A Zionist visits Palestine in 1936

The political trauma and recharged military alertness that are so much in the forefront of our minds and actions following the heinous attack against the Jewish state on October 7, 2023, make it all the more prescient that we remind ourselves of the precepts of Zionism. The values that are so dear to the Zionist heart are captured quite memorably in the writings of a Jewish visitor to Mandatory Palestine in 1936.

Growing up in Leipzig, my father, Moritz Felsenstein (1899-1973), was steeped in Zionist ideology through membership of Blau-Weiss (Blue-White), the first Zionist youth movement in Germany, established in 1912, that year coinciding with his bar mitzvah. Blau-Weiss began as a response to the refusal of German youth movements to enlist more than a token number of non-Christian members, and it promoted social and cultural activities that helped to give its youngsters a Jewish identity and sense of togetherness. In the years after the First World War, the gathering antisemitism in Germany and other European countries made Zionism a very attractive ideal for many young Jews of my father’s generation.

In the opening verse of a previously unpublished poem, here translated from the German, that he penned in 1923 at the age of 24, Moritz writes:

How many centuries have we already wandered through foreign forests?

How few of our brothers have had the good fortune to rebuild their tents in the homeland?

But now with wandering feet we are returning to our beloved land

And finally now, after centuries of humiliation, we may kiss our native earth,

And raise there, if God so wills, a permanent resting place for the Jewish people.

Within his own family, Moritz was aware that among the early pioneers had been his mother’s sister, Rifka, and her husband, Wolf Bruenn, who had successfully sought to transform mosquito-infested swamps outside Hadera in the heart of Palestine, into orange groves, through the selective introduction of eucalyptus trees and other natural forms of drainage. Another of his aunts, Esther, had married the writer Shmuel Josef Agnon (later a Nobel laureate), and they too had made Palestine their home.

After 1933, prayerful hearkening to the holy land was transformed from aspiration into urgent necessity, as German Jews sought refuge outside the clutches of the nascent Nazi regime. By 1935, both his brother Adolf and his sister Alice, both still in their mid-30s, had succeeded in bringing their families to Mandatory Palestine, and Moritz had every intention of following in their footsteps.

His ambition to emigrate to Palestine filled him with tremendous excitement, as he set off in mid-February 1936 on what he envisaged as an exploratory visit prior to his anticipated relocation or aliyah. Very shortly before he left, he had met Vera Hirsch (1910-1973), a refugee who had been obliged to curtail her medical training at the University of Frankfurt and had resettled in London as early as the spring of 1933. He was immediately struck by her. The relationship between the two forms the basis of my new book, No Life Without You: Refugee Love Letters from the 1930s. Moritz and Vera were my parents. His letters to her provide us with a vivid picture of that first visit. At the present time of political anxiety and physical attack, his letters are an out-and-out aide-mémoire, if such a thing is needed, of the necessity of a permanent Jewish homeland. The translations are from German into English.

* * *

MORITZ TO VERA: Adria, northern Italy, 21 February 1936

On Board Jugoslavenski Lloyd JL S/S Kraljica Marija

Off to my side, a five-man band is playing Hungarian dances. Not even two meters away from me is the cello whose constant strum is meant to provide inspiration for writing. Should I refrain from writing or should I dare to let loose a letter that will be confused by too much noise?

The last few days – departure – night in Munich – the drive through the Austrian Alps – sun and rain – snowy landscapes and blooming heather – eternal tunnels – psychological studies of other Palestine-bound travelers – fulfillment of 25 years of longing to come to Palestine –and so overwhelmed by an infinite number of impressions that cannot be regulated by brain functions, so that this writ is probably quite addled, even without the music right next to me.

The piece that is playing now is called “A Trip to Santiago.” The musicians certainly have no idea what Erez Yisrael means to their listeners, otherwise they would not play such kitsch. But that is neither here nor there. It is much more important that the ship, as a means of transport, seems to offer every amenity, also does not let you sense in any way that this is an emigration ship en route to Palestine. Unfortunately, travel agencies only inform you about comfort and not at all about ambience, because payment cannot be demanded for that and the agencies do not get any ambience commission — which, since Jewish, would be forbidden in Nazi Germany anyway.

I will be very happy to find mail from you on my arrival in Haifa. Will I?….

MORITZ TO VERA: Jerusalem, 9 March 1936

Yesterday was a beautiful day, the sun was shining gloriously and was blown into my face by a pleasant, fresh wind, and then, on top of it all, I received your sweet letter which is friendly and almost a little motherly – and that made the receiver feel really good.

Now you want to know a little about my travel impressions. They are still in a mess and very incomplete, because I still have to see an infinite number of things before I can give a final judgment – if that is even possible. The sea voyage was wonderful, despite partly choppy seas. As we saw the coast appear on the morning before our arrival, I was completely overwhelmed. Apart from a sentimental reaction, even when viewed from a distance, the country makes a much more grandiose impression than any other that I have come to know so far.

Mountains and valleys — Hermon and Lebanon, bright white covered with snow and shining in the sun that burnishes from a firmament that is so blue that it could never be described in a letter. The Carmel (in German “wine mountain of God”), which is green again, reaches far into the sea and behind that the hills which are becoming more fertile through Jewish labor — these hills let you understand at first sight the reason why this land was called the granary of Rome and why it was coveted by everyone who saw it.

Haifa: Horrible customs control. Everything was touched, appraised, the body searched for weapons — disgusting. Outside of the customs area, which they were not allowed to set foot on, my brother and my sister-in-law waited for two hours until I arrived. We drove up into the city that is expanding in a hyper-American fashion. A brand new house, one next to the other. The roadwork cannot keep up at the same speed. And the view of the sea and the mountains, and, for the first time in many years, merry, happy, laughing human beings who don’t exist in Germany any longer. Wherever I went, in the countryside and in the city, Jews who are dancing in the street after work, happy with their lives and their freedom.

They work terribly hard. The battle for survival is bitterly hard, but they laugh when work is done and that is magnificent. Besides cafes and movie theatres, I have seen no places for amusement so far. Of course there are often concerts and visiting theatre plays — even in the villages — because the people here are hungry for culture, but cabarets and variety shows are not needed here; if the joy is too much they dance on the street at night.

And the buses and cars have to get by them quietly and furtively so that they don’t disrupt things. The bus drivers often sing Hebrew songs while they maneuver the difficult mountain roads in the cities up and down, and are artists in their profession without any nervousness. You cannot imagine more heterogeneous elements than the ones that have come together here in the last 15 years and still, the harmony is great and amazing — even with all the ruling political and cultural differences. The will to be free from the ghetto, to be a free human being in our own country, shines from every eye.

Here I am witness as to how quickly the people adapt to new ways of living. The ones from relatively uncivilized countries would hardly be able to exist anymore without bathtubs, shower stalls, and similar comforts — even in the countryside, and they really do look like they make much use of them. And the initially over-civilized ones, especially well-to-do women who had three-to-six servants back there, feel happy without help, cook, fry, bake on “neft” (petroleum) and wonder why they lived differently once upon a time.

And all of these impressions are optically interwoven with the Orient in the most concentrated form. Arabs and Bedouins with donkeys and camels, and in the Arab parts of the cities the colorful, loud marketplaces where everything produced in the Orient and the Occident is traded. On the country roads, large herds of goats, camel caravans, and, by the wells, Rebekahs with jugs, everything from clothes to forms of living and movement is like it was 4,000 years ago, when our forefathers cheated their fathers-in-law out of herds of cattle because they were cheated with the women.

On Saturday evening, I was asked to a surprise party. Most people wore costumes to celebrate the Purimfest and spirits were high. I was a non-dancer, as usual, but had a wonderful time anyway. I would have danced with you, Vera: such a shame that you were not there.

I am invited tonight as well and it is already almost 9.30, so I have to go. Since I hope to receive another letter from you at my brother’s address before my departure on the 27th, this report had to be written today despite the invitation.

MORITZ TO VERA: Haifa, Hotel Villa Migdal, 27 March 1936

As I was driven through the blossoming, fragrant orange groves, which were laden with fruit at the same time, and through this country crossed by mountains and valleys glowing in multihued colors, in my thoughts, I often wrote long letters to you, dear Vera. Of course, that is no excuse for the fact that they were not put into readable form, but I would have had to have you next to me in order to let you participate in experiencing this magnificent country. I have never been so aware of my lack of words as I am here, where the beauty not only affects your own sensations, but where the overall feeling for the land that Jews have longed for these two thousand years resonates. Maybe that is sentimental and for a grown man like me a little funny, but I am not ashamed of it, that the prayers of an infinite number of generations who sang about this land and gave expression to their longing again and again, should linger in their grandchildren. Not until our generation, which is attempting to acquire Palestine for itself in a completely new way and in a completely different form of religion than our praying forefathers, have we been able to envision the true beauty that, until now, was only the stuff of stories and dreams. It reconstitutes the beautiful, consistent with modern demands of life harmonizing through plantings, irrigation and construction, what had been dried out and atrophied by “prayers only.”

My dear, sweet girl, after I returned to Haifa from a trip across Palestine that lasted several days, I received your letter and I was so happy that I would have loved to have come to you via airmail in order to shorten your understandable anxiety. Now I hope that this letter reaches you before me, especially since I will be there [London] presumably on Sunday and not, as originally intended, on Friday. Since I cannot, out of decency, arrive at my Orthodox family’s home on Shabbat, I will probably have to spend a day in Paris. I would be very grateful to you if you could let my siblings know about this because I will not write to them at this time.

The ship leaves around 6 o’clock and we homecomers will take our dinner in the open Mediterranean!

Dearest Vera – Your Moritz

* * *

Moritz’s dream vision of a Jewish state in Palestine is recapitulated elsewhere in his writings where he states:

“I believe that the function of Zionism is in the realization of the promise to create an official and legal homestead for the Jewish people in Palestine. What our generation of young Zionists is attempting is to respond to Palestine in a completely new, completely different, way from that espoused by our praying forefathers. Our concept is one that, until now, was only the stuff of stories and dreams. We try to revitalize the beauties of our religious forefathers consistent with modern demands of life today. We harmonize those dreams and make them real through plantings, irrigation and construction, a concept that was atrophied by the former “prayers only” approach.”

In both its politics and religious observance, present-day Israel is more wide-reaching and also more entrenched than my father could have imagined. Yet, were he still alive now, I believe that he would feel that many of his deepest aspirations are being fulfilled in the Jewish state as it exists today. For his generation, the creation of the State of Israel during his lifetime was deemed nothing short of miraculous. For all the dark days that we are experiencing at the present time, we should re-invoke that sense of the Zionist miracle, as we live our daily lives as Jews, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora.

Moritz’s visit to Mandatory Palestine in 1936 coincides with the opening of his relationship with my mother. As well as Palestine, their pre-war correspondence stretches through Germany, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. It gives us a unique insight into the day-by-day experience of being Jewish refugees during the years leading up to the Second World War and the impending Holocaust that ended the lives of several of his closest relatives, including his oldest sister, Ketty. Had there been a State of Israel at that time, the likelihood is that they may also have survived.

About the Author
Frank Felsenstein is the Reed D. Voran Honors Distinguished Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Ball State University in Indiana. He is the author of several books including "Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830."
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