Young Israelis Moving to Berlin in Droves
City from which Hitler unleashed genocide of six
million Jews now attracting small but growing community
of Jews from Israel for whom it embodies freedom,
tolerance, anything-goes spirit
Associated Press September 19, 2010
[originally published in the Jerusalem Post]
Nirit Bialer, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors,
welcomes listeners in Hebrew to a one-hour radio show
of music, talk and interviews. The setting isn't her
native Israel but a radio station in the heart of the
German capital - and hundreds of Israeli Berliners are
The city from which Hitler unleashed the genocide of 6
million Jews is now attracting a small but growing
community of Jews from Israel for whom it embodies
freedom, tolerance, and an anything-goes spirit.
"Berlin has become a real magnet for Israelis -
everybody wants to move here," said Bialer, 32, whose
Friday noon "Kol Berlin," Hebrew for "the voice of
Berlin," started three years ago and is something of an
institution for young Israelis in Berlin.
Nobody knows exactly how many Israelis have moved here
in recent years; unofficial estimates suggest 9,000 to
15,000 - far fewer than the 120,000 Jews who lived in
Berlin before the Nazis came to power in 1933.
But their presence is a powerful symbol of generational
change. Years ago, Israelis viewed emigration from
their country as a betrayal of the Zionist cause, and
moving to Germany was reviled as the worst betrayal of
Many wouldn't set foot in Germany even as tourists.
Today, Israelis make up the second-largest group of
non-European tourists coming to Berlin, after
Americans. The streets of Tel Aviv feature billboards
featuring Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate as a
The Israelis who come to stay are looking to work,
study, party and make art, and don't seem to care much
about the Nazi past. They arrive on student visas,
overstay tourist permits or have German or other
European ancestry that entitles them to citizenship.
Many start families with German partners, far from the
tensions of the Middle East.
"I love Israel, but I just couldn't live there anymore
- it's like a small village and so militaristic,"
explained Lea Fabrikant, a photography student who
arrived two years ago.
"Most of all, I needed freedom and space, and I found
Fabrikant, 26, said she lived through the many suicide
bombings in Jerusalem, her home town, during the 1990s,
and loves Berlin's tranquility, relaxed spirit and
affordability for students and artists.
Germany's past, she said, "doesn't affect me at all."
New Jewish community
On the other hand, Asaf Leshem, a 36-year-old travel
guide, said his move three years ago had much to do
with his family's past in Germany.
He has walked through the Schoeneberg neighborhood
where his grandfather lived as a child before
emigrating in 1938, and visited the family plot at the
Jewish cemetery in Weissensee.
Leshem thinks his grandfather, were he alive, would
have supported his decision.
"The Nazis ruled Germany for 12 years and many German
Jews felt like the Nazis abducted the country from
them," Leshem said. "They also had good memories,
especially from their childhood in Germany, how they
used to go on trips to the Baltic Sea or go for a swim
in Berlin's Grunewald forest."
Leshem grew up in Israel but says he feels a bit German
himself and appreciates German culture.
For those who miss the flavors of home there are
Israeli delicatessens, bakeries, bars and child care
groups. Berlin is friendly to gays, and the Israelis
among them throw a monthly party, called "Meshuggah" -
Yiddish for "crazy."
Udi Cohen, 32, wandered around the US and Europe for
years before settling in Berlin. He opened "Luigi
Zuckermann," a bistro in Berlin's Mitte district where
he sells sandwiches and salads with an Israeli twist.
"In Israel, I couldn't function, I couldn't find a job,
but here I'm fine and enjoy the vibe and energy of the
city," he said.
Gal Bar-Adon, 27, learned trombone in Berlin and
produces dancefloor music that he said is played in
clubs across the city and beyond. "Israel is simply too
small," he said. "There's not enough of an audience for
my kind of music."
Bialer said that despite Berlin's attraction, living
here also means coming to terms with Germany's past.
She notices that sustained conversation with Germans
inevitably shifts to the Nazi era.
"It can be exhausting, it can be liberating - but it is
a sure thing that at some point we will talk about the
Holocaust," she said.
When the grandchildren of the victims and of the
perpetrators meet for the first time, the experience
can be sensitive and guilt-ridden.
Living here has also made Bialer more aware of her
"In Israel you don't think about what it means to be
Jewish because everybody is celebrating Shabbat or the
Rosh Hashana" (Sabbath and Jewish New Year), she said.
"In Germany, you suddenly realize who you are as a Jew
and you're different from everybody else around you."
In the end, Bailer said, an Israeli influx could start
to fill the void left by the Holocaust.
"I think there's something growing here: A new Jewish
community in Berlin."
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