The Germans Who Try to Make Amends

A staggering 75 per cent of all overseas volunteers come from Germany. Many of them make their commitment to Israel permanent, even converting to Judaism. But their love for the Jewish state is not always reciprocated



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, October 11, 1999


"You have everything I want in this life," Ellen confides to a visitor at her small Jerusalem apartment. "To be a Jew and an Israeli." For Ellen, it's more than just wishful thinking. Any day now the 23-year-old from Germany is expecting her summons from the Jerusalem rabbinate to the oral exam required of prospective converts to Judaism.

A German and an Israeli cheer together at a sporting event (photos: picture-alliance)

A tall, blue-eyed blonde from a prosperous village near Heidelberg who says she was always a Jew at heart, Ellen came to Israel in September 1996 for a half-year stint as an au pair. She has left only twice since then – once to visit her family for a week and once for a short trip to Cyprus to renew her Israeli tourist visa. Both times she felt terribly "homesick." "I missed Israel so much I thought I was going crazy," she says, sitting cross-legged on a mattress in the frugally furnished room she rents, fingering her hefty Star of David medallion. "I thought, OK, I am a German Christian. What do I have to do with this country?"

Quite a lot, it seems. Soon after arriving here, Ellen found herself standing in the middle of Ben-Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem, crying her eyes out for no apparent reason. "I felt such a strong love for this nation and had such a strong desire to belong to it," she says. She started visiting religious families for Shabbat dinners, enrolled in an ulpan to learn Hebrew, and decided she had to convert and settle in Israel. That meant trading the comfortable prospects of middle-class Germany for the uncertainties of being a stranger in a strange land. She has scraped by doing odd housekeeping jobs for Jewish families while dreaming of the citizenship, after her conversion, that will entitle her to work legally in Israel as a nurse. "Everything would be a lot easier in Germany, she acknowledges. "But I could never go back. This is where I belong."

Ellen's infatuation with the Jewish state and Judaism is shared by a lot of other young Germans. At any given time, dozens are taking conversion classes here, undeterred by the strict demands of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.


At the Orthodox Kibbutz Yavneh, near Ashdod, which offers a five-month "crash" course for prospective converts, Germans account for about a quarter of the 20 or so students each term, says program director Miriam Schlusselberg. They learn the minutiae of religious rites and settle into a rigid Orthodox way of life. "Just why they want to convert and become Israelis is not always clear," muses Schlusselberg. "They may feel they want to compensate for what happened during the war. But they're very far removed personally from the Holocaust, and I haven't heard anyone say they want to convert because of the Shoah."

A young German volunteer with a Holocaust survivor in Israel

All the same, the Holocaust is inevitably there, in conversations, explanations, decisions. What better refuge from their nation's historical shame than becoming one with the victims? Ellen remembers watching educational documentaries in high school about Germans and Jews during the war – and identifying with the latter. "I always felt I was with the Jews," she says. "I thought if something like the Holocaust happened today I would be on their side."

Doris Beck, a 36-year-old former accountant from a village near Stuttgart, converted at Kibbutz Yavneh in 1997, along with six other Germans in a class of 22. Now an Israeli citizen living in Jerusalem, Beck makes a point of personally apologizing to Holocaust survivors she meets. "I tell them that I am sorry for what happened," she says. "They comfort me that it was not my fault, that they know I was of another generation who had nothing to do with it."

A thin woman with lank light-brown hair and a pointed nose, Beck is looking for a job as a social worker and is helping a Holocaust survivor prepare his claim for monetary compensation from the German government.

Though they don't necessarily feel the urge to become Jewish and Israeli, a similar urge to make amends drives the other young Germans who arrive in their thousands each year to work as farm hands on kibbutzim, as au pairs with Jewish families, and as helpers in kindergartens, homes for the disabled and old-age homes. Germans account for 75 per cent of all foreign volunteers registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs. So far this year, 1,275 of them have arrived through the 53 Israel-based organizations dedicated to bringing German volunteers. Add those who come on their own, or through organizations in Germany, and you have an army of German helpers.

The first organized group of volunteers came to Israel in 1962, at the height of the Eichmann trial, before Israel had even established diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. In general, the volunteers, most of whom are in their late teens or early twenties, come for three months to two years, living on small stipends provided by their host organizations or the institution they work for, They learn Hebrew, and many stay on well beyond their first volunteer period.

Among the organizations recruiting volunteers in Germany and assisting them in Israel is the Dortmund-based Hagoshrim (the Bridge Builders), which has catered to more than 800 volunteers in the 25 years of its existence and is currently responsible for 40 women and men, mostly 19- and 20-year-olds. "Our volunteers are exceptional people who leave behind their friends and family, and postpone their studies and careers just to help others, often in very difficult circumstances," says assistant manager Dagmar Nitsche.

Besides amends-making, several volunteers at Hagoshrim – founded and staffed by German Protestants, and funded by private German donations – are also motivated by Christian philo-Semitism. "The Germans made a terrible crime against the Jewish people, and Jesus was a Jew," says Nitsche, explaining her group's philosophy.

A social worker for Stuttgart, Nitsche, 38, has been a volunteer for almost two years, giving home-care and counseling to Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. "A Holocaust survivor has told me," she says proudly, "that I am the first German she has spoken to since the war, and how important it is for Jews of her generation to meet nice Germans. She told me things about what happened to her during the war she would never tell her own family.

Some Germans, like Einat Zelba, have made helping Israeli Jews their life's work. Zelba, 42, has worked as a social helper in Israel for 18 years and converted to Judaism in 1984. Since then, she has been first a volunteer then a coordinator for the Berlin-based Action for Reconciliation and Peace, which was the first German organization to bring volunteers to Israel, in 1962. "There's a part of my history I am terribly ashamed of," Zelba explains. It's not enough for us Germans to say we're guilty. I always felt I had to bring about reconciliation and do my best to make sure [the Holocaust] could never happen again."


For all the Germans' goodwill, not all Israelis take kindly to the idea of their taking the extra step and becoming Jews in a Jewish state. Some kibbutzniks at Yavneh, especially of the older generation with memories of the Holocaust, admit to feeling uncomfortable around Germans who are preparing for their conversion. Some families who invite ulpan students from other countries for Shabbat dinners are adamant that they will never entertain a German, says director Schlusselberg. Even so, she knows of no case of Germans facing outright hostility. Their success rate in passing the exam for conversion is above average, and converting rabbis insist they evaluate all applicants on their learning and strength of purpose, never on ethnicity.

But such emotional detachment doesn't come easily to every Jew. Ellen in Jerusalem despairs because her Israeli boyfriend's parents recently told her that they would never let their son marry her, since, they said, "all Germans are Nazis – it's in their blood." She also has to grapple with her own bouts of shame, especially on Holocaust Day. Her grandfather enlisted in the Wehrmacht as early as 1938, and although she is certain he never laid hands on a Jew, he swore loyalty to Hitler. "It's terrible what my grandfather's generation did," she says.

Her parents, by contrast, kept a small menorah on the mantelpiece "to show solidarity for Israel," Ellen says. During the Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa, the family would converge in the living room at 6 a.m., anxious and bleary-eyed, to see on the news how much damage he had inflicted on Israel. When she told her parents of her decision to become a Jew and remain in Israel, they were devastated. "But by now they more or less accept that I will never go back to live in Germany."

Germans like Ellen and Doris Beck speak passionately about their love for the Jewish State. They both keep kosher and observe Shabbat. And they assert they would never marry a non-Jew.

Not every German with a love for Israel wants to convert. Katerina Berger, 27, came to Israel in 1992 as an au pair, worked on a kibbutz as a volunteer for six months, then went on to study classical music at Hebrew University. She has spent the best part of seven years here, speaks excellent Hebrew, last year married an Israeli Jew in a civil ceremony in Germany, and has just had a son.

But she says she'll never convert, and she'll raise her boy as much as a German as an Israeli, refusing even to have him circumcised. "If my children decide to convert, I'll help them all I can," she says. "But even so, they should be just as proud of being German as of being Jewish. Germany is not just about Nazism and the Holocaust."

She says she understands why many young Germans rush to convert, to adopt a new identity. "They feel uneasy about their nationality," she says. "In their collective psyche, they have always been the evil oppressors. They're ashamed even to say they are Germans; they say 'I'm from Germany.' I'm not afraid to say I am German."

Subconsciously, Berger believes, the converts want to regain a sense of ethnic pride – in a country where nationalistic sentiments are not tainted with associations of collective guilt. "Germans can't show their patriotism, as that would evoke memories of Nazism; Israelis have based their whole identity on the importance of ethnic solidarity."

Both Ellen and Doris, indeed, are now die-hard Jewish nationalists. "The Land of Israel belongs to God and the Jewish people, not the Arabs," says Doris, who voted for Benjamin Netanyahu and the National Religious Party in the May elections and is very unhappy about the new left-leaning coalition of Ehud Barak. "The Arabs will never make peace with Israel," she goes on heatedly. "They all want to kill us Jews."



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