German Jews

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Achievements of the German Jews


      General Walter von Mössner, a Jew, commanded the 3rd Prussian Cavalry Brigade between 1896 and 1898. Decorated for distinguished service during the Austro-Prussian war of 1866-1872, he became the “aide de camp” of the Emperor William II and was cited as the “most brilliant cavalry man” in Prussian history. His career was indeed unusual because Jews in pre-Nazi Germany were not normally allowed promotion to an officer rank despite their military ability and/or courage. When the first world war began in 1914, one hundred thousand Jews volunteered to fight for Germany. This was far out of proportion to the number of non-Jews who entered the military. 12,000 Jews died in combat, 78% fought at the front, 30,000 were decorated and 2,000 attained the rank of an officer in the field. Despite this, even during the first world war, in 1916 the German minister of war carried out a “Jew census” to discover whether or not Jews were “shirkers”. When the contrary proved the case, the German government refused to release the figures. That was 17 years before the Nazi takeover of January 31, 1933, the day Hitler (Yemach shmau v’gaualau) was appointed Chancellor of Germany. At that time there were  580,000 Jews in Germany.  In the 1930’s the German  population was about 65 million, of whom the Jews constituted less than one percent. There were then 11 million Jews in Europe. After the Europeans had slaughtered 6 million Jews, there remained in all the world only 200,000 German Jews scattered about the earth in Israel, the U.S., Canada, South America, Australia, etc. In short, the German Jews are the tiniest of minorities, even among Jews.

  Today, there are only 60,000 Jews in all of Germany in a population of 82 million. One half of these Jews migrated to that land during the past twenty years. They are almost all Russian refugees. Therefore there are only thirty thousand Jews in Germany who were born there and whose ancestors were also Germans.

    It is indeed astounding what this small group achieved during the one hundred and twenty years from 1812 to 1932 when, at least in theory, they were citizens of the German Empire and later the German Republic.

    Among these achievers are some who reached world renown such as Albert Einstein who was born in Ulm, Württemberg  in 1879. Two grandsons of the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who translated the Torah into German, were the major composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1887) and his cousin, Philip Veit, no doubt the greatest painter and portrait artist then living (1793-1877).

    That generation also included the most important German poet and essayist other than Goethe. He was the Jew Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). Unknown in non-German speaking countries, his poem “Die Lorelei” is sung in all German schools, homes and at all gatherings, although the Germans like to pretend that the poet who wrote “Lorelei”  is “unknown”.

    In later years, Jacob Eberst became a major composer. He was born in Köln, which we call Cologne, in 1819. He changed his name to Jacques Offenbach and moved to France to escape the anti-Jewish behavior of his German compatriots even as early as the third decade of the nineteenth century.

     Karl Marx (1818-1883), the grandson of rabbis on both sides of his family, was the  contemporary of Offenbach. Marx was born in Trier. Trier held one of the oldest Jewish communities in Germany. In fact, the area between Trier and Colonia Aggripina, as the Romans called Cologne, was settled by Jews in the fourth century, nearly six hundred years before the vast majority of Germans came into northern Europe from Siberia around 1000 C.E.   Jews and some Romans were the first Germans.

    In 1878 Erich Mühsam was born in Berlin. He was a great poet and essayist. He was murdered in a Nazi camp in 1934. Did you know that the German Jews were subject to murder six years before the outbreak of the second world war in 1939?

    A somewhat older contemporary of Mühsam was Franz Boas (1858-1942). He came to the United States in 1887 and here became the father of American anthropology. His students were Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. He investigated and wrote numerous books about native Americans and in fact the ethnology of the American native culture was entirely his work.

    Walter Rathenau (1867-1922),  foreign minister of the German republic,  was murdered by a Nazi assassin in 1922, eleven years before the Nazis came to power. He was at that time the foremost electrical engineer in Germany and had been minister for reconstruction in an earlier post–war German government. The Nazis and their followers blamed him for the depression of the 1920’s in Germany, a depression which came to this country in the 1930’s after his murder. His contemporary was Charles Steinmetz, the founder of General Electric. Steinmetz (1865-1923) came to this country in 1889. To him we owe the use of alternating current (AC), the magnetic arc lamp  and hundreds of other patents in the field of electricity.

     Then there were the doctors. Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) was a principal founder of the sciences of immunology and hematology, having studied with the great Robert Koch. His younger colleague, August Wasserman (1866-1925)  discovered the cure for syphilis and must be ranked with Ehrlich as a principal contributor to bacteriology and immunology.

     We could go on and on. By carefully searching numerous encyclopedias and old newspapers, biographies and histories I found 406 major contributors to all fields of human endeavors among the German Jews born between 1785 and 1885. This means that those born in 1885 were 48 years old at the advent of Hitler in 1933. Therefore, those born later than 1885 were seldom able to attain any prominence in Germany because the Nazi spirit had already removed Jews from the opportunities necessary to accomplish anything in Germany long before the actual Nazi takeover became political reality.

     If we examine the achievements of the most outstanding German Jews from their release from the ghetto by Napoleon in 1812 to the end of the German Jewish experience in 1933 we find that Jews made their most important contributions to medicine in that era. Seventy-six of the 406 top achievers included in my research were doctors of medicine. Fifty-seven made contributions to various physical sciences such as chemistry and physics. Forty-six distinguished themselves in the law and in politics, thirty-four became famous in literature and philology, there were twenty-two major musicians and twenty-one leading mathematicians among the German Jewish achievers and the others were known in a variety of the arts and sciences.

    Many of the German Jews who were able to attain any position in nineteenth century Germany were converted to Christianity “pro forma”, although everyone continued to view them as Jews just the same. It was however necessary to be a formal “Christian” in 19th century Germany if a Jew wanted to hold a position such as professor, government official or army officer (except in wartime).

     There were really very few German Jews associated with secular humanism as it is known today. Reform Judaism had indeed been organized in Germany in 1810 and the first Reform Temple established in Hamburg in 1818. That form of Jewish worship resembled our conservative movement more than our reform movement. The Hamburg Temple held services in a manner very much like Temple Beth El here in Buffalo today.

     Contrary to American belief, there was a large orthodox Jewish community in Germany until 1938, when all synagogues were burnt down. Twenty-eight major rabbinical scholars were part of our German Jewish achievers, among these the great Samson Rafael Hirsch, Max Lilienthal, Abraham Geiger and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer. These great rabbis contributed immensely to Judaism and its survival even amidst ultimate destruction and death in the gas ovens.

    We, the American Jewish community, owe the German Jews a great deal. They were the forerunners of our enlightened life in America. They included the giants of intellectual history, namely Marx, Freud and Einstein, who shaped the twentieth century for all mankind for better or for worse. They also included thousands of lesser known or unknown Jews who did their best under the worst of circumstances and who deserve our everlasting recognition. We dedicate ourselves to their memory when, from beyond Auschwitz and Buchenwald, we send our children to Jewish schools, attend to our religious obligations, contribute to Jewish charity and support Israel with all our hearts, with all our minds and with all our strength, bimhayro v’yomenu.

Shalom u’vracha.

If you want to read more about the German Jewish achievers go to the Buffalo State College or U.B. libraries and look at a journal called Mankind Quarterly. My colleague, Vern Bullough and I published our findings on this topic in Vol. 27, No. 3 of that journal.


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