Tag Archives: German Jews

Jew of the Week: Hannah Arendt

Greatest Political Philosopher of the 20th Century

Hannah Arendt in 1924

Johanna Cohn Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to a wealthy family of secular Russian-German Jews. The family was anti-Zionist and assimilationist, desperately seeking acceptance into broader German society. Arendt was well-educated, and was already tackling heavy philosophical works as a teenager. At 15, after getting expelled from her school for organizing a boycott of an anti-Semitic teacher, she decided to go straight to the University of Berlin. Arendt then studied language, literature, and theology at the University of Marburg, where one of her teachers was the famed philosopher Heidegger (the two would go on to have a secret romantic relationship for many years). Arendt later became a towering figure in philosophy herself, writing on politics and sociology, Judaism and feminism (which she opposed, once writing, perhaps presciently: “what will we lose if we win?” Ironically, today Arendt is something of a feminist icon!) When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt operated an underground railroad for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Realizing the flaws of her old assimilationist ways, she wrote that “Jewish assimilation must declare its bankruptcy.” Arendt immersed herself in Jewish study, while also vocally denouncing the Nazis, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo. After eight days in prison, the Gestapo let her go because they could not decipher her encoded diary. Arendt fled to Geneva, where she worked for the Jewish Agency to secure visas for Jewish refugees. From there, she settled in Paris and soon became the personal assistant of Germaine de Rothschild, taking care of distributing her generous charitable funds. In 1935, Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, eventually becoming its secretary-general. In 1938, she was put in charge of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied France, Arendt and her family managed to escape yet again, eventually finding their way to New York. In 1944, she was hired as executive director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, cataloging and preserving Jewish assets in Europe, and reviving post-war Jewish life there. From 1951 onwards, she devoted herself to teaching and writing. Her most acclaimed books followed, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt taught at a number of American universities, including Yale and Stanford, and was the first female professor at Princeton. In 1961, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem covering the Eichmann trial for the The New Yorker. (During this time, she coined the phrase “banality of evil”, and her conclusions were immensely controversial.) All in all, Arendt wrote hundreds of penetrating essays, articles, and poems, and has been described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one its most enigmatic women. The Library of Congress estimates that at least 50 books have been written about her, along with over 1000 scholarly papers. There is a “Hannah Arendt Day” in Germany, as well as an international peer-reviewed journal called Arendt Studies, along with countless things named after her, including the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize.

Words of the Week

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
– Hannah Arendt

Jew of the Week: Chaim Arlozorov

The Jew Who Negotiated with the Nazis—and Saved Thousands

Chaim Vitaly Arlozorov (1899-1933) was born in what is today Ukraine to a traditional Russian-Jewish family. His grandfather was a renowned rabbi and Talmud commentator. When Arlozorov was six years old, his town of Romny experienced a terrible pogrom, causing his family to flee to Germany. He went on to study economics at the University of Berlin and became a socialist, though he rejected and opposed both Marxism and Communism. During that time Arlozorov become involved with HaPoel HaTzair, the Zionist-socialist youth organization. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the Zionist movement to re-establish an independent state for the Jewish people. Arlozorov argued such a state should be based on socialism so that all Jews could equally own a piece of the Holy Land, thereby also allowing a return to fulfilling the Sabbatical (shemittah) and Jubilee (yovel) years as mandated by the Torah. While many Ashkenazi Zionists wanted Yiddish to become the official language of the future state, Arlozorov played a key role in ensuring it would be Hebrew. In 1921, he participated in the defence of the Jewish town of Neve Shalom when it was attacked by Arab mobs. This inspired him to work towards establishing a peaceful relationship between Jews and Arabs. In 1933, he organized a conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem between Zionist and Arab leaders—possibly the first of what would be many future “peace talks” throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict. Back in 1930, it was Arlozorov who initiated the merger between the two big Zionist-socialist parties, forming Mapai (which later became Israel’s Labour Party). In 1931, he was appointed political director of the Jewish Agency and oversaw Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. When the Nazis came to power and began instituting their anti-Jewish policies, Arlozorov sought to save Germany’s Jews by bringing them Israel. In a deeply controversial move, he started negotiations with the Nazis and eventually prevailed with the Ha’avara Agreement where German Jews could make aliyah provided that they use all of their money to buy only German goods that would be exported to Israel. Over the next several years, the agreement brought 60,000 German Jews to Israel—saving their lives—as well as some $100 million in resources and goods. These resources allowed for countless other Jews to make aliyah as well, and to develop the infrastructure of the future state. Unfortunately, not everyone was thrilled with the Ha’avara Agreement—both in the Jewish world and within the Nazi party. Two days after returning from the negotiations, Arlozorov was assassinated while taking a Shabbat-evening walk on a Tel-Aviv beach with his wife. To this day, it is a mystery who was behind the assassination, some blaming right-wing Zionists, others finding connections to Nazi agents, or to Arab thugs, or even to the Soviets. His funeral was presided by as many as 100,000 people. It is widely agreed that had he been alive, Arlozorov would have become Israel’s first prime minister. Among other honours, nearly every major town in Israel today has an “Arlozorov Street” or neighbourhood named after him.

Words of the Week

A return to Jewishness is an absolute condition for a return to the Land of Israel.
Theodor Herzl

Arlozorov (centre, seated) with Weizmann on his right and other political leaders at the 1933 King David Hotel Conference

Jew of the Week: Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

The Polish Nobility’s Hasidic Pharmacist 

A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others.
– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa