Like any young man, Andrew Hall wanted his parents to approve of his potential girlfriend. Good looks and a warm personality were always nice. But looking back at his upbringing, Hall could understand why his parents never wanted him to date her: She was German.
“‘You won’t take her out, and that’s that,’ they told me. And I didn’t. They still had really hard feelings 20 years after the war was over. I was OK with it,” says Hall, son of two Polish Jews who narrowly escaped the horrors of the Holocaust. Hall himself was born in a coal cellar in Warsaw in 1944.
“[Germany] having a relationship with the state of Israel would have been absolutely unimaginable when the war ended ... completely beyond anybody’s ability to conceive that there would actually be one,” Hall said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Israeli-German diplomatic relationships, negotiated by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1965. To mark the milestone, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has hosted numerous events in South Florida, in coordination with the general consulates of Israel and Germany, as well as local Jewish leaders. Miami, the leaders say, was among cities globally with the most activities.
The events included a dinner with the German ambassador to the United States, an art exhibit of a Holocaust surviving artist, as well as a Shabbat dinner with a delegation of German leaders on an exchange visit. Miami AJC Executive Director Brian Siegel also hosted several discussion panels and lectures featuring German Consul General Jürgen Borsch, Israeli Consul General Chaim Shacham and prominent South Florida leaders.
“We wanted to highlight some of the important strides that have been made in this relationship but also confront challenges that we think we may face ahead,” Siegel said. “Because it is such a complex relationship, it is essential to understand the painful history as well as the vision that was created by Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion.”
The most recent event was the delegation of leaders who visited from Germany last week. Part of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s exchange program with the AJC, emerging political leaders are exchanged between the United States and Germany. The program is among one of the most prestigious leadership programs in Germany. Former German President Christian Wulff is an alum.
This year, 14 of the foundation’s members visited FIU’s Holocaust Museum with Consul General Borsch, and enjoyed a special Shabbat dinner with Jewish leaders. The opportunity provided for intimate conversations that gave insight into life in Germany today, Siegel said.
“It gave us the chance to learn from them, to hear their thoughts on what is happening in Germany,” Siegel said. “Also, it provided the chance to personally hear their aspirations — who they are and what they care about. I think that was profoundly moving.”
Aside from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s work, Germany has taken great strides to mend a relationship that was utterly destroyed by anti-Semitism over a 15-year period, Borsch said.
“There is no tolerance for any forms of anti-Semitism today. We have been firm and will remain very firm,” he said. “If you act in a hostile way, this is being prosecuted by the law. Of course, there are remains of it, but it is being fought on a regular basis.”
The efforts have largely paid off. Thousands of Jews have moved to Germany and Germany currently has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe. It even hosted the largest Jewish sporting event in the world: the 2015 European Maccabi Games. This year’s games from July 27-Aug. 5 attracted more than 2000 Jewish athletes to the German capital.
“It is extremely significant because for an inherently international Jewish event to take place in all places Berlin, the site of one of Hitler’s pre-war showcases, the Olympic Games,” Shacham said. “That meant that a lot of work had to be done in German-Israeli relations and German-Jewish relations before a decision like that could have taken place.”
Even with such improved relations, Shacham says there will always be a shadow from the past.
“Israelis have always viewed the relationship in the prism of the historic debt owed by the German people to the Israeli people as a result of the Nazi atrocities. ... [The Holocaust] was the darkest hour in our people’s history,” he said.
However, for Holocaust survivors like Hall, he has been content with the efforts since the holocaust.
“It’s pretty hard to hold these people accountable for what their parents or grandparents did,” Hall said. “Particularly given the steps that Germany has taken since then. They said, ‘We are not forgetting, we accept our role and our responsibility in a way that it will never happen again.’ You can’t ask for more than that.”
As time goes on, personal relationships between people of the two nations are more telling than the politics, Borsch said. Perhaps no explanation is better than the “Milky Debate” on social media last year, when an Israeli living in Berlin encouraged his countrymen to move to Germany because it has cheaper chocolate pudding.
The social media debate that followed made international news as thousands of young Germans and Israelis comically debated why a similar chocolate pudding in Berlin was three times cheaper than in Tel-Aviv.
“It was such a lively, open discussion,” Borsch said. “It shows that things have come to a certain normality. Nothing will ever be the same but it is good to see that the relationship is growing.”