Celebrating English Royalty at Synagogue

Though England's royal coronations are traditionally held at Westminster Abbey, over the years the Jews of the British Empire have celebrated the ascensions of new monarchs in their synagogues, with special prayers tailored for the occasion…

This year (2022) the United Kingdom and much of the world is celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70th year on the royal throne. Though she became Queen in 1952, her official coronation was held more than a year later, to allow the nation to mourn the death of her father, King George VI, as well as to allow time to prepare a magnificent ceremony.

To mark the momentous jubilee, the UK’s Chief Rabbi composed a special prayer for the occasion.

This, however, was certainly not the first time the Jews of England have prayed for the well-being of their respective kings and queens. Ahead of royal coronations held over the years, special prayers were prepared for Jewish congregations and read in synagogues across the British Empire. These prayers and rituals were published by the Chief Rabbinate as well as other Jewish organizations. Many of the resulting prayer books are preserved today in the collections of the National Library of Israel.

The obligation to pray for the safety and well-being of kings is rooted in a verse from the Mishnah – Pirkei Avot, 3:2:

Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Cohen Gadol, says “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow their fellow alive.”

(The above translation is taken from here)

The hope conveyed in the words above is that a proper and effective monarchy, meaning one that is not preoccupied with wars and infighting, is more likely to invest its resources and time in good governance, legislation and public order, for the benefit of its subjects, including Jews.

To this day, in Jewish congregations in Britain and the Commonwealth countries, a prayer for the blessing and health of the Queen and the Royal Family is recited before the Musaf Shabbat prayer.

Queen Elizabeth II is England’s longest serving monarch. The previous record holder was her grandfather’s grandmother – Queen Victoria.

Victoria’s coronation was held in 1838, a year after she acceded to the throne. 50 years on, the Chief Rabbinate and the kingdom’s Sephardic community published prayers giving thanks for the protection afforded to the Queen “during a long and prosperous reign”.

From a prayer book published by the British Sephardic community to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years on the throne


An Ashkenazi prayer book marking Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

A decade later, Queen Victoria celebrated her 60th year on the throne. Prayers were renewed and even the Jews of Jerusalem published a Hebrew song of prayer, citing “the children of Israel who dwell in Zion and who appreciate your feelings and take part in your joy and in the happiness of your peoples”.

A Hebrew song of prayer celebrating Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne, printed in Jerusalem

Victoria’s son and heir, Edward VII, was crowned along with his wife Queen Alexandra in 1902. Once again, in England, Australia and other countries, prayer books containing psalms, hymns such as Adon Olam, special prayers for the protection of the new king and queen as well a general prayer for the safety of the Royal Family were printed. One of the books included the last-minute addition of a thanksgiving prayer in Hebrew on its final page, noting that “the sword hath been put into the scabbard, and the covenant of peace and brotherhood hath been established”.

The coronation was held about a month after the conclusion of the Second Boer War in South Africa. The Chief Rabbinate felt it was fitting to address the issue during the coronation celebrations.

“the sword hath been put into the scabbard, and the covenant of peace and brotherhood hath been established..” – A prayer prepared for the occasion of Edward VII’s coronation, shortly after the conclusion of the Second Boer War, 1902

A Hebrew “Ode on the Coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty Edward VII” was also composed and translated into English and Yiddish. The author, Joseph Massel, had immigrated to Britain from Russia in 1895. He settled in Manchester, where he worked in printing and translation while writing poetry as well. A passionate Zionist, he took part in the Zionist congresses and even hosted Chaim Weizmann in his home.

Ode on the Coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty Edward VII

The next coronation was that of King George V, alongside his wife Queen Mary in 1911. Aside from the more common prayers printed in London, here we have examples of prayers published in distant parts of the British Empire, such as the cities of Bombay and Calcutta in India.

A brief prayer published by the “Gate of Mercy” Synagogue in Bombay
A prayer published in Calcutta, India (today Kolkata). Note that George V is referred to here as “King-Emperor”, as among his other titles he was also considered “Emperor of India”

George V was eventually followed by his son King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth in 1937 (Edward VIII was George V’s immediate successor but abdicated before his coronation could be held). Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Rachel Yanait represented the Jewish Yishuv of Mandatory Palestine at the ceremony.

Yitzhak and Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi at the coronation of George VI, Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the collection of Benzion Israeli. Collection source: Aharon Israeli, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In this case as well, a variety of brief prayer books were printed. One of these hailed from Tianjin (Tientsin) in northern China, where a community of some 2000 Jews, mostly refugees from Russia, had settled.

This was the first appearance of Elizabeth II in the coronation prayers, though here she was still a princess. Elizabeth was 11 years old when her parents were crowned, and the prayers made reference to her as well. She also appeared alongside her sister Margaret in official photos of the event.

The coronation prayers of 1937 mention Princess Elizabeth

In the Land of Israel, a “Grand Coronation Ball” was organized to celebrate the event. According to the official programme, primarily filled with advertisements, the ball featured three orchestras, and participants were able to enjoy dances, catering and a fireworks display.

The programme of the “Grand Coronation Ball”, 1937

With the passing of George VI in 1952, Elizabeth II was made Queen. Her mother, also named Elizabeth, now became “The Queen Mother”. The official prayer published by the Chief Rabbinate for the 1953 coronation ceremony features a minor, understandable, mistake. The booklet was printed while Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, was still alive and her name appears among those of the other Royal Family members. Mary passed away little more than two months before the official coronation and there was no time to reprint the booklets.

Elizabeth II’s coronation prayer mentions the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as well as her son, Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall

That same year, the Jewish National Fund planted a forest near the town of Nazareth in honor of the Queen with funds donated from around the world. To mark this occasion, an elegant book was produced, featuring a poem dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, as well as an article on the subject of the Royal Family and the Jewish people and another article on the topic of forestation and agriculture in the Holy Land. The book also included several photographs of yet another forest planted in honor of George V in 1935.

From a book titled The Queen Elizabeth Coronation Forest, celebrating the trees planted in her honor by the Jewish National Fund

To mark Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, celebrating 25 years on the throne, a special prayer service was held at the central synagogue of the United Synagogue organization, with the Chief Rabbi in attendance along with other dignitaries. After the Rabbi’s sermon, the Holy Ark was opened and the cantor recited:

Five and twenty years have passed since our Gracious Queen ascended the throne. In common with our fellow citizens we pray humbly that Her Majesty will be granted many more years of fruitful and felicitous reign that will continue to shed lustre and glory upon our Sovereign and her people.

Our Father Who art in Heaven,

Bestow Thy bountiful blessings upon Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip, upon the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales. Wonderful in their splendor, may they be richly blessed together with all the Royal Family. Prolong their years in health, well-being and strength…

In this year of joyful remebrance and exultation we are filled with the deepest sentiments of loyalty, esteem and gratitude. We pray for the peace and prosperity of Great Britain, for the security and salvation of Israel and for the redemption of mankind under the sovereignty of God.

May our prayers and supplications find speedy and abiding fulfillment. 



And with that, all that is left is to wish Her Majesty health and happiness.

God save the Queen.

What Made This Top Russian Jewish Author Descend into Madness?

Lev Levanda spent decades advocating for Jewish assimilation into Russian culture. It all changed after pogroms shook the empire...

Lev Levanda, seen here in the 1860s, was a leading promoter of "russification", yet ultimately concluded that his life's work was "without purpose". Photo from the National Library of Israel's Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection

In 1888, Lev Levanda, one of Russia’s most renowned Jewish writers, died in an insane asylum outside of St. Petersburg. He was 53 years old. In the decades before the pogroms of 1881-82, he, along with many others, had called for “russification” as a solution to the “Jewish Question”. Russification meant that Jews should speak Russian, study in Russian schools, join its cultural life; in other words, love Russia. All that came to a crashing end with the pogroms of 1881-82, and the subsequent antisemitic legislation known as the May Laws.

Levanda’s life is significant in our own day for a variety of reasons. Through Levanda we can learn a great deal about Russian Jewry of the 1880s. He was a central figure in a brilliant generation of maskilim, Jewish intellectuals of the 1860s, who were the first Jews to enter Russian culture in large numbers. He was one of the fathers of Russian-Jewish literature (creative writing and journalism by and about Jews in the Russian language). However, in the 1880s, after the pogroms, he began to write differently, expressing the anger of a cultural insider who had been rejected by his adoptive parents. Levanda’s choices help us piece together a history of Jewish discourse about Russia, Russian literature, and Jewish culture in the key decade after the pogroms of 1881-82.

Illustration of Jews being harassed during a pogrom in Kiev, while police look on. Published in the February 4, 1882 edition of The Penny Illustrated Paper (Public domain)

In his day, Levanda was widely known thanks to his literary output. Among his major novels are Seething Times (Goriachee vremia), The Grocery Affair (Delo bakaleinykh tovarov), Sketches of the Past (Ocherki proshlogo), The Big Fraud (Bol’shoi Remiz), The Magnate’s Anger and Mercy (Gnev i milost’ Magnata), and Avraam Iezofovich (1887). In 1860, he was one of the original founders of Rassvet, the first Jewish newspaper published in the Russian language, and he was also a consistent contributor to Voskhod, the long-standing Russian-Jewish newspaper established in 1879. Besides Jewish newspapers, Levanda also contributed to Vilenskii Vestnik (The Messenger of Vilna), a paper later known for its antisemitic bent.

Levanda’s initial reaction to the pogroms was fury.  However, once the initial shock of the pogroms passed, Levanda reexamined his ideas and found them wanting. He began to express new views in the Russian-language press, using the pseudonym “W”, though it is unclear why he needed a pseudonym at all given that many knew the author’s true identity, and the censors ripped apart some of his articles in any case.

Himself a Russian-language author, Levanda had often used sarcasm, irony, and skaz narrative (use of a voice other than the author himself), just as Russian authors did. But now, in the 1880s, he used these tools not to affirm his affiliation with the Russian literary tradition, but to mock it. Instead of showing confidence in the attainment of the great nineteenth-century value of progress – the triumph of reason over superstition, prejudice, and oppression – Levanda put his doubts into print. In fact, his writings from this period reflect a mind racked with pain.

Portrait of Lev Levanda printed in Vilna, ca. early 1860s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The titles of his articles in the 1880s give an indication of his mood. “Flying Thoughts of One Unable to Grasp It” (“Letuchie mysli nedoumevaiushchego”), “Modest Conversations about Last Year’s Snow” (“Skromnye besedy o proshlogodnem snege”),  “On the Subject of How a Mountain Gave Birth to a Mouse” (“O tom, kak gora rodila mysh”), and “Convoluted Speeches” (“Bezsviazye rechi”).

He was especially agonized by the nefarious role of Russian literature in the persecution of Jews. Formerly his moral lodestar, Russian literature was now a tool of his enemies. It had been used to betray its ideals of universalism and ethical idealism. Simultaneously, Levanda turned his bile on the community of writers who projected optimism. He recoiled at their frivolous attitude toward serious issues, referring to their attitude as concern with ”last year’s snow”.

Focusing on a famous line from Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Prophet”, in which the great Russian author refers to “burning the hearts of people with the word,” Levanda condemned Jewish journalists, despite being one. By mocking a poem that for Russians of his generation represented a sacred promise to help the underprivileged, Levanda committed blasphemy.  By criticizing Pushkin and Russian society, Levanda indicated that the promise of social-progress (as projected in the Pushkin poem) was a lie. The poem reflected Levanda’s rage at Russian literature. Pushkin, who previously represented everything good, had also turned upside-down.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin by Pyotr Sokolov, 1836 (Public domain)

Levanda continued his assault on Russian literature by reinterpreting Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous poem, “Who Lives Well in Russia?” For Levanda’s generation, Nekrasov represented the idea of moral progress. Levanda purposefully distorted the poem, thereby reversing Nekrasov’s reputation and possibly disowning the entire Russian literary tradition. In an article from June 1881, he quotes Nekrasov’s poem, adding his own subjective commentary in parentheses at the end of each line:

You are poor (in bread)
You are rich (in drunken stupor)
You are powerful (in appetite)
You are powerless (in will)
Mother Russia!

Levanda pummeled other sacred cows, such as the Jewish youth on which he had placed so much trust to help enact social change. However in 1885 he depicted a different group, one that betrays traditions and family honor for the sake of material success:

“The wild flow of the present day, having washed away the stable, proper, and comfortable home of earlier days, left in their place a huge, full, joyless, and thin swamp, in which creatures with human form, one uglier than the next, dawdle, flounder, rise from the water, cling, press against one another, push, and strangle each other, so that each holds himself somehow on the smelly surface, although at the price of the others’ destruction.”

Levanda also expressed disappointment in Russian officials, another category of people in which he had placed his faith. From his previous beliefs in the good nature of Russian officials, to the promise of Jewish youth, the value of Jewish journalism and, above all, Pushkin and Russian literature, when it became clear that his former ideals were empty of promise, Levanda disowned them.

He also began to seek new ideological solutions to the problems of his day. For a brief moment he became enamored with Zionism, or more precisely, Hibbat Tsiyyon and its goal of developing a Jewish home in the Land of Israel. In 1884, his article, “The Essence of the So-Called ‘Palestine’ Movement (A Letter to the Publishers),” appeared in the volume, Palestine: a Collection of Articles and Information about the Jewish Settlements in the Holy Land, edited by Vasily Berman and Akim Flekser.[1]

The clothing of these late 19th century Zionist pioneers in Rehovot reflects Russian influence. Part of the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Levanda hailed the successes of the fledgling movement that no one had expected would survive. The Zionists, he wrote, had forged a new path, started something practical by settling in the Land of Israel. Levanda raved about a change in psychology, underscoring the difference between generations. Earlier, he wrote, Jewish intellectuals (including himself) sought solutions in theory; they wondered, how to solve the “Jewish Question”? Their answer depended not only on ideas, but also on the ruling powers. Since these theories had brought few results, the new generation turned to praxis.

Levanda explained:

“Has the solution to the Jewish question progressed from the time of Haman to our present day? […] The thing is this, through bitter experience, I have become convinced that theory, useless theory, will not drive the Jewish Question out of the vicious circle where it got stuck at the very beginning of its appearance. Our national instinct whispers to us: ‘Try to introduce practical action, basing it not on words, but actions from which one may expect results.’”

Nonetheless, Levanda only tenuously attached himself to the movement, and certainly did not assume a leadership role. In fact, before long, Levanda cut his ties with Hibbat Tsiyyon, rejecting its ideology and focusing on Russia, and the more general cultural achievements of Jewish diasporas.

“In its essence Jewish national identity composes an exceptional phenomenon in history so much so that, despite logic and the most convincing theories, a definite territory is perhaps more harmful than useful. Jewish national identity strengthened itself and became crystalized precisely at the time when the Jewish people’s land had been taken away.”

Although Levanda seemed to advocate something like “diasporism,” the view that the Jews have developed more effectively outside of the Land of Israel than in it – he did not focus on this idea for long.

During the mid-1880s, the seeds of his nervous illness were growing. As a child, the folklore scholar Mortkhe Rivesman saw Levanda in Vilna and wrote about him:

“The patriotism of L. O. Levanda and many other Jewish ‘russofiles’ declined significantly. One should presume that the break in his sermonizing about ‘assimilation’ with the Russian people who had become the anchor of autocracy shook his entire spiritual world. He even became a Proto-Zionist and died from a painful spiritual ailment at age 53.”

Simon Dubnov describes meeting Levanda in 1886:

“Finding myself in Vilna, I considered it my duty to visit L. O. Levanda who was ill. I was warned about the writer’s strangeness; during the last years he had locked himself in and avoided meeting people, but I wanted to see the author … the bard of enlightenment and russification who had turned into a Proto-Zionist before my very eyes.

The conversation was lifeless until I mentioned his articles, The Fates of Jews in Congress Poland, that had been published in Voskhod. […] Here my partner became animate and bragged with a child’s exclamation. ‘Of course I was called upon to write such things because I know Polish literature well.’ And then again a strange coldness wafted from the twisted figure of this man who was far from old (he was only 52) with his obviously disturbed soul. With a mournful feeling I left this living symbol of the extinguished torch of ‘enlightenment,’ and a bit more than a year later, I read in Voskhod about Levanda’s death in a psychiatric hospital near Petersburg.”

Observers give us a good perspective, but the emotions that Levanda felt may be perceived from his own expression. He doubted, worried, and suffered. One can grasp his emotional condition by examining his response to the suggestion to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a writer. In this exchange of letters (we only have Levanda’s letter to Alfred Landau, the editor of Voskhod, and the Hebrew poet Yehuda Leib Gordon), we perceive Levanda’s emotional loneliness as well as his refusal to consider his literary work as an achievement or service to the Jewish people.

Landau believed that Levanda had improved the lives of thousands of Jews who had learned Russian from reading him, and wanted to recognize Levanda’s career.

On June 16, 1885, Levanda replied to Landau, refusing any honors:

“I do not want it [a celebration] because it is not the time for anniversaries, because I am not in the mood for celebrations now, because if I don’t care to recognize the fact that the Jewish public has been reading me for 25 years, they shouldn’t cheer that I’ve been writing for them for 25 years, but, alas, without purpose. I know more than anyone else about it, and therefore I do not acknowledge any services rendered on my part and did not correct anything through my writing. It’s sad, but true, and the truth is more valuable to me than holy incense, especially one undeserved.”

Levanda wanted the anniversary to pass without notice, as it seemed inauthentic to him. Incidentally, Levanda detested Landau personally which probably also contributed to the former’s hostility. Levanda’s assertion that he wrote “alas, without purpose” is somewhat difficult to understand logically. Jews, the vast majority of whom were Yiddish speakers, had in fact rushed to learn Russian. By saying that his 25 years of writing had no purpose, his point was to imply that integration into Russian culture ultimately had no purpose. This claim was obviously influenced by the pogroms, which, as far as he was concerned, had invalidated his decades of literary activity.

Lev Levanda’s disappointment alone could explain his insanity, but other factors clearly contributed, as well: his inescapable emotional reaction to the pogroms, potential feelings of guilt, resistance to physical integration with Russians, and his apparently ultimately fruitless soul-searching. These multiple and overlapping factors illuminate his degenerative emotional condition.

Following the bloody pogroms and enactment of the so-called May Laws, antisemitic legislation that impeded the movement, business, and education of Jews in Russia,  Levanda saw his dream and life’s work shatter before his very eyes.  Russian Jews, led by Levanda and others, had been living in an illusion all the while.

His emotional journey and descent into madness ultimately reflected the dilemmas, disillusionment and despondency of at least one entire generation of Russian Jews.

A version of this article was originally published in Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. It appears here 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.

Judith Montefiore on How to Cook Like a Proper Jewish Lady

The name Judith Montefiore is probably not famous enough in Israel. A brief search of the National Library archives revealed that not only was she an equal partner in her husband’s charitable endeavors, but she was also likely the anonymous editor of the first Jewish cookbook published in England…


A portrait of Judith Montefiore alongside the book she most likely edited...

It would be difficult to imagine a more chauvinist cliché than “behind every successful man is a woman.” However, in the case of Sir Moses Montefiore, it is entirely true. Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore’s joint charitable work preceded Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by some 200 years. And even though Sir Moses generally received most of the glory, Lady Judith was a full and equal partner in all his activities and decisions. In the mid-19th century, during her own lifetime, she received much more credit, not only from the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, but throughout the world.

The Montefiore family crest, from the book Mizmor Shir Hanukat Bayit, the National Library of Israel

The recent renaming of the footbridge crossing the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv from Gesher Yehudit (“Judith Bridge”) to Gesher Yitzhak Navon (“Yitzhak Navon Bridge”) was a good reason to dig through the Library archives in search of one of Jewish history’s most important women. Judith Montefiore was not only the figure behind the most significant financial contributions to the Old Yishuv in the Land of Israel, but she also worked to promote Jewish life everywhere while even engaging in diplomatic missions.

Portrait of Sir Moses Montefiore sitting opposite a portrait of Judith. This image is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Among the National Library of Israel’s holdings is a copy of the first-ever Jewish cookbook and housekeeping guide published in England. Released in 1846, The Jewish Manual: Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery (With a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette) lists only “A Lady” as its editor. Since its publication, the book has been attributed to Lady Judith Montefiore, although there is no documentation or concrete proof to support this hypothesis. Not many Jewish women in Victorian England held the title of Lady, but there were a few possible candidates.

“Edited by A Lady.” Front page of the book The Jewish Manual: Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery. From a digital copy held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Beyond being a Jewish cookbook that—as the editor states in the introduction—instructs its readers on the art of preparing quality, delicious meals while following strict Jewish dietary laws, it is also a guide for the middle-class Jewish homemaker. The reader, of course, must have at least one maidservant to assist her in the management of the kitchen, household, and personal care—nothing out of the ordinary for any proper Jewish Lady. In the introduction, the anonymous editor notes that the book is written for young women as a guide to managing a rich and diverse table, the foundation for a happy family as well as successful social interactions.

The first part of the book is devoted to various Jewish recipes, or perhaps more correctly, the preparation of dishes in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. The book also includes recipes for specifically Jewish dishes, mainly of Spanish, Dutch and German origin, places that happened to characterize the food served at the Montefiore home. Anyone looking for recipes for Eastern European delicacies, such as gefilte fish, chopped liver, latkes or borscht, will be disappointed, as the massive Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to the West only began in the 1880s.

No soy sauce and ketchup. The Jewish Manual, from a digital copy held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

In this section of the book, the editor not only includes recipes but also a few tips for the sophisticated hostess. For example, the anonymous editor recommends not cooking with soy sauce or ketchup, which “inferior cooks” tend to add to their stews. Rather, these sauces should be placed on the table, and each guest may add them to their own taste.

The last part of the book is devoted to personal hygiene. According to the editor, while a woman’s intelligence is the true source of her beauty, she should also nurture her body. Toward this end, the book includes quite a few recipes and tips for facial, lip and skin care, including advice on keeping hands white and smooth.

Renewed interest in the book led some amateur historians to connect The Jewish Manual to Judith Montefiore. More thorough research revealed that the book’s recipes correspond to the type of cuisine served in the Montefiore home, but the connection did not end there. Careful perusal of the book reveals that the “Lady” who edited it was a member of the upper class, in addition to being a world traveler who also visited Palestine, from where she brought a recipe for soup. Judith Montefiore visited the Land of Israel in the mid-nineteenth century no less than five times while accompanying her husband. She was captivated by the charm of the Holy Land and even learned Arabic, in addition to Hebrew and four or five other languages ​​she already knew.




Here is the recipe for “Palestine Soup”, a classic local dish featuring Jerusalem artichokes, from Lady Judith Montefiore’s cookbook:

Recipe for Palestine Soup. The Jewish Manual, from a digital copy held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC


There is no conclusive proof that Judith Montefiore is the mysterious “Lady” behind the book, but we believe her to be. The Montefiores donated the funds to renovate Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and after his beloved wife’s death in 1862, Sir Moses Montefiore built a tomb on their estate in Ramsgate, Kent, modeled on that very edifice. Upon his death, he was buried there alongside her.

Antisemitic Nationalists Killed Germany’s Jewish FM. His Mom Forgave Them

Walther Rathenau, one of Germany's wealthiest and most powerful men, was gunned down by radicals in 1922 and mourned by millions. A moving and timeless letter from his mother was read at the murderer's trial.

After her son's murder, Mathilde Rathenau championed forgiveness and reconciliation within German society, and worked to ensure that his legacy would be remembered (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L40010/102-00093 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In the first days of summer 1922, Germany’s only ever Jewish foreign minister was murdered. Millions mourned him and his mother soon found it in her heart to forgive the murderer, an antisemitic, nationalist radical.

The social and political atmosphere in the Weimar Republic of the early 1920s was both fragile and explosive as republicans, monarchists, socialists, communists, anarchists and other groups worked to implement their respective agendas… sometimes through the auspices of the still novel democratic process, sometimes by force.

Electioneering in Berlin, 1919 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-033-15 / Gebrüder Haeckel / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Antisemitism often went hand-in-hand with political movements and ideologies, particularly those of the more nationalist persuasion. One such group, the Organization Consul (OC), was an avowedly nationalist and antisemitic organization, which aimed to destabilize Weimar democracy in order to establish a military dictatorship. Assassination was the OC’s method of choice and Walther Rathenau, the wealthy, powerful and Jewish foreign minister was perhaps the most obvious target in the Republic.

Walther Rathenau. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Months before the murder, there were explicit news reports that he was being targeted. According to Count Harry Kessler’s biography of the slain leader, just the day before Rathenau’s murder, the chief of police had warned him “that if he persisted in driving to his office from his residence on the outskirts of Berlin in a slow open car, no police in the world could guarantee his safety.”

Yet Rathenau did not heed the chief’s warning and around 10:45 in the morning on June 24, 1922, a Mercedes edged up next to his on the city’s Koenigsallee Road.  Rathenau was shot with a submachine gun, virtually at point blank range. A grenade was tossed into his car for good measure.

A young nurse named Helene Kaiser, who bravely attended to the slain foreign minister immediately following the attack, later recalled that “Rathenau, who was bleeding hard, was still alive and looked up at me. But he seemed to be already unconscious.”

He died shortly after.

Within hours, millions of Germans were mourning Rathenau, even if many disagreed with his politics or philosophy. The trade unions declared a general holiday early the following week. Massive marches took place across the country. A million marched in Berlin, hundreds of thousands in numerous other cities. His body was laid in state in the Reichstag, as the German leadership, alongside domestic and international dignitaries mourned his murder.

Rathenau lying in state in the Reichstag, June 27, 1922 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z1117-502 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The level and type of national mourning was unprecedented in German history and widely compared to the aftermath of Abraham’s Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the American Civil War.

Rathenau was memorialized in various ways, though his official memory was all but erased upon the Nazis’ rise to power a decade after the assassination, when the murderers were celebrated as national heroes in his place.

Unveiling a memorial plaque at the site of the murder, June 1929 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-07961 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, even in the direct aftermath of the attack, two of the three direct assailants escaped justice, as one was killed in a shootout with police and another took his own life rather than be captured. The third perpetrator, Ernst Werner Techow, who had driven the attack car, was later sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

At the trial, the defense read aloud a letter written by Rathenau’s mother to Techow’s. One contemporary writer beautifully described how Mathilde Rathenau’s words, “revealed the bleeding, agonized yet forgiving Jewish heart to a touched world”:

“In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand. You, of all women, the most pitiable. Say to your son that in the name and spirit of him who was murdered, I forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge he makes a full and frank confession of his guilt, and before a heavenly one repent. Had he known my son, the noblest man earth bore, he had rather turned the weapon on himself than on him. May these words give peace to your soul.”


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.