“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.
“We had a beautiful childhood,“ she said. “We were these cute, blonde girls. We had nice, new things our grandfather would send us from Germany. Our parents loved each other.
“But why, then, weren’t we happy? It was because of our roots. Everyone thinks that in today’s global world, having a hyphenated identity is so normal, but it’s not. It’s not so easy, and in the Israel of the 1960s and 1970s, it was even harder.”
In conversations in the film, Pauer is reminded by an old friend and her younger sister of times the Heller girls were taunted, and even beaten, by children who accused them of being “Nazis.”
The filmmaker believes she buried the unpleasant memories in her subconscious, where they clearly influenced how she dealt with her heritage. “You think you are part of the Israeli narrative, and then suddenly someone tells you that you aren’t, that you are the enemy,” she said.
Her older sister, Hanni, and younger sister, Gudrun, for the most part felt Israeli, and married Israeli men — Hanni after converting to Judaism, and Gudrun in a civil ceremony. Pauer, by contrast, had a harder time, setting off after her army service for Germany, where she studied filmmaking and ended up staying for 16 years.
“Parents make decisions at a given time, and the children bear the consequences . . . I always felt you never forgave me for being German,” Fritzi tells her daughter in the film. “I understood you were ashamed of me, and it made me sad. But it felt good when you moved to Germany. It was a sense of closure for me.”
During her years in Germany, Pauer directed TV documentaries, married a Catholic man, gave birth to Daniel and divorced. Later, she had a relationship with an evangelical Christian and had a daughter, Shira.
Today, Pauer has sole custody of the children and supports them on her own. Daniel’s father is not in the picture, and Shira sees her father twice a year.
“My German Children” shows Pauer, her kids and her parents discussing identity during visits to Kibbutz Yotvata and Yad Vashem, and while celebrating Passover together. Most of the film consists of conversations between the filmmaker and her relatives — sometimes with Pauer on screen, and sometimes not.
The documentary captures the relatives‘ changing attitudes — as well as those that froze in place. Even after 50 years in Israel, Fritzi tells the camera she can’t imagine dying, or being buried, anywhere but in Germany.
“My mom was very brave,” Pauer said of her mother’s relocation to Israel. “She had her reasons, and I really accept that.”
It took six years for the director to circle back to the footage she shot during that fateful year, having struggled with what type of story to tell. Then, in 2012, she realized that Shira — who today feels as Israeli as her brother didn’t — was approaching the age Daniel was at the time of Pauer‘s major decision.
“You made a choice, so you need to pay the price,” Pauer’s cousin tells her at the film’s climax. The remainder of the movie reveals the decision Pauer made in 2006, and how it has affected the family in the intervening years.
For the filmmaker, answering the call of home was not something that could wait. She is now where she believes she should be, but has come to the conclusion that for her children, “home” is not necessarily with her.
“I realized that, as parents, we have to give our children roots,” she said, “and let them go.”