Hans Herzl's Wish Comes True - 76 Years Later

Bordeaux, France - In September 1930, a guilt-ridden, exhausted man arrived at Bordeaux's railway station.

Hans Herzl, 39, who had abandoned his sister Paulina a month earlier, was shocked to learn of her death, after a prolonged morphine addiction.

He had come from London to Bordeaux to take part in her funeral.

First he headed for the local hospital with a representative of the Jewish community to identify her body, and then to a modest hotel. For three days he wandered around the French port town, and on September 15 at dusk he shot himself in the head.

"I'm sorry for the mess," he wrote in a note to the hotel keeper. His sister's funeral took place, as scheduled, a day later. Hans was buried in the same cemetery three days afterward. Few people attended both funerals.

Today, more than 76 years later, the two simple graves in the Bordeaux Jewish cemetery are the center of unprecedented attention. Many will take part in official ceremonies today and tomorrow, attended by political and religious officials, marking the transfer of Hans and Paulina's remains to Mount Herzl in Israel.

Life and death

The exhumation of their remains will shed light on the story of their life and death, which reflect the confusion, depression and impossible life of the children of the man who envisioned the new Jewish state.

Throughout his short life, Hans Herzl tried to fulfill his father's expectations and the hopes of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) leaders, who were in charge of his education after he lost his father at the age of 13. But from his years in an English boarding school, through his studies in Cambridge, to adult life in London, he was haunted by a sense of failure. He saw himself as being mediocre, lacking in perseverance, and unfit for life. He plunged into frequent depressions, and in 1924 converted to Christianity. Immediately, he was outcast from the Jewish community and denounced publicly.

"I am a lonely, desperate, sad and bitter person," he wrote to his friend Marcel Sternberger a year before committing suicide. "Nobody listens to a convert. I've burned all my bridges. My life is ruined. No one would regret it if I put a bullet through my head. I can't go on living."

Sternberger's wife, Ilse, published Herzl's children's biography in 1994 - Princes Without a Home. It was based on the book about Hans that her husband had written, but scrapped under WZO pressure in the '40s. This well-researched biography is the source for most of the known information about Herzl's children.

Hans undertook the task of bringing Judaism and Christianity together. At some point, he saw Jesus as a prophet and pleaded with the Jews to embrace the New Testament in the same way they embraced the Old Testament. "The Jews' transcendental identity is such a great privilege that they must be happy they have no state," wrote Hans in a critique of his father's vision.

"My father was a great man, and I loved him very much, but he erred when he agreed to limit his idealism and establish a state."

Hans believed the Jews should join the broad Christian community but have the pope represent them among the nations.

In Bordeaux, Hans' depression deepened with the guilt for having abandoned Paulina, who suffered from emotional problems since her youth, and had become addicted to tranquilizers during her travels in Europe.

He decided to commit suicide, an act he had been considering since his youth. "I feel that the madness could descend on me at any moment," he wrote. "I loath myself." He bought a pistol and returned to the hotel.

The suicide letter he left behind shows he had considered the religious aspects of the act carefully. "I've lost my beloved sister, and feel that my neglect is the cause of her death. A man who sees himself responsible for his acts should not, in my opinion, rely on others to punish him. That seems to me an important argument for suicide - despite the acceptable social norms that regard it as a crime," wrote Hans before shooting a single bullet into his temple.

"My grandfather helped Hans Herzl find the hotel he committed suicide in, and later helped with the funeral arrangements," said Wolf Stolpner, grandson of member of the Jewish community who met Hans at the railway station. "Hans left my grandfather smoking utensils and an emerald diamond-studded jewel, which was lost over the years," he said.

The WZO decided to bury Hans and Paulina in Bordeaux, despite their wish to be buried beside their father in Austria, probably to avoid tarnishing Herzl's image. The Austrian consul in Bordeaux wrote to the organization before Paulina's death that she wished to be buried in Vienna.

Hans had requested that his body be placed in his sister's coffin, writing "there is enough room for both of us," and asking that the coffin be sent to Vienna. "This may be a convenient time to transfer our remains to Palestine," he added.

Seventy-six years later, his wish has been fulfilled.

Trude, Herzl's younger daughter, learned of her brother and sister's death in Austria. Like them, she experienced economic difficulties. Herzl had spent his entire fortune on the Zionist project, and after their mother's death in 1907, the three orphans were left penniless. Trude was murdered by the Nazis in 1943, and her burial place is unknown. Her only son, Stephan, killed himself by jumping from a bridge in Washington in 1946, putting an end to the Herzl line.

Herzl's children were overwhelmed by the greatness of his vision. It both dictated and diminished their own lives. As young children, they lived like princes of a state not yet established, isolated from their peers. After his death, they remained penniless, yet everywhere they went, they bent under the heritage of a Jewish legend - the chilren of the man who envisioned Israel. Even after their deaths, in a gesture of historic justice that father will tomorrow stretch out a spiritual arm from the Zionist state he helped create, and summon them to him.