When Hitler Honored Jewish Soldiers

Nazi Regime Cited 10,000 Jewish World War I Troops

Nazi’s Hero? The German army unit in which Hermann Bendheim served in World War I.
Udi Bendheim
Nazi’s Hero? The German army unit in which Hermann Bendheim served in World War I.

By Ofer Aderet

Published July 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(Haaretz) — On June 15, 1935, two years after the Nazis’ rise to power, Hermann Bendheim was invited to the German Consulate in Jerusalem. The representatives of the Third Reich in Palestine awarded him a badge of honor for his service in the German army in World War I.

Two years earlier, Bendheim had been dismissed from his engineering job in Germany because he was a Jew. In the wake of the dismissal he left his homeland and immigrated to Palestine, a persecuted Jew.

None of this bothered the organizers of the event in Jerusalem. Bendheim was awarded the “Cross of Honor for Fighters on the Front” in the name of the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, and the then-late president of the Reich, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, “in commemoration of the World War 1914-1918.” Even his professional credential – “certified engineer” – is listed on the certificate. The Nazis also noted his then-current place of residence: “[Kibbutz] Yagur, near Haifa.”

June 28, 2014, marked the centenary of the event that triggered World War I: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, in Sarajevo. About 100,000 Jews fought on the German side in the war; 12,000 of them were killed in action. Many were decorated for their valor on the front. Some were even granted the distinguished Cross of Honor. Nazi Germany started to distribute these awards in 1934, to mark the 20th anniversary of the war Germany had lost.

Apparently, some of the children and grandchildren of these Yekkes (German-speaking Jews) in modern-day Israel, many of whom are members of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, still have these keepsakes.

“Many of the association’s members are descendants of soldiers who fought heroically and tenaciously as part of the German army in World War I,” Devorah Haberfeld, the AICEO’s director, told me recently. “The fact that Nazi Germany awarded Jewish fighters medals in the name of the Fuehrer and the Reich, shortly before the Jews were stripped of their civil rights and were incarcerated, deported and finally annihilated, is an almost incomprehensible absurdity.”

Hermann Bendheim was born in 1899 in the town of Bensheim in southwestern Germany. A teenager when the war erupted, he volunteered for the German army. He served as a gunner on the French front and was awarded the Iron Cross while the fighting still raged. His mother, Hänchen Bendheim, a religiously observant woman, served in the German Red Cross and also received a medal for her contribution to the war effort.

After the war, Bendheim studied engineering at the Darmstadt University of Technology and worked in German industry. On August 28, 1933, he was fired from his job in a porcelain factory as “an undesirable Jew,” though the dismissal notice he received sounds more like a letter of recommendation: His many qualifications are listed, but the company notes that because of “political changes and personnel policy stemming from them” – it was compelled to let Bendheim go. “We very much regret having to lose his work capability,” the notice states.

That same year he visited Palestine with his fiancée, Erna. The two then returned to Germany and were married, before immigrating in 1934. His son, Dr. Udi Bendheim, a veterinarian who specializes in avian diseases, told Haaretz: “He packed his things, including documents and items that were forbidden to be removed from Germany. He wrapped them all in a towel on which he placed his Iron Cross.” When a customs agent opened the suitcase and saw the Iron Cross, he gave Bendheim the Nazi salute and sent him on his way, without examining the bag.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.