On my first trip to Israel, in the fall of 1993, I booked a room in a dorm in Jerusalem. I settled my bags in and descended down to the lobby to go exploring. Downstairs, I found a sizable group of German amateur musicians from the town of Dunningen, between Freiburg and Stuttgart in the Black Forest, on tour to several cities in Israel, where they would pair up with Israeli youth bands. They invited me to attend their concert that evening. After their performance, the Frankfurt Music High School orchestra played a selection of classical and pop pieces, including an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley that began, weirdly enough, with Jesus Christ Superstar! Following was a joint performance by the Frankfurters and an Israeli youth band.
I got into a conversation with the young girl sitting next to me, with whose family some of the German kids were staying. She was the older sister of one of the girls on stage. I asked her, Is it difficult for you to have these Germans in your home? And she, age 20 or so, answered me quite wisely. “These are 17-year-old high school kids whose parents were born after the war, so if anything, it’s these kids’ grandparents that might have been involved somehow in the Nazi past. We cannot say that these children inherit the guilt of their grandparents; it’s the only way the world can really advance.”
So maybe, in the end, it’s just a generational thing. The Holocaust survivors wouldn’t resettle in Germany (with few exceptions), wouldn’t purchase a German car, wouldn’t ever visit Germany. There was even some controversy among them over accepting German reparation money (Wiedergutmachung or “making good again”), which in 1953 (West) Germany agreed to pay to the survivors and others forced to labor for or who otherwise became victims of the Nazis.
But for their children and grandchildren, it was different. They had not gone through that experience personally, other than hearing stories from their elders—and for years the survivors were encouraged not to dwell in the past but to squarely face the future, in Israel or elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora. Psychologists and sociologists have determined that even unto the third generation and beyond a kind of genetic trauma is capable of being passed down.
There is always going to be some historical tension between Jews, especially survivors and their families, and Germans. But at the same time, there is a conscious will to transcend history and not be bound to the command of destiny. Young Germans visit Israel in large numbers, both out of remorse and genuine interest in the Holy Land, work on a kibbutz as a form of repentance, and occasionally stay. Similarly, young Israelis, frustrated with militarization and crimped opportunities at home, are famous world travelers, especially once they have completed their military service, and some are drawn to the excitement of life in Europe, the continent their grandparents left under duress.
Just in the last 15 years, over 33,000 Israelis have acquired citizenship and German passports. Some 10,000 have settled in Berlin over the last decade.
Just in the last 15 years, over 33,000 Israelis have acquired citizenship and German passports. Some 10,000 have settled in Berlin over the last decade. The number of Israelis and other Jews living in Germany today amounts to several times that figure. Israelis, especially younger and more liberal ones, are attracted by the cheaper cost of living and the distance from the troubling apartheid-like conditions at home. In a sense, they are refugees from what they perceive as the brutality of Occupation and the right-wing and religious domination of the political theater. In Israel, they no longer feel they have a place.
Israelis have also taken out dual citizenship in other European countries, such as Austria or Poland, from which their parents or grandparents fled.
Back to the Fatherland, produced by the Austrian Kat Rohrer and directed by her and Gil Levanon, recounts in documentary form an exemplary few of these Israelis’ stories. An important aspect of the film is the gradual acceptance by parents and grandparents of their children’s choices, which often involve romantic connection with non-Jews in the formerly fascist countries and the arrival of little ones with a decidedly mixed ancestry. Eventually, in the two “case studies” of Dan Peled and Guy Shahar that the filmmakers focus on, a grandmother and a grandfather return to visit their childhood cities.
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Filming took place in several locales—primarily in Israel, Germany, Austria—as lives are deconstructed and rebuilt. Almost everywhere there are scenes involving trains—the ubiquitous, inescapable symbol of the Holocaust—and even an evocative toy train set that one grandfather lovingly tends.
The young Israelis have a sense of returning to roots. The elders, when they return, do not wallow in nostalgia: After all, in the end, nothing was permitted to the Jews except to die. But they can appreciate the civility of contemporary European life and mentally place themselves in this world should no catastrophe have intervened to disrupt their course.
Themes that interweave throughout the film include the fear of renewed anti-Semitism on the nationalistic, rightward-drifting European continent that now houses a substantial Muslim population, the “confronting your dragons” motif which leads the elders back for a visit, the power of memory, transgenerational guilt, and the softening of passions over the course of time. One somewhat clichéd note involves a long-forgotten trunk in the attic and the unveiling of its secret cache. One effective achievement in the film is removing the “essentialist” view of the Germans (and the Jews) as evil and unchangeable. Marlene Dietrich can be heard singing a translation of the American song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
The filmmakers cast a wide net, showing conversations among Israeli ex-pats about their history and philosophy as they struggle to find their place in the world. They wax eloquent on the degree to which Holocaust memory has exerted too powerful an effect in Israeli culture, standing in the way of moving forward, forever perceiving enemies instead of looking at the potential of cooperation with other countries, religions, and peoples, always remaining the victim unable to transcend and grow beyond. Its trauma left untreated, perhaps willfully, Israel has seemingly only learned the particularistic lesson of “Never again to us.”
There is rich compost feeding this 77-minute story, which could probably be developed into an ongoing TV series involving these complex interrelationships across time, culture and tragedy.
The principal characters, playing themselves admittedly in some obviously staged encounters, include Uri Ben Rehav, Guy Shahar, Katharine Maschek, Lea Ron Peled, Dan Peled, Yochanan Tenzer, Kat Rohrer, and Gil Levanon. It’s a thoughtful, hopeful film that cries out for reconciliation across an almost impassable abyss.
Dialogue is in English, German and Hebrew, with subtitles. The trailer can be viewed here.
Back to the Fatherland will open theatrically in New York on Fri., June 14 (Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Music Hall) on Fri., June 28 with a national release to follow.
Eric A. Gordon