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Despite dark past, young Israelis seek new lives in German capital

Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust was planned and executed in Berlin, there has been an influx of young Israelis to the city. "In Israel, you must struggle, you struggle every day," one recent arrival says. NBC News' Carlo Angerer reports.

BERLIN, Germany -- Israeli Zeev Avrahami stands in the small kitchen of his restaurant peeling eggs and dripping fresh olive oil on a plate of hummus he is about to serve. The restaurant's name -- 'Sababa,' which is slang for good or fun -- is written proudly in Hebrew letters over its entrance.

Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust was planned and executed in the German capital and Nazi atrocities nearly extinguished Jewish life on the European continent, Avrahami's eatery is a sign of a new chapter of Jewish life in Germany.

Avrahami is at the culinary forefront of an influx of Israelis who have moved Berlin in recent years. Officials at the Israeli Embassy estimate that about 15,000 of its citizens now live in the city, thought to be the highest number in decades.

'They don't know what to say'
Before the Holocaust about 160,000 Jews called Berlin home. By the time the city was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, only 8,000 remained. 

And while Avrahami feels safe in Berlin, his interactions with German citizens are often burdened by the past.

"Once you say you're Israeli, there is silence. They don't know what to say," he told NBC News. "In Germany, it's still hard to be different, a foreigner. It's not an immigration country, it's not America."

What is attracting young Israelis to the former center of Nazi Germany? Even today, synagogues, Jewish schools, and other buildings linked to the community across Germany are under constant police protection amid fears of attacks by right-wing and Islamist groups.

Carlo Angerer / NBC News

The Sababa restaurant in central Berlin is a small sign of a new chapter of Jewish life in Germany.

Israeli insurance salesman Ilan Weiss, who moved to Berlin in 1990, believes the increasing cost of living and cuts to social services in his homeland -- as well as Berlin's image as a hip and multicultural destination -- is behind the trend.

Weiss, who runs the the non-profit IsraelisinBerlin.de website, said that some new arrivals "show up with only a suitcase."

"I get requests from new arrivals or Israelis looking to move to Berlin nearly every week," Weiss added. "It’s hard to live in the country where they come from, so the people come to Germany, where it's better than the rest of Europe, even than the U.S."

Economic woes
Among the incomers is Inbal Mayan, who came to Berlin about 4 months ago. The 31-year-old Tel Aviv native says daily life in her homeland has become difficult to afford for many young Israelis, even if they work two or three jobs.

Mayan says that even though Berlin is famous for its easy-going lifestyle, the economy is a key factor for many Israelis. "It's not about the partying anymore, but it's about life that you can actually live and afford and not to struggle every day to have money, to live a simple life," she said. "In Israel you must struggle, you struggle every day."

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She now takes German courses at the local Jewish community's language school and hopes to attend university and get a Master’s degree.

Fellow language student Bar Ben-Yehuda arrived one-and-a-half years ago from the outskirts of Jerusalem.

"Here we have the opportunity for a better life, we can build something," he said. "The opportunities are better here than in Israel – I’m very sad to say this, because that's my country, but it’s the truth."

But sooner or later, Berlin's dark past creeps in as reminders of Jewish life destroyed by the Holocaust are evident throughout the city, from the massive Holocaust memorial to so called 'Stolpersteine' (stumbling blocks), commemorative metal plaques installed in front of former homes of Jews deported to concentration camps.

'You have to deal with it'
Restaurant owner Avrahami, who has been living in Berlin for four years, says the German capital becomes a spirital place for many Israelis.

"A lot of arrivals, because they're so young, they don't see that but there is something that pulls you down," he told NBC News. "At the beginning you don’t pay attention to the signs, but it creeps in you all the time. At some point you have to deal with it."

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Israeli Nirit Bialer, 34, moved to Berlin six years ago and helped to start the group Habait, 'home' in Hebrew, hopes to bring Germans and Israelis together through cultural events and creating a place for enhanced dialogue between the two groups.

Young Germans tend to be not as preoccupied with the burden of the country's dark past as their parents' generation.

"Berlin is a very cosmopolitan city," Bialer says. "It's not necessarily this gray dark place that we are taught from history." 

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