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German Traces in Israel: “Take a Copper House Along to Palestine!”

Noa Ben ShalomCopyright: Noa Ben Shalom
Can I have it wrapped? In the early 1930s a number of these German take-away houses ended up in what is today Israel. (Photo: Noa Ben Shalom)

22 March 2013

German is spoken in a coffeehouse with a sea view, Swabian Christians in Zikhron Ya'akov are arming the country for a state of emergency and Willy Brandt suddenly shows up in Jaffa. Israel is full of links to Germany. There is now an app to help discover its traces. By Susanne Knaul

“Of course we have an English menu,” the waiter says to a tourist from Germany. There was even a time when Café Mersand, on the corner of Frischman and Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, had some in German. Founded by German immigrants in 1955, the café is one of the oases in Israel where German is still spoken today when the jecken – the Jews of German origin – meet here in the afternoon for a coffee klatsch with apple strudel. The Tachles, the Jewish weekly from Switzerland, is in the newspaper rack. In the best seats you can catch a glimpse of the sea from the café.

Towards evening, the customers get younger and do not shy from the 1950s ambience. A man sits alone at his laptop at one table, a couple with their beers and gasos, a neon coloured soda available a variety of flavours, at another.

Café Mersand is one of the spots that can be found using a new iPhone app. The Goethe-Institut in Tel Aviv is seeking out traces of Germany in Israel via smartphone. Those who would like to know more about the grave of Oskar Schindler on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Haifa Technion or the climate therapy centre on the Dead Sea named after Christiane Herzog can have the information delivered to their phones by the Goethe-Institut at the push of a button.

Making history relatable

At present, the new project contains only about 30 entries, but that should soon change. The Goethe-Institut has called on users to send a brief text and photo about places that indicate German presence in Israel by the end of June. With a little luck, they can even win a trip to Germany. The launch of the contest met with “good response,” reports Klaus Krischok, the director of Tel Aviv’s Goethe-Institut.

Krischok is the initiator of the Deutsche Spuren (German Traces) project and he hopes that young Israelis in particular take part. His colleagues in New York already tested it using a mobile website. In Israel – as in Brazil and Bratislava – the search for traces is being offered as an app for the first time to accommodate, as Krischok says, the changed “reading behaviours of young people.”

In Israel in particular, there are “so many places with German references,” according to Krischok that history need not be abstract, but “becomes relatable through these places.” So far, the articles compiled were all written by the Zeit correspondent Gisela Dachs and can be downloaded in text or audio form for free in three languages – German, English and Hebrew – but at present only on iPhones.

Copyright: Noa Ben Shalom
Only a few years ago, the Christiane Herzog Foundation set up a climate therapy centre for cystic fibrosis patients on the Dead Sea (Photo: Noa Ben Shalom)

Krischok can’t wait to see what the else will turn up as a result of the contest. He had not known about Willy Brandt Street in Jaffa and the copper houses from Germany, of which three still stand today in Haifa and one in Safed. The slogan “Take a Copper House Along to Palestine” was once used by the company Hirsch Kupfer und Messingwerke AG in newspaper adverts to attract buyers. Architect Robert Krafft and engineer Friedrich Förster developed the pre-fab houses, which could be practically packed up for transport and allegedly put together within only 24 hours. Later, Walter Gropius became involved in the design of the copper houses, 100 of which were produced by the end of the war. It was not a coincidence that the models had names such as “Haifa,” “Jaffa,” “Tel Aviv” and “Jerusalem.” The smallest model with 70 square metres of living space sold for 6,550 reichsmarks, although the packaging and shipping of the houses to Palestine probably cost just as much.

The Goethe-Institut project aims to cover three time segments: the prehistory starting in the 19th century until the founding of the state, the time of the Holocaust, the wave of immigration from Germany before the founding of the state and finally German-Israeli dialogue and Germany’s presence in Israel today. For example, that in Zikhron Ya'akov, where a few hundred Christians established a kibbutz-like living and economic community. These Christian Zionists, who came to Israel from Swabia in the 1960s, call themselves Beth El (“The House of God”).

The huge iron gate to the premises of the Rainbow compact plant for protection from NBC attacks opens only after notice in advance and pressing a certain button. The production facility is operated solely by members of the Beth El community. The only outsider is an Israeli who was hired for marketing. Three tall, blonde women, their long hair pinned up in buns, are seated in the reception office. They wear old-fashioned smocks with buttoned up collars. One of the rules at Beth El is that the women never cut their hair.

The pioneering Marlene Dietrich

Based solely on their appearance the German Christians may not seem to fit into their surroundings and their times, but their company is one of the most modern in the country, maybe in the world. One of the industrious Swabians’ clients is the Israeli army. Windows in the reception and sales rooms provide a view of the production facilities. Pressure equalization devices and filters are manufactured here and are available in all sizes. Even office buildings and hotels are preparing themselves for emergencies with the help of Beth El.

The “German community of Zikhron Ya'akov” has long been familiar to many Israelis. Sometimes, though, you need to have your nose rubbed in something before you notice that it has a German reference. For instance, a picture of Marlene Dietrich is hanging in the Beit Zion America restaurant at Tel Aviv’s ZOA House. The picture “is a tribute to Marlene Dietrich,” as Gisela Dachs writes. “It recalled the German star’s Israel tour of 1960 – five years before the two countries took up diplomatic relations.” She was the first singer to sing German lyrics on an Israeli stage.

At times, the question of where Israel ends gives project initiator Krischok headaches. “The opinion of what Israel is and where it ends is different in Israel than abroad,” he explains, but nonetheless risks adding the grave of Else Lasker-Schüler to his traces. The mortal remains of the German Jewish poet lie in a cemetery on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

The Deutsche Spuren app is an interactive travel guide by the Goethe-Institut with which German Traces can be followed in Israel, as well as in Brazil and Bratislava, Slovakia. Other places will be added. The app provides information about architecture, history and people in the form of texts, images and video. Traces can also be searched for on the websites of the respective Goethe-Instituts from computers at home.
Related links

„Deutsche Spuren“ for iOS

Available for free on the App-Store