Beit Hatfutsot https://www.bh.org.il Museum of the Jewish People Wed, 21 Aug 2019 13:57:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.2 https://www.bh.org.il/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-512-32x32.png Beit Hatfutsot https://www.bh.org.il 32 32 Marcel Bloch Dassault: The Jewish engineer who conquered the sky https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/marcel-bloch-dassault-jewish-engineer-conquered-sky/ Wed, 21 Aug 2019 13:57:25 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43892 The possibility of imitating winged creatures has always sparked the French imagination. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly a human-carrying hot air balloon, and Louis Blériot was the first inventor-adventurer to complete an international flight – from France to Britain in July 1909. Several months after Blériot crossed the La Manche (English) Channel, [...]

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The possibility of imitating winged creatures has always sparked the French imagination. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly a human-carrying hot air balloon, and Louis Blériot was the first inventor-adventurer to complete an international flight – from France to Britain in July 1909.

Several months after Blériot crossed the La Manche (English) Channel, a 17-year old Jewish boy crossed Montien Boulevarde toward the Eiffel Tower, when a wondrous and life-changing specter burst through the clouds. A strange winged contraption flew lightly and elegantly over the boy’s head, bearing a grinning Count Charles de Lambert, a pioneer of French aviation and student of Wright Brother Orwell.

The boy, Marcel Bloch Dassault, would one day say that the moment he saw Count Lambert fly over the Eiffel Tower, he decided to join the prestigious club of French engineer-inventors. He did not yet know that his decision would influence a tiny nation that would be established in the Middle East 40 years later.

Young Bloch’s decision evolved from idea to action and immediately after he graduated from high school, he applied to the high college of aeronautics, France’s first school of aviation – from which he graduated in 1913.

Marcel Bloch 1914 (creative commons, wikimedia)

How talented an engineer was he? He is still mentioned with Kelly Johnson and Artem Mikoyan as one of the three founding fathers of aeronautics. At 22, Bloch invented an airplane propeller that was so successful that France dismantled the propellers in its fighter planes and replaced them with Bloch’s propeller. France’s top flying ace Georges Guynemer, who sent 57 enemy planes to their final reward, said at the time he would not have been able to down so many planes had it not been for Bloch’s propeller.

In 1931, Bloch established the eponymous Marcel Bloch plane company, identified by his initials, MB. During that period, the Jewish engineer dreamed up airplanes of all types: the innovative MB-220 passenger plane, the triple-engine, ten-seat MB-120 cargo plane, and the MB-210 bomber, that reached a cruising altitude of 32,840 feet – when no other bomber could fly beyond 30,000 feet.

The quality of the planes produced by Bloch and his then-partner Henry Potez was such that the company’s headquarters in a giant hangar in Bologne was flooded with orders for planes. The two men thus quickly established other factories throughout France. This financial success was nipped in the bud in 1936, when the socialist Popular Front party rose to power. The party did not view fondly capitalist ventures that turned ingenuity and talent into money – it nationalized Bloch’s company.

Mirage III at the Israeli Air Force Museum (IDF)

To the sorrow of zealous defenders of equality, God did not hand out talent equally. And because French aviation minister Pierre Cot was lacking any talent with which to lead the largest industrial aviation firm in France, Bloch was named managing director of the company which had just been seized from his hands. Despite the lack of personal profit during that period, Bloch’s fiery mind did not cease to concoct and produce the MB-150 fighter plane and MB-170 bomber series.

But that was all too little too late. In June 1940, the French personally paid the price of their demonstratively soft-on-Nazi-Germany policy. The land of the tricolor flag was conquered and bisected – the North in German domain and the South controlled by the puppet Vichy government.

The S.S. carried out orders, and their orders explicitly demanded that Jews be exploited to their limits before their extermination. The Nazis considered Bloch to be a useful individual, a wellspring of knowledge and genius whose value was greater than gold. To their surprise, when they asked him to share his knowledge with them – thus saving his own life and that of his family – the Jewish engineer adamantly refused to collaborate.

Israeli Nesher over the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War (IDF)

At first, he was jailed with his wife and son in the infamous Fort Montluc prison. Later, he was sent to the Drancy concentration camp in Paris, considered to be among the cruelest concentration camps, and finally he was sent to Buchenwald to “live” out the war. In the camps, he decided to add the name “Dassault” to the Bloch surname. “Dassault” – meaning, “for battle,” – was the nom de guerre that his brother, General Darius Paul Bloch, used in the French underground. Darius Bloch, a national hero, is worthy of his own article.

Despite partial physical paralysis, Marcel Dassault’s spirit did not flag. Immediately after the war, he tackled the company’s rehabilitation with renewed strength. It quickly became a world leader in the fighter plane and jets field. The “Oregon,” “Mystere,” “Super Mystere,” and of course the “Mirage” Rolls-Royce of aircraft earned Marcel Bloch a place in the pantheon of the greatest engineers in history.

During the years of its operation, the Daussault aviation company produced more than 8,000 planes, including the 50 that star in a special story. In 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on Israel. The Israel Air Force had already signed a contract with the Dassault company to purchase 50 upgraded Mirage 5s.

Angered by the decision, the Israelis did not give in. Less than a year later, a carton of documents landed in Mossad headquarters, including the full plans for producing a Mirage 5. The man who passed along this golden intel was an enlisted Mossad agent, a Swiss engineer named “Alfred.” The more than 200,000 documents transferred by Alfred Frauenknecht were used to develop the Israeli Nesher aircraft, the harbinger of Israeli manufacturing of additional planes like the Kfir which put Israel on the map of aircraft production.

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The Selfish Gene: the Story of Rosalind Franklin  https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/selfish-gene-story-rosalind-franklin/ Thu, 01 Aug 2019 10:43:01 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43516 In 1887, American-Jewish physicist Albert Abraham Michelson developed the interferometer, a remarkably precise system for measuring the speed of light rays. Two decades later, another Albert – Albert Einstein – used Michelson’s system to discover the theory of special relativity. It’s a fair bet that none of you have heard of Michelson. His portrait is unknown; his name has [...]

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In 1887, American-Jewish physicist Albert Abraham Michelson developed the interferometer, a remarkably precise system for measuring the speed of light rays. Two decades later, another Albert – Albert Einstein – used Michelson’s system to discover the theory of special relativity.

It’s a fair bet that none of you have heard of Michelson. His portrait is unknown; his name has not become synonymous with genius; and if you google him, you’ll get very few results.

He is not alone. Many fine men and women have been crushed under the wheels of history. These anonymous figures took a hit on behalf of progress and received no credit for their genius. Siegfried Marcus invented the automobile a decade and a half before Karl Benz grabbed the glory. Belgian priest George Lemaitre discovered that the universe expands several years before Edwin Hubble got the credit. Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier contributed the concepts of socialism before Marx and Engels. And let’s not forget the original augurs of Zionism – Moses Hess and Rabbi Kalischer – who were there long before Herzl took his flight of fancy to Altneuland. Their names are just a drop in the bucket.

Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958 (u.s National Library of Medicine, WikiMedia)

Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958 (u.s National Library of Medicine, WikiMedia)

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 to an aristocratic London family. Franklin’s childhood friend told BBC Radio that there was a warm family atmosphere in the Franklin family home in Notting Hill, and that Rosalind’s many cousins – who also lived in the posh neighborhood – were frequently present in her home. The Franklin family was British upper-class crème de la crème.  Herbert Samuel, the First High Commissioner for Palestine, was her father’s uncle. Their Anglo-Jewish elite established a network of business connections, marriages, and friendships, and nonetheless maintained a deep affinity for their People. In the 1930s, Rosalind’s parents housed many Jewish refugees from Germany in their expansive home and launched philanthropic aide to Eastern European Jews.

Franklin’s personality and outstanding self-esteem as a teenager was shaped by her excellent education, membership in an elite Anglo-Jewish club, the warm and nurturing environs in which she grew up, and her close ties to her parents and four siblings.

Franklin had reason to be proud of herself. From a young age, it was obvious to all that the avid little girl was nothing less than a diamond in the rough. When she was six, her aunt Helen Bentwich said that “Rosalind was frightfully smart.” Her friends at the private Saint Paul girls’ school said that she excelled in every field – from cricket to literature and science. She wasn’t shy, and a childhood friend recalls that whenever someone said something stupid, she would burst out laughing. Her arrogance would one day become her Achille’s heel.

Maughan Library at King's College, London UK (WikiMedia)

Maughan Library at King’s College, London UK (WikiMedia)

At 16, Franklin decided to devote her life to science. Her advance in that field was dizzying. She completed a bachelor’s degree with honors at Cambridge University and completed her doctorate in carbon research at age 25. After a number of years in a Paris laboratory, Franklin surrendered to pressure from her family to return to London. In Paris, Franklin specialized in X-ray crystallography – a technique in which x-ray beams are shot through a crystal to project physical interference onto a screen. That specialty made her a highly desirable researcher. Among many jobs she was offered, she finally chose a research position in a laboratory in London’s prestigious Kings College.

Franklin focused on the structure of DNA. Her ambition, determination, and devotion to the Sisyphean measurement required to achieve an accurate picture of DNA’s structure quickly roused the envy of her colleagues in the lab. Maurice Wilkins, the deputy head of the laboratory, was particularly jealous. The introverted Wilkins was put off by his new researcher’s excessive confidence and by the character of the woman whom he dismissively called “Rosie” behind her back. He shot down anyone who thought differently of her. Her unbridled motivation, contrariness, and impatience for mistakes – the very traits that made Franklin a quality researcher – drew the wrath of her colleagues in the lab. But the more isolated Ms. Franklin became, the more motivated she was to isolate the structure of DNA. One night, it finally happened. A perfect picture finally appeared on the interference screen and Franklin tagged it “Photo 51.”

DNA fragment

DNA fragment. Franklin’s historic breakthrough

The Jewish scientist was unaware that she had discovered the structure of DNA. Wilkins, however, realized the potential of Photo 51, and without Franklin’s permission showed them to two of his science colleagues – Francis Crick and James Watson of Cambridge University. With the help of Photo 51 and Wilkins, Watson and Crick succeeded in determining the 3D structure of DNA. Understanding the structure to be a di-cylindrical helix, the three of them constructed a metal 3D model of DNA. They published the results of their research in Volume 171 of the “Nature” scientific journal on April 25, 1953. And the rest is history.

Rosalind Franklin’s story could have ended in tragedy and injustice. But to her fortune, one of the players in this drama was more big-headed than her. That was, of course, James Watson, who published “The Double Helix” in 1978, a book that outlines in great detail the history of determining the structure of DNA and emphasizes his own significant role in that discovery. Whether for some bizarre reason or because of his own pangs of guilt, Watson portrayed Franklin in his book as a single, manipulative witch with terrible taste in clothes and a penchant for scientific dogmatism.

Watson’s overkill regarding Franklin raised the suspicions of science historians, who began to investigate the story in depth. The story behind Photo 51 and its tremendous contribution to unraveling the structure of DNA was thus exposed. Watson’s curse turned into a blessing.

Unlike Michelson, Franklin earned recognition and her name is known throughout the world. She unfortunately did not live to enjoy that. Ten years before the book was published, she died of ovarian cancer at age 37 – a lonely anonymous genius.

Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois (Jefe317, Wikipedia)

Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois (Jefe317, Wikipedia)

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Glorious Bastards: Incredible Story of “The Ritchie Boys” https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/glorious-bastards-incredible-story-of-the-ritchie-boys/ Mon, 29 Jul 2019 12:21:23 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43447 These European Jewish boys fled the Nazis to America, leaving parents, siblings, friends and the beloved continent that stabbed them in the back behind. They did not imagine in their wildest dreams that they would return to the scene of the crime as soldiers in the Allied Forces’ special corps. No, this is not a [...]

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These European Jewish boys fled the Nazis to America, leaving parents, siblings, friends and the beloved continent that stabbed them in the back behind. They did not imagine in their wildest dreams that they would return to the scene of the crime as soldiers in the Allied Forces’ special corps.

No, this is not a trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” This is the story of “The Ritchie Boys”, Jewish refugees who arrived in America during the war and seized that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to avenge the Nazi extermination machine that killed their families and so many members of their People.

Fred Howard and Guy Stern remember to this day the moment in which they entered the gates of Camp Richie, a secret intelligence facility in the heart of the Maryland foothills. The two of them said in the 2004 documentary “The Richie Boys” that it was “as close as you could get to the Tower of Babel. you could hear European languages – German, Polish, French, Yiddish and Italian – wherever you turned.”

Most of them lost their families and came back to fight their murderers (screenshot from “The Ritchie Boys” Documentary)

Howard and Stern, who immigrated to the US alone when they were in their 20s, did lose their mothers, but not their mother tongues. That was why they were drafted into the intelligence unit’s special ops. Or as Howard put it, “You can train anyone to shoot a gun and charge in six months. It takes a little more time to teach him a new language.”

The American War Department needed soldiers who spoke European languages for its missions across enemy lines. But soldiers who merely spoke a foreign language did not make the cut – the department meticulously cherry-picked these soldiers. Inventiveness, sophistication, a cool head, and flexibility in complex situations were all required of candidates who would one day don German officers’ and soldiers’ uniforms to plant disinformation among enemy ranks.

Camp Richie maintained an intensive schedule. These soldiers spent several months training in psychological warfare, cracking Morse code, photographing from the air, uncovering the German army’s knowledge of warfare, becoming adept at interrogating German prisoners of war, and learning to kill as swiftly as possible in dangerous circumstances.

Nazi soldier interrogation training in camp Ritchie (National Archives NARA, WikiMedia)

Howard fled to the US in 1938. His parents received one immigration permit from American authorities and immediately handed it to their only son. They never saw him again. Most of those interviewed in the documentary tell similar stories. Jewish refugees alone in a strange land, filled with gratitude to the land that fulfilled their basic human need: To belong to something bigger than themselves and contribute to the free world’s joint effort to quash the Nazi forces of evil.

“As long as we were training, everything was easy,” the two of them recall, waxing nostalgic. “There was a special feeling in the camp. A sort of Jewish shtetl. Here I am with a busy social life and feelings of national pride.” The move to real warfare took place in May 1944, when the officers gathered the teens in one of the camp’s main buildings and ordered them to prepare for D-Day.

D-Day – June 6, 1944 – the Allied Forces’ invasion of Normandy, was a turning point in World War II. “I shook with fear,” says Stern, describing his first moments after landing in Normandy. “I saw human bodies everywhere, and the remains of horses and cows. Death was on the wind. The smell was unbearable. But as soon as I saw the first German soldier, the fear was replaced by a rage for revenge.”

Training at camp Ritchie before departing on their war mission in Europe (National Archives NARA, WikiMedia)

Soon after they landed on the shores of Normandy, the Richie Boys – in teams of two or three soldiers – left their units to perform covert missions across enemy. The missions were varied: Planting disinformation by means of loudspeakers on trucks, misleading radio broadcasts, distributing fliers and more. Because they spoke the native tongue, the American army also used them to perform prosaic tasks: asking locals where they could sleep and acquire raw materials, etc.

But the Richie Boys’ most crucial job was interrogating German prisoners of war. “The idea was to make the German soldiers and officers feel like they were in a safe environment, to give them the feeling that if they cooperated, we’d take care of them,” they said about their interrogation tactics. “One way to do that was not to take any notes during the investigation. Because that would immediately raise their suspicions.”

In addition, the investigators exploited the Germans’ existential fear of Russian soldiers. “The Germans were paranoid of the Red Army’s cruelty.” While Howard was interrogating a German officer, Stern, who spoke Russian fluently, would enter the room wearing a Soviet uniform with full regalia – bars on his shoulders, medals on his chest, and the Red Army’s iconic star embroidered on his shirt. “We just told them that if they didn’t cooperate, we’d have to turn them over to the Russians. That immediately did the job.”

Martin Selling questions German prisoners near the front in France, 1944. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The Richie Boys (including author Klaus Mann and photographer David “Chim” Seymour, whose exhibition of 20th-century photographs is on display at the Museum of Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot) arrived in Paris before it was liberated and fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge.  In the film, they describe how they were constantly plagued by a dual fear. “On one hand, we were afraid that the Americans would mistake us for spies and shoot us, and on the other, that the Germans would discover our background.” At the end of the war, they were among the forces that liberated the concentration camps, and some of them later served as translators in the Nuremberg Trials.

The Richie Boys’ contribution to the Allied Forces was worth more than gold. General Oscar Koch, leader of the legendary US Third Army, said after the war that the boys’ success in demoralizing the German army and in obtaining intelligence about the German enemy significantly helped in breaking German resistance. True, they were not required to bring their officer 100 scalps or to crush German officers’ skulls with baseball bats, but the Richie Boys were bastards who brought us plenty of glory.

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Einstein, Szilard, Hiroshima, Nagasaki: The letter that changed history https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/einstein-szilard-hiroshima-nagasaki-letter-changed-history/ Sun, 21 Jul 2019 10:30:43 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43375 In 1926, Albert Einstein and his student Leo Szilard worked on the invention of a new refrigerator that did not rely on electricity or polluting gases. The new refrigerator did not catch on. But the sale of its patent to Swedish giant Electrolux earned Szilard the handsome sum that allowed him to devote his time [...]

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In 1926, Albert Einstein and his student Leo Szilard worked on the invention of a new refrigerator that did not rely on electricity or polluting gases. The new refrigerator did not catch on. But the sale of its patent to Swedish giant Electrolux earned Szilard the handsome sum that allowed him to devote his time to academic research in atomic energy and his hobby – reading sci-fi in his Berlin flat.

One of those sci-fi novels exposed Szilard to the concept of producing weapons of mass destruction from an exponentially growing chain reaction. The concept roused the talented Jewish scientist’s curiosity, and he quickly and happily dove in.

Other leading scientists became interested at the same time in producing atomic energy, and in 1938, German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman conducted an experiment in which they “blew up” uranium by means of neutrons. During that experiment, they discovered that neutrons dismantled the uranium’s core – in a phenomenon that would come to be called “nuclear fission.” The realization of Szilard’s vision and his passion for science-fiction was lost in the annals of “science.” But it was he who discovered that in the process of nuclear fission, other neutrons are discharged creating further fission. In other words, exponential increase of a chain reaction is generated. QED.

Leo Szilard (U.S. Department of Energy, Historian's Office)

Leo Szilard (U.S. Department of Energy, Historian’s Office)

Let’s go back a few years. In 1933, the Nazis enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, requiring those whose misfortune it was to be born to Semitic parents to leave civil service. That was the signal to hundreds of Jewish scientists in leading German universities to scram. Among them were Max Born, Felix Bloch, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and others – all Nobel-Prize-winning mathematicians and physicists. That nucleus of scientists (in every sense) would one day lead the Manhattan Project, America’s ambitious pursuit of an atomic bomb.

The Nazis’ anti-Semitic lust to expel Jewish scientists led them to forget one tiny detail: Expelling the Jews meant expelling their greatest minds. About a year after the law passed, the Nazis’ then-education minister asked David Hilbert, the head of Gottingen University’s math department, a question: How is mathematics at the department going now that it has been “freed of Jewish influence?” His answer to Hilbert: Now there is no mathematics at Gottingen.

Szilard was apparently blessed with prophetic vision. He predicted the Nazi rise to power, moved to London before their reign and from there to the US, where he was immediately installed in Columbia University’s physics department. When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, he began to fear that the nuclear chain reaction could become a double-edged sword, or in his case, a double-edged bomb. Czechoslovakia was rich in uranium deposits and he too had heard the rumor that the Nazis were collaborating with renowned German physicist Werner Heisenberg on a nuclear project. To Szilard it was clear: The Nazis were determined to create an atom bomb.

Famous color photograph of the "Trinity" shot, the first nuclear test explosion, July 16, 1945

Famous color photograph of the “Trinity” shot, the first nuclear test explosion, July 16, 1945

In response, Szilard turned to his admired teacher and refrigerator-patent partner, the most famous scientist in the world, Albert Einstein. Szilard asked his friends, Jewish physicists Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, to join him, and the three of them made the pilgrimage to Princeton University to visit science’s legendary oracle. Szilard tried to warn Einstein of the impending danger, in hope that Einstein’s reputation would lend his message entry to the highest offices of American government.

It wasn’t easy to convince Einstein. The pacifist scientist summarized his attitude toward weapons of war as follows: “It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.” He was not anxious to lead a process in which the endpoint was the appearance of an atomic bomb. But when Szilard and friends laid out the facts – Germany’s nuclear project and control of enormous uranium deposits – Einstein was persuaded. The Einstein-Szilard Letter – sent to US President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939 – is considered the first and most significant turning point in the resume of the atomic bomb.

“It may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated,” the two of them wrote in their letter. An array of graphic descriptions of what could happen if the Germans got atomic weapons was followed by Szilard’s recommendation: “You may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.”

Scan of the letter sent to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, was signed by Albert Einstein but largely written by Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard

Scan of the letter sent to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, was signed by Albert Einstein but largely written by Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard

Szilard wrote the letter. Einstein signed it. The letter waited on the administration’s desks for two full months before it was read by President Roosevelt, who issued an order to create an Advisory Committee on Uranium. The committee led by Lyman James Briggs, then-head of the National Bureau of Standards, met on October 12 and immediately allocated $6,000 to neutronics experiments.

Things moved slowly at first, as the initiative roamed from one office to another. Unhappy with the delay, Einstein and Szilard sent another letter to the President on March 7, 1940 to expedite the matter and advance development of the bomb. This time the American chain reaction was swift and efficient. The budget increased significantly, abundant resources were allocated, and dozens of scientists were enlisted.

Three years later, in May 1943, the Manhattan Project was born. And two years later, on July 16, 1945 – 74 years ago – the Trinity Test was successfully launched, in which the first fission bomb in the world was detonated. Three weeks later, on August 6, Little Boy and Fat Man – code names for these atomic bombs -were dropped from the Enola Gay bomber on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The results were catastrophic. Nearly 200,000 people were immediately killed, and hundreds of thousands more were wounded during the first months following the bombing.

Einstein expressed his regret in a letter: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb,” Einstein told his veteran secretary after the bombing of Japan. Szilard’s conscience plagued him as well, and he too claimed that he would not have sent the letter had he known the results. This was not how the brilliant, Jewish scientist imagined collaboration with his teacher and mentor would go – when it began in the development of an ecofriendly refrigerator and ended in a weapon of mass destruction that to this day threatens world peace.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6th and 9th, 1945 (U.S. Department of Energy, WikiMedia)

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6th and 9th, 1945 (U.S. Department of Energy, WikiMedia)

 

 

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No Entry for Ethics and Jews: The 81st Anniversary of the Conference of Shame https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/no-entry-for-ethics-and-jews-the-81st-anniversary-of-the-conference-of-shame/ Thu, 04 Jul 2019 12:04:07 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43093 Like many Jews, Herschel Grynszpan and his uncle Abraham were glued to the radio on March 12, 1938 when Nazi militias marched into the streets of Vienna in what would come to be called the Anschluss, the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria. Herschel and his uncle listened with great trepidation to the Austrian chancellor’s obsequious [...]

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Like many Jews, Herschel Grynszpan and his uncle Abraham were glued to the radio on March 12, 1938 when Nazi militias marched into the streets of Vienna in what would come to be called the Anschluss, the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria. Herschel and his uncle listened with great trepidation to the Austrian chancellor’s obsequious speech and the calls for revenge of Austrian citizens of German extraction. The latter spewed 20 years of acerbic poison born of the demeaning Versailles Treaty that forced Germany to kowtow to the Allied Powers.

When the Fuehrer himself entered the capital at midnight – not before stopping to lay flowers on his mother’s grave in the city of his birth Braunau – Abraham Grynszpan turned off the radio. “This is the beginning of the end,” he told his nephew with despondent eyes. Days later, the papers featured the infamous picture of kneeling Jews scrubbing Viennese sidewalks as grinning Nazi officers looked on.

Street in Austria after the Anschluss, 1938 (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Dina Gruenspan)

Herschel Grynszpan had been living with his uncle and aunt in Paris for two years. His parents, Zondel and Rivka Grynszpan, immigrated from Poland to Germany in 1911 amid a wave of immigration of “Ostjuden,” Jews from Eastern Europe who immigrated to the land of Goethe and Schiller. Fearing for their son, they sent him to his relatives in the City of Lights.

The number of Jews under Nazi rule rose to 650,000 in the wake of the Nuremberg Laws and Austria’s annexation by the “1000-Year Reich.” These non-citizens were stripped of all rights and human dignity. They were forbidden from working in public positions, expelled in shame from universities, and subjected to daily humiliations and decrees. After Austria was annexed, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland announced that they were closing their gates to them, adding to the immigration quotas that had already been imposed by Britain, the US, and other countries. When they most needed aid and shelter, the Chosen People found itself lacking choices. Germany proper began to issue deportation orders to Jews. Among the deportees were Herschel’s parents, his sister Berta, and his brother Mordechai Eliezer. Dispatched without food and shelter to the German-Polish border, the latter government refused to admit them.

The situation in France was also bad. The Republic that bore tidings of a revolution in human rights was among the first nations in history to grant emancipation to the Jews. It now imposed harsh immigration laws. Grynszpan was living on borrowed time in Paris without a residence permit. Having resided for two years in a Yiddish-speaking religious community and lacking contact with the French population, he failed to learn their language.

Herschel Grynszpan after his arrest, 8.11.38 (German federal archives, WikiMedia)

Herschel Grynszpan after his arrest, 8.11.38 (German federal archives, WikiMedia)

Grynszpan had every reason to plunge into deep despair. Far from his parents and devoid of rights and a future, he was a lost boy in a strange city. But the optimistic light remained in his eyes. And not in his alone. Most of the Jews living under the Reich then remained preserved their optimism thanks to events in a small, picturesque town 600 kilometers south called Evian.

The date was July, 6, 1938, 81 years ago this week. It has somehow become a historical footnote. Despite that we can consider this the day on which they began to fire up the ovens in Auschwitz. Representatives of 31 nations convened in the town of Evian at the foot of the French Alps, best known for its mineral water. Their purpose: To discuss the fate of tens of thousands of Jews living under the Third Reich. What happened there in practice was an international festival of conscience cleaning.

An abbridged list of reports from the conference: New Zealand expressed willingness to examine requests from Jews, but only on an individual case-by-case basis. Columbia said it could only absorb Jewish agricultural workers with means. Uruguay said the same. The Australian representative refused to subject his countrymen – who are known for their fragile natures – to superlative, ethical dilemmas, saying “We have no race problem now, and we do not intend to import one.”

Not wishing to inflame Arabs in the Land of Israel, Britain made its absorption of a small share of Jewish refugees conditional upon closing the Land of Israel’s gates to them. Or what Britain called a “double standard of morality.” Holland agreed to absorb refugees as long as they continued to another destination. What destination? That did not disturb their sleep.  Note that America made its absorption of Jews conditional upon their presentation of certificates of good behavior from the German police. Seriously.

Jewish shops after the Crystal Night in Goeppingen, Germany, November 10, 1938 ((Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Mr. Weiss)

Jewish shops after the Crystal Night in Goeppingen, Germany, November 10, 1938 ((Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Mr. Weiss)

But the unsurpassed delivery for causing eyes to roll was that of the French representative. He cited, “the long-standing tradition of universal hospitality which has characterized her [France] throughout all her history,” saying that France would, “maintain this tradition so far as the limits laid down by her geographical position, her population and her resources permit.” However, he pointed out that “the known moral quality of the imported element” would create a sense of foreignness among French locals.

German papers reveled in headlines like: “Jews for sale cheap! Who wants them? No one wants them.” The “German Danziger Vorposten” read, “No nation is prepared to fight Europe’s disgrace [the Jews]. The conference therefore empowers Germany’s treatment of the Jews.” Another German paper, the “Nationalsozialistische Parteikorrespondenz,” declared that “Evian proves the danger that Jews pose to the world.” The British “Herald Tribune” was terser: “650,000 Jewish emigrants rejected by all at Evian.”

But the Evian Conference was more than a failure. It was the unofficial launch of the “Final Solution.” A brief perusal of Hitler’s articles reveals that he followed the conference closely, and concluded from its outcome that the world wouldn’t stand up to his decision to take irreversible steps to solve the Jewish problem.

Meanwhile in Paris, the light in the eyes of a lonely and desperate Jewish boy went out. He entered the German Embassy in Paris on November 7, 1938, announcing his intention to transmit classified documents. One minute later, he shot the embassy’s third secretary and diplomat Ernst vom Rath.

“My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, God forgive me,” Grynszpan wrote on the note that he left and delivered to police, “The heart bleeds from hearing your bitter fate and that of the other hundreds of thousands of Jews. I must protest, so that the whole world hears my protest. And that is what I will do. Please forgive me.”

Two days later, Kristallnacht erupted.

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Lone wolf of Wall Street: The Jewish financier who shaped 20th-century American history https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/lone-wolf-wall-street-jewish-financier-shaped-20th-century-american-history/ Mon, 01 Jul 2019 10:35:42 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43055 Bernard Baruch said that you don’t need to be a genius to succeed in investments. That you need only need to control the urges that make people make mistakes. You need impulse control, restraint, and a level head. It’s no wonder that the man who said that coined the term “the Cold War.” Bernard Baruch [...]

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Bernard Baruch said that you don’t need to be a genius to succeed in investments. That you need only need to control the urges that make people make mistakes. You need impulse control, restraint, and a level head. It’s no wonder that the man who said that coined the term “the Cold War.”

Bernard Baruch checked the box of every cliché in the vernacular of the land of limitless opportunity. The son of Jewish immigrants from Prussia was born into poverty and grew to be a resounding success as an adult. He made a million by the time he was 30, rubbed shoulders with international bigwigs, and was a member of a very exclusive club.

But Baruch was much more than just a realization of the American dream. He had that X factor. A combination of wisdom, magnetic presence, humility, and most of all, rare political smarts that made him an advisor to no less than seven American presidents!

Bernard Baruch 1870-1965 (Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress)

Bernard Baruch 1870-1965 (Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress)

Bernard Baruch’s family immigrated from Germany to the US in 1855, during a period known as American Jewry’s “German Age.” That wave of immigration, considered American Jewry’s first generation, gave rise to a wealthy nobility that included the family of Levi-Strauss and the Guggenheims.

The Baruch family settled in Camden, North Carolina. But a financial crisis that plagued the region in 1881 forced them to move to New York City.

Baruch’s parents hoped that he would follow his father Simon Baruch to a medical career. But his mathematic talent and ability to perform calculations with dizzying speed overturned that plan. It was clear to one and all that this gem’s calculation skills would be less helpful in assessing wounds and diagnosing disease than in analyzing stocks and making financial predictions. His typical Jewish mother Belle got him his first job in finance, when she persuaded wholesale merchant Julius Kohn to hire her son without salary. He later honed his financial skills in the Housman & Company investments firm, where he immediately became the most prominent broker. His name as a financial genius preceded him and money quickly flowed into his pockets.

Bernard_M._Baruch,_Hobcaw_Plantation,_residence_in_(Georgetown,_South_Carolina)

When asked to divulge the secret to his success, Baruch said, “A speculator is a man who observes the future, and acts before it occurs.” To be self-reliant, he purchased a chair at the stock exchange for $19,000 and became an independent broker. His refusal to join a major financial house earned him the name of “the lone wolf of Wall Street.”

He made his first million by the time he turned 30 by purchasing shorted stocks and selling them moments before they fell.  “After the first million, you don’t have a problem,” he quipped. “Money attracts money.” Baruch and his new bride Annie Griffin used this money attracted by money to buy the nearly 16-acre Hobcaw Barony estate in Georgetown, South Carolina. The couple devoted themselves over the years to philanthropic activities – the most important of which was the establishment of the Baruch College for paralytic disease research and nursing. While these are remarkable achievements, they are not unusual among many second-generation Jews in America. Bernard Baruch did not enter the pantheon of American history because of his ability to make something from nothing, but because of his game-changing political influence on the world’s greatest power.

Bernard Baruch, Patron of Husbandry”, LIFE Magazine, August 1923 (From the John and Selma Appel Collection, Michigan State University Museum)

Baruch took his first step in American politics as the financial advisor to President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Thanks to his golden advice, Wilson appointed him to the War Industries Board during World War I, and in 1919, Baruch accompanied Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. After that, the neck-tied Jewish Forrest Gump was present at every central event in 20th-century American history. And all of this was voluntary and without pay. After Wilson, he was appointed to advise President Harding, and then provided his services to Presidents Coolidge and Hoover. He had President Roosevelt’s ear during the 1930s Great Depression, and the two of them concocted the New Deal plan that extracted America from the mud.

During World War II, Roosevelt appointed Baruch special advisor to the Office of War Mobilization, and Baruch’s advice saved the allied forces an estimated two years in producing tanks and bombers – a move that surprised Hitler and gave the allied forces a significant edge. When the war ended, President Truman appointed Baruch to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, in which – as mentioned – he coined the phrase “the Cold War.” Baruch’s extraordinary influence extended to the 1960s, when President Kennedy frequently visited the family estate in Georgetown to consult with Baruch on political matters. Among the other VIPs who frequented the estate were former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a close friend of Baruch, American General George Marshall, and renowned publisher Ralph Pullitzer.

Winston_Churchill_and_Bernard_Baruch_talk_in_car_in_front_of_Baruch’s_home,_14_April_1961

If whom you imagine at this point is a distant and inaccessible character, a high-brow millionaire who only shares breathing space with people who open doors, you are wrong.

Despite his fame and his picture’s frequent appearance in American newspapers, Baruch’s hobby was discussing current events with passers-by in Central Park.

A famous anecdote maintains that humility prevented him from being driven to the White House.  Instead, the lauded Jewish policymaker preferred to sit on a bench in Lafayette Park near the President’s residence while waiting for a signal that the President was ready to meet with him. That bench was so identified with Baruch that it would eventually be called the “Politician’s Bench.” He once even received a letter addressed to “Bernard Baruch, the bench in Lafayette Park, Washington D.C.” On his 90th birthday on August 16, 1960, the Washington D.C. municipality posted a bronze plaque in Baruch’s honor next to the bench.

Those who visit are invited to imagine an elderly Bernard Baruch telling passers-by the story of his life. Indeed, Forrest Gump.

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The Nuclear Family: The Jewish spy who sacrificed his sister to save his wife https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/nuclear-family-jewish-spy-sacrificed-sister-save-wife/ Thu, 20 Jun 2019 13:30:14 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43004 The Gemara’s Bava Metzia Tractate features a well-known argument in the annals of ethics: Two people are walking in the desert. One holds a jar containing enough water for one of them. If they divide the water between them, both will die. If one of them drinks all the water, he will survive. Ben Peturah [...]

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The Gemara’s Bava Metzia Tractate features a well-known argument in the annals of ethics: Two people are walking in the desert. One holds a jar containing enough water for one of them. If they divide the water between them, both will die. If one of them drinks all the water, he will survive.

Ben Peturah said: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. Rabbi Akiva argued that one’s life takes precedence over that of one’s fellow. A Communist in his soul, Ben Peturah preached equality until death. Rabbi Akiva – in contrast – doesn’t virtue signal, stating the obvious: A man must be true to himself. Thus, the canteen’s owner must drink all the water and live. Generally speaking, what good would it do if both died to sanctify equality?

In his book Striking Roots (Makim Shorashim), Rabbi Chaim Navon quotes renowned British philosopher Bernard Williams’s provocative words.  Amplifying Rabbi Akiva’s approach, Williams says that the owner of the jar’s right to choose to drink the water takes precedence over any ethical question, as it derives from his right to selfhood. Williams cites the example of a man who sees two women drowning in a river – one of them his wife. When forced to choose which to save, the husband – any husband – would save his wife first. Not because of some learned moral ruling, but for the simple reason that she is his wife. There is a natural morality that trumps ethics. Without these special relations, says Williams, man’s identity and life would lack all meaning.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury, 1951

But we’re not here to enjoy ourselves. We’re here to challenge. So, let’s pose another dilemma: What would you do if one of the women drowning in the river was your spouse and the other your sister? That’s not easy. A likeable Jew, David Greenglass, faced exactly that cruel moral conundrum when he served as the central witness in the infamous 1950s affair in which alleged atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed 66 years ago this week.

America was the scene of a new sport then – Communist hunting. Their use of uranium so went to American heads that they could not believe that primitive Soviets could produce an atomic bomb on their own. But foreign sources have it that that’s what happened. Stupid pride convinced Americans that the Russians had only managed to make the bomb with the help of classified information from the US. Before long the term McCarthyism – named after the leader of this witch-hunt Senator Joseph McCarthy – pervaded American awareness and the nightmares of every American citizen, whose linguistically-challenged lips failed to express a hint of admiration for McCarthyist doctrine in all its permutations.

David Greenglass mugshot after his arrest

David Greenglass mugshot after his arrest

Ethel Rosenberg mugshot after her arrest

In January 1950, Jewish physicist Klaus Fuchs was detained in the national campaign to contain the aforementioned comrades’ efforts. Fuchs who served on the team to develop the atom bomb at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, exposed Harry Gold to detectives as the “mule” who carried classified documents to the Soviets. In examinations, Gold exposed an array of spies – all of them Jewish – including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass.

Greenglass, a humble technician in Los Alamos, hid his Communist leanings to get hired. Suspicions maintained that he had passed classified documents related to manufacture of the bomb to Julius Rosenberg, an avid Communist himself. Investigations maintained that Greenglass’s wife Ruth typed the secrets.

When he realized the investigation was closing in on him, Greenglass offered to turn state’s witness. He had yet to be tried, and his wife, the mother of two small children, faced imminent indictment for her involvement in the affair. Greenglass astounded detectives in Manhattan in 1951 when he transferred the burden of guilt from his wife to Ethel. He claimed that it was his sister – not his wife – who typed the secrets in notes. Greenglass’s dramatic testimony led to the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges, and Judge Irving Kaufman – also a Jew – sentenced them to death.

David Greenglass’s sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon design, illustrating what he allegedly gave the Rosenbergs to pass on to the Soviet Union

The grave sentences sparked worldwide outrage and comparison to the Dreyfus Trial. Thinkers, artists, and writers – including Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, and Albert Einstein – sent letters to American leaders demanding that the sentences be commuted. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the sentences a “legal lynching,” and demonstrations were held around the world, including London, Paris and Rome.

But nothing helped. On June 19, 1953, the couple took the electric chair in New York’s infamous “Sing Sing” prison. The execution was expedited by several hours in response to Jewish-community pressure to avoid desecration of the Shabbat. Yes, irony also has no redlines. Julius and Ethel’s 10- and 6-year old children were orphaned. In her masterpiece “The Bell Jar,” Silvia Plath later wrote, “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

In the context of the plea bargain, David Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but he was released in 1960. He spent the next four decades living a quiet life in his home in greater New York. He confessed 60 years after the execution, in 2013, that he had implicated his sister Ethel to spare his wife from justice. Greenglass added that he had no regrets. He told New York Times reporter Sam Roberts, “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children.” Roberts turned the series of interviews into his book “The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case.”

The solution to the moral dilemma was crystal clear – at least for a Jewish technician in Los Alamos: A wife trumps a sister.

In memory of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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Watch: My Family Story 24th Anniversary Celebration https://www.bh.org.il/news-and-events/my-family-story-24th-anniversary-celebration/ Sun, 16 Jun 2019 07:09:37 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=42827 The final event of this international Jewish heritage competition includes 200 Jewish institutions, 30 countries and more than 20,000 young participants. The 50 finalists and their families will attend the exhibition opening in memory of Manuel Hirsch Grosskopf at The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel. The Koret international [...]

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The final event of this international Jewish heritage competition includes 200 Jewish institutions, 30 countries and more than 20,000 young participants. The 50 finalists and their families will attend the exhibition opening in memory of Manuel Hirsch Grosskopf at The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Koret international School for Jewish Peoplehood at The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot is proud to host finalists from around the globe and their families at an exhibit opening showcasing their family stories.  Youth from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, South Africa, Australia and Israel took part in the My Family Story International Competition in Memory of Manuel Hirsch Grosskopf.

Watch:

My Family Story, one of Beit Hatfutsot’s most innovative programs, inspires and educates students from diverse nationalities and Jewish backgrounds on cultivating their own family histories. Through a yearlong curriculum, rigorous research and inspiring creativity, the students produce a final project illustrating their personal exploration into their family roots and connection to the greater story of the Jewish people. Final projects include films, art pieces, comics, board games, and more. While every student, family and community goes on their own personal journey, they are part of the greater movement of tens of thousands of other students simultaneously embarking on parallel journeys.

Through an international competition, 50 outstanding finalists are selected and awarded a free ticket to Israel to see their pieces displayed in front of thousands of visitors at Beit Hatfutsot. The winning displays are featured in The My Family Story exhibit, opening on June 16th, 2019. In the two-day event at for finalists, students meet with their peers from Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Canada, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Mexico, Panama, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, Ukraine, USA, Venezuela and more to share their own stories and hear from others.

Photo: Nir Shaanani

Irina Nevzlin with the Grosskopf family (photo: Nir Shaanani)

Photo: Nir Shaanani

Photo: Nir Shaanani

 

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Pride and Prejudice: The Jewish Doctor who fought for LGBT rights over a century ago https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/pride-and-prejudice-the-jewish-doctor-who-fought-for-lgbt-rights-over-a-century-ago/ Wed, 12 Jun 2019 15:16:38 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=42799 Pride Month, and its celebration of the many ways to love and be loved, is a result of years of activism and advocacy on the part of LGBTQ+ people and their allies, particularly starting in the 1960s. But before the dawn of the 20th century one German Jewish doctor and sexologist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, became [...]

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Pride Month, and its celebration of the many ways to love and be loved, is a result of years of activism and advocacy on the part of LGBTQ+ people and their allies, particularly starting in the 1960s. But before the dawn of the 20th century one German Jewish doctor and sexologist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, became a pioneer for LGBTQ+ rights, paving the way for the world to recognize the existence and legal rights of individuals regardless of their sexual orientation.

Hirschfeld was born in 1868 Kolberg (now Kolobrzeg) Poland and eventually moved to Germany in order to earn his doctoral degree. After moving to Berlin in 1896 and establishing a practice there, Hirschfeld embarked on a remarkably productive career in both the study of sexuality and advocating for the rights of sexual minorities.

Magnus Hirschfeld 1929 (Wellcome Imgaes, wikimedia)

For Hirschfeld, this was a matter of life and death, after treating a number of patients who attempted or eventually committed suicide because of their sexuality; later, in 1919, he would even write a film, Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern) and even had a small role in which he urges a man not to commit suicide after his lover does. Additionally, this activism was also personal; Hirschfield’s own sexuality was an open secret, and he lived with his two life partners, Karl Giese, and Li Shiu Tong.

In 1897, Hirschfeld co-founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which is considered to be the first organization promoting for gay and transgender rights. Hirschfeld and the other founders of the committee hoped that a more scientific understanding of homosexuality would eventually lead the public to reject homophobia. In addition to conducting scientific research, the Committee worked to decriminalize homosexual relationships between men in Germany; one petition to repeal the criminal law against male homosexuality garnered thousands of signatures, including Albert Einstein.

Karl Giese and Magnus Hirschfeld. Photo from archive of Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft. http://www.magnus-hirschfeld.de

Over the course of his research and activism, Hirschfeld made a number of pronouncements that proved him to be someone who was very ahead of his time. He determined that there were categories beyond “male” or “female,” which he referred to as “sexual intermediaries,” which included transgender people, and people who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual, making him one of the first to acknowledge the existence of gender-nonconforming people and variations of human sexuality.

Hirschfield also believed that gay rights and women’s rights were closely linked, and also advocated for contraception, access to abortion, and premarital sex and argued against policies dictating that female teachers and civil servants could not be married or have children. In 1919, during the more liberal years of the Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld co-founded the Institute of Sexual research, which provided medical and educational services to thousands of annual visitors, and also employed and gave medical treatment to transgender people.

“Anders als die andern” 1919 poster

As a Jew, a gay man, and a prominent proponent of LGBTQ+ rights, Hirschfeld was always a target for German nationalists and was even beaten and left seriously injured in 1920. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Hirschfeld became even more of a target. The Institute for Sexual Science was stormed by Nazi university students, who beat staff, damaged the property, and shouted “burn Hirschfeld!”; books were later removed from the library for a book-burning event. The Institute was forced to close. Hirschfeld, who was abroad on a speaking tour, never returned to Berlin; he eventually moved to France, where he died in 1935.

Although Hirschfeld did not live to see it, many of his ideas ultimately moved from the fringes to the mainstream. As we celebrate Pride Month, we should also make sure to remember the Jewish doctor from Berlin who helped pave the way for its existence, and who dedicated his life to the idea that, as he put it, “love is as varied as people are.”

Students organized by the Nazi party parade in front of the building of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin prior to pillaging it on May 6, 1933 ( United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wikipedia)

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Marcus-mobile: The Jewish genius who invented the car and was erased by the Nazis https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/marcus-mobile-jewish-genius-invented-car-erased-nazis/ Wed, 05 Jun 2019 08:53:31 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=42728 Peugeot, Citroen, Ford, Honda, Ferrari, Bentley, Renault. Before these brands became megacorps employing hundreds of thousands, they were flesh-and-blood people. Armand, Andre, Henry, Soichiro, Enzo, Walter, and Louis – the visionary engineers, inventors, and industrialists who entered the Industrial Revolution’s pantheon – are etched in human memory as masters who changed our lives forever. And [...]

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Peugeot, Citroen, Ford, Honda, Ferrari, Bentley, Renault. Before these brands became megacorps employing hundreds of thousands, they were flesh-and-blood people. Armand, Andre, Henry, Soichiro, Enzo, Walter, and Louis – the visionary engineers, inventors, and industrialists who entered the Industrial Revolution’s pantheon – are etched in human memory as masters who changed our lives forever.

And there’s one more. In fact, two. Mercedes Benz. And before they morphed into a car, they were Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. For those who are wondering where the “Mercedes” came from: Daimler’s first client, a seasoned businessman named Emil Jellinek, made his purchase of the company’s first cars conditional upon naming them after his daughter Mercedes.

A group of Jewish friends in their car, on an outing. Austria 1919. (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Dana Bush-Kaury, Israel)

I visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum last month on a family trip to Stuttgart. The museum’s four floors are housed in a massive, polished, and gleaming glass building. A thickly carpeted iron bridge carries visitors through models of the first Mercedes motorcars, Daimler’s vintage-1895 bicycle, the first Benz truck produced in 1912 and the 1954 iconic 300sl to the modern-day E Class and Smart Cars.

Suddenly, we hear a loud noise that draws visitors to a large gallery. A towering woman with a classically Aryan appearance stands on a platform in the gallery’s center, sheathed in an aluminum lamé uniform and sporting a polite smile that threatens to explode. The noise that grew louder as we approached resembled the grunting of a horse scaling a mountain and occasionally kicking tin. Pushed to the back of the gathering crowd, we finally discovered the source of the noise: A tireless belt doggedly turning a tremendous flywheel. The uniformed woman introduced us to, “The first gas engine in history produced in 1885 by Karl Benz.”

Is that so?

Siegfried Marcus 1831-1898

Siegfried Marcus 1831-1898

Siegfried Marcus was born in 1831 in a tiny town that now lies in northern Germany. His parents Rosa and Lippman, leaders of the town’s Jewish community, discovered when their son was still very young that he – unlike other mortals – very rarely thought inside the box. The rest of the time, a constant lightning strike of neurons in his brain sparked primal inventions.

Siegfried became an apprentice in the town’s mechanics factory when he was 12. Three years later and with his father’s blessing, he moved to Berlin to train in the factory established by a certain Ernst Siemens. In 1851, when he was only 20, he earned Germany’s government prize for inventions in the telegraph field. One year later, he moved to Austria to work in the Royal Institute of Physics and the Royal Institute of Geology.

First Marcus Car of 1870

First Marcus Car of 1870

Marcus was a one-man patents office. During his life, he worked on many projects in the fields of mechanics, electronics, lighting, ultra-mechanics, and the development of artillery employing electric ignition. As many as 131 patents were registered in his name. The collection included eclectic inventions: Light bulbs, triggers for underwater mines, a printing instrument, a whale-hunting knife, a distributor and carburetor for an internal combustion engine, and more.

As significant and original as these inventions were, they were nothing compared to Marcus’s opus vitae. In 1870 (some say as early as 1867), the ingenious inventor installed a gas-fueled internal combustion engine in a simple hand wagon. Marcus was able to ride the makeshift vehicle for 15 minutes before seemingly alarmed local police arrested what appeared to be an approaching alien. That feat made him the first man in history to drive a fuel-powered vehicle.

Second Marcus Car of 1888

Second Marcus Car of 1888

In 1887, Marcus began to collaborate with the Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz motor company. That collaboration gave rise to what would be called the “Marcuswagen.” People were finally knocking on the scatterbrained genius’s door. The automobile was displayed in the Technisches Museum Wien (Vienna’s museum of technology) and ASME (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers) officially recognized him as the vehicle’s inventor.

Chalk it up to poor marketing or the typical distractibility of geniuses: Marcus failed to register the invention of the motorcar as a patent. Go figure. The man who did that was Karl Benz, who upgraded Marcus’s motored carriage to a real motorcar with a cooling system, brakes, a stable frame, and everything necessary to drive longer distances. That would eventually become the first Mercedes-Benz.

There is no evidence that Karl Benz – a gifted and creative engineer in his own right – intentionally stole the patent. The emergence of technological inventions relies on immeasurable layers of previous knowledge. And as Newton put it, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The question here is who stood on whose shoulders?

Siegfried Marcus died in 1898 and was buried with honors in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. The Jewish genius went calmly to his grave. During those days, all the official bodies charged with shaping memory recognized him as the first man to start up a gas-powered vehicle. And then the Nazis came.

Leah- Alizah Pikbeski next to her fancy car. Cairo, Egypt 1920 (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Gila Hershkovitz, Israel)

Leah- Alizah Pikbeski next to her fancy car. Cairo, Egypt 1920 (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Gila Hershkovitz, Israel)

The German ministry of propaganda published an official document in July 1940 that opened “In honor of the General Administration of the Daimler Benz Company.” It is a fascinating glimpse into the Nazi propaganda machine’s “Ministry of Truth”:

“Re: The real inventor of the motorcar.

In response to your letter of May 1940, the Institute of Bibliography and the publisher F.A. Brockhaus received an announcement that in the future the Brockhaus Große I Meyers Konversations Lexikon encyclopedia will attribute the invention of the modern automobile to two German engineers, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, and not to Siegfried Marcus.”

When the Nazis annexed Austria, Marcus’s statue was removed from the façade of Vienna’s Technisches Museum and the model of the first motorcar that he developed, the Marcuswagen, disappeared. But that was not enough to satisfy the Nazi propaganda machine. Marcus’s grave was later desecrated and destroyed. Thus, the Jewish genius’s brainchild was erased with one document.

Attempts were made to right this injustice when the war ended. Vehicle historians took pains to cite his contribution, his statue was returned to the Technisches Museum, and a model of the first motorcar was gloriously displayed in the museum’s façade.

But does that matter? Has anyone but the avid readers of car magazines ever heard of Siegfried Marcus? The damage is done and Marcus has gone lost on the horizon of memory along with his motorcar. You don’t believe it? Ask the uniformed woman in the Mercedes factory.

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