Architecture in the “International Style” (Bauhaus) in Eretz Israel

When architect Walter Gropius established in 1919 the Bauhaus art school in the city of Weimar, Germany, he had, it can be assumed, grand plans, but no way of predicting that the tradition born with the establishment of this school would change the face of the world of architecture and in the design of many useful products.

Residential building in Tel Aviv, Frischman Street, 1930s (Archives Department, TMA 5249)

What began as a new idea – the training of artists in a far-reaching integration of theory and practice and the training of artisans – became a widespread worldwide concept, based on the principal of combining simple design with high functionality. Although this school existed for only 14 years and trained only a few hundred graduates, it is considered to this day the cradle of the avant-garde in fine and applied modern art.

Although at Bauhaus instruction was offered in a wide range of arts and crafts, the focus was always architecture, not only because of the profession of the institution’s founder and director of nine-years, Walter Gropius, but also because of his firm convictions. In his view, all of an artist’s skills should be focused on building as an all-encompassing expression of art as a whole. Gropius succeeded in recruiting first-rate avant-garde artists as lecturers: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lionel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy and others.

The modern and avant-garde atmosphere in Bauhaus was ultimately not suitable to the quite conservative environment in the city of Weimar, and the institution therefore moved to Dessau, several dozen kilometers north of Weimar. It was in Dessau that Walter Gropius built the famous Bauhaus building and the series of Meisterhäuser – homes for lecturers, which exist to this day and are considered gems of this style. Design of the buildings was related to the artistic ideas of the school, and set standards that can be found in the construction of many buildings to this day.

Following the growing influence of the Nazis in the Dessau city council beginning in 1932, the school moved a second time, taking up its final residence in Berlin, until ultimately closing in 1933. The last director was the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Until the closure of the Bauhaus school, its graduates succeeded in disseminating its ideas among a community of modern architects and artists, such that the familiar design style was copied even from architects who never studied at this institution. The Nazis were opposed both to the ideas of Bauhaus as well as to its international atmosphere. Closure of the institution in 1933 was therefore the anticipated consequence of the political changes. Lecturers, students and graduates of the school fled to other countries and continued in this manner to spread Bauhaus’s modernist concepts throughout the world.

Rechavia neighborhood, Jerusalem, during its construction. Archives department, TM 8° 791

The name “Bauhaus” spread quickly even beyond the borders of Europe, and among its students were no small number of citizens of other countries, including students from the Land of Israel. In addition to the four architects who came from Palestine to study at Bauhaus (Shlomo Bernstein, Munio Gitai-Weinraub, Shmuel Mestechkin and Arieh Sharon), a sizable number of Bauhaus graduates or architects and artists influenced by it arrived in (or returned to) Palestine: Erich Mendelsohn, Richard Kaufmann, Genia Averbuch, Mordechai Ardon, Isaac Rapoport and others.

With the activity of these artists, and mainly that of the architects among them, a characteristic building style was created that can be encountered to this day in Israeli cities and even on kibbutzim. The strongest manifestation of this style is in Tel Aviv’s “White City”, which features the largest group of buildings in the International Style in Israel: some 4,000 different structures can today be found in Tel Aviv, for example in the area of Dizengoff Street, Bialik Street and Rothschild Boulevard. This collection was declared in 2003 a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO).

Buildings of this style can be found in other cities as well, including Jerusalem (the Rechavia neighborhood, the Hadassah Hospital at Mt. Scopus, Villa Schocken, Beit Ha-Ma’alot, and others) and in Haifa. The Rechavia neighborhood was planned by the German-Jewish architect Richard Kaufmann, who was also responsible, inter alia, for planning the Tel Aviv’s “White City” and Kibbutz Nahalal. Shmuel Mestechkin shaped the face of many kibbutzim, mainly through their dining halls, such as Kibbutz Na’an, Mishmar Ha-Emek, Mizra, Yad Mordechai and others. The influence of the International Style on architecture in Israel was so tremendous that even to this day we plan and build buildings that have distinctive features from the repertoire of the International Style.

Mt. Scopus and Hadassah Hospital during its construction, 1938. Photo: Zoltan Kluger, Archives Department, TMA 507.2

Rechavia neighborhood, Jerusalem, view of Villa Schocken, 1938. Photo: Zoltan Kluger, Archives Department, TMA 507.2

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The German Film “Dreyfus” and its Screening in Israel

What was special about this film that made its way from the studios in Berlin to the movie theaters in Eretz Israel?

In February 1931, advertisements were posted in Israel for a new film – one of the first sound films – that was being played in movie theaters. The poster, in shades of red and blue on a white background, suggested that the film had something to do with France. The name of the film left no room for doubt: “Dreyfus.” The poster of the Ein Dor movie theater in Haifa advertised the film in four languages: Hebrew (which takes up approximately two thirds of the poster), German, Arabic and English. This multi-lingual venue was an expression of the multi-cultural reality of Mandatory Palestine at the beginning of the 1930s. Since the film was a product of the Weimar Republic, and since during that time the Nazis had not yet risen to power in Germany, the free use of German on the poster was still not problematic – on the contrary; a point of persuasion for seeing the film apparently included its language. As the poster stated: “100% in German.”

Poster of the Ein Dor Cinema in Haifa for the movie “Dreyfus,” 1931

What was special about this film that made its way from the studios in Berlin to the movie theaters in Eretz Israel? First of all, since the Dreyfus Affair, slightly more than three decades had passed, and it is reasonable to assume that at the time, there were still people who remembered this important incident in Jewish history, which so decisively affected the Zionist movement after Theodor Herzl reported on it for a Viennese newspaper, before he began writing his famous Zionist works. Moreover, the very topic turned the movie into a work that spoke directly to the Jewish audiences. The film’s production in 1930 also was a response to the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Germany, which quickly became dire. In addition, a look at those involved in the film’s production – from the author of the script, to the director and most of the main actors – reveals that most were of Jewish extraction. These circumstances apparently made the movie an excellent candidate for screening in Eretz Israeli movie theaters and granted the Dreyfus Affair the status of a “great national tragedy” as stated in the colorful poster presented here.

Poster for the movie “Dreyfus” after the second purchase of the film by the Ein Dor Cinema in Haifa, 1931

Who, then, were the key figures surrounding this German-Jewish film produced towards the end of the Weimar Republic? The producer and director was the Richard Oswald (1880-1963), a Vienna native who had been living and working in Berlin since 1912. In Berlin, Oswald went on to establish a film production company that produced dozens of films, among them films that were unconventional for the period. For example, after consulting with the famous sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld, Oswald produced films dealing with topics such as homosexuality, abortions, prostitution and sexually transmitted disease. His emigration from Germany in 1933 following the Nazi rise to power significantly reduced his opportunities for producing additional films. Most of the main actors in the movie “Dreyfus” came from the famous acting school of Max Reinhardt, director of the “German Theater” in Berlin: Fritz Kortner (Dreyfus), Grete Mosheim (Dreyfus’ wife), and Oscar Homolka (Maj. Esterhazy) – all were of Jewish origins. Following their emigration to the United States, some of them secured a place in the American film industry (for example, Oscar Homolka, who acted in Hollywood with Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe). Others returned to Germany after WWII, such as Fritz Kortner and Grete Mosheim. Acting alongside them in the film was also Heinrich George, one of the well known actors in Weimar Germany, who began his career as a supporter of the political left in Germany, and after 1933 compromised with the Nazis, enabling him to continue his career under their government.

As far as is known, the movie “Dreyfus” was successful in Eretz Israel. There is an interesting incident that is related to the movie “Dreyfus” and its screening in the Ein Dor Cinema (the Hebrew word used for cinema at the time was reinoa, as opposed to the modern kolnoa) in Haifa. Shortly after the first regular screenings, the film reels were stolen and the cinema owners were forced to acquire a new copy. After the second copy was obtained, they re-advertised the film – which they would certainly not have done had the film not been a success in the first round.

Two posters of the Ein Dor Cinema in Haifa advertising the film can be found in the National Library collections, but during the inquiry that preceded the writing of this text, it emerged that the library also owns a single copy of the original script in German. This rare copy reached the library after WWII together with thousands of Jewish books as part of the book rescue operation that became known as “Treasures of the Diaspora”, saving precious library materials to Jewish institutions including the National Library. Other copies of the movie still survive in various film archives around the world.

The cover of the original movie script for the film “Dreyfus,” 1930

The Aliyah of Central European Jews (the “Yekkim”) and the “German Immigrants’ Association News”

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living

German Immigrants’ Association News

​Until the Nazi rise to power, some half a million Jews lived in Germany, over 150,000 of them in Berlin alone. Most found their place in society-at-large and took part in economy, politics, science, and of course German culture, both as producers of culture (authors, journalists, musicians, artists, etc.) and consumers of culture of all types. The Zionist movement found it difficult to penetrate German-Jewish society, since most of it was well established; and Zionist groups in Germany never became mass movements.

The picture changed in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power. The blatant anti-Semitism and the unbridled Nazi aggression (across large segments of German society) made it clear to German Jews that their integration into the greater society was only a brief episode that was drawing to an end with the political change.

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living. Approximately one half of Germany’s Jewish population emigrated from Germany to other countries, most to the United States, but many also moved to Israel as part of what is known as “the fifth Aliyah.” It is estimated that some 60,000 German immigrants came to Eretz Israel as part of this wave of immigration, in addition to 30,000 from other German-speaking areas, primarily Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Their situation in Eretz Israel was also quite difficult: the new climate, the language unfamiliar to most of them, the reservations of many locals from German language and culture due to the Nazi acts, and the unsuitable professions of many (a great deal of them were active in the fields of science, the humanities and culture) – all posed severe problems for many of the “Yekkim”, as they were called then and to this day. Their habits, style of dress, precision in all that related to timeliness, and their idiosyncratic humor, attracted much derisive humor. Tragically, while in Germany they were always considered Jews, in Eretz Israel they were considered “Germans.”

The German immigrants in pre-State Israeli society were quite diverse: the majority played a role in the sciences, arts and culture, unsurprisingly, but among them were also industrialists and entrepreneurs (the founders of companies including “Asis”, “Strauss” and others), publishers (e.g. the Schocken family), architects, (Richard Kaufmann and others from the famous Bauhaus movement). In many cases, however, the Yekkim were forced to find their place in the new society in Israel like all of the other immigrants, in professions in which they weren’t trained, while living in crowded housing and facing the large and small cultural difficulties that awaited all of the immigrants in their everyday lives.

The Yekkim settled in a number of cities and other types of localities: around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (many of them in the Rechavia neighborhood), but also in the city of Nahariya, in Kfar Shmaryahu near Herzliya, and in other locations. The Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem was planned by the architect Richard Kaufmann beginning in the 1920s. It was inhabited by distinguished academics, including many lecturers from The Hebrew University: Gershom Scholem, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Akiva Ernst Simon, the well-known architect Erich Mendelsohn (who lived in the neighborhood for a few years only, in the 1930s) as well as Zalman Schocken, the owner of a successful department store chain in Germany and a publishing house on his name, that exists to this day.

With the aliyah of the “Yekkim,” new newspapers and periodicals in German were established. For example, the newspaper Yediot Hadashot (that later assumed the name Hadashot Yisrael), and the periodical Yediot Hitachdut Olei Germania (Mitteilungsblatt der Hitachduth Olei Germania, known also, simply, as MB). This publication was founded in 1933 and exists to this day, and the initials still appear on the cover, but the name has changed to Yakinton (hyacinth). Beginning with the first edition, it featured texts both in German and in Hebrew, at first with German dominating, while today, with the proportions have reversed. For many years, firms and businesses advertised in Yediot, mainly those owned by German immigrants or relevant to the German immigrant community. It is interesting to note that during the publication’s first years, even the Templar Bank in Palestine saw fit to advertise its services in this periodical, even though the orientation of many Templars – German-Protestant settlers who had no relationship with Judaism – was pro-Nazi. Other companies, some known to this day, already advertised there, in German of course, such as the “Asis” company.

“Transfer Agreement” and the Boycott of German Goods

Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany

Beginning in the spring of 1933, objections began surfacing against the procurement of German goods. Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany through declarations and placards, with the goal of striking a blow at the German economy, and in this manner, to the power of the Nazis who had recently taken power. The anti-German boycott was initiated following the Nazi boycott initiated on April 1, 1933, against Jewish businesses in Germany. Following this, the Jewish organizations in various countries called for a boycott of German products available around the world, including in Palestine. The boycott in Palestine itself would have little effect on the German economy, but the joint effort in various countries, including the United States, had an impact, although it did not affect Nazi policy towards German Jewry.

During this same period, German products were considered to be of particularly fine quality. Germany was already at the time a highly industrialized nation and its products were marketed internationally. Importers and retailers in Palestine sought to sell products from German factories and promoted them through ads and placards, some in Hebrew and some in Hebrew and German. The expertise of German factories in the production of machines and technical products guaranteed great success for products, especially in Palestine of the 1930s, where many branches of local industry were just beginning to develop. Despite the boycott, there were some German products sold in stores in Palestine, such as medicines manufactured by Bayer and photographic equipment manufactured by AGFA, that were promoted in the newspapers and other advertising venues (for example, in Purim celebration programming in Tel Aviv).

Following the call for a boycott – mainly instigated by the Revisionist camp – leaders of the Yishuv faced a difficult dilemma. At that time (August 25, 1933), a “transfer agreement” was signed with the German Nazi government. Both parties had a vested interest in the agreement. The Nazi leaders hoped that through it they could minimize the worldwide boycott on German products. During these years, the Nazi leaders were still of the opinion that they should promote voluntary Jewish emigration from Germany in order to “be rid” of the “Jewish problem.” On its part, the Jewish side hoped that the agreement would enable German Jews who wanted to immigrate to Palestine to bring with them a more significant portion of their possessions.

In 1931, following the global economic crisis, those who emigrated from Germany were forced to pay exceedingly high taxes for the transfer of their property to points abroad; this policy remained in effect during the Nazi period. As part of the agreement, German Jewry was given the option of depositing a minimum of 1,000 lira in a German bank, and with the money, German products were purchased for export to Palestine.

In Israel, the importers sold the German products and deposited the funds in a bank account, from which a significant sum was returned to the immigrants on their arrival. It is estimated that tens of thousands of German emigrants did just this in order to prevent simply giving their capital to the Nazi German tax authorities. Inevitably, the agreement and its results, i.e. the import of German products to Palestine during the time of the boycott – aroused a stormy debate. On the one hand, there was severe opposition to the transfer agreement, but on the other, there were also voices of support, for example, on the part of the German Olim Association, which was afraid to negatively impact the transfer of property belonging to German Jews who had not yet come on Aliyah.

Public activity surrounding the boycott continued throughout the 1930s, and the transfer agreement remained in effect during these years. It is estimated that some 140 million German marks were transferred by this mechanism to Palestine until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Economically, the transfer agreement was a great success, both in terms of German emigrants and for the Palestinian economy. The negotiator for the Jewish side was Haim Arlozorov, but he was murdered in Tel Aviv before the agreement was signed. The circumstances of the murder and its motives are to this day not entirely clear, but there is a possibility that the motive was related to Arlozorov’s role in the Negotiations with the German-Nazi side.