The Story of the Yemenite Jewish Ambassador to Hitler

A Yemenite Jew named Israel Subaryi supervised the transport of weapons and other supplies from Nazi Germany to Yemen in the 1930's; a well-respected businessman, he was the chief representative of his country's leader, the imam.

In May 1938, the Sturmfels sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Yemen, with seven rifles, 16 pistols, 340 barrels of gunpowder, water canteens, food and other supplies. During the Nazi years, this was one of many ships that brought arms and other goods to Yemen.

The person who supervised this process, thanks to his close connections with Nazi officials, was none other than a Yemenite Jew named Israel Subaryi. A well-respected businessman, he was the chief representative of his country's leader, the imam, in Hitler's Germany, where he resided until war erupted in 1939.

Naomi Herso-Subaryi
Moti Milrod

Subaryi's unique personal archive - which includes lists of cargo shipped to Yemen by the Nazis, correspondence with the imam and numerous other documents - has been donated by his daughter and grandson to Yad Vashem.

Today's Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day marks the "Fragments of Memory" campaign, whose aim is to spur collection of documents and objects held by private individuals since the war. As Yad Vashem sees it, the Subaryi archives exemplifies the importance of such a campaign, which will help shed light on historical events that have been shrouded in mystery.

Subaryi's story is unusual in many respects. He was born in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, in 1894. His daughter, Naomi Subaryi, relates that her father's initial dealings in business involved selling hard-boiled eggs to Turkish soldiers stationed in Yemen. He later opened a clothing store and also Sana's only hotel. In the capital, then a center for researchers, tourists and spies from around the world, Subaryi forged his first ties with businessmen from Europe.

Subaryi had a knack for languages - Arabic, Hebrew, Turkey, Italian, French and German. His store, located close to the imam's palace, attracted the ruler's attention, and he developed connections with the court. Visitors to Yemen in the 1930s reported that he had access to the ruler's inner circle, and was considered a loyal adviser; there were rumors that the Jewish businessman even knew the whereabouts of the imam's hidden treasures. The relationship between the ruler and his colorful Jewish adviser is described in depth in "A Jew in the Imam's Service," written (in Hebrew ) by Prof. Yosef Tobi.

In the mid 1930s, Subaryi's personal business interests dovetailed with those of Germany and Yemen: The imam wanted to strengthen his country's army, writes Toby, while Nazi Germany sought to enhance its position in the Arab world. Subaryi, living in Hamburg, became Yemen's main importer of weapons, a large portion of which came from Germany; this was his primary preoccupation in those years. He also arranged the shipping of various commodities to Yemen that were scarce or nonexistent at the time: Indeed, the Yad Vashem documents show, for instance, that in August 1937, he was involved in sending to Yemen a motorcycle, perfume, boots, candies, a refrigerator, rubber pipes and a beach chair.

During these years Subaryi belonged to a circle of businessmen, many of them Jews, who also lived in Hamburg. Several worked as high-level representatives for German companies, but their status deteriorated as the Nazis came to power. By 1938, the circle dissolved and Subaryi realized that his time in Germany was running out - and that a return to Yemen was not an option: Tobi writes that advisers to the imam convinced him that Subaryi had imported defective weapons.

Subaryi debated immigration to the United States or Eretz Israel, but opted for the latter, reaching its shores in 1939; a few years later he was joined by relatives from Yemen. He tried to continue his career in Mandatory Palestine, and even purchased a hotel on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Gordon Streets in Tel Aviv, but efforts to replicate his successes failed.

"I am sure that had he moved to the U.S., he would have done better; he was a man of the world. Israel didn't suit him," reflects his daughter, Naomi. She describes the Subaryi home in Jerusalem as a unique combination of Yemenite and German culture: It featured heavy furniture, strict educational discipline for the children - and it was secular. Subaryi died in 1967 at the age of 73.