My uncle Jackie, Yaakov “Tzvi” Buchalter ז”ל, was a founder of the pre-state paramilitary group the Irgun, the political party Herut and the first Likud Central Committee, all under the leadership of Menachem Begin.
The struggle for Jewish independence defined him in life and in death, with his headstone including the Hebrew phrase מראשוני אצ”ל – “from the founders of Etzel” – the acronym for the Irgun’s official name.
One can imagine that he knew Menachem Begin fairly well. How well? I’m not sure, but well enough to socialize with my aunt and uncle.
I don’t know exactly when Uncle Jackie met Ruthie, my dad’s sister, but it couldn’t have been until the 1960s as there was an age difference between them of more than 20 years and my aunt was only born in 1941.
Yet in 1947, a footnote of Israeli history took place that makes me wonder if Jackie was already connected to the family somehow.
Or maybe Menachem Begin was. How else to explain the passport left in a Tel Aviv library for Begin to use while hiding from the British?
The passport belonged to someone in my family.
Someone from the German side.
The one I was named after.
Wait, I’m German?
News from Germany is never short in coming. For obvious reasons, what happens in Germany – especially to Jews – remains of stark interest to all of World Jewry.
As it was this week, with two symbolic stories reflecting the struggle of Jewish life in Germany. The first, concerning a hotel in Leipzig that refused entry to a German-Jewish singer unless he removed his Magen David (Star of David), evoking protests and anger at the hotel’s Nazi-era behavior.
The second, an expansion of pensions paid out by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) to include 6,500 Holocaust survivors “who lived through the siege of Leningrad, hid in Nazi-occupied France or survived persecution in Romania.”
I know the Claims Conference well. My maternal grandmother used to receive a monthly stipend from the Germans as a result of her losing everything in the Holocaust.
We referred to it as blood money.
As if to punctuate the inherent conflict of the Jewish experience in Germany, the headlines also included an account of antisemitic graffiti found at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, the Aryan shrine to evil incarnate.
Germany has spent decades trying to repent for its immaculate sin. Generations who were not alive during the Holocaust have dutifully paid restitution financially and morally, both publicly and personally, leading to a once-unthinkable reproach between the German and Jewish peoples, highlighted by the upcoming visit to Israel by outgoing chancellor Angela Markel commemorating sixteen years of her steadfast friendship.
As bitter as our ancestors’ collective suffering still tastes, the effort to atone by future generations is something to be acknowledged and appreciated. Forgiveness isn’t on the table since only our ancestors can provide that – and they are long dead – but we can work together in friendship for the betterment of humanity in service of their memory.
These are not words I would have written years ago. They don’t come easily now. Like many children and grandchildren of survivors, my view of everything German was fully developed long before I was born, destined to be seen through the lens of the Shoah.
It was not a good view.
Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, it was virtually impossible not to be awash with images of Germany as Satan’s playground where the Germanic people fill the brigades of the devil’s army.
Of course, adulthood and scholarship leave one confronted with the fact that there were indeed good Germans, even during the Holocaust, such as the Righteous Among Nations who dared to stop the Nazi onslaught.
Still, I only opened up to the idea that not all Germans were created equal after actually spending time with a few of them in real life – something I hadn’t done previously, typical of most prejudices and stereotypes.
This didn’t exactly convert me into a Germanophile overnight though it did lessen my blanket animosity toward anyone speaking Deutsch.
Then I came across two books in the last year or so that were memoirs written by family members from my paternal grandfather’s side – the one I never knew, for he passed away when my father was 3 years old.
What I discovered was a connection to Germany that was tremendous in scope. I always knew my grandfather was German, but for some reason I never quite imagined him like that.
In my mind, he spoke English with an English accent because he was living at 8 Haldane Terrace in Newcastle upon Tyne, where my father was born in England. He spent the first years of his life there before the family moved to Israel after the death of his father.
But once I dived into these books I entered a rich, vivid past I never knew existed. Not only did I come from a long line of German-Jewish stock, most of whom were rabbis, but my grandfather’s family played a central role in developing the Jewish community in Fürth going back hundreds of years.
Suddenly I had to contend with the fact that 1/4 of my DNA was as German as Bavarian crème pie.
What’s in a name?
Countless males in my family tree bear some variation of the name Moses Jonas Königshöfer (Moshe Yona in Hebrew), taken after my great-great grandfather who left an indelible mark on his community.
As director of the Jewish Orphanage of Bavaria – the first one in Germany – he built the imposing structure which still stands today, housing the only synagogue in Fürth that wasn’t destroyed during kristallnacht.
So revered and remembered was this rabbi that on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1994, the Jewish community of Fürth devoted an issue of its bulletin to him and recited kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) during a communal service.
Moshe Yona must have been a chip off the old block, seeing as his father Emanuel Loeb Königshöfer (aka Menachem Ari Mendel) was also a much beloved rabbi of his day.
According to a passionate obituary in Der Israelit, a German-Jewish newspaper, my great-great-great grandfather was a tzadik gamur (a completely righteous person) who dedicated his entire life to Torah, prayer and good deeds.
Emanuel also appears to be the first one in my family to bear the name Königshöfer, in line with the enforcement of the Bavarian “Judenedikt” of 1813 which required Jews to adopt last names. We can trace our family even further, going back two more generations to Menachem Mendel Maennlein, my great-5x grandfather who lived in the 18th century.
This is the lineage which produced my name, though my variation has a quirk as you’ll see. Like the other males in my family, Yoni is not short for Yonatan, the more common usage. It’s short for Yona – “Jonah” in English.
I was named after my paternal grandfather, Moshe Jonas Königshöfer ז”ל, who was named after his paternal grandfather, though everyone just called him Joni (pronounced like “Yoni” in German).
All I really knew about him up until that point was that he played violin and served as conductor of a community orchestra, a nice thrill for the musician in me. But after reading these books, I discovered the kind of anecdotes that add a splash of color to all the black and white.
Like how whenever a piece of classical music played on the radio or record player, he would pick up his baton and “conduct” it – something my father likes to do when a favorite tune of his comes on.
Or that he came from religious roots and lived an Orthodox Jewish life, leading the davening sometimes at Jesmond Hebrew Congregation.
The only exception to his dedicated observance was his love of fiddling with the radio dial – a pleasure he couldn’t give up even for Shabbat.
Saba Joni left Germany before the Holocaust, moving to England sometime in the 1930s where he met my Czech grandmother whose family also managed to escape in time. (Both my grandmothers were from Czechoslovakia, but my maternal grandmother who I’ve written about previously was from the Slovakian part.)
He succeeded in bringing three children of his own into the world, my father being the youngest, before he passed away in 1949.
A few years later, my grandmother got remarried to a man named Avraham Leviatan ז”ל who had lost his own wife and children in the Shoah. They fulfilled each other’s primal need to rebuild their family as Avraham adopted my father and his two sisters who all became the Leviatans – “whale” in English.
It was actually my mother who wanted to name me after her unknown father-in-law since she loved the name Yoni. It never dawned on either of my parents until I brought it up decades later that they essentially named me Jonah Whale.
Had my biological grandfather been alive, I would not be called by either name. Definitely not the last name, which never would’ve changed from Königshöfer to Leviatan, but also not the first name as Ashkenazi Jewish tradition doesn’t allow one to name babies after the living.
However, had I been Yona Königshöfer instead of Yona Leviatan, I would’ve hardly been the first to walk with this name.
Even Menachem Begin was Yona Königshöfer for a time.
A pandora’s box of treasures
The number of random, fascinating tidbits I discovered in Strangers in Many Lands written by my father’s cousin Leon, and Tomorrow Came written by his other cousin Dov, are far too numerous to list in this space, though a few extraordinary ones strike me as worth sharing.
The least relevant personally, but perhaps the most amusing, was that Dov’s brother Felix went to school with future US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger while growing up in Fürth.
Apparently, even as a 10-year-old boy Kissinger showed shades of his Machiavellian cunning when Felix was sick and couldn’t attend class. Little Heinrich would dutifully bring him his homework every day, but when Felix returned to school he discovered Henry had brought him the wrong assignments to ostensibly cut down the competition.
(This would not be Dov’s only brush with international diplomacy as his son was recently appointed the new Israeli ambassador to India.)
In another instance I discovered my maternal Egyptian grandfather wasn’t my only connection to the pyramids.
A distant relative on my father’s side named Richard Altmann (the Altmanns were my great-grandmother’s family) also ended up in Egypt where he enjoyed a harem-filled life with two wives – one Jewish, one Muslim – who raised their children together. Richard would go on to become a friend and poker partner of Gamal Abdul Nasser, then President of Egypt – and arch nemesis of Israel.
At exactly the same time, another relative named Moshe Jonah Hazor (he’d changed his name from Königshöfer) was serving as the head of security in Israel’s Knesset, having worked there from 1953-1960. During his tenure he warned David Ben-Gurion that he couldn’t guarantee his safety if he allowed visitors free access, but the old man wouldn’t budge on his belief of how a democratic society should be.
After a bomb was thrown into the Knesset that almost killed Ben-Gurion, Moshe resigned his post and was appointed to a government position that regulates diamond exports, an important role at the time since Israel was the world’s largest diamond exporter.
As interesting as it was to discover these family ties crossing with Israeli history, I felt the greatest satisfaction when I came upon the connection with Menachem Begin, long my favorite of Israel’s prime ministers.
The story about Begin finding the passport in a Tel Aviv library has been known for many decades. But during my discovery of family artifacts I came across yet another relative named Jona Konigshoffer – my grandfather’s first cousin, a physician from Tel Aviv – the one who left the passport that would shield Begin from the British.
(I came across various spellings of the name Königshöfer in family documents, but kept to this particular spelling for the sake of consistency. However for accuracy in this insistence I used the exact spelling used by Jona Konigshoffer.)
Begin had gone underground since the aftermath of the King David Hotel bombing, living in disguise under a fake name until his cover was blown. This new identity allowed him to continue hiding in plain sight.
Begin writes of the incident in his book, The Revolt: “Quite by chance a passport had been found in one of the public libraries in the name of Dr. Jona Konigshoffer. It was a rather long name but it had the advantage of being purely ‘Germanic.’ It was a name reeking of royalty and the preservation of law and order. So it was decided to suit me to the passport, or rather to adapt my new photograph to it.”
I’m not sure we’ll ever know if the passport was left on purpose, or if my uncle was involved somehow, but regardless, the name Moshe Yona Königshöfer made its contribution where needed – specifically with Begin – and more generally in the history of Germany’s Jewish community.
My grandfather was the last in our immediate family to carry the full name including Moshe. It’s doubtful many newborns will be given this exact name in the near future. I’d like to think my great-grandparents sensed something special when he was born – after having five daughters, they prayed intensely for just one son to carry on the family name.
When their wish was finally granted with the birth of my grandfather, they had a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) written for the occasion. Customary in German tradition, it was wrapped in a wimple (medieval headdress) describing their joy, Joni’s milestones, and their hope for his future.
Most satisfying to discover – even more than the connection to Begin – was that the sefer torah is now in an old age home in Tel Aviv. My unknown grandfather never had the privilege of setting foot in the land of Israel, but somehow he made it over anyway.
And suddenly I have an urge to break a lifelong vow that I would never set foot in Germany.
I think I’d like to visit Fürth.