German Culture Week in Israel, 1971

The incidents in the various events that were part of "German Culture Week" proved just how complex – over 40 years ago – the encounter was between German artists and the Israeli public

After the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, it was incumbent on both countries to infuse their ties with content beyond the solely diplomatic and economic. A convenient way of doing so was the development of activities in the realm of culture. As one of the first steps, in March 1969, the city of Stuttgart hosted a series of events in collaboration with Israeli cultural figures. For example, philosopher Akiva Ernst Simon delivered a lecture, a group of young musicians from the Thelma Yellin School gave a concert, and the Stuttgart Municipal Library organized a book exhibit from its collections in which many books relating to Judaism and Israel were displayed, as well as books written by Israeli authors. It appears that the organizers – including the Israeli embassy in Germany – wanted to check how the presentation of Israeli culture would be received in a large German city. Letters between the Mayor of Stuttgart to Prof. Simon suggest that the events were a success.

The program for the German Culture Week, 1971

Two years later, in November 1971, in coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office, the three largest cities in Israel – Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – hosted “German Culture Week.” Despite the name, the series of events went on for almost two weeks. The program included an exhibit about the life and work of Heinrich Heine, the famous Jewish-German poet who for many Israelis of Germany origin was a cultural symbol, as well as an exhibit that presented the works of German artist Käthe Kollwitz.

The event opened with a concert by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, soloists from Germany performed in a number of concerts in the three cities. Lectures were given by Prof. Akiva Ernst Simon, and three literary evenings were held in the host cities, with the participation of German author Günter Grass. Grass’s books already existed in Hebrew translation, and he was therefore well known among the Israeli public. The exhibit of the artist Käthe Kollwitz and the public readings by Günter Grass were most probably made possible by the government of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, which had a left-wing tendency. The two German artists were identified with left-wing political views. The Schiller Theater Ensemble from West Germany appeared on stages in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with the play ”Emilia Galotti” by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the play “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett.

The response of the Israeli audience to the events was mixed. What elicited the main response from the press was the visit of Günter Grass. The newspapers reported on his left-wing political opinions, and on the meetings and discussions that he held in Israel, for example, his meeting with then Prime Minister Gold Meir and with Yitzhak Ben Aaron, Secretary of the Histadrut at the time.

An article from “Davar” from November 18th 1971 about the meeting between Günter Grass and the Secretary General of the Histadrut, Yitzhak Ben Aharon

Ben Aharon condemned the Israeli demonstrations against participation in the events in which Grass was participating, but he also defined the timing of the week as a “pathetic mistake”: The cultural events took place over the days that included the 9th of November – the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom that swept across Germany in 1938 against Jewish institutions and commercial companies. Materials from the period contain reports of demonstrations of Beitar members against the “Week of Culture” in general, charging that it “cultivates forgetfulness” regarding the crimes of the Holocaust.

The timing indeed was problematic and illustrates how the German organizers lacked sensitivity to dark dates of this type. However, the employees of the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem municipalities also, apparently, did not sense the problematic nature of the date, and were thus also responsible for enabling activities to take place on this sensitive day.

The evening of Gunter Grass’s reading at Canada Hall at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus was accompanied by booing on the part of Beitar activists. For one and a half hours, the young people from Beitar scrabbled with the representatives of the “Yekkim” (Jeckes) including Shalom Ben-Chorin and former Director of the National University Library, Kurt David Wahrman. Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek also failed to calm the atmosphere. Ultimately, the author suggested changing the nature of the event from a reading to a discussion. The Beitar activists agreed to the proposal. Another of Grass’s readings, in Haifa, passed without incident.

Other events also met with opposition from ideology-driven activists: before the opening concert, Mayor of Tel Aviv, Yehoshua Rabinowitz, and then-German Ambassador, Jesco von Puttkamer were supposed to speak. However, as the event approached, critical voices were raised against the organization of the week of culture, resulting in the mayor’s preferring to forgo the greetings, following which the German ambassador also opted not to speak. The play “Emilia Galotti” performed at Binyanei Ha-Uma was interrupted a number of times when opponents disturbed the actors with calls and screaming.

The incidents in the various events that were part of “German Culture Week” proved just how complex – over 40 years ago – the encounter was between German artists and the Israeli public. The memories from the days of the Holocaust were alive and present, and among considerable portions of the Israeli public, there was not necessarily a readiness to conduct ties with Germany. At the same time, the events attracted spectators and an audience, rendering it impossible to determine whether the “Week of German Culture” was either a complete failure or an unequivocal success. The complete picture of the days of November 1971 illustrated, therefore, the complex situation in ties between the two societies and the two countries, a delicate mix of attraction and opposition.

Governments and Crises: Memories of Israel’s and Germany’s Ambassadors

Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany in 1965, many served as ambassadors for the two countries in Tel Aviv, Bonn and Berlin. Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries. It is reasonable to assume that the ambassadors were aware of the demanding requirements and expectations of these representatives of their countries vis-a-vis a foreign government: skills in the art of diplomacy, preservation of national interests, understanding of the other side’s positions, realistic assessments regarding possible measures, and more.

Asher Ben-Natan’s book

For the past 50 years, ambassadors who have served in these positions have met with great success, and became relatively popular among the public of the host country. The political goals of both sides were ostensibly identical – improving ties with the other country, while preserving self-interest. And yet, self-interest was defined differently in each of the countries, due to the difficult history of the Holocaust period, which stayed with – and still lingers in – the relations between them. The West German public expected rapid “normalization” between Germans and Jews, and it was often not clear whether this was a kind of obfuscation and repression of historical guilt. In contrast, considerable portions of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of diplomatic relations or even any form of ties between the two countries, out of a fear that it would cause the horrific crime and its victims to be forgotten. The official Israeli representatives needed to heed the demands of the Israeli public, anticipating clarifications regarding the topic of collective and individual guilt of Germany and the Germans, but were also interested in advancing ties with the Federal Republic, since these ties were essential to Israel’s diplomatic and economic development.

Meroz’s book in Hebrew, 1988

During the first years of the relations, the presence of Germany’s ambassadors in Israel sparked demonstrations and other forms of public opposition.

It is well known that during the first trip of Rolf Pauls, West Germany’s first ambassador to Israel, to visit representatives of the Israeli government in 1965, the ambassador met with catcalls and even violence on the part of angry demonstrators. Klaus Schütz, who served in this same position between 1977 and 1981, also encountered catcalls while the German national anthem played during his official reception at the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Bonn, was also received by a large crowd on landing at the Cologne Airport in 1965, but no catcalls were sounded; the throngs, including journalists, were curious to see the official attaché of the Jewish state in Germany and to hear his first remarks on assuming his post. The ambassadors and consulate employees of both countries were witness to an ongoing series of critical incidents that posed a threat to the character of the relations, and were involved in devising solutions during times of crisis: the supply of German arms to various countries in the Middle East that threatened Israel’s security, the Six-Day War in 1967, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the hijacking of Israeli and German airplanes during the days of left-wing terror in the 1970s, the Lebanon War in 1982, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989-90.

The job of the ambassador, given the complex web of relations between Germany and Israel, including guilt, responsibility and the desire to develop “normal relations,” in addition to the complicated historical background, provided interesting angles for the composition of personal memoirs.

It therefore comes as no surprise that there is an impressive list of memoirs by ambassadors from both sides, and even a collection of articles that brings together texts by Israeli and German ambassadors over the decades.

The first to record their recollections of the activity between Israel and Germany was Felix Eliezer Shinnar, who was the director of the Israeli delegation in Germany, which opened immediately following the Reparations Agreement of 1952 in Luxembourg. Shinnar remained in this post until the establishment of diplomatic relations, and was involved in paving the way for improving them. Shinnar’s memoir was published – simultaneously in Hebrew and in German – already in 1967.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Germany, beginning in 1965, published his book, “The Audacity to Live,” only in 2002, and a year later in Germay. This book is an autobiography, and also includes chapters about Ben-Natan’s work as an ambassador. These chapters were also published as a separate volume in 2005, but only in German.

The first ambassador from Germany to publish his recollections was Klaus Schütz. Already before his appointment in 1977, Schütz served as the Mayor of West Berlin, and in this role gained experience in managing sensitive situations. Schütz’s book was published in 1992, only in Germany. A description of his days as ambassador to Israel does not occupy a significant portion of the book, and perhaps this is why it was never translated into Hebrew.

Another Israeli ambassador, Yohanan Meroz, served at the embassy from 1974-1981, and published his report in 1986 in Germany, and two years later in Hebrew, under the title: “Was it All in Vain? – An Israeli Ambassador in Germany’s Summing Up.” Meroz lived in Bonn during difficult years for West-German society, under the shadow of terrorist attacks by left-wing extremists who collaborated with Palestinian activists – what makes his composition most interesting.

Niels Hansen, who was Germany’s ambassador to Israel from 1981-1985, wrote a non-fiction work that does not revolve around his memories as a diplomat, but rather the relations between the two countries during the tenure of Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion. In this aspect, this voluminous work greatly resembles that of Shinnar mentioned above. A compendium of articles from 2005 brings together additional texts on the topic, featuring writings by other ambassadors who did not publish books on their years of diplomatic service: Rolf Pauls, Eliashiv Ben-Horin, Jesko von Puttkamer, Benjamin Navon and others. The book, however, was published only in German, like many of the books mentioned here, while in Hebrew the only books available are those by Shinnar, Ben-Natan and Meroz.

Even the book by Avi Primor, who was ambassador to unified Germany, was never published in Hebrew. Books of this type, so it seems, found more readers among the German public – at least according to the estimates of the writers and the Israeli publishers.

Shakespeare’s Signature

​Shakespeare's Signature at the National Library

The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)

​In a riveting article published in Haaretz on 16.11.2012, Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken reports that the National Library may be in possession of the original signature of none other than William Shakespeare. Said signature is found on the cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569). Dr. Ben-Zaken examined the specimen closely after hearing about the book from Hava Nowerstern, the librarian in charge of the National Library’s Edelstein Collection of history, philosophy and sociology of science.  Ben Zaken’s interest in the book derives from his research on the connection between magic and science during the Renaissance, a subject in which Cornelius Agrippa is a central figure.

Ben-Zaken ties together the image of the sorcerer-scientist who intervenes in natural processes in order to obtain a systematic description of phenomena and that of Shakespeare, actor turned playwright who “wrote plays in the forms of experiments… conducted by one who, just like Agrippa’s sorcerer, mixes the practical with the theoretical… .”


The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)


Ben-Zaken takes the reader on a tour of the intellectual milieu that Shakespeare became part of when he came to London from the country. As turns out the Agrippa’s Vanitie was a primary text among the intellectuals of the time. Not only is its influence manifest in works by several of them, such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash, but the book and its author are mentioned by name. Moreover, Ben-Zaken reminds us that Agrippa’s book, and his intellectual philosophy, played a foundational role in the works of Francis Bacon, the principal advocate of experimentation as a means to investigate reality. Bacon compared conducting experiments to a theatrical performance in front of an audience. The experiment, like the dramatic event, is in need of the affirmation of an audience. Ben-Zaken describes the unfolding of an intellectual revolution involving a blending of the practical and the philosophical.  Cornelius Agrippa’s book played an important role in this revolution and Shakespeare embodied several of its central principles in his activities as an actor and playwright who broke with convention and experimented with various points of view.

Experts have concluded that the signature on the cover of the National Library of Israel’s copy of Cornelius Agrippa’s book is comparable to other signatures attributed to Shakespeare. Such signatures exist on several documents, among them a deed of ownership on his house and his will and testament. However, the existence of his signature on a book by Cornelius Agrippa amounts to confirmation of a physical, tangible connection between Shakespeare and the intellectual zeitgeist that influenced his writing. Avner Ben-Zaken points to several instances where the explicit presence of Agrippa’s Vanities can be identified in Shakespeare’s plays: As You like It, the Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and particularly the Tempest. Furthermore, signs of Cornelius Agrippa’s ideas regarding the four humors of man abound in Shakespeare’s plays, among them Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, and Richard III.



The discovery of Shakespeare’s signature in the National Library’s collections rekindles our interest in why it is we find the signatures of famous individuals so fascinating. The signature of a well-known person or historical figure furnishes us with a sense of closeness, almost intimacy, with that person. Autographs are coveted by collectors and the National Library features the immense Chevadron Collection of such treasures. An autograph is a historical artifact, even when uninformative and out of context. When one appears on a book, as in the present case, it is a voice from the past saying: “Shakespeare held this book, this very book, in his hands.” Moreover, on a book so strongly associated with Shakespeare’s work, his autograph bears physical testimony to that book’s importance to the acclaimed bard. The excitement at discovering an autograph is similar to that of an archeological discovery. One knows with certainty, when walking in the galleries of the Coliseum or among the pillars of the Parthenon, that he is walking in the footsteps of history and the written word. In one respect, an autograph is even more authentic: the movement of a hand, the ink, the slight tremor, the slanted script, the use of space, the very place where Shakespeare rested his hand, the pages he traced with his fingers, the ink he blew upon to dry.

All the alleged Shakespearean autographs are controversial. The argument is rooted in disagreements over the figure of Shakespeare, who we know precious little about despite his artistic prowess. Ben-Zaken ties the roots of the argument about Shakespeare’s origins to his not being a certified product of a university. Moreover, Ben-Zaken avers that the iconoclasm that characterizes Shakespeare’s work was also fodder for those who doubted his authorship. In this context, any autograph of Shakespeare’s supports the belief that he did indeed mix in the intellectual circles of his time and that his oeuvre emerged from this world. The autograph on Agrippa’s Vanities is a significant and exciting addition to those who espouse this view. The book came to the National Library from Sidney Edelstein (Hebrew Wikipedia entry), who probably purchased it from William Stoddard, an early 20th century Shakespearean scholar.  Edelstein placed his collection in the custody of the National Library and thus, brought Shakespeare to Jerusalem.