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October 19, 2003

Heidelberg's Hope

Fania Oz-Salzberger, University of Haifa, delivered the main lecture at the opening ceremony of the academic year at the University of Heidelberg

Fania Oz-Salzberger

Fania Oz-Salzberger. Photos : Markus Winter

Let me tell you a story about a young man who came here a hundred and six years ago. He came here full of immense hope — the hope for a wonderful future of the intellect, of great international scholarship, the hope for a new kind of Judaism. Even the hope for a new Jewish nationhood, and the revival of its ancient homeland -not merely as a safe haven from European persecution, but also as a trusted custodian of European learning and wisdom.

My great-great uncle, the student who signed his doctoral application in 1902 as Jossel Klausner, and later became Professor Joseph Klausner of the Hebrew university of Jerusalem. His years here may have been the happiest in his life. For a while, he lost his heart in Heidelberg. And he found in Heidelberg enough hope to last him a lifetime: intellectual, personal, Jewish, universal, national, erotic, human, scholarly, spiritual hope.

Fania Oz-Salzberger

He was a young man from Russia, already a writer and editor, well read, and blessed with an almost sensual love of letters, and also with a very solid self-esteem, when he came to Germany in order to study. Simply to study. No Jews were allowed in the Russian universities. Russian Jews were being massacred and humiliated, with the Russian authorities looking on with glee. The Kaiser's empire seemed to men like Klausner the very opposite of the Czar's dark regime. Germany had emancipated its Jews. The gates of high learning and educated careers had been thrown open to them. Germany was hope.

"A new world, the European West, was revealed to me", Klausner wrote in his autobiography. This autobiography was published in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 1946, in the horrible immediate aftermath of it all, but its author's youthful love for the great metropolis of Berlin is delivered in all its freshness and glow. Berlin was his first German stop. It was full of wonders. Berlin was freedom. It was the European West. But Berlin, alas, was also too expensive, too full of noise and turmoil and distractions.

"In order to study properly one must reside in a small university town with great professors, where there is no noise and no interference, where time is not consumed by great distances or by numerous assemblies and guests. I therefore decided to make my way to the famous university town Heidelberg, which then had 25,000 residents at the most, and was almost wholly mekom tora: full of academic institutions, professors and students.

Mekom tora: a seat of learning. A place where all the hidden energies, and eagerness, and Talmudic turns of phrase and turns of mind, of a young east European Jew like Klausner, like Leib Yaffe, like Nachum Goldman, like Saul Tschernichowsky, could come to grips with the finest tradition of German scholarship and arts.

Here, a German Jewish student Felix Rosenblüth (the future Israeli minister of justice Pinchas Rosen) could write a dissertation for a distinguished Jewish law professor, indeed the Rector of Heidelberg, Georg Jellinek, on a subject no less than "determining the concepts of People and Nation". And here, an American-born Jew like Yehuda Leib Magnes, coming all the way from San Francisco, could proudly complete his doctoral work in Semitic languages, philosophy and political economy.

Because in Heidelberg, at the turn of the nineteenth century, a Jew, born and intending to die a Jew, could hope to enjoy exactly what in the seventeenth century Baruch de Spinoza, a Jew from birth to death, knew that he would never be able to enjoy: the fullest swing of freedom of thought. The space and impetus to rethink everything: the human body and the universe, religion and science, man and woman, social norms and the teachings of history.

Spinoza, in 1673, said no to Heidelberg. He had received a kind and courageous invitation from the Elector Karl Ludwig of the Palatinate, who promised the great Dutch-Jewish thinker libertas philosophandi, "as long as the stability of religion is not publicly shaken". But Spinoza could not accept the offer. "What limits", he wrote back to the Prince, "would cut off my freedom of philosophizing, so that the stability pf religion is not publicly shaken?"

Two centuries later, Klausner and his fellow students felt very strongly that they could say yes to Heidelberg. They knew that it was one of Germany's most liberal universities; a seat of learning that employed a Jewish professor of medicine, Jacob Israel, as early as the 1652 — and even appoint him Rector. And appointed Gustav Weil in 1861 as one of the first Jewish full professors in Germany.

When I was accepted as a regular student at Heidelberg, Klausner wrote, "my happiness was boundless". He goes on to write in his autobiography: "here, in Heidelberg, a new era began in my life. An era flooded by light and brilliance, not diminished even by the relative material distress which I experienced most of those years as a Hebrew writer."

Can you imagine the bliss? To study philosophy with Kuno Fischer, literature with Max Freiherr von Waldberg, Semitic languages with Karl Bezold, history of Art with Henry Thode, son in law of Richard Wagner, more philosophy with Paul Hensel, a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn. All borders could be crossed here: Heidelberg, mekom tora. Heidelberg's hope.

It was, first and foremost, a hope of the intellect. Heidelberg gave these young lovers of learning the taste of true, deep, detached and committed scholarship. The critical rationality of a free, educated mind. They were intoxicated with learning, those young Russian Jews, those lovers of forbidden books: at last, they had wings to fly.

Serious scholarship, of course, is not a matter for vulgar populists. Professor Paul Hensel once attacked a certain French philosopher whose style, he claimed, was way too simple. Philosophers must never be so bright and clear, Hensel told his students. A typical German opinion, commented Klausner in his memoirs.

On the other hand, some professors knew how to be simple and deep at the same time. "[Kuno Fischer] had a special talent to define concepts, to sort out ideas and to clarify both so well, that the most difficult philosophical problems would become bright and clear almost to the point of transparency".

This, writes Klausner, is where I learnt to write clearly about complicated things. This is my way of academic "cheating": while others pretend to be "deep" using an abstract and complicated style, I try to "cheat" by a simple, light style as I lecture on issues that are neither simple nor light. "And who cares if some fault seekers will say that my books and articles are shallow and lengthy, devoid of the celebrated German "originality"?"

Klausner cared, or course, about his image. Acutely. All his academic life. And I feel a great sympathy here for my great uncle, who shortly died before I was born. Like him, I am a historian, and like him I seek to convey my scholarship to a broad and fascinated audience. One member of the generation between Klausner and myself has chosen to become a novelist (um Gottes Willen), but we, true to our academic vocations, are committed to scientific rigour — and yet aspire to be clearly understood.

Here was a deep affinity between Rabbinic learning and German scholarship, and also a constant dissonance, running across the two academic cultures. It is the dissonance between obscurity and clarity, between the depth of specialization available only to a select few — yodei chen, beholders of secret wisdom in Judaism, and the academic equivalent of the Protestant Chosen — as opposed to the ideal of Bildung, of Aufklärung, of haskala, the wish to disseminate knowledge across minds and genders and social classes and ethnic groups.

Here was the longtime German and Jewish concern with the wide, generous dispersion of high learning — from Maimonides to Mendelssohn, from Luther to Habermas. And here was the spirit of Goethe, hovering over Heidelberg's green landscape, over Tschernichowsky's poems and Klausner's clarity of style: Gray, dear friend, is every theory, but green — the Golden tree of life. Grau, teurer Freund, is alle Theorie, und gruen des Lebens goldner Baum.

And Heidelberg, then, was green and gold and vivid. Heidelberg allowed that lucky generation to reconsider Judaism itself, to rethink it for the modern mind. "In my very first days in Heidelberg an idea entered my mind: that Judaism is not just a religion but a Weltanschauung; you can only cling to it out of love; and you can only love it out of knowledge, and you can only know it by comparing it to the other great world views, Christianity, Hellenism, Islam and Buddhism."

Against this vast humanistic horizon of world scholarship, the young Joseph Klausner developed a modest research program: "To write four books on the four great figures of humanity: Jesus, Plato, Muhammad and Buddha."

Was my uncle being just a little ambitious in his research plan? Perhaps. But Heidelberg's Jewish scholars had already paved the way for Klausner: Abraham Geiger with his "Lives of Jesus" attached to his History of Judaism; Gustav Weil with his celebrated translation of A Thousand and One Nights, his biography of Muhammad, his critical introduction to the Koran.

Heidelberg's Jews, and some of their gentile colleagues, were steeped in the nineteenth-century lust for inter-religious theology, world literature, comparative philology, the hidden universality of philosophies, and what George Eliot ironically called "the key to all mythologies". All cultural differences were waiting for nimble scholarly fingers to expose their secret common threads, creating a fabric of unbiased truth for generations to come.

So all Klausner needed were the languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin he already had, Arabic he studied at Heidelberg, Sanskrit he took up with Professor Salomon Lefmann. In the end, however, my determined uncle had to settle with his life-long research of Christianity and Judaism, publishing a few short items on Plato and Buddhism, and nothing on Muhammad.

But the ambition! The scope! The reckless optimism of conjoining Judaism and humanity. These two words became Klausner's life motto, the words chiseled on the stone gate of his house in Jerusalem. For young emancipated Jews like him, the Heidelberg kind of globalization accorded with their very dreams: the refined globalization of worldviews, moralities, and intellects.

On this floor stood the great German Jewish bookcase: from the fine Hebraist collection of the Bibliotheca Palatina, from Sebastian Munester's humanist promotion of Hebrew to the level of a lingua sacra, all the way to Weil's Koran, to Tschernichowsky's Goethe and Kleist, to Klausner's Plato and Jesus and Paul.

But Heidelberg was also world-wise, world-weary. Heidelberg knew something about the necessity of looking at the real, changing world around it. After all, it was a town conquered time and again, belonging to a principality that lost major wars. It was a university whose very library, the same celebrated Bibliotheca Palatina I have just mentioned, had been captured and taken prisoner to Rome and never fully returned. Its professors could not afford to overlook reality, politics, and current affairs.

"[Professor Hensel's] knowledge was almost beyond human capacity. When I asked him, once, "Herr Professor, how did he manage to get so far?" he answered abruptly: "I don't read newspapers". But Klausner, a sharp-sighted gossip, knew better than that: Hensel quietly employed a 'lectrice', a reader, a female assistant who provided him with a concise briefing of the daily press.

And the daily press was exciting. In Basle, the first world Jewish congress convened in the very same year of Leib Yaffe and Klausner's matriculation in Heidelberg. Zionism came to Heidelberg with these Russian students and the Russian-Jewish professor, Herman Zvi Shapira.

Clearly, the Zionist ideal needed a sound scholarly basis. This was Shapira's goal when he laid down the plan for a University in Jerusalem. And this was Klausner's project in his historical works. Pinchas Rosen's project was to provide a legal-philosophical framework for the new national movement. Rosen's friend Moshe Smoira (Zmora), and their younger colleague Joel Sussman, who studied in Heidelberg in the 1920s, all went on to found Israel's juridical system. The solid liberalism of these emancipated Jews, coupled with a powerful, but not vile, commitment to nationhood and statehood, and a sound formal legal education — here are the hidden German fingerprints upon Israel's independent judiciary. To this day, Israel's separation of powers owes something to the pre-war German law faculties. Israel's democracy owes something to Heidelberg.

But there were other sides to this brave new world of European modernity. There were the new metaphors of relations between the sexes, the modernist redefinition of masculinity. There was the dark fascination, German as well as Jewish, with physical power, with bodily achievement, with romanticist aspirations to climb national and individual mountaintops.

Ethics is not for the faint hearted, wrote Joseph Klausner, who will later become one of the extreme voices of revisionist Zionism. "Morality", so he gleaned from his philosophy seminar, "is sometimes demanding and strict, and when need be, even cruel." After all, this notion was Hebraic as well as Germanic: were not the prophets of the bible just, and strong, and at times by necessity cruel in their justice?

On this juncture I part ways with my great great uncle, and feel somewhat closer to the pacifism of his Heidelberg colleague, who became his bitter rival at the Hebrew University, Yehuda Leib Magnes. For indeed Heidelberg, and other German universities, left us with a variegated legacy: from Buberian love of peace to militant nationalism, via the strong legalist culture of the jurists. The German-born and German educated Jews took their place along the whole political spectrum of the early state of Israel.

Into the vision of biblical moral cruelty, transformed into modernist national might, stepped another Heidelberg man, Max Nordau, the dreamer of 'a Zionism of muscles', of physical awakening and the brushing aside of cultural degeneracy. Entartung was the title of Nordau's own book, now seldom remembered. For, high above Heidelberg's hills, hovered the powerful spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, whose majestic prose was admired beyond all moral disagreement, whose philosophical beauty lies beyond good and evil.

"But Nietzsche is a madman", one student dared to utter in the seminar, and Professor Hensel, a Jew, replies with a resounding "Donnerswetter!" — — "I, too, am willing to go raving mad if only I can write such beautiful tomes as Nietzsche".

And Heidelberg, of course, was so beautiful. The hills and forest walks. The fortress, the river and the bridge. The poems told by heart. The cross-point of Hellenic and Nordic aesthetics that Saul Tschernichowsky hoped to convey, at last, into modern Hebrew. Because the Jews, so he felt, had never afforded and never enjoyed this wild pagan beauty. Here was Tschernichowsky's hope: to eroticise Hebrew literature. To afford the sensuality of pagan beauty. To allow Jews, for the first time in their history, not just the pure wonder of staring at Apollo's statue, but perhaps even the permission to be a little like Apollo, handsome and masculine and free of restraint. The poet Saul, blessed with a self-esteem not unlike that of Joseph Klausner (and decidedly better looks), was constantly hoping to achieve this ideal in person.

The Heidelberg landscape will soon become a lost, beloved image of the lost, beloved Europe, avidly imagined, irreversibly gone, from the streets of Talpiot and Rechavia. In a hot, humid, dusty, dangerous Orient, far removed from A Thousand and One Nights.

But best of all hopes was the table. The German Jewish table. The Tisch. And the German Jewish table talk, the common Tisch-Reden.

"Following Hensel's philosophical seminar, which took place in his private house and ended at 8 PM, we would all go with the professor to a beerhouse and sit with our beer mugs till eleven at night. All of us meant both male and female students, "for there were excellent female participants there, such as Marianne Weber, Professor Max Weber's wife, and Elizabeth Schmidt, who later received the Kant prize, and more[…] We would raise all sorts of questions — scientific, moral, social and literary[…] These were the most wonderful hours of my university years".

The intelligent women at the table delighted Klausner. In his memoirs he confessed that he was more attracted to the Gentiles among them, even though Heidelberg already had female Jewish students who would pioneer a short but great lineage — Rahel Strauss, Selma Stern, Hannah Arendt. Heidelberg, in those days, had a special penchant for newcomers to the pleasures of intellectual table talk — women, Jews, and some clever minds who were both women and Jews. This time of wonders lasted from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Weimar years. This was Heidelberg's spirit. Klausner thought that this was the future, a delightful and exciting future.

Meantime, just across the Neckar, at another table in the wine house 'zum Schiff', Saul Tschernichowsky was drinking what I am told was not exactly kosher wine. And he was busy writing his poem on "hanava me-Dilsberg" ("Die Schöne vom Dilsberg"), honoring a different sort of a female ideal, the beautiful daughter of the Kneipe owner, and lecturing her on the new Hebrew ideal of masculine perfection.

[How joyful it is here! Waiter, fetch wine! To your health, youthful, beautiful maiden. Drink too, don't be shy. Look at me, pretty one: my chest heaves like a wave, and my silken golden mustache points upwards. Drink, and we shall dance away.]

When I think of that Kneipe table, that of the philosophy seminar and that of the ardent young poet, my heart breaks. I try to imagine that fresh, short-lived ecstasy, the ideas and the poetry, the books and the clever twinkling eyes, over wine and food and freedom and light. I think of those new audiences of the European Enlightenment, the newcomers to the world of learning, the women, the men, Tschernichowsky's simple joy that was long since lost to modern Hebrew poetry — here it all was, the hope, the freedom, the texts, the dancing floor of minds. And this is exactly where I must turn from Heidelberg's hope to Heidelberg's loss. To our loss. To the great pain that came soon after.

But where should we start digging up the root of that pain? Perhaps as deep as the fourteenth century, when Heidelberg's Jews were expelled and the new university took up their houses and lands, and turned their synagogue into a lecture and assembly hall? Doesn't this magnificent Alte Aula stands on top of their ruined homes and torn bibles?

Or perhaps we should look at a medical dissertation, Jacob Israel's Colico dolore of 1669. There is something deeply touching about an early modern German Jewish dissertation — the very first such work in Heidelberg, perhaps in all German universities — that deals with pain.

Incidentally, it deals with stomach pain. To me, this gastric-intestinal remnant of the German Jewish past is significant. It is, in a way, more telling, more moving, than many more refined tributes in literature and poetry and art.

Because once upon a time, there was a common German Jewish stomach pain.
Because there was a common German Jewish stomach.
Because there was a common table.
Because the table was a Tisch, and there were food and books on it, and men who sat together eating, drinking, reading and talking: table-talking. A grand traditions of both cultures.
That table is gone forever.
We now have German Jewish desks, podiums, bookshelves, exhibition cases, but no Tisch any more.

Emil Gumbel was fired as early as 1932. Lederer and Mannheim and Fromm and Yonas went to exile. The students were told to leave. Far away in Jerusalem, Joseph Klausner received a formal letter annulling his doctoral degree. By 1939 Heidelberg got rid of all its fully Jewish professors and students. With the exception of a few Mischlinge, it was Judenrein. Richard Werner, the pioneering cancer researcher, died in Theresienstadt in 1943, one of many Jewish teachers and students. We will never know whether his uniformed killers were themselves graduates or professors of Heidelberg.

Did Heidelberg kill Heidelberg's hope?

I have deep respect for those who refused to accept this. There were Jewish professors and students courageous enough, or generous enough, to come back — like Alfred Weber — or to renew contact with Heidelberg — like Raymond Klibansky. Some Israeli scholars had the vision, as early as the 1960s, to establish a deep new connection between Heidelberg and the Weizmann Institute, Heidelberg and the Hebrew university of Jerusalem. Among them were Amos de Shalit and some of the people sitting here tonight.

But Professor Joseph Klausner, from his small stone house in the neighborhood of Talpiot, under the stone gate inscribed with the motto "Judaism and Humanity", vowed never to set foot in Germany again after the Second World War. And he never did, despite many invitations. Heidelberg lost Klausner's heart.

Gone, too, was the Tisch. No more Yiddish or Hebrew was to be heard in Heidelberg's wine houses. Tschernichowsky's youthful joy of life, his blend of Eros and learning, his sensual love of Europe, his quest for ancient, simple delights, are all lost to Hebrew culture for good.

Gone is the intimate cohabitation of former Europeans, Jews and Christians, Germans and Russians. Gone are the wine, the conversation, the twinkling eyes, the tickling of intellectual exchange, the quotations from Goethe by heart. I can no longer quote Goethe by heart.

But why did I come back here? Do I betray my great great uncle's horrible grief at the loss of his love of Germany?

I think not. I think that the same passion that made him swear never to set foot here again, precisely the same passion is bringing me back here today. And with me I bring the story of Joseph Klausner, the young man who so proudly received his doctorate here in 1903. It is time for Klausner to return to the Alte Aula. His doctorate is no loner annulled, and Heidleberg's hope is no longer dead.

The time has come for us to look for that long-lost Tisch. To set it up again, if only we can, between Germans and Jews. Between Europeans and Israelis. I am here, having walked back in my uncle's footsteps, which were much bigger than mine. Which were going in the opposite direction, from Europe to the land of Israel. Because tracing his footprints backward is also, in a deep sense, walking in his footsteps.

I am here to ask for your help. We need all your help in order to keep the best ideas of Heidelberg — the best ideas of Europe and its Jews — afloat in Israel today. The freedom, the rationality, the open-minded scholarship, the independent judiciary, the rule of law. Above all, the universal values cherished by my uncle and his generation: Judaism and Humanity. The solid moral and human ground common to all great cultures.

We must keep these hopes alive today, because they are not only Heidelberg's best hopes, cruelly betrayed but wonderfully alive. They are also Israel's best hopes.

Bibliographical note

Most prominent among the works that helped shaped this lecture are the following:

"Juden an der Universität Heidelberg: Dokumente aus sieben Jahrhunderten", catalogue of the exhibition created and produced by Petra Schaffrodt, Heidelberg 2002.

The same exhibition's excellent web site, accessible via the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg site at

"Jüdische Lebenswelten" exhibition catalogue edited by Andreas Nachama and Gereon Sievenich for the Berliner Festspiele, Berlin 1991.

Fania Oz-Salzberger and Eli Salzberger, "Die geheimen deutschen Quellen am Israelischen Obersten Gerichtshof", Kritische Justiz 31:3 (1998), 289-317.

Shulamit Volkov, Das jüdische Project der Moderne, München 2001.

Joseph Klausner's book appeared in Hebrew under the title Darki likrat ha-tchia veha-geula. Autobiografia (1944-1874) [My Road toward Revival and Redemption. Autobiography (1874-1944)], Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Massada [1946].

Here are some fuller quotes from Klausner's book, touching on his Heidelberg years:

"I nevertheless remained in Berlin only for a short time. Life was difficult there due to the numerous expenses… And in Berlin it was more difficult to be accepted to the university. But, most importantly, I did not want to, and could not, remain in Berlin because of the great noise and turmoil of the big city… In order to study properly one must reside in a small university town with great professors, where there is no noise and no interference, where time is not consumed by great distances or by numerous assemblies and guests. I therefore decided to make my way to the famous university town Heidelberg, which then had 25,000 residents at the most, and was almost wholly 'mekom tora' [a seat of learning]: full of academic institutions, professors and students. And I had a recommendation by Moshe Leib Lilienblum to his old friend, Professor Herman Shapira; so I have someone to turn to. And Leib Yaffe, too, traveled with me from Berlin to Heidelberg. " (69-70)

"Here, in Heidelberg, a new era began in my life. An era flooded by light and brilliance, not diminished even by the relative material distress which I experienced most of those years as a Hebrew writer." (70)

"[Herman Zvi Shapira] sat in a handsome villa with a wonderful garden of flowers, across the bridge". He was "an extraordinary man", "a mixture of a European genius and a yeshiva bocher", with Lithuanian and rabbinical origins well marked despite his long years in Germany. But his life in Heidelberg were marred by a his prosecution by a German neighbor for allegedly attempting to rape her little daughter, and despite his acquittal in court, Shapira was doomed to social loneliness, and being a Privatdozent, also to poverty, secretly working as a master-watchmaker for his living. (72).

"Herr Professor Hensel, I asked, what does his honour think of [Chajm Heymann] Steinthal's new book on Ethics? — Ach, Herr Klausner, Herr Steinthal is such a good man, I would be happy to have him as a father in law; but he should not be writing a book on ethics!". (75) (It may be added that all persons involved in this conversation -Steinthal, Hensel and Klausner — were Jews).

"But Nietzsche is a madman", dares one student to utter, and Professor Hensel replies with a resounding "Donnerswetter! I, too, am willing to go raving mad if only I can write such beautiful tomes as Nietzsche". (76).

"Following Hensel's philosophical seminar, which took place in his private house and ended at 8 pm, we would all go with the professor to a beer house and sit with our beer mugs till eleven at night. All of us meant both male and female students, "for there were excellent female participants there, such as Marianne Weber, Prof. Max Weber's wife, and Elizabeth Schmidt, who later received the Kant prize, and more… We would raise all sorts of questions — scientific, moral, social and literary… These were the most wonderful hours of my university years". (75).

Please address requests to:
Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger, D.Phil (Oxon.)
Senior Lecturer
The School of History and The Law Faculty
University of Haifa
Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905, Israel
Office telephone: 972-4-8288486
Office fax: 972-4-8240681

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Pressesprecher der Universität Heidelberg
Tel. 06221 542310, Fax 542317

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