“Back to the Fatherland”
The Past and the Present
Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s documentary, “Back to the Fatherland” looks sympathetically, though superficially, to the past and present of Jewish families’ relationships to Germany and Austria. The focus is on the internal family dynamics for the third generation from the Holocaust and their survivor grandparents.
While more than 10,000 Israelis are estimated to have settled in the German capital during the past decade and established Hebrew-speaking enclaves, the directors were interested in the specific personal ramifications of those who were also grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
In two families profiled, the grandparents were born into a German society that painfully turned on them, so they felt lucky to emigrate to Israel. Their Israeli grandchildren see a hopeful potential for work, art, and romance in these countries and have an affinity for a language they heard their grandparents speak at home, albeit they know they have the safety valve of returning to Israel if history repeats itself. Many on screen express unease with the rising anti-Semitism from the right and Muslim extremists.
Guy Shahar left Israel for a pragmatic reason, more job opportunities (like one of my young cousins), and he then fell in love with Austrian Katharina Maschek. They share an unresolved scene where they look up the regulations for civil marriage and changing names. In Israel, his grandfather Uri Ben Rehav has a large model train set that runs through a miniature Theresienstadt, the Nazi’s “model” concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for three years.
Dan Peled, a sculptor, moved to Berlin a few years ago for its lively arts scene, as did my theater artist cousin, and like her, he feels very uncomfortable with Israel’s position toward the Palestinians. He, too, has fallen in love with a local woman, Hannah Becker. Raised with divorced parents, he grew up very close to his painter grandmother Lea Ron Peled, and wants them to meet.
The most moving scenes are the Jewish grandparents’ return to their native lands and the interactions there with their grandchildren. With his grandfather’s interest in trains, Guy takes Uri on a tour of Vienna that includes a ride on a child-size train in a park where Jews were banned. This reminds the chuckling Uri of the time he removed his yellow star in order to see a public display of the German might that had just defeated France. While riding on a streetcar with his grandson, he recalls sitting across from a man who confronted him for being Jewish and wearing a plaid jacket that included the black, white, and red colors of the Nazi party that were forbidden to him. The man took out his Gestapo badge and arrested him. Uri covers his face and can’t speak.
Dan’s father, Gidi, is able to bring his 91-year-old mother to her former apartment in Vienna and the building that housed her school, where an anti-Semitic art teacher had challenged her talent. After her return to Israel, she doesn’t live to see her great-grandchild born in her home city.
It is confusing to keep straight the family relationships, interspersed is a discussion in a coffee shop among unidentified young adult Germans or Austrians and Israelis. It seems that enough time has gone by so that their grandparents’ experiences are too far in the past to influence the younger generations’ decisions. As one of my cousins said, “That was life in a different time zone.” As the directors fade out from that Nazi uniform in the attic, the Israelis want a break with the past that will lead to a different future.
What makes the movie special is not only the seeming absurdity of this plunge back into the darkness of history, but also because grandparents of the individuals were aghast at the decision of the young people, one saying “no way.” The young people determined to live in Germany and Austria are burdened with guilt for going against the wishes of their grandparents.
In the documentary’s opening lines, the theme is set with Gil Levanon ( the blond director, important because the story can get mighty confusing since three families’ lives are juxtaposed) tells Yochanan, her grandfather, that she intends to leave Israel for Germany. What could have sent the elderly man into cardiac arrest results only in shock, disbelief, and dismay. About the Germans, he states, “They were bad, they stayed bad, and they will always be bad.”
The question that is raised here is why would a young Israeli move to Germany or Austria? For their grandparents who experienced the atrocities of the Nazis first hand, the very idea is abhorrent. Not only did those countries give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there wholesale turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated.