#3: Yossi Vardi and the Denmark High School


People know Yossi Vardi as an Israeli high tech leader, for his role in the creation of instant messaging, for being an advisor to the CEO’s of AOL and Amazon.com, for his involvement in Israeli peace negotiations, and even his funny TED talk. Fewer people know that Vardi contributed to Sergey Brin and Larry Page the idea for Google AdWords, no less (see Auletta p. 90, Vise, p. 99).

My own involvement with him began back in 1998, when he gifted me the concept that became GuruNet and later Answers.com. He was also one of our first investors and always a generous connector.

Yossi has always been interested in education and helping underprivileged kids. He told me a story once about the remarkable Bialik-Rogozin School project in Tel Aviv, about which the Academy-Award winning “Strangers No More” documentary was filmed. It serves kids from dozens of countries, most of them immigrants, many of them refugees, teaching them Hebrew and integrating them into Israel.

Following the unimaginable Dolphinarium suicide bomber attack on June 1, 2001, and coinciding with world leaders like Bill Clinton visiting Israel that year to celebrate Shimon Peres’ 80th birthday, Yossi decided to take the Google founders to visit the school and inspire and cheer up the students. Now, Mikhail Gorbachev heard about this and wanted to come along, too. So did Shimon Peres! So, imagine if you will, Yossi Vardi, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mikhail Gorbachev and Shimon Peres descending on a high school in Tel Aviv.  Gorbechev asked if he can address the students in Russian, which many of the kids and most of the teachers (and Sergey) spoke. He said, “Even though you have left Russia, I can only salute the special role of the Jewish people in opening up our country to democracy.” Imagine the tears in the eyes of those present upon hearing these words. When Page and Brin spoke, Yossi had the kids all stand up and shout at the top of their lungs “WE LOVE GOOGLE!

After our successful exit with Answers.com in 2011, Yossi suggested I get involved in some of his projects. I attended a graduation ceremony at Bialik Rogozin in June of that year, when Karen Tal was principal. I shot this very short video clip of kids from a dozen countries singing “My Favorite Things” in Tel Aviv in Hebrew.

with Yossi at Denmark School

Yossi later got me involved as a volunteer at the Denmark School in Jerusalem, where Yonat Kaufman is principal and has done amazing things to breathe new life into a school once known mostly for its tough neighborhood.

When I received the invitation to attend the dedication of the new school library last week, I was not sure if I could make it. I’m pretty busy in my own startup getting ready to launch the next version of Curiyo. Fortunately, I made the time.

The library was being dedicated in honor of Heinz and Ruth Galinski, about whom I knew nothing. There were a few speeches, and students singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

Yonat Kaufmann
Yonat Kaufmann

But the highlight for me was a simple, moving speech by Christian Lange, member of the German Bundestag and Parliamentary State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection. He was kind enough afterwards to share his remarks:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

I was delighted when Nathan Gelbart, Chair of Keren Hayesod in Germany, asked me if I would like to open the Heinz and Ruth Galinski Library, in my capacity as Parliamentary State Secretary, here at Denmark High School today.

Christian Lange
Christian Lange

While I have visited Israel on very many occasions as a member of the German Bundestag, being invited to open this library is a very special honor for me as a German parliamentarian.

Heinz Galinski was born on the 28th of November 1912 in Marienburg, West Prussia (now Malbork in Poland). This man stands – like no other – for the revival of Jewish life in Germany after the Shoah.

I would like to say a few words on Heinz Galinski himself.
Heinz Galinski was born into a “classic” German family. His father was a merchant and fought in the First World War. In 1933, Heinz completed his apprenticeship to become a salesman in the textile industry.

After the National Socialists took power, the family set off for Berlin. They believed that anti-Semitism would not be as bad in a major city as it was in Marienburg.

And so, in 1938, Heinz Galinski moved to number 31/32 Schönhauser Allee in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which today is marked by a commemorative plaque dedicated to his memory.

After being forced into slave labor in 1940, Galinski was deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1943, together with his wife and mother. Later on, he was sent to perform slave labor at I. G. Farben in Auschwitz-Monowitz. His wife and mother were murdered at Auschwitz.

In January 1945, Heinz Galinski was evacuated to Mittelbau concentration camp and, when Mittelbau was evacuated, removed to Bergen-Belsen. Heinz Galinski was liberated from the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen by British troops in mid-April 1945.
The fact alone that Galinski decided to stay in Germany in order to rebuild Jewish life—despite this terrible fate and despite such brutal experiences—shows just how strong he must have been.

From April 1949 until his death on 19th of July 1992, Heinz Galinski was Chairman of the Jewish Community of Berlin—German’s largest Jewish community organization.
Furthermore, from 1954 to 1963 and from 1988 to 1992, he was President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

As you know, Galinski rebuilt Jewish life in Germany, and he did this even in the face of great resistance on the part of Jewish communities around the world. His second wife, Ruth Galinski, whom I had the honor of meeting in Berlin, told me that this was a matter very close to his heart. Otherwise, the Nazis would have achieved their goal after all: a Germany free of Jews.

As a member of the German Bundestag, I feel a great sense of humility when I think of Heinz Galinski’s life, of his courage, of this resolve—without which there would not be a single Jewish community in Germany today.

Heinz Galinski was the voice of Jewish life in Germany after 1945. Moreover, people listened to him. His opinion was well regarded. He was greatly respected and was recognized as a man of high standing in German political circles.

When Heinz Galinski recognized injustice, he opened his mouth: “I did not survive Auschwitz to keep quiet in the face of new injustice”. This was his guiding principle.
In 1987, Heinz Galinski was granted honorary citizenship of the City of Berlin. And, when he died in 1992, thousands of Berliners gathered on the streets as his casket made its way from the Jewish Community Center in Fasanenstraße to the Jewish Cemetery in Heerstraße.

Heinz Galinski believed in a new Germany – even after surviving a letter-bomb attack in 1975, and despite needing round-the-clock personal security. We should also not forget that in 1998 his grave was the target of two bomb attacks which resulted in the almost complete destruction of his gravestone.

Ladies and gentlemen, today, Germany is once again a place where Rabbis are trained. We have Jewish kindergartens, Jewish schools, Jewish faculties, Jewish university groups – there is even a Working Group of Jewish Social Democrats in my party.

Today, several thousand Israelis live in Berlin, where they play an important role in the city’s social and cultural life and in industry.

I am sure that Heinz Galinski would have been very pleased with the way things have turned out.

Heinz Galinski (1912-1992)

However, despite these positive developments, we should not forget that even today centers of Jewish life – from kindergartens to synagogues – require police protection. We should not accept this as the norm. Instead we must remain active in the fight against all forms of anti-Semitism. We are highly indebted to people such as Heinz Galinski on this front as well.

Heinz Galinski was a passionate Zionist. So was his wife Ruth. They were both regular visitors to Israel, which is why I am delighted that the Heinz and Ruth Galinski library is being opened here today.

I hope that your pupils will take great pleasure in using this library, and I hope they will learn who Heinz Galinski: a great Jewish German, to whom we all owe a great deal.”

Today is Yom HaShoah. Seven decades ago last week, my father ז״ל and mother were expelled from their homes to an unimaginable place in Poland known as Auschwitz. Sixty-nine years ago last week, on Sunday, April 15, 1945, my mother was liberated by British soldiers from the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. She lost so many family members that the names don’t fit into the scant five minutes for the Yizkor prayer in synagogue. She is now the last surviving member of her family who remembers their names and faces.

May their memories, and especially the memories of our grandparents, Shaindel & Samuel Bleier and Rivka & Yehoshua Rosenschein, be honored today, as well as a new generation rebuilding Jewish life and Israel — and our friends around the world.