Theodore Herzl’s heartbreaking family history is marked by psychopathy, severe depression, and suicide, and his wife and all three of his children suffered from varying degrees of mental illness.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the legacy of this great Jewish luminary and visionary is that his lineage has come to an ignominious end and, sadly and ironically, the “Father of modern Zionism” has no remaining progeny.
During his life, the Herzl family enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle, but he spent every penny on his pursuit of the Zionist cause and his death in 1904 left his family impoverished. The Zionist movement raised over $3 million for their support, but its investment in Austro-Hungarian bonds became worthless after World War I and, with limited Zionist support, the family’s financial situation became dire.
Several times Herzl prevented his wife, Julie (nee Nachauer), from slitting her wrists and from inducing the miscarriage of their children and, after several hospitalizations for opium addiction and mental illness, Julie died three years after her husband and was cremated. Their daughter, Pauline, who also suffered from mental illness and drug abuse as well as heart disease, died at age 40 of a heroin overdose, and their son, Hans, killed himself on the very day of his sister’s funeral. Herzl’s youngest daughter, Margarethe (“Trude”), who also suffered from depressive mental illness and spent her life in and out of various sanitoria, was murdered at Theresienstadt and her body was burned by the Nazis.
The three Herzl children were raised in a highly assimilated and dysfunctional Jewish household where their mostly absentee father and mentally disturbed mother loathed each other. They were isolated from other children, raised by governesses and strangers, and educated by private tutors. The great “visionary of the Jewish State” did not bother to provide his children with even the rudiments of Jewish education or a Jewish identity; in fact, he taught them that assimilation, liberalism, and an enlightened education would finally bring an end to antisemitism and Jewish isolation. He poured his life and his fortune into the dream of a Jewish state with his family always taking a backseat to his all-encompassing mission.
Trude (1893-1943), Herzl’s youngest child, had serious mental issues and fought against depression her entire life. After her release from a sanitorium, she married Richard Neumann (1917), a divorced and much older businessman but, two months after the birth and circumcision of their only child Stephan Theodor – his middle name was after his grandfather – Richard institutionalized her.
After receiving a temporary discharge in 1919, Trude demanded a separation agreement but, with Richard having sustained grave financial losses, he was unable to maintain two households and struggled to pay her high sanitorium fees. The couple were forced to resume living together and after Trude, who became even more delusional, was declared legally incompetent, the court appointed a guardian over her and she was in and out of sanitoria for the rest of her life.
Although they were never Zionists and never gave Stephan even the semblance of a Zionist education, Richard turned to the Zionist Organization for financial support for Stephan, but it responded that it would only do so if Richard agreed to have him Jewishly educated in Eretz Yisrael. Richard agreed to send Stephan to Haifa, but only after first sending him to London. Richard even made inquiries regarding employment prospects in Haifa, but Stephan remained in England.
It was only while attending a Jewish boarding school in London that Stephan learned about his grandfather’s great legacy, which led to his becoming the only Zionist descended from Herzl. He anglicized his name to Stephen Norman and, after serving in India and Ceylon during World War II as a captain in the British Royal Artillery, he visited Eretz Yisrael to witness firsthand the flowering of his grandfather’s dream. As he wrote in his diary:
I had long determined to see this Palestine that had grown from the prayers and longing of centuries of dispersed Jews; that had been shown the way to practical realism by Herzl . . . I looked around, and there they were, the children. They were playing, like children play in an English street. But here they romped in a Jewish street . . . These children bore the mark of freedom . . .
In the midday sun we stood at the foot of the Wailing Wall, towering high above our heads in space and in time. Untold numbers of Jews had come here throughout the centuries, had wept, and had received consolation. Into its thousands of crevices the prayers of our people had been inserted. I had never been a religious Jew, but the silent, regal dignity of the Wall stirred me deeply . . .
I still wanted to see most of all a room that means a great deal to Jews the world over, to Palestine’s Jews even more, and that had for me a great personal interest: The room from his house in Vienna where Theodor Herzl worked for Zionism . . . It is difficult for me to describe my feeling as I entered that room and saw, for the first time, all those belongings of which I had heard so much . . .
Stephan wrote that “to go away (from Eretz Yisrael) is to die a little” but his possible aliyah plans were stymied by the British who, knowing very well who he was, denied him an immigration permit. He returned to England, took a position with the British Commonwealth of Nations Institute, and was posted in Washington.
In 1938, Stephan urged his parents to leave Europe for Eretz Yisrael, but it was too late. After the Anschluss, when Hitler occupied Austria, the Nazis ordered that all Jewish hospital patients, which included Trude, be transferred to Jewish hospitals and, soon after, to Theresienstadt (1942), where she was found among a pile of corpses burned in the crematoria. When Stephan received the news in 1946 that his parents had been murdered by the Nazis, he responded by leaping off the Massachusetts Bridge in Washington D.C. His funeral was held at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington and he was buried in the synagogue cemetery.
Herzl named Pauline (1890-1930), his first child, for his older sister who had died young from typhus. She had married Joseph Hift to escape her unstable mother, but the marriage lasted only a year and she spent the rest of her life bouncing from one promiscuous relationship to another and from one sanitorium to another. She became addicted to morphine and, after a long period of homelessness, she died of an overdose, which may well have been a suicide.
Hans Herzl (1891-1930) was only 13 years old when his father died, leaving him with the burden of his late father’s unrealistic expectation that Hans would complete his work and with a disturbed mother unable to care for him. After his mother’s funeral, Hans, then 16, forgot the urn containing his mother’s ashes on the train, spent a few months in a sanatorium to recover from his mother’s loss, and it was essentially all downhill from there.
Like all of Herzl’s children, Hans had only superficially been introduced to Judaism and, at the time of his father’s death, he had almost no Jewish social, cultural, or religious background. Nonetheless, the leadership of the Zionist movement expected him, as Herzl’s only son and heir apparent, to assume the mantle of Zionist leadership, but he proved not up to the task. Even more upsetting to Zionist authorities, he often spoke in anti-Zionist terms. For example, in a 1929 letter, he wrote:
My father was a great man, whom I loved . . . But I’ve come to see that he made a great historical error in his attempt to rebuild the Jewish State . . . My father did not realize the true mission of the Jewish people, which has proven that the living and fertilizing spirit does not need territorial boundaries, and that a people can live and exist even when fortifications and borders have disappeared. I would ask them not to attempt to add to the decadent civilizations but to remember their true identity and work for the cultural reconstruction of their homeland – and this homeland is the entire world.
After Herzl’s death, the trustees appointed by the Zionist Organization to care for the family decided to send Hans to be educated in England, and he lived there under the dedicated care and supervision of his guardian, Zionist leader Joseph Cowen, a politician and journalist who was a great friend to Anglo-Jewry and an early Herzl supporter. Herzl had been adamant about not circumcising his only son, so Hans underwent the rite at age 15. He studied at Cambridge during World War I, but he proved uninterested in formal education and, after dropping out, he sought to enlist with the regular British army, but he was only permitted to serve in the home guard.
Hans became a homeless “wandering Jew” with no family support, no financial security, and no religion within which to find comfort. He claimed that he sought to travel to Eretz Yisrael but was denied admission there by the British authorities. Unlike his sister Trude, who effectively traded on her name and her Zionist connections to save her son’s life, Hans could probably have gained entry had he identified himself to the British Mandatory Government as Herzl’s son – which he refused to do. He ultimately settled in London, where he earned a meager living translating his father’s writings, but the work was intermittent and he struggled financially all his life.
To the disgust of Zionist leadership and the Jewish world, Hans was baptized as a Baptist in 1924. According to Herzl’s biographer Jacob deHaas, Hans turned to Christianity because he was disappointed in the lack of sincere religiosity amongst Zionist leaders. Some authorities credibly suggest that at least part of his motivation for taking such an extreme step was to effectively terminate his identity as “Herzl’s son” and to become his own man.
When Hans became quickly disillusioned with the Baptist faith, he was rebaptized as a Catholic (1925) which, as might be expected, the Church viewed with great delight: the son of the greatest Jewish leader of the day was going to set an example and help lead the way to the mass conversion of Jews. However, he soon became disenchanted with Catholicism as well and left the Church after only a few months. In an April 20, 1926, statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency shortly thereafter, he discounted all faiths:
I belong to no church and discount all creeds. I cannot be a member of a synagogue. It denies the messiahship of Jesus which to me is an indisputable historical fact. I cannot adhere to any Christian church since I do not hold that Jesus was [G-d]. My faith I would therefore call nationalism.
However, in the depths of spiritual and emotional depression, he began to study Bible in his last days and, in a personal letter to Joseph Leftwich, editor of the London Jewish Daily Bulletin, he affirmed that he considered himself “a member of the House of Israel.” He found his way to the Liberal Synagogue in London and asked Claude Montefiore, the founder and president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (and a noted anti-Zionist leader), to accept him as a member of the Union. Toward the end of his life, he wrote:
If a ritual can really calm our spirits and give us the illusion of being in the company of our beloved dead once more I can’t think of anything better than a visit to the Temple; there I can pray for my parents, ask their forgiveness and repent my apostasy before G-d. I am destitute and sick, unhappy and bitter. I have no home. Nobody pays any attention to the words of a convert. I cannot suddenly turn my back on a community which offered me its friendship . . . I have burned all my bridges, my life is ruined… Nobody would regret it if I were to put a bullet through my head . . .
A Jew remains a Jew, no matter how eagerly he may submit himself to the disciplines of his new religion, how humbly he may place the redeeming cross upon his shoulders for the sake of his former coreligionists, to save them from eternal damnation: a Jew remains a Jew . . . I can’t go on living. I have lost all trust in [G-d]. All my life I’ve tried to strive for the truth, and must admit today at the end of the road that there is nothing but disappointment. Tonight I have said Kaddish for my parents – and for myself, the last descendent of the family. There is nobody who will say Kaddish for me, who went out to find peace – and who may find peace soon . . .
At age 39, Hans, lacking family, education, and a career, essentially lived as a dependent of Zionist caretakers. Already well aware of his own failures, unable to find meaning in his life, and living in his father’s broad shadow, Pauline’s death was apparently the last straw: blaming himself for somehow being responsible for her demise, he shot himself in the head on September 15, 1930. He left a suicide note with a final request that he be buried together with Pauline and to eventually join their beloved father, who had been buried in his native Vienna.
Hans was buried with his sister in Bordeaux, France which, according to a September 22, 1930, JTS Bulletin, marked the first time that a convert was knowingly buried in a Jewish cemetery. Deeply embarrassed by Hans, the Zionist establishment quietly buried his casket adjacent to Pauline’s; privately erected his tombstone; and thereafter obscured his life, which was quickly forgotten.
Herzl had specified in his will that his remains and those of his close relatives should be buried in the Jewish state that he fervently believed would exist one day and, before his death, Hans had advised deHaas that he would consent to the removal of his father’s remains to Eretz Yisrael. In 1949, shortly after Israel’s birth, Herzl’s body was disinterred, brought to Jerusalem with great fanfare, and buried in the national cemetery on the mountain named for him.
Jewish Agency officials went to Bordeaux in 1949, but they decided to leave the remains of Pauline and Hans there. They returned in 1956 to erect a sign marking official Agency recognition of the burial site but, again, the remains were not unearthed and moved to Israel. When the issue received renewed attention in 2004 on the centenary of Herzl’s death, many rabbinical leaders vociferously opposed the reburials on two important halachic grounds: first, because Hans had converted and, second, because he had committed suicide. However, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, recognizing that Hans was a Jew who had recanted his conversion and who had suffered from severe mental illness – he had even been treated by both Freud (Herzl’s neighbor in Vienna), who diagnosed him as having a profound Oedipal Complex, and by Carl Jung – found a heter (Jewish legal leniency) to permit the reburial in Israel.
However, in a macabre and ironic development, much as Hans had left his mother’s ashes behind on a train, members of the Chevra Kadisha (religious burial society) in Bordeaux sent to disinter his remains discovered that his coffin was missing. After receiving halachic permission to sieve the earth in the grave, they found two handles and skeletal remains, which were declared to be those of Hans.
A ceremony eulogizing Pauline and Hans attended by many dignitaries was held at the Bordeaux Jewish cemetery. On September 20, 2006, Herzl’s children were reunited with their father at a ceremony at the Mount Herzl Cemetery attended by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, other senior officials, and several of Herzl’s cousins and their descendants. Finally, Stephan’s remains were exhumed and reburied on Mount Herzl in December 2007, and the Norman Memorial Garden nearby was named for him.
Alas, in the final analysis, Herzl proved far better at raising Jewish consciousness than raising Jewish children, and it was easier for him to will into existence a homeland for the Jewish people than to will the continuity of his own family.
Author Correction:In last week’s article, The Jewish Catacombs of Rome, I erroneously identified the writing on exhibit 5 as Greek rather than Latin. I thank Professor Dr. Klaas A.D. Smelik of Ghent University for pointing out my error. – SJS