Branching Out

Though the Zionist leader has no direct descendants, hundreds of distant relatives have fulfilled Herzl’s dream.

If you live in the Tel Aviv area and own a car, there is a chance you have met Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl. Not the late founder of modern Zionism, who is perhaps better known by his German name, Theodor, but the attendant at a neighborhood gas station, who is one of the hundreds of people living all over Israel who share a family tree with the visionary of Zionism.

“He’s a simple guy, and he really doesn’t like talking about the fact that he’s related to Herzl,” according to Binyamin Ze’ev’s first cousin Chaim Herzl. “I’m not sure he likes to boast about his name, but his father was so proud [of the family connection] that he called his only son Binyamin Ze’ev,” Chaim says, adding that Binyamin never attends family reunions.

Theodor Herzl does not have any living direct descendents, his three children and one grandchild were killed either by their own hands or in the Holocaust.

But there are several hundreds of other relatives in Israel. A virtual family tree on herzlfamily.org lists countless kinsmen of the Zionist leader, from Minka Herzl, who was born in 1746 − more than 100 years before Theodor − to his fourth cousin Hadasa Herzl, who died in 2005 in Elkana at the age of 93.

And the Web site does not even list all of Herzl’s relatives − missing, for example, is Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, a fourth cousin, once removed from Theodor via Neeman’s father.

The Herzl connection works on two levels for most relatives. “On the one hand, his life and his heritage is something to be proud of − he achieved a great deal. On the other hand, we have to live our own lives and not his,” says Ronit Herzl-Fainzack, of Tel Aviv, whose grandfather Victor was an uncle of Herzl’s father.

While the 54-year-old kept her maiden name when she married − in order not to “lose a part of my identity” − she feels no one in the extended family gives great importance to the family tree. “Even when they meet for family reunions they don’t talk about it a lot,” she says.

Chaim Herzl, who was born in Budapest in 1937 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 10, has a memory about being a Herzl which dates back to the early years of the state, when his family attended a ceremony during which the Zionist founder’s remains were buried in Jerusalem in 1949. “We sat on an honorary seat, three rows behind [David] Ben-Gurion,” he recalls.

Liora Herzl, a former Israeli ambassador to Norway and Iceland, says questions about her last name come up sporadically. “Most people don’t even know that there are living relatives,” she says.

Currently working at the National Defense College, Liora Herzl said she is “absolutely proud” of her name. “I think it is to be admired how he had a vision and carried it out by building the right organizations − and tools, like the Zionist movement,” the 56-year-old says.

Liora, whose family comes from Zemun, near Belgrade, is not the Herzl clan’s only ambassador. Tova Herzl, a distant cousin whose parents were Hungarian Haredim, served in South Africa and the Baltic states and is now retired.

“I was very often surprised by people asking me if I was related to Theodor Herzl,” she told Haaretz. “People who you wouldn’t expect to know about him ask,” such as journalists and other non-academics in Africa, where she served as a non-resident ambassador to several countries, she explains. “That really surprised me but it also told me people were very interested in the national revival of the Jewish people.”

During her time as a diplomat, the Foreign Ministry expected its emissaries to hebraicize their names. “But nobody expected me to do so,” she notes.

Like most of pre-war Hungarian Jewry, Tova Herzl says her parents were not particularly keen on secular Zionism. Today, she says she considers herself a national religious Jew and a “classical Zionist” in the sense that she believes the Jews need to have a state in their ancient homeland.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of Theodor Herzl’s kinsmen in today’s Israel are observant, despite his secular lifestyle.

“That’s not curious at all,” said Tova Herzl, who six generations back shared a common ancestor with the Zionist leader. “We branched off some 200 years ago. In that span of time people go different ways.”

Indeed, most of his relatives alive in Israel today belong to either the national religious or even the ultra-Orthodox camp, according to Rabbi Yossi Sarid, 71, of Mevasseret Zion.

Sarid, whose maternal grandmother Shayna knew her fourth cousin Theodor personally, says some of Herzl’s relatives “cringe a bit” when you remind them of their relation to the Zionist visionary. Some are anti-Zionists and others could be called non-Zionist, but most [descendant] families are Zionist,” he asserts.

Sarid, who says he has rejected numerous invitations to Herzl-related events all over the world because of his pledge to never leave Israel, notes the ultra-Orthodox branch has not rejected the name.

“When Rabbi Yeshayahu Herzl was elected the rabbi of Upper Nazareth, someone said: ‘We wanted a Zionist rabbi,’” Sarid told Haaretz. “So he responded: ‘I’m called Herzl, why do you need to look for a Zionist rabbi?’”

A born Herzl, Miriam Hasenfratz, 79, paid a heavy price for her Zionist beliefs. In the late 1950s the Romanian government imprisoned her for supposedly “Zionist activities,” because she was active in the Zionist youth movement. Her sister Rachel Talmon worked at the time at the Israeli embassy in Bucharest and both she and Miriam were accused of espionage.

“That was a sad story, I was a prisoner of Zion,” recalled Hasenfratz, whose father’s grandfather Yishai was the brother of Herzl’s grandmother.

Hasenfratz, who now lives in Kiryat Ono, was sentenced to 10 years for her “subversiveness” against the authorities, according to her son Chaim Haran, who was three at the time. However, after exactly two years and six days, she was released.

As the story goes, Golda Meir, who was then foreign minister, intervened after she heard relatives of Herzl were being held in a Romanian prison and somehow arranged for the two sisters to be released and sent to Israel.

“Before World War II, the Herzls were a well-respected family,” Hasenfratz recalled. “But it wasn’t something special that we belonged to Herzl’s family. In the 1960s, when we were all in Israel already, my father was unemployed, after having had a good job for 20 years in Romania. He went to all kinds of agencies to ask for work. They said to him jokingly, someone has to be alive to help you. Herzl wasn’t alive anymore.”

The state did honor the family members later on, inviting them to various Herzl-related events. “In our hearts we were Zionists, but we didn’t make any special requests or anything like that,” Hasenfratz said, explaining they never made a big deal about the fact that Theodor’s grandfather signed her grandfather’s birth certificate and that her grandfather was also invited to Theodor’s wedding. “It was really more a connection in our hearts.”

On the other hand, Hasenfratz’s son Chaim − who changed his named to Haran, which in Hebrew shares its first two letters with Herzl − wears his lineage on his sleeve.

“I talk about Herzl on a daily basis, whenever I can promote Israel,” the Romanian-born business management consultant told Haaretz, adding that he and his children constantly try to bring as many Jews here as possible.

But invoking Herzl’s name can also trigger disparaging remarks, with some pretending to know Herzl only as the name of a street. “People sometimes laugh and say, oh well, it’s only a 100 shekel bill, referring to his picture on the bill,” Haran said.

“Others sometimes say: ‘Fine, but next time you speak to your relative, ask him why didn’t he bring us to a better place.’”