Full Circle German-Jewish Literary Culture Returns from Exile

German Jews who fled Nazi persecution to what is now Israel took as many books as they could carry. But their descendants, many of whom don't speak German, are left with cratefuls of heirlooms they can't read. Now the Goethe Institute has started a project that sends the well-traveled books back to Germany as teaching materials for students.

The Goethe Institute in Israel has started a unique book project.

The Goethe Institute in Israel has started a unique book project.

By Helen Whittle

When Berlin-born Jewish journalist Cheskel Zwi Kloetzel fled Nazi Germany in 1933, he was only able to take a small number of his most cherished books. Even after resettling in what was then British-administered Palestine, he remained deeply attached to the German literary culture in which he had immersed himself as a child.

His daughter Cary Kloetzel, who today lives in Israel amongst the vast collection of classics Cheskel Zwi Kloetzel amassed until his death in 1951, has donated a selection of his books as part of a new project making German-Jewish history and the history of Israel more tangible for German schoolchildren learning about the Holocaust. "This project represents for me the extension of a living chain of history for future generations," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The birthplace of the new program, German cultural organization the Goethe Institute, also happens to be named after one of her father's favorite authors, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The director of the institute's Jerusalem branch, Simone Lenz, said that in recent years she has been inundated with people like Kloetzel, descendants of German-Jewish immigrants seeking a dignified place to donate their inherited German literature.

Unable to accept such donations because of a lack of suitable capacity, Lenz hatched the idea to send the books back to Germany, giving students the opportunity to hold an authentic piece of German-Jewish history in their hands. Calling the pilot project "Keine leichte Pakete" ("No Lightweight Packages"), she invited the families of four German-Jewish Israelis, including Kloetzel, to select five books from their private collections, some but not all of which were taken as keepsakes when their relatives fled Nazi Germany.

A Tangible Approach

A small group of high schools in the Münster region are now taking part in hands-on history lessons with the books, such as Kloetzel's beloved 1890 edition of Goethe's poetry. Steven Förster, a teacher at the Christian-Dietrich-Grabbe high school in Detmold said that his students have so far responded positively. "Personally envisioning individual fates seems to be a much more tangible approach than anonymous lists of victims," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The novels, children's books, cookbooks and travel guides containing numerous scribblings, annotations and dedications to family members seem to hold a special historical resonance for the young people. Student Charlotte Szymanowski said the project helped her gain a fuller understanding of the human costs of the Nazi era.

"It is sometimes difficult to comprehend from history books how ghastly it must have been," the 15-year-old said. "But when you learn about history through a specific person who lived through it, it is much more stirring. I think about the dreadful experiences of people, the harrowing break-up of families and friends, those who died and I want to learn more."

The volumes are also a testament to the rich German-Jewish culture in Israel. Despite the prevailing social pressure not to speak German, many refugees were unable to speak Hebrew. The selection of books shows the significance of German literary culture amongst the exiled Jewish community during a period in which the revival of the Hebrew language in Palestine was still being established.

"The fact that German was the first language of many exiled Jews but also the language of the enemy, is part of the tragic paradox of the German-Jewish community in Palestine whose attachment to German literature and culture nevertheless endured," said program organizer Lenz.

A Strong Emotional Connection

To learn more about the stories of the original book owners, Caroline Jessen, a postgraduate literature student from the University of Bonn, lent her time to conduct hours of interviews with their relatives. Already researching the reading culture of German Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s for her dissertation, she helped write up detailed biographies of the donors for German schoolchildren to examine along with the books.

She discovered that those who fled to Palestine took as many books as they could carry, but as the exiled population of German-Jews grew in number, so did the demand for German literature. Whilst the Nazis were burning books by Jewish authors such as Theodor Lessing, Kurt Tucholsky and Sigmund Freud, the Jewish community was busily exporting these books and others to the exiles in Palestine who were eagerly awaiting the latest releases by their favorite authors.

Jessen said she was fascinated to learn about the streets in cities such as Tel Aviv which were home to up to five or six bookshops dealing in German literature, and sees the project as a fitting use of the books which would otherwise be gathering dust in Israel.

"The name of the project 'No Lightweight Packages' refers not only to the physical weight of the books but also to the burden of history they carry," she said. "The donors have selected books to which there is a strong emotional connection in the family."

'Keeping History Alive'

Another book owner included in the project, Jochanan Winter, was born Hans Winter in the former German city of Königsberg -- today Kaliningrad in Russia -- in 1920. Winter was forced to flee a prosperous and secure life in Germany with his elder brother after the national boycott of Jewish businesses began in 1933. He took a copy of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" on the journey. Before escaping through Switzerland and Italy to Palestine, Winter saw many of his relatives for what would turn out to be the last time. Only one of his mother's three brothers survived the Holocaust.

Today Winter recalls how hard it was for his father to come to terms with the events which occurred in his homeland after he left. "My father left Germany before the majority of the atrocities had occurred," he said. "In many ways he had the feeling of being ripped away from his comfortable life in Germany and forced to live in the desert in Palestine. His connection to German culture was never broken and in Israel he actually went on to do what he was prevented from doing in Germany, to study German literature."

Like many Jewish immigrants to Palestine, Winter changed his first name from the German Hans to the Hebrew name of Jochanan, signifying his new beginning. In his books, his German name appears alongside those of his children and grandchildren, nowadays written in Hebrew, where dedications were added from generation to generation. The selection of his books sent to students in Germany includes "The Last Days of Pompeii" by Edward Bulwer Lytton and the "Königsberger Gästebuch," ("Königsberg Guestbook") detailing the lives and times of some of the city's more colorful male residents.

Eyal Winter, who along with his father acquired German citizenship in the 1970s, is now a professor of economics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where his father studied German literature. He and his family approached the book project with great enthusiasm, but he feels deep regret that his father, who died in 2007, was no longer alive to experience it.

"For me it is a closing of the circle," he said. "The children in Germany who are now receiving these books are around the same age that my father was when he was forced to flee. Here we are keeping history alive and present and not simply sweeping it under the carpet."


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