The dogs of war
How did dogs taught to respond to Hebrew commands come to serve the German army in the 1930s? The surprising answer can be found in the life's work of Prof. Rudolphina Menzel, a world-renowned trainer and ardent Zionist.
The writer Max Brod ends an old letter to his friend, the philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergman, with the following words: "Maybe you know something about the guard dogs that Dr. Menzel and his wife are breeding in Linz? The dogs were trained to obey orders in Hebrew and so far have been used by the Austrian police, producing amusing incidents... I want to help them both." The letter was written in the summer of 1938, after the Anschluss - the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
How did Hebrew-speaking dogs come to be serving the Austrian police - and in Linz, of all places, where Adolf Hitler grew up? A visit to the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, where the estate of Prof. Rudolphina Menzel is kept, supplies the surprising answer.
Menzel's estate consists of hundreds of letters, diaries and articles written in German, English and Hebrew, scattered among hundreds of folders. In perusing through the material, a picture of a pioneering woman begins to take shape - one who developed groundbreaking methods to train dogs for security tasks; who worked for the Austrian police and the German army in the 1930s, and for the British army and the Haganah (the pre-state underground Jewish militia) in the 1940s; and who for years trained guide dogs for the blind in Israel.
Rudolphina Menzel was born in 1891 in Vienna to a well-to-do Jewish family. When she was 4, she was bitten by a puppy she had been playing with, an incident that actually served to heighten her interest in dogs. "Other children developed a constant aversion and fear of dogs. I developed ties to and a fondness for them," she related years later. As a girl, she gave her allowance to neighbors who agreed to take care of stray dogs she had found on the street. Her parents, however, "refused to allow these dirty, contaminating creatures to stain their expensive carpets with mud from the street."
Menzel obtained doctorate degrees in psychology, biology and biochemistry at the University of Vienna, where she was also active in the Zionist-oriented Herzl student union and established the Viennese branch of the Zionist youth movement Blau-Weiss (Blue-White). After marrying the physician Rudolph Menzel in 1915, the couple moved to a luxurious villa with a large garden in Linz.
Financially, their situation was sound: He worked as a doctor of internal medicine, she as a psychologist. Her great love, though, was for dogs. In the 1920s, the Menzels established in their home the first school of its kind to train attack, defense, guard and tracking dogs. They also carried out joint research on canine psychology.
In a 1968 book titled "On Dogs, Cats and Other Friends" (in Hebrew), the Menzels wrote: "From the time we were children we often made friends with animals. Our friendship did not take the form of cuddling and pampering. A toy-like animal is not a friend, but a kind of living doll. Friendship means living together, common work and mutual understanding... Our first friends were of course dogs. Friendship with dogs is the most convenient way for anyone to draw close to the animal world, beyond his own species."
Dozens of dogs underwent the courses given by Rudolphina Menzel in Linz. The fitness and character tests she devised, which were subsequently adopted worldwide, enabled her to predict how the dogs would develop and behave upon maturity. Books and studies published by the couple about the canine "mind" were widely quoted, helping them earn an international reputation as dog handlers. A manual for dog trainers written by Rudolphina Menzel in 1928 was translated into many languages. In their research the two discovered, for example, that every person has a particular smell, and they showed by means of charts the heredity of animals' spiritual qualities. The Menzels were considered "freaks" by the Jewish community in Linz, Rudolph Menzel wrote in an article published in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle in June 1942. "Our way of life [is] exceedingly strange, not to say exotic, in their eyes," he noted.
Help from the S.S.
Rudolphina Menzel's occupation with and love of dogs also had a Zionist bent: Some of the dogs she trained in Austria were sent to the Yishuv (Jewish community) in Palestine. "From the outset we thought about the Land of Israel settlement project," she said years later. "From the start of our work, we considered introducing the use of dogs for the defense of the isolated settlements in the country as our principal mission."
Rabbi Zwi Perez Chajes, who was the chief rabbi of Vienna and a Zionist activist until his death in 1927, visited the Linz dog farm in the 1920s and was very impressed. Dogs who responded to names and words in Hebrew symbolized the revival of both the Jewish language and people, he said. The Menzels agreed. In a book published in 1939, they explained the difference between the "new Jew" who connects with nature, breeds dogs and returns to his primal sources, and the "ghetto-mentality Jew" who is afraid of dogs for justified historic reasons.
"Most of us are city dwellers and the grandchildren of city dwellers," they wrote. "In our veins flows the blood of many generations who spent their whole lives in the stifling cities, and the blood of many generations before them who never left the alleys of the ghetto. They were far from the soil, far from animals. Every animal was alien to them and the dog was most alien of all. The dog was part of the world of the Gentiles... It was used as an escort and an aide to persecutors and oppressors. At the order of the squire, the dog attacked and drove off the Jewish peddler. The dog was the companion of the rulers who decided the fate of the Jews, whether they would live or die."
The Menzels drew a distinction between the city-dwelling Jews and the nation's distant ancestors, who had lived in harmony with dogs. "There were other generations before the generations of the ghetto," they said. "Generations of free farmers, people of the soil and the pasture, warriors and hunters. In those days, our forefathers lived harmoniously among nature and their lives were a manifestation of the multi-generational and highly diverse life of nature. In those days the dog was a companion and helper to our people, too."
It was not long before the Austrian authorities heard about the Menzels' prestigious private institution. As a result, the first dogs to serve in the Austrian police were trained at the Menzels' farm - obeying orders in Hebrew and responding only to their Hebrew names. Clad in the Austrian police uniform, Rudolphina Menzel trained the force's dogs. In an old, crumbling photograph held at the Central Zionist Archives, she can be seen calling the attack dog Maggie Bat Hasatan (Maggie the Devil's Daughter) to rush to the aid of her owner - after a supposed attack by a stranger - during a police training session.
Menzel also spent time in Berlin in the service of the German army, setting up courses to train dogs to attack, defend, track and guard. In Germany, too, the dogs were trained to obey orders in Hebrew - responding to "shev" (sit), "artza" (down) and "kum" (up). A few years later, when the Nazis rose to power, the dog trainers in the German army discovered that the dogs would not respond to commands given in any other language. By order from above they had to continue speaking to them in Hebrew, however difficult and burdensome it might be. "The pair of Zionist researchers is indirectly but deliberately forcing the Germans to speak Hebrew," wrote one German newspaper published during that time.
Hearing that the dogs she had trained were later used to attack Jews weighed heavily on Menzel. "During World War II, I suffered a great deal from the reports that pupils of mine in Austria and Germany were exploiting the knowledge they had acquired from me in order to use dogs to help exterminate people from my nation and from other nations," she said in an interview about 10 years before her death in 1973.
The Nazis did not harm the Menzels after the Anschluss in 1938. In fact, they tried to persuade the couple to stay and become part of the German army. The Menzels also received an offer to move to Germany and join the senior staff of the military institute used to train war dogs, which was already utilizing the character tests Rudolphina Menzel had herself developed.
Of that fateful period Menzel wrote: "One Friday, Hitler's forces reached Austria. On that same morning, an order from Hitler was received to bring me and my husband to a German army camp in a luxury car. An appendix to the order stated that we were to be given a cabin designated for officers and all possible comforts so that we could conduct a study about dogs for the German army."
Fortunately for the Menzels, the man who received the order was the deputy commander of the S.S. in Linz - a family friend, as it happened. "He helped us escape and cross the border, watching us until he was certain we were out of danger," Menzel recalled. Taking a few dogs with them, the two left on a ship which reached Palestine on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 1938. As a way of thanking the S.S. officer who saved their lives, the two sent him a gift from their new home: a crate of oranges.
Twenty years later, Menzel wrote in a letter to a friend: "Even today it is difficult to understand how the Nazis managed to take control of the German people. Afterward, when their regime was consolidated, fear apparently prevented the nation's resistance. But how was it possible for educated intellectuals to fall victim to that mad Fuehrer? Only animal psychology can provide the answer."
Canine recruitment center
Menzel's ties with the Yishuv began long before her escape from the Nazi terror. Many pioneer-movement Zionists visited her in Linz before making the move to Palestine, in order to take trained purebred dogs along with them. "Some of them encountered financial difficulties later on and sold the dogs to the refined ladies of Tel Aviv," Menzel said.
In the mid-1920s she wrote many letters to the leaders of the land-settlement movement in the Yishuv, lauding the contribution watchdogs could make to the Jewish community. She also offered her help in training the animals. This was initially met with skepticism, but in 1932 a special envoy from Palestine visited Menzel bearing a letter from Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, at the time chairman of the National Council, a leading member of the labor movement and a Haganah activist (and later Israel's second president). In the letter, he invited Menzel to visit Palestine and train dogs there for defense. However, unable to leave her scientific pursuits in Europe, she turned down the offer. In the meantime, two Haganah representatives spent about a year on the dog farm in Austria, learning how to tame and train dogs.
At the invitation of Yaakov Pat, a Haganah commander, Menzel paid a three-month visit to Palestine in 1934. To do so, she had to turn down an invitation to be a guest of the Pavlov Institute in Moscow (named for Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov, whose work on conditioned reflexes also involved the use of dogs). Her first stop in Palestine was Kibbutz Yagur, where she gave a course on training watchdogs. She also conducted similar courses in Tel Mond and elsewhere for Haganah activists from various kibbutzim.
When they finally moved to Palestine in 1938, the Menzels settled on Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, near Haifa, where they organized courses for training service and guard dogs for the Haganah. Later on, at the request of the Haganah, they moved to the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin, where Rudolphina Menzel established an institute to study and train canines. The Haganah's canine unit, which operated through her school, was the forerunner of today's dog-handling Oketz unit in the Israel Defense Forces.
In addition to military activity, the institute conducted research into canine diseases and studied methods of raising, cultivating and training different breeds of dogs, in some cases for agricultural purposes (such as sheepdogs). Over the years the security-oriented activity gradually decreased, and the institute turned into a national center for raising purebred dogs. In the meantime, the Menzels' home quickly became a "regional canine recruitment center," with people from both the land-settlement movement and the cities donating dogs as part of the war effort.
In an article Menzel wrote after settling in Palestine, she noted the virtues of dogs for guarding and security tasks: "Not many people know and recognize the great value of the dog within the framework of a modern army... Few know that one watchdog is capable of taking the place of four soldiers on guard duty, and dogs also make better guards than people. This is because commandos can approach and get right under the nose of a guard and finish him off, whereas a dog will detect every approaching stranger from a considerable distance... We know of cases in which an enemy set up an ambush for a reconnaissance squad and opened fire at the soldiers from just a few meters away. If a trained reconnaissance dog had accompanied those patrols, he would have alerted the soldiers to the ambush early on and many victims would have been spared."
The security forces also used dogs trained by Menzel to search for wounded soldiers, as well as to detect the transmission of radio communications and the conveyance of ammunition. Manuals she wrote taught soldiers that a "messenger dog" can carry dispatches up to a distance of one kilometer based on memory and up to five kilometers by scent; that a "senior dog" is capable of finding a wounded person and leading forces to him; and that an "ammunition-bearing dog" can carry five to seven kilos of munitions a distance of one kilometer.
"In addition to the dog's many other roles, we can also say that he embeds a feeling of security in the heart of every soldier who sets out with a canine escort," Menzel wrote.
One of her major achievements was developing a method by which dogs could detect land mines. These dogs could sniff out the presence of mines even weeks after they had been planted in the ground. It was not the metal they smelled, but actually the loose soil around the mines. Menzel explained that the soil with which a mine is covered comes from deeper in the earth and therefore has a different, more pungent odor. She trained dogs to identify this odor and was lauded for her accomplishment.
The new Jew
In an emotional article published in 1943 in the kibbutz movement's youth journal, under the title "Raise Yourself a Dog," Menzel set out to implant her ideas in the younger generation. "Here, in the Land of Israel, our nation found its way back to the soil - and it's time we returned to the dog, too," she wrote. "Here, working with dogs is a pioneering endeavor in the fullest sense, and so we are appealing to you, the next generation. Help us reconquer the dog for our people... Anyone who has not yet overcome the fear of dogs from the ghetto is not a renewed Jew, even if he is native-born. Our call goes out to the renewed Jew. Our call is to you. Clear the way for the latest pioneering development: the conquest of the dog to help build our land."
The Haganah and other members of the Yishuv were not the only ones to avail themselves of dogs trained by Menzel. The British security forces were also aware of the benefits of using canines. In 1942, they asked the Haganah to train 400 attack, defense and guard dogs for their forces in North Africa, whose property was being stolen and sabotaged by Bedouin making night raids.
Menzel consulted with Moshe Shertok (Sharett), who at the time was the head of the Jewish Agency's political department (and later became Israel's second prime minister). "The hard times the Yishuv in the Land of Israel can expect after the war make us hesitant about whether to accede to the British request and recruit for them many dogs which we might need here for guard and defense duty," she related. Shertok's reply was unequivocal. "This is our war," he told her. "Give the English our dogs and our training methods - whatever they ask for - as though the White Paper does not exist. At the present time, we are comrades in arms against Hitler."
The importance the British forces attached to Menzel's dogs can be seen in an unusual eulogy issued by British army headquarters in the Middle East, which appeared in the November 1944 issue of the local kennel club's journal. "Simmy, the veteran war dog and terror of Middle East thieves, is gone," the death notice said. "Death claimed him suddenly, when he was only 4."
According to the announcement, Simmy chalked up 83 arrests during his two years of service, and six of the detainees died of injuries he had inflicted on them. "Simmy was so enthusiastic, he sometimes needed two or three days to recover after an operation. He was a big dog physically, weighing 39 kilograms at his peak, but his heart was infinitely bigger," the commander of the center for training war dogs in the Middle East wrote, extending heartfelt condolences to Gura, the deceased's partner.
Simmy was born in Kvutzat Kinneret, where his name had been Amit. He was one of the first dogs trained by Menzel sent to assist the British forces. The British, by the way, promised Menzel that they would never use dogs she had trained to attack Jews. "One has to admit that they kept their promise," she related. "When they searched for hidden arms with the help of dogs trained to detect mines, using the method they learned from us, they brought in European dogs who had been trained in Europe."
Dogs for the blind
After the War of Independence, Menzel switched from training watchdogs to working with guide dogs for the blind, initially to meet the needs of Israeli soldiers who had lost their sight during the war. In 1949, she established a center to train guide dogs in Kiryat Haim, a Haifa suburb, which operated until 1970. (In 1991 a new institution, the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, began operating in the center of the country.)
The first guide dog Menzel trained was himself disabled: a boxer who had been badly wounded in one leg while serving at an Israeli outpost in the war. Following the assistance to war veterans, blind civilians also contacted the center and benefited from Menzel's aid and guidance. Financing for the institute came from the Defense and Welfare Ministries, the Association for the Blind and donations, and both she and her husband worked at the center for free. The center offered five-month courses in which dogs were trained for their mission. The Menzels also kept a number of cats at the center, so that the dogs could get used to their presence.
In one of the drills Rudolphina developed, a cart as tall as an average person was hitched to a dog. A low obstacle was placed in front of the dog, which the animal could cross without difficulty. However, the cart got stuck and so the dog could not move on. During the training sessions, the dog learned how to bypass the obstacle so that the cart could cross as well - exactly as the animal would need to do with a blind person. "The Bible commands us not to place an obstacle before the blind," Menzel said. "Our slogan is basically the opposite: Place an obstacle in the way of the blind, so they will learn how to overcome it."
Many Kiryat Haim old-timers still remember Menzel - "the small, plump woman" and the guide dog school she ran. Ora Julius, 77, who now resides in Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem, volunteered at the center at the end of the 1950s, typing up letters Menzel sent to various organizations for fundraising and other purposes.
"She was a charming, very special woman, a bundle of energy," Julius says. "She spoke fast and looked after everything. She loved the dogs fiercely and could talk about them for days at a time. The dogs were her whole life. She and her husband had no children or relatives here - only each other and the dogs. Because their names were the same - Rudolph and Rudolphina - she called him Rudy and he called her Dolphy."
Yossi Mandelboum, from the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin, knew Menzel from the time he was a child. His father, Meir, worked for years as a dog handler in Menzel's school during the 1950s. "She ruled the place with a high hand and was very temperamental," he says. "Sometimes I thought she behaved a little like a Nazi."
In 1959, in an interview with a women's magazine, Menzel explained the basic difference between what she had done in Austria and what she was doing in Israel. "Many people in my circle of admirers are mistaken when they say that nowadays I work under the title of dog trainer," she said. "I trained dogs when I was in Austria and Germany, but in Israel I mostly guide people and train them to be dog handlers."
In addition to her work at the center, Prof. Menzel taught animal psychology at Tel Aviv University in the 1960s. In 1966, her name was inscribed in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund for her distinguished contribution to the Zionist movement. She died in 1973, not long after her husband, who had been the physician of the Haifa-based Oil Refineries.
"We were able to fulfill our childhood dreams in our lifetime," Rudolphina Menzel wrote to a friend in 1959. "We succeeded in extricating ourselves from the grief and the shame, and in becoming a new nation, healthy and stable. All that lives around us - young people, orchards, habitations - contains part of our work ... No one could ask for more."