His Path as a Jew Led Him to Jesus

After his literary career was dashed in Germany, Karl Jakob Hirsch – descendant of the founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism – emigrated to the U.S. in 1935, where he found a new faith. After the war, he wrote a memoir declaring that guilt for the Holocaust lay not with the Germans, but with the Jews

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Karl Jakob Hirsch with a pipe in his mouth and a book in his hand
Karl Jakob Hirsch

In August 1945, the Hannover-born Jewish émigré Karl Jakob Hirsch returned to his native Germany in the uniform of the American occupying army. His 10-odd years in American exile had not been kind to Hirsch, whose life in New York was marked by poverty, isolation and chronic illness. With the hopes of turning over a new leaf and leaving the disappointments of his American escapade behind, 53-year-old Hirsch accepted a two-year posting as a military censor in Munich. He returned to occupied Germany harboring the hope of reestablishing the promising literary career he had been forced to abandon in 1933. In the years leading up to his immigration to the United States, Hirsch, who had already made a name for himself as an expressionist artist, stage-designer and journalist, found his true calling as a writer, publishing two best-selling novels that came out under the imprint of the prestigious S. Fischer Verlag publishing house.

Hirsch’s dream seemed to come true one year after his return to Germany, when he published a memoir, entitled “Homecoming to God: Letters to My Son.” Written as a series of 30 letters to his 14-year-old son, Ralph, the work recounted the main junctures in Hirsch’s life, starting with his Orthodox-Jewish upbringing as the great-grandson of the renowned Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and culminating with his 1945 conversion to Christianity, at New York’s Second Presbyterian Church. The book became a success in the Western occupation zones, where it garnered widespread praise from the press and the German reading public. The enthusiastic reception of “Homecoming to God” appeared to be a promising harbinger of the author’s own literary homecoming. Yet when Hirsch died, six years later, in 1952, the memoir was still the only work he had managed to publish in postwar Germany.

The story of Hirsch’s personal salvation begins with an account of his early life at the turn of the 19th century. Karl Jakob and his twin brother Gottfried were born in Hannover in 1892 to Dr. Salomon and Marie Hirsch. The twins were raised in an observant Jewish household, committed to preserving the path laid out by their famous great-grandfather, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the former chief rabbi of Frankfurt and founding father of modern Orthodoxy. Despite growing up in a pious household, young Karl broke with Orthodoxy at a young age, embittered by his experiences at Jewish Sunday school, which he described as a “caricature of religiosity” that “could turn even the most pious boy into an atheist.”

Hirsch found a substitute for his lost faith in art, which he designated as a “path to freedom” from the fetters of religious formalism and bourgeois morality. In the years leading up to World War I, Hirsch trained as an artist in Munich and Paris and at the Worpswede artists’ colony in Lower Saxony. Hirsch moved to Berlin in 1915 to live with his future wife, the physician Auguste Lotz. The following year, he was drafted. Due to his poor health and diminutive stature, he was spared from combat and was posted to the air base in Adlershof, on the outskirts of Berlin. His light clerical duties allowed him to continue his work as an artist.

After the war, Hirsch became an active member in various avant-garde and radical left-wing movements, such as the Council of Intellectual Workers, and the November Group—a collective of Expressionist artists and architects, who included Otto Dix, George Grosz and John Heartfield. He designed political placards for the German Communist Party and the Marxist-revolutionary Spartacus League. After World War II, when Hirsch sought to reestablish himself in West Germany, his prominent left-wing activism would come back to haunt him. The conservative, anti-communist sentiment that pervaded postwar West Germany proved an unsurpassable obstacle for the rehabilitation of Hirsch’s literary career.

A revolutionary placard designed by Hirsch for the Spartacus League in 1920.

A book in the bonfire

Hirsch’s literary breakthrough had occurred in 1931 with the publication of his first novel, “Kaiser Weather.” Set in Hannover during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the plot follows the artistic and moral development of the young protagonist Joe de Vries, as he rebels against the stultifying bourgeois environment of his parental home by becoming an expressionist musician. Hirsch’s antiwar novel depicted imperial Germany in its last decades as a politically corrupt state in the process of moral decline. The work’s critique of the nationalism, militarism and antisemitism that pervaded German society in the years leading up to 1914 also served as a timely commentary on the political developments that took place in the early 1930s.

The following year Hirsch wrote and submitted to his publisher a sequel to the novel called “The Torn Flag,” which was billed for publication in January 1933. However, with the Nazis’ rise to power, Fischer Verlag thought it imprudent to publish the work of a left-leaning Jewish writer, whose previous novel criticized German nationalism, and decided to delay its publication. The manuscript was lost during the war. The Nazis placed “Kaiser Weather” on its list of forbidden books, and on May 10, 1933, copies of the novel were thrown into the infamous bonfire of books in Berlin’s Opernplatz.

In 1935, Hirsch immigrated to the United States, ahead of his second wife, Vera Carus, and son in order to prepare the ground for their arrival. He had originally hoped to find work as a Hollywood scriptwriter through his contacts with other German émigrés, but when his plan fell through, he became a theater and film critic for the Neue Volkszeitung, a social-democratic, New York-based, German-language newspaper. Hirsch could barely make ends meet on his salary, and was forced to find other sources of revenue to support his wife and son. He sought to supplement his meager salary by taking up a job as a day-laborer in a textile factory in Brooklyn and as a doorman at an Upper East Side medical practice.

Hirsch’s financial situation improved significantly in 1942, when he found civilian employment in the wartime Office of Censorship, where he was tasked with reading the correspondence of German prisoners of war. Incidentally, this was also the year that his second marriage fell apart.

In February 1944, Hirsch received a letter from his niece in Jerusalem, sharing the unfortunate news that his brother had died from a lung infection. Gottfried, who had already embraced the Zionist cause in the early 1930s, had immigrated to Palestine after the Nazi seizure of power. Hirsch reports that although his brother arrived as a convinced Zionist, the ideology failed to sustain him during his final years, which were marked by a deep pessimism and an overwhelming sense of solitude. Gottfried’s untimely death at the age of 52 constituted a harsh blow to his twin brother, whose own struggle for survival had taken a heavy toll on his physical health and psychological well-being.

Two months after learning of his brother’s untimely death, an unconscious Hirsch was rushed to a New York hospital in what his doctors diagnosed as a severe lung infection combined with a cardiac episode. During one of his first nights in the hospital, Hirsch experienced a mystical encounter with Saint Bernadette Soubirous – the simple farmer’s daughter, whose vision of the Virgin Mary led to the discovery of a miraculous spring in the city of Lourdes, France. Saint Bernadette was immortalized in the 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette,” based on the novel of the same name by Franz Werfel. After attending the film’s New York premiere, Hirsch was so captivated by the simplicity and piety of Bernadette that he went to see the film night after night. The religious yearning that the film stirred in him resurfaced as he was visited by a vision of Bernadette in his hospital bed. Hirsch’s vision forms a pivotal moment in his budding religious transformation: “I realized that the true God was not the punishing Jehovah, but the forgiving Christ,” he wrote.

Hirsch’s description of the mystical visitation of Saint Bernadette – or more accurately, her cinematic portrayal by actress Jennifer Jones – raised quite a few eyebrows among the memoir’s more skeptical readers. Hirsch’s former colleagues at Aufbau, the German-Jewish weekly published in New York, mocked him mercilessly for attributing his spiritual epiphany to a Hollywood hit. Even Thomas Mann, who praised the book in a private letter to Hirsch, added that the Catholic saint’s centrality to his spiritual transformation seemed inconsistent with the fact that he converted to Protestantism.

Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Newfound faith

Upon his release from the hospital, Hirsch moved to a guesthouse on Riverside Drive whose residents were mostly German Jews. He hesitated to share details of his newfound faith with his neighbors, whom he suspected would not receive the news of his religious illumination with the same enthusiasm as him. In “Homecoming to God,” Hirsch describes his fellow émigrés with an unmerciful eye: “In the guesthouse resided the former doctor, the former lawyer, the once-successful merchant with all his familiar characteristics. They and their wives would never recognize that their banishment was a punishment. They were not personally guilty, but there must have been guilt for which they needed to atone. These émigrés were full of hatred and rage toward their former homeland. They hoped for the decisive annihilation of their enemies, but they possessed no positive element in their being. They could not even fathom the fact that their existence was purely negative.”

When I felt the drops of water on my forehead, I knew that my life had taken on a new meaning. … when Pastor Forell asked me how I felt, I answered, ‘I don’t think I was ever a better Jew than I am today!’

Karl Jakob Hirsch

Hirsch characterizes these neighbors through a series of anti-Jewish stereotypes. Their professions identify them as bourgeois city-dwellers, embodying the threatening qualities of modernity, materialism and urbanity that were commonly coded as “Jewish” in the German cultural imagination. Hirsch merges this anti-modern stereotype of Jewishness with the classical Christian depiction of the Jews as a “hard-necked” people, who stubbornly refuse to recognize either the divinity of Christ or their role in his death. Lacking a common belief, the only thing that unites these secular Jewish refugees is their shared misfortune. As Hirsch’s allusion to their “banishment” and “punishment” makes clear, it is the Jews’ intergenerational responsibility for the crucifixion that renders them collectively and eternally guilty. Their historical suffering, of which the Nazi persecution is only the most recent manifestation, is part of their ongoing expiation for the crimes of their forefathers.

The Jews’ primeval guilt is compounded by their vindictiveness in the present: “I was shocked to realize that there were few who had learned anything from the experience of suffering over the past 12 years other than what is called ‘retribution’… What is needed today is to find a policy that does not seek to avenge, but to make amends.” In this cynical reversal of historical events, Hirsch presents the Germans as the victims of blind Jewish hatred. His religious rhetoric, which juxtaposes Jewish “vengefulness” with Christian “love,” belies a more concrete political and historical issue – specifically, the postwar question of German guilt and the Allied policy toward the defeated Germans.

By contrasting Christian “love” and “forgiveness” to Jewish “hatred” and “vengeance,” Hirsch addresses the controversy surrounding the Germans’ accountability for the Nazi war crimes. The memoir takes aim at the call for retribution and suggests that the Allies’ treatment of the German population was just a continuation of Nazi violence. The analogy between Jewish vengefulness and the Allies’ policy feeds the myth that “the Jews” were the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes in the Western occupation zones.

Alienated from the other Jewish exiles in New York, Hirsch describes how he found fellowship with Pastor Frederick Forell, a German-Jewish convert originally from Breslau. Forell had started visiting Hirsch in the hospital and continued to hold regular conversations with him the latter’s discharge. Forell conducted Hirsch’s baptism at a Presbyterian church on the Upper West Side on Good Friday of 1945. Hirsch later recalls that, “When I felt the drops of water on my forehead, I knew that my life had taken on a new meaning. I had come to the end of a long journey… when Pastor Forell asked me how I felt, I answered, ‘I don’t think I was ever a better Jew than I am today!’”

The memoir’s antisemitism serves as a foil to Hirsch’s own self-fashioning as a born-again Christian and shapes the trajectory of the narrative: the story of a Jew transcending his “Jewishness.” Hirsch justifies his conversion by discrediting the legitimacy of contemporary forms of collective Jewish existence. This point is expressed most emphatically in the memoir’s final letter, where Hirsch writes: “I experienced the necessity of salvation, which every Jew strives for. The Testament of Moses gives only law and not redemption. The Jew carelessly passed over the figure of the Redeemer; indeed, he delivered Christ to death. This accursed path of the Jew from the cross in Golgotha to the gas chamber in Auschwitz must come to an end.”

This passage captures the gist of Hirsch’s memoir, which argued that the guilt for the Holocaust lay not with the Germans, but with the Jews themselves, whose anachronistic existence should have come to an end long ago. This theological justification for the Jews’ annihilation served to assuage German guilt regarding the recently publicized crimes committed against European Jewry. In his account, it was not the Germans who were guilty but the Jews themselves! Punished for its continuous and stubborn survival, this accursed and homeless nation is unredeemable. The Jews’ only salvation rested in their conversion to Christianity.

Hirsch. His rhetoric, juxtaposing Jewish “vengefulness” with Christian “love,” belies a more concrete issue: the postwar question of German guilt and the Allied policy toward the defeated Germans.

Hirsch’s memoir offers a vision of what historian Saul Friedländer calls “redemptive antisemitism,” yet in this case, the desired death of Judaism does not take place through the physical annihilation of the Jews, but through their conversion to Christianity.

The Christian-theological discourse Hirsch employed in order to address the question of German guilt does much to dispel the mystery surrounding the work’s popularity in postwar West Germany. Hirsch’s narrative broached the Jewish fate under National Socialism in a manner that strongly resonated with its German readers. The work’s fuzzy religious rhetoric echoed a broader postwar tendency to depoliticize the question of Germany’s recent past by confronting it through a biblical lens. As Hannah Arendt put it in “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany,” an essay recording her impressions of postwar West Germany, “The average German looks for the causes of the last war not in the acts of the Nazi regime, but in the events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.”

In 1948, Hirsch married Ruth Reinhart-Niemann, a secretary for the American occupation forces whom he had gotten to know during his work as a military censor in Munich. Hirsch held high hopes that his return to Germany would lead to the revival of his literary career. Suffering from a debilitating neurological disorder and too sick to type out his own work, Hirsch dictated his literary manuscripts to his devoted third wife. Over the next four years, each and every one of Hirsch’s manuscripts was turned down. The publishers gave various excuses, laying the blame on the lack of paper or the unpredictability of the book market following the currency reform of 1948.

The truth was that postwar Germany was simply not interested in hearing from its wartime exiles, especially those who were identified with the left. Regarded as a left-wing émigré in a political climate that was growing ever more reactionary, Hirsch struggled to find an outlet that would publish his work. In 1951, one year before his death, he wrote a friend that “I am completely ignored by all publishing houses, radio stations and newspapers, just like in 1933.”

The conditions that contributed to the success of his 1946 memoir were also the cause for his subsequent failure. “Homecoming to God” succeeded because it whitewashed the Holocaust with its religious-metaphysical rhetoric of universal-human guilt and its antisemitic intimations. Hirsch’s work pandered to the prejudices of his German audience, depicting his fellow German Jews as loveless beings, who nurtured feelings of hatred and vengefulness toward their former landsmen. The memoir’s enthusiastic reception can be attributed to the fact that it was a Jewish-authored text that exculpated the Germans for the Holocaust. It accused the Jews and the Allies of vindictiveness and called for reconciliation and forgiveness in the true Christian spirit. Yet after Hirsch pardoned the Germans for genocide, they no longer had much use for him.

Like other left-wing and Jewish émigré-intellectuals who returned after the war to a very cold welcome, Hirsch found himself isolated, “just like in 1933.” His utter disappointment with his marginalization and with the conservative political climate under Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, led him to consider one final move: immigration to the German Democratic Republic. It is unlikely that Hirsch would have found the recognition he was looking for in East Germany, but this fantasy was in any case unfeasible, since by that point he was too sick to leave his apartment, let alone immigrate to another country.

Hirsch died in July 1952, one month after his German citizenship was restored.

Abraham Rubin is a Martin Buber postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The essay is excerpted from a book manuscript looking at autobiographical narratives of 20th-century German-Jewish converts to Christianity.

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