Erich Kästner’s Poems in Hebrew, 1965

Kästner sympathized with the Zionist idea and even visited Israel a number of times. Some of his books were translated into Hebrew already in the 1930s

​For decades, German author Erich Kästner (1899-1974) was one of the best-known German authors in Israel. His international acclaim – his children’s books have been translated into over 40 languages – also reached Israel. His books Lottie and Lisa, Dot and Anton, The 35th of May, and others, met with a large, enthusiastic audience: Hebrew readers, young and old. Due to the sensitive nature of all matters pertaining to Germany, in most of the early translations to Hebrew, names of both the characters and places were changed. Locations in Germany were moved or assigned Hebrew names that transported them far from the geographic reality. Only the new translations by Michael Dak reinstated the original names and places.

In the days of the Weimar Republic, Erich Kästner worked as a journalist and even wrote poems and prose (for example, Fabian, a novel in fragments). His works were burned in 1933, when the Nazis destroyed many books that were not to their liking or whose authors were Jews. Despite the political situation, Kästner remained in Germany during all the years of the Third Reich, but published his books only in Switzerland. The Nazis arrested him a number of times, and in 1943, banned all of his publications, even outside of Germany. After War War II, the author resumed writing in newspapers and continued authoring children’s novels (such as Lottie and Lisa, 1949). Kästner sympathized with the Zionist idea and even visited Israel a number of times. Some of his books were translated into Hebrew already in the 1930s.

Front side of a postcard sent by Kästner to the Israeli writer Moshe Ya’akov Ben Gavriel

Erich Kästner’s works, however, are not limited to children’s books and a few adult novels. Kästner wrote poetry, and also appealed to the general public with the hope that they would read his poems not only on special occasions, but on a daily basis. One example are Doctor Erich Kästner’s Lyrical Medicine Chest, which was published in 1936 by the Atrium Press in Zurich. In this volume, Kästner wanted to provide his readers poems that are suitable to various moods of the soul whose remedies, according to the poet, are humor, anger, apathy, irony, reflection and exaggeration. Kästner viewed these poems as “homeopathic home remedies” for personal use. Kästner even added a user’s guide of sorts that explains which poems should be read for which mood. Here, the reader finds terms such as old age, loneliness, laziness, insensitivity, illness, dreams and more. This collection of poems was very popular among readers, and was even partially translated into Hebrew in a handsome edition published in 1965 by the art press Ekked, but omitting the poet’s “instructions”. Kästner’s poems were translated by Yehudah Ofan, interspersed with drawings by Chaim Nahor. Yonah Coleman created specially-designed font for the poem texts and the books were published on exclusive light-brown paper.

It may be that it is only a coincidence that this translation was published in 1965, the first year of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, but it is also possible that this choice of the poems of Erich Kästner, well-liked in Israel, was intended to acquaint the Israeli readership with an additional aspect of German literature, and in this case, even poetry filled with irony and humor, but that is also thoughtful and deep.

Cover of the Hebrew translation of the Lyrical Medicine Chest, and the first page of the German original volume

First Auschwitz Trial in Germany, 1963-1965

In keeping with the legal interpretation accepted at the time in Germany, there was a statue of limitations on every act of Nazis against Jews and against people with anti-Nazi views, with the exception of murder. Through these documents, it was possible to connect concrete murder cases with concrete people, enabling a legal investigation against the perpetrators.

​Near the small town of Auschwitz (Oświęcim) in Poland, beginning in 1940, the SS established a giant concentration camp, and next to it, an extermination camp as well: Auschwitz-Birkenau. At this camp, the Nazis developed a method of mass extermination in gas chambers, which operated with a merciless industrial efficiency. It is estimated that over one million people were murdered in this camp or died from extreme forced labor while it was in operation. Over 8,000 SS personnel served in Auschwitz, and collaborated in the collective murder that took place over almost five years, until the day the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. This is the date that was established as a memorial day for Holocaust victims in Germany in 1996 (prior to this there was no such day), and in 2005 – 60 years after the liberation, January 27 became International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

​Over 8,000 SS personnel operated in this largest of concentration camps: this group should have been at the focus of attention of litigators and of the courts after WWII. As long as Germany was not a sovereign country, that is, until 1949, the legal institutions of the Allies tried to bring criminals who took part in the planning and execution of the extermination to trial. These efforts yielded the Nuremberg Trials immediately after the end of the war.

The first commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was sentenced to death by a Polish court in 1947 and hung on the grounds of the Auschwitz Camp that year. Until then he had been one of the only chief responsible SS officers in Auschwitz to be brought before a court.

After the establishment of the two German states, the legal processing of Holocaust crimes was not at the center of attention of the legal authorities or the public in general. The ideology in East Germany dictated that according to the definition of the state as anti-Fascist by nature, there was no need to take responsibility for the deeds of the Nazis, since they were concentrated in the western part of Germany. In West Germany, some members of the legal and economic elite returned to their former posts and saw to it that Holocaust-related topics and inhumane behavior would not be raised for public discussion. For the most part, the citizens of both states accepted this approach without protest.

Beyond this, most of the civilians were busy with reconstructing the devastated country, and dealing with everyday life. Here and there, isolated trials were held against leading Nazis and SS officers, but until the 1950s, most of the public believed that a line had to be drawn at the end of the Nazi period, and that everything in the previous period should be let lie. However, not everyone was of this opinion. Among those opposed to the prevailing attitude were a number of lawyers in the city of Frankfurt, mainly in the Office of the Hessen District Attorney, Fritz Bauer (1903-1968).

A catalogue of an exhibition about the Hessen District Attorney, Fritz Bauer, 2014

In 1959, a former Auschwitz inmate submitted a complaint against one of the SS officers in the camp, a man named Wilhelm Boger. The former inmate identified Boger on the streets of Stuttgart. At the same time, a Frankfurt journalist submitted documents to the District Attorney in the state of Hessen. These documents contained reports of the deeds of Nazis in Auschwitz and mentioned the names of Nazis who murdered prisoners and even the names of their victims.

In keeping with the legal interpretation accepted at the time in Germany, there was a statue of limitations on every act of Nazis against Jews and against people with anti-Nazi views, with the exception of murder. Through these documents, it was possible to connect concrete murder cases with concrete people, enabling a legal investigation against the perpetrators.

The General Prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, who was of Jewish origin but did not define himself as a man of faith (he was a member of the Social-Democratic Party), pushed the investigations forward and transferred them to young prosecutors who were not tainted with Nazi ideology. For four years, these prosecutors collected documents, evidence and testimony, and even relied on collaboration with the International Auschwitz Committee (an organization of former camp inmates), mainly with then chairman of the organization, Hermann Langbein. During the investigation, the prosecutors identified 20 criminals who had operated in Auschwitz, among them, the last commander of the camp, Richard Baer, and the assistant commander, Robert Mulka. Baer died during his imprisonment, such that ultimately, 19 people were brought to trial. During the case, 360 witnesses from different countries took to the witness stand, and trips were even conducted to the site of the camp in Auschwitz, in order to carry out on-site verification of the claims of the accused and the witnesses. The trial went on from 1963 to 1965, and attracted the attention of the media and the public in Germany and elsewhere. Punishments were meted out for 17 defendants, six of whom were given life sentences, and 11 more who were sentenced to 14-year prison terms.

Following the trial, additional follow-up trials were held, all against a smaller number of defendants. In total, in all of the Auschwitz trials in Germany, only 60 defendants were stood trial: 60 out of 8,000. In contrast, in Poland, the number brought to trial exceeded 600.

And yet, in total, no more than 10% of the camp guards in Auschwitz were forced to appear before the court. This number illustrates that the topic was not sufficiently confronted, certainly not in Germany. At the same time, the Auschwitz trials were not a complete failure. Through the testimonies and reports in the German media, many dealt for the first time with the bitter reality of the period of the Third Reich, and did so from the perspective of the Nazi victims. Together with the discussions of cases of anti-Semitism (such as the desecration of the Cologne Synagogue in 1959) and the Eichmann Trial, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials were a landmark in public grappling with Germany’s past and its ethical obligation towards the victims.

One of the examples of existing interest in the topic, an interest that continues to grow, is the large number of books published beginning in 1965 that deal with various aspects of the Auschwitz Trials. Among these books are analyses of the testimonies and the fate of those criminals who were pursued, materials documenting the trials, publication of sources and also a comprehensive catalogue on the character of Fritz Bauer.

Documentation for the Auschwitz trial, by Hermann Langbein, 1965
The first part of the publication of important sources for the Auschwitz trial, 2013
A monograph in English about the first Auschwitz trial, 2010

The German Martin and the Jewish Mordechai: A Meeting between Buber and Heidegger, 1957

For over fifty years, hiding away in the Mordechai Martin Buber’s archives was a series of photographs in an envelope, labeled: “unidentified.” Did the hand that wrote this, and chose to archive these photos, do so intentionally, out of a fear of the visual representation, the unequivocal and patently clear proof of the friendly meeting between Buber and Martin Heidegger? And why did this meeting become a fact that needed to be played down, if not enshrouded in a fog of uncertainty?

A photograph of the participants in the meeting. Front center: Heidegger and Buber

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, became a controversial figure after WWII. Heidegger was among the most prominent of the many German intellectuals who collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Third Reich, or at least, identified with it and took no position against it. As an original and seminal thinker who placed human experience at the center of his thought and viewed humanity as the supreme cause of everything, Heidegger had a profound influence on Jewish intellectuals of his day, mainly among German Jewry.

Heidegger was an outstanding student of the German-Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and with the latter’s retirement in 1928, was selected to replace him at the University of Freiburg. His most important book, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), published in 1927, was dedicated with admiration to his teacher Edmund Husserl, even though in effect, the book took a stand against some of Husserl’s foundational assumptions, and some viewed this dedication as a key to understanding the deep and complex relationship between two generations of philosophers.

In 1933, with the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Heidegger warmly welcomed their emergence. Just a few months after Hitler took over the national government, Heidegger officially joined the Nazi Socialist Party, and as a mark of distinction for this step, he was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, a job from which he resigned after just one year of office. During that year, Heidegger took various steps intended to gratify the government, including various racially based attacks on Jewish colleagues.

One of the symbolic acts for which Heidegger was condemned and his reputation blackened as a Nazi collaborator was the directive to revoke the privileges of his elderly teacher, Husserl, as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg, due to his Jewish origins (even though Husserl had converted to Christianity). In the second edition of Being and Time, published in 1941, Heidegger, apparently under pressure from the publishers, removed the dedication to Husserl. Hannah Arendt, who was one of Heidegger’s best known students, and of whose intimate relationship with him much has been written, claimed that with this harsh attack of a student against his teacher, Heidegger hastened Husserl’s end, and even indirectly caused his death. Heidegger’s problematic relationship with Hitler and Nazism was even more clearly manifested by the way in which it percolated into his philosophical thought. His book Introduction to Metaphysics (Einführung in die Metaphysik), published in 1935, for example, included excerpts from a speech he delivered at the University of Freiburg in which he justified the supremacy of Hitler’s rule and the Third Reich.

After WWII, Heidegger was a pariah. The attempts to clear his name, – even by Jewish students such as Hannah Arendt – actually led to a reverse result. His philosophy, like his personality, was considered an abomination among many within and outside of Germany. The connection between him and Martin Buber after the Shoah therefore seems impossible, even for a liberal person such as Buber, who preceded many in his forgiving approach to Germany and the Germans. In Martin Buber’s biography by Maurice Friedman, Friedman quotes Buber’s writings, according to which “Heidegger the man was much more, in my view, than his writings.” Elsewhere, Buber is quoted as saying that all he had to state in condemnation of Heidegger had already been written when it happened, and therefore, there was no point in revisiting past events. However, Buber never related to Heidegger in his writings or public statements. Heidegger, for his part and quite surprisingly, testified in one of his interviews in the West-German media that he knew Buber’s name “from hearsay only,” and never knew him personally. At the same time, there is no doubt that Heidegger was very familiar with Buber’s writings, and even pressured the publisher of the festschrift in honor of his fiftieth birthday to approach Buber and ask him to translate an article for the volume. Buber refused, claiming that his failing health due to age prevented him from accommodating the request.

Buber and Heidegger by the coffee table. Second on the left: Martin Buber, second on the right: Martin Heidegger

Any mutual fear of public friendship and the fog surrounding the personal relations between the two evaporates in this series of photographs, which documents a friendly and warm meeting held in the late spring of 1957. With the picturesque Alps in the background, the two men met for two full days at the castle of Prince Albrecht von Schaumburg-Lippe, during which they discussed the preparation of an international conference on language (“Die Sprache”). The prince who hosted the two philosophers in his castle was the brother-in-law of Clemens Graf von Podewils, 1905-1978, who at the time was director of the Bavarian Academy of the Arts in Munich. Another partner in organizing the historical meeting between the German philosopher and the Jewish philosopher was Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a physicist and philosopher of science in his own right, and the older brother of the president of West Germany elected in 1984. These two facilitators were organizing the conference under the auspices of the Bavarian Academy and wanted to summon Buber and Heidegger to a discussion on its content and goals. The meeting between the two was held, therefore, in a pleasant atmosphere, far from the public eye.

A personal dedication by Heidegger in his book about Hebel: “To Martin Buber, with honest admiration, Martin Heidegger, Altreuthe, 29th May, 1957” FacebookYouTubeInstagramTwitterRSSAdd This ​Zur deutschsprachigen Seite >> Martin Buber – Milestones in his life Selected items from his archive at the National Library. Ask Search Order Visit Participate

Buber conceded, according to the testimony of one of the participants, that immediately a bold friendship took hold between these two elderly men, who were unafraid of mocking the prejudices against Jews on the one hand, and against the Nazi rector on the other. In the photographs, the two can be seen smiling, and in a few of them, Paula Buber appears, sitting alongside her husband at one of their shared outdoor meals. Ultimately, due to Paula Buber’s sudden death just a few months later, Martin Buber cancelled his participation in the conference, and it was therefore not held as planned.

The fascinating discussions between Buber and Heidegger at that historic meeting were recorded with characteristic fastidiousness and precision by von Weizsäcker, who understood the historical significance of this once in a lifetime dialogue. Blame, atonement and forgiveness were some of the topics discussed between the two, a Jewish philosopher of religion and a Christian philosopher who denounced religion, united to a great extent by their interest in the relationship between man and the Divine.

Letter of the Author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel to His Friend in Germany regarding the Future German Ambassador to Israel, 1963

Among the letters preserved in his personal archive in the National Library one can find correspondences with individuals in Germany discussing the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries

Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel, 1963

Author Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel (Eugen Hoeflic, 1891-1965), was born in Vienna. Early in his career, he was active in his home city as a writer and editor. During WWI, he served as an officer in the Austrian Army, and in this capacity, visited Jerusalem where he discovered his connection to the Land of Israel and the languages spoken here.
In 1927 he emigrated together with his wife, and the couple settled in Jerusalem. In Palestine Ben-Gavriel worked as a journalist and wrote mainly for European newspapers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but also for Jewish and non-Jewish papers in France, England, the United States, Czechoslovakia and other countries. The outbreak of WWII significantly reduced his realms of employment, since most of the newspapers for which he wrote were closed by the Nazis or changed orientation, and articles about the Middle East by a Jewish journalist no longer had a place.

During that time, Ben-Gavriel began to write novels and short stories. Following reports of a Nazi invasion, he wrote Das Haus in der Karpfengasse, perhaps his most important book, in which he describes the fate of Jewish and non-Jewish residents of a fictional house in Prague during the first two weeks after the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

After WWII ended, Ben-Gavriel resumed working as a journalist, but he continued writing novels, stories and radio plays, almost exclusively in German.

His works were also published in Hebrew, but only as translations from the German original. Already in the 1950s Ben-Gavriel became very popular in Germany, of all places. By this time, most of his books were light and humoristic, and relayed a picture of the young Israeli society to German readers. His works gained a large readership in Germany. Due to his success, Ben-Gavriel traveled frequently to Germany and toured among diverse audiences. He read aloud from his writings, was invited to speak on the radio, and became a sought-after interviewee among German intellectuals and cultural figures. This activity and his rich correspondence are testimony to the cautious contacts between Israeli and German cultural figures during the early years after the Holocaust.

Among the letters preserved in his personal archive in the National Library one can find correspondences with individuals in Germany discussing the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The letters reveal that Ben-Gavriel supported the idea in no uncertain terms.

Among other things, he exchanged views with Dr. Franz Schierholz, a cultural figure and activist in the rapprochement between the two countries in the 1950s and 60s.

The letter presented here suggests that Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel was exposed to rumors regarding who would be appointed as the German ambassador and that these rumors were not to his liking. Ben-Gavriel attributes to the letter’s recipient, Franz Schierholz, the ability to exert his influence in the matter, and he tries to warn the German side against making an unsuitable choice for the sensitive job. It is not known to what extent the letter affected the ultimate outcome, but it is an interesting fact that Ben-Gavriel was so interested and involved in the topic of appointing the first German ambassador to the State of Israel.

Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel’s letter to Franz Schierholz

The letter (translated from the German):


Honorable Herr Doctor,

Many thanks for your letter and particularly the news regarding the likelihood of establishing diplomatic relations; of late, the matter has also been addressed in Der Spiegel. Since I know that you maintain particular ties, I would like to draw your attention to the matter in which certain dangers inhere. To the best of my knowledge, at least two journalists in Bonn – perhaps even more – are trying to secure the position of ambassador to Jerusalem, but they bear no particular advantage beyond the fact that for a number of years they have chosen Israel as a life’s profession. I believe that it is imperative to make every effort possible in order to prevent this erroneous selection, also since a few of them have close ties with Adenauer. In order to arrange the complex affairs here, what is necessary, in my opinion, is an experienced diplomat who brings with him all of the necessary tact, which a publicist cannot offer, by virtue of his profession. Since you also place a value on the proper development of ties, I would like to place this matter at your discretion and I ask, if you agree with me, to take the necessary steps on the matter. It is desirable to do so before they make their final decision. I ask you to relate to this letter as confidential and not to mention my name in this context.

[The last part of the letter has not been translated out of respect for the author’s privacy.]

All the best to you and your family,

[Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel]