Unveiling the Tragedy of Theodor Herzl's Family

155 years after the birth of Theodor Herzl, director Yael Kipper Zaretzky has just finished an unusual journey searching for the relatives of the 'visionary of the Jewish state.'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Herzl's grave. This competition touches on the public nature of one of the bastions of Zionist Israeliness.
Herzl's grave. This competition touches on the public nature of one of the bastions of Zionist Israeliness.Credit: Emil Salman
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Theodor Herzl died over 110 years ago, and was born in 1860 – but now the director Yael Kipper Zaretzky has just finished an unusual journey searching for the relatives of the “visionary of the Jewish state.” She wanted to find out if the Herzl family dynasty had passed away with the deaths of his nuclear family, all of whom left this world under tragic circumstances before any of them saw the fulfillment of his dream and the founding of Israel.

The series is being shown now in honor of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl Memorial Day, which was established by the Knesset in 2004 and is commemorated on his Hebrew birthday, 10 Iyar, which this year falls on Wednesday.

Herzl has no direct descendants left today. His wife Julie died in 1907, three years after Herzl, after being hospitalized a number of times for mental illness and drug addiction. Their son Hans, who converted to a series of Christian denominations, shot himself in 1930, on the day of his sister Paulina’s funeral. Paulina also suffered from mental illness and drug abuse from a young age, and died at 40 of a heroin overdose.

Herzl’s youngest daughter, Margarethe (Trude), who had little contact with her siblings and also suffered from mental illness, died in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp in 1943. Her son, Stephan Theodor Neumann (who later Anglicized his name during World War II to Stephen Norman) – Herzl’s only grandchild – committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Washington D.C. in 1946, after he learned of his parents’ death during the Holocaust. He was the only Zionist of Herzl’s descendants, and even made a quick visit to Palestine in 1945, a year before he killed himself.

A four-part television series that started this week on Channel 1, “The Herzls,” reveals that various relatives – some closer and some less so – of Herzl live among us in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Givatayim, Ramat Gan, Arad, Matat, Nazareth and Kibbutz Beit Hashita. Others were located in Vienna – living not far from Herzl’s home – Serbia, Croatia and Belgium. Some have hidden their relationship to Herzl from their children.

The work on the series was spread over five years, with breaks. The investigation discovered that the tragedy and drama continued to haunt the family even many years after Herzl’s death. One of the episodes focuses on the tragic figure of Frederika (Pnina) Herzl, a first cousin once removed of Herzl. Frederika was born in 1933 in Vienna to Max Herzl. In 1938, when she was 5, her parents felt it was dangerous for a Jewish girl bearing the name Herzl to live under the Nazi regime and sent her to her mother’s aunt and uncle in Czechoslovakia. In 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Prague, her parents signed a fictitious adoption order so Frederika could immigrate to Israel with her aunt and uncle. Her parents managed to escape the Nazis and survived the Holocaust, and in 1948 they too arrived in Israel – with a court order canceling the adoption. But when they asked to have their daughter back, they were told no.

In early 1948, before the founding of the State of Israel, an ugly and painful legal fight broke out over the girl, which further damaged the reputation of the Herzl family. The family’s legal battle received a great deal of local press coverage: Haaretz reported on February 24, 1948 on the court case, and other newspapers talked about the “tragedy of the Herzl family.”

The adoptive parents said they were worried her biological parents would return to Vienna with her, but the court ordered them to allow her parents to meet with her from time to time. Maariv reported that instead of bringing them closer, these meetings increased the suffering of her biological parents and she was very apathetic toward them, introducing her mother to her friends as her aunt.

In 1949 the Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Frederika would spend the holidays with her biological parents, “but even these meetings turned into a tragedy and the parents could not bear them. The two fell ill from their great sorrow,” reported the paper.

When she turned 18 in 1951, Frederika – who was called Pnina in Haaretz – asked to renew relations with her parents and met them. But even though her parents were very happy, the joy did not last for long and this was the last time they saw each other, reported the newspaper.

Max Herzl died in 1952, “broken and filled with suffering.” A relative said he committed suicide and later Frederika also attempted to kill herself, and was hospitalized under her adoptive parents’ name. After that people lost track of her, but the research for the television series found that she returned to Vienna and worked as a librarian, and was known in the local Jewish community. She died in 2009 – today only a cardboard sign marks her grave – and none of her relatives in Israel knew about her death.

“I read a lot of books written about Herzl,” Kipper Zaretzky told Haaretz. The book that influenced her the most was “Neguhot Min Ha’avar (Illuminations from the Past)” (in Hebrew) published in 1961 by historian Joseph Nedava, who also went on a search for Herzl’s relatives.

“He shows the difficult psychological journey Herzl’s children made,” she said. “Today, when you ask people on the street, they tell you: ‘Yes, they were all crazy.’ But it’s not so simple. In the series I try to show the long-suffering journey they traveled until the end,” said Kipper Zaretzky.

In 1949, Herzl’s remains were brought to Israel from Vienna for reinternment on the Jerusalem hill that bears his name. “Not a mourning parade was the funeral for Herzl’s bones in Jerusalem, but a victory march, victory of the vision that became reality,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion eulogized Herzl. In 2006, 56 years later, two of his children, Paulina and Hans, were reburied near him. A year later, his grandson’s remains were brought to Israel and in 2013 a memorial plaque was erected for Julia Herzl, who was cremated at her request and her ashes were lost over the years.

“The circle has been closed. All of the Herzl family have returned to be together, even if only symbolically,” Prof. Ariel Feldstein told Haaretz at the time. Feldstein was behind bringing Herzl’s children’s remains to Israel, as well as the plaque for Julia.

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