Report: Israel, Kibbutz and Technion 1966 — Dr.-Ing. Widu Wittekindt

What was going on in 1966? The following year after diplomatic relations were established between Israel and Germany, former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer visited Israel in May. He was received as “Chancellor of Reparation” by Levi Eschkol, the Prime Minister at the time, who told him at a banquet “that the Germans of today have to prove their changed attitude and their new trustworthiness every day. The Jewish people are waiting for further signs and evidence that the German people are recognizing the terrible burden of the past and are seeking a new path in the family of nations.”

That was the mood at the time, and that year I decided to go to Israel for 3 months.
Full of shame and guilt, knowing far too little about Judaism and Zionism, full of the anti-Semitic statements that accompanied me in my youth, not really understanding the horror of the Holocaust, but with admiration for the pioneering work of the young state, which was threatened in its existence and for which many publicists in Europe did not see much of a future. I wanted to get to know the country for myself, and all the more so because my father gave me some advice. “What do you want with the Jews?”

Israel was faced with the uncertainty of survival because its hostile neighbors, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and even Iraq, which was a little further away, were arming themselves massively and preparing to wipe Israel out. Fear of the future was crushing life. The economic situation was very bad and there was more emigration than immigration.

In Israel’s eyes, Germany was still Nazi Germany and the majority of the Jewish population was not prepared to upgrade the murderous nation with diplomatic relations. The only thing that was accepted was military support in the form of weapons from Germany, as this would strengthen self-defense in order to preserve the young state.

In the midst of this internal existential crisis, however, there were politicians who showed a willingness to venture a new beginning with Germans, and other groups such as kibbutzim, universities, industry, and commerce also opened up. They had a certain optimism and with the belief in a new generation in Germany, young people were given the chance to build a different relationship with each other. And formally, the doors were also wide open thanks to the mutual exchange of ambassadors in 1965.

In 1966, one year later and in the midst of the state’s fear of the future, I got to know Israel as a 25-year-old student, first as a volunteer in a kibbutz and then as an intern at the Technical University (Technion) in Haifa.

I studied mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Hanover. I had previously completed an apprenticeship as a machinist, and after six semesters I passed my engineering exams at the State Engineering School in Essen. Thanks to a good degree and after passing the university entrance exam, I started my second degree in Hanover.

As I really wanted to get to know Israel, it was clear to me that I not only wanted to experience kibbutz life, but also the other side: “normal” life. I found out about the opportunity to do university internships through the IAESTE 1) (“International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience”) and applied for Israel. For me, the Technion only had the reputation of having been founded in pre-state times and that Albert Einstein accompanied its founding. There was no internet, only the application papers from the DAAD. Fortunately, I was accepted, I didn’t care which faculty, the main thing was that I had an appointment and in connection with this appointment I was able to get a kibbutz place. I wished to be close to Haifa.

I came to the country fearful, wondering how I would be met by people who had been directly or indirectly affected by the horrors of the past, and I certainly wasn’t as well-prepared as I should have been. How could you? There was not so much to read and see about Israel at that time, except that its inhabitants had built up this country with tremendous energy, hardship, and many battles, and that the families had to cope with terrible losses in the Holocaust. My knowledge was characterized by perceived anti-Semitism, which was not overt, but was permanently evident in remarks, such as on the reparations agreement, which triggered considerable provocative comments on the greed of the Jews. On the other hand, we also had a naïve admiration for the kibbutz pioneers and thought that this and only this was Israel. Socialism in its purest form, ideally practiced and successful, a model for the future of mankind.

I was curious enough to set off on my journey and was steered onto the right path during a weekend seminar in preparation for my stay with Shalom Ben Chorin, the great understander, explainer, and believer in the future.

So in midsummer 1966, I sat on the kibbutz truck that picked up the small group of volunteers (in Israel they are called “volunteers”) at Lod Airport (yes, that was still the name, not Ben Gurion Airport) and unloaded them in a concrete hut in the “camp” in the unfamiliar summer heat. The briefing on the daily routine and work allocation went quickly, and getting to know the other volunteers from many countries was even quicker. We about 10 students were the only Germans. The others already had a few weeks’ experience and were quick to help, but were more interested in the “dolce vita” of the kibbutz than we were. “How do we get more beer than our allotment, how do we get around the night’s rest at the pool and what do we do on Shabbat when work stops?” were the most pressing questions of the non-Germans, the majority of whom were Jewish. The atmosphere was relaxed, people went to the fields together, picked fruit or cotton, sat happily together in the Hadar Ochel (dining room) and looked forward to the evening by the pool.
How lucky I was not to be included in this vacation community because I let it be known that I had completed an apprenticeship as a machine fitter before my studies, and so I was accepted into the “Masgeria”, the kibbutz’s metalworking shop. Now I was with the people I wanted to be with and who shaped me for the rest of my life. This density of cooperation, the constant conversations, the acceptance into the families and the closeness with people who meant so well with me, the naive, was unique and is and remains irreplaceable. The boss of the workshop had a particular impact on me, as he was also something special and yet, like many others, had a “completely normal story of flight and immigration”. She was so strange and new to me, I could only listen. These were the stories about the Berlin of childhood and youth, the Hachshara training, the dramatic escape and even more dramatic arrival in Palestine, the internment in the Ashdod camp, the strangely formal English soldiers, the first weapon in the defense group in the kibbutz, the battles with the Arab enemies, the founding of the state, the misery in the kibbutz at the beginning, the construction, the setbacks, and successes and there was the grief over the loss of my parents and siblings, which I was never reproached for and which was never in the foreground, but which was always carefully mentioned like a red, torn thread. How could anyone be so nice to me?

Israel was empty at the time (only 1.5 million inhabitants, today 10), few cars on still bad roads, lots of space between the towns and the dry nature in summer was still overwhelming. On the weekends we went out to Haifa, Akko, Rosh Hanikra, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, swimming in Sakhne was organized by the kibbutz. It was simply beautiful, albeit hot, but you could fall in love with the country. And almost every driver was incredibly willing to give me a lift without having to hold out their hand when I was just walking along the side of the road.
Kibbutz life was so autonomous that we didn’t have any intensive contact with the other Israel, and certainly not with Arabs. However, I still remember how the discarded male chicks from the hatchery of the egg-laying prison, where one of my tasks was to keep the drip irrigation system working, were dumped from the trailer on which they were lying for disposal into the garbage pit away from the village. Black-cloaked Arab women were just waiting for this moment and began to collect the living yellow balls in baskets. In response to my questions, I was told that the women came from the Arab village 2-3 km away and that they would probably raise these chicks to eat them as young chickens. Why they were not given to them directly after sorting them out was reluctantly answered by saying that these neighbors were not exactly the nicest because they had participated in attacks against the kibbutz for years until the War of Independence. To this day, they are not loyal to the state, and as assassinations are constantly taking place in Israel, they are often referred to as the enemy’s fifth column.

We noticed relatively little of the ongoing attacks and skirmishes, only the MIG low-level flights over Lake Genezerath were conspicuous and were commented on angrily by the locals, but I was used to that from the low-level training flights and breaking through the sound walls of the German Starfighters at home. Little did I know that these military confrontations were a prelude to the 6-day war that would take place the following year.

After a few weeks of kibbutz work, I had enough time to hitchhike around Israel before my exchange internship at the Technion in Haifa began. Jerusalem as a divided city was depressing on the one hand, but also encouraging on the other. What I found depressing was the view over the no man’s land in front of the Old City and the dangerous path to Mount Zion, where Israeli soldiers stood behind sandbag barriers in the upper windows of the Dormition Abbey within throwing distance of the Jordanian soldiers. Jerusalem’s poverty, especially near the Jordanian border in the divided city in the Orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim, was depressing, I found it hopeless there.

However, I experienced a lot of hope in the student hall of residence at the new university, where I was allowed to live as a guest. There was an almost American-style, very open atmosphere here, which was also very different to my technical college at home due to the relaxed interaction between students and teaching staff.

I was deeply impressed by the Dead Sea, whose water level reached right up to the road, and where I am horrified to see the level more than 40–50 meters lower when I visit nowadays. Oh, Israel and Jordan, what have you done to destroy this world phenomenon? Is it worth it to exploit the minerals so brutally? Right on the Jordanian border, the Kibbutz En Gedi was green and the adjacent natural paradise with its cool spring water cascading down from rocky heights in waterfalls over “bathing pools” offered the opportunity to rinse off the salty slime of the lake water in wonderful solitude. Anyone who has experienced this is now put off by the noisy and dirty tourist crowds and would like to shout: “Get lost, you’re ruining paradise!”.

Massada had not yet been developed, Jigael Yadin was exploring the terrain with large groups of archaeology students, and there was no convenient cable car ride for visitors to the plateau. The height could only be climbed via the still very bumpy and unpaved snake path. However, doing this in the early morning light, when the sun climbs over the Jordanian mountain ridges, is unforgettably beautiful.

After a bumpy bus ride through the Negev, the crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea with its coral reefs seemed like the South Seas to me. In Eilat there were huts, poor dwellings, simple blocks of flats for the few locals, no hotels and no hustle and bustle, but hippies on the beach, where I slept and got to know my first joint. Oh, what virgin places there were in Israel! I don’t even like to think about how the dense tourist development and the appalling disco noise on the crowded beach shocked me decades later.
On the way back to Haifa, I stopped off in Tel Aviv and was prejudiced by the kibbutzniks who had told me that this place was not worth a visit. And that’s how I felt about the city, it didn’t radiate the charms of today — only the beach was impressive.
So I quickly left for beautiful Haifa, where I started my six-week internship in an annex of the beautifully oriental Technion in Hadar HaCarmel. I loved this building and its location in the middle of the old center of Haifa, Hadar haKarmel, which means “splendor of Carmel”. I lived further up on Mount Carmel in a student dormitory of the new campus in Neve Shana’an and saw new buildings being built there to accommodate the old Technion down in Hadar. I shared a room with a Nigerian student who was working on an extensive dissertation during the semester break and didn’t have time for me.

There was not much to be seen of today’s huge campus with its high-tech research and teaching facilities. Down in Hadar, everything was simple, low tech you would say today. But my laboratory was not intended for research, but for the students, who were to learn the secrets of cutting machines and their tools through experiments. My job was to prepare the experiments that were planned for the students in the winter semester. The laboratory belonged to Prof. Lenz’s Institute for Machine Tools. I rarely saw him, but I found the cooperation with the institute staff wonderful. The mishmash of languages used in the work inspired me. Hebrew, of which I had only learned a few important words and phrases, German, which was used for many of the technical facilities, Yiddish because of the laboratory staff who spoke it, and English as the protocol language for the experiments made the work very lively. My six weeks passed quickly. I was given Sunday off as well as Shabbat, which I found extremely generous, but I enjoyed it. So I always had time to go to “my” kibbutz Kfar Ha Maccabi on Fridays. It took me just under an hour to get there by bus and on foot, and I was welcomed as if I was part of a family. I also worked in the locksmith’s shop on Sundays and was allowed to live in the camp and eat in the dining hall.

On Monday mornings, I took the bus to the lower city of Haifa and then usually walked up the stairs that opened up Haifa vertically. When time was short, I took the Carmelit, a subway built diagonally into the mountain. From the Hadar station, it was only a few minutes’ walk to the lab, where I had to be at around 8 o’clock. I only ever slept in the student hall of residence for 4 nights.

The IAESTE arranged for me to be paid a “salary” by the Technion, which I remember was a little over 300 DM for the 6 weeks. That was good because I had come to Israel with very little money, as the kibbutz was free of charge. Life was very cheap for me during those 3 months in Israel. I had the kibbutz, I had the cheap canteen at the Technion and I traveled in Israel almost exclusively by hitchhiking. That was particularly easy. All you had to do was walk along a road with a small rucksack and a car would stop, and the drivers would just ask you to get in. I moved from place to place very quickly, had interesting conversations and when I was asked what I was doing in Israel, I answered with the keywords kibbutz and Technion, which always evoked a certain amount of respect. The Technion had a special reputation. Incidentally, it was always referred to as a “technical center”.

My time at the Technion ended at the beginning of the winter semester. I had booked a very cheap return journey in advance, first with El Al from Tel Aviv to Nicosia in Cyprus and then with a Swiss charter company to Basel. I still had five DM in my pocket when I arrived by hitchhiking in Saarbrücken, where my brother lived. He gave me 50 DM (Deutschmark) and I drove comfortably back to Hanover the next day.

In 1978, 12 years later, I was able to return to the Technion. I presented some of the results of my doctoral thesis at a gas turbine congress organized by the Technion together with the ASME. I had done research at the Institute for Fluid Machinery at the University of Hanover and completed my doctorate there.

In these 12 years, the Technion had made a huge leap forward, everything was newly built and ultra-modern. I had the feeling that this university will overtake us in some respects, because the cooperation with the top universities in America was remarkable, whose professors (who had also played an important role in my work) also demonstrated a tremendously close cohesion with the young Israeli scientists at this congress. Today, the Technion is counted among the few absolute top technical universities in the world and the ranking is miles ahead of my old university; all respect!

The kibbutzniks integrated me with friendship into their thoughts and actions, into their motivation to stand by the state and not to forget, they took away my inhibitions about being in Israel as a German, made me strong enough to return to Germany in order to then take an even clearer, even more massive stand against the forgetting and repression that was becoming more and more prevalent in order to make the Nazi era forgotten. And I have to say that my stay at the Technion was very easy for me because of my intensive life together in the kibbutz.
When I came back to Germany, I took the country into my heart, understood the people and resolved to defend them and their future.
I had no idea that I would have to do this until today.

1) About IAESTE:
IAESTE still arranges specialist internships abroad for students of all technical and scientific disciplines.
There are places in industry as well as at research institutes. Most IAESTE internships last around 2-3 months and often take place in the summer. The internships are generally paid; the salary is based on the typical cost of living in the country at student level. The IAESTE committee abroad is responsible for finding accommodation.
IAESTE Germany takes care of all the necessary formalities. Placement is free of charge for students enrolled in Germany. This is made possible by the integration of the IAESTE program into the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Similar posts