Saturday, May 20, 2006

The German Templars

While we were driving in Tel Aviv, Janet pointed out a construction site where the old German Templar houses are being moved and rennovated. The houses are within a major IDF (Israel Defense Forces) base, and have been used as offices until this historic restoration. They were yellowish stucco with red roofs, and in various states of reconstruction.

Two days later, our guide to the Bet Shearim cemetery in Upper Galilee mentioned that he was doing some research in the archives about the German Templars. Two mentions made me curious, so I googled a bit.

The German Templars were a messianic sect. The founder's name was Christoph Hofmann. His ideas came from 19th century utopian views as well as millenial hopes. He and his followers began to arrive in Palestine in 1868. They built houses in Haifa, in the German Colony in Jerusalem, and also north of Jaffa. The Templars based their neighborhoods on German town plans. The main Tel Aviv community was called Sharona. The Jewish city of Tel Aviv was founded later, not far from their settlement. The Templar neighborhood in Haifa has been preserved, and is a tourist attraction of architectural and historic interest, as of course is the German Colony in Jerusalem.

Because of the interest generated by the restoration of the Templar neighborhood in Tel Aviv, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv recently opened an exhibit about them: "The Templars in the Holy Land: Chronicle of a Utopia." Inspired by the articles and also because we wanted to see the rest of the museum, we headed to Tel Aviv this morning, and really enjoyed the exhibit.

The exhibit had photos, water color paintings by visitors, artifacts, diaries, post cards, a household recipe book, school notebooks, and other material, along with detailed historic documentation. Besides the major settlements founded from 1868 to 1878, the Templars also lived in several other areas, including a town, Bethlehem HaGalit, in the area that we visited yesterday.

In addition to the delopment of housing, the German Templars established farms, businesses, European-quality hotels, and transportation for Christian pilgrims. Each settlement had a community center and educational institutions. They also founded hospitals which served the wider community.

Templar businessmen were active in engineering and architecture, and ran businesses such as carriage construction, house-painting, flour mills, bakeries, and a metalworks that employed 100 workers. Eventually they spoke Hebrew as well as German, though most written material on display was in German.

In World War I, after the British conquered Palestine from the Ottomans, the Templars were viewed as enemy aliens, and deported. They came back after the war. In the 1920s, unfortunately, under Nazi influence, some of the Templars joined in the anti-Jewish riots in which Arabs were trying to prevent Jewish settlement under the Balfour declaration. In World War II, the British again began to expel them both to Germany and elsewhere, such as Australia.

The British expelled the last of the community in 1948, just prior to Israeli independence. Templars received restitution for their lost property as part of the post-holocaust agreement between Israel and Germany. The exhibit documented the Templars' Nazi activity, which came at the end of theie time in Israel.

Here is a quote from a letter to Ha'aretz on this subject:

  • Tel Aviv's Yedioth Iriyat newspaper for the Hebrew month of Tevet 1948 reported that some of the Hebrew-speaking Templars, who returned to Germany during the Nazi period, enlisted not in the Wehrmacht, but in the special assassination squads determined to carry out the Final Solution. And don't forget: Adolf Eichmann was a guest in Sharona in the 1930s. At the opening of the exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum, the German ambassador sorrowfully acknowledged that 30 percent of the Templars were Nazis. (letter to Ha'aretz Yossi Renart, responding to a review of the Tel Aviv exhibit, published May 12, 2006; unfortunately I was not able to locate the review itself which appeared in April.)

1 comment:

Janet S.S. Nussbaum said...

Mae, I have a friend who did his PdD on the Templers. Theirs is a much more complex story and they had many more communities in Israel than those you've already mentioned. B'nei Atarot, near the airport, was a Templer community, for example.

I've never heard of the Nazi connection you mention, but I know that the British treated them very shabbily giving the families just hours to pack up what they could carry and leave the homes they'd built and lived in for dozens of years.

Today there are still Templers in German plus a community in Australia. My friend (the PdD) has contact with the Australian group who visit here regularly.