A love letter to Israel

November 2023
Helaine Ortmann

In March 1976, I travelled by train from Tübingen to Munich to catch an El Al flight to Israel. The plane was filled with Russian emigrants who, upon landing in Tel Aviv, wept to the piped-in recording of Hatikvah. 

I stayed in Nahariya with my uncle’s youngest sister Tamar and her husband, Seppl; German Jews who had made Israel their home. I spoke German with them, their friends, and the other family I met, all Holocaust survivors. Each one of them pressed me to explain why a “nice Canadian Jewish girl” was studying in Germany. 

It was complicated. 

My uncle David, the middle sibling of this large family dotted across Israel, had escaped a concentration camp by crawling under barbed wire and rolling down a hill. He never talked about this part of his life, but he did talk about his love of language and literature. He inspired me to study German, pursue my Master’s Degree, apply for a year’s scholarship at Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, and ultimately teach. 

Israel was a culture shock. 

I felt excluded in gatheringsand guiltybecause I couldn’t understand or speak Hebrew. Worse, I was a Jew studying in Germany. The people I met wanted to erase Germany and its memories from their minds.  

Without central heating, I could not get warm. One morning, soaking up the sun in the driveway, I heard blasts. War had broken out, I thought, leaving me all alone to die in that beautiful town of Nahariya so close to Lebanon I could see the purple-pink hills from Tamar’s home. It was not war, she reassured me when she returned from her part-time job at the hospital, it was reconstruction dynamiting along the beach, mere metres away. 

Student life notwithstanding, Tübingen was sedate. Israel was noisy and chaotic. 

Streets were crowded; dogs ran loose, defying traffic. The telephones didn’t always work; information on bus signs was not reliable. Radios blared the news. Police stopped and evacuated the city bus I was riding to investigate a lunch bag that was left on the floor. There were soldiers everywhere with machine guns slung over their shoulders that almost bumped against me when I lined up behind them to buy a bus ticket or postage stamp.

Tamar’s son Eytan drove us to the Golan Heightsa “step” away from the Syrian borderto visit yet another relative. Handgun in the driver’s door pocket, we circled the breathtaking Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret); navigating pot holes, sidestepping passing tanks, and yielding to a sheepherder crossing the road with his flock. Under the watchful eyes of soldiers positioned on rooftops, the young family welcomed us into their home and toured me through their bomb shelter; a small room kitted out with machine guns, cots on the wall, and oxygen masks.

My cousin from Hamilton met up with me in Nahariya, and together we went to Acre, Haifa, then Jerusalem to Yad Vashem. I immersed myself in video testimonies, artifacts and photos and read untranslated documents and accounts of the Holocaust. Mind, body and spirit in spasm, I agonized over my return to Tübingen; my inner self interrogating me as others had earlier in the month. 

From Jerusalem, we travelled through the Negev to Eilat on an exciting five-hour bus ride at top speed. We spent our days playing on the beach, our evenings dancing in nightclubs, and our nights sleeping on the floor of a rented caravan. We visited Eilat’s Coral World Underwater Observatory; day-tripped to see the Fjord (a mesmerizing emerald green); and hitchhiked until soldiers picked us up in an open army jeep where I clung to the roll cage bars as they tore over steep rugged cliffs.  

I bussed my way to a moshav near Ashkelon to visit Tamar’s niece, husband and young family. Despite the language barriers, we got along well. Etti, a couple of years older than me, donned a headscarf before she answered her front door. She was gracious, warm and curious about my experience in Germany and my life in Canada. The Shabbat I spent in this close-knit religious community was quiet and peaceful. 

Back in Tübingen, my friends probed me for information about my month in Israel, listening deeply and enthusiastically. Each time I shared my stories, my voice grew stronger, clearer and more confident about being Jewish. To this day, that voice has never left me.