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The Nazi secret lurking inside some of Tel Aviv’s most beautiful buildings

A single sand-colored tile almost fell on Sharon Golan-Yaron in the lobby of 29 Idelson Street a few years ago, while she and a team were busy converting the modernist Tel Aviv apartment building into a cultural center.

The terrazzo tile, made in Germany by renowned ceramic manufacturer Villeroy & Boch, had a story to tell and sparked a project uncovering the history of its building and others like it that cropped up in Tel Aviv during the 1930s. What the team of artists who collaborated on Transferumbau ultimately unearthed was an uncomfortable record: during one of its formative decades, Tel Aviv was built upon some considerable Nazi foundations.

The Nazis first began shaping Tel Aviv’s built environment in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler started his role as chancellor. At the time, they cordoned off the Bauhaus art school in Berlin and gave its administration an ultimatum: it could either change its avant-garde approach, or close. Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, then acting as Bauhaus director, chose the latter. His decision launched the school’s community into a worldwide diaspora, where they spread their alma mater’s love of streamlined minimalism.

Over 20 Bauhaus students emigrated from Germany to British Mandatory Palestine, including four architects: Arieh Sharon, Munio Gitai-Weinraub, Shlomo Bernstein and Shmuel Mestiechkin. These Bauhaus alumni planned only a small number of Tel Aviv buildings, but helped mold the design language of the city, which was then experiencing a population and construction boom.

“Modernist architecture became emblematic of a new modern Jewish society, which, uniquely adopted the Bauhaus concept,” notes Claudia Perren, director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, in the Transferumbau book.

Of the roughly 4,000 buildings that have earned Tel Aviv its UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site status for an extraordinarily high concentration of modernist architecture, around a quarter were constructed in the 1930s. Compounding Hitler’s influence on this developing Hebrew city was the fact that – as shown at the Liebling Haus – many of these landmark Bauhaus-inspired buildings were built with supplies manufactured in Nazi Germany.

The tale of how German materials like tiles, door handles, window hinges, metal beams, glass panes, drainage pipes, faucets, building blocks, lamps, sockets, and heating systems ended up in Jewish-owned buildings in Palestine is another Tel Aviv chapter that began in 1933, the same year as the Bauhaus’s forced closure.

At the time, German Jews wanted to leave the country but could not liquidate their assets due to foreign currency regulations. The Nazi party, which was eager to both expel Jews and strengthen the German economy, signed a transfer agreement with Zionist organizations to facilitate the departure of Jews from Germany, cash (sort of) in hand.

The agreement lasted six years and helped German Jews extract a certain amount of their wealth. They could sell their property and deposit funds into specially designated bank accounts, which entitled them to receive British-issued visas to Palestine (that deviated from the normal British quota for Jewish immigrants). Meanwhile, the deposited funds were used to buy German-made construction materials imported to and sold in Palestine. Proceeds from the sale of these goods (minus certain fees and commissions) were then returned to the original Jewish depositors.

“People are shocked about this agreement,” explains Micha Gross, co-founder of Bauhaus Center Tel Aviv, who singles out German materials brought over via the transfer agreement on his center’s walking tours. “I think most of the people today are in favor of it. During the 1930s, the situation was different.”

The agreement was controversial for many reasons, one of which was the fact that American Jews were simultaneously promoting a German boycott. While Jews in the United States refused to buy anything from Nazi Germany, the Jewish Agency signed off on purchasing German goods in bulk in an effort to save Jewish lives.

Over 50,000 German Jews came to Palestine through the agreement, boosting the population of the burgeoning Jewish community in Palestine and importing around 150 million Reichsmark.

“It’s a complicated story, and that’s why it’s not often told. This is the historical story, these are the archival materials,” says Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, curator of Transferumbau, who has spent three years studying the transfer agreement alongside the artists in the exhibition – Ilit Azoulay, Nir Shauloff, Jonathan Touitou and Lou Moria.

Unloading a container at Tel Aviv Port in 1939 (Rudi Weissenstein,

As the years progressed, the agreement became more elaborate and the rights of German Jewish expatriates deteriorated. Dr. Eitan Burstein, historian emeritus of Bank Leumi (formerly the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which handled the transfer of funds), said that immigrants sometimes received only around 25 percent of the original sum they deposited in Germany.

By 1935, even the Jewish Agency was questioning whether the agreement was beneficial. Eliezer Kaplan, then Jewish Agency treasurer, said, “We must ask ourselves again whether and to what extent we would like to go in this direction.”

An interior of Beit Leibling in Tel Aviv (Courtesy Yael Schmidt)

The agreement was in effect until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Regardless of the Nazis’ intentions for the Jews of Europe, they had already inadvertently helped construct a Jewish metropolis in Tel Aviv.

German-made Villeroy & Boch tiles uncovered at Beit Leibling, part of the transfer agreement payments made before World War II (Courtesy Yael Schmidt)

“I don’t think the Nazis bothered to ask themselves if they were building a future country or not,” says Cohen-Schneiderman. “But it’s very ironic and a twist of fate that ideologies that the Nazis tried to extinguish in Germany found a very powerful and interesting manifestation here, to the point of turning Tel Aviv into a World Heritage site for its International Style architecture.”

Header image: German bathroom fittings imported to pre-state Palestine (Courtesy Liebling Haus/Yael Schmidt)

Source: TOI b