When you wander though Berlin’s historical cobbled stone streets, past the vintage stores and beautiful art nouveau facades, you can literally feel the presence of history. In front of the houses where German Jews once lived, on the pavement, just within cobbles, there are tiny metal paving stones embedded into the ground. Each one of those individually made ‘Stolpersteine’, tripping stones, carries the engraved name, birth- and deportation date of a former Jewish resident. A memorial to remind of the vibrant Jewish life that once took place in Berlin.
But, against all odds, Jewish life is coming back to Germany, predominantly to the capital, to Berlin. Israeli students and young professionals appear to be very attracted to Berlin’s multicultural and laid-back way of life. According to recent estimates there are 20.000 Israelis living in Berlin – with rising tendency.
How does it feel for Israelis to live in Berlin? Were there reservations prior to moving to a city from where over 50.000 Jews once have vanished? “No”, says Dinah, a language student from Tel Aviv, “I do not constantly think about the Holocaust just because I am in Berlin now. I barely think about it anyway.”
“The Shoah plays no part in our daily life here”. Lior adds “at least not anymore.” Dinah and Lior are a couple and in their early twenties. They met in Berlin while attending German class. Lior, a good-looking young freelance writer and blogger from Haifa, always knew that one day he would be living in Berlin. “I wanted to be a part of this unique city ever since I can remember”, Lior’s Grandfather who survived the Holocaust in Poland and who later emigrated to Israel, was appalled by his grandson’s desire to move to Germany. “But Berlin is not Germany, as they say. It’s different”, Lior argues with a smirk. His parents always encouraged him to try his luck in Berlin. Europe is safe for Jews – isn’t it? After what happened in Paris and Copenhagen, European Jews are alert. There is a growing anti-Semitism in certain parts of European society that no one can deny. Antiquated views, ignorance, and animosity towards Israel and its government bring about hatred and discord. And even though the number of anti-Semites in Europe is still vanishingly small, the impact of our personal sense of security is grave.
Dinah admits that her family in Israel would be relieved if she decided to come home. They are worried. Dinah and Lior both simultaneously shake their heads. They will not leave. They feel save in Berlin, despite the recent events.
Scene change. Kollwitzplatz. A picturesque town square in the Prenzlauer Berg district. Yael and her husband Daniel are both in their mid-thirties. They met as students in Israel and moved to Berlin six years ago. Being from Israel, they say, was never something they hid from the locals or from other expats. On the contrary, they visited the nearby synagogue at Rykestrasse, met at the Kosher Deli and spoke Hebrew openly. They never felt unsafe in Prenzlauer Berg, which is located in the eastern part of Berlin. Unfortunately, things have changed. “We sense a subtle anti-Semitism among European Muslims and some people on the far left”, says Yael. She even had some unpleasant encounters whilst shopping in other parts of the city. “One day, a group of young men overheard a friend and me as we were having a conversation in Hebrew. Out of the blue they began to curse at us in a mix of Arabic and German. I knew it was about Palestine. It is always about Palestine.” Luckily, such incidents are extremely rare. Both the Jewish and the Muslim community are anxious to live together peacefully. And still, Yael now avoids speaking Hebrew in public.
In spite of negative predictions for the safety of Jews in Europe, Jewish life and culture is flourishing in Berlin. Within the old Jewish quarters one can get the best hummus in town. Kosher Delis, restaurants and cafes spring up, events and festivals with typical Israeli music and food take place in all parts of the city, and even a magazine is being published. The magazine named ‘Spitz’ is written exclusively for Israeli expats in Berlin. The (Israeli) community is growing steadily. Within Germany, Berlin has become an enclave for people from Israel. If you listen carefully, you can hear a variety of different languages in the streets. Apart from German, English, Spanish, Turkish, and Arabic you can also hear Hebrew all across the city. At mild summer nights you can see Arabs and Israelis sit together in the city parks, blithely, smoking shisha and laughing lustily. They come together in a respectful manner and manage to see behind each other’s curtain. Far away from home it is easier to reduce prejudices.
I am very Jewish in Berlin. A sentence you get to hear quite often. Israelis, who used to live a secular life at home, suddenly become religious once they are in Berlin. They discover their Jewishness and begin to value their religion and spirituality highly. There is even talk of a “new exodus to the promised city of Berlin”. The city, too, profits from the huge attraction that it has on young people from Israel. Berlin needs this diversity to thrive.
Some Israelis are going to return home one day. Some of them will return with only good memories, some of them won’t. However, it is fair to say that to Israelis Berlin is more than just a cheap party metropolis. It is a place of history. And to some, Berlin is their very own journey to self-discovery.
(Image: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com)