Israeli Filmmaker On Grandparents' Friendship with Nazi


“The Flat” (Hadira) is so compelling that I couldn’t refuse when invited to meet this award-winning documentary film’s creator, Arnon Goldfinger, even as I prepare for my departure for Israel at the end of this week. It is clever and engaging, with light moments that flow naturally into what turns out to be a heavy and mysterious theme.

The story begins almost exactly like another recent but very different Israeli Holocaust-related documentary, “Six Million and One,” with unexpected discoveries as family members clean out the Tel Aviv apartments of a recently deceased parent (in “Six Million…”) and of a 98 year-old grandmother (in “The Flat”). Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger discovers clippings of a series of articles published in a Nazi newspaper in 1934 Germany, which provides a glowing account of a high-ranking Nazi official visiting Palestine, accompanied by none other than his own grandparents, Kurt and Gerda Tuchler. His grandfather was a Zionist representative who guided Leopold Itz von Mildenstein, an S.S. and S.D. (Nazi intelligence agency) bureaucrat on what resembled a typical tourist excursion to Palestine, along with their respective wives, seeming from the photographs to be thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. Mildenstein headed the Nazis’ “Jewish Affairs Department” and recruited Eichmann, who eventually succeeded him as its head. During his 1961 trial in Israel, Eichmann confirmed this on camera, and the fact that Mildenstein formulated the pre-war Nazi strategy to pressure its Jewish population to leave.

Kurt & Gerda Tuchler

In Goldfinger’s follow-up investigation, he locates Mildenstein’s daughter, Eda, in Germany, and discovers that the Tuchlers maintained a friendship with her family through the 1930s and (astonishingly) after the war. The Midlensteins amiably saw the Jewish couple off at dockside when they emigrated to Palestine in 1936. Even the dark fact, which the filmmaker discovers on camera, that his great-grandmother (his grandmother’s mother) was deported and perished in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, does not prevent their renewed friendship.
Gerda Tuchler’s mother, Suzanna, had refused to leave her German home until it was too late. As Goldfinger explained to me, she changed her mind after the great pogrom known as Kristalnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, but was stymied by the British who refused to give her an entry certificate to Palestine—apparently due to the severe limitations placed on Jewish immigration in conformity with their 1939 White Paper.
Toward the end of his film, Goldfinger confronts Eda with what he learns from archival materials that her father did not leave the Nazi bureaucracy as she had believed, when the Nazis changed their policy from expulsion to extermination. He went on to work for Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. Goldfinger learned that he had tried to get Kurt Tuchler to be a character reference during the de-Nazification process early in the postwar Allied occupation of Germany. The grandson thought that Tuchler refused, but somehow, as he learned from Mildenstein’s daughter, the two families drew close again, including in visits to Germany. The film goes on to explore the mystery of why the Tuchlers continued this friendship, showing how deeply “German” many German Jews felt, even after their home country had turned so savagely against them.

Arnon Goldfinger

Rather than disclose more, I suggest that you see “The Flat” if you can. It has won a number of prizes at film festivals and Mr. Goldfinger told me that of the 25 Israeli film productions in 2011, it ranked third in earnings (especially unusual for a documentary), where it is still being screened more than a year after its commercial release. It is still being shown in Germany as well, nearly five months after its opening there. It opens in the U.S. on Oct. 19.
And I learned something endearing about Arnon Goldfinger: he votes for the dovish left-wing political party, Meretz, which I’ve supported for years as an activist in Meretz USA and under its new name, Partners for Progressive Israel. It is under Partners’ auspices, and in cooperation with Meretz, that I will tour in Israel and the West Bank beginning this weekend. Arnon impressed me, both in person and in the film (in which he plays the central role) as a humane and compassionate soul.
The Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement
Now for something on the larger historical background against which the filmmaker’s personal family history played out. Early in the days of the Nazi regime, the Zionist movement negotiated with the Nazis to ransom tens of thousands of German Jews. They broke a widespread boycott of Nazi Germany at the time with an agreement (the Transfer Agreement) to buy German goods to go with the 60,000 or more German Jews who found refuge in Palestine in the 1930s. Anti-Zionists argue that this episode proves that the Zionists were in league with the Nazis, but this is a very tendentious and extreme interpretation.

As an addendum to this post, I’m passing along my somewhat streamlined and edited version of an informative essay from the film’s press notes on this “Transfer Agreement,” which Leopold von Mildenstein and Kurt Tuchler helped implement:

Despite the terror of the Nazi regime, the wish to immigrate was not widespread among the German Jews in the beginning. Besides their affinity towards Germany, the main reasons … were the lack of countries willing to admit them and the limitations on property that they were allowed to carry with them…. The …. [World] Zionist Organization… conducted negotiations with the Reich’s Ministry of Economy for a law that would allow immigration to Palestine … under better conditions.

In August 1933, both sides signed the so-called Ha’avara [Transfer] Treaty, which functioned as follows: Jews that were willing to migrate deposited their property at one of the transfer banks in Germany. With this money, [Jewish] Palestinian importers bought merchandise from Germany and sold it in Palestine. The profits would be given back to the Jewish family, minus the expenses. Because the German government heavily taxed other forms of capital transfer, the Haavara treaty was a good opportunity to export Jewish property. Furthermore, indigent Jewish families had an opportunity to migrate through the treaty, as the “token money” of 1,000 Palestinian pounds (about 15,000 Reichsmark) required to enter Palestine was financed by the profits of the merchandise transfer.

The agreement was heavily discussed within the Zionist movement. … At the 18th Zionist Congress (1933 in Prague), the writer [Sholem] Asch called the treaty with the Hitler regime “treason against World Judaism.” … Today the Ha’avara Treaty is referred to in many writings [as showing] common interests between Zionism and National Socialism. The Israeli historian Tom Segev refers to … the [visit] to Palestine of the leading SS ideologist Leopold Itz von Mildenstein, which manifested itself in an enthusiastic series of articles in Joesph Goebbels’ newspaper “Der Angriff” (September 26th to October 9th 1934).

The Nazi Regime was interested in the treaty for two reasons. On the one hand the possibility to transfer property should accelerate the Jewish immigration, on the other hand they hoped for higher revenues through [trade] with Palestine and other countries in the Middle East.

While in its first years of existence the treaty was supported by most of the institutions of the Nazi regime …, [this lessened] from 1935 on. The … German side did not make enough money in foreign currency, [and] had to finance the “token money” out of their pocket…. The security service feared that the treaty could support the establishment of a Jewish state, which could serve the Jews as a “basis of power” in their fight against Germany. From 1937, most of the government distanced itself from the support of the transfer treaty. … The common view became prevalent, that the treaty did not quite accelerate Jewish emigration as desired. … The treaty was discontinued officially in 1941, the transfer of property having already stopped at the beginning of the war. [But] … more than 50,000 Jewish families migrated through the Ha’avara treaty, taking with them property worth 140 million Reichsmark.

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