On May 20, 2011, Arieh Handler – one of the founders of religious Zionism in the United Kingdom and a signer of Israel’s Declaration of Independence – died, a week short of his 96th birthday.
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Leon Handler, as he was called at birth, was born in Brno, in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), on May 27, 1915. His family moved to Magdeburg, Germany, where his businessman father had interests in metals and textiles.
There was no Jewish school in Magdeburg, so Leon attended a monastery school, where he studied Latin and Greek. Later, his parents sent him to Frankfurt to study at a yeshiva and at the Lessing Gymnasium.
Handler was active in the Zionist youth movement Brit Halutzim Dati’im (League of Religious Pioneers), in which he assumed a leadership role. Working out of Berlin in the early 1930s, after the Nazis assumed power, he was involved in the movement’s agricultural training program for Jewish youth planning to move to Palestine.
As an official in the youth movement, he had a certain amount of freedom to move around Germany, and even to travel internationally, all of which helped in his work in arranging visas for young people to leave the Reich.
After the Anschluss in 1938, Austrian Jews asked for his help in extricating their children from their country. Though he was not permitted to travel to Austria, he went nonetheless, traveling by rail to Vienna. In the corridor of his train, he passed Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who was to oversee the administration of the Final Solution.
“I froze in terror,” Handler later told a journalist from The Telegraph. Eichmann, he said, “knew me from Berlin and would realize that I had travelled illegally to Vienna. It was the most dangerous moment of my life. I kept walking, expecting any moment a heavy hand on my shoulders and a shout of ‘Jude.’ But nothing happened … For some reason, Eichmann decided he had not seen me.”
At the end of that year, Handler moved to London. There he continued his work under the auspices of the Board of Deputies. He played an important role in organizing the Kindertransport, and he set up the first branch of Bnei Akiva in the country (in Tottenham, London), an organization that at the time educated its members to live on a kibbutz.
He was also life president of Mizrachi – the adult religious Zionist organization – in the U.K. A eulogy in The Jewish Chronicle noted that Handler arrived late to his own wedding, having come straight from a Bnei Akiva conference.
Handler immigrated to prestate Israel in 1946, and he was one of 37 signatories to the Declaration of Independence, issued at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on May 14, 1948. In the mid-1950s, however, the Israeli government asked him to return to England, where he worked in building up Migdal Group, an insurance company then owned by Bank Leumi. He also was involved in the Board of Deputies and Zionist affairs, including the aliyah of Jews from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union.
In 2006, Handler and his wife, the former Henny Prilutzky, returned to Israel, where he died five years later.