Peter Fromm, a naval cadet with the first West German military unit ever to visit Israel, said he had mixed feelings about being here: “We don’t know what the reaction is going to be.”
Moshe Biermann, 54, a Holocaust survivor, felt anxiety about the young sailors being on Israeli soil. “When I see German uniforms,” he said, “I still feel a stab in my heart.”
The scene at the port of Haifa reflected the state of relations today between West Germany and Israel on its 40th anniversary as a nation.
“If you look back on the history of the two peoples, we both have come a long way,” said Aviv Shir-on, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Relations today generally are very good.”
But both Israelis and Germans professed lingering unease when dealing with each other on a personal level, and experts say that is because neither nation has come to terms with the past.
“The Germans feel the need to forget,” said Prof. Yeshayahu Nir of Hebrew University, who produced a documentary on Israeli-German youth exchanges. “There is a strong current to minimize the Holocaust.
“In Israel, the subject has been given ritual treatment in public celebrations. But it isn’t discussed openly in the families and not given enough attention in the schools.”
The unease was apparent when the West German cadet ship Gorch Fock pulled into Haifa harbor, with 21-year-old Fromm and six other cadets shopping around warily for souvenirs and Moshe Biermann feeling the stab in his heart.
‘Undercurrent of Subjects’
Nir said that German and Israeli teen-agers he filmed for his documentary became friends on a superficial level, but “there was an undercurrent of subjects they didn’t want to touch.”
When the discussion did turn to the Holocaust, hidden barriers often became visible.
In Nir’s film, a German teen-ager identified as Eva summed up the attitude of many of her peers: “The Israelis thought we should feel guilty because of what our fathers and grandfathers did. But I don’t feel guilty. I didn’t do it.”
An Israeli youth responded: “I don’t feel that Eva should feel guilty personally. But I do expect her to remember, to feel bad about it and to have the courage to ask about it.”
Writer Lea Fleischmann, who taught high school in Germany until emigrating to Israel in 1979, said that German teen-agers face a difficult task because most of the older generation remained silent about the Nazis.
“If the Germans after the war had punished the guilty, they would have washed themselves clean of this part of the history,” said Fleischmann, 40, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “They should have done it for the younger generation.”
Things are better on a government-to-government level. A close network of economic, cultural and scientific ties binds them:
- Trade last year reached $2 billion. Israel exported $640 million worth of goods, mainly fruit, flowers and clothes. Germany exported $1.4 billion worth, including industrial machines, cars, electronics and chemical products.
- Israeli and German scientists cooperate on more than 80 projects, including cancer research, physics and solar energy.
- Israel sends more youth groups to West Germany than to any other country. And for Germany, Israel is second only to France in that regard.