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Zionist Leader, Children Reunited in Death

Israel finally fulfills Theodor Herzl's last wish. The legacy of his troubled offspring had been an embarrassment to Jewish leaders.

September 21, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — It took more than half a century to fulfill Theodor Herzl's dream of a Jewish state. But it would take Israel even longer to meet Herzl's more intimate last wishes: to have his children buried next to him.

On Wednesday, more than seven decades after their deaths, the bodies of two of Herzl's children were laid to rest here near the grave of the famed Zionist leader, whose public legend left little room for the unhappy saga of his troubled children.

The solemn ceremony for Paulina and Hans Herzl, attended by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top officials, was in many ways an act of atonement by a Jewish establishment that once gave Herzl's children financial support but snubbed them after their deaths in 1930.

"We have come here today to do justice -- Jewish justice, historical justice, Zionist justice and, above all, human justice," said Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which for years let the pair remain in a Jewish graveyard in France.

Theodor Herzl, a journalist who during the 1890s led the movement for a national home for Jews, made it clear in his last testament that he and immediate family members should be buried in Israel once a state was founded.

Herzl died in 1904 in Vienna and was buried there. Soon after Israel's creation in 1948, the young government transferred his body to Jerusalem, where it was buried on a hilltop that now bears his name. Herzl's parents and sister also were buried there.

But Paulina and Hans were not. Both battled depression for years. Paulina was 40, broke and homeless when she died in Bordeaux, France, possibly of a morphine overdose. Overcome with grief over his sister's death, Hans, 39, killed himself the next day. They were buried side by side in a Jewish cemetery in Bordeaux.

The third Herzl child, Trude, died in a Nazi concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia in 1943; her remains were never located. Her only son committed suicide in the United States a few years later, ending Theodor Herzl's bloodline.

Despite Herzl's wishes that his children be buried near him, the bodies of Hans and Pauline remained in Bordeaux, largely ignored by Jewish leaders who saw them as an embarrassment.

Religious authorities in Israel deemed Hans ineligible to be moved here as a Jew because he had converted to Christianity during the 1920s and committed suicide, said Ariel Feldestein, an Israeli historian. Suicide is a violation of Jewish law.

In addition to the religious objections surrounding Hans, he said, Jewish leaders who had crafted a heroic mystique around Theodor Herzl wanted no part of his family's untidy story.

"They wanted to shape a myth about Herzl and they didn't want us to read the truth," said Feldestein, who attended Wednesday's service and was credited by Olmert and others for bringing attention to Herzl's last testament not being fulfilled.

The effort to transfer the Herzls' remains to Israel meant getting Hans officially declared a Jew.

Several weeks ago, Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, ruled that Hans, who had returned to Judaism before his death, was Jewish because he was deemed so by the French rabbi who had approved his burial in Bordeaux.

The transfer was opposed by ultra-Orthodox leaders, who viewed the move as an erosion of Jewish law.

Theodor Herzl might have appreciated the muted pomp of Wednesday's ceremony, during which the wooden caskets, each draped with an Israeli flag, were carried to the graves by cadets from a preparatory academy.

The Hungarian-born Herzl made Zionism an all-consuming project, and he envisioned his children as future members of a Herzl political dynasty in the making.

According to historical accounts, the children lived in privileged isolation, educated by tutors and in the best schools.

Herzl spent the bulk of his personal wealth on the campaign for a Jewish homeland, and his family was left destitute after his death at 44. Friends and allies raised money to support the surviving family members. His wife, Julie, died three years after him.

All three Herzl children battled mental illness.

Paulina and Trude had rocky marriages and checked in and out of mental institutions.

Hans veered among religious beliefs, becoming a Baptist in 1924, then a Catholic, Unitarian and Quaker, according to an Israeli news account in 2000.

The impoverished Hans was living in London when he learned of Paulina's death in Bordeaux. He went to the French city and wrote a suicide note in which he held himself responsible.

"I have lost my beloved sister," he wrote.

He then shot himself.

Seventy-six years later, the siblings took their places a short distance from the squat monument that marks the burial site of their celebrated father. The new graves are side by side, next to those of Herzl's father, mother and sister -- last in a neat row marking a dynasty that would never be.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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