How product advertising was imported to Israel by German Jews | Arts | DW | 28.11.2017
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How product advertising was imported to Israel by German Jews

In their homeland they were successful designers and business owners. Then came the Nazis. An exhibition in Israel shows how German Jews, known as "Yekkes," brought something completely new to the country: advertising.

"Visit Palestine," says the ad, with the word "Palestine" larger than all others, glowing in a yellow that goes well with the oranges above it.

Although the Jewish Agency aimed to promote tourism with this poster, it's easy to see that there's something more to it. Its aesthetics connote a Palestine where orange trees bloom. Three newly built houses and a water cistern make up a small settlement. That's already a beginning. "Come and contribute to building our land," the poster seems to call out.

The poster was conceived by Otte Wallish, a graphic designer who was born in 1906 in the German-speaking region of Sudetenland, now the Czech Republic. He had studied at the Vienna Art Academy, then worked in Berlin, and later opened an advertising agency in Prague.

Graphic designer Otte Wallish (Jeckes Museum Tefen/Eri Wallish)

Graphic designer Otte Wallish

In 1934, he immigrated to Palestine. "He was a true Zionist," says Ruthi Ofek, director of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in Tefen in northern Israel.

The museum is featuring an exhibition on advertising designed by co-called Yekkes — Jews of German-speaking origin — who had fled to British Mandated Palestine after Hitler seized power. The show features some 40 posters as well as the original packaging of 80 to 100 products, including soap, detergent, razors and creams produced between the 1930s and 1950s.

Origins of the name 'Yekke'

There are a number of theories explaining the etymology of "Yekke," explains historian Moshe Zimmermann, whose ancestors were also Yekkes.

"One theory is that the word Yekke came from the abbreviation 'JKH,' for jehudi kshe havana," Hebrew for "Jewish squarehead," explains the historian. Squarehead was also a disparaging term for a German person.

The term "Jecken" is also used in the Rhine region for the "jesters" celebrating Carnival, and there might be a connection, says Zimmermann.

However, the most plausible theory is that Yekkes wore jackets (called "Jacken" in German, the J being pronounced with a y-sound), while all others only wore shirts.

 "Today Yekke has a positive connotation," as people appreciate the manners traditionally attributed to German Jews, such as their attention to detail and punctuality. "But at the time, the term was derogatory," says Zimmermann.

"The majority of early immigrants came from Eastern Europe; they made fun of the peculiarities of those arriving from German-speaking areas. They were so diligent, punctual, honest and conservative — at least according to their preconceptions."

Between 1933 and 1941, about 70,000 Jews from the "extended" German Reich — including Austria, the Sudetenland, Bohemia, Gdansk and the Memel region — fled to Palestine. Many of them were academics, doctors, lawyers, scientists and merchants.

"Capitalism played an important role for them," says Zimmermann. "With this entrepreneurial spirit came advertisements for the products, leading to the importation of the German style of advertising."

More than consumerism: Publicity for the new state

Otte Wallish, a graphic artist from the Sudetenland, used the skills he had developed in Europe to open an advertising agency in Tel Aviv. He designed products, came up with slogans and printed them with specific fonts before selling them to large companies that were often owned by families with German roots. 

Among them was Osem, which remains to this day one of the country's largest food manufacturers. When the company was bought by Nestlé in the mid-1990s, it felt like a national tragedy for many people. The company had been established by seven entrepreneurs, all of them Yekkes.

Ads for Osem products designed by Wallish (DW/Sarah Hofmann)

Ads for Osem products designed by Wallish

When these entrepreneurs started out they were already familiar with advertising products. However the concept was still new in Israel, and advertising took on a meaning that it didn't have yet in Europe.

"It stands for way more than consumerism," says Jewry Heritage Museum director Ruthi Ofek. "All the advertising posters in the exhibition are connected in some way with Zionism," she adds.

Cigarettes for instance were called "Aliyah," the word referring to the immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel. Another brand was "Atid," which is Hebrew for "future."

"People wanted to build a new country, and you can feel that in ads as well," explains Ofek.

That's what Otte Wallish literally did. When the founder of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, read the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, the calligraphy and the design of the scroll had been done by Otte Wallish, whose agency designed the first stamps and election campaign posters of the young state.

It's not clear if Wallish was even paid for these official assignments, says Ofek, adding that he likely made a living from his commercial work instead.  

Otte Wallish died in 1977 in Tel Aviv. When his son Eri took over his father's agency, he kept the posters and product packaging designed by his dad. These are among the broad range of advertising memorabilia on show at the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in Tefen.

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