The Israeli delegation to Berlin. Credit: Courtesy.
The Israeli delegation to Berlin. Credit: Courtesy.
featureIsrael at War

IDF soldiers’ families visit Berlin in a moving experience

Those affected by the war are overwhelmed by the warmth and support of the local Jewish community.

The journey germinated in January, a little more than two months after the outbreak of Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Michael Koblenz, one of the owners of the Maccabi Berlin soccer team, who had arrived for a solidarity visit at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva, proposed an initiative.

An ardent soccer enthusiast and a prominent figure in the city’s Jewish community, he suggested over coffee in Tel Aviv, “Let’s arrange for a delegation of Israeli children to experience a week of football in Berlin. I will handle the financing; could you assist in compiling a list?” I immediately agreed, despite lacking prior experience in such matters.

Assistance was provided by Tali Leybovich, formerly a spokesperson for the Maccabi Tel Aviv football team and currently a senior strategist in public relations dealing with hostages and soldiers wounded in the war.

With cooperation from Maccabi Berlin and the German city’s Jewish community, we created a list of 30 children and parents. Among them was Sapir Hamami, widow of IDF Col. Asaf Hamami, who was killed fighting Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nirim on Oct. 7, accompanied by her three children; Israeli tech executive Itamar Ben-Hemo, who was wounded while fighting in Gaza, and his children; Or Sheizaf, a marathon runner severely injured by an explosive who has vowed to run again; and Nehad Khir al-Din, widow of IDF hero Lt. Col. Mahmoud Khir al-Din, killed years ago in a covert operation in Khan Yunis. Additionally, representatives from various military units, including Egoz and Golani, joined the group.

The flight was scheduled to depart last Sunday. Although disrupted by the April 14 Iranian missile attack on the Jewish state, Israir Airlines determined we would proceed; one of the few flights that left that day.

‘None of us anticipated crying here’

From the outset, the Berlin Jewish community’s Heinz-Galinski School greeted us with vibrant Hebrew songs. The staff and principal openly shed tears during the ceremony, which had been prepared by the children the previous month. “We are one family, and we are delighted you are here,” declared community head Gideon Joffe.

At the event’s conclusion, everyone stood to sing the Israeli anthem. Participant Boaz Engel, who had brought along his two children, Daniella and Benaia, was visibly moved.

“Ordinarily we are quite cynical, especially recently. I had long resisted visiting Berlin due to my family’s [Holocaust] history, and this was my first visit. Yet, witnessing the community’s embrace, a transformation has occurred. I am certain none of us anticipated crying here, yet the visit was deeply moving.”

That afternoon, the Israeli children interacted with Maccabi Berlin’s youth section at the club’s opulent complex, which also serves as the local Jewish community’s country club. The children of brothers Lico and Meir Friedler, notable figures in both the history and present of the Egoz unit, quickly donned Maccabi uniforms, reaffirming that soccer is indeed an international language.

Matanya Markovich, who had left the Gaza fighting just before the trip, arrived with his two children, who quickly became focal points for the extensive coverage by the German media. While they may have anticipated war stories, instead they received insights about feeling instantly at home upon arrival, encapsulating the journey’s entire purpose.

‘With you with all our hearts’

Upon entering the parking lot of the Olympic Stadium, the staff of the Hertha Berlin football team welcomed us with broad smiles. Thomas Herrich, the team’s CEO, approached us and shared a few words: “Until October, I knew not a single Hebrew word, but since then, I’ve learned my first three: ‘Am Yisrael Chai’. Please know that we stand with you wholeheartedly, and you are always welcome here, perhaps even to aid us in returning to the premier league.”

As the delegation proceeded to the VIP box in the stadium, the very box Adolf Hitler occupied during the 1936 Olympics, the symbolism was palpable. Standing in the VIP box of the grand stadium, a chant of “Am Yisrael Chai” rose from the group, echoing throughout the stadium and prompting responses of encouragement from onlookers.

Later, the delegation met Israeli Ambassador to Germany Ron Prosor, who remarked, “This is one of the challenging times for the community and Israelis in Berlin, but in matters involving governmental institutions and significant entities like soccer, we receive tremendous support here, and visits like yours greatly assist us.”

May this story continue to be told’

The German Parliament remains a strategic focal point in Israel’s informational and constitutional battle since the outbreak of the war. One of Israel’s staunchest advocates is Burkard Dregger, an MP from the governing CDU party, serving as its primary spokesperson.

“I urge you to discuss freely and disclose everything, as it is crucial for me to further disseminate this information,” he emphasized at the start of our closed meeting, shielded from the German media.

Sapir Hamami seized the opportunity to voice her concerns to the parliamentarian.

“I am here in Germany with my children, having lost my husband on the first day of the war, yet we still have hostages in Gaza undergoing daily torment. I do not comprehend why more isn’t being done to aid their release, and I fear the world has simply forgotten them. It feels as though insufficient efforts are being made for their release,” she said.

Accompanying Hamami was the wife of Col. Tal Ashur and their three children, Ella, Maya and Alon. Ashur is the commanding officer of the IDF’s Southern Gaza Brigade.

“My husband is currently in Gaza, fighting not only for Israel but for democracy and the entire Western world,” she said. The parliamentarian concurred that for many in Germany, Israel’s fight extends beyond its own interests or that of the global Jewish community.

IDF soldier Tiran Buzhish related, “In Germany, they fail to understand that in every house my team and I have entered over the past six months, we discover weapons or materials hostile to Israel, including images of Adolf Hitler. It is essential to recognize that we are not combating a uniformed army but civilians who attack us and then retreat to tunnels. I realize we are losing the public relations battle, but the world must awaken.”

“I don’t want to go back; I don’t want to leave the new friends and leave Berlin. I had fun,” summed up Ram, one of the kids who participated in the event, articulating the feelings of not only all the children but also the adults, who experienced an unforgettable week in Berlin.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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