Lonely vigil

Dr. Norbert Schwake is on a mission of one at Nazareth’s German military cemetery, a fascinating site that is rich in history but relatively unknown.

Memorial tower containing wooden crosses made from propellers of crashed aircraft, which had served as temporary grave markers for fallen airmen (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Memorial tower containing wooden crosses made from propellers of crashed aircraft, which had served as temporary grave markers for fallen airmen
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Many Israeli tour guides tout that they take their clients to sites that are off the beaten path. But next to none visit and relate the story of the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof in Nazareth – the central German military cemetery in Israel.
Indeed, the historic burial ground is not mentioned in any Hebrew-, German- or English-language guide books.
Although overlooked, the site is not neglected – thanks to the unending labor and devotion of Dr. Norbert Schwake.
Born in Emmerich, Germany, in 1939 and now retired after practicing medicine in Israel for 40 years – having ended his career as the chief of geriatrics at Nazareth’s Holy Family Hospital – Schwake is also a historian. In 2009, following years of research, he published German Soldiers’ Graves in Israel: The Deployment of German Soldiers on the Palestinian Front During World War I and the Fate of their Burial Grounds (in German).
Like the cemetery itself, the tome is largely inaccessible; it hasn’t been translated into Hebrew or English. No brochures are available at the site, which is not marked on any maps of Nazareth.
Schwake’s research documenting the soldiers who never returned home from the Palestine front was greatly complicated because the records of the World War I dead were destroyed during the Allied bombing of Berlin-Spandau in April 1945 at the end of World War II.
Schwake spent years in the National Archives in Jerusalem, the archives of the German Foreign Office in Berlin, the War Archives of the Bavarian Army in Munich, and the Evangelical Central Archives in Berlin – as well as archives in London, Copenhagen and Rome.
Fluent in German, English, Hebrew and Arabic, he lives nearby in Upper Nazareth. Since 2002 he has been the representative of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), the German War Graves Commission. As such, he is the custodian of the remains of 225 enlisted soldiers, officers and biplane pilots of Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Royal Bavarian Flying Corps who fell in combat in World War I. They fought in alliance with troops of the Ottoman Empire in what is today Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan. Schwake tends the graveyard, which is located on land leased from State of Israel next to the Holy Family Hospital – also known as the Italian Hospital – not far from Mary’s Well.
The retired doctor is one of 8,000 VDK volunteers and 571 full-time employees worldwide who care for the 832 German military cemeteries in 45 countries.
Those military graveyards contain the remains of about 2.6 million German dead from the two world wars.
The VDK’s mission is similar to Britain’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for the military cemeteries in 154 countries – including Israel and the Gaza Strip – where 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars lie buried.
SCHWAKE EXPLAINS the long and convoluted history of Nazareth’s German War Cemetery. During World War I, the Holy Family civilian hospital, founded by the Austrian Barmherzigen Brüder (Merciful Brothers) order in 1882, was requisitioned and turned into Imperial German Field Hospital No. 213. Some of the soldiers and pilots hospitalized there died of their wounds or disease, and 51 were interred in the monastery beside the field hospital. Other German dead were scattered all over the country in individual graves or in small cemeteries such as the one on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.
Some 16,000 Germans served in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Asien Korps, of whom 1,000 died in Palestine. More than 2 percent were Jews, notes Schwake.
“This is four times the percentage of the Jewish population of Germany,” he emphasizes.
Under the 1919 Versailles Treaty, Britain – which ruled Mandatory Palestine – was bound to preserve all enemy soldiers’ graves in a dignified manner. So in 1928, Mandate officials, together with Dr. Erich Nord, Germany’s consul-general in Jerusalem, began planning a central German military cemetery for the casualties of World War I. Those buried in Jerusalem and the various British military cemeteries were to be left to rest in peace. In 1934, Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, the high commissioner for Palestine, purchased a 1,200-square-meter plot adjoining the Nazareth monastery for use as the central cemetery.
Britain then leased the crown land for 999 years to the Third Reich.
“This was calculated fairly accurately,” jokes Schwake, because Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” had just been founded in 1933.
On his deathbed in 1930, German- Jewish architect Alexander Baerwald drew up fanciful plans for a spacious terrace landscaped with palms.
Baerwald arrived temporarily in Palestine in 1912 in the closing years of the Ottoman rule, and designed the Technion building in Haifa – today the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space. Returning to Germany during World War I, he served as a naval officer, settling permanently in Palestine in 1925. In 1915, he built the moshav of Merhavya, where the Bavarian air squadron was stationed.
The VDK’s chief architect Robert Tischler prepared plans in keeping with the architectural ethos of Nazi Germany.
His design included a “tower of loyalty” with a carillon bell, the largest in Israel, imported from Germany. Wooden crosses made from the propellers of crashed aircraft – which had served as temporary grave markers for the fallen airmen – were placed on the tower’s walls.
“Killed in aerial combat in Tulkarm” is carved in the cross marking the grave of Rüdiger Freiherr von Künzberg, whose stricken plane caught fire over what is today the West Bank; Künzberg bailed out without a parachute.
The Nazareth cemetery was inaugurated on June 30, 1935. A swastika flag was unfurled from the memorial tower for the ceremony. Among those present were residents of Palestine’s seven German-speaking Templer colonies, Mandate officials and German consular staff. Speakers praised the chivalry of the fallen; the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi party) was represented by local Palästina-Deutsche party leaders.
Also in attendance was Dr. Siegfried Emmo Eulen, the founder and director of the German War Graves Commission, and German consul-general Dr.
Heinrich Wolff, who was fired shortly after the ceremony because his wife was Jewish. Wolff – together with Haim Arlosoroff – had engineered the “Ha’avara” agreement with the Nazi authorities, whereby German Jews were allowed to bring some of their assets to Palestine in the form of German industrial imports.
The only Jew who attended the ceremony was Moshe Chelouche, then the Bulgarian consul.
Eulen sent a report to Hitler about the inauguration ceremony. Der Führer responded, thanking the German War Graves Commission for its Middle East commitment – “probably the only telegram that Hitler ever sent to Palestine,” observes Schwake.
With the creation of the central cemetery in Nazareth, soldiers’ remains were brought from their temporary graves in Anabta, Beersheba, Bidya, Hanun et-Tireh, Jenin, Maan, Mafrak, E-Salt, Samakh and Tulkarm. Each tombstone contains the names of several soldiers, their ranks, birth and death dates, and places of death. The cemetery also contains memorial plaques for 250 soldiers whose remains were never found – for example, the Germans who fell in the skirmish at Msallabe in July 1918 in the Jordan Valley near Na’aran, north of Jericho.
Schwake notes that no Germans fought at Megiddo two months later, when Indian Lancers of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force routed Ottoman troops and the front collapsed.
Among those re-interred in Nazareth was Alfred Gerechter, a German Jew killed on April 30, 1918, in E-Salt in the second Battle of the Jordan – when the British tried in vain to invade Transjordan and link up with Lawrence of Arabia’s Beduin marauders, advancing north from the Arabian peninsula and sabotaging the German-built Hedjaz Railway.
WITH THE outbreak of World War II in 1939, Nazareth’s Austrian monks were interned as enemy aliens, but brothers who were not citizens of countries at war with Britain continued to care for the cemetery. Contact with Germany was maintained with the help of the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, which forwarded documents to Madrid and from there to Berlin.
In 1952, four years after the establishment of the State of Israel, the hospice was returned to the monks, who subsequently transferred it to Italian monks of the same order, known as Fatebenefratelli.
The Italian brothers cared for the military cemetery with funding from the VDK.
Though West Germany signed a reparations agreement with Israel in 1952, the two states established diplomatic ties only in 1965. But even before those relations were established, West German diplomats visited the cemetery.
Among them were Prof. Theodor Heuss, the first West German president, and Prof. Franz Böhm, the diplomat who had worked out the Luxembourg Reparations Agreement.
Since 1983, the German Embassy in Tel Aviv has held an annual memorial ceremony at the site in November, marking the day the guns of World War I fell silent.
Among those attending the ceremony is an IDF rabbi, who recites kaddish for the dead.
The writer is a licensed tour guide in Jerusalem. GilZohar@rogers.com