Israelis who choose to live to Germany – the country that sought to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth – are often regarded with a mixture of fascination, curiosity and suspicion. All the more so when they’re the descendants of Holocaust survivors.
Why Germany of all places? How can they ever feel safe and comfortable there? And how do their families feel about their decision?
A new documentary, set to Austrian premiere at the Vienna Jewsih Film Festival on Oct. 7th, and to Israeli premiere at the Haifa International Film Festival on Oct. 9th, explores these questions by following several young Israelis who have made the move – either to Germany or Austria, the latter considered no less controversial – or are contemplating it.
“Back to the Fatherland” was co-directed by two women with a personal connection to the subject: Gil Levanon, an Israeli who is the granddaughter of a survivor, and Kat Rohrer, an Austrian who is the granddaughter of a man she describes as a “super-Nazi.” The two met in film school in New York 10 years ago.
Dan and his grandmother Lea in the 2017 documentary 'Back to the Fatherland.'Credit Thomas Marschall
The film opens with Levanon notifying her elderly grandfather Yochanan that she may be moving to Berlin. He doesn’t take the news well. “No way,” he responds, summing up his feelings about Germans with these words: “They were bad, they stayed bad, and they will always be bad.”
Levanon didn’t expect this strong a reaction. If she follows through, she says, she will feel as though she has betrayed him. But her story is sidelined by that of the two main characters: Dan and Guy.
Dan lives in Berlin with his pregnant German girlfriend and would never consider returning to Israel. “I decided to run away and not be there,” as he puts it. His decision to leave was prompted by his deep sense of discomfort with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. “In parts of Israel, there really is apartheid,” he says, “and when I’m there, I become part of the perpetrators.”
Gil Levanon, left, and Kat Rohrer, the makers of the 2017 documentary 'Back to the Fatherland.' Credit Ashton Green
At home here and there
But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that another factor is also his unhappy family life. Dan’s parents, it turns out, were divorced when he was 4, and as the grandmother who helped raise him reveals, their split took a terrible toll on him. It is this grandmother Lea who remains virtually his only tie to Israel.
Born in Vienna, Lea recalls her world “turning upside down” after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. “What it took them years to do in Germany, it took just a few weeks in Austria,” she recounts. Her birthplace “does not interest me and means nothing to me.”
On one of his periodic trips to Israel, Dan broaches the touchy subject of his move to Germany with his grandmother, who until now has refrained from sharing her feelings. “I wasn’t thrilled,” she finally admits. “Why Germany of all places?”
Her grandson responds: “But now we can speak German together. That’s something – no?”
Lea isn’t impressed. “We can also speak Hebrew together.”
Guy lives in Salzburg with his Austrian girlfriend Kati, but unlike Dan, doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in his new environs. As an Israeli and a Jew, he feels animosity both from the right and the left in Austria, he tells his girlfriend. “I have an agreement with Kati that if the political situation gets bad here, we leave on the first plane and fly away,” he says.
Also unlike Dan, he remains attached to Israel and continues to consider it home, or at least one of his two homes.
Guy and his grandfather Uri in the 2017 documentary 'Back to the Fatherland.'Credit Thomas Marschall
It is here in Austria that Dan’s grandfather Uri was born and lived until he was deported, along with his mother and brother, to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia. That put to an abrupt end what the grandfather describes as his fairytale-like childhood.
Despite the bad memories and hardships, Uri completely supports his grandson’s decision to relocate to Austria. “If I were in Guy’s position, I would also think whether I should stay here,” he says. “I’m very happy he lives there and not here. It’s very sad, but that’s the truth.”
Neither is he worried about signs of growing anti-Semitism in Europe. “He can always come back,” Uri says of his grandson. “We had nowhere to go, but now there’s a country, Israel, where he’s welcome.”
A roots trip nonetheless
For the first time since World War II, both Lea and Uri will end up taking a trip back to Austria where they will hook up with their Israeli grandchildren. It’s not an easy journey for either them or their grandchildren. While he never feels out of place in Germany, Dan confesses, Austria manages to shake him up, presumably because it was here that his grandmother endured so much suffering as a young girl.
But reflecting back later on in the film, he says the trip also made him feel, for the first time in his life, that he had roots somewhere.
While sitting on a tram in Vienna with his grandson, Uri breaks down, recalling how on a similar ride many years back, he was detained by the Gestapo for daring as a Jew to wear the colors of the German flag. “I though I would pee in my pants then,” he says.
Reflecting on the scene, his grandson later remarks: “You cannot stay indifferent to something like that.” At the same time, he notes that “it’s not my pain, and it didn’t happen to me.”
Levanon, the filmmaker, ultimately breaks the news to her grandfather that she will be moving to Germany. By now, he is less resistant and even jokes around with her about what to expect. “With your blond hair, they’ll think you’re lying when you tell them you’re from Israel,” he warns his granddaughter.
It’s not clear from the film what prompted her decision. She appears to have struggled with it, though, and nothing makes that clearer than her remarks to several Israelis who have already made the move.
“Aren’t we just giving up really quickly the home we were hoping for so long?” she asks them. “Are we a generation – and I’m talking about all of us – that gives up really quickly when things are a little tricky?”
She proceeds to answer her own question: “I think we’re tired, which is not an excuse.”