Thousands of young Israelis have immigrated to Germany and Austria in the past decade. By some estimates, upwards of 20,000 have made that move. It’s a deeply ironic development, given what happened in these countries during the 12-year Nazi interregnum.
In most cases, the Israelis who’ve forsaken their homeland are the grandchildren of German and Austrian Jews who found a haven in Palestine after being driven out of their homes by antisemitic persecution.
Filmmakers Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon explore this intriguing phenomenon in their workmanlike documentary, Back to the Fatherland, which opens theatrically in New York City on June 14 and in Los Angeles on June 28.
Rohrer and Levanon couldn’t be more different in terms of their respective backgrounds. Rohrer is an Austrian whose grandfather was a Nazi. Levanon, an Israeli, is the granddaughter of a German Jew who fled Germany after Adolf Hitler’s accession to power.
The pair insert themselves into their film, but in the main, they focus on two Israeli emigrants who regard Germany and Austria as their homes. Guy Shahar lives in Salzburg, while Dan Peled resides in Berlin. Both men are in a serious relationship with local women. Indeed, Dan’s girlfriend is pregnant.
The movie gets under way as Levanon, the prototype blonde and blue-eyed Aryan, informs her grandfather of her intention to settle in Germany. Being anti-German, he objects to her plan to leave Israel and live in the country where the Holocaust was conceived. The closest Levanon comes to explaining her drastic decision is when she says she was “tired” of Israel. It’s an inadequate explanation, replete with questions marks, but Levanon leaves a viewer hanging.
She admits she arrived in Germany with bitter feelings. At first, she discloses, she refused to give up her seat on buses and subways to elderly persons who might have been Nazis or Nazi sympathizers during the Third Reich. Looking back, she acknowledges she behaved childishly.
Reflecting on her late grandfather, who fell in battle during World War II, Rohrer conveys the emphatic point that his noxious views do not define her as a person.
Surprisingly, Guy’s grandfather, Uri, is glad he left Israel, which he describes as a difficult country. He does not bother to elaborate. When he visits Guy in Salzburg, he experiences emotional distress when he reminds himself of the antisemitic abuse to which he was subjected after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.
Guy has not abandoned Israel altogether, saying he still thinks of it as his home. But as far as he’s concerned, his future is in Austria.
Dan says he was rootless in Israel and now feels comfortable in Germany. There was no place for him in Israel and never felt he belonged there, he adds. He is critical of the “apartheid” that, he claims, prevails in “parts” of the Jewish state.
A sculptor and painter, Dan is close to his gentle Viennese-born grandmother, Lea, an artist herself. Lea says she was not “thrilled” by Dan’s immigration to Germany.
Back to the Fatherland, while generally interesting, is full of yawning gaps and is bereft of context.
Rohrer and Levanon omit a lot of vital personal information about Guy and Dan that might have helped a viewer better understand their reasons for settling in Austria and Germany. And they fail to place Guy and Dan within the wider movement of Israelis who’ve opted to decamp there.
Nonetheless, Back to the Fatherland gives us a glimpse of two Israelis who, for better for worse, have rejected the Zionist dream and returned to their ancestral roots.