Letter, Abraham Fraenkel, 1946
This is a response written by Abraham Fraenkel, the renowned Jewish mathematician, to the dean of the Christian Albrecht University of Kiel in Germany. In his letter, he outlined the reasons why he would not accept an offer to teach in Germany after the war.
Having referred to an unpleasant past experience with the university as one reason for declining the invitation, Fraenkel then wrote in the final paragraph:
“I think it would be even from a purely objective point of view, an impossible idea for any Jew to live again in a country whose population – to a large extent actively and for the rest almost entirely passively – has been responsible for the extermination of more than five millions of Jews, the third part of my People, under conditions of cruelty not experienced for thousands of years. It would be intolerable to live among such a nation.”
Fraenkel signed his name and added:
“P.S. Appreciating your courtesy in attaching an English translation to your German letter. I attach this English translation of my reply written in our language, Hebrew.”
Abraham Fraenkel (1891-1965) was a famous mathematician, born and educated in Germany. He was an ardent Zionist and moved to Israel in 1929, where he accepted a position at the newly-founded Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He later won the Israel Prize for his contributions to axiomatic set theory.
This letter, written less than a year after the end of the war, provides us with insight into the mind-set of many Jews after the Holocaust. Abraham Fraenkel was one of the highest profile Jewish academics in the world at the time, and his stance, as a German Jew who had served his country during the First World War I and begun his academic career in Kiel, was significant.
The dispute over how to deal with the nascent state of West Germany became very fierce in 1952 when the State of Israel debated whether to sign a reparations agreement. Ben-Gurion, the then prime minister of Israel, argued that the agreement was necessary:
“So that the murderers do not become the heirs as well.”
The debate took place on 7 January 1952, and around 15,000 people rallied outside in opposition to any agreement with Germany. The agreement was eventually ratified, although the aftermath saw the Knesset debate disturbed for the first time in history and violent rallies followed the vote.
Adolf Abraham Halevi Fraenkel, MacTutor History of Mathematics archive
“Why I Cannot Forgive Germany,” A. Epstein, The Forward
Menachem Begin protesting the agreement, The National Photograph Collection
This is an ideal resource for History lessons dealing with the post-war Israeli reaction to Germany and the subsequent decision to sign a reparations agreement with West Germany.
Jewish Studies teachers could use this letter to discuss the Jewish concept of forgiveness, and whether we are empowered to forgive people for crimes committed against others.
What is the message of the letter?
Who was the letter addressing?
When was the letter written?
Who wrote the letter?
Reading Between the Lines
What were the circumstances behind this letter?
Why did Professor Fraenkel decline the invitation to teach in a German university?
The letter was written in both English and Hebrew.
Why do you think that Abraham Fraenkel wrote in these languages and not in his native German?
Do you agree with sentiments expressed in the letter? Explain your answer.
Do you know any Holocaust survivors or have you read about experiences of people who lived in Europe at the time?
How did they feel about returning to Germany and about normal relations between Germany and the Jewish people?
Recreate the Knesset debate from 1952 discussing the reparation settlement.
Which side of the debate would you have been on?
What arguments would you use?