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Felix & Co.

How Felix Burian succeeded in popularising the Volkswagen Beetle 50 years ago in Israel.

Text Werner Sonne

“You don’t say! I have that too”, says my friend Ron and shows me the sticker on the rear window of his Passat. It reads “Felix & Co, since 1946” in Hebrew letters, and can be found on most of the Volkswagens on the streets of Israel today. I have just told Ron the story of Felix Burian. Every Volkswagen fan here is familiar with the “Felix” stickers, but almost no one knows the story of Felix himself. It is about an automotive pioneer – with a car whose success was by no means assured in the young country at the time.

Tel Aviv, fifty years ago: a knight in a suit of armour, his visor tightly shut, his shield resting on his left foot, and emblazoned on the shield, the “VW” emblem. We read: “You feel as safe and secure in a Volkswagen as you do in this armour.” While Burian is releasing this newspaper ad in the German language in Israel, Rolf Pauls, a Second World War officer who was awarded the Knight’s Cross and is now the first German ambassador to Israel, is being greeted in Jerusalem in 1965 by furious demonstrators and a hail of stones thrown at his car. German products are taboo for many Israelis, and “Made in Germany” is a negative epithet. Five years earlier, when the Eichmann trial in Israel was sharpening public awareness of the genocide against the Jews, in Tel Aviv Felix Burian became one of the first Volkswagen dealers, offering sales and service for a product that could hardly be any more German: the Volkswagen Beetle.
Shortly thereafter he became one of the leading Volkswagen dealers in the country – a rather unusual story of success that could not have been predicted from the previous course of his life. In fact, quite the reverse.

Vienna in the early 1930s: a boy has a dream. His uncle guides him through all the wonderful museums in the magnificent city, and very early on little Felix knows that he wants to become an archaeologist. He grows up in a sheltered family; his father Raimund has a furrier’s shop. But then comes the year that will change everything: 1938 – the Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria to Nazi Germany. Life becomes increasingly intolerable. Suddenly the Burians become refugees, making their way to Palestine like so many others. They first go to Romania, then take an old, overcrowded coal freighter from the port of Sulina across the Black Sea and then the Mediterranean in the freezing November cold, constantly afraid of being discovered and deported by the British who do not want any more Jewish immigrants. The Burians enter Palestine illegally, wade through the water to the shore, and all their luggage is stolen on the way to the beach. For 13-year-old Felix the dream is over – at least for the time being. That same year, the Volkswagen plant is built in the “City of the KdF car near Fallersleben” (called Wolfsburg since 1945), with plans to mass produce the car that had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche.

For the Burians in far-off Palestine, which is still at this time under the British mandate, it is a miserable period that revolves around economic survival. The father cannot do anything with his previous occupation as there is no need for furs in the hot Mediterranean climate. He has to struggle as a peddler, barely getting by, with no knowledge of the language. His son Felix has to take up a practical occupation, one that will enable him to earn money. The boy does an apprenticeship with two car mechanics who have fled Germany. Known as “yekkes” – Jews from Germany – they are the driving force behind the automotive workshops. Felix gives the money he earns from his apprenticeship to his parents, and his mother can only give him pocket money. Then he meets Netty Landsmann. Originally from Magdeburg, her family also had to flee from the Nazis. “I was just 17”, she says when describing how they met at a tea dance. Sitting next to each other on a sofa now, they smile as they look back at that time. Felix courts Netty for four years. He tells her, “I cannot marry until I am ready to support a family.” In 1946, he manages to open his own small automotive workshop in Tel Aviv. The following year he and Netty get married. And their marriage has continued for 67 years.

In 1947 Burian marries Netty Landsmann, a native of Magdeburg, in Tel Aviv.

Burian is drafted into the War of Independence in 1948. He is offered an officer’s post in the young Israeli army, but he prefers to remain independent and keep running his workshop. He expands it, acquiring a good reputation in the process. Then, in 1960, a friend tells him about Volkswagen’s plan to recruit independent dealers and service stations in a number of Israeli cities in addition to its general importer.
“You need special tools for that,” he says, but his friend is persistent. So Burian applies, although still sceptical.
He gets the contract. And then everything moves quickly. “Volkswagen took care of everything, including the special equipment. Soon a lorry with replacement parts was appearing every two weeks at the door,” he recalls. The first specialists were now also arriving from Wolfsburg to help set up customer service for the Beetle and the Bus.

Now 89 years old, Burian proudly displays a shelf of books containing training materials and rules of conduct for Volkswagen managers.
In his sales talks, the young man no longer asked people “Can you afford it?” but rather “How much of a down payment would you like to make?” He resolutely set out to place ads he created himself in his native language in newspapers read by yekkes. The ads emphasise German virtues: “Service and quality!” is a common phrase, or “First-class workmanship and precision – this is the German way.” He draws special attention to the Beetle’s technical highlight – its air-cooling system, which is a major advantage in Israel’s climate: “Even in the hottest summer your engine won’t boil over, you won’t lose water, and the car will always be ready to drive.”

Burian’s efforts pay off. Soon his customers consist of various high-ranking military officers, including a general chief of staff. The Beetle is especially popular among yekkes, and an ever more familiar sight on Israel’s roads. The dark events of the past are brought to the fore when the car is introduced onto the market, but Burian himself is never the target of personal attacks. To critics he responds that the Germans have changed from enemies to helpers.
His wife Netty, who like Felix lost close family members in the Holocaust (his grandparents and his father’s brothers were killed), says: “We will not forget, and will not forgive. But life goes on.
There is a new generation” – a motto that Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion soon uses, who negotiates reparations worth billions with Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Early advertisements in Israel highlight the air-cooling system as well as German virtues.

» We will not forget, and will not forgive. But life goes on. There is a new generation. «

Netty Burian

The new and alert dealer in Tel Aviv quickly attracts attention in Wolfsburg. In 1962, Volkswagen invites Netty and Felix Burian to join a major informational tour through the Federal Republic of Germany. The couple return to the country for the first time since 1938. “It was definitely a strange feeling,” recalls Netty. But they are immediately fascinated by the large factory halls with their automated processes. “The sparks from the welding machines, the many cars on the conveyor belt. It was incredible.” Felix is also “colossally” impressed by the German Volkswagen dealerships – especially by the large MAHAG centre in Munich which has its own hairdressing salon for customers. But for both of them, the production and sales processes are less important than the encounters they have with people. Over subsequent years they return again and again to Wolfsburg, while Volkswagen managers visit their trade partner and his wife in Israel just as regularly. Lifelong friendships develop. To this day, greetings and congratulations still arrive for all the holidays and birthdays. “One friend even came to Israel and visited us during his honeymoon”, says Burian. From his well-tended collection of documents he now retrieves the certificates from Wolfsburg – one for the “Golden VW Shield” in 1964, then the “Diamond Badge of Honour” for his achievements for Volkswagen and Audi in 1982, plus all manner of photos with Israeli politicians who specialise in transportation and for whom he served as a consultant, and finally honours for his service as chairman of the Association of Israeli Automobile Dealers.

The “Felix” sticker has been a common sight on Beetles in Israel for decades.
Felix and Netty Burian have been married for 67 years. They live in Tel Aviv.

Hand on heart, Felix Burian, which is your favourite Volkswagen? “The Passat – not least of all because of its sturdy luggage compartment. And because it did invaluable service during my excavations.”

He has long since fulfilled his childhood dream and pursued independent studies to become an archaeologist. In 1952, he began systematic excavations in the Negev Desert and on the Mediterranean coast – and has since found more than 150,000 ancient historical objects such as tools, figurines, jewellery, knife blades – 12,000 flint arrowheads alone – and discovered 70 previously unknown settlement sites, some of them from the Stone Age. For decades, his schedule takes the following form: the weekdays belong to Volkswagen, the weekends to archaeology.

He retires from his company in 2000 at the age of 75. But he continues to meet with his successor once a month for breakfast.
Yes, you could say he is pretty proud of what he has achieved in his life. Achievements that everyone in Israel can see in 2015 – precisely 50 years after the start of diplomatic relations with Germany. All of the cars sold by his dealership still have an oval sticker on their rear window. It shows the Volkswagen emblem and the words “Felix & Co”. Volkswagen advised the company to retain its name.

Exhibition in Berlin

Felix Burian’s extraordinary story is told in detail in a travelling exhibition that will be launched at Berlin’s Paul-Löbe-Haus in the autumn of 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of German-Israeli diplomatic relations.