The Curious Friendship Between S. Y. Agnon and a Future Nazi Criminal

A photo from the National Library sheds lights on the friendship between the late Nobel laureate and a German couple, who were swept up by Jerusalem's charms, converted to Islam and then returned to Nazi Germany.

Gil Weissblei
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Agnon, 1931, as photographed by his friend Clauss.
Agnon, 1931, as photographed by his friend Dr. Ludwig Clauss.Credit: National Library of Israel
Gil Weissblei

The era of the Weimar Republic gave rise to many fascinating encounters between Jews and Germans, which just a few years later would seem to have taken place in some imaginary universe. One of the more curious and lesser known of such meetings took place here in the Land of Israel. The key to uncovering details of this encounter lies in a hitherto unknown photographic portrait of Shmuel Yosef Agnon that was found in his papers, which are kept by the archives department of the National Library in Jerusalem.

Naturally, the library’s extensive collection of photographs of the 1966 Nobel Prize laureate holds mainly images from his later years. However, although Agnon (1888-1970) liked to pose for the camera and was aware of the importance of photography, not many portraits of him from his early years in pre-state Israel have survived.

Recently, as part of a project that involves cataloging Agnon’s photograph collection, prior to its digitization, an original gelatin-silver print portrait of Agnon – previously unknown – was discovered. It was a pleasant surprise to find the photo, taken in 1930 and of superb technical quality, tucked among a group of other images from that period, most of which have previously been made public. But who was the photographer, and what was the nature of his or her relationship with Agnon?

The first hint can be found in some penciled-in words on the back of the photo, in the handwriting of the late Emuna Yaron, Agnon’s daughter: “A picture taken by Clauss.” Clauss is also referred to as the photographer in a similar portrait of Agnon that appeared in “My Dear Estherlein,” a published collection of correspondence between the author and his wife Esther.

Additional details about these two portraits may be found in a letter Esther Agnon sent her husband from Bat Galim, the seaside neighborhood of Haifa, on May 28, 1930. Agnon was at the time in Leipzig, supervising the printing of his collected works in Hebrew. “The children were so excited, and jumped all over me with joy,” she wrote. “I brought them the letters you wrote to them, as well as something much more impressive: three magnificent enlargements that Dr. Clauss made from your photographs. It is astonishing to see how nice and attractive they are. No other photographs have ever meant so much to me. The children were laughing from sheer joy.”

This letter provides us, then, with more specific information about when these portraits were taken – May 1930. But who is “Dr. Clauss”? In a comment by Emuna Yaron to one of the letters from Esther to her husband, we receive a few somewhat surprising details about this individual: “ Dr. Clauss, a German who spent a few years in Palestine. He was a philosopher, a student of [Edmund] Husserl, and here he worked as an anthropologist and photographer. He’s taken a lot of photos of Agnon. Clauss came here to study the life of the Arab, and here he and his lady friend converted to Islam.”

To add to the mystery shrouding this odd story, Yaron concluded her remarks with the following words: “According to what Prof. [Gershom] Scholem told me, there was much talk about him in Jerusalem social circles at the time: Many people thought him to be a spy.” And yet, amazingly, Yaron did not mention the most interesting fact about Clauss, which is evidently the factor behind all the gossip about him in “Jerusalem social circles.”

German sociologist Peter Weingart attempted to decipher the life of this enigmatic man in a comprehensive biography, “Doppel-Leben” (Double Life), published in 1995.

From this work, and numerous other articles that have been written, we are presented with the figure of Dr. Ludwig Ferdinand Clauss, born on February 8, 1892, in Offenburg, Germany. During World War I, he was drafted as a naval cadet into the German navy but was soon released, for reasons of “unsuitability.” As a child, according to the sources, Clauss, a non-Jew, had shown particular interest in the origins of the Aryan race. Clauss believed that Aryans were the master race, and his own connection to the Nordic race sparked a great deal of curiosity in him.

Ludwig Clauss in the guise of an Arab.Credit: National Library of Israel

The philosopher Edmund Husserl was, in Clauss’ view, more than a teacher; he was a soul mate. The years Clauss spent at the University of Freiburg and his close connection to the esteemed philosopher had constituted one of the most significant chapters in his life. And after Clauss’ wife left him for one of his friends, shortly after they were married, it was Husserl who introduced him to one of his young students, Margarete Lande.

At first, the relationship between Clauss and Lande – the daughter of Jews who had converted to Christianity – centered on their mutual interest in anthropology and the study of the Aryan race. In the late 1920s, they decided to set out on an anthropological expedition to, of all possible destinations, the Middle East. On their arrival in Jerusalem in 1927, following short stays in Egypt and Palestine’s other neighbors, they were charmed by the wealth of the human landscape that was revealed to them. Their plan was to begin their research among the Arabs of Palestine, and then to move on to Amman and the Bedouin tribes of the desert.

Presumably, it was Esther Agnon who helped Margarete Lande with her Arabic studies when the latter arrived in the country. Agnon’s wife first took up Arabic when she was a young member of Blau Weiss, the Zionist youth movement that had a chapter in her hometown, Königsburg, then in Germany. Later, following her immigration to Israel, she continued her studies at the Hebrew University, under Prof. Yosef Horowitz.

Dr. Clauss requested that Lande’s Arabic studies be accelerated as much as possible, in the hope that she would be able to open to him the shuttered gates of the harems and tents of the Muslim women whose way of life he sought to study.

At the same time, he was forging close friendships with Jewish intellectuals in Jerusalem, among them Shmuel Yosef Agnon, already a noted author, who apparently aroused his curiosity. Dr. Clauss’ partner, whom the Agnons called “Mrs. Lande Clauss,” found in Esther Agnon a trusted friend whom she could rely on not only for help in learning Arabic; their friendship also provided a cover for the clandestine excursions she made to the Bedouin tents.

The improvised kindergarten that Margarete Lande operated in Jerusalem for a short while was also part of the “cover story” constructed around her mysterious stay in the country. Lande’s ephemeral interest in the Zionist idea may have been due to Esther Agnon’s influence, but it was soon doused by her fellow traveler Clauss, whose enthusiasm swept her into the inner recesses of Muslim society.

Toward the end of their stay in the country, Lande and Clauss decided that they had no choice but to take on themselves the Muslim faith, in order to gain the absolute trust of the Arabs. News of their conversion stunned Esther and Shmuel Agnon, who in their naveté did not understand the true objective of their visit to Palestine.

In a letter that Agnon sent his wife Esther on March 27, 1930, even before receiving the portrait photos taken by Dr. Clauss, he responded with uncharacteristic harshness to the news of Lande’s conversion to Islam: “Mrs. Clauss deserves the Arabs and the Arabs deserve Mrs. Clauss. I hope she doesn’t spawn any blood-spilling Arabs. Anyone whom I cannot stand, even the Blessed Be He cannot stand, so therefore He swept her away, into the camp of the Arabians.”

Esther Agnon, however, had a hard time cutting off all contact with Margarete Lande, and refused to turn her back on her, despite what one might surmise from reading the harsh words of Agnon, who was still suffering the psychological wounds of the 1929 Arab riots, in which Jews around the country were murdered in cold blood. In a letter dated June 1930, Agnon explicitly told his wife, “As regards Clauss and his mistress. It seems to me it would be improper to speak with them. They have moved over to our enemies. Even though they say that they are doing it for the purpose of their work, I would nevertheless be afraid to speak with them Who knows what sort of trouble they would cause us, heaven forbid.”

In April 1931, Clauss and Lande, feeling they had completed their research in Palestine, returned to Germany. A short time later, Clauss joined the National Socialist Party. When, in 1933, he published “Als Beduine unter Beduinen” (“As a Bedouin Among the Bedouin”), the name of his partner to his Middle East research expedition was absent, apparently due to her Jewish origins. The book, which described Clauss’ anthropological research among the Muslims, was one of an extensive series of scientific publications that he authored over the ensuing years.

Clauss had found employment on his return as a lecturer at the University of Berlin, and by the time Adolf Hitler rose to power, he was one of the foremost theoreticians of race theory, and the director of the Institute for the Study of the Aryan Race. In a letter he sent to Hitler in December 1937, Clauss requested a pay raise by virtue of the immense benefit that his academic research had brought to the Third Reich, in particular the formulation of the racial laws, which included extensive citations from his writings. His theory on “the psychology of race” gained him numerous students and admirers, and his books were best sellers. At the same time, however, other scientists who were working in the service of the Reich expressed cautious criticism of his work, such as the aim of basing race theory on biological findings, as opposed to “Race Soul,” Ludwig Clauss’ theory of race psychology.

At the height of his success, Clauss remarried, to a well-connected scion of the Prussian aristocracy. But relations with his second wife, Mechthild von Wuchnow, also ran aground quickly. Bitter arguments broke out between the two, in part concerning his continued relationship with his trusted research assistant Margarete Lande. The professional and intimate relationship between the two had secretly continued over the years. Lande’s Jewish origins were known to Clauss’ new wife, who told one of his academic adversaries of her husband’s illicit relationship, in so doing putting an end to their marriage.

Prof. Walter Gross, a passionate anti-Semite who headed the Nazi Party’s Office for Racial Policy, immediately moved to put Clauss on trial for his connections with a non-Aryan. At the hearing, Clauss justified his actions by citing Margarete Lande as an example of a member of the Jewish race whom he kept in laboratory conditions for the purpose of scientific experiment and examination. Although the complaint did serve to tarnish Clauss’ standing, his explanation was accepted, and no practical steps were taken against him. His wife continued to send malicious letters of defamation to various members of the party leadership, in the aim of discrediting him.

From that point on, the noose steadily tightened around Clauss’ neck. Starting in 1941, Margarete Lande was arrested and interrogated several times, but Clauss – through his many admirers in the SS and the party leadership – managed to have her released, all the while obfuscating anything that might be construed as an intimate relationship with her, which became the object of greater suspicion.

In December 1942, Clauss was unexpectedly called to the Brown House, the national headquarters of the National Socialist Party in Munich, where he was summarily put on trial for maintaining intimate relations with a Jew. Right before his incredulous eyes, he was officially thrown out of the National Socialist Party, his party card torn to pieces.

Still, Clauss’ connections enabled him to secure a high-ranking position in the German army as a “race scientist and researcher,” thanks to a warm recommendation from Heinrich Himmler. Before being dispatched to the East as an officer in one of Himmler’s SS units, Clauss made sure to build a subterranean bomb shelter for his Jewish beloved in a forest near his home.

In the ensuing years, Clauss took part in cruel experiments on human beings, primarily in the Balkan region, as part of the SS unit devoted to “anthropological studies.”

When the war ended and he was taken prisoner by the Americans, Clauss succeeded in making contact with Margarete Lande, who had survived the war thanks to his efforts. Although she knew nothing of the crimes he had committed in the ranks of the SS, she provided testimony that helped win his release, and by February 1948 Clauss was a free civilian once again. He established the “Archive for the Study of the Psychology of Peoples,” a sort of anthropology institute in Munich, at which he continued his research outside of the denazified academic world, which had shut its gates to him due to his problematic past.

Clauss continued to live in West Germany until his death, in January 1974. But shortly before her death in 1979, Margarete Lande filed an official request to Yad Vashem, asking the institution to recognize Ludwig Ferdinand Clauss as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Surprisingly, her request was accepted (although the honor was later withdrawn).

Clauss’ interest in Jews and the Land of Israel did not ebb, even after the war. In February 1953, he sent Martin Buber, then living in Jerusalem, an enthusiastic letter of congratulations on his 75th birthday. Adopting an ingratiating tone, full of overblown flowery phrases, he wrote to the Jewish philosopher he so greatly admired (but had never met), saying that he, Clauss, well remembered the year that he resided in Jerusalem, and in particular the group of Jewish friends who had assisted him in his research. The list enumerated by Clauss mentioned first and foremost the names of the Middle East Studies professor Yosef Yoel Rivlin and the author Shmuel Yosef Agnon and his wife Esther.

Dr. Gil Weissblei is curator of the Photograph Collection of the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem.

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