From Berlin To Eritrea To The Lower East Side


Weekdays, Finann Tesfalasie makes her way along the streets of the Lower East Side, passing shuls and buildings that used to house shuls along with bodegas, Chinese restaurants and cafés that roast their own coffee beans. The German-born Tesfalasie, in New York for this year, feels comfortable in the neighborhood’s mix. People tell her how things have changed, but for her it’s all new.

As a volunteer at Project Ezra on Grand Street, she visits Jewish elders in their homes, takes them shopping for groceries or to the bank, and helps run programs in the organization’s offices.

A native German speaker who grew up in Frankfurt, Tesfalasie has discovered that she understands Yiddish, a useful skill at Project Ezra, which serves Jewish elders on the Lower East Side who are frail and in need. She’s still learning the nuances of senior shopping: If she buys an orange juice that’s too large or the wrong brand of cottage cheese, she’s dispatched again.

“I’m a different person with everyone I visit,” she says, as she explains how she tries to be sensitive to their needs and inclinations. During an interview in an East Broadway café, she tells The Jewish Week, “Some are divas: They like to teach me and give advice. Some ask a lot of questions, about whether I have a boyfriend, or about my week. Some like to talk about politics and travel, or they tell me about their lives.”

While she is still shy about performing in public, she has a trained voice and enjoys singing one-on-one. In apartments filled with mementoes of a lifetime, she sometimes sings “Amazing Grace” — two words that well describe the tall, gentle and poised 19-year-old.

In the beginning, the clients offered grandmotherly advice about being on her own in New York. “They’d tell me, ‘It’s a very dangerous city, Don’t talk to strangers.’ And I thought, if I don’t talk to strangers I’m not going to make any new friends.”

In the tradition of her grandfather, Konrad Knolle, an evangelical minister in Germany who also spent a year of service in the U.S., she is at Project Ezra though Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). The organization brings young Germans to the U.S. (and other countries including Israel) to do hands-on volunteer work and also, in the process, to promote cultural understanding and fight racism.

Tesfalasie’s own background is a mix of cultures. While serving with ARSP in Baltimore, her grandfather met an African-American woman and they married and moved back to Germany. The couple adopted a 13-year-old girl who had escaped on her own from Eritrea to avoid an arranged marriage; they also adopted a son from Albania and gave birth to a child. The young girl from Eritrea, now a woman, is Finann’s mother. Finann’s grandmother, Flois Knoller-Hicks, is a choir leader in Berlin. In Germany, Tesfalasie has an extended family of Germans and Eritreans, and has been to Eritrea to visit family there. She hopes to visit the Baltimore side of her family while she is in the U.S.

Her grandfather was part of ARSP’s first cohort of Germans in America in 1968. The group was founded in Germany in 1958 by members of the Lutheran Church who believed that the first steps toward reconciliation had to be made by the perpetrators of Nazi crimes and their descendents, all who were to acknowledge their guilt and work actively toward forgiveness and peace. Since then, more than 700 young men and women have participated. While the first groups may have been the sons, daughters and grandchildren of perpetrators, recent volunteers are more distantly connected.

“Today’s volunteers do not generally feel a sense of personal responsibility for what happened,” Mark McGuigan, U.S. director of ASRP explains. “They are too far removed; they weren’t alive; they didn’t do the things that happened. We try to inculcate a sense that all of German society has a responsibility to remember the past and to learn from it, to make the world a better place.”

Tesfalasie says, “I’m a German. I also have a part that’s African. German history is part of me. The Holocaust is also a part of my history.”

Her high school in Frankfurt was very diverse, with students from Ukraine, Albania, Asia and other places, along with Jewish students too. She explains that they began learning about the Holocaust in middle school, although in a superficial way; in high school their studies went deeper. When she visited Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp near Frankfurt, with her high school classmates, they were speechless. She also recalls a school visit by a Holocaust survivor.

“It was breathtaking for all of us. I appreciate very much that we talk about these things in school. We don’t hide it.”

The Project Ezra clients she is getting to know “are very understanding. They say, ‘We know that not all Germans are guilty.’ One of them was in a concentration camp and said, ‘There were mean Germans who treated me badly and others who gave me extra food on the side.’”

“Through me, they can see that Germany has changed. Maybe I can give them hope and show them that Germany has improved.”

She adds, “I don’t want to be naïve. I live in a big city. In small villages in Germany, there’s still racism. I don’t know if I could live in a village. The cities are very tolerant.”

For her, this is a gap year between high school and college. She’s very interested in other cultures and would like to study law with a focus on human rights. Now, her 18-year-old brother is applying to ARSP for next year.

Project Ezra represents the Jewish community’s most longstanding partnership with ARSP, hosting volunteers for almost 30 years. Jayne Skoff, a co-director of Project Ezra, which was founded in 1972 and now serves 300 clients, remembers the deliberations the organization had about taking on the volunteers. Not all the directors were in favor, and when they decided to go ahead, they agreed that the volunteers would not visit survivors at first, as it might be too difficult for the elders. “But don’t you know,” she says, “who formed the strongest and deepest connection with the volunteers? The survivors.”

“First, there’s a language bond, which can’t be minimized,” Skoff says, “and there was also a longing to know what happened to Germany on the part of survivors. The young people were so open to learning. This was a generation willing to explore.”

“We’ve had volunteers whose grandparents were in the SS, another whose grandparents were in the Resistance,” she adds. “The individual volunteers form a very strong relationship with the elders. They’ve had tremendous effect, both on a practical and emotional level,” Skoff says, noting that for the volunteers, it’s a transformative experience. Some have thought about converting to Judaism. Many stay in touch with the elders once they return to Germany.

Tesfalasie learned a few things about seniors from her mother, who works in a Jewish home for the elderly in Frankfurt. Around the Ezra clients, she tries to be very positive and to cheer up those who are down. Some resist her efforts, and say that life just isn’t so good, but still respond to her warmth with hugs and kisses.

“It’s hard to see the sadness.” She says. “I can help a little. Only a little.”

We travel uptown together on the F train, and when she gets off at her stop, the smiling Yiddish-speaking young German woman with Eritrean features and black leggings and purple boots blends into the New York crowd.