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But you weren't there!

Erschienen in "Haaretz", 6. März 2003

Von Autor Jan Rübel

Cafe Europa in Tel Aviv is a venue with a homogeneous clientele - all the patrons are Holocaust survivors.

All 11 tables at Cafe Europa are full. Seventy people clap to the rhythm of Aviva Hed’s guitar, bouncing in their seats. The scent of mothballs rises from the coats of the guests up to the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, where it mixes with the hot air pouring from the heating vents.

Hermina Steinhaus finds the air stifling, but nevertheless, she is content. “This is my family,” she says. “Here I can forget my suffering, which other people don’t fully understand. Here, I don’t have to explain how I feel.” Where is her real family? “Nu,” the 70-year-old answers. “They are gone. In Lodz, Poland.”

Cafe Europa, on Shir Street in Tel Aviv, admits only Holocaust survivors - Jews who have left behind ghettos, labor camps, concentration camps and Europe itself.

The music stops. A man in striped, gray trousers and a tailored jacket grabs the microphone. “I want to inform you all that yesterday, my great-granddaughter Sarah was born,” he proudly shouts. The crowd applauds and resumes talking in various languages. At the front on the right are the Russians. The Hungarians sit at two nearby tables. The Poles are the largest group, occupying three tables in the center of the room.

Cafe Europa is open only on Sunday. It began in November, 2001, when the Tel Aviv Municipality began inviting survivors to the Reut retirement home once a week. The initiative is the first of its kind in Israel, and the response has been overwhelming. “People come from other cities. Many of them sit at the tables for a full hour before the doors open, while we decorate the room,” says Chaia Luski, the social worker who is in charge.

The idea for the cafe came from Los Angeles, which is twinned with Tel Aviv. In the 1980s, members of the Jewish community there founded Cafe Europa, naming it after a Stockholm bar that became a meeting place for Holocaust survivors shortly after the war. Last year, the Los Angeles community donated $10,000 for the Tel Aviv establishment. Already this year, the community has donated an additional $15,000. There have been no Israeli donations.

Of 250,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, 30,000 of them live in Tel Aviv. Why then is there only one venue like Cafe Europa here, and why did it take so long to be established? Nathan Durst does not hesitate in giving his answer. “You can suppress feelings, but not facts,” the psychologist says as he looks out of his Herzliya apartment’s living room window. “The survivors kept silent for decades. Now a Pandora’s box has been opened for a whole generation,” says the 72-year-old. He was born in Berlin but fled from Germany, with his sister, at the age of eight. The two, who spent the war hiding in Holland, were the only survivors from their family.

Durst has been working with traumatized Holocaust survivors in Israel for 20 years. “They can only now face their past, because becoming old is a metaphor for the Holocaust. Death, dependence and loss of control - they are familiar with all of that from the Nazi era,” Durst says in a strained voice, stroking his silver hair. At an advanced age, he adds, long-term memory prevails over short-term memory. In addition, “It is easier to tell the grandchildren about our suffering because they ask more uninhibitedly, and they are further away than the children.”

Durst says that old people are more “allowed” to cry and stay in bed when they feel bad than younger people. “But the main reason is that Israeli society has begun listening to them only now.” In the 1950s, Holocaust survivors were generally regarded as having contributed little to the struggle for Israeli independence. “Power” was the fashionable word, not “weakness.” “The survivors were asked why they had managed to come to Israel - perhaps they had cooperated with the Nazis?” says Durst. In 1986, he and some of his colleagues founded the organization Amcha, which provides emotional support to 5,000 survivors. The state provides 5 percent of the group’s budget, while the rest comes from private sources.

“Many survivors mix facts with feelings,” says Durst. “Our task is to reweave these facts and feelings into a story.” He gives an example to clarify his point. For months, he said, he listened while a client related countless times how her family “vanished” during World War II at a transfer station near Lodz. Finally, he interrupted her: “They didn’t vanish. They were killed!” The woman reacted indignantly: “But you weren’t there!”

Durst seeks to prod his clients to mourn. Mourning means parting with the past. “Then I cry with them, and the world becomes their witness.”

“Sometimes I think that our job is holy,” he says at the end of the conversation. Back at Cafe Europa, Aviva Hed has finished with her music and the tea urn is empty, but the patrons are still chatting. A major topic is the recent death of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

“It hit me so hard,” says David Rosenzweig. “Every day, he visited me via the television in my living room. I can’t forget his smile. This is harder than the suicide bombers.” The old people insist on a minute of silence for Ramon. Others argue in Yiddish over who will speak first to the reporter.

Henja Steppel, from Masowisietzk, Poland, was a slave laborer in a munitions factory. She often lies awake at night and asks herself if this is real - the warm blankets, the television near the bed. She recalls the urine that used to run down the plank bunk beds in the labor camp during winter, because the cold numbed many sensations. At the next table, two celebrate their meeting up after 57 years. Schmuel Davidowitsch has asked his table partner, Betti Guzman, where she came from. She answers: from Dorohoi, Romania. Davidowitsch is from Dorohoi, too, and he recognizes his former neighbor. Both smile shyly.

At the table on the extreme left is Edith Weinberger. “You are here at the Auschwitz table,” she welcomes. “We all were at that camp.” Weinberger, who has beautiful, noble facial features, blinks with dark eyes. “Before we entered the camp, my father told me to take care of my mother. But when we entered, a young, polite and good looking SS officer directed me to the right side and my mother to the left. Please,' he told me,don’t worry.’”

Two weeks later, Weinberger learned that this officer was Josef Mengele and that her mother went to the gas chamber the same day. “After I arrived in Israel, I didn’t talk much about Auschwitz,” she says. “I tried to behave as if I had a mother, too. At night, I used to cry a lot.” Her eyes fill with tears.

Close to the “Auschwitz table,” the three social workers take a break. “We could easily open more cafes,” sighs Luski.

There is another club for survivors on Rashi Street, also in Tel Aviv. They are the only facilities of their kind in Israel.

“The municipality doesn’t make much noise publicizing the cafe,” says Luski. “They fear coming under pressure to expand the concept of Cafe Europa because there is simply no money for that.”

Since a couple of months ago, patrons have been asked to pay a NIS 5 entrance fee. Three hours after opening, Cafe Europa closes. One lady furtively wraps a napkin around some bread and puts it into her coat pocket.

Many of the guests will be back next Sunday. It would never occur to them to go to a regular cafe, says Luski. Going out still seems strange to them. For them, Cafe Europa is a rare respite from loneliness.

The success of this remarkable coffeehouse cannot last for long, however. Soon enough, there will be no more customers.