When Hitler Honored Jewish Soldiers

Image: Udi Bendheim

(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 couple settled in Nesher, outside Haifa, where Bendheim worked as an engineer in a cement factory. Erna and her twin sister opened a boarding house in Nahariya, which is now a boutique hotel named after Erna.

When Bendheim was invited to the German consulate in Jerusalem and to receive the Cross of Honor, the diplomats who received him had no idea, of course, that a few years later, during World War II, Bendheim would volunteer for the Homeland Guard – a civilian defense body that was established in light of a possible German invasion of Palestine.

Bendheim died in 1962. His son (the Bendheims’ only child) still has the photographs his father took in the Great War. One shows the unit’s huge artillery piece, the mega-cannon known as “Big Bertha.” The tractor that towed the immense gun to its place is seen in another photo. His father did not tell him about the decoration he received from the Nazis after he immigrated to Palestine.

“It was only after his death, when I was rummaging through his papers, that I found out about it,” Udi Bendheim says now.

Three years ago, the town of Bensheim held a ceremony in which the square adjacent to its one-time synagogue – which was destroyed during the events of Kristallnacht, in 1938 – was named Bendheim Square, in honor of the family.

Ilana Brosh and her sister, Irit Danziger, also still have the medal awarded by the Nazis to their grandfather. Dr. Adolf Samuel was born in Frankfurt in 1893 to an assimilated Jewish family. During the war, he was a cavalry officer on the eastern front. According to his granddaughters, he was a “good German patriot,” joined the army “enthusiastically” and was proud of his service.

After the war he became a dentist. Following the Nazis’ rise to power, he too was decorated by them, “in the name of the Fuehrer and the Reich Chancellor.” The award ceremony took place in Frankfurt, in 1935. A swastika is clearly visible on the document Samuel received from the Nazis with the citation, presented by the head of the Frankfurt police.

“He believed that because of his loyalty to the Fatherland, no harm would befall him – after all, he received the coveted Cross of Honor,” the granddaughters told me. But in March 1938, realizing he had been wrong, he immigrated to England, setting up a dental clinic in London. He died in 1978.

‘Patriotic fever’

“The Jews saw the war as a chance to prove to themselves, to those around them and to the emperor their absolute loyalty: ‘more German than the Germans,’” notes Reuven Merhav, a former Foreign Ministry director general and official of the Shin Bet and Mossad security services, who is descended from a Yekke family. “The most prominent of the community’s leaders published articles dripping with patriotic fervor. Thousands of Jews who were under draft age made every effort to volunteer for service. Moving nationalist sermons were given in the synagogues.”

Merhav’s father, Dr. Walter Markowicz, was one of those soldiers. Born in Germany in 1897, he volunteered for the army at the age of 17 and was sent to the eastern front, near Minsk, serving in the signal corps. After the war, he joined the Zionist movement, became a physician and settled in a small town near Cologne.

At the last moment, he and his girlfriend were able to get certificates enabling them to immigrate to Palestine.

“The last document he received, just before he left Germany at the end of 1935, was confirmation from the Fuehrer, Hitler, that the Cross of Honor would be awarded to the frontline soldiers. He also received a character reference from the chief of police, which allowed him to leave,” Merhav relates, adding that his father practiced medicine in Israel until his death in 1960, in Haifa.

The award Markowicz received did not help his own father, Julius, who in 1942 was sent to Theresienstadt and murdered there.

“My father never forgave himself for not managing to save him,” Merhav explains. “Whenever he spoke about him, sadness crossed his face.”

An exhibit at the Museum for German-Speaking Jewry at Tefen, in the Galilee, includes a certificate that accompanied the Cross of Honor for frontline fighters, which was awarded to Otto Meyer on January 4, 1935, in the small German town of Rheda. Two years later, Meyer and his family immigrated to Palestine and settled in Nahariya, like many other Yekkes.

Meyer was born in 1886 in Berlin. He studied law and owned a factory. In 1915 he left his wife and children to take part in the war effort. He fought against the French and rose to officer rank. Like others, he too was awarded the Iron Cross during the war. He sent his families photographs that he took while fighting, along with drawings and letters.

Meyer arrived in Palestine at the age of 51. The doctor of law and former second lieutenant in the German infantry started his new life as a worker in a chicken coop. In his spare time he contributed to the development of Nahariya and its cultural life. He died in 1954. His son, Andreas Meyer, 95, a resident of Kfar Vradim – a locale which, like the nearby Tefen site, was established by the industrialist and Yekke Stef Wertheimer – continues to safeguard his father’s decorations and other certificates of honor to this day.

The Nazis’ awarding of various distinctions to Jewish soldiers who served Germany was one example of many of the regime’s internal contradictions. Other descendants of Yekkes living in Israel today have in their possession doctoral diplomas that were sent from Germany to new addresses in Palestine, in swastika-adorned envelopes. This can be seen as an example of blind German bureaucracy, or as an inexplicable absurdity.

In the initial stage of the Nazi rise to power, there were some Jews who pinned their hopes on such gestures. On July 19, 1934, the Jewish German weekly C.V.-Zeitung published an article headlined “Cross of Honor,” in which it addressed the subject of the decorations the Nazis awarded to Jews who had fought in World War I. “The German Jews… will bear the Cross of Honor proudly and will keep alive the memory of the great days of the common Jewish-German history,” the article said.

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Written by

Ofer Aderet

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