Reinhold Robbe
President of the German-Israeli Association

Not normal, but unique

This year has seen many words spoken and written about the relationship between Germany and Israel, as we look back on five decades of official diplomatic relations between the two states. Obviously, attention has been focused on the important political events, and the key figures that engineered and characterized these turning points. However, if one asks quite prosaically why relations between Israel and Germany can today be described as “unique”, and in many ways extend beyond a “normal” relationship between countries, then there is a simple answer. It is because of the people from both states who have built a network of friendships capable of transcending distance and all other barriers. These are people from every part of their respective populations. Youths and pensioners. Laborers and university lecturers. The religious and non- religious. A network as colorful and diverse as the societies themselves. And today, this network is strong and resilient. It has achieved amazing things; initiatives small and large through which encounters after the Holocaust were made possible again.

But the most valuable “products” of this network are the friendships between Germans and Israelis. Only on a basis of friendship could the German-Israeli Association have been founded – just one year after the start of diplomatic relations –, and the same can be said for the many organizations and institutions which support city partnerships. Behind each of these initiatives stand personalities, well-known and less well-known, who all have something in common: a powerful drive which enables friendships transcending all barriers to develop and thrive.

For us as the German-Israeli Association, it was clear that these figures from throughout the population, with their exemplary motivation and energy for the German-Israeli friendship, should be given a central role in the “Israelis & Germans” exhibition. There is Felix Burian, the first Volkswagen dealer in Tel Aviv, next to Marlene Dietrich, the global star. And the Holocaust survivors who first emigrated to Haifa stand alongside images of demonstrators in front of burning barricades in the streets of Jerusalem, as diplomatic relations were finalized.

Even for me, someone who has for decades been intensively involved with Israel as relations have evolved, a number of the stories depicted are new, or cast in a new light by the previously unknown images and statements from contemporary witnesses presented in the exhibition. But what fascinates and moves me the most are the images of young Israelis and Germans, who, representatives of their generation, reflect their own very particular experience with the other respective state.

During one of my last visits to Israel I had another opportunity to speak with Holocaust survivors. As the meeting drew to a close, an elderly woman – well into her nineties – took me aside and implored me with great urgency to devote everything to winning young people for the work of friendship between Germans and Israelis. In her words: “We old ones will soon be gone, and then it is down to our children and grandchildren to carry on this friendship, which by now has become so wonderful, to the coming generations!” And I think about this sentence when I see the young German volunteers depicted in the exhibition looking after disabled children in Haifa, or the Israeli youth running a cultural project in a German city. These young people represent the basis for the work of friendship to come over the next 50 years.

I would like to express my utmost gratitude to the curator of this exhibition, Alexandra Nocke, and everyone who has contributed to it for the results of their research and thought. Special thanks should go to this wonderful team for the exemplary commitment they have shown in driving this project forward. The exhibition deserves wide public attention and many curious visitors.


Graffiti in Tel Aviv, 2015 © Alexandra Nocke

Dr. Alexandra Nocke
Curator “Israelis & Germans: The Exhibition”

I first met an Israeli in 1989. This meeting – and with it an enduring friendship lasting until this day – were both made possible by an exchange between my high school in Bonn and Tali’s school in Tel Aviv. In 1991, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, I traveled to Israel for the first time and returned home full of impressions and questions: What does this all have to do with me? How do the past and the present fit together?

Almost 25 years later, following frequent visits to Israel and time spent living in the country, I look back on a kaleidoscope of encounters ranging from conversations and coffee house visits to academic discussions, archival research and participation in conferences – and I have managed to find some answers. Today, some of the questions are more sharply defined, while my view of my own origins has also been expanded through confrontations with Israel. Through the encounters there I was able to locate myself in a historical sequence, and for the first time understand myself as the granddaughter of participants in war; perpetrators.

The personal contact I experienced painted an increasingly differentiated picture of German-Israeli relations. And at the same time, it became all the clearer to me: Both countries, and the people who live in them, remain part of an interwoven narrative, even as their relationships change over time and new generations grow up.

While researching in Israel, I was confronted with the painful German-Israeli contradictions of individual biographies, but at the same time I personally was always made to feel welcome. Over the years, I understood: Israel is made up of countless stories, often contradictory, which all yearn to be told. I thank Reinhold Robbe and the German-Israeli Association for offering me the opportunity to curate the “Israelis & Germans” exhibition and to make some of these stories heard. 
I would also like to thank the exhibition team for the tireless commitment, stamina and meticulous attention to detail they have brought to the implementation of our ideas.

Above all, the exhibition seeks to tell the apparently small stories behind the official historiography. The snapshots collected in the exhibition as voices, images, texts and impressions are single pieces of a mosaic which only reveals an overall picture when considered in its entirety. Yes, the image which has emerged is both personal and subjective. But it is one whose complexity justifies its position as part of the truly big picture.

My focus in this tangle of voices is the conversation itself, the encounter and the sense of communication which one feels with the person opposite. Taken together, these aspects constitute the foundation upon which stable German-Israeli relations now stand. Understanding, empathy, but also fractures and differences can only be experienced in direct contact with the respective other.

In this spirit I would like to wish all visitors to the exhibition a constructive interaction with the stories, and with the people behind them.

David Ben-Gurion and Konrad Adenauer at a photo shoot in front of Ben-Gurion's country residence in Kibbuz Sde Boker, 09.05.1966 © Micha Bar-Am / Magnum Photos

David Ben-Gurion and Konrad Adenauer at a photo shoot in front of Ben-Gurion’s country residence in Kibbuz Sde Boker, 09.05.1966
© Micha Bar-Am / Magnum Photos

Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs

It is 50 years since Israel and Germany embarked on diplomatic relations. The decision to do so was by no means a routine step. Overshadowed as it was by the ever present memory of the Shoah, it was, understandably, highly controversial in Israel.

The way our relations have developed since these beginnings is no less than a miracle, for today we are united by a partnership with a depth and intensity that seemed inconceivable five decades ago. Many people have shown great passion and engagement in helping our two countries move closer together. It is thanks to them that today the German Israeli relationship is so good and characterised by such a strong spirit of trust – something that hardly anyone could have foreseen 50 years ago.

The anniversary year 2015 has vividly shown how rich our partnership is with regard to both personal friendships and the potential for forging new links. I have been blessed with numerous personal encounters, for which I am very grateful. As one example of many, I would like to mention the violin maker Amnon Weinstein, who has devoted his life to restoring the instruments of persecuted and murdered Jews. His “Violins of Hope” sang out at a very moving concert at the Berlin Philharmonic to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I will remember my subsequent visit to Amnon Weinstein’s workshop in Tel Aviv for a long time to come. As part of a series of German Israeli readings and discussions I had an inspiring discussion with author Meir Shalev and film director Edgar Reitz on the meaning of “home” and “learning to feel at home” in our countries. Another highlight of the anniversary year was my meeting with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin during his visit to Berlin. His biography mirrors the development our relations have undergone since their origins. As a student the current President took part in demonstrations to protest against the commencement of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. Now he is a staunch advocate of the friendship between our two countries.

The exhibition “Israelis and Germans” sheds light on the human and interpersonal facets of German Israeli relations. It provides us with a glimpse of the people and the individual engagement behind the historical developments and thus adds a very valuable perspective to our view of the relationship.

I hope that the exhibition will attract many keen visitors and wish it every success on its journey through Germany and Israel.

Office of the Israeli President Zalman Shazar, August 19, 1965. Reception for the German Ambassador Rolf Pauls, who holds his inaugural address in German, and then – entirely misjudging local customs – kisses Foreign Minister Golda Meir on the hand. © Government Press Office (GPO), Moshe Pridan

Office of the Israeli President Zalman Shazar, August 19, 1965. Reception for the German Ambassador Rolf Pauls, who holds his inaugural address in German, and then – entirely misjudging local customs – kisses Foreign Minister Golda Meir on the hand.
© Government Press Office (GPO), Moshe Pridan © Government Press Office (GPO), Moshe Pridan

His Excellency Yakov Hadas-Handelsman
Ambassador of the State of Israel to Germany

For me, there is a lot of truth in the proverb, “A picture says a thousand words”. In terms of a retrospective on the development of Israeli-German relations from 1965 until today, it rings particularly true. Photographers have chronicled the challenging years of rapprochement between Germans and Jews, between Germans and Israelis, following the Shoah. Just as photographic technology has developed – from black-and-white to color, from analog to digital –, five decades of photographs have documented the continual evolution of this relationship, and the shifting nature of its content and message manifests itself in these images. Look, for example, at the photo which was taken in the office of the Israeli President Zalman Shazar in August 1965. At the reception on the occasion of his accreditation, the German Ambassador Rolf Pauls actually kisses the hand of Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir. Look at the faces of the Israelis! Golda Meir’s facial expression says more than a thousand words. The other attendees also offer little in the way of joy or cordiality; their expressions seem to be entirely blank. But it is precisely this inexpressiveness that says so much. The viewer perceives in this photo the historical dimension; the weight and complexity of the relationship.

I can well remember photos in Israeli newspapers which I saw fifty years ago as a child, as Rolf Pauls was pelted with tomatoes upon his arrival in Israel and the people yelled: “Nazi go home!” Back then I could not have imagined that one day I would commemorate 50 years of diplomatic relations as the Ambassador of the State of Israel: in Germany. And nobody could have guessed that the relationship between our two countries would develop so dynamically, and so positively. This exhibition includes photos of people demonstrating against relations with Germany in Jerusalem in 1965. On their signs is written: “Six million times NO!” or “Always remember; never forgive.” The demonstrators’ faces paint a picture of pain and sorrow, uncertainty and rage. And so these photos illustrate the perpetual presence of the horrific past in the expressions of the people. The images require no words to communicate exactly why our relationship is, and will always remain, unique.

I would like to add a personal snapshot to the exhibition – not as an image, but in words. In 2014 I was with a German delegation in Israel. I was in a hotel lobby in Tel Aviv, waiting for the group. There were plenty of Israelis milling around, men and women, young and old, religious and secular. In the middle of the lobby stood a group of German soldiers in uniform. They spoke loudly in German, laughing, calling out to each other. But no-one apart from me seemed aware of this particular situation. Then someone did notice, and was bothered by it. But this was not an Israeli. It was the German head of my delegation. This snapshot shows how trustful our relationship has now become, but also that its uniqueness will continue to define it, also from a German perspective.