Bringing Herzl home

A salute to Chaplain Rabbi Oscar Mike Lifshutz who arranged Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl's re-burial in Jerusalem's Mount Herzl in August 1949.

August 15, 2019 13:04
Bringing Herzl home

Theodor Herzl leaning over the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, probably during the Sixth Zionist Conference there in 1903. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)

When you pay a visit to the Herzl Theater on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, you will witness how the World Zionist Organization and the State of Israel have honored an American chaplain who played a key role in the Jewish state’s history.

In the movie drama about Theodor Herzl’s life that is screened there, you can see Chaplain Rabbi Oscar Mike Lifshutz standing by the grave of Herzl in Vienna in early 1947.

More dramatically, as you exit the theater after watching the moving production about Herzl’s life, you see a large portrait of Herzl, which has always been there. Facing Herzl hangs an engraved glass portrait of Chaplain Lifshutz.

He and Herzl have an eternal bond because Lifshutz was the one who arranged for the disinterment of the remains of Herzl and his parents to be brought to Israel.

An IDF honor guard led by Chief Chaplain Shlomo Goren received the coffins of Herzl, his sister and his parents in Vienna. They brought these special remains to Israel, where they were buried two days later on Mount Herzl on August 17, 1949 – 70 years ago.
The chaplain’s story is a fascinating one.

“Dear Chaplain Lifshutz, I have always admired the courage and initiative you display when working out practical solutions to the problems encountered,” said then-Maj.-Gen. Jesmond Balmer, the American Deputy High Commissioner for Austria, in a letter written on November 9, 1949, from his office in Vienna. “It has been most helpful to me to have had your expert knowledge and dependable advice in conducting refugee operations and formulating our policies in this field. The task of providing care and assistance to the 150,000 Jewish refugees who have passed through Vienna since 1946 has been tremendous. Without your generous and capable help, we could scarcely have met this responsibility.”

The individual so highly praised by the General, Chaplain Lifshutz, spent 20 years in the United States Army from 1945-1965, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. From 1946-1949 he was stationed in Austria as US Army chaplain. As the post-war generation put it, “he was there.”

Growing up in Chicago, Lifshutz’s Zionist sympathies were emboldened when he attended the Pagaent at Soldier Field in June 1933 marking the Centennial of Jews in Chicago. To neutralize the rise of Hitler to power that very same year, an outstanding Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann – later to become Israel’s first president – was brought from England to be the main speaker on that festive evening. In addition, 3,000 Jewish young people had practiced diligently to form a resounding chorus whose singing in Hebrew, English and Yiddish inspired the 100,000 people present that evening.

“Members of Chicagoland’s Jewry unrolled on Soldier Field last night a gigantic scroll emblematic of the resounding Pentateuch and thereon, they read the story, now tragic, now triumphant, of the race’s march down 40 centuries to the New Palestine,” wrote a Chicago Tribune reporter covering the event.

The performance that night touched Lifshutz and deepened his understanding of the need of a Jewish homeland. In the 1940s he learned at the Chicago yeshiva Beit Midrash LaTorah, and was active in various student groups, which, in their humble way, were trying to save the remnants of Eastern European Jewry. Most idealistic, they hoped to create a structure to assist Jews to return to their own land after the terrible hostilities concluded. Lifshutz and many of his pre-rabbinic colleagues hoped to make aliyah when a Jewish state was born.

Upon his ordination as a rabbi in the summer of 1945, he immediately entered the US Army as a chaplain and was given orders to serve overseas in Europe. After brief tours of duty in Belgium and France, he arrived at his post in Vienna in May 1946 joining USAREUR (United States Army in Austria), and remained there until December 1949. In Austria, the United States Army had established a network of 19 DP camps to help provide survivors a “transition” to civilian life.

Lifshutz worked closely with the survivors as well as fulfilling his regular military duties, and was most competent in both areas of his work, as General Balmer pointed out earlier.

As an active participant in the Bricha Movement, he assisted displaced persons in Austria, Germany and other Eastern European countries to reach Eretz Yisrael.

A fount of aid, Lifshutz provided the required supplies for people in these camps to create educational programs in the general and Jewish fields. He also made it possible for religious services to be held on Shabbat and holidays. Lifshutz himself officiated at weddings, brit milah ceremonies and funerals. One of his additional tasks was helping to produce the Survivors’ Talmud.

“When the United Nations passed the Partition Plan in 1947 truly affirming the state of Israel’s future existence,” he once told his wife Miriam, “I knew that I must work both with the American military staff and the leaders of the camps to assure that sufficient legal transportation would exist to bring our brothers and sisters to their ancestral home.” Prior to May 1948, Lifshutz played a role in seeing to it that 1,000 to 1,500 survivors were smuggled out of Austria and reached Palestine by boat as part of the maapilim, the illegals.

By the start of 1948, Lifshutz had been appointed as advisor for Jewish affairs by General Geoffrey Keyes, the American High Commissioner of the Austria area. Among his responsibilities was “formulating for the United States Armed Forces long-range plans for Displaced Persons’ operations and military security.” On Passover that April, the Seder in Vienna organized by Lifshutz brought together “American, French and British military personnel who sang their own anthems and then, together, Hatikvah, to conclude the evening.” Only three weeks later, the hope – Hatikvah – of the Jews would be realized.

“BY MAY 18, 1948,” Lifshutz recalled, “I knew something monumental had occurred having heard, a day or two earlier via Army radio, that the Jews now had their own state and had been attacked by several Arab countries. Up until then I had fostered the hope for freedom in the hearts of the survivors with whom I worked. In fact, little groups in clandestine rendezvous had achieved a trickle of movement by escaping and making their way to Eretz Yisrael. Every refugee had awaited his turn to run the gauntlet of border guards and police and go home. The previous situation changed in May 1948.”

Lifshutz learned through his Bricha sources: ”Jerusalem was both the focal point of fighting and the hope for Jews the world over.”
“On May 18,” he stressed in a touching memoir, “as if handed down from Sinai, publicly throughout Vienna, came the overwhelming news of the jubilant miracle – Israel had been reborn!”

On that May day, Lifshutz went to visit with the leaders of Camp Riedenberg, a DP camp just outside of Vienna near Salzburg. “There was shouting and dancing in the parade area of these old and dilapidated ex-German barracks. The American Military Police, who formerly guarded the outside gates and policed the surrounding area, were now dancing the Hora with the refugees.”

Unexpectedly, an American military jeep filled with officers drove up. Led by a colonel, the others dismounted and headed toward the flagpole. After exchanging greetings, the colonel said to Lifshutz: “This is a great day for you, rabbi, and I am here to see to it that we are going to do things in the right way.”

Lifshutz remembered that morning vividly, recounting its details throughout his lifetime. “What do you have in mind, sir?”
The Colonel answered without hesitation.

“I am a Christian and I feel that I, too, have had a hand in helping to bring the children of Israel to the Promised Land.”

Then the Colonel continued in a most moving way, “I want to tell my chidren that I helped a people find a homeland.”

He went on to explain that he felt that his family should know why he had been away from home these past three years – “regaining freedom for all people.”

As the colonel explained his intentions to the chaplain, he signaled to two of his MPs to come forward to the base of the flagpole. A call to attention! The American flag was lowered. The flag bearers folded the flag, and presented it to the colonel. The American officer now gave it to the DP camp leader with these touching words.

“Remember, will you, that a lot of my men fought and died to achieve this day. Here is the flag of my country, the United States of America, a symbol of freedom.”

Lifshutz watched as the camp leader signaled a refugee who carried a large package under his arm. He came forward, placed it in the hands of two DPs.

When they opened the package, a large white and blue flag was revealed. They began to raise it on the flagpole.

“As the wind got it,” Lifshutz noted, “it unfurled, and there majestically flying almost within the shadow of Hitler’s Retreat area flew the flag of Israel in all its majestic glory. An American officer issued the command ‘Attention.’ Every DP in the camp grew a head taller as they sang Hatikvah. When the final notes of the anthem ended, I had the same feeling as if a sacred prayer had just been sung by a celestial choir.”

The colonel bid Lifshutz adieu. His officers jumped into the jeep with him and quickly drove off. “All the DPs looked up at the miracle at the top of the flagpole,” the Chaplain recalled, “and every eye and cheek was wet with tears. Suddenly, I realized that I was crying myself. I was a witness to the rebirth of Israel.”

During the next 15 months, Lifshutz was instrumental in assisting a number of DPs, families and individuals leave the camps and immigrate to their permanent homes in Israel. However, he did not expect to be given the honor to oversee the removal of the remains of Herzl from the Doebling Cemetery in Vienna prior to their being flown to Israel for reburial on what is now Mount Herzl.

IN HIS Will, Theodor Herzl asked that he be buried in a metal casket, and that when there would arise a Jewish state, he and his family should be interned there. In the late 1930s there was a lengthy correspondence between European Zionist leaders and Zionist leaders in Palestine attempting to arrange the move. The initial site was to be Mount Carmel in Haifa.

In May 1946, the head of the Geneva Zionist organization wrote to the American authorities in Vienna specifically requesting action on moving Herzl’s remains. That official wrote back indicating that there was no problem from America’s side, but the British would have to give permission for reburial in Palestine, which was not forthcoming.

When Israel did become a state in 1948, one item to be arranged was the internment of Herzl and his family in the soil of the new nation. In December 1948, a special committee with membership from the State of Israel and the World Zionist Organization was created to make the decision about the timing of the internment and in what city the burial would take place.

The process was slowed by the first Knesset election in January 1949. After that key event, the committee resumed the process and chose Jerusalem, not Haifa, as the site of Herzl’s eternal grave.

“It is clear that the resting place of the visionary of the state is in the capital of the state,” the Jewish Agency announced when the deliberations concluded,

Lifshutz was asked by his commander, General Keyes, to be on call for the ceremony itself. After several postponements, August 14, 1949 was the date designated for the opening of the grave. The coffins containing the remains of Herzl, his parents and his sister were carried to the entrance of Stadttempel synagogue in Vienna, where many Jews came to pay honor to this great visionary. As photographs show in Israeli papers, the synagogue was filled with individuals, young and old, offering their final respects.

The next day at the synagogue, another chaplain, Herman Dicker, came from his post in Germany, and the two were joined by Chief Chaplain of the Israeli Army Shlomo Goren and an honor guard of 10 members of the different arms of the IDF. The American chaplain and the Israeli chaplain then led the procession to Tulin US Air Force Base outside Vienna, where the Israeli military escort carried the coffins of Herzl and his family to the El Al plane to be flown back to Israel.

On August 17, amid great celebration in Israel, Herzl was interned on what has come to be Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where “6,000 people were present including government and Zionist leaders, representatives of cities, settlements, moshavim, kibbutzim plus individuals from all the main institutions of Israel.”

Prof. Brian Glenville, a noted cardiac thoracic surgeon, made aliyah from London 13 years ago. Here in Jerusalem, now his home, he commented on the impact of Herzl’s vision.

“The genius of Herzl and the reason why he is so central to – even or especially – modern day Israel was the vision that he had and the thoughts and actions that went behind enacting that vision. When Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream, he had a template in other parts of the world on which to base his vision. It didn’t come out of thin air; it wasn’t developed in a vacuum. It was a magnificent dream but it only required a change of attitude in an established land.”

Glenville further focused on the individual whom we recall today.

“Herzl came up with an idea so ridiculous, so improbable, that for many it was risible. He was addressing a problem that many disputed existed. His view that there was only one place where Jews could thrive and be at home, together with other Jews in an environment where they had control over their own destiny, was truly visionary and really revolutionary.

“The Israel of today may be a far cry from the country that Herzl envisioned, but it is here because of him. His centrality to the existence if not the flavor of the state gives meaning to our celebrating 70 years of bringing his body home where he belongs. Everything today needs reinterpreting, reevaluating and then revaluing. I don’t want to join the party; Herzl made Israel!” ■

The bar mitzvah boy

Cooper Lifshutz, grandson of Rabbi Lt.-Col. Oscar M. Lifshutz, celebrates his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem (Credit: COURTESY LIFSHUTZ FAMILY)

Rabbi Lt.-Col. Oscar M. Lifshutz played a pivotal role as the US Army liaison responsible for bringing Herzl’s remains home to Israel. Fast forward almost 70 years to the date, and his grandson, Cooper Lifshutz, will be celebrating his bar mitzvah on August 22 at the Beit Yisroel Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City established in the late 19th century by Moses Montefiore.

Having just returned from his second season of camp at Kayitz Ba’kibbutz (summer on kibbutz) in Shluchot, Cooper is enjoying the spectacular Knesset view from his family’s Jerusalem apartment, where he’s busy brushing up on his parsha and polishing his speech. He’s also helping to plan bar mitzvah week events at the Herzl Museum, Pantry Packers, the Sanhedria Children’s Home – where he’s been celebrating his birthday every year since he’s two – and the Michael Levine Lone Solider Center.

Passionate about fishing and the sea, Lifshutz is lucky to be volunteering at the Israel Aquarium, where his celebration will continue with a private tour, dedication of tanks to his grandparents, and a cocktail reception.

In September, Cooper will be a seventh grader at SAR Academy in Riverdale, New York, where his favorite subject is math. When he’s not enjoying his time in Israel, Cooper lives in Englewood, New Jersey, with his parents, Alyssa Wilk and Ira Lifshutz, and his older brother, Xander.


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