The End of the Sarona Saga

Last month marked the end of a seven-year High Court case, in which a descendant of Tel Aviv's former Templer community demanded compensation for a real-estate project erected on land once owned by his family.

Last month, the High Court of Justice ruled on one of the most fraught and explosive real-estate petitions it has deliberated in the past decade. For seven years, the court discussed a suit by Helmut Georg Laemmle, an Australian descendant of the German Templers, demanding compensation of about NIS 1 million from the city of Tel Aviv for lands on which the two towers constituting the Weizmann Center were built.

The center, which is situated within the Ichilov Hospital compound, contains a mall offices, clinics, a convalescent home for new mothers, assisted living units and a business and commercial center that serves hospital patients, employees and the general public. However, the subject of the suit was not the towers, but rather the plot of land on which they were erected. The plot was part of the property of the Templer colony Sarona, which for the past 60 years has been at the center of controversy in the international arena, in a clash between the municipality and the government (especially the defense establishment ) and in the municipal real-estate playing field.

Yuval Tebol

In 1996, a change was made in the land-use definition of two plots in the area of about 12 dunams (1 dunam = 4 acres ), which had served as a parking lot in the Ichilov compound. Two years later, the municipality signed a contract worth some NIS 100 million with Ocif Investments & Development Ltd. for construction of the Weizmann Center. In 2005, after the dedication of the center, Laemmle petitioned the court against the municipality on the grounds that the land had been expropriated from the Templers in 1943 for public use, whereas the main purpose of the center - even if it serves the public that works and frequents Ichilov - is commercial, and hence does not serve a real public purpose. Therefore, argued Laemmle, the municipality should have recognized his right to implement the commercial uses in the expropriated plots before approaching any third party. As the municipality did not approach him, it violated his property rights and therefore it must compensate him.

The Tel Aviv municipality argued that the owners of the property had received full compensation for their assets under the 1962 reparations agreements with Germany. It also argued the suit was tainted by dishonest motives and did not reveal the essential fact that in the reparations agreement, the owners of the land had relinquished all rights to sue in connection with the land.

The historical basis for the deliberations at the High Court of Justice was the expert opinion of historian Prof. Yossi Katz, who holds the chair for Jewish National Fund studies at Bar-Ilan University. Katz is author of the Hebrew-language book "Forgotten Assets," which revealed deficiencies in the way the Israeli authorities dealt with the estates of Holocaust victims who had property in Israel. In the wake of its publication, in 2002, the Knesset set up an investigative committee on the subject, and the government company for locating and restoring victims' property was established. In the case of the suit by the "Tehran Children" (a group of Polish Jews who as young children were saved from the Holocaust and brought to Palestine by way of Iran, in 1943 ), the High Court also directed the sides to Katz's book. In his studies on the fate of Templer properties in Israel, Katz revealed a German diktat that forced the Israeli government to pay them full monetary compensation, their Nazi past notwithstanding.

Upon Hitler's rise to power, the messianic Templer community underwent a metamorphosis from serving God to the cult of the Reich. The British authorities related to them as a fifth column and the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine imposed a general boycott on them. When the war broke out, the British put the Templers under house arrest within their seven colonies, on grounds of their being citizens of an enemy country, and their property was put under the supervision of the custodian of enemy property. Two weeks before that move, a German ship had sailed from Haifa port with 232 Templer recruits to the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo, and with them 88 members of their families. After three citizen-exchange deals the Templer population shrank to only 1,007. On July 31, 1941, as the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel approached the gates of Egypt from Libya, the British deported 536 Templers to Australia, among them 188 from Sarona, who were considered the Nazi hard core.

Eliezer Shinnar, who eventually became head of the Israeli delegation on the matter of German reparations, testified: "On their way from their colony of Sarona through the streets of Tel Aviv - most of whose inhabitants at that time had been victims of Hitler - they sang the Nazi anthem, the 'Horst Wessel Lied.' By chance I happened to witness this, and saw and heard this macabre event with my own eyes and ears." Among the deportees was the petitioner's mother, Julie Erni, daughter of Philipp Groll, who bequeathed to his widow and their four daughters an estate of 24.5 dunams, on part of which the Weizmann Center stands.

A shrunken community remained in four detention colonies: Waldheim (now Moshav Alonei Abba, near Tivon ), Wilhelmina (Moshav Bnei Atarot ), the German Colony in Jerusalem, and Sarona, today the Kirya defense compound in Tel Aviv. At that time, the overall population of Tel Aviv was about 170,000, and its area was 6,635 dunams; Jaffa had some 70,000 residents, and an area of 6,155 dunams. The total area of land owned by Templers from Sarona, which constituted its own municipality, exceeded 6,500 dunams. About 4,400 of those dunams had been included in the Tel Aviv master plan for building since the 1920s (the Geddes plan ).

In March 1943, the Mandatory government published an order expropriating lands for public purposes, which enabled transfer of some of the property of Sarona to the expansion of Tel Aviv (the Kiryat Meir neighborhood ). At the time, mayor Yisrael Rokach was actively looking to purchase lands for the city's expansion, as it was hemmed in from all directions. Most of the Templers were interested in selling theirs, but refrained from doing so under firm pressure from the burgermeister (mayor ) of Sarona, Gotthilf Wagner. Beginning in 1944 the British government leased extensive areas of the expropriated Sarona lands to the Tel Aviv municipality . In that year as well, the demand first arose to settle Holocaust survivors in Sarona. In response, poet Natan Alterman deplored the intention to use what he saw as the Germans' defiled property.

In his poem "We Demand Housing in Sarona," which was published in his regular "Seventh Column" in the Hebrew daily Davar, Alterman wrote: "And I know / if the government were to serve refugees / homes in Sarona on a plate / it would be a natural need for the newspaper to arise / and say: / We cannot take."

After the Germans' defeat, Moshe Sharett, head of the diplomatic department at the Jewish Agency, demanded of the British high commissioner that he deport the remaining Germans from the country and transfer their lands for the settlement of Holocaust survivors and Jewish soldiers who had served with the British Army "as compensation Germany owes the Jewish people."

In January 1946, an Allied committee meeting in Paris decided that German property, including property outside Germany and property of private German citizens, would serve as reparations payments to the victorious countries.

In the midst of the armed struggle against the British Mandate, on March 22, 1946, a pistol-wielding duo from the Haganah pre-state underground assassinated Gotthilf Wagner on Levinsky Street in Tel Aviv. The murder shocked the waning Templer community. Land prices in Sarona fell, and the deportees in Australia urged those remaining in Palestine to come to terms with the new reality and emigrate.

In November 1947, the British high commissioner ordered the seizure of Templer property as enemy property; two months later, the Tel Aviv municipality purchased 4,236 dunams from the British custodian, with the Templers' agreement. Three weeks before Israel declared its independence, the British evacuated the last of the Templers from Palestine to Germany and Australia.

In July 1950, the Knesset passed the German Property Law, whereby a special custodian for German assets in the country was appointed. Two years later Israeli and German delegations began hammering out a reparations agreement in Cologne. Despite Israeli objections, at the last minute the Germans demanded discussion of the question of the Templers' property as a condition for signing the agreement; it was agreed the Templers would be compensated with 54 million marks to end the demands. On September 10, 1952, the reparations agreement was signed, though negotiations on the question of compensation for the Templers went on for another decade between the two countries, with the mediation of a Danish lands assessor, Prof. Max Sorensen. That agreement was finally signed on June 1, 1962, in Geneva. In March 1969, the last reparations payment was made, and in 1981 the fund established for that purpose in Australia was closed.

On June 13, the High Court of Justice rejected Laemmle's petition and obligated him to pay NIS 40,000 in court costs to the Tel Aviv municipality. The tribunal that heard the case was headed by now-retired Justice Ayala Procaccia, who was joined by Justices Miriam Naor and Dvora Berliner. The bench ruled there are no circumstances justifying the revocation of the expropriation and the return of the lands to the petitioner, since the Weizmann Center continues to serve the purpose of the expropriation. Moreover, ruled the justices, in light of the laws on trading with an enemy country and international agreements Israel signed with Germany - there is no scope for granting the petition.

"What is at the basis of the petition is money, money and money," says Katz. "Until now it isn't clear to me when the initiative of the petition arose. Did the petitioner himself initiate it, or was it his attorneys who expected to find an oil field that would open the way to claims on all of Sarona and the other colonies?"

"The initiative was the petitioner's," says attorney Moshe Kammar, who represented Laemmle together with attorney Talia Sasson, who formerly held a senior position in the State Prosecutor's Office and became known for the report she wrote on unauthorized outposts in the territories. "The ruling speaks for itself," Kammer adds, "and I have nothing to add."

Helmut Georg Laemmle, 76, is an active member of the Templer community, according to Mark Herrmann, one of the heads of the community in Australia. His father, Fritz Laemmle, and his mother, from the Groll clan, belonged to two of the wealthiest families in that community.

Was the Templer community involved in the trial in any way?

Mark Herrmann: "No."

Are there other Templers who have plans to raise legal claims in return for their property in Israel?

"I am not aware of that."

Herrmann, who says there have not been any reports of the suit in Templer publications, claims he is not aware of any reaction in the community to the High Court of Justice ruling.

"This is something entirely new to me," says Austrian historian Helmut Glenk, a descendant of the Templers who was himself born in Sarona. Glenk has published a number of books about Sarona and has recounted in precise detail the Templers' contribution to the modernization of Palestine.

"I have never heard about or read about the matter in the community's publications," he says. "I can only assume it was an individual case."

"The ruling underlines an important message to all kinds of claimants who are blinded by money and the message is that it is impossible to juggle history to your own advantage," says Prof. Katz. "It is not right to pull out half of an historical document and exploit the fact that the bureaucratic system today is not familiar with the historical materials in order to try to obtain wealth dishonestly. In the end the historical truth is what decides and not manipulations or attempts to distort history."

What do you mean?

Katz: "The claim disregarded the fact that the whole matter of the Templer real estate was settled in the reparations agreement. The High Court of Justice [in its ruling] adopted my opinion that the matter was closed in the 1960s with the signing of the reparations agreement between the government of Israel and the governments of West Germany and Australia. The German Templers, most of whom were Nazis, received full monetary compensation for their property here, even though Israel was not required to do this."

And what is your opinion of the legal measures taken by the Tel Aviv municipality in this matter?

"The municipality, represented by attorneys Gabriella Priel and Orna Aherak-Preluk, was 100 percent. The municipality took my advice not to compromise by any means."

Why?

"Because the historical truth was clear to me, and any compromise would have led to the creation of a precedent for other Templer land claims."