Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement Comes Full Circle With Relaunch in Germany

Movement makes initial attempts to organize among young Jewish people in Germany in 1928.

Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi

In addition to the slaughter of German Jews themselves, the Holocaust destroyed Jewish and Zionist institutions that existed in Germany before the war. Now one organization, Hashomer Hatzair, the youth organization linked to the kibbutz movement, is coming full circle and reopening in Germany.

As recounted in a history of Hashomer Hatzair in Germany, written by Yehuda Reinhartz, the movement made its initial attempts to organize among young Jewish people in Germany in 1928. The plan was initially not to operate as a separate organization but to work within Jewish youth organizations that existed in Germany at the time. The first member of Hashomer Hatzair to take on the task of organizing the movement in Germany was Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, who later rose to become the head the Histadrut labor federation in Israel.

Hashomer Hatzair members on a pre-state train bound for Palestine: would they be targeted as left-wing undesirables by today's Israel?Credit: Hashomer Hatzair archives, Givat Haviva

The official founding conference of the movement in Germany took place in August of 1931, attended by 100 delegates ranging in age from 11 to 21, including 76 with voting rights in the organization.

When Hitler rose to power in January 1933, Hashomer Hatzair had 460 members, including 250 in Berlin.

"The Gestapo [Nazi secret police] would come to our programs," recalled Yoav Burstein, who grew up in Germany and is now 88 and a member of Kibbutz Ma'abarot, "to see if we were teaching things that were not allowed. Bible and Jewish studies were allowed actually, but Karl Marx [the ideological father of Communism] was totally banned, for example."

There were young people who stood guard outside the youth group meetings, whose job was to warn that the Gestapo was coming, Burstein recounted, adding that restrictions on the youth movement increased over time, but the children got used to them.

Izhar Ben-Nahum, who has researched the history of Hashomer Hatzair, also noted that the Nazis' limitations on the movement included approval of written materials by the Nazi censor. "Songs in Hebrew, for example, had to be translated into German so that approval could be sought to sing them," he explained.

It was actually after Hitler's rise to power that Hashomer Hatzair saw major growth in Germany, Ben-Nahum. "The Jews who had been part of German society became ostracized from it, so a separate Jewish organizational life flourished. At the same time, the regime allowed this activity, until Kristallnacht of course," he said, referring to the night of attacks against synagogues and Jewish shops and homes in Germany in 1938.

Burstein said the Nazis actually encouraged the youth movement and emigration to Palestine.

He recalled how vibrant the movement was in Germany, and how much he wanted to join a kibbutz in the Land of Israel. "My entire youth was centered around Hashomer Hatzair activity," he said.

The morning after Kristallnacht, the parents of Burstein, who was a boy of 15 at the time, asked him if he wanted to emigrate to Palestine. "I didn't hesitate for a moment," he said, and a month later he was already here.

Omer Hakim, who currently coordinates Hashomer Hatzair's operations in Europe, said in the postwar years the movement maintained ties to Germany through the Falcon movement, an international socialist youth organization. Furthermore, he added, Hashomer Hatzair reestablished itself in Austria in 1949.

The Jewish community in Germany has grown in recent decades due to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. A number of Israelis have also moved to Berlin recently.

"The Israeli Embassy in the city estimates the number of Israelis in the city at about 10,000," Hakim said. "Most are young people without children or with small children, but those children will grow up."

For his part, Ben-Nahum said Hashomer Hatzair should bring them back from Germany. "If you ask me," he said, "there don't have to be Jews in Germany."