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.
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(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.

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