When Putin met his high school German teacher in Israel

In the late 1990s, Mina Yuditskaya Berliner recognized a familiar face on the screen of her television set in Israel.

It was her former student Vladimir, now on television for becoming head of Russia’s FSB security apparatus.

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Before immigrating to Israel in 1973, Yuditskaya Berliner, now 93, was Vladimir Putin’s German teacher at St. Petersburg’s High School 281, she recently told the Israeli news site Ynet.

Putin, she revealed, even bought her the small Tel Aviv apartment where she now lives.

According to the Ynet article, Putin and his teacher were reunited in 2005, when the Russian president visited Israel. She had asked the Russian embassy whether she could attend a reception in Putin’s honor.

She joined World War II veterans for their meeting with Putin in Jerusalem, but afterwards he invited her to have tea with him in private.

“As we were walking to have tea, he told me: ‘You see, I’m bald now’,” she told Ynet. “I replied: ‘I can see that.’” At the reception, Putin introduced her to then Israeli president Moshe Katzav.

Shortly after the meeting, Yuditskaya Berliner, who is a widow, began receiving gifts: A watch and Putin’s autographed 2000 biography. Shortly after that, an employee of the Russian government showed up at her doorstep and took her to see some apartments in the center of Tel Aviv, she told Ynet.

“I told him all I needed was a flat that would be near the bus station, the market and to kuppat holim,” she told Ynet, using the Hebrew term for a health maintenance organization. “It all happened fast from there on; a few months later the movers came to my [rented] apartment in Florentine [in southern Tel Aviv], packed everything up and moved me,” she said.

She described Putin as a diligent student who, despite skipping classes to attend wrestling matches and practice, had a good command of the material taught to him by Yuditskaya Berliner.

Putin often spoke admiringly of his Jewish wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin. At Rakhlin’s funeral last year, Putin, reportedly overcome by emotion, ditched his security detail and went on a short, solitary walk.

And in the biography he gave Yuditskaya Berliner, he recalled with affection his relationship with a Jewish family that lived in his apartment block and took care of him while his parents worked.

These encounters and relationships with Russian Jews helped shape a special appreciation in Putin for Jewish people, according to Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. This appreciation and experience, he said, may well have a role in Putin’s current attitudes toward Russian Jewry, which critics and supporters alike describe as friendly.

Approached by Ynet, Putin’s office confirmed that Yuditskaya Berliner was the Russian president’s teacher and that the two saw each other in Israel, but declined to comment on other details, citing privacy issues. The question is, did the two speak in Russian or was Putin able tol remember some of the German Berliner taught him?

Stay tuned for JTA’s interview with Yuditskaya Berliner.

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Cnaan Liphshiz is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Europe. Based in the Netherlands, he covers the mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions that is European Jewry. Born in Israel, he used to work as foireign news editor for Ma’ariv and as a reporter for Haaretz.