Arts & Culture Israeli Museum Opens Honoring ‘yekke’ Immigrants from Germany

At his modest office in Tefen, Stef Wertheimer leafed through the frayed, disintegrating family documents he had found locked in an old file, hidden away in a remote drawer. He read a letter he had written to his parents when he was 10 years old in their home village of Kippenheim, Germany, and admired a copy of his Bar Mitzvah sermon, delivered more than six decades ago at the Shivat Tzion synagogue in Tel-Aviv.

Wertheimer, 79, is one of Israel’s leading industrialists and a legendary figure in Israel. In the 1950s he founded Iscar, an advanced-technology factory set up in the remote Galilee hills in an act of industrial pioneering.

Today, multinational ISCAR Ltd. ranks No. 2 in the world among global companies producing carbide-metal cutting tools for industry. Through the years, the Tefen Industrial Park emerged around Wertheimer’s company, the jewel in the crown of industries in the Galilee.

Now, at his desk with a breathtaking panorama of the Western Galilee mountains, Wertheimer, who usually speaks in the future tense, allowed himself to embrace the past for just a few minutes.

He handed the precious file of nostalgic documents to Ruthi Ofek, seated across the desk from him, appearing unsure whether he was doing the right thing.

“Make sure nothing gets lost,” he told her, asking her to make copies of the old documents.

It was almost like asking a mother not to lose her children. Ofek has just opened the new German-Speaking Jewish Heritage Museum, popularly known as the Yekkes Museum, within the Open Museum complex in the heart of Tefen Industrial Park, where she is manager and chief curator. The new museum is filled with documents and artifacts similar to Wertheimer’s family treasures.

“Yekke” is a slang Yiddish term that refers to Jews of German, Austrian or Czech origin. The word is derived from the German word “jacke,” meaning jacket, because many of the German immigrants, reserved and formal, continued to wear jackets and ties under the blazing Middle Eastern sun. The word often was used by earlier immigrants from Eastern Europe in a slightly derogatory or cynical manner, mocking the German Jews’ attention to detail and obsessive punctuality.

“That’s why we didn’t use the term ‘yekke’ in the English and German titles of the museum,” explained Ofek, “It only goes in Hebrew.”

The generation of Israelis of the Fifth Aliyah — the 200,000 Jews who emigrated in the 1930s from Nazi Germany to the Jewish state — today is very old; many have passed away. Only now can the second generation of yekkes break free of the stigma associated with the name.

“They taught me to speak German quietly, so that people will not hear,” Ofek recalls.

The new museum tells the story of the German aliyah to Israel. A rather modest version of it was located for years in a small room in the municipality of the norther coastal town of Nahariya, which had been the capital of the German immigration.

However, the town recently asked the museum to find other quarters, and it was thanks to Wertheimer that it found shelter in Tefen.

Moving through the gallery of yekke memorabilia at the new museum, which establishes the group as a major component of the Jewish elite in Palestine and early Israel, one wonders if the whole Jewish state could have looked like the blooming industrial park of Tefen had there been more yekkes around.

“Too bad that not much of the yekkes’ fingerprints remained in the country,” Jerusalem resident Arye Ron wrote in a letter to Ha’aretz last week.

By “fingerprints” he referred to yekke contributions to all spheres of life, personified by giants such as Pinchas Rosen, originally Felix Rosenblitt, Israel’s first justice minister; Dr. Yosef Burg, leader of the National Religious Party; philosophers such as Martin Buber; actresses and actors like Hanna Maron and Yosef Yadin; poets such as Yehuda Amichai and Natan Zakh; jurists such as Haim Cohen; journalists like Uri Avneri and Gershon Shocken, the founder and editor of Ha’aretz; writers like Amos Elon; and industrialists like Yekutiel Federman and Wertheimer. The list goes on and on.

But Wertheimer remains realistic about the contributions of the German aliyah to Israeli life, and doesn’t lament its fading impact.

“If German Jewry would have come here without Poles and Russians, I am not sure that we would have a state. There would have been too much order,” Wertheimer told JTA. “Every community could use a little modesty.”

German Jews should remember, he suggested, that their story is only one part of a larger plan.

“The first Zionists understood very well that this would be a 100-year-long project, and every phase would bring its own contribution,” he said.

The German aliyah in the 1930s more than doubled the Jewish population of Palestine — it went from approximately 160,000 to 400,000, with Jews comprising roughly 31 percent of the country’s population.

“Had it not been for Hitler, it’s doubtful they would have come,” Wertheimer said.

The focus of the Yekkes Museum is the story of those German Jews in Palestine, a story of proud, displaced Europeans — many of them highly educated — struggling valiantly to adapt to a new country, a new climate and a different culture.

The exhibit is rich in faces of now-famous yekkes, accentuating their contribution to Israeli society. Cartoons and jokes from the 1940s and ’50s show how different they were from mainstream Israeli society, which was dominated by Russian and Polish immigrants. German-language advertisements indicate their enormous difficulty in parting with their beloved mother tongue.

“Their main contribution was in medicine,” Ofek explained. “Language was no problem, and they could speak to each other in German. Their influence in music was great. But in law, unlike medicine, they did not really make a difference because of language barriers.”

The steadily shrinking yekke community comes to visit a place that brings back many old memories.

Yehudit Katz of Moshav Ganei Am, which was largely populated by German Jews, brought her elderly mother, Ruth Silbermann.

“I came here in 1935 from Berlin,” Silbermann said. “It’s good that one can finally see it all here.”

“When I was a child, children used to mock me as a yekke,” recalled her daughter Yehudit. “Now I’m proud to be one.”

The yekke community has finally found its lost honor. Young Israelis acquire German passports because their parents were German citizens, and dozens attend German classes at the Goethe Institute.

“Had I been the prime minister,” Wertheimer said, “I would have allocated funds for every community to create its own museum to promote communal pride, also among the Arabs.”

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