1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Volunteers in Israel

Klaudia Prevezanos / dbAugust 7, 2013

Summer is high season for German-Israeli youth exchange programs and young Germans doing volunteer work in Israel. They see it as a unique chance to explore a difficult past.

Ella Enzmann and Gretel Meron
Image: Aktion Sühnezeichen/H. Greyer

"I realized what it means to belong to the last generation that can still talk to Holocaust survivors - people who were really there," says Ella Enzmann. The 24-year-old went to Israel in September 2008 for 12 months of volunteer service in a kindergarten and later a nursing home. "That was a special way to experience history."

At the nursing home, Ella cared for German-born Gretel Merom, who celebrated her 100th birthday in February 2013.

"Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ASF)" is one of numerous German organizations that regularly send young people aged 18 to 30 to do volunteer work in Israel - a total of about 900 volunteers every year.

Care for the young and the elderly

Simon Weissbeck's service ends in August 2013. The 20-year-old says he chose Israel because he wanted to seize the "unique opportunity to deal in-depth with Germany's past and the Shoah."

To this very day, German-Israeli history is influenced by the murder of millions of Jews in Germany and across Europe by the Nazis during World War Two. When Israel proclaimed statehood 65 years ago, on May 14 1948, it was also to give the Jewish survivors of the Shoah - the Hebrew term for the Holocaust - a new home. .

a youth and children at a table Copyright: Hartmut Greyer
The German volunteers often help in social projectsImage: Aktion Sühnezeichen/H. Greyer

Weissbeck also worked in a nursing home in Jerusalem. The roughly two dozen German ASF volunteers in Israel usually work in social projects with children, elderly or handicapped people; sometimes they are posted to memorial sites. Every single German volunteer dedicates part of his time to Holocaust survivors.

Peak season

Organizations like ASF or the German-Israeli Youth Exchange have been sending volunteers to Israel for about 50 years. Individuals have also been volunteering in kibbutzim - rural cooperatives. Peak season is July and August, when German schools and universities are closed for the summer. Many volunteers planning to spend an entire year in Israel are currently preparing for their stay, which begins in September.

Over the years, the interest of young Germans in dealing with Germany's recent past has not diminished, says Bernhard Krane of ASF - rather the opposite: "We always have more applicants than places."

young people sitting on the grass
Many young Germans get to know young Israelis during their stay on a kibbutzImage: Johannes Schrader

But the way in which the young people approach the history of the war period has changed. "Working in Israel used to be seen as a way of distancing oneself from one's parents," says Krane, who's been responsible for the ASF volunteers in Israel since 1987.. They were reluctant to talk about the Nazi period through which they'd lived. "Now the main reason is curiosity about the stories of the old people. And the old people in Israel themselves prefer to tell their stories to people from their grandchildren's generation."

Young people today have a more multifaceted access to German-Israeli history than they did 20 or 30 years ago, according to Christine Mähler, the head of the ConAct coordination center for German-Israeli youth exchange. The youth groups' make-up has changed over the years, she says.

"In the past, descendents of the Nazi perpetrators met face-to-face with descendents of the victims during youth exchange projects," Mähler says, adding that today, participants often come from different cultures, and may have their roots in Italy or Russia. She says it is also no longer the case that Christian youths take part on one side, and Jews on the other: "Both states have developed into multi-cultural societies."

Time-honored tradition

Kibbutz volunteers - they numbered 1,200 in 2012 - come from 50 countries worldwide, according to Aya Sagi, director of the Kibbutz Volunteers Program Center in Tel Aviv. For decades, ever since the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli war, Germans have been among the largest groups of volunteers to work in the kibbutzim. Last year, most volunteers came from South Korea, followed by North America and Germany. "German volunteers are much more aware of the history than others and they know much more about it," says Sagi. "They also have much more sensitivity."

Ella Enzmann still visits Israel once or twice a year. "I had expected many people would not want to speak to me because I am from Germany, and that it would be difficult." The opposite was the case, and many residents in the nursing home were enthusiastic and even wanted to speak German with her.

Farmer on tractor Copyright: imago/Xinhua
The idealism of rural cooperative Kibbutz life attracts volunteers from all over the worldImage: imago

"They remembered poems and books that we then read together. These encounters meant a lot to me, and they were the most impressive thing about the year," the student, who looked after for four elderly women in particular, says. Three have meanwhile passed away, but Ella is still in touch with centenarian Gretel Merom, who came to Israel in 1934 with a Zionist youth organization. The Nazis deported her parents from Frankfurt in 1942, and they were later murdered in the Lodz ghetto.

Powerful experience

Krane went to Israel in 1977, and spent 18 months working at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and in a children's project. He wonders how German volunteer services in Israel will develop when Holocaust survivors begin to dwindle in numbers. "At that point, there will also be few native German speakers left in Israel," he says. Mähler of the ConAct coordination center, however, is not concerned. "An exchange with Israel inspires such a specific interest that there will always be enough takers."