Essay: 'Aliya' of a troubled family

The children Herzl so utterly failed to protect while he and they lived are now sheltered in the shadow of his grave.

September 21, 2006 12:28
Essay: 'Aliya' of a troubled family

hillel halkin 88. (photo credit: )


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'Let the dead bury the dead," said Jesus, and that's more or less what Theodor Herzl has managed to do, though it did take some time. In his will, made public at the time of his death in 1904, Herzl asked to have his three children buried with him when they died, and two of them, Hans and Pauline, finally had their bones exhumed this week from their graves in the Jewish cemetery of Bordeaux and transferred to their father's burial site on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. It's a melancholy story, that of the Herzls. Pauline, the eldest, led a psychologically disturbed life, became a morphine addict, wandered in penury from place to place, and was arrested in Bordeaux for vagrancy shortly before, in 1930, she died there of a heart attack at the age of 40. Hans, a year younger, came to Bordeaux to make the funeral arrangements and complicated them further by shooting himself in his hotel room and asking to be buried in the same coffin as his sister. Lonely, troubled, and penniless like Pauline (he had to borrow the money to travel to Bordeaux from the Zionist Executive in London), he was psychoanalyzed at one point by Karl Jung and at another stage of his life converted to Christianity. (Later, he sought to return to Judaism.) As for Trude, Herzl's youngest child, she was a manic-depressive with delusions of grandeur and a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations. She died in a concentration camp in 1942, and her only child, Herzl's one grandchild, having emigrated to England and changed his name from Stephen Theodor Neumann to Stephen Norman, joined the British foreign service and took his own life in Washington, D.C., in 1946. YOU MIGHT say that the apples didn't fall that far from the tree. Herzl himself, apart from being regularly accused of being a madman by his anti-Zionist detractors, had pronounced manic tendencies, feared more than once that he was about to go mad, and was obsessed by the subject of suicide. His wife, Julie, from whom he was estranged for most of their marriage, was a chronic neurasthenic who repeatedly threatened to kill herself. With such a family history, the similarities among Pauline, Hans, Trude, and Stephen Theodor's fates may have, at least partially, a genetic constituent. But given a hysterical and over-possessive mother who raged against her husband and mocked his Zionism, and a megalomaniac father who was rarely home and was too busy being a leader and a visionary to be with his children, who were still young when he died, there's no need to look for the explanations in DNA. Emotionally close to their mother, Pauline, Hans and Trude at the same time couldn't stand her; it was surely not by sheer accident that, after she died and was cremated in 1907, the 17-year-old Hans mistakenly left the urn with her ashes on a train. Emotionally remote from their father, they also admired him and felt compelled to live up to his image; both Hans and Trude had fantasies of themselves as Jewish leaders that were totally out of reality. Indeed, though a source of great embarrassment to the Zionist movement, Hans's conversion to Christianity - which he viewed as a symbolic act showing the way for the restoration of the Jews to the universal brotherhood of mankind - was more inspired by his father than Herzl's followers cared to admit. Not only, after all, had Herzl, in his pre-Zionist stage, been so indifferent to Judaism that he did not bother to have Hans circumcised at birth; not only did he fail to provide Hans with even a symbolic bar mitzva ceremony; but it was Herzl himself who, in 1893, a scant three years before writing The Jewish State, envisioned the Jewish problem being solved by a mass, voluntary conversion to Christianity in a spectacular pageant planned for St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, thus bringing to the world a "message of racial fusion." Sons sometimes avenge themselves on their fathers by becoming an abandoned part of them. What was Hans's baptism, if not a deliberate act of desecrating his father's memory by acting out precisely what his father had once proposed? AND NOW their bones are together again. Were there some kind of personal immortality after death, Herzl could perhaps take some comfort in the fact that the children he had so utterly failed to protect while he and they lived - from misery, from penury, from madness, from the Nazi concentration camps - were now sheltered in the shadow of his grave. "Though proud to be a father," writes Herzl's biographer Ernst Pawel, "and ever ready to be maudlin about his children in print or in his letters, he gave them little of his time and even less of himself." Fathers often sacrifice their families for their careers. And yet cannot such men sometimes say in their defense that they were thinking of their families all along, even as they were ignoring them? Might not a Jewish state, had only it come sooner, given Pauline a haven, Hans an alternative to conversion, Trude an escape from the death camps? A friend of mine, who has been accused by his family of being a workaholic and not communicating with his four children, recently told me of a strange dream he had. "I was in the back of my house, in the garden," he said. "Four little figures - I did not know who they were - began to approach the garden gate leading to the street. I was terribly frightened and wanted to warn them away from it. But when I tried speaking to them, I couldn't talk. Suddenly, I felt myself turning into a dog and let out a growl. Honestly, a real growl! It even woke my wife, who was so scared by it that she woke me." "Do you think the four little figures were your children?" I asked. He thought about that. "I guess they were," he said. "You see, in the dream I so much wanted to protect them. I knew the street was dangerous. I had to stop them from going through that gate. But I had no language to say it to them in. I could only growl like a dog." He had tears in his eyes. "And when they grow up, that's all they'll remember: The non-communicative, growling father they had." His children will, of course, remember more of him than that. So did Herzl's children; but it was Herzl's personal tragedy that though it was with words that he set the Jews on their path to a state, he had so few for Pauline, Hans, and Trude.

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