Remembering Babi Yar When Others Didn’t

For two decades, one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust was all but forgotten

Early efforts in the 1960s to locate and identify remains at Babi Yar, where some 100,000 people were murdered just twenty years before. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Archive, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider).

On September 29-30, 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators committed one of the Holocaust’s largest massacres, murdering nearly 35,000 Jews in just two days at the Babi Yar (sometimes written “Babyn Yar”) ravine, which was then just outside of Kyiv, and which is now located within the modern Ukrainian city. More than 100,000 people total were murdered there in just two years.

The Babi Yar ravine. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click image to enlarge

Yet for years the memory of Babi Yar was in many ways forgotten – the result of efforts to erase and re-write history, as well as the fact that the role and images of the death camps often overshadowed the centrality that other mass murders, like Babi Yar, played in the story of the Holocaust.

In the 1960s this began to change.

In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem, “Babi Yar“, was published. An original manuscript of it has been safeguarded among the National Library of Israel’s collections since shortly thereafter.

Five years later, Anatoly Kuznetsov’s book of the same name came out, and a broader movement led by young local Jews interested in their own heritage and history continued to grow. The personal archive of one of the leaders of this movement, an engineer named Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant, recently came to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Babi Yar, 1966. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click image to enlarge

In 1966, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, an unofficial memorial sign was hung at the Babi Yar site, which on subsequent anniversaries drew thousands of local Jews and would become a central force in the awakening of Soviet Jewry.

Grassroots efforts also began around that time to locate the mass graves in the area, something else which was certainly not a priority for the Soviet authorities.

Early efforts to locate and identify remains at Babi Yar, 1966. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click image to enlarge

Some of these activities were captured on film by Joseph Schneider, a Holocaust survivor, Red Army veteran, anti-Soviet dissident and Zionist activist whose archive also recently came to the CAHJP.

Joseph Schneider, 1960. From the Joseph Schneider Archive, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

These photos reveal the grisly yet critical early efforts to better understand the legacy of Babi Yar and remember its victims.

Early efforts to locate and identify remains at Babi Yar, 1966. From the Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Joseph Schneider). Click images to enlarge

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People recently signed an agreement with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center to share information and resources about Jewish life in Ukraine before the Holocaust, a collaboration which will significantly help scholars better understand the stories of those murdered at Babi Yar.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Resurrecting One of the World’s Oldest Jewish Communities

After decades in ruins, Nikos Stavroulakis set out to revitalize Jewish life on the Greek island of Crete

Composite image of paintings by Nikos Stavroulakis appearing in front of a photograph he took of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue ruins in Hania, Crete, prior to the restoration efforts he led (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

Jews first arrived in Crete from Egypt some 2,300 years ago, perhaps as part of Egyptian military campaigns. A century or two later, they came from the Land of Israel during the Maccabean Revolt.

At the time, Hellenized, Greek-speaking Jews were establishing communities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, considered to be some of the oldest known Jewish diaspora communities.

Their descendants came to be known as “Romaniote Jews,” over time developing a distinct culture including liturgical traditions and songs, and speaking “Yevanic”, a Judeo-Greek dialect infused with Hebrew loanwords and written in Hebrew script.

A manuscript of Romaniote piyyutim (liturgical poems), 1853. From the National Library of Israel collection

Romaniote synagogues even have a distinct interior layout that differs from Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues.

Through ancient inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and other written and archaeological sources, we can trace some of the history of Cretan Jewry, which thrived under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman control, before being nearly extinguished under German occupation in 1944.

Today, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania is practically the only remaining testament on the island to the rich Cretan Jewish heritage, which spanned two millennia.


Ancient sources

Jewish communities on Crete are first referenced in 4th century BCE epitaph inscriptions from Kassanoi and Kissamos where, in the city of Kissamos, a “Sophia of Gortyna, an elder and leader of the synagogue” attests to the leading role of women in diaspora communities.

A community in Gortyna is described in the First Book of Maccabees (15:23) dating to around 142 BCE, when Gortyna was the most prosperous city in Crete. Although only fragmentary inscriptions remain in Crete, inscriptions dating to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE from an ancient synagogue on the island of Delos honor two citizens of the Cretan cities of Heraklion and Knossos, providing evidence of the existence of a Jewish community on the island during that period, as well.

Greek receipt for payment of Jewish tax, 30 August 110 CE (Archaeological Museum of Kraków / Public domain). Click image to enlarge

By the time of the Roman conquest of Crete in the 1st century BCE, Jewish communities were thriving in most of the major cities, including Gortyna, Kissamos, Hania, Rethymnon, Knossos and Sitia.

According to the renowned Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the larger Greek islands, including Crete, were “full of Jewish settlements” (Legatione ad Gaium, 282).

Jewish communities in Crete are also referenced in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles (2:11) as having been present at Pentecost (Shavuot) in Jerusalem, as well as in the Epistle of Paul to Titus (1-9:16) in which Paul describes the “Jewish Christians” in Crete. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE, Roman rule continued in the eastern part of the empire, later termed the Byzantine Empire, where its citizens continued to view themselves as “Romans”, a term that would eventually be associated with the Greek-speaking Jews, the Romaniotes.

Mosaic floor of a Romaniote synagogue in Aegina, ca. 300 CE (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

At the time, Crete was one of the 64 provinces of the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople. Jews are not explicitly mentioned in extant historical accounts from the short-lived “Emirate of Crete” (825-961 CE), established following the Andalusian Arab conquest of the island, but they certainly remained.

During the late Byzantine period (961-1204 CE), historical sources indicate that Jewish communities were not permitted to live within the island’s walled cities, but were instead required to live outside the walls as close as possible to the main city gates which offered protection in times of danger.


Into and outside the Ghetto

In 1204, after the sacking of Constantinople as part of the 4th Crusade, which led to the temporary dissolution of the Byzantine Empire, Crete became a Venetian colony called the “Kingdom of Kandia” with Heraklion (Kandia) as the island’s capital. According to Venetian accounts, Crete’s Jewish population grew significantly in the 14th and 15th centuries due to the influx of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following the exodus of 1391, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and again after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. It seems that these and other immigrant families were absorbed into the indigenous Romaniote communities through the adoption of the local language, culture and religious customs, along with intermarriage.

Map of Crete during the Venetian period, 1571. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the 16th century, the three main Cretan cities, Heraklion (Kandia), Rethymnon (Retimo) and Hania (La Canea) were flourishing under Venetian rule, their populations steadily growing and the economy thriving due to trade and shipping.

At this time, Cretan Jews maintained already-established communities in the three major cities, though they were required to live in segregated ghettos or quarters called “Zudecca“, where they worked as grocers, artisans, tanners, butchers, money lenders and traders of silk, metals, dyes and leather. They were also active in intellectual pursuits including philosophy and theology and many individuals travelled widely, especially to places like Padua and Mantova in Italy, where they trained as doctors, lawyers and rabbis.

The Jewish ghetto of Hania as it appears on a 17th century Venetian map (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana – Venezia / Public domain)

Alongside these urban communities were rural Jewish settlements, which produced kosher cheeses, wines, grains and citrons for both export and local use. By the end of the 16th century, there were approximately 1600 Jews in Crete who worshipped in up to nine synagogues around the island. At that time, Heraklion was the largest community with four synagogues. Hania had two: Beth Shalom (Sephardic) and Etz Hayyim (Romaniote), both of them located in the historic Jewish neighborhood of Evraiki.

The period of Ottoman rule in Crete (1669-1898), particularly in later years, brought economic hardship to the island’s general population, and as a result the Jewish communities in Heraklion and Rethymnon diminished.

Ottoman cannonball found in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue wall (Photo: Anastasios Skikos)

Many wealthy Jewish families moved to Hania, the new Ottoman capital of the island, and farther afield to Venice and elsewhere in Italy and to other Mediterranean port cities like Gibraltar, Istanbul and Salonika. Yet, Ottoman authority was also favorable to Crete’s Jewish communities, which were afforded some degree of religious autonomy, just like their Christian Orthodox neighbors, under the Ottoman millet system.

In towns like Hania, the former ghettos were opened and Jews were allowed to settle in neighbouring quarters where they were permitted to buy and legally inherit property for the first time.

This in particular may be what enticed Sephardic immigrants from North Africa and Izmir to the city at the time. However, by the 19th century, sporadic violent revolts against Ottoman rule in Crete led many Jews to emigrate elsewhere.

It is estimated that in 1817, there were 150 Jewish families divided between Heraklion and Hania; in 1858, there were 907 Jews on the island; by 1881, there were only 647 Jews in Crete, with the majority residing in Hania.


German occupation

The German occupation of Greece began in April 1941 and lasted until 1945. Following the failed Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940, Germany assisted its Italian and Bulgarian allies in their expansionist aspirations and invaded the country.

Crete itself was invaded by the Germans in May 1941 through a major airborne campaign, and the three main cities of Hania, Rethymnon and Heraklion were badly bombed. The Germans were met by fierce resistance from the local population and by the Allied forces, but they eventually prevailed and established their occupation regime in June 1941.

British troops in Crete prior to the German victory, 1940 (The Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

From this time onwards, most of Crete’s Jews, numbering only about 350 members, were residing in Hania where they increasingly faced restrictions imposed upon their daily lives. Some individuals managed to escape Crete for Athens during the occupation. Some survived there in hiding, while others were eventually arrested and sent to the extermination camps.

It was not until 1944 that the Hania community was to be deported to Auschwitz.

On May 20th of that year, the Cretan Jewish community was arrested and taken to a local prison for two weeks before being transported to Heraklion, where they boarded a German steamship, the Tánaïs, together with Italian prisoners of war and Cretan resistance fighters. The ship was to sail to Athens and the Jewish prisoners were then to be transported by train to the death camps in Poland. Due to the ongoing naval war in the Mediterranean, however, the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine not long after departing Heraklion and it sank with all of its prisoners in the early hours of June 9, 1944.

A British V-Class submarine, like the type that torpedoed the Tánaïs (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

Once the community had been deported, Hania’s Jewish neighbourhood was ransacked by the Nazis who also stripped the Etz Hayyim Synagogue – the island’s last remaining Jewish house of prayer – of its religious artifacts, books and the centuries-old community archive.

Etz Hayyim stood abandoned from then until the 1990s, when Hania resident Nikos Stavroulakis (an artist, art historian and founding director of the Jewish Museum of Greece) decided to rebuild and revive the synagogue.


Reviving Etz Hayyim and the Cretan Jewish tradition

Almost 50 years after the end of WWII, the fortunes of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue were to change thanks to Nikos, who managed to garner significant interest and funding to fully restore the synagogue in just a few short years.

Heading the work under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE), Nikos secured support from leading European Jewish philanthropists – including the Rothschilds and the Lauders – as well as numerous other foundations, agencies and individuals.

A drawing of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue by Nikos Stavroulakis (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

On October 10, 1999 the synagogue was officially rededicated by Rabbis Jacob Arar and Isaak Mizan of Athens, and Rabbi Yacob Dayan of Salonika. Approximately 350 people attended, with members of the various Greek Jewish communities, representatives from the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Hania, along with local and international dignitaries, including the German ambassador to Greece.


Etz Hayyim today

Since 2010, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue has been operated by a non-profit organization in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE). The organization is registered as a charity in Greece and – because Etz Hayyim does not receive any public funding – it raises funds for the maintenance and preservation of the synagogue and for the various religious and cultural events held there.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue interior (Photo: Manousos Daskalogiannis). Click image to enlarge

Today, Etz Hayyim is both an active place of worship where a small multinational and multi-faith group called the “Havurah” share communal experiences, as well as a vibrant community and cultural center that hosts exhibitions, lectures, readings, films and concerts.

Its small team of dedicated staff undertake ongoing research into the history of the Cretan Jewish community, while engaging both local and international school groups and teachers as part of the synagogue’s ongoing educational outreach program. The synagogue welcomes Jews of all different backgrounds and non-Jewish visitors, who can take a guided tour of the synagogue and learn about Cretan Jewish history and traditions, or attend regular Kabbalat Shabbat and High Holiday services.

Nikos Stavroulakis with Rabbi Gabriel Negrin from Athens (© Etz Hayyim Synagogue)

Two decades after its rededication, Etz Hayyim has once again become a fixture in the religious and socio-cultural life of Hania as a place of prayer, study, recollection and reconciliation.


Remembering Nikos

Nikos Stavroulakis, founding director of the new Etz Hayyim Synagogue and legendary figure in Greek Jewish life, passed away in 2017. The Etz Hayyim staff is currently cataloguing Nikos’ private collection of artifacts, books, documents and other items. The Nikos Stavroulakis Collection will eventually be made available to researchers and the general public.

If you have any materials (photos, letters, documents, etc.) relating to Nikos or his work, please email the Etz Hayyim staff: [email protected].


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

This Hebrew School Teacher Was the First World Weightlifting Champ

Strongman, educator, culture critic, civil society leader, journalist, publisher and historian. Edward Lawrence Levy was all of these and more.

E. Lawrence Levy, ca. mid-1890s (From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection)

Responsible for schlepping the holy vessels through the Biblical desert, the ancient Levites were some of the original Jewish strongmen, yet for most of Jewish history feats of strength were not necessarily the forte of the “People of the Book”.

Then came “Muscular Judaism”.

In the late 19th century, as many sought to redefine what it meant to be a Jew in the modern world, efforts were made to discard the traditionally “meek” Jew who spent his time solely on intellectual pursuits.

Leading Zionist thinker Max Nordau coined the term “Muscular Judaism”. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

One of the men at the vanguard of “Muscular Judaism” was himself a Levy, Edward Lawrence Levy to be more precise: Hebrew school master, the world’s first international weightlifting champion and a veritable “strongman” in a dizzying range of pursuits from opera to gymnastics to Jewish education, journalism and even the brewing industry…

Levy’s boyhood remains shrouded in mystery. Remarking that his “school days were not of the kind that make history, autobiographical or otherwise”, Levy intentionally begins his memoirs as he is “launched on the world” at the beginning of his professional life.

From a few details in his rare autobiography and comprehensive research published by David M. Fahey in E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, we know that Levy was born in London and that his father died when he was six.

Destined by his head master – a surrogate father of sorts – to become either a rabbi or an educator, it became clear to young Edward that he was more suited to the latter. Already at 16 he became first master at a boarding school responsible for teaching Hebrew and Religion, Classics, French and other subjects.

Levy later recalled:

“There were boys in the Academy as old as I was, but, thanks to my being prematurely and precociously whiskered, bearded and moustached, nobody, except the Headmaster, knew it.”

Just a few years prior, his own Hebrew and Talmud teacher had told him:

“Edward, you were born old; you never were a boy.”

And so it was that the whiskered man-child “launched on the world”.

He moved to Birmingham a couple of years later and for six decades would more than dabble in countless spheres of public life.

Educator. Culture critic. Hob-nobber. Civil society leader. Philanthropist. Publisher. Historian. Strongman.

Shortly after arriving he joined the staff of the Birmingham Hebrew School. While there, he would, among other things, found the city’s first Jewish Amateur Dramatic Club in 1872, followed by the Alliance Literary and Debating Society, “somewhat avant-garde in admitting ladies,” as well as having both Jewish and non-Jewish members.

Birmingham Hebrew Congregation (Photo: Tony Hisgett / CC BY 2.0)

While remaining active in the Jewish community, in 1875 he went on to establish and run the “Birmingham Jewish Collegiate School”. When non-Jewish students enrolled, he renamed it the less parochial “Denbigh Lodge Collegiate School,” proud not only of the academic level, but also of its “glorious mixture of the best Jewish lads with similar Christian school fellows…”

Levy at age 24, around the time he opened his own school. From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection

Besides running a school, teaching, attending and critiquing theater performances, writing, and founding and serving as an active member in numerous other organizations, Levy’s interest in gymnastics and physical fitness grew as the “strongman boom” peaked and he approached his fortieth birthday in 1891.

That year, Levy won the first ever British Amateur Weightlifting Championship.

London’s Café Monico, site of the first British Amateur Weightlifting Championship and the first World Weightlifting Competition, both won by Levy in 1891 (Public domain)

He was all of five feet four and half inches (1.64 m.) tall and weighed 156 pounds (70.8 kg) “in costume”. Most of the competitive lifters of the time weighed over 200 pounds. Some were twice his weight.

Levy’s was an “unheroic mould” in his own words. A contemporary newspaper account described the champion as “… a very short man… presenting a bald head with a heavily-bearded gold spectacled face.”

Muscular Judaism.

The victory, however, did not come without a price. As the competition was on Shabbat, his participation cost him his post as synagogue choir master. Levy pontificated:

“When the recording angel puts a black mark against my name for having ridden on the Sabbath, I hope he will put down as well the distinction I brought to muscular Judaism.”

Just two months later, he won the first World Weightlifting Competition, beating out strongmen from Germany, Austria, Italy and elsewhere and officially becoming the first ever international weightlifting champion. He later recalled, “There is one great feature of the two championships I won which I cannot refrain from referring to, and that is the great joy I felt as a Jew at winning these events.”

Levy with his 1891 British Amateur Championship trophy. From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection

From 1891 to 1894 he would go on to set no less than 14 world records.

Though some inaccurate reports would later give Levy a gold medal in shotput at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, in reality he represented Great Britain there as a judge and a journalist, not as a participant.

“I regard the trip to Athens and participation in the Olympic Games of 1896, as one of the biggest events of my life. It was glorious from every point of view.”

Olympic Stadium, Athens, 1896 (Public domain)

Levy would lecture on those first modern Games for years to come (among many other topics from nihilism to Talmudic thought and Jewish humor).

When the King of Greece visited London in 1905, Levy was invited to greet him. Three years later he was an organizer of the gymnastics portion of the 1908 Olympics held in the city.

Already approaching 60 by then, Levy generally didn’t see a need nor have a desire to slow down.

He remained a member of the Birmingham Athletic Club for a total of 50 years, serving as chairman for 30 of them.

He was a long-time drama critic and sports writer. He also worked in various capacities in the local brewing trade, for decades somehow singlehandedly writing and publishing the industry’s Licensed Trade News, a weekly newspaper.

With his physical strength naturally diminished with age, Levy dedicated his later years largely to scholarship, lecturing and working on about eight books after his 60th birthday. Largely based on his first-hand experiences in the Jewish community, numerous political and social clubs and the local theater scene, these books provide a fascinating glimpse into late-Victorian and early 20th century England.

Levy at age 72. From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection

Looking back on his life and accomplishments shortly before he passed away, Levy the strongman mused:

“I have no money, never had and never shall have any. But, happily, what I have seen, what I have achieved, much of my happiness in life, has been obtained, thanks to – ‘Dumbbells, twopence a pound.’ Our worldly happiness, the success we attain is fortunately not dependent upon pounds, shillings and pence.”

Select Sources and Related Reading:

Birmingham Jewry by Zoe Josephs

E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932: Sport, Culture, and Assimilation in Nineteenth-Century Britain Together with “The Autobiography of an Athlete” edited by David M. Fahey

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

What Did ‘America’s Freud’ Think About Hitler?

Freud himself refrained from publicly psychoanalyzing the despot. Dr. W. Beran Wolfe didn't...

Though many if not most leading psychoanalysts at the time were German-speaking Jews, they offered very few public attempts to psychologically analyze Hitler. (Image: Dutch anti-Hitler propaganda, ca. 1940s / Public domain)

“Himself a homosexual, the Reichskanzler was to burn the books of Magnus Hirschfeld (who may have known too much) and exile him from the country.”

These words were published in 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler assumed the position of Reichskanzler.

They were written by Dr. W. Beran Wolfe, the Austrian-born Jewish psychiatrist known as “America’s Freud”. Wolfe was also a musician, prize-winning sculptor and best-selling author of books with captivating titles like How to Be Happy Though Human, Calm Your Nerves, and A Woman’s Best Years. Born in Vienna, he had moved to the United States as a young child.

How to be Happy Though Human was one of a number of bestsellers written by Wolfe

After completing medical school and serving in the US Navy, Wolfe returned to the city of his birth for post-graduate work under the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Adler. Wolfe would serve as Adler’s assistant, translating and editing many of his works in English.

While assertions that Hitler’s repressed sexual preference for men may have directly influenced his behavior and decision-making have been explored ever since his dramatic rise to power, it is certainly not accepted fact that he was gay. Both during his lifetime and more recently, these types of allegations have been used to disparage both Hitler and homosexuality.

Tucked into his thousand-word editorial piece entitled “Germany’s Nervous Breakdown“, Wolfe’s statement appears as fact, not opinion. It does not seem to be written with any sensationalistic intentions; but rather simply to serve as a descriptive element provided by a respected expert trying to make sense of Nazi Germany and its leader.

“Germany’s Nervous Breakdown” Published in ⁨⁨The American Jewish World⁩⁩, 8 March 1935. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Wolfe’s stance on homosexuality – expressed in other writings – would be controversial by today’s standards, yet he nevertheless volunteered a rare public psychoanalysis of the Reichskanzler just two years after Hitler took power.


Hitler’s ‘Boon Companion’ and Alleged Homosexuality

Allegations of homosexuality at the highest levels of Nazi leadership were nothing new in 1935. Just a year before, Hitler had ordered the extrajudicial execution of hundreds of members of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazis’ paramilitary organization, in what is known as “The Röhm Purge” or “The Night of the Long Knives”. Its leader, Ernst Röhm, was an openly gay man rumored to have had a special relationship with the Führer. Röhm was allegedly allowed to call Hitler by the pet name “Adi” as opposed to the obligatory “Mein Führer”.

In one report after Röhm’s execution, he was eulogized as Hitler’s “boon companion“.

Hitler and Röhm, 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1982-159-21A / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Hitler had defended Röhm’s appointment as leader of the SA just a few years before the purge, calling talk of his sexuality “irrelevant and absurd”, notes historian Andrew Wackerfuss in his 2015 book Stormtrooper Families: Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement.

According to Ian Kershaw’s monumental biography of Hitler, at the time of Röhm’s appointment, the Führer rejected criticism of “things that are purely in the private sphere” and stressed that the SA was “not a moral establishment”. Nonetheless, after “The Night of the Long Knives”, Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine emphasized the homosexuality of many of those who were executed, seeing it as a blemish on the “pure” movement and society they aimed to create.

SA march at a Nazi rally, 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0410-501 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Over the decades, countless books, first-hand accounts, studies, satirical works and even a recently declassified CIA report, have alleged in one way or another that Hitler had homosexual tendencies. Psychoanalyst Norbert Bromberg summarizes a number of them in his book Hitler’s Psychopathology, including the fact that both Röhm and Rudolf Hess, another prominent Nazi figure who was known to cross-dress and to be referred to as “Fraulein Anna”, were allowed to use the personal form “Du” with the Führer.

Bromberg also notes a number of unsubstantiated allegations that Hitler engaged in pederasty during World War I, and that he had a portrait of his young male chauffer commissioned and installed in his Berghof residence in a similar manner to the portrait of his own mother.

Magnus Hirschfeld, “who may have known too much” according to Dr. Wolfe, was one of the world’s foremost sexologists, and an early activist on behalf of sexual minorities. He also happened to be gay, Jewish and German.

Magnus Hirschfeld (left) with Abraham Schwadron in Jerusalem, 1932. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

On a speaking tour when SA troopers stormed his renowned Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin, confiscating books and records to be burned, Hirschfeld was never to return to Germany. It is alleged that his archives contained files specific to Hitler and his sexual propensities.

An SA soldier reviews explicit materials at the Institute of Sexual Research while plundering it (Public domain)


Freud and Friends on Hitler

With many if not most prominent psychoanalysts of that time being German-speaking Jews, it frankly seems quite surprising that there were not more public attempts to psychologically analyze Hitler. Freud did not venture to do so, perhaps in order to protect himself and his family. Though his books were burned soon after the Nazis took power, Freud was placed under “protective custody” once they came to Vienna.

Sigmund Freud. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Singled out by an Austrian Nazi paper as one who would be dealt with in a “more radical” and less expensive manner than being sent to a concentration camp, Freud nonetheless chose not to flee to England until mid-1938. He made that decision much later than many and only after his daughter had been picked up by the Gestapo and family and friends undertook considerable efforts to persuade him to leave.

Even once Freud was in England, he avoided questions related to Hitler and Nazism, which five years prior he had predicted “may not come out too bad”. Nevertheless, many drew natural conclusions between Freud’s teachings and Hitler’s behavior, with Wolfe claiming that the teachings of the father of psychoanalysis “point uncomfortably to the psychosexual infantilism” of the Führer.

“Dr. Freud won’t talk about… any ill-treatment of him by the agents of Hitler.” Published in ⁨⁨The American Jewish World⁩⁩, 17 June 1938. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Wolfe’s mentor, Dr. Alfred Adler, was another Vienna-born Jewish psychiatrist and one of Freud’s most prominent thought partners. The two famously disagreed both personally and intellectually on a variety of issues, with Adler considering sexuality an important element in the development of the individual, but less omnipotent than in Freud’s view.

Adler coined the concept of the “inferiority complex” and emphasized the importance of the individual. Over the years a number of scholars have quite naturally applied Adler’s teachings to explain Hitler’s “overcompensation”. Adler does not seem to have ever publicly discussed Hitler’s psychopathy or alleged homosexuality, a phenomenon which he believed was the result of feelings of inferiority.

Alfred Adler, ca. 1925. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Though they all escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, neither Freud, Hirschfeld, Adler nor Wolfe lived long enough to witness the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Freud was already sick when he fled to England. He died a few weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in his adoptive home of Nice on his 67th birthday in May 1935.

Adler and Wolfe also both died unexpectedly, if not under mysterious circumstances.

The elder was on a speaking tour in Scotland when he suddenly dropped dead two years after Hirschfeld, also apparently of a heart attack. His cremated remains went missing and were not found until seven decades later.

Just a few months after explicitly calling Hitler a homosexual in print, Wolfe died in a car crash in Switzerland at the age of 35. A lengthy eulogy appeared on page 2 of the next day’s New York Times.

Though these four prominent figures did not live to see the full, devastating implementation of Hitler’s designs, it is hard to imagine that as the Nazis rose to power – persecuting friends, family and colleagues – they and other leading German-speaking Jewish psychoanalysts would not have tried to delve into the causes of Hitler’s behavior.

With very little left on record, it seems that the inner thoughts of men like Freud and Adler will remain conjectural, like the motivations of a hateful tyrant whose words and actions ultimately led to inconceivable brutality, suffering and loss.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.