Patriarch of Zoology

Prof. Heinrich Mendelssohn devoted his life to studying local fauna. Nine years after his death, his legacy is still palpable.

Inspector Yoram Malka of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority recently discovered a rare specimen of the Discoglossus nigriventer, the Hula painted frog, in the Hula reserve. Four specimens of this frog were first caught in 1940 by professors Heinrich Mendelssohn and Heinz Steinitz on the slope of the western Golan mountains near Lake Hula, before it was drained. They called it a new species, and published their findings in the scientific quarterly Copeia (Vol. 4) in 1943.

Some of these preserved specimens, along with two more caught in 1955, have been displayed in the zoological collection of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There is a reason why the gravestone of Mendelssohn, who died on November 19, 2002, bears the inscription: a descendant of the Rama. Mendelssohn was proud to be a scion of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), one of Ashkenazi Jewrys greatest arbiters of religious law. On the other side, his family tree included philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

Hula frog - Eliyahu - 2.2012
Guy Eliyahu

This article is based on an interview with Prof. Mendelssohn in his house in Ramat Hen in 1996. Heinrich Mendelssohn was born in Berlin on October 10, 1910. His father Joseph-Paul was involved in commerce. His mother Lucy Ludmowsky, came from an assimilated home in Katowice, Poland, where they spoke German and a little Polish. Only when Heinrich was 8 years-old did his parents tell him he was Jewish. A rabbi named Ludwig Pinkowitz introduced him to the religion, and taught him and other young Jewish boys in the city.

In the Mendelssohns home, the prayer books were kept on the top shelves of the cabinet. Heinrich inherited his love of animals from his father: He studied medicine at his parents wishes and, for himself, studied zoology at Humboldt University from 1928 to 1933. After the Nazis rise to power, he immigrated to Palestine.

In Berlin, Mendelssohn had studied Hebrew with Alexander Barash, who eventually became his colleague as a Tel Aviv University professor and was an expert on mollusks. When Mendelssohn landed at the Jaffa port in the summer of 1933, Zilpa, Barashs wife, met him and took him to Buki Ben Yogli Street in Tel Aviv. Mendelssohns parents and sister Ruth immigrated in his wake.

Mendelssohn wrote his masters dissertation in zoology on the desert snail, and his doctoral thesis on the birds of Palestine both under Prof. Shimon Bodenheimer, the first Jewish entomologist in Palestine. At the same time he was hired to work with Yehoshua Margolin, director of the Biological-Pedagogical Institute in Tel Aviv, where Mendelssohn helped train science teachers.

After Margolins death in 1947, Mendelssohn was appointed director of the institution, which in 1953 moved to Abu Kabir and was called the University Institute for the Natural Sciences the original name of the Tel Aviv University zoology department.

Researcher and educator, father of nature preservation in Israel these words, engraved on Mendelssohns tombstone, are a concise summary of his lifes work. The proper combination of fieldwork and the study of the disciplines of biology and ecology, is Mendelssohns legacy for all involved in nature preservation.

In the early 1950s, he fought the plan to drain Lake Hula, a project that became the crowning glory of the Zionist enterprise. Despite his German decorum, he showed courage, determination and chutzpah when meeting with Yosef Weitz, head of the forestry department of the Jewish National Fund, and fought to preserve rare natural phenomena such as the common Cyperus papyrus plant and Arvicola terrestris, a water rat which disappeared from Lake Hula).

Weitz told Mendelssohn: Youre insane! You want to throw the Jews into the sea, and leave the animals. In a third meeting between the two, Weitz proposed setting aside 100 or 200 dunams (1 dunam = 1/4 acre), and told Mendelssohn: Make a botanical-zoological park there, and well redeem the Jews.

After additional discussions they decided to preserve 3,000 dunams, an area encompassing 10 percent of the original lake (initially, it was 14 square kilometers and the swamps were somewhere between 30-60 square kilometers in size). Eventually it turned out that Mendelssohn was right. The drained lake precipitated nitrates and the land in the Hula valley became salty.

Mendelssohn was one of the founders of the Society for the Protection of Nature in 1953 together with Azaria Alon, Amotz Zahavi and J.H. Hoofien. Furthermore, in 1964, when the Israel Park and Nature Reserves Authority was created, it was Mendelssohn who was charged with deciding which natural flora and fauna would be protected. A considerable number of authority workers, as well as the faculty of the zoology department at TAU and other academic institutions, are today his students or his students students. People always called him Mendelssohn, including his wife without the title of professor and he introduced himself thus on the phone.

Mendelssohn received the Bialik Prize in 1940, the Weizmann Prize in 1971 and the Israel Prize in 1973, as well as awards from international nature preservation organizations. He was responsible for the codex of the protected wild animals law, which excludes some animal pests. This is a progressive trend in the world: In most countries only protected animals are reserved, per se, while others are allowed to be hunted.

Heinrich Mendelssohn both taught in TAUs zoology department and was dean of its natural sciences department. He was director of what was at the time the largest zoo in the Middle East in terms of the number of animal species (at TAU), and was responsible for starting the universitys zoological collection, which today contains over a million-and-a-half items.

He lectured until he was 90 years-old, and was married to Tamar Pressman (1926-1998), a teacher of histology who later completed her masters degree in zoology and taught at TAU.

I became friends with Mendelssohn although he was an atheist and I am religious. We found common cause in nature preservation and in the fight for farmers rights to live in harmony with nature, including protected animals. I remember that Mendelssohn recited the Kaddish over the grave of his ancestor, the Rama, in Krakow, when he attended a zoological convention there 30 years ago. Dr. Yossi Leshem, an ornithologist from TAU, recited the Kaddish after Mendelssohns death in 2002, throughout the entire year of mourning.

It seems that natures creatures are accompanying the Mendelssohns even after their deaths: Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur last year, when I visited their graves in Ramot Hashavim, inside the letter mem on Tamars gravestone, I saw two bees nests, built from the red loam soil of the Sharon.

(I am grateful to Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov, of Tel Aviv University, for his comments.)

Amos Rubin is an entomologist who worked for the Nature Reserves Authority.