“I heard that Germany had surrendered” – Memories of VE Day in Mandatory Palestine

With his son still on the front lines, philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann wrote about how the news of victory over the Nazis was received in Jerusalem

Victory Day celebrations, Tel Aviv, May 1945, photo: the Israel Museum

May 2nd: This morning, the news came of Hitler’s death, which passed without making much of an impression, for a number of reasons: because people don’t believe it, or because they were prepared for it, or because, after all that has transpired and still lingers like poison in the soul, the death of the one who was chiefly responsible is no longer significant. There is no joy in the air during this hour of victory, just as there was no excitement at the beginning of the war […]


After five years and eight months, with the unconditional surrender of the Germans on the 8th of May, 1945, World War II came to an end in Europe. It had been the most destructive and cruelest war in human history, involving more than 60 nations and some 110 million soldiers, and it is estimated to have exacted approximately 60 million victims, including six million Jews, the victims of the Holocaust. Vast territories, entire cities and villages across Europe were left in ruins, and millions of people lost their homes.

Stories from the war and its history became the basis of an unfathomable number of literary and cinematic works, as well as scholarly and philosophical studies. Such stories continue to serve the same function today. It goes without saying that an event of this magnitude remained etched in the memories of millions, occupying subsequent generations born years after the war was over.

Victory Day celebrations, Tel Aviv, May 1945, photo: the Israel Museum


May 5th: Two letters from Uri [one of Bergmann’s sons], in which he reports on his meeting with German prisoners. They are human beings like everyone else. May he give one of them a knife to open a can of sardines? Should he give him cigarettes? He wrote about the Jewish soldiers who continued fighting to the end, so that they would not be forced to become prisoners, and asked for my opinion about it. Yesterday I wrote to him. – What times these are! Yesterday I heard a story on the radio about the surrender of the Germans in Holland, Denmark, and northwest Germany. Afterwards, they broadcast the verse from Psalms 126: “We were like dreamers[…]


In European countries, the 8th of May has a special significance, since on that day in 1945, the German Instrument of Surrender to end the war entered into effect. A day earlier, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command had signed it. The surrender ceremony at which the document was signed in the presence of the Western Allies took place on the 7th of May, in the French city of Reims. A similar ceremony took place in the presence of Red Army generals of the Soviet Union in Berlin, on May 9th.

The war had barely reached Mandatory Palestine and its residents, with the exception of the Italian bombing of Tel Aviv in 1940. A greater danger was the presence of large German units in North Africa under the command of General Erwin Rommel, but his defeat in November 1942 at El Alamein put an end to the danger of the conquest of Palestine by the Nazis.


 May 6th: […] When [Yitzchak Ernst] Nebenzahl told me that he had heard on the radio that they would declare Victory Day within a day or two, I used the opportunity to tell him about the pessimism that gripped us, obviating any joy like that in Fichman’s article in “Davar” and in prayer 126 [the verse from Psalms]


Despite this situation, many residents of Mandatory Palestine were involved in the war in one way or another: as refugees from Europe, as soldiers in the Jewish Brigade (a unit in the British Army) or as relatives of European Jews who fell prey to the cruel deeds of the Germans in the framework of the Final Solution and the methodical extermination plan.


May 7th: Praise be to God!!!


The archives of the National Library of Israel contain material that reflects the historical moment of the war’s end and the German surrender. One fascinating example is the diary of philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann.

Bergmann (1883-1975), a native of Prague, immigrated to Palestine in 1920. For 15 years he served as the director of the Jewish National and University Library, today’s National Library of Israel. From 1935 he served as a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The staff of the Jewish National and University Library, summer, 1935; Samuel Hugo Bergmann is seated in the front row, fourth from the right

Like many of his generation, Bergmann kept a diary in which he documented personal issues, but also referenced political developments and general matters. Bergmann wrote his diary entries in German, but used a shorthand method, widely used at the time among speakers of German and other languages. The use of shorthand enabled very quick writing, but it has become something of a secret code, as today we are barely able to decipher it. Luckily, Samuel Hugo Bergmann’s widow, Else, together with a number of other individuals, deciphered his journals and copied the texts into ordinary German.

The page from Bergmann’s diaries describing May 5th-9th, 1945, in shorthand German, the National Library Archives Department

A selection from the diaries was published in Germany in 1985. The original diaries are located, together with other writings and documents, in the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive in the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel.


May 8th and 9th: Two days of peace celebrations. On May 7th in the morning, a lecture by Sir Ronald Davidson on problems in England following the war. On the way, I heard that Germany had surrendered. In the evening, at [David Werner] Senator’s home, during the meeting at 9.30 we learned that the surrender talks had concluded and that they had declared Days of Peace on May 8th and 9th. That same evening, I went with [Else] to Zion [Square], where we saw only drunken soldiers […]


The Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.  

The Student Demonstration against the Nazis and against Anti-Semitism, Munich, 1960

"It is impossible to define anti-Semitic activity as a prank. It is directed not only against the Jewish citizens who live with us, but against the basic rights of our country. What is called for is not punishment, but education!"

On Christmas Eve, 1959, two young, 25-year-old German men scrawled an anti-Semitic slogan and swastikas on the synagogue in the city of Cologne in West Germany, as well as on a monument in memory of the victims of the Nazi regime. Local citizens took note of the deed and called the police. A few days later, the police caught the vandals, who were members of a small extreme right-wing party known as “The German Reich Party.” Although most German citizens were to a certain extent still accustomed to such slogans and to the sight of a desecrated synagogue, the act captured public attention and resonated strongly. Ministers condemned it on the radio, and the still fledgling television stations broadcast special repots about the incident and the progress of the police investigation. The Israeli press also reported the incident, such as the December 27, 1959 article appearing in Davar. On one hand, desecration of the synagogue actually encouraged the occurrence of similar incidents around West Germany, and yet, on the other hand, it also spurred a wave of anti-Fascist demonstrations and public events in which discussions of the incidents were held.

One of the public discussions took place in the city of Munich in February 1960. Residents of the trainee and student dormitories at Massmannplatz, part of a democratic group of young people, called for a meeting in one of the halls of the Technical University for a public discussion about the new-old wave of anti-Semitism and about the necessity of grappling with the Nazi past of Germany and its people. One the speakers at the Munich event was Helmut Hammerschmidt, the Assistant Chief Editor of the Bavarian Broadcasting Authority, whose Jewish father had been murdered during the Nazi period. The organizers of the event, residents of the dormitories, issued a special edition of the organization’s newspaper, which featured reporting on the event – which took place precisely during Carnival, a coincidence of dates which was one of the reasons for the relatively small number of participants. A number of the speeches from the evening in Munich were printed in the newspaper, a copy of which was sent to Israel.

Paradoxically, the anti-Semitic act of the two extremists in the city of Cologne ultimately yielded a positive result: following the desecration of the synagogue, official and unofficial individuals and organizations criticized and condemned German society, and even the German government, which was forced to take concrete steps to initiate a public discussion of Germany’s past up to 1945. One minister in the East German government, who had a very active Nazi past, was forced to resign. Following the event, Chancellor Adenauer visited a former concentration camp for the first time, and participated in a ceremony in memory of its Jewish victims. The Germania Judaica Library in the city of Cologne, established in 1959 on the initiative of the author Heinrich Böll, which focuses on the history of Germany’s Jews, has since developed, and today is presently the most important library of its kind in Germany. A few universities in West Germany established institutes of Jewish studies (Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Freiburg) and in 1963, 25 years after the Kristallnacht pogroms, a large exhibition opened on the history of Germany Jewry, drawing more than 100,0000 visitors. In 1960, David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer met for the first time, and shortly afterwards, student exchanges between the two countries began to take place. In 1965, the two countries also established diplomatic relations.

Translation of the announcement:

Youth Demonstration, Munich

Friday, February 12, 1960, 20:00

Large Physics Hall of the Technical University (Arcisstrasse entrance)

Nazis and Neo-Nazis – Preservers of the Democracy?

Panel Participants: Helmut Hammerschmidt and Representatives of the Community and the Youth

The Past We Haven’t Dealt With – A Motto for our Time.

The recent events require every one of us to grapple with the past and take an unequivocal stand.

We protest the fact that former Nazis who have no reservations about the past occupy key positions. We demand their resignation.

It is impossible to define anti-Semitic activity as a prank. It is directed not only against the Jewish citizens who live with us, but against the basic rights of our country. What is called for is not punishment, but education!

We must no longer remain silent!

Ethical and political apathy endanger the good name of our people and the existence of our democracy.

Therefore, we all want to demonstrate with them

The University Student Council

The Catholic Youth

The German-Israeli Student group

The Protestant Youth

The Youth of the Professional Guilds

The Political Youth Organization, and 16 other youth and student organization

Source: Arvchives Department, V 2115

Marcel Reich-Ranicki and the German Literature

Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor, was the preeminent authority in modern literary criticism in Germany

Who was Marcel Reich-Ranicki? It’s reasonable to assume that many Israelis have never heard of him. In Germany, his name is very well known, mainly among lovers of literature. Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013), a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor, was the preeminent authority in modern literary criticism in Germany. For many years, Germans knew him by the epithet “The Pope of literature.” Although his autobiography was also translated into Hebrew (Life and Literature, 2004), much remains to be known about his fascinating life and public role as the most highly-regarded literary critic in West Germany over many decades.

Reich-Ranicki grew up in his native Poland until age 9, after which he was sent to live with relatives in Berlin. There he studied in the last schools to maintain a liberal character (despite the anti-Semitism raging in Nazi Germany) and even completed his matriculation in 1938. However, by that period, as a Jew, he was already denied the opportunity to continue his studies at a German university. During the deportation from Germany in 1938 of Jews who held Polish citizenship, he, too, was deported to his country of birth. Reich-Ranicki spent the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto, but together with his wife, he succeeded in evading a certain death. Thanks to the assistance of a Polish citizen who helped them, the two were able to remain alive.

After Poland’s liberation from the Nazis, Reich-Ranicki joined the public service in Poland, served briefly as a diplomat in London, and even worked for the Polish secret security services. With time, however, he began clashing with the Communist regime, which in the early the 1950s was characterized by a certain degree of anti-Semitism. In 1958, after a number of years during which he was employed as an editor of German literature for a Polish publisher and by a Polish radio station, Reich-Ranicki decided to flee communist Poland and begin a new life in West Germany, of all places.

Shortly after his move, Reich-Ranicki found his niche as a literary critic, first for the newspaper Die Zeit (1960-1973), and afterwards as the director of the literary section of the prestigious newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (1973-1988). In both papers he was given the privilege of choosing on which works and authors to write critical reviews, according to his discretion and preferences. In this role, Reich-Ranicki published many book reviews and offered a stage to young German authors who transformed the literary style in Germany after World War II, such as Wolfgang Koeppen, Thomas Bernhard and Heinrich Böll. From 1988-2001, he hosted a television program, “The Literary Quartet,” in which he presented literary works and writers, together with other expert guests. In this manner, Reich-Ranicki exposed a broad audience to new works, keeping literature in the spotlight of public discourse. The program was very popular and proved that cultural content can be conveyed at a high level to broad audiences through television. Reich-Ranicki’s views were not always accepted by the writers and their readerships, but they had a strong influence on the success of books and writers. In addition, Reich-Ranicki published literary anthologies, essentially compilations of a “canon,” featuring the best of German literature that was in his opinion worth of becoming part of Germany’s literary heritage.

Reich-Ranicki visited Israel several times and was in contact with outstanding Israeli intellectuals, such as the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem. The Scholem Archive, maintained at the National Library, contains a number of letters sent by Reich-Ranicki to his Jerusalem acquaintance. In one of them, from 1967, Reich-Ranicki invited Scholem to contribute an article about the character and work of German author Heinrich Böll (later to win the Nobel Prize in literature). Reich-Ranicki intended to publish a collection of articles about the author, whom he held in high esteem, and thought it befitting to also include an article by Scholem. It would be very interesting to know why the editor of the planned collection on Böll deemed it important to include the opinions of the scholar of mysticism, but the mystery, for the meantime, remains unsolved. Undoubtedly, Gershom Scholem asked himself this very question, and subsequently declined the offer to contribute a text. The book was indeed published a year later, but without a contribution from the Jerusalem scholar.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s letter to Gershom Scholem

David Ben Gurion Meets Conrad Adenauer in New York, 1960

At the beginning of 1960, Israeli and West German leaders decided that it was time for a certain détente. This took the form of an official meeting between the two head statesmen: David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer

An article from "Davar" journal (March 15, 1960) about the meeting between Ben Gurion and Adenauer

In 1960, just 15 years after the Holocaust, the possibility of a meeting taking place between official representatives of Israel and Germany was not to be taken for granted. The memory of the Nazi crimes and the silence of most of the German population was still very fresh among Holocaust survivors and in Israel society overall. While certain ties had already been forged during the negotiations over the reparations agreement around 1952, reactions among the Israeli public proved that even this realm of contact was unacceptable among part of the Israeli population.

The question of establishing official diplomatic relations between the two countries hovered continually over the formal and informal liaisons. During the signing of the reparations agreement, the German side signaled that it was prepared for such a step, but the Israeli side was reluctant, basing its hesitation on the grounds that it was still too early to go so far as full-fledged diplomatic relations. In the mid-1950s, the positions reversed: Israel was prepared in theory for the establishment of formal relations with West Germany, but the German side was holding back, because of the broader political context. It feared the response of the Arab countries, and in particular, the latter’s recognition of East Germany, which the West German leadership did not want, in keeping with the Hallstein Doctrine; according to this doctrine, the government in Bonn sought to isolate the eastern part of Germany, which it did not recognize as an independent country. Every country that did recognize East Germany found itself in a diplomatic crisis with West Germany. This is the primary reason that delayed the actual establishment of relations with Israel until 1965.

Despite this, at the beginning of 1960, Israeli and West German leaders decided that it was time for a certain détente. This took the form of an official meeting between the two head statesmen: David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer. To this end, the two sides decided that while they were in New York for visits on other official business, they would stay at the same hotel, the prestigious Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Only two floors separated the rooms of the two politicians. Many journalists heard rumors about the planned meeting and waited in the hotel corridors hoping to photograph and report on the “historical moment.” Ben Gurion, who was 73 at the time, decided – as the younger of the two – to go downstairs to the suite of Konrad Adenauer, who was then 84 years old. When the two statesmen met – the socialist Ben Gurion and the conservative Adenauer – it quickly became apparent that the “chemistry” between them was excellent. They enjoyed conversing with one another, and for two hours spoke in a pleasant atmosphere, despite the historical shadow of the Holocaust and World War II. This, of course, was one of the topics they discussed. The fact that Adenauer had not been appreciated by the Nazis (who had deposed him from his post as mayor of Cologne in 1933) was certainly known by the Israeli side, and made both the decision to hold the meeting and the dialogue with Ben Gurion easier.

During the conversation, the two men discussed various topics, such as monetary support for Israel, the provision of arms to the IDF, problems of integrating new immigrants into Israel, the kibbutz movement, and the political situation in the world overall. The positive conversation led to an agreement on financial support for Israel for many years, and ultimately, also to the establishment of diplomatic relations five years later. Upon Ben Gurion’s return to Israel, fierce opposition awaited him from the political right, which viewed any official contact with German representatives as a betrayal of the victims of the Holocaust. In 1965, when the two countries exchanged ambassadors, Adenauer and Ben Gurion were no longer in office as heads of state, but they continued their written correspondence. In 1966, Adenauer came to Israel on a private visit, during which he met with Ben Gurion at Sde Boker. A year later, Ben Gurion traveled to Germany for a state ceremony in honor of Adenauer, who had died at age 91. The first prime minister of the State of Israel thus paid his final respects to the first chancellor of Germany.

The Israeli press intensively followed the meeting between the two leaders in 1960, as well as the topic of relations between the two countries. The newspapers published articles, photographs and also caricatures. One of the leading caricaturists was Kariel Gardosh, known to most Israelis as “Dosh” (1921-2000). His caricatures accompanied Israeli politics and society for many years, mainly in Maariv, but also in published collections of his work. Clearly, the developing political ties between Israel and Germany became a topic of Dosh’s caricatures, such as the cartoon he illustrated following the meeting between Adenauer and Ben Gurion. A careful look at the picture reveals that Dosh had certain reservations regarding the meeting. Dosh himself was a Holocaust survivor, and he lost most of his family members, who were murdered in Hungary. The two characters in the illustration – the Jewish survivor and the former (?) Nazi – seem each in his own way to fail to understand how times have changed.

Source: Dosh Archive, Archives Department, ARC. 4* 1793 07 21