Over the past decade Israel has gone to great lengths to fulfill one of the dying wishes of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern political Zionism.
Herzl, whose 111th yahrzeit on the Hebrew calendar is being marked today, the 20th of Tammuz, wrote in his will that he wished to be buried next to his father “and to remain there until the Jewish people will transfer my remains to Eretz Israel,” along with those “of my close relatives.”
While nearly all of Herzl’s immediate family members have indeed been brought to the Jewish state for proper re-interment, one of the most influential figures in his life – and the one who may have first inspired his Zionist passion – has yet to receive the same honor.
It is time for this to change, and for Israel to bring the Zionist visionary’s grandfather, Shimon Loeb Herzl, and his wife, Rivkah, to be laid to rest in Jerusalem.
After the State of Israel was established, Herzl’s remains were disinterred in Vienna and reburied on August 17, 1949, beneath the iconic black granite tombstone that bears his name on Mount Herzl. His sister and parents are buried there too.
But despite his express request, it was not until September 2006 that two of his children, Pauline and Hans, were at last brought to Israel and buried next to their father.
Herzl’s third and youngest child, Trude, was murdered by the Nazis at Theresienstadt.
In June 2007, the remains of Trude’s son, Herzl’s only grandson, Stephen Theodore Norman, were exhumed from a Washington, DC, cemetery and transferred to Jerusalem. Norman had visited Israel in 1946 and supported his grandfather’s vision, but tragically took his own life after learning that his parents had died in the Holocaust.
Zev Bielski, then-chairman of the Jewish Agency, said at the time, “It is not often you can carry out historic, Jewish and Zionist justice. Today we did. Herzl dedicated his entire life to the Zionist idea. He sacrificed for us, and today we are doing this for him.”
Nonetheless, Herzl’s paternal grandparents, who profoundly influenced him, remain buried in a small Jewish cemetery in Zemun, outside the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
I came across their graves when visiting the area a few years ago, and it has bothered me ever since.
After all, for anyone familiar with Herzl and his background, the figure of his grandfather looms large among those who shaped his worldview.
Born in 1805, Shimon Loeb Herzl was the son of a rabbi and a religious Jew who served as the gabbai, or sexton, of the local synagogue in Zemun, which was known as Semlin at the time. In the 19th century, the town was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and straddled the border of Turkish-occupied Serbia.
In 1825, a young and dynamic rabbi, Yehuda Alkalai, was appointed the Zemun’s spiritual leader. Subsequently, nationalist sentiments began to rise in the Balkans, as the Serbs and others grew increasingly vexed by the Ottomans and their heavy-handed policies.
This had a meaningful effect on Rabbi Alkalai, whose Serbian friends and neighbors yearned to be freed from the Turkish yoke and began to agitate for independence.
Within a decade, in 1834, he produced a booklet called Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) proposing something which at the time was considered radical: to create Jewish colonies in the land of Israel as a prelude to redemption. Rabbi Alkalai continued to develop his ideas, writing additional books and pamphlets and traveling throughout Europe to spread his message of Zionist renewal. In his 1845 work Minhat Yehudah, he wrote that, “Redemption must come slowly. The land must, by degrees, be built up and prepared.”
TO ACCOMPLISH this, he offered a novel series of practical suggestions, many of which seem to have clearly inspired Theodor Herzl’s later writings.
And that was no coincidence. After all, Shimon Loeb Herzl was one of Rabbi Alkalai’s most faithful congregants and devoted disciples.
As Hebrew University Professor Robert Wistrich, who passed away just two months ago, noted in his work The Shaping of Israeli Identity, Herzl’s grandfather, “Who annually visited his family in Budapest, always spoke enthusiastically of Alkalai’s ideas and this may have been his grandson’s first exposure” to the rebirth of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.
In other words, Herzl’s grandfather is likely the one who first kindled the spark of Jewish nationalism within young Theodor, a spark that would later ignite the Jewish world and alter the course of Jewish history.
It is therefore only fitting that Shimon Loeb Herzl, who died on November 3, 1879, along with his wife, Rivka, should now finally be brought to a proper burial alongside their famous grandson.
I call on the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to take the necessary steps to make this happen.
Theodor Herzl did so much for the Jewish people, and laid the modern conceptual foundation for the rebirth of the Jewish state. The least we can do in return is fulfill his wishes and bring the remains of his grandparents back to Jerusalem.
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