A town in Europe: Berlin, the new Tel Aviv

Flyers for events organised by Berlin Meschugge
Flyers for events organised by Berlin Meschugge
7 September 2010 – Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich)

"You’ve never experienced a city like this one before,” they say. Berlin is the European city of choice for Israelis. Above and beyond bitter remembrances of expulsion and extermination, what they seek there now is, first and foremost, fun.

Amit and Eynat Sonnenfeld are lugging seven plastic bags through the city; they’re visibly perspiring, but now is not the time for a coffee or ice cream break: they’re in a hurry. The air is warm and humid, as in Tel Aviv. People are pushing and shoving their way through the throng on the narrow pavement at Hackescher Markt. The couple wish they could get away from the crunch, but Eynat Sonnenfeld stops and fishes a slip of paper out of her pocket. This is her to-do list, with two items on it for today: “Birkenstocks” and “Sachsenhausen”, the former concentration camp near Oranienburg.

Amit Sonnenfeld swears by Birkenstocks. The company runs poster ads in Israel saying “Made in Germany”. But since the shoes are more expensive down there than in Germany, Amit Sonnenfeld goes ahead and buys three pairs at one fell swoop. Then he wonders whether he’d look funny walking through the concentration camp memorial toting Birkenstock and Zara bags.

Number of Israeli tourists staying in Berlin hotels has quintupled

Amit Sonnenfeld runs a balloon factory; his wife is a “therapeutic clown”, visiting children with cancer in intensive care units. This is their first holiday in a long time and their first trip ever to Germany. Eynat Sonnenfeld is thrilled: “Berlin is so colourful! It has nothing to do with the image of Germany I grew up with.” Her husband says, “I have a hard time imagining my father being deported from here to Sachsenhausen.”

Berlin is booming in the holy land. There are vintage shops in Tel Aviv called “Salon Berlin”, German courses at the Goethe-Instituts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are booked solid. Five years ago there was only one non-stop flight from Tel Aviv and Berlin, today there are sometimes three on a single day. Lufthansa has four widebody aircraft flying daily to Germany.

The city in which the annihilation of the Jews was decided has now become a more popular destination among Israeli holidaymakers than Prague or Barcelona. Over the past ten years, the number of Israeli tourists staying in Berlin hotels has quintupled. Close to 48,000 Israeli tourists visited Berlin last year alone. That makes tourists from Israel, with a population of only seven million, the second-biggest non-European contingent of visitors, after the US – pop. 300 million.

Berlin is Tel Aviv on the Spree

Israelis also like to settle down in Berlin: the number of Israeli residents officially registered in Berlin increased by half from 1999 to 2009. There are now twice as many Israeli students at the two Berlin universities than in 2000. And they like to buy flats and houses here, especially in the districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. The weekend real estate sections of Israeli newspapers are full of ads for properties in Berlin. 70 years after the Nazis drove Jews out of their homes, it is now bon ton in Israel to be in on the Berlin housing market.

Berlin is Tel Aviv on the river Spree. You hear Hebrew in the streets and clubs here. Israelis no longer associate Berlin with annihilation and expulsion. But mainly with fun – and inexpensive living. You can book sightseeing tours in Hebrew to plunge into the Kreuzberg nightlife – or Jewish Berlin past and present. You can even dance to Ofra Haza pop songs at a “meschugge” party in a backstreet club at Rosenthaler Platz.

Relief from the burden of the past

There are still some Israelis who would never set foot on German soil. But there are more and more like Aviv Russ who can’t get enough of Germany. To live in Berlin, where no Jew would ever live again if the Nazis had had their way, is also a triumph. And a relief from the burden of history.

Growing up in Israel, you learn the story of the Holocaust from your childhood, you have neighbours with concentration camp numbers branded on their arms, you visit Auschwitz with your class. Young Israelis and couples like the Sonnenfelds who come to Berlin want to get to know the new Germany. “Paradoxically,” observes tour operator Kieker, “they feel they’re in good hands in Berlin, although naturally there’s an element of horror to every visit too.” Horror at the fact that Hitler once reigned here and Jews were deported to the death camps. On his trips to Israel, however, Kieker observes a change of mindset: “The younger generation, like their parents, say we won’t forget a thing. But they don’t want to make an issue of it everyday.” Though sometimes the issue arises all by itself.

It all comes together

After having lost their way a few times, Amit and Eynat Sonnenfeld eventually made it to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial site. They had an hour left: “We walked straight onto the grounds and we were surprised there was a café at the entrance. Who needs a café at a former concentration camp?”

Amit Sonnenfeld called his father in Israel. Father and son were “so moved they could hardly speak”, recalls Amit: in the museum was a drawing depicting his father. “Then we were so exhausted we didn’t feel like taking the train back.” So the Sonnenfelds splurged on a 60 km cab ride back to their hotel in Berlin. They’ll never forget that ride. The driver was old, recalls Amit, who asked him where he was from. “From Oranienburg,” he replied. And his parents? Likewise. The Sonnenfelds did some rapid arithmetic: could the taxi driver’s parents have worked in the concentration camp? But they didn’t dare ask. Instead Amit proffered the information that his father had been interned at the camp. The driver was silent, not another word was spoken for a whole hour till they arrived at the hotel. “That was a heavy silence,” recalls Amit.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz

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