German-Jewish emigration to Palestine


The land “here”, the land “there”: Reflections on Returning

Joachim Schlör

Opening of the exhibition “Ort der Zuflucht und Verheißung”,
Mishkenot Shaananim, Jerusalem, July 21, 2008

There are so many aspects to this story that brought us together today, it would be impossible to discuss them all in the short time – and anyway, you want to see the exhibition and use the opportunity to meet friends and exchange memories. Therefore I don’t intend to give a “Festvortrag” and tell you everything you already know, I would rather give us all something to discuss.

And this is already the first and maybe most important aspect: How do we, how can we preserve the memory of the specific story presented in this exhibition, and of the more general one surrounding it? Memory is not an abstract concept, it is closely related first and foremost to people, but also to specific places and to a specific time. The people here are the “pioneers”, if I can use this somewhat nostalgic notion, who came from Rexingen in Germany and built up Shavei Zion in Israel, from 1938 onwards, in British Mandate Palestine, and later in the State of Israel. They lived the experience and maybe didn’t feel the immediate need to actively “remember”. The need for memory work arrives when the next generation, and maybe even more so the one after them, begins to ask questions. How did you live, back then, in Germany? We have heard about the Nazi’s rise to power in general terms, but how did you experience it in your own everyday life? We also grew up – as “good Israelis”, as they say – but how was it here, at the very beginning? How did you live? What did you eat? Did you have any contacts with Arab neighbours? Did you feel like “returning” to a place you would call “home” from then on? Or did you ever think of “returning” to Germany?

There were so many questions, many very private, intimate, sometimes even painful questions. We know that in many cases questions were not asked and answers not given, both “here” and “there”. Because there were other questions, unasked, unanswered, in Rexingen as well. Why did the Jews have to leave? Hadn’t they been part of Rexingen’s very identity fabric for such a long time? Who was responsible for the terrible treatment they experienced? Who profited from their leaving? Memory work tries to ask these questions, often quite late, sometimes too late. This exhibition is a wonderful example of how memory work can be done. Please let me become a little bit more theoretical for a minute, I’ll come back to the “local” questions.

In recent years, the study of Jewish history and culture and the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations have both been influenced by a “spatial turn”: Diana Pinto’s thesis on the development of a new “Jewish Space” in Europe[1] and the co-construction of this “space” by both Jews and non-Jews; Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book “Virtually Jewish” on the reconstruction of Jewish life and identity in Eastern Europe,[2] and a number of other studies have brought the notions of space and place and of “Jewish Topographies”[3] to the forefront of research and publication. A very important area in this context is the study of dis-placement and migration, and this integrates Israel into the overall picture.

But even if the conceptual work on “(Jewish) practices of space” has begun and a number of international conferences have treated the topic, there is still a lack of practical, source-based studies that manage to combine and bring into creative dialogue the research areas of place-identity and of migration. Research on place-identity deals with the relationship between different Jewish communities and the place(s) relevant to them: this can include forms of settlement, histories of communities, but also research about the “place” of a given community or individuals in their relation with Jews and non-Jews: a “shtetl”, an urban quarter, or, as in this case, a village.[4] The notions of “staying”, “belonging”, and “keeping” are closely related to the formation of archives and other forms of memory storage. Research on Migration has been central to the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton, were I work, for a long time. The port city of Southampton is one of the places of European (and European-Jewish) transmigration, especially to the United States. Trieste played the same role for German-Jewish emigration to Palestine: the last glimpse of Europe. In migration processes, the notions of “moving”, “longing”, and “taking along/leaving behind” can be connected to the question of the preservation of memory – under new circumstances.

Emigration is a radically disruptive event in a person’s life. Many branches of research concern themselves with its various aspects – flight into exile, expulsion, migration to a particular place or migration continued over a long period: these have become the subjects of historical investigation, sociological analysis, and also the study of literature. Within the overarching concept of ‘migration studies’, migration as both a theme and an individual fate has been presented as a paradigm of the experience of modern man: the ‘migrant’ has been interpreted as a representative figure whose experiences – the loss of a homeland, the breaking of ties, an impermanent existence, but also mobility – are those that, in an age of globalisation, individuals and societies at large must expect to face.

The image of flight and expulsion has been seen as encapsulating major strands of world history, and chains of causality have been suggested which do indeed present the outlines of a grand narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe via Germany, France, Norway and the United Kingdom to the United States and (to a much smaller degree) to Palestine; the expulsion of the Jews from Germany and Europe as the start of the deportations and acts of genocide; the expulsion of the Germans from the Eastern European countries and the forced resettlements under the Stalinist regime; even the flight and/or expulsion of Palestinians from Haifa and Jaffa and the whole conflict in the Middle East. I don’t want to equalize these events, but we have to admit that there is something like a grand narrative of migration in the 20th century of which this story – from Rexingen to Shavei Zion – is an important part. I would suggest to examine these ‘events’ not only in relation to their significance for historical developments and the current European and Middle Eastern political situation, but also, in Max Weber’s words ‘from the point of view of their cultural significance’ and also, following the tradition of the Parkes Institute, in terms of Jewish/non-Jewish relations.

We have to study the history of these events, but also the forms of their transmission – in stories, descriptions or documentary accounts; in symbolic forms such as poetry, novels and songs or, for example, the lists of material objects we can see in this exhibition: objects taken along by the immigrants, objects left behind, objects stolen by the local German bureaucrats; we have to enquire into the media through which this transmission takes place and its crystallisation into symbolic forms; we have to investigate, on the basis of specific examples, how the individual and the collective memories store, modify and process the event and the experience of migration. Of course you all will agree when I say that Israel is a special case, that emigration from Germany or other parts of Europe to Jewish Palestine and to Israel is different from emigration, say, to Buenos Aires or Shanghai. Well, it is and at the same time it is not. It is different because of the very principal and old “longing for Zion” as a central element of Jewish identity over the centuries, as it is captured in the name the pioneers from Rexingen chose for their settlement. To quote from any accessible encyclopedia:

“The Return to Zion (Hebrew:שיבת ציון, Shivat (T)Zion, or שבי ציון, Shavei (T)Zion, English: Zion Returnees) is a term that refers to the event in which the Jews returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile following the decree by the Persian King Cyrus, the conqueror of the Babylonian empire in 538 BC, also known as Cyrus's Declaration.

The term was first coined, after the Destruction of the Second Temple (mentioned in the Song of Degrees), and afterwards was attributed to the event of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first temple, to the Land of Israel following the decree of Cyrus the Great. The Biblical term of "The Return to Zion" was later on borrowed from this event and was adopted as the definition of all the immigrations of Jews to the Land and the State of Israel, Aliyah, in our modern times, beginning from the Aliyah, in the midst of the 19th century, to Jaffa, of the followers of Rabbi Judah Bibas and Rabbi Judah Alkalai, known as the Herald of Zion (מבשרי ציון), the pioneers of modern Zionism (from 1881 onwards), and up to the rest of the Aliyot made after the establishment of the State of Israel.”[5]

This is true, and the story that led from Rexingen to Shavei Zion can be read as part of this bigger narrative. On the other hand, I think today we are free – or “post-Zionist” – enough to admit that most members of the German part of the Fifth Aliya would have stayed in Germany, had the Nazis not come to power in 1933. And even here, in Israel, as we could hear a couple of years ago at the great “Yekkes” conference held here in Mishkenot Shaananim,[6] they retained some aspects of their German identity and culture, their language, their love for books and education, for music and many other aspects of their former life which they didn’t want the Nazis to take away from them. And what has initially been described as a failure – to fulfill completely all Zionist requirements of equality and a break with Diaspora traditions – has since turned into a very successful story of integration without complete assimilation. Walking around here in Rehavia, or on Haifa’s Carmel Mount, or in Tel-Aviv’s “Rehov ben Yehuda Straße”, we can still find traces of the German-Jewish heritage, and parts of it have been wonderfully preserved and presented in the German-Jewish museum in Tefen, which most of you will know.

In a certain way, the German aliya in Palestine and Israel has made similar experiences to those in New York, Buenos Aires, or London. Finding a job, mastering the new language, adjusting to the climate, thinking about Germany and the loss of friends and family – all these feelings and experiences are not “Zionist” at base, but central to all emigrants. This allows us to read and study the Rexingen – Shavei Zion experience also in the framework of the migrations of the 20th century, from “The Pity of it all” to “the study of it all”.

Edward Soja (a researcher of urban history, in his Thirdspace. Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places) argues, that spatial thinking, or what has been called the geographical or spatial imagination, has tended to be bicameral, or confined to two approaches.[7] Spatiality is either seen as concrete material forms to be mapped, analyzed, and explained; or as mental constructs, ideas about and representations of space and its social significance. Soja critically re-evaluates this dualism and tries to create an approach that comprehends both the material and mental dimensions of spatiality but also extends beyond them to new and different modes of spatial thinking. In our case, this could mean that we have to go beyond the dichotomy of “here” and “there”, say Rexingen “here” and Shavei Zion “there”, or rather the other way round: Shavei Zion “here” and Rexingen “there”, and look for the thirdspace which contains them both. This exhibition is such a space, it could not have been realised only “here” or “there”, but only in a co-operation between the two.

The aim of studies produced in this field is indeed to contribute to depicting society, but not by drawing a static picture of that society (for instance by concentrating on an analysis of its structures or trying to describe the relative importance of the economy and of political power), but rather by making visible the development and change inherent in the social conditions. Incidental stories, footnotes, interpolated quotations and comments, the shifts of perspective – in short, the debris of history can also be found in lists and material objects, in songs and diaries, in stories about suitcases and boats.[8] We no longer interpret the history and the experience of exile solely in terms of persecution and exclusion: research into emigration and migration in general is able to broaden its scope to include experiences that cross countries and borders, by looking at trans-national migration and the consequent transformation of the individual. To be more concrete, the story has been written under the aspect of a “loss” (for Germany) or a “gain” (for Israel). But maybe this is too simple. I think what is of interest today is the relationship between the two.

So, in the same way as we can ask, “how much Berlin is in Tel-Aviv?” – in architecture, music, literature, but also in memories and stories, published and unpublished, told and untold – and “how much Tel-Aviv is in Berlin?” – dreamed of, prepared, but also, indeed, returned – we can ask the same questions about Rexingen and Shavei Zion. One of the Israeli students who took part in the Leo Baeck Summer University in Berlin last summer, Gal Engelhard, writes his dissertation about the visits of “former” Jewish Berliners in Berlin, Leipzigers in Leipzig and, indeed, Rexingers in Rexingen. These trips, visits and meetings have a special meaning in the story of the “thirdspace” that has developed between the two places in the last years. Travelling, visiting, exchanging letters, all these activities become part of the memory work.

The second aspect I would like to dwell on is a literary figure. When you read, for example, David Grossmann’s book “See under: love” or Benny Barbasch’s novel “My first Sony”, you will encounter a figure of speech, a literary notion that represents a specific cultural situation.[9] A little boy grows up in Israel, with the Hebrew language, with his peers whom he grew up with – without realising the very different backgrounds they had. Indeed, their whole education was based on the assumption that it wouldn’t matter where their parents and grandparents had come from, which languages they used to speak. And then, both stories, indifferent ways, describe the same phenomenon: The little boy hears his parents or grandparents speak about another country they call “there”. Often this country “dort” has no name, they don’t call it Poland or Romania, or Germany. It is a land that belongs to another time.

The way the elders talk about this “there” is very ambivalent. On the one hand, they praise its beauty – remember thatAmos Oz told the story how his parents said that one day Jerusalem “will be a real city” which for them meant a city with a river, a forest around it, and maybe even a cathedral, a city like Prague or Krakow or Budapest.[10] On the other hand of course, “there” lives the Nazi beast, or it used to live there and has now gone, but you can’t be sure. So it is better to stay “here” where things don’t go all well, but still. This has to awake an interest in the young boy to learn more about the land “there”, maybe even to go there and see for himself. At the same time, there might be discussions in some families in Rexingen – questions about how the former neighbours manage “there”, in the Orient, in Israel. One place where these questions, fears and hopes can meet is literature.

Yoram Kaniuk, in his wonderful book “The last Berliner”, tells the story of the many meetings he had in Germany and with Germans, and there is one very moving part of it, I still think it would have turned into a great novel.[11] Uri is the grandson of somebody called Gustav Vierundzwanzig, an unlikely name, from a family of former whale-hunters, again not to likely, who somehow ended up in the Black Forest, where we do have a village called “24 Höfe”. He goes to live in Berlin, he identifies very much with this city, like so many Jews did, and he has to leave it, quite late, in November 1939. The idea of the novel is that Gustav manages to remember the Berlin of this day, every single street, every house, every movement, and every word spoken. He carries this “Berlin” along with him to Plaestine, and one day, in Tel-Aviv, he hands the complete memory set over to Uri, his grandson, who then goes to Berlin, sometimes in the 1990s, and the confrontation of the memory Berlin with its contemporary counterpart would be, if you like, the thirdspace so urgently needed – both “here” and “there”.

In order to do this kind of research and writing, we need documents. We need testimonies of people, “normal” people, not only political leaders, we need diaries, letters, photographs, personal documents. Maybe we also need big monuments and memorials that write the history in stone and give later generations the opportunity to assemble there and commemorate; but more deeply we need documents which make this history “fluid”, as my teacher Utz Jeggle has called it – the author of a small book, “Judendörfer in Württemberg” from 1969,[12] which for many of us was the first information about Jewish life in Southern Germany’s rural areas and villages –, more available to story-telling.

In his brochure of 1960, Leopold Marx tells the story, and here I have to quote in German:

“In Wuerttemberg, im Vorgelaende des Schwarzwalds, liegt ein Bauerndorf. Es heißt Rexingen. Abseits von Eisenbahn und Hauptverkehrsstrasse lebte dort unter schwaebischen Bauern seit vielen Geschlechtern eine juedische Gemeinde. Einst, ehe die Abwanderung nach den Staedten begann, war sie groß gewesen. Um 1933 waren es noch 400 Juden, 1/3 der Einwohnerschaft.“[13]

It sounds a little bit like a fairy-tale – „once upon a time“. And I am sure that in 1960 the recent past, the “good times” of neighbourhood, seemed as far away and irretrievable as any wonderland.

“An das Land der Vaeter erinnerte sie im Wesentlichen die Sammelbuechse der Chalukah und das Gebetbuch. ‚Gelernt’, heißt es in der Chronik (des Lehrers Samuel Spatz), ‚wurde in Rexingen nie sonderlich viel, da die Rexinger von Anfang an mit dem aufs Praktische gerichteten Sinn ausgestattet waren, der sie heute noch auszeichnet.’ Vom Zionismus wußten sie vom Hoerensagen. Wieviel eingesessene schwaebische Juden waren schon Zionisten – vor 1933?“

Here the author makes a break, even inserts a subtitle, “Vorgeschichte der Alijah”, to make visible that the story of Shavei Zion already begins in Rexingen.

“”Vor 33… Danach wurde alles anders. Der große Umbruch begann. Bedaechtig, wie alles Schwaebische, langsamer als anderswo, aber unaufhaltsam aenderten sich die Dinge, wandelten sich die Menschen. Bauern und Juden, sonst eine lebendige Einheit, die in nachbarlichem Frieden nebeneinander lebten und arbeiteten – jetzt tat sich ein Abgrund zwischen ihnen auf.“

Marx stresses the special situation of the Rexingen Jews who wanted to emigrate as a group, he describes possible alternatives, America,

“aber die Rexinger schuettelten den Kopf. Was waren das fuer Laender-Namen, die hoechstens einer kannte, der Briefmarken sammelte! Sollten sie unter Negern leben, unter Indianern? ‚Nein’, sagte ihr Sprecher, Alfred Pressburger, ‚wenn wir schon fortmuessen, wollen wir dahin, wo unsere Vorvaeter herkamen, nach Zion, nach Jerusalem’.“

I adore the story of the “vorgespieltes Bauerntum” that you all know. When “die Berliner Herren”, representatives of the Palestine Office, came to Rexingen, they met with a group whose members knew what they wanted – and how they would get it.

“Die Maenner, die da zur Verhandlung erschienen, waren Bauern von einer Urwuechsigkeit, die jeden zweifel an ihrer Erdverbundenheit ausschloss. Ihre Kleider und Rohrstiefel waren mit Dreck bespritzt, die Haende, der Stallgeruch wiesen auf Ackerbuerger, die keine Zeit hatten, sich zu putzen, selbst wenn man aus Berlin zu ihnen kam.“

So they bought land, and they went, the first group left Rexingen in February 1938. Their small settlement, writes Leopold Marx, grew with – and maybe through – reistence from many sides, in the beginning even from Naharija.” Dass ihr Dorf den schoenen und verpflichtenden Namen “Shavei Zion” bekam, hat es dem Nationalfonds zu danken.”

Let me quote one last paragraph from Leopold Marx’ acount:

“Man koennte die Linie noch weiter ziehen: der Zionismus, der sich gegen alle Widerstaende durchsetzt; die juedische Bevoelkerung gegen die Mandatspolitik und den arabischen Terror; der Staat Israel, des Volkes, das Hitler vernichten wollte – aber all das geht schon ueber die Geschichte dieses einen Dorfes hinaus, wenn sie auch aufs engste damit verknuepft ist.“

No contemporary historian could have put it better. This little village with its very own character – “die Rexinger waren auch alles andere als Sozialisten. Sie waren so zaeh und so selbstbewusst, wie es Individualisten nur sein koennen” – is unique; and at the same time it forms part of a bigger story, it connects to the history of Zionism and the “return”, both spiritually and physically, to Judaism and the Land of Israel, it connects to the other settlements in the Northern part of the country. And it also has a connection to Germany. “Das kleine weisse Nest am grossen Meer”[14] has been, for many years, one of the points for young Germans to turn to when they – we – wanted to learn about the history of our own country. In order to try and understand what has happened in – and to – my country, I have to study the history of Rexingen and Shavei Zion as well as the history of Berlin and Tel-Aviv. These relationships, also to Stuttgart or to the “Denkendorfer Kreis”, have been documented in the beautiful catalogue Heinz Hoegerle, Carsten Kohlmann, and Barbara Staudacher have produced.

Gershom Scholem has called Zionism and the Zionist project the “return of the Jews into history”, from placeless time – waiting for redemption, no matter where a community lived – into place. And the one “real” place he had in mind was Israel. Today, with Israel established, we can be more open towards the many “other” spaces and places of the Diaspora and research the interrelation between Israel and the many other places, between Shavei Zion and Rexingen. But this thirdspace is not just “there”, it has to be created.[15] A complete narrative – a narrative as complete as it can possibly be after all the destruction and fragmentation – should also include those who were not successful, those who left, those who didn’t cope with the climate and the language, even those who “returned” again to whatever place.

The narrative of the integration or „Einordnung“ of German-Jewish immigrants into Israeli society has been described, not least at the conference I mentioned earlier, as a „success story“. And it is true. But should we not integrate people in our story such as James Springer from Berlin who never mastered Hebrew and became a barkeeper on boats between Haifa and New York? Or Max Zweig, who wrote most unproductive historical dramas and still somehow managed to survive? Or Gabriele Tergit who left Palestine in 1938, after three years, and went to England where she became the secretary of the German PEN club in exile?[16] Many immigrants describe the boat trip – between Trieste and Haifa – as their one essential experience of migration. Not in Europe anymore, not in Palestine, Eretz Israel yet. I have the feeling that although most of the immigrants have indeed arrived, the boats are still on their way, at least in peoples’ memories. So, how does one “return”? What does it mean to “return”? I think today we have to leave the answers to each and every individual. This is also something the exhibition “Ort der Zuflucht und Verheißung” achieves: It tells the story of a very specific and unique community – but it leaves space for the individual faces.

[1] Diana Pinto, “Are there Jewish Answers to Europe’s Questions?” (

[2] Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002

[3] Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place. Eds. Julia Brauch, Anna Lipphardt, and Alexandra Nocke. Heritage,. Culture, and Identity Series. London: Ashgate, 2008

[4] Joachim Schlör, "Jewish Forms of Settlement and their Meaning", in Jurgita SIACIUNAITE-VERBICKIENE and Larisa LEMPERTIENE (eds), Jewish Space in Central and Eastern Europe: Day-to-Day History, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, 1-8.


[6] Cf. Joachim Schlör, „Auf dem Schiff“, in Yotam Hotam, Moshe Zimmermann (eds.), Zweimal Heimat. Die Jeckes zwischen Mitteleuropa und Nahost. Frankfurt/M.: Beerenverlag, 2005, Seitenzahlen.

[7] Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace, Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real –and. Imagined Places,. Oxford Cambridge, 1996.

[8] Joachim Schlör, "Take down Mezuzahs, Remove Name-Plates: The Emigration of Objects from Germany to Palestine', in Simon J. Bronner (ed.), Jewishness: Expression, Identity, and Representation. Jewish Cultural Studies, vol. 1. Oxford, Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization 2008, 133-150.

[9] Cf. Gershon Shaked, “The Children of the Heart and the Monster: David Grossmann: See under Love. A Review Essay”, in Modern Judaism 1989 9(3):311-323; Benny Barbasch, Mein erster Sony. Roman. Berlin: Berlin-Verlag, 1996

[10] Amos Oz: „Heute verstehe ich, daß meine Eltern mit den Worten "eine richtige Stadt" eine Stadt meinten, in der es einen Fluß gab , und über dem Fluß barocke Brücken oder gotische Brücken oder neo-klassizistische Brücken oder normannische Brücken oder slawische Brücken.“ Der nahöstliche Patient, aus dem Hebräischen von Lydia Böhmer. Die Welt, 13. November 2004.

[11] Joachim Schlör, „Yoram Kaniuks Der letzte Berliner. Ein deutsch-jüdisches Tohuwabohu aus Israel.“ In: Willi Jasper, Eva Lezzi, Elke Liebs, Helmut Peitsch (Hg.): Juden und Judentum in der deutschsprachigen Literatur. Wiesbaden 2006 [Jüdische Kultur, Band 15), 221-237.

[12] Utz Jeggle, Judendörfer in Württemberg. Tübingen: Tübinger Vereinigung für Volkskunde, 1969/1999.

[13] Leopold Marx, Über Schavej Zion. Moezah Mekomith Schavej Zion, 1960, 2 (daraus auch die folgenden Zitate).

[14] Poem quoted in Marx 1960.

[15] In my book Endlich im Gelobten Land? Deutsche Juden unterwegs in eine neue Heimat I have put it like that: „[Es] handelt von Deutschland und wie man es verläßt. Vom werdenden Israel und wie man dort ankommt (und von den Gegenständen, die man im ‚Lift’, den Gepäck-Containern, mitgenommen hat). Von der Passage vor allem, die von hier nach dort führte und vielleicht noch nicht zu Ende ist. Diese Geschichte kann, von Deutschland her, als Geschichte von Vertreibung und Auswanderung geschrieben werden. Sie kann, von Israel her, als Geschichte der Einwanderung, als Teil der großen Ingathering of the Nations geschrieben werden. Sie kann womöglich als Teil einer großen Geschichte jüdischer Wanderung geschrieben werden. In jedem Fall, aus jeder Perspektive, würde die Tatsache der Migration zum Politikum, zur These, zum Argument. Die Lebenswirklichkeit derer, die damals ein Land, ihr Land, verließen und in ein anderes, zum Beispiel das entstehende Israel, zogen, geht dabei fast verloren. Wovon gehen wir aus? Von dem Ort, der verlassen wurde? Oder von dem Ort, der erreicht wurde? Oder gibt es, für uns Heutige, die dieser Geschichte nachgehen bis in die galiläischen Berge, die Möglichkeit, einen Standpunkt ‚dazwischen’ zu finden – und müßte der, wenn es ihn denn gibt, nicht genau in der Mitte der beiden Wahrnehmungen von Deutschland und von Israel liegen?“

Joachim Schlör, Endlich im Gelobten Land? Deutsche Juden unterwegs in eine neue Heimat. Berlin: Aufbau 2003, 3.

[16] Gabriele Tergit, Im Schnellzug nach Haifa. Mit einem Vorwort von Jens Brüning und einem Nachwort von Joachim Schlör: Im Schnellzug nach Haifa. Und zurück. Berlin 1996.