On May 17, 1938, Jakob Ehrlich died at Dachau after being beaten by his Nazi warders. An early convert to Zionism in Austria and a brave spokesman for Jewish rights in an increasingly hostile environment, Ehrlich is believed to be the first prominent Austrian Jewish victim of the Third Reich.
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Jakob Ehrlich was born on September 15, 1877, in Bistritz am Hostein, northern Moravia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, today in the Czech Republic). He became involved in the nascent Zionist movement while still in high school.
Ehrlich attended law school at the University of Vienna, where he was active in the Ivria organization for Jewish-Zionist students. At the request of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, he began canvassing for the organization in towns throughout Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia.
An officer and a Zionist
In 1908, Ehrlich passed the bar exam and began working as an attorney. Four years later, he was one of the first Zionists elected to the leadership of the Kultusgemeinde, the umbrella organization of Austrian Jewry.
In 1913, the 11th Zionist Congress, held that year in Vienna, elected Ehrlich as its vice president, at the request of Chaim Weizmann.
During World War I, Ehrlich served as a captain in the Austrian army, and took a special interest in the welfare of Jews in territories under Austrian occupation. At one point, he was sent to Odessa, where a number of Jews – one of them Shmuel, the son of the Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin – were accused by the Austrians of subversive activity. Ehrlich investigated the circumstances and was able to clear the defendants of the charges, saving them from execution.
Following the war and the establishment of a democratic Austrian republic, in 1919 Ehrlich was elected to the Vienna city council, one of three Zionists chosen. At the time, he was part of a movement that pressed for recognition of Austria’s Jews as a national minority. In his maiden speech before the council, Ehrlich enumerated the abuses and injustices suffered by the city’s Jews.
‘The Jew Ehrlich’ on Vienna’s city council
Austria, however, was well into its descent into Jew-hatred and, although the Anschluss was still nearly two decades away, the desire to unite with Germany already had widespread support.
When the Zionist Congress reconvened in Vienna in 1925, it was greeted with heckling and abuse by gangs of Nazis, and the Zionist youth groups had to organize teams of guards to protect its participants. (Chaim and Vera Weizmann had to be escorted to the conference hall by police escort.)
In 1933, after the Nazis took power in Germany, Ehrlich traveled to Palestine on behalf of his family and a group of friends, to investigate the possibilities of immigration. Although he was slightly put off by the primitive physical conditions, he did arrange for immigration visas for the group. In the end, though, he and his cohorts remained in Vienna.
By 1938, conditions were hostile enough that Ehrlich used his opportunity to speak at the annual city council budget debate to make an appeal for human rights and equality in Vienna, arguing that an attack on Jews was an attack on Austrian democracy itself. His remarks were picked up by news agencies around the world, and also by the Nazi propaganda paper Der Stürmer, which featured a caricature of him on its front page with the headline, “What is the Jew Ehrlich doing in the Vienna German Council?”
The German army was welcomed into Austria on March 12, 1938. Less than a week later, Ehrlich was one of 60 Jews taken into “protective custody,” on suspicion of organizing armed resistance to the new regime. (Vienna’s mayor, Richard Schmitz, was also arrested and kept in detention until 1945.)
A short time later, Ehrlich was transferred from Vienna’s police prison to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. There, after undergoing an especially brutal beating, he died on May 17 at age 60.
A week later, his body was returned to his family in Vienna in a sealed coffin for burial, though no eulogies or obituaries were permitted. His wife, Irma, and their son, Paul, survived the war by taking refuge in the United States.