Coming Full Circle

Before Hitler's rise, Jews played a dominant role in Germany's legal profession. A new project pays tribute to them and their work, and aims to preserve their stories.

At one of his many talks around the world, Ramat Gan attorney Joel Levi was asked how many Jewish lawyers there are in Germany today. Levi, whose work keeps him in constant touch with the German Bar Association, said he didn't know. Moreover, as far as he was concerned, it wasn't important. "These days, the German Bar Association doesn't care whether you are Jewish, Christian or profess no religion," he said.

Last month, as part of events marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Israel Bar Association, a special ceremony was held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Side by side sat the heads of the bar associations of Germany, Austria and Holland, along with members of the families of Jewish lawyers who lost their jobs and were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. For Levi, who organized the event as part of a project to commemorate Jewish lawyers persecuted by the Nazis, it was like coming full circle.

Nazi germany and the Jews
German Federal Archives

In 1933, on the eve of Hitler's rise to power, roughly 4,000 Jews practiced law in Germany, where they made up 20 percent of the members of the profession. They held senior positions in the courts, the justice ministry and bar association. Starting in 1933, the Nazis began stripping them of their titles and positions, bolstered by a wave of racist laws. The lawyers were also persecuted, beaten, arrested and humiliated.

One of them was Michael Siegel of Munich. On March 10, 1933, Siegel went to a police station to file a complaint about the arrest of a Jewish client who had been incarcerated in the Dachau concentration camp the day before. Instead of taking note of Siegel's complaint, the police beat him viciously, cut his trousers from the knees down and paraded him through the streets carrying a large poster that read: "I will never again complain to the police."

The event was documented by a photographer, who publicized the picture abroad and turned Siegel, without his knowledge, into a symbol of the persecution of Germany's Jews. In 1940, he immigrated to Peru. Many others were unable to bear the humiliation: Dozens of Jewish lawyers in Germany committed suicide - 30 in Berlin alone.

In major cities, Jewish judges and lawyers were dragged from courtrooms in the midst of proceedings and thrown into the streets, sometimes into garbage carts. A young lawyer who was clerking at the time in a Berlin court wrote the following about what he had witnessed: "All went smoothly. The judges removed their robes and left the building politely, without complaining, as S.A. [stormtroopers] lined the stairs. The only melee occurred in the lawyers' room. One Jewish lawyer 'made problems' and was beaten."

In 1938, Jews were banned from practicing law altogether. The reactions of the German judiciary to the persecution of their colleagues ranged from indifference to active participation in ousting them from the profession. Few cases are known of German lawyers coming to the aid of Jews.

In neighboring Austria, the percentage of Jewish lawyers was extremely high: On the eve of the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 (the Anschluss ), no fewer than two-thirds of its lawyers were Jews. By that October, many had already been booted out of the bar association. Month after month, the names of hundreds of Jews were erased from the association's rosters of practicing attorneys. About 300 of the country's 1,900 Jewish lawyers were murdered in concentration and death camps. The fate of 400 others is unknown.

Robert Kann, a Jewish lawyer from Vienna, escaped to the United States in July 1938. With respect to his disappointment with the Austrian judicial system, he wrote the following: "Everyone who was witness to a hundred years of a life of culture plunging into the depths in one fell swoop of a brutal interrogation will no longer want to learn about laws and the judicial system, no matter under what system of law."

The Nazis invaded Holland in May 1940. A year later, the justice ministry prohibited Jews from representing non-Jewish clients. One-hundred-and-six Jewish lawyers from Holland perished in the camps.

One-hundred-and-thirty of Germany's Jewish lawyers immigrated to Palestine, where they played a critical role in the establishment of the state. The best known of them are Pinhas Rosen, the first minister of justice; ministers Peretz Naftali and Giora Yoseftal; Supreme Court Justices Haim Cohn, Alfred Vitkon and Yoel Sussman; and the first state comptroller, Siegfried Moses.

Another prominent member of that group was Dr. David Arian, who served as deputy to Israel's first civil service commissioner. His daughters, Shulamit Druckman and Yehudit Sela, met with the head of the German Bar Association in Berlin, Irene Schmidt, who was in Israel to take part in the Yad Vashem ceremony. They told her their father's extraordinary story.

Arian, who was born in 1903, studied law, economics and public administration at several German universities. Between 1928 and 1932, he held a senior public position in the Berlin district's administration. In this capacity, he had dealings with several leaders of the Nazi Party.

One day in 1932, a man who had been arrested shortly before on the street was brought before him. The man had opened fire with a pistol at a group of people. His name was Joseph Goebbels - later minister of propaganda in the Hitler government and one of the senior figures in the Nazi regime. Goebbels claimed he had shot in self-defense. Arian decided to release him, since nobody was hurt.

Goebbels later referred to the incident in an article he wrote in a Nazi newspaper. "It is a good thing that there is a good German by the name of Arian in the government," he wrote, referring to the similarity between his surname and the term "Aryan." The irony of the situation was presumably lost on Goebbels.

Arian was arrested in 1933 but was able to make use of his connections in Berlin. He asked to meet with a senior commander in the Gestapo whom he knew personally.

"He told me that he felt he had nothing to lose," his daughter Shulamit recounted a few weeks ago. "He was released following the meeting and left Germany the same day." Arian subsequently held a series of senior positions in the Israeli civil service. He, too, came full circle when he wrote the "Goebbels" entry in the Encyclopedia Hebraica. He died in 1991.

Giora Lotan, founder of the National Insurance Institute in Israel, was also a jurist in Germany. He was born in Berlin in 1902, under the name of Georg Lubinsky. After studying law in Frankfurt, he served as a judge in the juvenile and labor court in Germany. At the same time, he was active in the Zionist movement. In the mid-1920s, David Ben-Gurion visited Germany and later wrote in his diary that the best thing that happened to him was his meeting with Lubinsky. "It is only a pity that he will complete his doctorate in Frankfurt instead of working in the Halutz [Pioneer] movement," he added. After Lubinsky was banned from practicing his profession, he became more active in the Jewish community.

As part of his duties, Lubinsky was in contact with Adolf Eichmann, head of the Jewish department in the Gestapo. Lotan's son, Yehoyakim, recently recalled what his parents had told him: "One day in 1938, Eichmann came to my father and told him he could stay in Germany and no harm would befall him. My mother refused to believe it. She had a gut feeling. She told my father that if they didn't leave now, it would be too late." The family left for Palestine that year.

Former MK Naomi Blumenthal is the descendant of a family of lawyers from Germany. Her grandfather, attorney Simon Grunbaum, represented large German commercial corporations from his law office in Berlin. Her father, attorney Hans Grunbaum, had an office on the famous shopping street, Ku'damm.

In 1934, after he was prohibited from practicing law, her father immigrated to Palestine with his brother, Ernst.

"They prepared for a pioneering life back in Berlin," Blumenthal recalled. "They bought a hoe, a shovel, a hammer and screws to prepare for their life in a country without water and electricity." Her mother remained in Germany at first. "He told her that Israel was not for her, because she was used to parties and the good life, but in the end he felt lonely and she came."

Blumenthal's grandfather visited his sons in Palestine twice, in 1936 and in 1939, but went back to Germany. He believed the Nazis would not harm Jews of his age and status. But in September 1942, he was deported to Theresienstadt and died there a few weeks later. Blumenthal's aunt, Aliza Grunbaum, recalled this week that shortly before he was sent to Theresienstadt, he received a check from a German company he had represented. After the war, Blumenthal's father returned to Germany and worked there for 15 years.

The recent ceremony was the highlight of a commemorative project in which Levi has been engaged for the past few years. The project includes a touring exhibition, "Lawyers Without Rights," which for the first time tells the history of Jewish lawyers in the Holocaust and has been shown in dozens of countries. The project also includes a series of publications which document the history of these lawyers while living in Germany, Holland and Austria during the Holocaust.

"The commemorative project is alive and ongoing, and it imprints the memory in our consciousness," said Schmidt, who is currently coordinating the next stage of the endeavor, which will trace the stories of the Jewish lawyers who survived the Holocaust.

"We want to know how the Germans treated them after the war," she noted. "Did they try to renew their ties with their colleagues from the past, who were persecuted by the Nazis? Did they offer them work again? Did they assist them?"

Among those Jewish lawyers whose licenses were revoked by the Nazis, the case of Helmut Klemperer is particularly noteworthy. Born in 1900, Klemperer became a lawyer in 1925 and worked in a law firm in Kemnitz. On May 4, 1933, he received a letter from the justice ministry of the State of Saxony, informing him that his license to practice law had been revoked.

Courageously, he responded with a letter of his own: "It is true that I am not of Aryan descent, but I am as proud of my Jewish origins as Jesus Christ and Karl Marx, the advocates of the wretched and the downtrodden ... I do not object to my expulsion from the ranks of the lawyers. I am in good company ... True, until now it was an honor for me to be a German lawyer, but now it seems that honor lies in not being a German lawyer ...

"Germany has ceased to be a state of law, and no German judge or attorney has the courage to stand in the breach and express aloud what the majority thinks in its heart ... Accordingly, I am happy at the divorce you have forced on me ... The weeping is not for my fate but for my country, which has erased itself from the list of civilized nations. Please expel us from the profession. We shall not stop fighting for justice. That is our mission, just as German-ness is our culture and Jewishness our origin."

A week later, the Gestapo was on his trail, but Klemperer managed to escape and reach Ecuador. After the war, his German citizenship and license to practice law were restored.