Tag Archives: German Jews

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

Jew of the Week: Giacomo Meyerbeer

Biggest Superstar of the 19th Century

Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864) was born near Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy, observant Jewish family. His father was the president of Berlin’s Jewish community and ran a large synagogue in his home. His mother received the prestigious Order of Louise from the Prussian queen, and because she was an observant Jew, got a small statue instead of the traditional cross. The Beer children received the best secular education, as well as private tutors in Jewish studies. All three sons became famous: Wilhelm Beer as an astronomer, Michael Beer as writer, and Jacob Beer as a composer. When his beloved grandfather Meyer passed away, Jacob added the name to his own, changing it to Meyerbeer. He also vowed never to abandon the faith of his fathers, while many of his friends “converted” to Christianity to be accepted in society and to take on jobs otherwise barred to them. Meyerbeer was taught music from a young age by some of the best instructors of the time. He performed his first public concert at just age nine. Meyerbeer’s early work involved writing religious music for his father’s synagogue, and his first big production was a ballet-opera called The Fisherman and the Milkman, followed by the musical God and Nature, and the opera Jephtha’s Vow. He wrote beautiful pieces for the piano, clarinet, and full orchestras, and vacillated between composing and playing music himself (which he preferred). Having faced many difficulties in his youth, Meyerbeer founded the Musical Union to support up-and-coming composers. In 1813, he was appointed Court Composer for the Grand Duke of Hesse. Several years later, he felt he had lots more to learn and moved to Italy. There he wrote some of his most renowned operas. By 1824, he had become world-famous, and his 1831 grand opera, Robert le diable, made him the equivalent of a modern-day superstar. The following year, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France. In 1841, he was described as the “German Messiah” who would save the Paris Opera from its death, and shortly after also became director of music for the Prussian royal court. Not surprisingly, his success and wealth drew the ire of his colleagues, and Meyerbeer faced terrible criticism and anti-Semitism (especially from Richard Wagner, once his pupil). Meyerbeer remained graceful nonetheless, and never responded to the attacks on him. He continued to compose popular works until his last day, and has been credited with being “the most frequently performed opera composer” of the 19th century. He inspired the works of later greats like Dvořák, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. He was also a generous philanthropist, a devoted husband and father to five children, and never broke his vow to die an observant Jew. Meyerbeer remains one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Words of the Week

One who looks for a friend without faults, will have none.
– Hasidic proverb