Photos Give a Rare Look Into the Nazis of Mandatory Palestine

Photographer Heinrich Nus worked with Arab orphans and married an Arab woman, putting his Nazi credentials in doubt.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The new shopping, food and entertainment complex of Sarona, built on the remains of the fourth settlement established by the German Templers in 1871, is on the verge of opening. A collection of recently discovered pictures sheds light on the German community that lived in the country then, and on the local branch of the Nazi party that operated here in the 1930s.

The portfolio of photographs by Heinrich Nus is available on the Israel Revealed to the Eye website, which is dedicated to private photos depicting the development and history of the state.

German citizens living in Mandatory Palestine were qualified to vote in the sham referendum over the unification of Germany and Austria in 1938, but the British Mandatory authorities forbade their participation. The solution the Germans found was to transport their citizens in a convoy of buses to the port in Haifa, where they boarded an American ship, the Milwaukee, sailed out of the territorial waters of Mandatory Palestine and voted there.

Voting in favor of the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich (the Anschluss) were 1,173 people - including the 53 Austrian citizens who also voted - and only six voted against. One vote was invalidated. Estimates are that there were no more than 2,000 German citizens in Israel at the time.

One of Nus’ pictures depicts the buses of Germans on their way to Haifa and in another we see the voters on the ship, underneath a sign in German reading “One people, one Reich and one leader (Fuhrer).”

The vote at sea was the peak of the Nazi Party’s activities in Palestine and, in retrospect, it was the swansong of the German presence in the region. They were expelled by the British when World War II broke out in September 1939.

The initial impression from the photos is that Nus, a German citizen who worked in the Schneller family’s orphanage in Jerusalem, was an ardent Nazi. He often appears alongside swastikas in the photos and appears to be participating in a Nazi rally or march in photos taken during a vacation he spent in Germany. However, closure examination - including of his diaries, which are in the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, which also sponsors the website - shows a more complex picture.

Nus was an exception among the members of the local Nazi party branch. Most of them came from the local Templer community, which made up the largest group of Germans in the Holy Land. The Templers were a German millennial religious movement which sprang up in the mid-1800s and was eventually expelled from the mainstream church. Nus, however, was a member of the missionary movement, the second largest group of Germans in the Holy Land and, by and large, not followers of the Nazis.

Nus arrived in Israel as an expert in framing and managed the blacksmith workshop in the Schneller school. In fact, his work in education with Arab orphans does not in itself fit in with Nazi racial ideology. But his diary makes it even clearer. He married a woman named Ottilie Thuma, the daughter of a Protestant Arab from Jerusalem, who was one of the longest serving employees of the orphanage, where she ran the laundry. It is not clear whether the pictures of a baby in Nus’ collection are of their son, but, in marrying Ottilie, Nus was clearly not following Nazi racial laws.

Nazism in Palestine was different from that in Germany, said Prof. Yossi Ben Artzi, a historian from Haifa University who has studied the Templers. Despite the impression of local Nazi support from the Anschluss vote and the pictures, “we must take care in our definition of a party member. In principle, only a very few accepted the Nazi ideology,” said Ben Artzi. While there were camps for the Hitler Jugend, marches and flags in Israel, the Templers have been portrayed as bigger Nazis than they really were, he said.

Deported from Israel along with the rest of the Germans, Nus most likely went to Australia. His pictures and diaries remained at the orphanage. The British Army took over the Schneller compound in 1939, but did not touch Nus’ portfolio. Only when the IDF took over the camp from the British in 1948, was it found. The portfolio landed up with Yitzhak Ben Zvi, president of Israel from 1952 to 1963 and a well-known researcher of Jewish communities. The materials were only recently catalogued, scanned and made available on the Internet, among the thousands of photos in the Israel Revealed to the Eye project.

Heinrich Nus (on the right) together with participants of a Palestine-wide professional competition in Jerusalem.Credit: The Schneller collection, the Ben Zvi Institute

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