Scenes from the Battlefield: A Jewish Artist’s Memories of WWI

Hermann Struck volunteered to serve his German homeland during WWI. He returned from the front with 400 sketches and prints which offered a glimpse of the atrocities of war, of its hostages, and of the lives of Eastern Europe's Jews


Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

A boot peeking out of the corner of an army cot. A soldier cutting a loaf of bread with his pocketknife. Another soldier in a gas mask. The bombed-out remains of a home. These are just some of the powerful images that Hermann Struck, the famous Jewish artist, drew during his years on the Eastern Front of World War I. How did Struck, who was already famous in Germany’s artistic circles, as well as among Europe’s Zionist movements, find himself in such a situation?

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

In 1915, Hermann Struck, also known by his Hebrew pseudonym, Chaim Aaron ben David, was an active, well-known artist. He was born in Berlin to a religious orthodox family, and remained observant of Jewish law throughout his entire life. However, like many youths from German bourgeois families, he also studied in the gymnasium, where he developed an interest in art. Struck’s talent was clear from a young age, and after high school, he went on to study at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where he met the famous Dutch artist, Josef Israëls, who taught him lithography. Struck gradually became a part of Europe’s artistic scene.

Hermann Struck, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

At the same time, he became more and more drawn to Zionist ideology. Struck participated in the 5th Zionist Congress, where his art was displayed before the audience.  He became a senior member of the “Mizrachi” religious-Zionist movement founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, and was even named chairman of the movement in Germany. In 1903, he visited the Land of Israel and returned with a series of etchings depicting the landscapes and sites of the country, which were published in a book one year later. Several months after that, he published one of his best-known works, a portrait of Theodor Herzl, after he met personally with the Zionist leader in Egypt.

So what brings a well-known artist, who has already published a fair number of books and collections of his work, to occupied Vilnius during World War I? Struck’s presence wasn’t exactly necessary there. When the war broke out, he was 38 years old, and as such, he wasn’t even required to enlist. Nevertheless, like many other Jews, he eagerly volunteered to serve his country. At first, he was refused, because of his age, but in 1915, his enlistment was finally approved. After undergoing basic training, he served as a translator and censor and was stationed in the press department of the High German Command on the Eastern Front. It is possible that he also worked as a military artist around this time, and some of his drawings may have been made in the course of his service.

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

Later on he was sent to the front, where he took part in combat against the Russians. His actions during this period resulted in Struck being awarded the Iron Cross for “courage in the face of the enemy.” In July of 1917, he returned to headquarters and served as the officer in charge of Jewish affairs in the territories under the Eastern High Command’s jurisdiction. It was in this role that Struck came face to face for the first time with the Jews of Eastern Europe and learned about their lifestyle. In his wartime sketches, Struck also drew the portraits of the Jews he met, their towns, and their way of life.

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

Another work which Struck published following his military service was a collection of portraits of prisoners of war. Throughout the course of the war, the Germans held millions of hostages in their custody, mainly Russians and French. At some point, the Germans decided to document the prisoners’ faces, or, in Struck’s words, to create “a collection of the different types of hostages in our custody.” Struck was granted permission to visit the camps for a period of two weeks, creating the collection with an anthropologist named Felix Ritter von Luschan, who recommended that Struck also consider “anthropological aspects.”

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

Courtesy of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, Tefen

After the war, Struck also served as a consultant to the German delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference on issues pertaining to Eastern European Jews.  He continued his activity in “Mizrachi” and in 1923 decided that his Zionist vision impelled him to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. He settled in Haifa, where his former home, “Beit Hermann Struck” still stands in the Hadar Carmel neighborhood. Today it serves as a museum for his work and also displays the works of other artists in the fields of printing and lithography.  Struck’s other works are on permanent display at the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in the Tefen industrial park in Northern Israel. The museum’s archive also contains the works attached to this article.

We would like to thank the director and curator of the museum, Ruth Ofek, and the director of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum archive, Judith Bar-Or, for their assistance in preparing this article.

Most of the material from the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum archive is scanned and available for viewing on the Archive Network Israel website. To see more of Hermann Struck’s works from World War I, as well as other items, click here.         

Further reading:

Herman Struck, 1876-1944 / herausgegeben von Ruthi Ofek und Chana Schütz, Migdal Tefen: Open Museum, 2007

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The Weimar Constitution and its “Father” Hugo Preuss

Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss' contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with an expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months, until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version, approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives, but it anticipated the future, since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945, with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research, and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this uncomfortable position for 15 years, since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity for this purpose. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP, where Walther Rathenau was a member as well. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament, yet he also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’s resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text, though most of it is his brainchild; the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

The placard states that this day was "the great day of the German people" and emphasizes that "every vote counts."

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

After the end of World War I, with the resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the soldiers’ and workers’ revolution at the end of 1918, the temporary government agreed to hold general elections to establish a national assembly, a kind of preliminary parliament after the collapse of the Second Reich. The elections, set for January 19, 1919, were the first in which women in Germany were given the right to vote. The placard states that this day was “the great day of the German people” and emphasizes that “every vote counts.” Following the political-revolutionary riots in the German capital of Berlin, it was decided that the elected assembly would meet in Weimar, a small and quiet city, “the capital of classical culture,” located in the center of the country. On February 6, 1919, the delegates met for the first time and appointed Friedrich Ebert, representative of the Social Democratic party, as chancellor. Ebert in turn appointed the first government of the young republic. The city where the National Assembly convened was the origin of the informal name for the political entity: The Weimar Republic.

This placard was collected by the Jewish physician Arthur Czellitzer, who ran a private clinic in Berlin until the Nazis’ rise to power. Czellitzer was interested in various historical questions and in Jewish genealogy, but he also had a broad historical consciousness that manifested itself in the collection of announcements and posters he cultivated between 1918 and 1928. His collection contains hundreds of items relating to many political parties and candidates for various elections that took place during the Weimar Republic, and Czellitzer appears to have acquired the items in Berlin. In many cases, he added the date of acquisition and sometimes the location, filing his findings meticulously. In 1936, Czellitzer donated his collection to the National and University Library in Jerusalem. Dr. Arthur Czellitzer was murdered in the Holocaust, at the Sobibor Camp, in 1943.

Source: Archive Department, Ephemera Collection from the Weimar Republic, V 662.

The Journal “Rimon” – “Milgroim”

The first Jewish journal devoted to art

Logo of "Rimon" Publishing House, 1922. Design: Tobias Schwab

In early autumn of 1922, the premier issue of “Rimon”, the first Jewish journal devoted to art, was published. The Hebrew-language readership, which until then had been accustomed to various journals and literary collections printed on cheap paper with cramped lettering, was stunned by the exceptional quality of this innovative journal, not only in terms of its content – serious articles dealing with all aspects of Jewish art – but also from its excellent typographical quality, the fine paper on which it was printed and the abundant colorful, eye-enchanting illustrations it incorporated.

The driving force behind Rimon was a small circle of Russian Jews, headed by historian Mark Wischnitzer and his wife, art historian Rachel Bernstein-Wischnitzer. In late 1921, the couple joined a group of Russian-Jewish émigrés in Berlin. They presented the idea of publishing a Jewish art journal to their friend Leopold Sew, a Russian-Jewish intellectual who was visiting Berlin from Paris, where he had fled after the revolution. Sew was excited by the idea and referred the couple to Eliahu Feinson, who belonged to a group of Jewish-Russian capitalists who supported Hebrew publication projects. Feinson enlisted with fervor in the publication of Jewish art books, and provided the necessary funding for commencing the work. His name appeared on almost all publications of the company as one of its three directors, alongside Dr. Mark Wischnitzer and Alexander Kogan, two of the great Russian publishers who had come to Berlin during this period, and were involved in the production of one of the most esteemed journals to be published in both Russian and German, “The Firebird” (“Jar-Ptiza”).

Cover of the Russian art journal The Firebird, 1921. Design: Sergei Czokhonin

Despite the defeat of Germany in World War I and the lack of political stability that characterized it in the years that followed, the publishing industry recovered rapidly and continued to be among the most progressive and advanced in the world, as it had been in the past. The spiraling inflation in the Weimar Republic at the time severely damaged the local industry and economy, but on the other hand, it gave owners of foreign capital the possibility of producing published materials at a high standard for a very low cost.

Between 1921 and 1923, over thirty different Hebrew publishing houses were active in Germany, many of them in Berlin. These publishing houses succeeded within a very short span to print hundreds of Hebrew titles of a quality unprecedented in the world of Hebrew publishing of that time. During this period, Jewish-German publishers, like their German colleagues, were in the throes of a deep economic crisis. In contrast, the state of Jewish immigrants from Russia was radically different. Most of the financial institutions of the Zionist Movement were located in the United States and Britain. The philanthropists who provided the funding for many Russian refugees to stay in Germany conducted business outside of the Weimar Republic. The small sums (in terms of the dollar or sterling) that were sent regularly to Jewish immigrants in Germany were thus sufficient to enable them to live respectably. Therefore, despite the ostensibly low status of Russian Jews in the Weimar Republic as immigrants and refugees with no legal standing, they had a tremendous advantage over their local German-Jewish brethren.

Emerging from the multi-lingual reality that characterized the society of Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany was the idea to publish, in parallel to the issues of “Rimon”, a Yiddish edition called “Milgroim”, which like the Hebrew word “rimon,” means pomegranate. Some of the articles on art appeared in identical form in both language editions, while the literary component was different. Although “Milgroim” is one of a long list of Yiddish journals founded by the literary hub of Eastern-European Jews in Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, it is completely unique in character due to the visual language through which it communicated to its readership.

Cover of an issue of “Milgroim”, 1922, by Böhm and Baruch
The similarity between the twin journals in Hebrew and Yiddish, “Rimon” and “Milgroim”, published by the Wischnitzers, and the Russian journal published by Alexander Kogan, is not only in the covers notable for their bold colors. Like Kogan, the Wischnitzers also viewed the Middle Ages as the “golden age” of art as a source of inspiration, and this can be readily discerned not only typographically (the shapes of the Hebrew letters drawn from those appearing in Ashkenazic and Sephardic Hebrew manuscripts) but also in other motifs in medieval folk art, as well as in the revival of additional motifs that were typical of early manuscripts and printed materials.
Overall, between 1922 and 1924, seven titles were published by the “Rimon” publishing house, some of them in three and even four languages (a total of twelve books), in addition to the six editions of the “Rimon” journal and six additional editions of its Yiddish corollary “Milgroim”. In 1924, following the halting of German inflation and the stabilization of the mark, the economic conditions that enabled the inexpensive publication of books no longer existed, and this original publishing house came to an end, like many of the Hebrew publication establishments that emerged – and disappeared – during this brief and intensive period.
Cover of the first issue of “Rimon”, 1922. Design: Ernst Böhm and Francesca Baruch