Israel′s museum of German-Jewish heritage facing closure | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 04.03.2021
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Israel's museum of German-Jewish heritage facing closure

The German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in northern Israel's Tefen Industrial Park exhibits objects belonging to German Jews who fled the Nazis. It could shut down because of a lack of funds.

The Tefen Industrial Park is located in northern Israel, a half-day trip from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The last part of the journey is a winding drive up a narrow mountain road. Yet, every year, hundreds of people, including visitors from Germany, have made the journey to visit the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, also known as the Jeckes Museum.

Exhibits include books by the German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the poet Heinrich Heine and the Czech writer Franz Kafka, as well as medals that German Jews had received as honors in World War I. The museum also features a corrugated iron hut inhabited at one point by the Schatzmann family, who came to Israel from Berlin in the 1930s, finding refuge in the coastal town of Nahariya.

They went from living a comfortable middle-class existence to inhabiting emergency accommodation without a toilet and only a tiny shower. The heat would have also have taken its toll on the family. "There was, of course, no air conditioning as we know it today," said the museum’s director, Ruthi Ofek.

An old German book with colorfully decorated letters

German Jews brought this illustrated cookbook to Palestine in the 1930s

The museum was financed by Stef Wertheimer, the industrialist who also helped establish it. It opened in the 1960s in Nahariya, where many German Jews had settled, and was moved to Tefen in 1991, when Ofek became director. Wertheimer was born in Germany and fled to Israel with his parents as a small child to escape the Nazis. For years, he was considered the richest man in Israel. Although he funded several other museums, the Jeckes Museum, was "close to his heart," says Ofek.

Wertheimer is 94 years old and has retired from business. His children chose to focus on other activities and stopped financing the museum that is situated in the Tefen Industrial Park. Moving vans are already pulling up, ready to pack up the museum’s contents by the end of March.

Wertheimer identified with the Jeckes, Germans who moved to Israel, and wanted to keep their memory alive, even though the term Jeckes initially sent a shiver down his spine, Ofek says.

Kitchen in the Jeckes-Museum in Tefen Israel

Some migrants brought their entire households

What's in a name?

"I'm not naming the museum after a swear word," he told Ofek when she suggested Jeckes Museum as a name some 30 years ago. Though the historical origins of the term are unclear, the connotation was initially negative. The term may have come from German-speaking Jews wearing jackets when they arrived in Israel, despite the hot weather. It could also be an abbreviation from the Hebrew "jehudi kasche hawana," which means "a Jew who is slow on the uptake."

People in Israel made fun of the Jeckes, who were seen as annoyingly correct and had difficulties with the Hebrew language. "Everything that was normal in Germany was thought strange here," Ofek said. Unlike previous Jewish immigrants who came to what was then Palestine, the Jeckes did not come out of Zionist convictions. They were fleeing the Nazis. A question often asked of the arrivals was, "Are you from Zionism or are you from Germany?"

Exhibition of ads and posters at the Jeckes Museum in Tefen

Ads and posters from the mid-'30s to the 1950s

The connotations associated with the term changed over time. Now, an Israeli can proudly say "I'm just a Jecke" if he or she shows up on time for an appointment. Eventually, Wertheimer agreed to give the museum this name. 

Documents packed in boxes

The archive of the Jeckes Museum counts about a million documents. In addition, there are about 500 larger exhibits such as furniture, statues, valuable objects like the death mask of playwright Elsa Lasker-Schüler, but also embroidery and other handicrafts that the "Jeckes" made. These are objects that people were able to take with them from their homeland when they fled; things that made up their new lives in a place that was not yet home. Such objects also remind visitors of the German-speaking Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.

But what happens now with these precious mementos? "Nothing is thrown away," Ofek said. Both the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and other museums in Israel agreed to secure the items in their archives. "But they would be locked away, away from the public." That's what worries the former museum director so much. "You have to understand that this museum has a community. We had a festival every year attended by hundreds of Jeckes families."

Stefan Ihrig wants to save this "living museum." He is a professor of history and director of the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Haifa. Ihrig wants to integrate the Tefen exhibition into the university's Hecht Museum. He wants not only to save the archive, but to establish a research center where students will find out more about the Jeckes.

Learning about their grandparents

"The first generation didn't communicate, but the second and especially the third generation are interested in their history," Ihrig said. "They come to us at the center, want to learn German and often have documents in their pockets that they want to research." It's a very different German-Jewish story that can be told here, Ihrig said.

An ad on display

Israeli detergent ad from the 1950s

The Jeckes were confronted with a challenging duality: German was their mother tongue and they missed their native country, yet it had become the country and language of those who persecuted them. Ihrig believes that their history can be related to current issues such as migration or cultural exchange. "The Jeckes preserved German culture while embracing the new Israeli identity. They have shaped Israel," Ihrig said.

A 'scandal'

Ihrig is running out of time to realize his project. When all the boxes are packed at the end of March, it has to be clear whether a new "Jeckes Center" in Haifa could survive for at least 10 years before building a permanent research center of this scale.

Jeckes-Museum in Tefen Israel

Jews who fled the Nazis brought china and crocheted table mats with them to Palestine

In addition to donors in Israel, Ihrig has also turned to Germany for help with funding. He is convinced that "the center can be a bridge for German-Israeli relations" and has found support from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The Foreign Ministry has pledged a sum of €200,000 ($241,000) that however, barely covers the relocation costs. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is also on board and wants to finance an archivist position. Yet more funding will be required to keep it afloat.

"This year marks 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany," Ihrig says. "And here we have Jewish-German life that’s to be locked away? That would be a scandal!"

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