More than a century ago, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, sat down to write his will. His heart was growing weaker and he feared his end might be near. He stipulated his desire to be buried in the Jewish state — once it was established — alongside his children.
On Wednesday, two coffins draped in Israeli flags containing the remains of Pauline and Hans Herzl were carried into the national cemetery named for their father, and buried in the reddish brown earth of Jerusalem.
“Today, by bringing the bones of Pauline and Hans, we are completing the mission and completing a historic circle,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, speaking just a few feet away from the fresh graves, which were covered in sand and marked by small white plastic signs.
The two died within a day of each other in September 1930 — Pauline after a long period of homelessness and possible addiction to morphine, and Hans by his own hand. Distraught over his sister’s death, he shot himself in the head.
They were buried in a shared grave in Bordeaux, France. Their reburial in Israel ends a bizarre and dark chapter in Zionist history.
The Zionist establishment was not eager to advertise the unhappy end that the children of their visionary leader met, and did not press for their burial in Israel. Meanwhile, the Orthodox religious establishment was opposed to bringing their remains here because Hans had violated Jewish law — first by converting to Christianity and later by committing suicide.
Only after Israeli historian Ariel Feldestein pursued the case for six years, after coming across related documents in a brown envelope marked “Top Secret” at the Central Zionist Archives, did Israeli authorities begin exploring how Herzl’s final wishes might be honored after so many years.
“Why has this not been done before in recent times?” Feldestein asked at a ceremony Tuesday in Bordeaux when the coffins were disinterred. “I think it’s a question of negligence.”
Officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel “came here to Bordeaux in 1949 but decided not to move the coffins. They returned in 1956 and put up a sign marking agency recognition of the coffins, but did not touch them. For both occasions, I cannot tell you why no transfer was made,” he told JTA.
Feldestein managed to convince Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, that Hans appeared to have recanted his conversion and might be considered a Jew. Amar subsequently wrote a ruling that Hans was a Jew, that his suicide was a byproduct of being mentally unstable and that he should be allowed to be buried in Jerusalem.
“We had the opportunity and we did it, to bring human justice to Herzl,” Feldestein said at the ceremony marking their reburial in Jerusalem.
Afterward, talking to reporters, he said times had changed. In 1956, when the state had closed the case on the subject, Israel had “different rabbis and a different generation.”
The Herzl siblings’ remains were brought to Israel as part of a joint initiative of Olmert and Zeev Bielski, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.
Bielski said the mission was an especially moving and essential one, since it made amends for the way the WZO snubbed Herzl’s children — especially Pauline, when she was destitute and desperate for funds.
“This is about bringing historical justice,” Bielski said.
The family had enjoyed a comfortable, bourgeois existence in Vienna and Paris, but by the time he died of heart failure at age 44 in 1904 Herzl had used up his money pursuing the Zionist cause, leaving the family penniless.
The Zionist movement raised money to support the family after Herzl’s death, investing the funds in Austro-Hungarian bonds, at the time the safest currency in central Europe. But once World War I broke out the money was worthless and the family’s financial state became precarious.
After Herzl’s death, his wife, Julie, spent time in a series of sanitariums and died three years later, at age 39. According to the most authoritative book written on the family, “The Labyrinth of Exile,” Julie was cremated, but Hans is said to have left the urn with the ashes somewhere on a train.
All three of the Herzl children suffered from varying degrees of mental illness. Their messy personal lives and hardscrabble existences hardly resembled the royal future Herzl imagined for them.
For the World Zionist Organization that Herzl founded, the children became an embarrassment. WZO offices turned down a request for financial assistance from Pauline. By some accounts, the homeless Paulineine may have died of hunger.
Hans, the son Herzl envisioned would one day serve his people as a prince, lived in London and struggled for years to get by, earning a paltry living translating his father’s writings.
Battling depression and seeking a feeling of connection, he converted to Christianity in 1924, joining the Baptist Church and then hopping among various denominations. He tried being Catholic and then Protestant, Unitarian and Quaker.
Trude, the Herzls’ youngest child and her parents’ favorite, was killed in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. She likely was buried in a mass grave.
Her son, Stephen, the last hope for Herzl’s imagined dynasty, also met with a tragic end. He survived the war in England, where he served as a lieutenant in the British army, visited British Mandate Palestine once in 1945 but refused to settle there, and took a diplomatic posting for the British government in Washington.
Two months after hearing of his mother’s and father’s deaths in Theresienstadt, he committed suicide in November 1946 by jumping off a Washington bridge.
On Tuesday, the bodies of Hans and Pauline were removed from the cemetery in Bordeaux in a ceremony organized by the Jewish Agency’s Paris office. It was hailed by JAFI officials, Israeli government representatives and members of the French Jewish community as a historic moment.
“Our community was proud to watch over the graves of Hans and Pauline,” said Eric Aouizerate, president of the Consistoire of the Gironde-Bordeaux area. “But now the time has come for them to take their place on Mount Herzl.”
Bielski told JTA the idea for the reinterment had come about five months ago from Olmert.
“He said, ‘Let’s bring Herzl’s children to Israel,’ ” so the Jewish Agency “went into action,” he said.
On Wednesday, under the shade of a white tent over the graves of Pauline and Hans Herzl, relatives living in Israel took in the scene of politicians, flowered wreaths and television cameras.
“At last they have come here in a respectful way,” said Rachel Telmon Herzl, 82, whose grandparents were both cousins of Herzl.
JTA correspondent Brett Kline contributed to this story from Bordeaux, France.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.