The Author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel and the Red Army Faction Activist Gudrun Ensslin

During those years, an underground organization of activists from the radical German left was established, which operated against the West German government by carrying out a long series of terrorist acts, kidnappings, hijackings and robberies

In October 1963, Israeli author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel received a letter from the German publisher Bertl Petrei of Stuttgart. It was not unusual for Ben Gavriel, who at the time was very popular among the German-reading audience, to be contacted by German publishers. However, the content of the letter was a great surprise for Ben Gavriel. The German publisher was requesting him to write about the works of German author and poet Will Vesper (1882-1962), who was a Nazi sympathizer and had devoted himself unequivocally to the Nazi cause from 1933-1945. For example, Vesper delivered a speech during the book burning in Dresden in the spring of 1933. Vesper incited the public against Jews and mainly against Jewish authors who wrote in the German language. In light of this, the Austrian-German publisher’s request of Ben Gavriel to write a review of an anthology of the Nazi author’s novellas was problematic, to say the least.

A letter from the German publisher Bertl Petrei to Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel, signed by Gudrun Ensslin

Ben Gavriel immediately understood the magnitude of the problem and replied that the request left him with a bad feeling, and that he was unable to write about the works of a Nazi author. According to the wording of the response (a copy of which exists in Ben Gavriel’s archive), together with the letter, he also returned the book to the sender, publisher Bertl Petrei.

Ben Gavriel’s answer to Gudrun Ensslin

And behold, a number of days later, an additional letter arrived from the publisher, longer this time, which attempted to calm the Jewish author in Jerusalem and to justify the request as well as defend the standing of Will Vesper in German literature. And yet the person who wrote the letter did not address all to the problematic biographical details of the author’s life, which did not speak in his favor, certainly given the atmosphere prevailing in 1963, when it was impossible to ignore the Nazi past of a prominent cultural figure. The two letters from the publisher to Ben Gavriel are signed by different people. The first was signed by Gudrun Ensslin, and the second, by S. Mauer. We do not know anything regarding the identity of the second signer, but the name of Gudrun Ensslin is certainly known, in an entirely different context, linked to events that took place in Germany from 1968-1993.

During those years, an underground organization of activists from the radical German left was established, which operated against the West German government by carrying out a long series of terrorist acts, kidnappings, hijackings and robberies. What the author Yaakov Moshe Ben Gavriel could not have known, and given that he died in 1965 never learned, was that Gudrun Ensslin, who signed the first letter he received from the publisher, went on to become a senior figure in a left-wing terrorist organization known as The Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion – RAF). This organization set West German society into a storm mainly in the 1970s and divided the population between opponents and supporters of the movement, which according to its declarations was fighting the capitalist-imperialist regime through “urban guerilla warfare.” To this end, members of the underground, among them, Gudrun Ensslin, even spent time at a PLO training camp in Jordan. The peak of the organization’s activity – which was also the peak of the severe social crisis in West Germany – was in the fall of 1977, when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a German airplane, and in exchange for releasing the passengers, demanded the release of the RAF leadership, which had been in prison since 1972, among them Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin. Following the failed hijacking of the German plane – all of the passengers were released – a number of the upper echelon committed suicide in prison in October 1977, Gudrun Ensslin among them. Supporters of the underground were skeptical that the cause of death was suicide, and in their eyes, those who died were martyrs. The underground continued its activities for several more years, and finally dissolved only in the early 1990s.

A study about the Red Army Faction (RAF) by Stefan Aust​
English translation of Aust’s study

However, in 1963, all of these events were still a future that had not yet come to pass, that is, when Gudrun Ensslin wrote to Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel on behalf of the publisher of the author Will Vesper. The question arises as to why Ensslin collaborated with a commercial publisher on this matter; a few years later she acted determinedly against every “capitalist-imperialist-fascist” entity. Studies of Ensslin’s life have shown that at the time, she was involved in a relationship with Vesper’s son, Bernward Vesper. The author’s son tried to grapple with the spiritual legacy of his father, and to this end, promoted the re-publication of his works, in part with the help of Ensslin, who later became a prominent terrorist. The request of Vesper and Ensslin to Ben Gavriel, as well as the wording of the letters, suggest no small degree of political confusion. The confusion characterized a large portion of the supporters of the radical left, mainly in their attitude towards Jews and Israel, a phenomenon which is common among the German Left to this day.

How a 16th Century Business Dispute Triggered a Religious War

Printing of a Jewish book in 1551 caused religious strife and turmoil all over Italy

A 1572 map of Venice from the National Library of Israel's Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

The Jewish ghetto in Venice was established in 1516, and all the Jews living in the prosperous city were forced to move there. Among the limitations imposed on the Jews of the ghetto was that the printing of Hebrew books had to be contracted to a Christian press. A dispute that broke out between two such Christian printers threatened to destroy the cultural universe of Italian Jewry.

A map of the Venice ghetto from the early 16th century. The map may be found in the Civico Corer Museum in Venice

In 1551, Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen contacted the owner of the Guistiniani printing press with a proposal for printing Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah with a commentary he had written. The printer refused. Disappointed but still determined, the rabbi then brought the same proposal to Alvise Bragadini, owner of the new and less-established Bragadini press, who agreed to publish it. The phenomenal success of the Mishneh Torah in its new format attracted the attention of Guistiniani, who then hurried to print an identical edition of the book.

Frontispiece of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah printed by the Bragadini press. From the National Library of Israel collection
Frontispiece of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah printed by the Guistiniani press. From the National Library of Israel collection

European Jewish communities declared a boycott against the pirated Guistiniani edition, but despite this, the printer refused to acknowledge his defeat, and instead appealed directly to the Pope to settle the dispute. In order to damage one another’s credibility, the rival printing press owners hurled accusations that the other had, in his edition, inserted heresy against Christianity and the Catholic Church. The Pope’s decision stunned both sides: in the summer of 1553, Pope Julius III ordered all Hebrew books – first and foremost the Talmud – to be brought to Rome’s central square, where they were burned.

This decree was then carried out in other cities across Italy including Venice.


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Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Awarded to Martin Buber, 1953

​Buber’s winning the prize made many waves in the German media, and it can be assumed that the event was a paving stone in the path to the establishment of official relations between West Germany and Israel

From 1950, the German Booksellers Association began awarding a peace prize to well-known individuals in the disciplines of science, literature and art, who exhibited outstanding activity on behalf of peace. For many years, the prestigious prize was granted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest international fair of its kind – held in mid-October. The awards ceremony takes place in the building of St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt, where the first democratic German parliament convened in the mid-19th century. The ceremony receives much attention from the public and the media. While it is a Germany prize, the recipients hail from around the world. The list of winners already includes 65 names, including Albert Schweitzer, Hermann Hesse, Karl Jaspers, Max Frisch, Astrid Lindgren, Yehudi Menuhin, Teddy Kollek, Amos Oz, David Grossman and others. And yet the first Jew – and Israeli – to receive it was Martin Buber (1878-1965), who received the prize already in October 1953, just eight years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. What led the Israeli philosopher to accept the prize, even though he was forced to leave Germany in 1938 following the racist Nazi persecutions?

Buber’s Peace Prize Certificate

Relatively soon after the Second World War ended, Buber began his extensive travels to European countries, but also to the United States, in order to participate in conferences and give lectures in varied forums. However, until 1951, the philosopher took care not to set foot on German soil, even though he had also been invited to speak in the Western part of this country. Only the repeated and insistent requests of Protestant theologian Karl Heinrich Rengstorf succeeded in convincing Buber to give a private lecture to a small and select audience in the apartment of the German scholar in the city of Münster. Buber met people there who listened to him respectfully, “people who have a face,” as Buber called them, since Buber was unable to identify a human face among most of the German people, who followed Hitler’s path. It seems that this encounter illustrated for Buber that a “new Germany” may, indeed, have come into existence. In that same year, 1951, Buber was informed that he had received the Goethe Prize awarded by the city of Hamburg. However, among the Israeli public, many opposed Buber’s agreement to accept the prize. Among the opponents were those who claimed that it was too early to accept a humanistic prize from an official German organization. Ultimately, Buber went to Germany to accept the prize only in 1953. During this year, he won additional prizes and honorary degrees, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Invitation to Buber to the prize awards ceremony

The prize – which today is considered quite prestigious – was at the time just starting out: Buber was the fourth recipient. Those present at the ceremony in Frankfurt proved to what extent granting the prize to a Jewish philosopher was significant for the prize committee and for those involved in the matter: among the guests of honor was Theodor Huess, the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany. During the ceremony, four people spoke: Arthur Georgi, at the time Chairman of the German Booksellers Association, Frankfurt Mayor Walter Kolb, Albrecht Goes, Protestant theologian and author, who spoke in praise of the work of Martin Buber and its importance, and finally, the winner of the prize himself spoke. Buber’s speech was entitled “Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace” (“Das echte Gespräch und die Möglichkeit des Friedens”). In his speech, he of course made reference to the dark memories of the days of the Holocaust, declaring: “And who am I to ‘forgive’!” At the same time, Buber called upon the nations to find ways to embark on a humanistic discourse, for the sake of peace and mutual understanding. In his speech at this auspicious occasion, Buber remained faithful to the philosophy of dialogue that he developed and promoted through many decades of academic and public activity.

The first page of Buber’s speech: “Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities for Peace,” in his handwriting

​Buber’s winning the prize made many waves in the German media, and it can be assumed that the event was a paving stone in the path to the establishment of official relations between West Germany and Israel. In contrast, the media buzz in Israel was very restrained. Generally speaking, Buber was at the time much better known and accepted in the various European nations than in Israel, and it is reasonable to assume that there were still many who did not agree with his readiness as early as 1953 to accept the prize granted by an official German body. In contrast, acceptance of the honorable doctoral degree from the Hebrew University that same year was the first honor that Buber received in Israel, and his winning the Israel Prize in 1958 marked the acceptance of his views among an even broader population in his country.

Beyond the Iron Curtain: East Germany and the Collapse of the Wall

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries

Following the Allied victory over Germany in the Second World War, the country was divided, and on October 7, 1949, an independent state, known as “The German Democratic Republic” was established in the area of the Soviet occupation. A few weeks earlier, the Federal Republic had been established in the western part of Germany.

East Germany’s distorted self-presentation, for dissemination in the world, 1986.

A book about the 1989 events, including texts in three languages. Published in Berlin, 1990.

At first, only a small number of countries in the world recognized the East German state, home to some 17 million people. Predictably, the countries that recognized it were mainly those who were under direct control of the Soviet regime in Moscow. Although, formally, the East German republic proclaimed its aspiration to democracy (reflected even in the country’s name), it was a very limited democracy: the control of the Socialist-Communist Party was not up for discussion. The Soviet Army forces stationed on East German soil, numbering 350,0000-500,000 soldiers, was not only the westernmost force of the Soviet Union in Europe, but also a means of pressure for maintaining the status quo: the Soviet military force there was intended to ensure loyalty, which it did until the dissolution of the Communist Bloc in 1989. The Soviet military force acted with all of its strength during the days of the civil uprising of East Germany against the communist regime in June 1953, an uprising after which a tense calm prevailed, maintained with an iron fist.​

The lack of satisfaction of many citizens with the East German dictatorship was also reflected in the mass flight to the West, which continued through mid-August of 1961. In an abrupt – but not entirely surprising action – the police and army forces established a wall around West Berlin, and also along a portion of the border between the two parts of Germany, with the goal of preventing the continued flight of citizens from East to West. This border was also the boundary between the two large political blocs, which led to a large concentration of military forces along both sides of the Iron Curtain, including Russian and American nuclear weapons.

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries. Despite this, many did not remain complacent, and tried to flee to the other side of the wall. Some succeeded, but over 200 people paid with their lives for the attempt to break free. The political leadership operated according to the instructions of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, and tried in every manner possible to induce citizens to sympathize with the Russian-Soviet school of ideology. The media functioned under censorship, literature and all types of publications were required to adhere to the ruling party line. Opponents of the regime were at the focus of the activity of the secret police, the Stasi, which maintained enormous archives that included (and still include) information on millions of citizens.

A booklet with the speeches given during a ceremony in the East German parliament on November 9th, 1988

According to the official ideology, residents of the German Democratic Republic lived according to humanistic principles, and therefore, there was no need to deal with the dark past of the German nation prior to 1945. In the view of the communist leaders, all of the Nazis, old and new, were in West Germany, while the socialist-communist essence of East Germany absolved East German society of scrutinizing and taking responsibility for the Nazi crimes. While the official historical narrative mentioned the Jewish victims, relative to the Communist victims, they took only second place. This reconstruction of history was apparently accepted by a considerable portion of the population, since it spared them the torturous journey of taking responsibility for the Holocaust, and recognizing the deeds perpetrated by the Nazis, many of whom were living in East Germany. This was also the root of the political leadership’s refraining from any contact with Jewish organizations or with the State of Israel, almost until the end of the East German state in 1989-1990. ​ ​

The quieting of global politics in the 1970s and the new policy of the West German government at the time towards the East, led to a certain softening in East Germany. Many countries gave it formal recognition, and the communist regime relinquished strict Stalinism and tried to improve the standard of life of the country’s residents. This social policy exacted a high price, which the planned Communist economy was unable to withstand for long. The power of the East German economy – one of the strongest in the Communist Bloc, but weak in comparison with the western countries – declined greatly, and citizens were unable to buy much with the money they earned. For most residents of East Germany, access to unobtainable, often essential supplies and products, depended on the black market and personal connections. This situation stood out in stark relief to the ideological image of communist society, which was ostensibly superior to capitalist society. And yet, millions of residents of East Germany were exposed to West German television and radio broadcasts, and gained a growing impression of the actual situation, which was precisely the reverse of what they knew in their own country.

Given this state of affairs, the political leadership adopted some opportunistic measures. One was a sudden move towards closer acquaintance with Jewish issues. In November 1988, the East German Parliament (which was in effect a powerless body) held a memorial event for Kristallnacht, and even established a Jewish historical research center, the “Centrum Judaicum,” in the building of the New Synagogue in Berlin. Through the “Jewish channel,” leaders hoped to forge a better relationship with the American government, and in so doing, to obtain economic benefits.

The program for the ceremony in the East German parliament, in German and faulty Hebrew.

From the 1980s, dissident groups were formed by skeptical citizens, mainly among congregations from the Protestant Church. The secret police tried to permeate these circles and to slow their spread, but in the second half of this decade, the trend was irreversible. More and more citizens submitted official requests to leave the country, others tried to flee through the Soviet Bloc countries, and in the autumn of 1989, hundreds of thousands gathered for a non-violent demonstration against the regime. The political leadership, which comprised mainly elderly members of the establishment who lacked an understanding of the changes of the time, found no suitable answers for the demands of the demonstrators, and in October 1989, the Communist government fell to the pressure of the demonstrations. This time, in contrast to 1953, the leadership in Moscow, headed by Michael Gorbachev, who advanced the reform of Communism (perestroika), did not intervene.

In the stream of events, the opening of the borders on the evening of November 9, 1989, was almost unpreventable. During a press conference on various topics, one communist leader spontaneously declared the decision to enable citizens to travel throughout the world without limit. Following this, thousands of citizens at the border crossings in Berlin gathered, demanding they be opened. Ultimately, the soldiers of the border guard gave in and opened the gates to the west. The opening of the borders changed the dynamics of the “quiet revolution”: From November 9, growing numbers of demonstrators stopped calling for social changes in East Berlin: they now demanded unification with the Federal Republic. And indeed, unification was achieved after discussion with the former Allies (the United States, Soviet Union, England and France) on October 3, 1990.