Yad Vashem and Israeli Ministry of Interior have contradicting definitions for the question who is a Jew

The case of the granddaughter of Walter Hirschberg

Garden of the Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel

Margarita Kishnav (a pseudonym) arrived in Israel in 2016, to connect with her Jewish heritage and officially commemorate the memory of her Jewish grandfather, Hans-Walter Hirschberg, a German citizen who was a member of the resistance during World War II. He undermined the Nazi regime and courageously helped save many Jews. Margarita approached our law firm in order to assist her in the process of contacting Yad Vashem in order to perpetuate his memory and to arrange her status in Israel vis-a-vis the Ministry of the Interior as the granddaughter of Righteous Among the Nations.

Walter Hirschberg – his life and work

Walter was born as a Jew, but lived most of his life as a faithful Christian. Today we might refer to him as a Messianic Jew, but at the time his preferred term for his denomination was probably a Christian or Evangelical Jew. In those days, many young German Jews chose to convert, either due to honest belief or a desire to advance in an anti-Semitic society. When the Nazis came to power, many Jewish families chose to save their children by delivering them to Christian friends for hiding. Some of these children discovered their Jewish roots as adults, long after WWII was over, and made Aliyah to Israel.

Mr. Hirschberg succeeded to advance in German society – reaching a senior position in the Berlin municipal attorney’s office – but he never forgot his connection to Judaism. He used his connections at the prosecutor’s office to save Jews who would certainly have been sent to the extermination camps without his aid. He helped Jews to fake passports, alter documents, and even cross the border into neutral countries in Europe. Walter did not limit his actions solely to saving Jews – he was part of an international resistance movement that operated against both the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. His political views and his moral outlook convinced him that action must be taken to both save the innocents and strike against the murderous criminals.

Mr. Hirschberg was captured by the Nazi regime because of his past support for leftist politics and his resistance activities, rather than his Jewish heritage. He was sent to the Theresienstadt extermination camp in 1944. The testimonies of the survivors present him as a man who did not lose his courage, composure, and sense of empathy even in the darkest hour. He led the Lutheran Church in the camp, providing spiritual support as well as physical assistance to his fellow inmates. He himself survived World War II, described his experience in the camps in his memoirs, and actively participated in bringing the Nazi criminals to justice for their crimes.

Legal status in Israel for descendants of Righteous Among the Nations

Grandchildren of Righteous Among the Nations have the legal right to receive temporary residency status in Israel on the basis of a permit from Yad Vashem. Margarita wanted to perpetuate the memory of her grandfather as a Righteous Among the Nations as a matter of principle, regardless of practical implications.

Our law office contacted Yad Vashem with documents and testimonies about Walter Hirschberg’s impressive story, showing conclusive evidence that Walter was a member of the resistance, a rescuer of Jews, and a victim of Nazi oppression. Testimonies collected by officers of the Red Army, who had liberated the camp, as well as evidence submitted by fellow survivors who owed him their lives, proved the veracity of the story without question.

However, all these documents were dismissed as irrelevant by the Holocaust Martyrs ‘and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Jews – even Jews who converted to Christianity and are no longer considered Jews by the State of Israel – cannot be Righteous Among the Nations. The title “Righteous Among the Nations” is reserved only for gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Meanwhile Margarita’s request for Aliyah was responded by Ministry of Interior officials, stating that according to the Law of Return and Supreme Court rulings in Israel, the descendants of a Jew who converted to Christianity are not entitled to make Aliyah.

The result was utterly absurd. On the one hand, Margarita is not entitled to immigrate to Israel because she is considered by the Ministry of Interior to be a granddaughter of a Christian. On the other hand, Yad Vashem does not recognize him as a Righteous Among the Nations because he is considered to be a Jew. We would be happy to appeal this decision, but Margarita was so disappointed she decided to leave Israel.

Immigration to Israel should be open for Jews of all creeds and denominations

The Nazi attempt to annihilate the entire Jewish people did not discriminate between Jews. The Nazis sought to eliminate Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, Orthodox and Reform Jews, atheist and Christian Jews. The State of Israel and Yad Vashem include among the 6 million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust those who would not have been allowed to immigrate to Israel and become citizens by the Ministry of Interior these days.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the question “who is a Jew”, may be reminded of “Brother Daniel”. Shmuel Rufeisen was also born as a Jew, was given to a Christian family at a tender age, and grew up to become a Catholic priest who risked his life to save Jews during World War II. In the well-known High Court of Justice case, from 1962, it was decided by a majority verdict that he had no right to make Aliyah to Israel.

Eventually, Brother Daniel received the right to live in Israel as a permanent resident, rather than the right to immigrate to Israel and acquire citizenship under the Law of Return. It is possible that Margarita would have been given some status had we taken the case to court. But that would change things for an individual appellant, rather than cause a reconsideration of the absurd and infuriatingly Kafkaesque standards as a whole. There is no doubt that the State of Israel is required to do a sincere soul-searching regarding the way it decides to define and limit Judaism, even for heroes from previous generations.