German-Israeli Explores Case of Mixed-Up Identity

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

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“We aren’t religious. We aren’t Zionists. We aren’t even really Jewish,” Daniel Pauer declares at the beginning of the documentary “My German Children.” “So what are we doing here?”

The exasperated 16-year-old — he’s also the filmmaker’s son — is ready to return to Munich after a year in Israel. But his mother, Tom Tamar Pauer, has decided her family’s one-year visit should become permanent.

Faced with her unhappy son, what will the elder Pauer choose?

From that critical moment, the director — an Israeli-born single mother — backtracks to the family’s 2005 arrival in Israel, then takes viewers through the year of self-discovery and struggle that followed.

“My German Children,” which premiered at Jerusalem’s Jewish Film Festival in December, is airing for the first time on Israeli TV Wednesday as part of a Yes Doco series on children. It is at once an intimate family portrait and an exploration of the pain and confusion that hyphenated identities can bring.

The elder Pauer, 45, is herself quite a combo, both Jewish-Israeli and Christian-German.

“It’s like being two different people simultaneously,” she told The Times of Israel by phone. “As I was growing up, it was like two strangers were sharing the body of one child.”

As her background suggests, Pauer is the product of a complicated family past. Her German mother, Fritzi, arrived in Israel in 1961, at age 25, volunteering at Kibbutz Yotvata in the Negev with a group of young fellow Germans hoping to atone for the sins of their fathers.

“Jews were phantoms to us, and I wanted to reach out to them and show them that not all Germans are bad,” she tells Pauer in the film.

At the kibbutz, Pauer’s mother met a young Israeli soldier named Danny Heller, the son of refugees who had fled Hitler’s Germany. A fluent German speaker, Heller had been assigned to act as a liaison between the German volunteers and the kibbutz. Before long, he fell in love with Fritzi. The couple wed in a civil ceremony in Germany and returned to Israel, settling in Herzliya and raising a family.

With her husband’s support, Fritzi Heller decided never to convert to Judaism, and to maintain Christian practices such as celebrating Christmas, despite her new life in Israel. It was a decision that bewildered family members — not to mention Israelis in general — and would weigh heavily on her three daughters. Pauer, the middle child, would struggle the most.

Click here to read more and watch a clip from the film.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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