Tag Archives: German Jews

Jew of the Week: Ludwig Guttman

Founder of the Paralympic Games

Ludwig Guttman (1899-1980) was born to a German-Jewish family in what is now Poland. After serving in World War I, he volunteered at a hospital and first encountered a paraplegic patient. This inspired him to go to medical school and he went on to become a renowned neurosurgeon, specializing in spinal cord injuries and paralysis. He also taught at the University of Freiburg, where he supervised a Jewish fraternity that focused on fitness and physical training to give Jewish students more strength and confidence in the face of rampant anti-Semitism. When the Nuremberg Laws were passed by the Nazis, Guttman was stripped of his job and title. He was given an inferior position at the Breslau Jewish Hospital, where he eventually became the medical director. During Kristallnacht, Guttman witnessed the desecration of his synagogue and the abuse of his fellow congregants. That night, he admitted 64 Jewish patients that took refuge in his hospital, and was able to save 60 of them from deportation by the SS agents that came the next day. The following year, the Nazis gave him a visa and sent him on a medical mission to Portugal. Guttman never returned to Germany, and settled in England instead. He joined the Nuffield Department of Neurosurgery in Oxford. Guttman came up with the idea of turning paraplegic patients over in their beds every two hours to prevent bed sores, a small move that drastically cut the mortality rate. In 1943, the Royal Air Force asked Guttman to found and head the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital to look after injured pilots who commonly had spinal problems. It was here that Guttman realized how sports could be a powerful tool for rehabilitation. In 1948, he organized the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled war veterans, a huge success. Four years later, he turned it into an international event, and in 1956 was recognized by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) for his pioneering work. The Stoke Mandeville Games became an official part of the 1960 Rome Olympics, and by 1984 was known as the Paralympic Games. (When host city Mexico refused to hold the games in 1968, Guttman arranged for them to be held in Israel). Guttman founded what would become the English Federation of Disability Sport, as well as the International Spinal Cord Society. He was the first editor of the scientific journal Spinal Cord. The Guttmann Institute in Barcelona is named after him, as is the Ludwig Guttmann Prize awarded by the German Medical Society for Paraplegia. He was the subject of a BBC documentary called The Best of Men, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966. There are currently over 4400 athletes competing at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, the largest ever.

Words of the Week

It might seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.
Paul Davies, renowned physicist

Russian commemorative stamp of Ludwig Guttman, in its “Sports Legends” series released before the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

Jew of the Week: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jew of the Week: Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Moses of the 19th Century

Moritz Tzvi von Hirsch auf Gereuth (1831-1896) was born in Munich to a wealthy German-Jewish family. His grandfather was a banker for the Bavarian king, and became the first Jew to be permitted to own land in Bavaria. His father also served as the court banker, and became a German baron. Hirsch studied in Brussels, then took a banking job himself at age 17. Years later, he branched off on his own, eventually making his fortune from sugar, copper, and railroads. One of his boldest projects was building a Vienna-to-Istanbul rail line. Hirsch settled in Paris where he lived for the remainder of his life, going by the French version of his name, Maurice de Hirsch. In 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Kol Israel Haverim) organization was founded in Paris to secure human rights and education for Jews around the world. Hirsch became their biggest supporter, essentially bankrolling their operation to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a year. The organization was most famous for building Jewish schools, including the first schools in pre-State Israel. The Alliance schools were also the first to teach a Hebrew curriculum, playing a key role in the language’s revival. Hirsch also donated countless sums to schools and hospitals across Germany, France, and England. He paid for the renowned Pasteur Institute’s entire biochemistry building. In the last two decades of his life, Hirsch was devoted to easing the plight of Russian Jews. He founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 with a starting budget of £2 million pounds. The money was used to resettle Eastern European Jews in the Americas (particularly in Canada and Argentina), as well as in Ottoman Palestine. Altogether, Hirsch donated £18 million to the organization, the equivalent of about $4 billion today! Needless to say, it played a massive role in getting the Zionist movement off the ground and re-establishing a Jewish state in Israel (though de Hirsch himself didn’t believe it would ever actually happen!) as well as saving countless lives from pogroms and oppression. Maurice de Hirsch is ranked among the most generous philanthropists of all time. His wife, Clara de Hirsch, is also on this list, in her own right. She came from a wealthy banking family, too, and donated another 200 million francs of her own funds. When the couple tragically lost their only son in 1887, Maurice de Hirsch declared: “My son I have lost, but not my heir; humanity is my heir.” For his efforts to launch a mass-exodus and liberation of Jews, he has been called the “Moses of the 19th Century”.

Words of the Week

I suppose I shall spend all my money in this movement. But, after all, what is the use of money unless you do some good with it?
– Baron Maurice de Hirsch