, whose grandparents are German Holocaust survivors, used to post pictures of Hitler holding a cake on my Facebook Timeline for my birthday (much to the confusion of my British friends). A common slang word in Israel is Shoah, which translates directly to “the Holocaust” — I hear it used every day to describe something unfortunate. You have an essay due tomorrow morning? Shoah. The air conditioning broke? Shoah.
I wonder with Cohen about anti-Semitism. I tell him about growing up as a Jewish Israeli in London — about nose jokes, money jokes. The occasional “what’s the difference between a pizza and a Jew.” (“A pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in an oven” is the punchline — an Israeli friend recently pointed out that neither did Jews; they were already dead by then.) Cohen pretty much hasn’t experienced anything like that. He can recall a few moments of discomfort: Most of them concern clashes between Israelis and Syrians and Palestinians in hummus and falafel restaurants. This type of thing doesn’t make him afraid, just disappointed in the poisons of nationalism, and the unfortunate way the “Israeli” label can breed mistrust in others. Once, Cohen started chatting with two older German men after asking them for a lighter. When they learned that he was Jewish, they began spouting anti-Semitic abuse, telling him that “Jews control the U.S. government.” He said it was horrible. But that’s pretty much it.
Since moving to Berlin, Cohen has learned what it means to be one of the few. He explains the refreshing ease of meeting other Israelis, or even Jews in general; “They understand my jokes,” he tells me. The reason why Berlin may be lower down on the anti-Semitism scale than London or Paris might have something to do with its violent history. “We feel like even more comfortable because we have this feeling like they owe us, you know? They did something really bad,” Cohen laughs. “He needs to prove that he’s not a Nazi first.” Cohen mentions the Nazis outside of Berlin, or the Nazis in the black metal music scene that he’s a part of. “There are some real Nazis, you know, not like some blond girls on the train.” He grins, poking fun at me.
Even though Cohen thinks about the Holocaust less since moving to Berlin, the subject matter has taken on a new weight. Instead of being the batter for trauma-induced black humor, the Holocaust feels “like something really deep and sad to me that it wasn’t before… It’s harder for me now to think about.” But even though the Holocaust is harder for Cohen to reckon with, moving to Berlin has also offered him a new way of relating to its memory. “It’s something to do with being here and knowing the people, and I know the language, know what is German, being in a relationship with a German person, you know… all this stuff is kind of like… it heals the wound.”
On my last day in Berlin, I walk to Tempelhofer Feld. It’s a huge, empty plot of green. The plot of land was originally a military parade ground, which became an airport in the 1920s. The Terminal — which still stands as a kind of memorial — was designed in 1936 by Ernst Sagebiel for Hitler, in a style custom to Nazi monuments. The airport was closed in 2008, and the airfield was transformed into a public park. It is a hard place to describe. It is expansive and flat — people bike, skate and run down the abandoned runway. It’s flat enough to see everything, but it’s too big. It would feel apocalyptic if not for the many people with blankets and beers spread through the grass.
I feel a bit more like a Berliner now. I’m holding an open Radler (a beer infused with lemonade) and my notebook. I’ve learned several terms for drinking beer on the go, and I know now that when your bottle is empty, you should rest it on a street corner for people to collect in exchange for some money. I am averaging three beers a day, and I almost like the taste.
The abandoned Nazi Terminal, I learn, is newly famous for functioning as a kind of illegal refugee shelter. Germany leaks history, recycles it, fights it.
Castel, in our first conversation, told me that Israeli Berliners are building a new culture, but he doesn’t know exactly how to describe it. Israelis here are different from the ones back home. I offered him the word “aufheben,” a German word I learned in an intellectual history class. It means to create something new through negation or destruction; to lift up; to sublate. For Hegel and Marx, it references how the clash of two things can create something new. Think of a flower, my professor said, when its bud is destroyed, the flower blooms.
I’m not certain that destruction always leads to something beautiful. But I am sitting on the field; I am imagining. History moves beyond me, through me. It pushes past. I walk through the field; I sip my Radler. I feel free — which means I am one of the lucky ones.