Lysann Bendel was in the middle of her conversion process to Judaism when she caught a glimpse of her grandfather on a TV screen.
Living in Israel, she was watching German television as it documented the 2001 inauguration of the new synagogue in her hometown of Dresden on the site of the old synagogue, which the Nazis burned to the ground during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms. She always knew her grandfather was a Dresden firefighter who tried to battle of the infamous 1945 firestorm that destroyed Dresden’s Baroque Old City, and which took the lives of his first wife and two children.
She never knew until that moment that her grandfather could have been one of three firefighters who saved the only remnant of the synagogue: the golden Jewish star ornament. Her research confirmed that he was involved in hiding it during the war.
“I’ve been asking myself very often why should he actually risk his family’s life,” the blue-eyed Bendel said at a Tel Aviv café, sporting a funky, dirty-blond buzz cut. Her tan is a testament to her life in Israel. “I never had an idea of being Jewish or part of that. So I asked myself what brings his family to rescue the Star of David, hiding it from the Nazis, for eff-ing sake. I seriously believe that my grandfather knew about his Jewish roots. There is no other thing that makes sense to me.”
Bendel, 38, didn’t think she had Jewish roots when she moved to Israel on a whim in 1999. Her last name is the only real clue. She describes her childhood growing up in the former East German city as “beautiful.” Back then, Dresden was hardly rebuilt, and she fondly remembers driving in a “Trabi” (East German car brand Trabant) to surrounding lakes. But she never felt like she truly belonged. Germans are known for being reserved and withdrawn. She’s talkative and inquisitive, perhaps a symptom of her “Jewish soul.”
But life in Israel, while spiritually satisfying, has not been easy. She persisted through the intifadas and wars because of her love for the place. Currently, she works at an entry-level position at a software company to make ends meet, having had to abandon Holocaust studies at Bar-Ilan University. She paints in her free time in her Tel Aviv flat, but lately has been catching herself wondering what life would be like in Germany. Sometimes, she even has a case of “Ostalgia,” “nostalgia” for the communal life of East Germany.
“Tel Aviv is the only place my individuality stays the way it is. ” — Lysann Bendel
“To stay in Israel comes at a great cost,” she said. A few months ago, she suffered a stroke, arguably from stress. “I understood in the last two years that we pay a price for everything we do; for me, it’s health and finance. It’s much harder in Israel to make your dreams come true than in Germany. There, I would have never stopped my Ph.D. to make money.”
But no matter how stressful life is in Israel, this creative spirit feels at home, especially in Tel Aviv.
“Tel Aviv is the only place my individuality stays the way it is. In others place I’ve lived in Israel so far, I’m ‘the German,’ ‘the blonde,’ ‘the cute girl.’ ”
Her divorced parents still live in Dresden, unable to truly identify with her Zionism. She considers herself a type of ambassador for both countries, continuing an ongoing process of reconciliation between the Jewish people and Germany.
“Actually, the first years in Israel, I was always asked about, ‘What did your grandparents do?’ Now, it’s: ‘What are you doing here?’ ”
In her case, it’s because of her grandfather that a firestorm still rages in her heart for Israel. He died when she was young, but he always reminded her of the pain and destruction of World War II, and how the next generations must make sure it never happens again.
“I believe he’s my guardian angel in life. Everything seems to be linked to him.”