This Jewish War Hero Protested the Nazis… Then Helped Defeat Them

A decorated German soldier in World War I, Richard Stern opposed Nazism from within. After fleeing, he joined the US Army at age 43, and soon became a hero there, as well...

Colorized photo of Richard Stern as a German soldier in World War I (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)

What do we view as heroism?  We acknowledge those who win medals for amazing actions done in the military, honoring them for performing in an admirable way during battle.  We see those people as heroic because they act with bravery despite the life threatening circumstances of war.

Often, however, we do not look the same way at protestors. Perhaps we disagree with the issues they stand for.  Perhaps, if there are many other protestors or if we ourselves are even protesting along with them, it becomes hard to see the act as heroic or exceptional.

Yet, a protest can most certainly also be an heroic act.

This photo is of Richard Stern standing in the doorway of his store in Cologne, German on April 1, 1933:

A Nazi SA soldier is standing next to him.  Stern was protesting the boycott of Jewish businesses initiated by the German government of Hitler and the Nazi party, who had taken power just two months earlier.  This was Hitler’s first official action against the German Jews.

Stern turned out to be the only Jewish protestor against the Nazis in Cologne on April 1, 1933.  Today, the photo is featured in at least five different museums in Germany.

On January 31, 1933 the Stern family along with all the Jews in Cologne, had seen a shocking number of Nazi flags hanging from stores and houses all over the city.  It was a celebration of Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power.

On February 17, Hitler ordered all local police headquarters to create working relationships with the Nazi party’s paramilitary SA and SS units, helping to set the stage for the Nazis’ official suppression of German Jews.  A detailed plan was put together for the boycott of all Jewish businesses to take place on April 1, 1933.  SA soldiers were ordered to stand in front of Jewish stores to warn German citizens not to enter them.

In addition, the Nazis began to take control of all of the news organizations.  They wanted newspapers to support the actions against the Jews, so their planning instructions stated, “if newspapers do not do this or do too little, they must immediately be removed from every house where Germans live.”

Most of the Jewish community knew the boycott was coming.

Richard Stern told his family and friends, “I cannot be silent.”

He was a strong supporter of the Weimar Republic’s civil rights and was an active member of the Social Democratic Party.  Stern believed that other Jews would join him in protesting.  However, the bulk of Jewish leaders in Cologne believed that finding a way to cooperate with the Nazi government would ultimately protect German Jewry.  They were afraid to take an open stand against the oppression of Jewish people, so Richard Stern found that he was the city’s sole protestor.

Stern felt that protesting as a war veteran would be the most effective action, and so he donned the Iron Cross he was awarded in World War I.

He had been drafted in June of 1917, a point in the war when most Germans knew they would lose. Nonetheless, Stern acted bravely enough to be awarded the Iron Cross in August of 1918, very close to the end of the conflict.

Following announcement of the 1933 boycott, Stern wrote a pamphlet condemning the Nazis for their actions against the Jewish people despite the dedication of Jewish soldiers like him during World War I. The pamphlet declared that “We see this action against German Judaism as an insult to the memory of 12,000 German combat soldiers of the Jewish faith killed in action,” and he signed it “Combat Veteran Richard Stern.”

The pamphlet Stern printed and handed out (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)

Stern handed the pamphlets out to everyone passing by his store.  Look at Stern’s face in the photo.  He is smiling, displaying his feeling of being a true soldier, while the SA “soldier” standing next to him was an impostor.  When the Nazis took power, typical SA soldiers were young, never having truly served in the German army, and certainly not in any fields of combat comparable to those in which Stern and others like him had fought.

Richard Stern even gave the pamphlet to the SA soldier standing next to him.  This was particularly brave as there was a Nazi newspaper station right next to his store.  An hour later he was arrested and taken to police headquarters.  While he was sitting there, he felt nervous.  A police officer who, like many others had joined the Nazi party because of Hitler’s orders, approached Stern because he knew him.

He asked, “What are you doing here?”

“They arrested me,” Richard Stern answered.

“You better get out of here.”

The policeman saw Richard Stern as a friend because he was also a German war veteran and sneaked him out the back door.

As the Nazi actions against German Jews got worse through the 1930s, there were times when Richard Stern felt fear for himself, his sister and her son.  He became determined to get the three of them out of Germany and to safety in the United States.  Yet before he managed to get out, he continued to help his fellow Jews.  When Germany took over Austria in March of 1938, a chunk of Austrian Jews began to flee to try and escape the Nazis.  A number came to Cologne and Stern harbored them and tried to help them escape to Belgium.

After Kristallnacht, in the fall of 1938, he connected to family in New York and finally succeeded in immigrating there in May of 1939.

Once the United States entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Richard Stern, then 43 years old, volunteered for the American army so that he could fight against the Nazis.  He was accepted in October of 1942 and began training with the engineering battalion to which he was assigned. Stern refused an honorable discharge due to his advanced age, and by the end of October 1943, his battalion was involved in difficult battles in Italy.  Before he deployed he donated his German war medals (including one he received from Hitler himself, who had not realized that Stern was Jewish) to the national scrap drive in support of the war effort. Then, in early January of 1944, he became a hero in the American army for saving his company, which had been surrounded by German machine gunners at the top of Italy’s Mount Porchia.

He reportedly persuaded the Germans to surrender “if they wished some day to return to the Fatherland.”  Stern was promoted and awarded a Silver Star. His valor was reported in newspapers around the world and he was even played by a famous actor on the radio.

Feature on Richard Stern published in The American Jewish World on June 2, 1944; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

What do we view as Richard Stern’s heroism?

His actions in World War I and World War II, each for a different side, fit how people usually judge a hero, yet was his protest against the Nazis and standing up for civil rights any less exceptional?

Richard Stern did not succeed in causing any significant change in Germany through his moral and principled stand.  He certainly had moments of fear and doubt, yet the feelings of failure he felt following the protest caused him to be even more determined to find a way to continue opposing the Nazis and Hitler.

Heroism is not just a particular action.  It is also devotion to proper morality.  Richard Stern teaches us that.

 

W. Jack Romberg is the author of the book A Doorway to Heroism: A Decorated German-Jewish Soldier Who Became an American Hero, which tells the story of his great-uncle, Richard Stern.

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.

A Look at Jewish Artisans and Crafts in Morocco

The story behind the professions of Moroccan Jews, including a look at some unique photographs documenting Jewish artisans in Morocco in 1953

Brass engraver in Morocco. All the photographs in this article are from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

What professional crafts did the Jews of Morocco practice? Perhaps you were expecting a clear-cut answer, but we found the issue to be rather complex and dynamic. And, for this very reason, we shall now proceed to share the whole story with our faithful readers (as we like to do), as well as some unique photographs that shed some extra light on the subject. These images have a story of their own, but more on that later.

For centuries, Jews in Morocco made a living from crafts that the Muslim majority society engaged in as well. The terms of the Pact of Umar as well as the laws of Sharia did not impose severe restrictions on non-Muslim occupations, though only Muslims were allowed to work in the fields of government and public office. This was intended to prevent a situation where non-Muslims would hold more important government positions and have greater economic power and influence than Muslims. In other words, despite the fairly common claim among Israelis of Moroccan descent, it’s statistically impossible that everyone’s Jewish-Moroccan grandfather served an adviser to the king.

A Jewish shoemaker in Morocco

Despite the tolerant legal infrastructure, the Muslim majority population did eventually impose restrictions on non-Muslims through the guild system as a way to lessen competition in the craft professions. Not having much choice, the Jews flocked to the trades that were open to them.

According to Sharia law, Muslims are forbidden from working with silver and gold, as the labor results in a greater profit than the true value of the metals, making the profession immoral. The exclusion of Muslims from metalwork enabled Jews to integrate into the industries of goldsmithing and production of gold thread.

Being a professional craftsperson was considered a respected occupation among the middle and lower classes. Prof. Eli Bashan, who researched this subject, wrote – “Even sages and rabbis, who did not want to be paid for their Torah teachings, worked as professional artisans, and this was considered a virtuous act; These included mainly goldsmiths but also other skilled workers such as builders and barbers. Those who were chosen for communal leadership roles came from the ranks of the artisans.”

While most of the professional artisans concentrated on a single area of expertise, we found a number of photographs showing Moroccan Jewish women working in two professions. In the image below, the women of the Casablanca Jewish community (apparently) are shown working as both seamstresses and childcare providers. This was decades before 2020, when working from home became an unexpected reality of life.

Women of the Casablanca (apparently) Jewish community sewing while taking care of children
A Jewish artisan making leather pouches, apparently for storing glass and ceramic ware

The field of commerce was also open to Jews in Morocco and ranged from local to regional to international trade. The Jewish elite class consisted mainly of rich merchants who lived in major port cities – key players in the trade between Morocco and the West.

All this began to change in 1912 with the establishment of the French Protectorate in most parts of Morocco and the Spanish Protectorate in a small area in the north of the country. While the French occupation brought with it the winds of change and progress, this did not necessarily improve conditions for the Jews. It had nothing to do with persecution or discrimination, quite the opposite. The liberal economic policies pursued by France threatened the source of livelihood for many local artisans in the colonial period, at a time when most Jews practiced minor crafts such as leatherworking, goldsmithing, food preparation and various services.

Local consumers were now able to buy significantly cheaper imported goods, reducing the need for local artisans. Some of the country’s traditional professions actually collapsed due to the tough competition from abroad. Others only managed to survive because they sold their goods and services mainly to the Arab population, and not to Europeans who flooded Morocco following the occupation. One can assume that this is the reason why, from the colonial period, the proportion of Jewish merchants rose to 50 percent of Moroccan Jews, while that of artisans dropped to 38 percent.

Historians of the period have grappled with the question of which artisans managed to maintain their source of livelihood despite the fierce competition from the West. The fate of one particularly dominant area is quite clear: when the Jews left Morocco following the establishment of the State of Israel, the local goldsmithing industry practically disappeared, and Moroccan immigrants and Morocco’s Arab population repeatedly claimed this to be the case.  Even today, visitors to Morocco say that local goldsmithing has been unable to recoup its former success from when the Jews worked in the field, despite various attempts at its revival.

A Jewish coppersmith

A great way to learn about the crafts of Moroccan Jews is to explore photographs from the period. One of the most important collections in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (at the National Library of Israel) is the JCA Archive (Jewish Colonization Association), founded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The JCA was established in the late 19th century in order to help solve the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe, with most of its efforts centered on re-settlement in Argentina. However, during the 20th century, the organization became a philanthropic foundation supporting various projects throughout the Jewish world. Among other activities, in the early 1950s, the organization supported Jewish artisans and farmers in Morocco. Many photographs documenting artisans are preserved in its collections. The photographs in this article show Jewish artisans from 1953, probably from Casablanca, engaged in traditional crafts such as copper engraving, shoemaking, sewing and leatherworking.

Help us identify this artisan’s profession. Write us in the comments section!

 

Further Reading:

Shai Srougo, “The Social History of Fez Jews in the Gold-Thread Craft between the Middle Ages and the French Colonialist Period (16th-20th centuries)”. Middle Eastern Studies. 54 (6) (2018): 901-916.

Shai Srougo, “The Artisan Dynamics in the Age of Colonialism: The Social History of Moroccan Jewish Goldsmiths in the Inter War Period”. European Review of History. 21 (5) (2014): 671-690.

אליעזר בשן, אומנים יהודים במרוקו במאות הי”ח-י”ט על־פי תיאורי נוסעים ומקורות יהודיים. בתוך: יהדות צפון אפריקה במאות י”ט-כ’. עורך: מיכאל אביטבול (מכון בן-צבי, תש”ם).

ירון צור, היהודים בתקופה הקולוניאלית. בתוך: קהילות ישראל במזרח במאות התשע-עשרה והעשרים: מרוקו (מכון בן-צבי, תשס”ד).

 

They Jailed Him for Insulting Hitler on an Unopened Envelope

Convicted in Poland for insulting the head of a friendly nation, Jewish hero Nahum Halberstadt was freed on Christmas Day

A Jewish man in Warsaw, 1931 (Chr. De Caters / The Israel Museum). From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection [997003490760405171]; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“While Hitler and his clique rule Germany no decent man should have dealings in German goods.”

When Warsaw merchant and chemist Nahum Halberstadt scribbled these words on an envelope and returned to sender, he never thought they would get him incarcerated. Yet, more than two years after the unopened enveloped was sent, a Polish court sentenced Halberstadt to prison time.

His offense? Transgressing a provision of the Polish criminal code that forbade insulting heads of friendly foreign governments.

In Halberstadt’s own words:

“I had no intention of insulting Hitler. I was annoyed by the insistence and audacity of Germans who offered me German electrical bulbs for sale to Jews in Poland, especially when Jews were so maltreated in Germany. I didn’t even open their letters , as I wasn’t interested in their contents. But, moved by the terrible crimes against Jews in Germany, I wanted to tell the Germans not to pester me with their affairs, so I wrote on an envelope, ‘While Hitler and his clique rule Germany, no decent man should have dealings in German goods.’ What happened after that I didn’t know, until summoned by the police.”

Apparently what had happened was that German postal authorities intercepted the envelope with Halberstadt’s message on it and brought it to the attention of the Foreign Ministry, which in turn raised the issue with the then-friendly Polish regime.

Polish Foreign Minister Josef Beck sits with Hermann Göring in a carriage, July 1935 (Lothar Schaack / German Federal Archive / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The case in itself, and certainly the verdict, were decried by the local Jewish community.

One contemporary news report described the scene as follows:

“Packed with eager spectators, the courtroom was in a turmoil when the verdict was handed down.”

The story in fact traveled well beyond the borders of Poland and Germany.

An editorial in The New York Times entitled “Poland Defends Hitler” emphasized the absurdity and injustice of the affair, lauding Halberstadt’s words as “a manly and natural outburst on the part of a Jew living so close to Naziland.”

An opinion piece in the B’nai Brith Messenger declared:

“This Jewish merchant now occupies a place among the Jewish heroes of our day, and his martyrdom should serve not to discourage, but rather to encourage rebellion against bigotry. For if we yield we merely encourage the proscribing of our human rights to protest against persecution.”

Taking into consideration extenuating circumstances, including Halberstadt’s advanced age, the fact that he had no previous criminal record and was “acting under provocation,” the court meted out a reduced term of eight months in jail, far less than the maximum possible sentence of three years.

Poland itself was no stranger to antisemitism. Calls for boycotts against Jewish businesses and physical attacks on Jews were common throughout the 1920s and 1930s, often perpetrated by student groups and other bigoted factions. This was especially true during the Christmas season, when efforts would be stepped up against Jewish shop owners.

Jewish shops in Warsaw, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nonetheless, it was during this period in the end of 1935, that a general Christmas amnesty freed Nahum Halberstadt from jail along with some 30,000 other Polish prisoners, many of them leaders of violently antisemitic Polish nationalist groups. In fact, the very same Christian holiday season in which Halberstadt became free once more saw rabid antisemitic attacks throughout Poland, including massive boycotting of Jewish-owned shops and violent attacks on Jews.

Headline appearing in the January 2, 1936 edition of The Sentinel. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

German forces entered Warsaw nearly four years to the day after Nahum Halberstadt was convicted of insulting the head of a friendly foreign government.

An estimated five million Polish civilians – at least three million of them Jews – were killed between 1939 and 1945.

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.

Six Friends, One Immortal Bond

On the eve of World War I, a group of Polish yeshiva students signed a pact to make their friendship everlasting...

"We open our hearts completely to each other... there are no secrets between us" (Image: Colorized photo of young men in Będzin / The Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Archive, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

On February 5, 1914, mere months before the shadow of World War I settled over Europe, six young men gathered to discuss friendship and love. These passionate yeshiva students in Będzin, Poland, aimed to immortalize their friendship by establishing the “Beloved and Gracious” association.

Title page of the association’s “Golden Book,” which includes its purpose and rules

Joining was a lifetime commitment, and according to rule 26, opting out was not an option:

“Each and every one, once he signs in his handwriting […] he is thereby considered a member of the association, and he cannot remove himself from it […] and even if he fails to follow some or all of the rules, he is considered to be only rebelling from the great idea of the association, yet to be considered liberated from the association is impossible.”

In order to cement their bond and establish their association, the friends composed “The Golden Book of the Association”, a large notebook containing objectives and 31 rules, written in Hebrew and intended to make sure that the association would endure and realize its purpose. The innocence and optimism conveyed within its pages, on the eve of one of the darkest periods in modern history, is striking.

The young men, whose ages ranged from 18-23, saw the darkness waiting for them outside the walls of the study hall, and searched for a way to make the transition to the real world more bearable through love and friendship. They rejected the cynicism and loneliness that they saw around them, and wished to offer an alternative, in which all group members would be vulnerable and mutually committed.

They saw the current reality as one in which:

“Each and every one carries on his shoulders his burden of desires and goes about his way. No one enters the mind of the other […] no one desires to enter his friend’s threshold, to see, to look, and to participate in his joy and sadness.”

The future only seemed to them dimmer:

“We will now paint our foreseeable future […] we are Torah-learning young men, what will our future be […] our lives flow in a simple and predictable path. After getting married, each of us becomes a different person. Life, sometimes sad and usually full of worries, begins to change him […] the years pass […] and all the hopes and dreams that he had hoped and dreamed in his youth […] the wind has carried away, and they are gone.”

According to the association’s founders, when life becomes harder to bear, the adult sadly remember the peaceful days of youth:

“…days in which he was most joyful, in which he was surrounded by a wide world of hopes and dreams… And he then says to himself, this friend who was close to me like a brother, attached like a wick to a candle, is now so far away. Now he does not participate neither in my joy nor in my sorrow […] anyone with a heart will feel his chest tighten and his soul fill with gloom, when he looks back on the days of his youth and remembers his friends […] with whom he had grown up, learned, and dreamed.”

Thus, to prepare for the future and prevent that loneliness and grief, the six friends decided to officially seal their commitment to each other:

“Before we part from each other, before we go out into the world […] now, as the spark of our friendship has not yet burnt out […] now we wish to establish and perfect the “Beloved and Gracious” association […] one association which will bind and connect us for the rest of our lives […] we open our hearts completely to each other […] there are no secrets between us […] this association concerns mostly the future rather than the present. To take part in [each other’s] joy and sorrow, and in all affairs, including finances and advice.”

 

“Declaration of intent” appearing in “The Golden Book of the Association”

The rules included commitments to help each other; to be bonded closely just like brothers; to take interest in each other’s situations; to write letters to each other, and at least once every three months to send a letter to the chairman detailing one’s life affairs; to take part in family celebrations; to visit each other as much as possible; to gather when one of the friends requires special assistance; and in conclusion: “to be beloved and gracious to each other with the love of David and Jonathan, independent of all else, for the rest of our days. A true love which rises from the depths of the soul and the breadth of the heart”.

The rules of the “Beloved and Gracious” association
The association’s rationale and objectives, along with the signatures of the association members

“The Golden Book of the Association” was signed by all six members, with some of them offering a few personal details as well. The members were: Ze’ev Yaakov son of Moshe Watinsky (born 1891), Yeshaya Yona son of Shimon Yehuda Pszenica (born 1896), Chaim Yitzchak son of Alter Shmuel Welner (born 1896), Asher Arye Langfus, Yom Tov Lipa Rotenberg, and Moshe Betzalel Zeidman.

What became of the association and its members?

Did they keep their bonds of love?

We know at least a bit about two of the friends. Yeshaya Yona Pszenica took part in establishing a branch of the Noar Mizrachi religious Zionist youth movement in his town after World War I, and a few years later he took a position as the principal of Yavne, a school in Działoszyce, a town near Będzin.

As a principal, he was described as “very devoted to developing the school. The school was spotlessly clean and organized. The lessons were run punctually, in accordance with the schedule” (Yizkor book of the Jewish community in Dzialoszyce and surroundings, p. 116).

Yavneh School picture, ca. 1930s (Ghetto Fighters House Archive / Public domain)

Yeshaya Yona, his wife Chana, and his daughters Esther and Shifra, were all murdered at the Belzec extermination camp.

Chaim Yitzchak Welner met a different fate. He died in old age, in Tel Aviv in 1980. According to the Encyclopedia of Religious Zionism, Welner was also involved in establishing a branch of Noar Mizrachi in Będzin in 1918, and was also chosen for the central committee of the movement in Poland.

In 1925, he moved to the Land of Israel but had difficulty settling in, and decided to move back to Poland. Ten years later he made Aliya again and settled in Tel Aviv. Though he was a learned and knowledgeable Torah scholar, he refused to make his living from being a rabbi, and worked instead as a clerk.

Chaim Yitzchak Welner

Interestingly, there is a difference of more than one year with regard to Welner’s date of birth in the book and what appears on his gravestone.  In the book, it appears as the 23rd of Tammuz, 5656 (July 4, 1896), whereas on his gravestone it appears as the 2nd of Tammuz 5655 (June 24, 1895). The latter seems to be more reliable, as it was written when Welner was young.

Welner’s date of birth as it appears in “The Golden Book”
Welner’s gravestone

Welner’s two sons became quite prominent figures in Israel: Alter (1923-2020), who was a journalist and one of the founders of the “HaTsofeh” newspaper, and Simcha (1931-2011), who was a nuclear physicist and taught in the department of mathematics at Bar-Ilan University.

 

The Golden Book of the Association” was recently acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. It provides a glimpse into the group’s touching and optimistic innocence in early 20th century Poland.

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.