German refuge for Israelis and Arabs

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  Nov. 25, 2002 at 4:03 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- An Israeli taxi driver and his wife have flown to an unlikely place to celebrate Hanukkah and reminisce quietly about their daughter, who died when a suicide bomber blew himself up the Momento Café in Jerusalem earlier this year.

They will light their first candle of the holy days Friday evening in the parish hall of St. Mary Magdalene's Lutheran church in Arzberg, Bavaria, near the former Flossenbuerg concentration camp, where many Jews and Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer were killed by the Nazis.

And guess who will interpret between them and their German their German hosts? St. Mary Magdalene's pastor, the Rev. Reinhard Schuebel, whose job description includes a knowledge of Hebrew.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, 8 young Palestinian Christians will light their first Advent candles Sunday reminiscing about their restful time in another church hall not far from where the now-defunct East German régime trained Palestinian terrorists. And guess who acted as their interpreter during their stay in Germany? Ilan Brunner, a holocaust survivor and former captain in the Israeli army.

Brunner has been sending disabled Israelis to Germany for rest and recuperation for more than 10 years. They always stay in church-related rest homes, parsonages, or with ordinary parishioners. Recently, though, at the insistence of the Lutheran bishop of western Pomerania, Palestinians were also invited. "They, too, need some respite from the war," Bishop Hans-Juergen Abromeit ruled.

"At first it seemed strange running into an Israeli there," said Lara Nassar from Bethlehem in a telephone interview, just as a bomb was detonating in the background. "It's the Israeli army," she stated matter-of-factly and then proceeding to declare her love for this 68-year old Czech-born Jew. "I looked at him if he were my father," she added. "Out of respect for Brunner we did not discuss politics with our German hosts."

When Brunner was a boy in Prague, his parents put him on a Kindertransport (transport for children) to England, where he was placed in a foster home until his mother and father miraculously escaped to Palestine and the family was reunited after seven years. Later, as an army information officer, he worked on the German desk of the Israel Defense Forces. "In that position, I discovered how warmly Christians from Germany felt about Israel," he related in an interview.

So he started a one-man enterprise called Disraelis -- short for disabled Israelis -- organizing German holidays for vets. German prayer groups, individuals and church organizations finance the entire operation, although Brunner sometimes chips in.

"We managed to scrape together just enough money for three airfares," said Schuebel in whose parsonage four Israelis are currently housed. They are taxi driver Shlomo Shoham and his wife, Zippora, plus 23-year old Shani Kotev who lost the use of both hands during the recent fighting around Bethlehem's Nativity Church, and 24-year old Roje Greenwald, whose legs were crippled in combat.

So who paid for the fourth ticket? "Ilan did," the pastor replied.

Altogether 26 Israeli combat victims will spend this Advent in Bavaria, experiencing for the first time in their lives Christmas in picturesque towns.

They will also attend carol services in venerable Bavarian churches and eat kosher food, German style. Schuebel's wife, for example, has equipped her kitchen with different pots and china for meat and dairy products, as required by Jewish dietary rules.

There are many ironies in Brunner's curious enterprise. Take music, for instance. The Israelis will find that their Bavarian hosts are very familiar with Hanukkah hymns. Schuebel has brought stacks of cassettes with these songs back from previous trips to Israel and then introduced them to his parishioners.

On the other hand, when Palestinians from Bethlehem and Israeli Arabs from East Jerusalem spent their evenings together in a Pomerianian church home, they had no Palestinian songs in common. They did not know any lyrics.

But Brunner, the old Israeli, did -- and taught them. "Can you imagine?" one of the young Arabs marveled, "a Jew making us Palestinians sing together?"

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