It Sounds Better in French… or Does It?

What happened when rabbinic courts in Morocco were under the authority of the French colonial government?

A "Ketubah", a traditional Jewish marriage contract from Kenitra, Morocco, 1951, the National Library of Israel

You never know what you’re going to find in an archive. A single, seemingly innocent page might be evidence of something quite large. That was certainly the experience of NLI archivists while cataloging the mid-20th century archive of the Beit Din of Kenitra (also called Port Lyautey), a costal Moroccan town north of Casablanca.

Archives of rabbinical courts and Jewish self-governing institutions are common. They tend to contain summaries of court decisions and the reasons behind them, notarized agreements or receipts, copies of standard contracts or documentation, or details of appointments and administration of the court. They differ of course from time to time or place to place, but there are many commonalities. One of those commonalities is the insistence that internal Jewish communal and court records appear in Jewish languages whether forms of Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, or others.

Medieval and early modern Jews benefitted from a great deal of cultural and political autonomy. Local non-Jewish officials granted the Jewish community rights and obligations, expecting Jews to regulate their own internal affairs, raise money for Jewish use, pay taxes to local governments, litigate disputes, and generally keep community members in line. Jewish communities were granted authority to tax members, and even punish them with fines, excommunication, and sometimes corporal punishment. Jewish communities functioned as autonomous governments over the Jewish residents.

Naturally, governance requires record keeping. The Jewish languages in these records made life easier for communal leaders, and the documentation was designed to keep internal Jewish affairs in the hands of Jews, particularly the leaders themselves. Take a typical pinkas, or record book, from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.

A pinkas (record book) from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main  (1552-1802), the National Library of Israel

The community leaders kept their records in a language that only Jews could understand, and in many cities restricted access to those record books even from lay Jews. Only community leaders could get access to them.

Similar documents exist from Jewish communities in the Arab world, where Jewish communal legislation was recorded in manuscripts that summarized the local communal bylaws, regarding things such as appointment to leadership positions, taxation, sumptuary laws, and fines or punishments for disobedience. One such document, an example of among literally hundreds of similar ones held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, includes lists of 18th-19th century Jewish communal ordinances from Fez and Meknes in Hebrew, written in professional scribal hand.

A pinkas containing 18th and 19th century records of the Jewish communities of Fez and Meknes, written in Hebrew, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Court decisions, contracts, and receipts were also recorded, again largely in Jewish languages. One example, from the NLI’s collection, documents a 1753 Hebrew-language agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds. He would gain exclusive rights to sell his wares to Jews, in exchange for a fee he would pay to the communal coffers.

A 1753 Hebrew-language contract containing an agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds, the National Library of Israel

Records like these provided important resources when problems arose, someone violated a rule or agreement, or an issue came to be adjudicated. Laypeople also needed documentation of economic transactions, in case of disagreement after financial deals. But, since Jewish communities were largely autonomous, responsible for their own affairs, there was no need to make Jewish documents accessible to non-Jews by using the local vernacular.

But the archival materials from the Beit Din of Kenitra in the mid-twentieth century held by the NLI were not in rabbinic Hebrew, but in French. Jews in Morocco spoke French during the colonial era, but it is not common at all to find rabbinical courts or halakhic documentation conducted in the vernacular. Why, then, would the Beit Din use French?

The answer stems from significant reforms that the French colonial government in Morocco made in regulating Batei Din [rabbinic courts]. To understand these reforms, it helps to compare the situation to Jewish courts that exist in the two biggest centers of Jewish life today, the United States and Israel. The model in the United States, where religious courts have no formal governmental authority whatsoever, involves entirely voluntary institutions. The government has little say in how they operate, and those courts act only for themselves and their constituents. The model in Israel is the reverse. Some religious courts are formally part of the state itself. They have no independence at all from the state.

But the French colonial government in Morocco offered a different, hybrid, suggestion. The colonial government wanted to reform the relationship between the Beit Din and the colonial authorities. Beginning in 1918, the French protectorate began to systematically reform Jewish communities and their institutions, modernizing them by limiting their authority and linking them to new, modern bureaucracy. They created Jewish rabbinic courts that would operate based on Jewish laws, but would be subject to the oversight of the colonial authorities, who would authorize the Batei Din to make decisions about internal Jewish affairs, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and family law. Once the Jewish court had acted, the French Protectorate required systematic information about decisions, personal statuses, litigants’ obligations, or divorce settlements and their financial consequences. The French Protectorate demanded that the Jewish Beit Din take responsibility for personal status, and therefore also take responsibility for systematically reporting things to the government.

A French document from the archive of the  Kenitra Beit Din containing a statistical summary of past court decisions, including marriages and divorces, between 1944 and 1964, the National Library of Israel

This created new record-keeping responsibilities for the court. They could not simply run their own business, by Jews for Jews, in Jewish languages. Instead, the French and local authorities required systematical paperwork from the Jewish community. The Beit Din would collate its decisions about personal status, translate the decisions into French, and send them off to the local authorities. This practice continued even after Moroccan independence in 1956. The archive of the court in Kenitra includes such reports for the years 1944-1964. It even includes some long-term statistics, summarizing the total number of marriages and divorces performed during those years.

In terms of the content, the archive of the Kenitra court is fairly typical. But the small change in language is actually a microcosm of much more dramatic changes taking place in the relationship between Moroccan Jews, colonial Europeans, and local Muslim populations.


The Kenitra Beit Din Archive has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.










Protestant Lord George Gordon, AKA Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu

Eccentric politician Lord George Gordon spent most of his peculiar life rallying against Catholics and exasperating the King of England, until he decided, after his first stint in prison, to convert to Judaism. Thus, protestant Lord George Gordon would come to be known as the holy Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu.

Lord George Gordon, The Birmingham Moses, printed by: William Dent, Published by: J Dickie, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

The “malicious, seditious and libelous Lord George Gordon” (in the words of Australian Rabbi Ronald Lubofski) may not have immediately caught the attention of the National Library of Israel. After all, what does a Protestant politician, who spent most of his life rallying against Catholics and being labelled as a madman and a nuisance to the King of England, have to do with us? The answer would probably have been nothing at all, had he not decided after his first stint in prison, to, of all things, convert to Judaism. Lord George Gordon would come to be known as Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu, and live his final years as a faithful(ish) Jew. This is his wild story.

Born in London to rich parents of Scottish nobility and a long line of dukes, George Gordon had every privilege available to a young boy, except for a sane family. His parents were first cousins, and both considered to be a screw short of a toolkit. Only a year after George was born in 1751, his father died, leaving him alone with his peculiar mother and a step-father not much older than himself!

But at least he didn’t spend too long in his bizarre childhood home. By age 11, he was enrolled in boarding school at Eton, but soon ditched the studies for a sailor’s life in the Royal Navy. It was here that he was first considered to be an eccentric, as he petitioned for something wholly unsavory to the upper class at that time: better rights and working conditions for working-class sailors. This penchant for human rights meant that Gordon was never promoted to anything beyond the rank of lieutenant, and he eventually decided to hand in his notice upon finding out that his regiment would be shipped (literally) off to America to fight for the British colony. A believer in American independence, another view which made him liable to claims of insanity, Gordon had no wish to fight against his beliefs, so he quit his maritime role.

The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 29 October 1993, ‘“Lord George Gordon (Israel ben Avraham ha-Ger)”, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

George Gordon thus found himself a rich and unemployed bachelor in London in the early 1770s, and like many other men of his stature, he turned to a career in politics. Rich white Protestants in those years were reaping the benefits of a system totally in their favor, but our 22-year-old protagonist set out to campaign predominantly for the black community, slaves, and better social conditions for the poor. The working class obviously adored him for this, but his fellow politicians thought him strange indeed. Regardless, feeling nostalgic for his Scottish past, he set out to run for MP (Member of Parliament) of Inverness-Shire, a working-class county in which he was most popular. Unsettled by the competition, the existing MP for Inverness-Shire put some hefty financial pressure on the Gordon family, promising that if George pulled out of the race for this seat, he would make sure that he won a seat in another borough instead. And that is how George Gordon became Lord George Gordon, MP of Ludgershall, South England (If you aren’t familiar with UK geography, this is about as far away from Scotland as you can get!)

But George Gordon was not particularly adept for the House of Parliament. He roused the support of his fellows by berating the opposition party with rousing speeches, but would just as eagerly rain down thunderous criticisms of his own party! He was fiercely opposed to the American War of Independence raging at the time, and spoke out against the King on more than one occasion (a crime for which the punishment would have been death if he was believed to have been sane). The good news was that for all of his theatrics, people didn’t take Lord George all too seriously, and he got away with his antics with nothing more than eye-rolls and head-shakes.

Elsewhere in England, by the 1770s, the once-persecuted Catholics had been regaining their freedoms after some years of anti-papal discrimination. As such, Parliament proposed repealing the law which banned Catholics from fighting in the British Army. Lord George, however, may not have been as crazy as we might think, for he saw through these supposed pro-Catholic sympathies and knew that this bill was just a rouse to enlist more soldiers to fight against the Americans. With this in mind, he started campaigning to entrench the law which stripped Catholics of their rights. These anti-Catholic campaigns, paired with his background as a member of a vehemently Protestant family, resulted in him being elected as the President of the Protestant Association in 1779.

Gordon while head of the Protestant Association, Adamsk commonswiki, via Wikimedia Commons

His following grew rapidly, and aroused the sympathy of Protestants around England and Scotland, and on June 2nd 1780, he led a demonstration, 60,000 strong, to protest Catholic emancipation. As Gordon entered the Houses of Parliament, the huge crowd rioted outside. Gordon ran in and out of Parliament, alternatively delivering stirring speeches about the misplaced loyalties and anti-nationalism of the Catholic Church, and reporting on the internal proceedings to the eagerly waiting crowd outside. With all this excitement, “The Gordon Riots” began in earnest, with shouts of “no popery” heard all over London. Catholic chapels were burnt, houses pillaged, and politicians beaten up. It was days until the army restored command with their shoot-to-kill orders, but by then close to 500 people had died in the riots and exactly a week later, when the ruckus had quietened somewhat, Lord Gordon was arrested for high treason against King and country.

Artist’s depiction of the Gordon Riots, from King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780, Christopher Hibbert, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, cover image by R. Bran

Author Lloyd Paul Stryker wrote that Gordon had acted “most wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously did ordain, prepare, and levy public war against our said lord, the King”, but Gordon hired the phenomenal lawyer Thomas Erskine as his defense, who argued that Gordon had not intended to insight treason and could thus plead not-guilty. The jury also considered Gordon fit for an insanity plea and thus found him innocent. But in the 9 months of waiting that had proceeded the trial, George Gordon had seemingly done some teshuva, and was now reconsidering his lifestyle.

Lord George Gordon, The Birmingham Moses, printed by: William Dent, Published by: J Dickie, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

There is no known reason that Lord George Gordon decided, in these 9 months of uncertainty, that Judaism was the path for him. But The Australian Israelite newspaper posits that the violent rifts within Christianity led him to seek a religion which was less divided, and that the “uniformity” and rigidity of Judaism may have been a safe-haven for him at a time of such uncertainty. We do know that Gordon exchanged some letters with other Jews during those months, seeking to learn more about the religion. He also started practicing Hebrew and petitioned the London Jewish community for political and financial support. Some actually say that his conversion was done purely out of greed. His main electorate had until now been the working class, and he possibly hoped to raise funds within the Jewish community to help secure a more affluent borough in the next elections.

Either way, by the end of his 9-month trial, he had written to Rabbi Tevele Schiff of Duke Street Synagogue, the Chief Rabbi of London, asking to be accepted as a Jew. He was declined. Rabbi Schiff was unclear about Gordon’s motives and turned the eccentric former MP away. But this didn’t deter Gordon. He instead traveled north to Birmingham, where another large Jewish community resided. After donating 100 pounds, a significant amount of money in those days, to the Singer’s Hill Synagogue, he was given the honor of reading a misheberach (benediction) in synagogue, and Birmingham’s Rabbi Jacob agreed to convert him. Gordon underwent Brit Millah, learned Torah, started praying daily, grew a beard, donned a kippah, and started keeping the laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Once an accepted member of the Jewish community, he returned to London where he attended synagogue services and again brought community acceptance with some generous financial contributions.

Tevele Schiff (Chief Rabbi of London), original oil painting in the possession of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi D Rabbi Yosef Herman Hertz, the Avraham Shwadron Portrait Collection, the National Library of Israel

He renamed himself Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu, dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing, and took off with his tefillin in tow, to Paris. In France, he spent his free time getting on Marie Antoinette’s nerves and making enemies with the French ambassador Jean-Ablthazar d’Adhemar, who sent out a warrant for his arrest. Instead of accepting defeat, Gordon fled to the Netherlands, but they didn’t particularly want him either and dispatched him back to England with a second warrant on his head. Returning to the UK, he pledged to keep a low profile, but in 1786 he was called to bear witness in a Christian legal trial which was taking place on Shabbat. Gordon plainly refused his civic duty to travel to the court on his sabbath and after so long spent dodging the law, he was finally sentenced to five years of incarceration in Newgate Prison.

The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), 22 August 1969, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Lord George Gordon remained religious, putting on his tallit every morning, and creating a minyan from the prison’s selection of Polish Jewish immigrants. He hired a Jewish maid to cook kosher prison food for him, ordered kosher meat, wine and Challah for Shabbat and often invited the other prisoners to feast with him. But Gordon was still far from being a nice Jewish boy. He was also hugely judgmental, saying that Jews who didn’t grow a beard were “shameful” and refusing to give charity to anyone who he didn’t consider pious enough. He wouldn’t interact with any Jew who didn’t keep the mitzvot to their fullest extent, and looked down upon those less religious than him.

The Australian Jewish Herald, 4 February 1937, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

But overall, this fanatically Jewish inmate fared well, and when five years were up, he was finally set to be freed. He was summoned to court for release, but this release depended on two conditions: a promise of future good behavior, and a bail fee. On January 28, 1793, Lord George Gordon was marched into court. In polite society in those days, hats were only to be worn outdoors, and to wear a hat inside a courtroom was an obnoxious insult. The issue was that Gordon was wearing his hat as a kippah, and refused to part with it for even a moment. When the guards eventually removed it by force, Gordon pulled a nightcap and handkerchief out of his pocket. He stuck the nightcap on his head and secured it under his chin with the hankie. For a man trying to prove his sanity, this was not a good look.

Then came the issue of the bail. Despite having more than enough wealth, he refused to pay. “To sue for pardon is a confession of guilt” read the court transcripts. His friends and family tried to step in and pay the bail on his behalf, but again Gordon refused, saying that he was innocent and would therefore not allow a penny to be given in his name. Gordon therefore found himself back in his Newgate cell. What Gordon didn’t know was that this decision would not just determine his freedom, but also his life.

This was because a horrid case of Typhus was sweeping through the prison, claiming many lives, and Gordon was not immune. By October he had caught the disease and on November 1,1793, Lord George Gordon, otherwise known as Yisrael Ben Avraham, died, allegedly while reciting the Adon Olam prayer. Gordon’s burial was left to his family, who ignored his newfound religious persuasions and chose a church ground as his final burial place.

The Westralian Judean, 1 March 1931, and The Australian Jewish Times, 19 February 1970, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Soon, the name Lord George Gordon was forgotten by most. If mentioned at all, it was almost invariably because of the Gordon Riots, or his anti-colonialist campaigning. His eulogy was simple, and reads as follows: “The leader of the no-popery riots, Lord George Gordon eventually became a Jew and died a madman – his sudden accession to greatness must have turned his head.” Rest in Peace Protestant Lord George Gordon, otherwise known as Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu.

Curate and Create: The Poster Competition That United Kids Worldwide With Israel

As Israel turned 75 years old, the National Library of Israel wanted to celebrate with a new and exciting project. Thus, Curate & Create was born, a poster competition for children from all over the world, complete with educational resources and primary sources. With over 600 participants, read about how this NLI project came to be so successful!

Curate & Create logo, Curate & Create Yom Ha'Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

In 1984 a competition was inaugurated in Israel for children worldwide to design a postage stamp for the upcoming Jewish New Year.  At the same time, a little girl named Shuvi Hoffman was living in New York, and was excitedly looking forward to her sixth birthday. For her birthday party, Shuvi decided to invite her friends to join her and design a stamp to submit for the competition. The children congregated around the posterboard and spent the afternoon making a stamp which represented their connection to Israel, not knowing that this art activity would leave a lasting impression on the little girl.

Nearly 40 years later, Shuvi, now an adult, sat around the meeting table with her colleagues at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, brows furrowed together as they brainstormed ideas. This year, the National Library had a big task: Israel was turning 75 years old the NLI wanted to celebrate Israel’s significant birthday with a new and exciting project.

Curate & Create logo, Curate & Create, Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

After throwing around many ideas, Shuvi thought back to her sixth birthday party and how excited she had been to take part in an art competition which connected her to Israel, and a metaphorical light bulb flicked on over her head: Before long she was suggesting that the NLI host its very own competition. The idea would be to challenge kids all over the world to make a poster, much like the ones in our own archives, and send them in from around the globe for judgment, and the chance to win a trip to Israel. The team knew a great idea when they heard one and got to work almost immediately.

It was early in the summer of 2022 at this point, so they had almost a year to pull off the competition. The idea was complex but manageable: they would collate 75 archives from the National Library collections – mainly posters but a few photographs and adverts too – and upload them to a specially-made website. Next, they would formulate 6 unique lesson plans which educators could utilize to teach their students about Israel. Finally, a special portal was to be set up for students to submit their posters to the NLI, and within a few months the project would be ready to go live!

Some of the 75 primary sources, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

And soon enough the entrees started pouring in. As the competition went on, the whole National Library watched on with awe as a whopping 153 submissions came in. They had managed to reach 12 countries with a total of 5 languages, 28 schools and a massive 644 participants! Far and wide, the competition had taken root in the hearts of students and educators from Columbia and Estonia, Argentina and Canada, and so many other far-flung places.

Map of places from which submissions were received, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

As the posters were uploaded, an interesting trend could be seen: the posters were not just works of art but also commentaries on the society that they had come from, and how that specific student viewed Israel.

These elements considered, the winning posters were eventually chosen for their beautiful meaning, the tremendous efforts put in by the children, and their aesthetic and artistic quality. The winners, spanning four countries, each chose to focus on a unique part of Israel’s identity. From a love for Jerusalem, to Israel’s famous landmarks, the diverse and vast range of people who live in this special country, to the symbols and elements that make Israel spiritually elevated, these winning posters show how varied each student’s connections to Israel really are. It’s truly remarkable to see how different students relate to the State with different lenses – something which is worth diving deeper into.

Poster Competition Winners, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

Something that can be immediately noted is whether students related to Israel on a cultural, political or spiritual level.

Romanian 11th grader, and budding artist Rață Ionuț, drew an impressive poster of Einstein and David Ben-Gurion alongside other political leaders of Israel, explaining how Israel “champions democracy and freedom of expression. By showcasing these figures conversing with reporters, the poster suggests that Israel values open dialogue and transparency and strives to uphold these principles in its governance and society.” Alternatively, 6th grader Abraham Murciano Cohen-Henriquez from Panama who made a poster about Israeli dates, or Maya, a German 5th grader’s poster about Bissli, an Israeli snack, “convey the message that [Israeli food] turns you into a superhero.” Finally, Margie Pol, a 6th grader from Panama, showed that she relates to Israel via Judaism, as expressed with her poster of the Jewish holiday of Passover: “I chose Pesach for my poster to show why this Holiday is important for Israel.”

Abraham Murciano Cohen-Henriquez, Colegio Isaac Rabin, Margie Pol, Colegio Isaac Rabin, Maya, Heinz Galinski School, Rață Ionuț, Colegiul Național “Spiru Haret” – Tecuca, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

Whether it is the awesome food, the divine spirituality, the political discourse, or something else entirely, everyone has something that they can love about Israel or at the very least use to connect to Israel on some level. These students have proven this theory with their posters – some youngsters connect to the cultural elements of Israel, some the religious aspects, some the culinary, and some connect to elements not even shown here! But no matter what stands out for you, Israel is at the epicenter of it. In the original 75 primary sources, all of these elements are depicted via the various posters and images. Some educators taught their students from a more religious standpoint as is evident in their student’s posters, while one teacher had her entire class dedicate their posters to Israeli food! But ultimately all of these aspects were similarly used as vehicles to open discussion, teaching, and closeness to Israel.

The whole point of the poster competition was to meet educators where they were at and help them open the discourse on Israel. To encourage them to build connections between their students and our amazing country. To help them understand that Israel is a global project – one that we can all relate to, care about, have opinions about, and love. It is so evident that this goal has been achieved: just look at the gallery of posters and see how over 600 young people across the globe have found unique and beautiful ways to give meaning to this country which may even be thousands of miles away from them. Now that, is truly something remarkable.

The Wehrmacht’s Jewish Soldier

How did Walter Dirr, born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, come to be drafted into Hitler’s army? Clues from a family archive

The curious case of Walter Dirr begins with his father, Robert Heinrich Dirr (1880–1944), born into a Catholic family in Mühlhausen, Germany. Drafted at age seventeen, Dirr climbed the ranks to become an officer in 1904. By then, he was also apprenticing in construction. Robert became an architect in Metz, a city in Elsass-Lothringen, formerly part of the German Reich and now part of France. In 1907, Dirr fell in love with Frieda Rothschild (1889–1978, no relation to the famous banking family).

Their courageous romance didn’t last. Frieda (née Rothschild) and Robert Dirr early in their marriage

She was one of twelve children born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Jünkerath, Germany. Frieda’s family disapproved of the relationship. So when the couple asked permission to become engaged, her mother challenged them to test their love by refraining from all contact for a year. Should they still wish to marry after that, the Rothschilds would consent.

Throughout 1908, their year of separation, Robert kept a diary. Addressing every entry to Frieda, he filled more than 250 pages with thoughts such as “I can overcome everything with joy owing to my love and confidence in you.” At year’s end, he presented the leather-bound journal to Frieda. “You have to feel,” read the flyleaf dedication, “how in my whole being, with every drop of blood, with every beat of my heart, I have been living only for you. […] Only once can a man really and truly love, dedicating himself so fully to just one person.”

Frieda and Robert wed in either 1909 or 1910. Settling in Metz, they had three children: Mirjam Caroline (1913–2000), Argonna (1915–2003), and Walter Julius Hermann Stephan (1923–2012). Walter collected the family’s letters, diaries, photographs, and documents, later passing them on to a relative. In January 2021, the collection was deposited in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

The family archive at the time of its deposit. Photo: Franziska Ehmer


Separate But Safe

The few clues regarding the circumstances leading to Walter’s short-lived military career are located in several journals and letters written by Frieda Dirr between 1915 and 1945. Frieda and Robert’s initially happy marriage foundered in the economic crisis that began in 1923. Robert had to sell their new home, and ongoing financial struggles further strained their relationship. Frieda’s diary describes this difficult period, but in comparison with what was to come, it was positively idyllic.

The couple divorced after Hitler’s nomination as German chancellor in 1933, but Robert was still able to utilize his connections with the Catholic Church to move his family to nearby, independent Luxembourg.

Initially neutral after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Luxembourg fell victim to Nazi aggression in March 1940, when German troops crossed the border. Of the 35,000 Jews then in Luxembourg, most of them refugees from Germany, only a few hundred survived.

Here the intrigue begins. Robert registered his family as Catholics in Luxembourg, and though they never hid Frieda´s maiden name, the Dirrs joined the community of gentile German exiles. Letters indicate that acquaintances knew nothing of the family´s Jewish roots. In stark contrast to the fate suffered by Luxembourg’s Jews, the “cover” provided by Robert Dirr meant that his family could survive without going into hiding.

One piece of mail stands out among many sent to various family members during the war. Dated November 26, 1944, the letter is addressed to Walter, then twenty-one, by a German commandant in Luxembourg. Clearly oblivious to Walter’s background, the official hopes for a “good end” for their “mutual fatherland.” He sounds concerned for the Dirrs’ safety and surprised by their decision to stay in Luxembourg despite the Allies’ approach. The “anger of the people of Luxembourg” would, he feared, soon be directed toward the loyal Germans in their midst.


Home Front

So how was Walter Dirr drafted into the Wehrmacht, as the German army was known? There seems to have been an oversight. Dirr’s military papers list his religion as Catholic, although his mother’s typically Jewish maiden name appears here too.

Though the name Rothschild appears in Walter Dirr’s army papers, it seems to have been overlooked by clerks intent on drafting ever more Germans to fight in the east

Called up in 1943, Walter fought for Germany in the east. A leg wound after just two months in the field ensured that he spent the rest of the war recuperating in various field hospitals before returning to his mother and sisters. Although physically untouched by the conflict, Frieda Rothschild emerged from it a changed woman. Her nerves shattered by the strain of concealment and her fears for her son, she transformed from an open, confident socialite into a possessive, dependent matriarch. She told her children never to marry, and all complied; Argonna even lived with Frieda until the latter’s death. Robert Dirr’s undying love may not have withstood the Depression, but it did enable his ex-wife and children to survive the Holocaust more or less intact.

As far as we know – Walter, who discovered he was Jewish relatively late in life, continued living in Germany and apparently made contact over the years with some of his mother’s relatives who lived in Haifa, Israel.


The original version of this article was published in Segula – The Jewish History Magazine