Among the Zionist bona fides in my family history is my mother’s recollection that her father had been a delegate from Hamburg to one of the Zionist Congresses in the early 20th century. Wishing to learn more about this, I searched the Internet on several occasions but was unable to locate his name on any lists. Recently , I learned of the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, a repository of documents from all over the world. I reached out to their corresponding archivist and arranged a visit.
The archives are housed in a building on the campus of Binyanei Haumah, the International Convention Center in central Jerusalem. After accepting my credentials as a “journalist”, the archivist granted me permission to use the reading room. She brought me to a shelf that contained hardbound protocols of every Zionist Congress. She was somewhat officious, part bureaucrat and part helpful academic. Several times, she told me that these books could be found in “every reputable library” and that it really hadn’t been necessary for me to make the trip to her institution in Jerusalem.
The First Zionist Congress was convened in Basel by Theodore Herzl in 1897 and was attended by 208 delegates. Thereafter, the Congress was held annually until 1903, then biannually through 1913. No Congresses met during from the onset of World War I until Europe stabilized in 1921.
We randomly removed the volume marked “1909” from the shelf. The archivist showed me the pages that contain the delegate list. My grandfather’s name was not listed. Ditto for 1907 and 1911. In the 1913 volume, there were 6 pages containing the names of approximately 500 delegates. On the last page, eleven names above “Weizmann, Prof. Dr. Ch., Manchester”, appeared the entry ” Warisch, H., Hamburg”. My grandfather, Herman Warisch, a 24 year old bachelor in 1913. Bingo.
The 370 page book was printed in 1914, entirely in German. I turned the brittle pages but understood little of what was in front of me. I decided to dive into the roster of delegates.
The 11th Zionist Congress met in Vienna during the 1st week of September 1913. Among the approximately 500 delegates were 26 from Berlin, 16 from Vienna,, and 17 from London. Nearly 140 were listed generically as hailing from “Russland”. Although many ardent Zionists were among the Czar’s long suffering Jewish subjects, no Zionist Congress could have safely met within his empire’s borders.
Seventeen delegates came from Lemberg (in Polish: Lvov), then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, invaded by multiple armies during the two world wars, now a city in the Ukraine. The Jewish community of Lemberg/Lvov was founded in the 13th century. The 1910 census of 200,000 residents counted 28% as Jewish. By 1931, there were 100,000 Jews there. Refugees from Poland swelled its Jewish population to 150,000 in 1941. In 1942, the Nazis established a ghetto and later deported the Jewish population to the death camps of Belzec and Janowska. After WWII, only a few thousand survivors remained. Lemberg/Lvov was a melting pot of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Hasidim, secular Jews, and an active Zionist Mizrachi organization. Today, it’s only a footnote.
US delegates came from New York (6 ), Saint Louis, Newark ,Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
The list of delegates includes “ Ben-Gurion, David, Konstantinopel”. The Polish-born future Prime Minister had left a Kibbutz in the Galilee in 1911 to attend law school in the Ottoman empire’s capital. He was 26 years old at the time. His name is absent from the list of delegates who spoke from the podium.
Dr. Joseph Klausner was a delegate from Odessa. The Lithuanian-born historian would later be a department chairman at Hebrew University and edit Encyclopedia Hebraica. He was the great uncle of the writer Amos Oz, and is a featured character in A Tale of Love and Darkness. He addressed the conference in Hebrew.
Palestine was represented by a dozen delegates from Jerusalem, Jaffa (Tel Aviv itself was still just a small satellite neighborhood) , Haifa and Rehovot. Among them was Dr. Aharon Masie, a physician who was chairman of the Hebrew Language Committee. He coined hundreds of new Hebrew words for the medical profession and authored a thick dictionary of Hebrew medical terms . His great grandson is a neighbor of mine.
One very unsettling entry: “Pilzer, Dr. S, Oswiecim”. The Polish town where one million Jews would later die had a population that was over 50% Jewish before the world wars.
Some words about language: The protocol is a transcript of the sessions, presumably recorded by a team of multilingual stenographers. The text is completely in German. When a speaker’s language was not German, a notation follows. For example, the remarks of H. Ehrenreich of New York are prefaced by “Del. Ehrenreich (jiddisch):.….” followed by a translation of his remarks. Likewise , the words of the great Hebrew poet Bialik were preceded by “Del. Ch. N. Bialik (hebraisch):….” However, the words of the American Zionist leader Louis Lipsky were not recorded. The entry reads “ Del. Lipski (spricht english): ” , followed by a blank line.. Evidently , none of the stenographers were fluent in English. One hundred years later, English is an official language of the European Union. Most scientific and medical meetings in Europe are now conducted in English, spoken fluently by all professionals. Ironically , after vouchsafing its language to the world, England is now withdrawing from continental Europe.
The 11th Zionist Congress heard reports about economic, population and agricultural expansion of the settlements in Palestine. As usual, ideology and politics were debated. Fundraising strategies were discussed. Money was budgeted and allocated. Chaim Weizmann pushed through a resolution to establish the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Twelve years would pass before the school would finally open, during which time there was serious discussion of using German as the language of instruction.
Within a year of the 11th Zionist Congress, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. At some point, Herman Warisch was conscripted into the Kaiser’s army, where he was tasked with grooming horses. This eventually led to becoming an importer of animal hair for brush manufacturing. Considering Aliyah, he made a pilot trip to Palestine in the 1930’s, but couldn’t work out a way to transfer his business there. Along with my grandmother and his 3 children, he fled Hamburg in 1935 to Antwerp and once the war started fled again from Belgium to France. Five thousand Jews left Hamburg between 1933 and 1937.
Herman’s business associate in New York signed the entry visa affidavit that enabled the Warisch family to emigrate in 1941 to the US, via an arduous sea crossing from Cadiz to Lisbon to New York on the storied SS Navemar. He died in 1957, one year before my birth .
In addition to Herman Warisch, there were 8 other delegates from Hamburg in Vienna. No information about them could be found on the internet or in encyclopedias I looked at in the Modiin library.
My grandfather met Dr. Falk Schlesinger when they were young men in Hamburg and they remained lifelong friends. Dr. Schlesinger would later become the second Director-General of Shaare Zedek Hospital, 1948 through 1968. He stayed with my grandparents on West End Avenue when he visited the USA on fundraising trips.
I returned to Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem this month for my fourth February of teaching and practicing cardiology.
As Shabbat approaches, I finish my scribbling on the balcony of our rented apartment in Modiin. From the seventh floor, the southeast view has the Judean hills in the background, brightly illuminated by the setting sun. In the foreground, I count 18 construction cranes, a reminder of the continuing success of the Zionist project.