A Space of Memory: Between Tel-Aviv and Berlin (Yoram Kaniuk, The Last Berliner)


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading
  7. Useful web resources

1. Historical context of the source

This discussion refers to two different, but closely interconnected, political developments and their cultural representation: on the one hand, the final years of Weimar Germany, which saw  the rise of National-Socialism and the beginnings of antisemitic politics that threatened the existence of Jews in Germany, especially in the capital city of Berlin; and, on the other hand, the emergence and development of a Jewish society in Palestine (founded mainly by Jews from Southern Russia and Poland, but also co-constructed, from 1933 on, by immigrants from Germany), especially in the new Hebrew-speaking city of Tel Aviv. The relation between the two cities and their history might be called the main ‘actor’ of Yoram Kaniuk’s book The Last Berlinerfrom which the source is drawn. Berlin and Tel Aviv are, one might say, two distinct spaces, one of them related to German history, the other to the pre-history of Israel. Both have been dealt with by historians at length, but,  rarely, if at all, in comparison with one another. The idea of this introduction, and, indeed, of Kaniuk’s novel, is to create an arena of understanding inside of which historians (and writers of memoirs, and their children and grandchildren) will be able to read both narratives, that about Berlin and that  about Tel-Aviv, in  relation to each other.

The link between the two cities is Zionism, and it dates from long before the appearance of German styles of architecture, shop-window design, music, literature or any other form of cultural practice (in the German language in Hebrew-speaking cities) brought to Palestine by German-Jewish immigrants. Zionism, the idea and practice of a national Jewish identity that, in the face of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, and under the influence of other European nationalist movements, required the establishment of a ‘Jewish National Home’ in Palestine, was spoken and written about in German, as well as in Russian and Hebrew, but never attracted a larger part of Germany’s Jewish population, which numbered around 500,000 in 1925, before the watershed of 1933. Only 2,000 German Zionists decided to move to Palestine before 1933, some very prominent names among them: Arthur Ruppin, head of the Palestine Office in Jaffa who in fact was responsible for the successful foundation of the settlement Ahusat Bajit, which would later  be called Tel-Aviv; Gershom Scholem who was one of the first professors at the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem; the physician Elias Auerbach and the artist Hermann Struck, both residents of Haifa. However many of the founding fathers of the future State of Israel and its early institutions had spent time in Weimar Berlin, and had experienced the creative, modern atmosphere in a city damaged by the war and full of political tension. One of these pioneers was Moshe Kaniuk, Yoram’s father, who, as a young Jew in Eastern Europe, had been attracted by German culture and Bildung and moved to Berlin. Looking back from his own existence as an Israeli, Kaniuk created a literary image for the mixture of attraction and repulsion that he feels when thinking about Germany, and imagined himself to have been conceived, in 1929, ‘between Weimar and Buchenwald’, between the old glory of German culture (the site of German classical literature with Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller) and  its future shame  (the concentration camp just outside the city).  Moshe Kaniuk assisted Dr Karl Schwarz with the foundation of the Jewish Museum in Berlin that opened on January 24, 1933, and followed him to Tel-Aviv where they built  the first art museum in the new city. The memory of Berlin and its modernist, avant-garde culture (in art and architecture, photography and film, window-design and street life) was one of the cultural parcels people such as Moshe Kaniuk – but also Chaim Nachman Bialik, Shmuel Yosef Agnon and many others – brought along to the shores of the Mediterranean, and when, after the Nazi’s rise to power, Jews from Germany immigrated in larger numbers (ca. 65,000 between 1933 and 1939) to Eretz Israel, they found themselves confronted with both the need and the opportunity to resettle and build up new lives in strange, and often hostile, surroundings, where exactly those memories of a lost Berlin functioned as small, fragmented, and most ambivalent replacements for a ‘home’. Yoram Kaniuk, born in 1930, grew up in this atmosphere of nostalgia and longing, a Sabra, Hebrew-speaking young man born in Eretz Israel who heard the good friends of his father speak German in their salons and clubs, Arnold Zweig among them, and maybe also Max Brod, who arrived from Prague in 1940. ‘I hereby decide that we grew up in a little Berlin we called Tel Aviv’ is one of the difficult sentences Yoram Kaniuk has written (in “Das Glück im Exil”, a book which still awaits translation into English): a challenge for readers on both sides of this divided and indivisible relationship between the two cities. Today Berlin has become an attractive destination for young Israelis, artists, students, and intellectuals who have grown weary with the conflicts, inner and outer, in their own country and dream a new dream of a secular Jewish life in Europe. Fania Oz-Salzberger has discussed this new attraction, which might have seemed quite improbable just twenty years ago, in her book Israelis in Berlin (2001). As a writer, Yoram Kaniuk has addressed questions of memory culture in relation to the Holocaust and its impact on both individuals (2006) and the Israeli society (2000). His frequent trips to Germany between the late 1980s and the early 2000s form the background for his book, The last Berliner, which, although written in Hebrew, the language of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, was deliberately first published in German, as a book meant for a German audience that should be challenged to consider from the perspective of an Israeli the following questions : How does a society live with the memory of the Holocaust? How do individual experiences differ from the more general one? . To use a maybe already over-used term, something like a ‘thirdspace’ has developed between the two cities, a space that is marked by constant travels and visits, by art exhibitions and cultural documentations, by books and films produced in one city but with the other in mind. This ambivalent and complex relationship is what Kaniuk had in mind when he wrote the following nucleus for a novel that, alas, has not been completed.

2. Source

2a. German original

„Der Held meiner Geschichte, Gustav Vierundzwanzig, kam als Junge aus dem Dorf nach Berlin und lebte dort bis zum 28. November 1939, als er nach Palästina floh. Seine Frau Hilde, mit der er telepathisch korrespondierte, war spurlos verschwunden, während er von einem deutschen Bekannten gerettet wurde. In meiner Geschichte liest ein israelischer Junge namens Uri, der Enkel von Gustav Vierundzwanzig, daß am selben Tag, einem 28. November, eine Gedenkfeier für Gustav Vierundzwanzig in dem Klub ‚Das vierte Auge’ in der Jordan-Straße in Tel-Aviv stattfinden werde. Uri möchte wissen, warum fremde Menschen öffentlich den Todestag seines Großvaters feiern, hat aber niemanden, den er fragen könnte.”
„Erst jetzt begriff Uri das Spiel, das sein Großvater seit seiner frühesten Kindheit mit ihm gespielt hatte. Der Großvater hatte ihn gelehrt, wie Berlin am 28. November 1939 aussah, dem Tag, an dem er die Stadt verließ. Die Momentaufnahme der Stadt hatte sich seinem Bewußtsein unauslöschlich eingeprägt, und so gab er sie an seinen Enkel weiter, und der Enkel hatte Freude an dem Spiel und glaubte, er lerne bei dem Spiel eine Stadt kennen, die gar nicht existierte. Er kannte die Straßen, Geschäfte, Cafés und Parks, die Namen der Tabakläden, die Spitznamen der Bäcker. Er wußte, wie man von der Ecke Kurfürstendamm-Leibnizstraße zum Savignyplatz kommt.”

Yoram Kaniuk, Der letzte Berliner. Aus dem Hebräischen von Felix Roth. München 2002 (published first in the German translation).

2b. English translation

‘The hero of my story, Gustav Vierundzwanzig, came as a small boy from his village to Berlin and lived there until 28 November 1939, when he escaped to Palestine. His wife, Hilde, with whom he corresponded telepathically, had disappeared without a trace, whereas he had been saved by a German acquaintance. In my story an Israeli boy called Uri, Gustav Vierundzwanzig’s grandson, reads in the newspaper that a memorial celebration for Gustav Vierundzwanzig would be held on that same day, 28 November, in Tel Aviv’s Ha-Yarden Street. Uri would like to know why strange people publicly celebrate the memory of his grandfather, but there is no-one whom he can ask.
Only now does Uri realize the meaning of the game his grandfather had played with him from his earliest childhood on. Grandfather had taught him what Berlin looked like on that day, 28 November 1939, when he had left the city. The snapshot in time of the city had branded itself, ineradicably, on his memory, and so he had passed it on to his grandson, and the grandson enjoyed the game and thought he’d come to know a city that didn’t exist at all. He knew the streets, the shops, cafés and parks, the name of the tobacconist’s, the nicknames of the bakers. He knew how to get from the corner Kurfürstendamm and Leibnizstraße to Savignyplatz.’

(My translation, JS)

3. Discussion of the source

Yoram Kaniuk was born in Tel-Aviv in 1930. His parents had grown up in Eastern Europe (Tarnopol, in today’s Ukraine), but spent an important part of their lives in Germany before moving to Palestine during the Fourth Aliyah (wave of immigration). He served as a member of the Haganah, the Jewish military organisation deemed illegal by the British Mandate administration, before the foundation of the State of Israel (1948). The British, in order to appease Arab protests against rising Jewish immigration, had reduced the quota of Jewish immigrants from 1939 on, to a mere 15000 per year, exactly at the time when emigration and flight from Europe would have been the last chance to escape. Kaniuk witnessed the arrival of ‘illegal immigrants’, survivors of the Holocaust, on the shores of Palestine after 1945, an experience that shaped his identification with the Jews of Europe who had fallen victim to persecution. After the War of Independence, Kaniuk moved to New York, where he worked as an artist and became friendly with Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker. After his return to Israel, Yoram Kaniuk managed to establish himself as a writer who could integrate in his work all of these wide ranging experiences into a sequence of novels. I did it my Way (Hebrew edition Tel-Aviv: Ketar 2004; German edition Munich: List 2005) refers to the New York experience, Commander of the Exodus (New York 2000) tells the story of his confrontation with the survivors of the Holocaust and the feelings of solidarity he, as a young Israeli, felt towards the Jews of Europe. While being an active part of the Israeli peace movement, and an advocate for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, in the 1970s and 1980s, he remained deeply connected to the history and culture of the Jewish Diaspora, the lost world of his parents, and he continuously travelled to Europe, especially to Germany, trying to initiate a dialogue between members of the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors in Israel and those in Europe. As he put it during a famous debate with German author Günter Grass at the occasion of the 1991 Gulf War, ‘our grandfathers should sit here and talk.’

It is in the context of Kaniuk’s ‘obsession’ with Germany, and the need to find a partner for such a dialogue, that the source I am discussing can be placed. I hope it is possible to be very personal for a moment. Several years ago, Yoram Kaniuk called me on the phone and asked me to meet him in his hotel in Berlin. He had a plan for a new book and wanted me to help him with the research. We took a long walk, where we saw the ‘living’ monument of Berlin’s district Schöneberg, young and old people sitting at long tables, reading documents about the marginalization and alienation of Jews in Berlin after 1933, the prelude to the Holocaust in a very visible everyday life neighbourhood. We discussed his idea to write about somebody who would be called Gustav Vierundzwanzig, who lived in Berlin, was a witness to the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and managed to escape at the last moment to Palestine, where he would transmit, and partly, but not completely, translate, his Berlin experience to his Israeli grandson Uri. Uri would then ‘return’, many years later,  to the city, newly reunited after the fall of Communism. One of the surprising effects of this breakdown was the beginning of a Russian-Jewish immigration into Germany and Berlin and, with it, the emergence of a new Jewish life and culture in Germany, a development that added yet another angle  to the already existing chaos of insecurities and open questions in German-Jewish and German-Israeli relations, that of a new “Jewish Space”, to use Diana Pinto’s formula, in Europe. For reasons I cannot really explain, the original idea of the book did not materialize. Instead, Yoram Kaniuk decided to write about his own personal experiences with the German-Jewish, shall we say, ‘situation’ of today, torn as it is, and as he was, between hope and despair, longing for the past and hoping for a better future, surrounded by ever more memorials, Klezmer festivals, Jewish museums, public attitudes towards Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russian sensitivities unanswered by German authorities, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. This book is, of course, very funny, full of anecdotes about misunderstandings and misinterpretations on all sides. It has not been well received in Germany,  nor among Germany’s Jews, and it has been a great success in Israel. It still contains, on its opening pages, the story of Gustav Vierundzwanzig and his grandson Uri. I wish Kaniuk had stuck to the idea of the novel, but now we have to be content with a fragment, and maybe this is just as it should be. This story can only be told in fragments. But one of those fragments still remains the crazy story of how a map of Berlin ’emigrated’ to Palestine and found its way into the head, the memory, of a young Israeli, who would later confront this map of a lost Berlin with the new Berlin after 1989. It is a story about city-knowledge and the deep, but deeply disappointed, love that many German Jews, and many Jews of Eastern European background resident there, felt for Berlin, for the city’s openness and accessibility, for its very map that showed Jewish engagement with all parts of the big urban spread, for the opportunity to move from the arrival points in the East to the modern Western parts of Charlottenburg (“Kurfürstendamm, Leibnizstraße, Savignyplatz”) or Schöneberg. It is also a story about the legacy of those German-Jewish immigrants who, frowned upon by the Zionist institutions who had been there before, managed to recreate (in parts, in fragments) German-speaking lifeworlds in the cafés and museums, in the shops, and the architectural showcases of 1930s and 1940s Tel-Aviv. It is, beyond the German-Israeli dimension, a story about the importance of diasporic memory even after the fulfilment of the Zionist dream. It opens up many questions: about German history, and Jewish history, and the interdependence between the two; about the very idea of the diaspora and its, can we say, ‘charms’; about history and memory in general; about cities, streets, houses, shops, and maps, and what they mean for people.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. How can we analyse the “thirdspace” that has developed between Berlin and Tel-Aviv?
  2. What kinds of documents do we need to study in order to give this fictional account a basis in historical reality?
  3. Can Israel be described as “yet another station” in the Jewish Diaspora?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Barkai, Avraham,  Michael A. Meyer, and Michael Brenner. (eds.) (1998) German-Jewish history in modern times: Renewal and destruction, 1918-1945. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press.
  • Brenner, Michael. (2003)  Zionism: A Brief History. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers.
  • Kahn, Lothar. (1993) Between two Worlds: a Cultural History of German-Jewish Writers. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.
  • Kaniuk, Yoram. (2000) Commander of the Exodus. New York: Grove Press
  • Kaniuk, Yoram. (2002) Der letzte Berliner. München: List.
  • Kaniuk, Yoram. (2006) The last Jew. Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav. New York: Grove Press
  • Mendes-Flohr, Paul R. (1999) German Jews: a Dual Identity. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press.
  • Schlör, Joachim. (1999) Tel-Aviv. From Dream to City. London: Reaktion Books.

6. Further Reading

  • Awerbuch, Marianne. (2007) Erinnerungen aus einem streitbaren Leben. Von Berlin nach Palästina. Von Israel nach Berlin. Mit einem Beitrag von Jonathan Awerbuch. Herausgegeben von Herman Simon und Hartmut Zinser unter Mitarbeit von Ulrich Werner Grimm und Daniela Gauding. Reihe „Jüdische Memoiren”, 15. Teetz: Hentrich & Hentrich 2007
  • Bilski, Emily. (ed.) (1999) Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890-1918. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press-New York: Jewish Museum.
  • Julia Brauch, Anna Lipphardt, and Alexandra Nocke. (eds.) (2008) Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place. London: Ashgate.
  • Brenner, Michael. (1997) After the Holocaust: rebuilding Jewish lives in postwar Germany. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Fonrobert, Charlotte. (2009) ‘The New Spatial Turn in Jewish Studies’, AJS Review 33:1  pp. 155-164.
  • Laufer, Peter. (2003) Exodus to Berlin: the return of the Jews to Germany, Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee.
  • Libeskind, Daniel, (1997) Radix-Matrix: Architecture and Writings. Munich and New York: Prestel.
  • Kahn, Lothar. (1993) Between two Worlds: a Cultural History of German-Jewish Writers. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.
  • Oz-Salzberger, Fania. (2001) Israelis in Berlin. Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag
  • Schlör, Joachim. (2006) ‘Yoram Kaniuks Der letzte Berliner. Ein deutsch-jüdisches Tohuwabohu aus Israel’ in: Jasper, Willi,  Eva Lezzi, Elke Liebs, Helmut Peitsch (eds.) Juden und Judentum in der deutschsprachigen Literatur. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 221-237.
  • Heimat und Exil. Emigration der deutschen Juden nach 1933, hg. von der Stiftung Jüdisches Museum Berlin und der Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag 2006.

7. Useful web resources


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