"On the day of the German capitulation (in 1945), the entire youth of Bethlehem (in Galilee) marched through the colony, singing Nazi songs while the memorial service for Hitler, held in that colony on VE Day was essentially a rededication by the locals for the lost Führer.”
So wrote the enraged author of a Jewish Agency report to the British Authorities in Palestine in June 1945 about recent events in one of the German Templer colonies. They were the dying whimper of a devout Christian community which had emigrated from Germany almost 80 years before with high ideals but had succumbed instead to the worship of Adolf Hitler during the 1930s.
Several writers such as Alex Carmel and Jerry Klinger have recalled the origins of the Templer community through a split in the Lutheran church in 1859. It was accompanied by a growing belief that salvation could only be found in the Holy Land. A small group scouted out the possibilities in Ottoman Palestine and in 1868 the first group of emigrants left Ludwigsburg in Württemberg for Haifa. This was the same year that Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í faith, found sanctuary from persecution in Haifa and Acre — almost three decades before the First Zionist Congress.
Small Templer colonies were then founded in Jaffa (1869), Sarona (1871) near the future Tel Aviv and Emek Refaim (1873) near Jerusalem, followed by Wilhelmina, Bethlehem, Galilee and Waldheim nearly 40 years later. During its first year, a fifth of Sarona’s founders died of malaria. The colony persevered, developed the Jaffa orange, opened beer gardens and exported fine wine to Germany.
The Templers kept themselves to themselves, married within and maintained strong ties to the Kaiser’s Germany. The colonists attempted to distance themselves from rising Jewish and Arab nationalism but the inhabitants of Sarona watched the expansion of Tel Aviv next door and the Zionist desire to purchase land with apprehension.
Like thousands of German Jews, the Templers supported Kaiser Wilhelm during World War I. Three weeks before General Allenby dismounted to behold the holiness of Jerusalem, Sarona was captured by the British. In 1918, the British and Australians deported the Templers to camps in Helwan near Cairo, but permitted them to return to their homes two years later. Even so, as with Germans in Germany itself there was a deepening bitterness at what had happened and a growing disillusionment with the Weimar Republic. The colonists looked for a messianic figure who would inspire them and restore stability and greatness to Germany.
In January 1932, a young architect, Karl Ruff, who was living in Haifa, applied for Nazi party membership. Others followed. Although there were other German nationals who were not Templers, by 1939 every third German in Palestine had joined the party — and the Templers, in particular, were wildly enthusiastic.
Templer youth celebrated every 30 January Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933 as well as his birthday. They saluted consular officials with passionate “Sieg Heils!” and rendered full-throated versions of the Horst Wessel song. Lectures on the Nuremberg Laws were well attended. Hitler’s portrait adorned many a living room wall as they gathered around the wireless set to hear the latest speeches from the Führer and Goebbels.
Templer youth camped on the Jaffa shore and hiked in the forest near Haifa. Like Zionist youth groups, they posed for official photographs — adorned by Swastika flags instead of Zionist ones on either side of the assembled. In her absorbing book, Nazis in the Holy Land 1933-1948, the German academic Heidemarie Wawrzyn includes a photograph of the Hotel Fast in Jerusalem on the coronation of the Queen’s father, George VI in May 1937. It shows the Union Jack flying side by side with Swastika flags to mark the occasion.
On the eve of war, there were almost 300 Hitler youth in the British Mandate of Palestine.
The older generation of Templers were not amused but remained silent — as they did in the days after Kristallnacht. They felt that Adolf Hitler was displacing Jesus Christ in the affections of young Templers and Christian holidays were being reshaped to fit Nazi imagery.
Even so, there was pride in the return of territory lost during World War I. In 1938, Templers were bussed in to vote in a referendum on the Anschluss on board a German ship anchored in Haifa Bay. They voted overwhelmingly in support of the annexation of Austria.
Jews in Palestine — especially recent immigrants from Germany — responded to this enthusiasm for the Führer by demonstrating outside German Consulates. There was a protest meeting against the Nuremberg Laws in the Edison Theatre in Jerusalem — and in response to book burning in Germany, the burning of Nazi flags on traditional Lag B’Omer bonfires. In 1935, Jews fought a campaign to oppose the demand to subscribe to the Nazi party daily Völkischer Beobachter for the reading room at the Jerusalem YMCA.
Templer antisemitism was subsumed beneath pride in a resurgent Germany. Yet Jews were resented for coming to Palestine and becoming commercial rivals. They were also disliked for their pioneering and atheistic socialism — and all this accentuated the embedded anti-Judaism within their version of Christianity. Templers displayed the Nazi emblem in Arab areas to indicate that although they spoke German, they were not Jews.
The day of reckoning came with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Some Templers had already returned to Germany to serve in the army. With a series of Nazi victories in Europe in 1940, the British transformed the Templer colonies into internment camps, surrounded by high fences while men of military age were imprisoned in Acre.
A further danger was posed by Rommel’s military success in north Africa in 1941 and his advance on Egypt. The expectation was that Palestine would be overrun and the Final Solution enacted there too. In July 1941, the British gave several hundred Templers 72 hours to pack and allowed them to take 40 kg belongings prior to deportation to Australia on board the liner Queen Elizabeth. They were held there for several years at a camp at Tatura, 100 miles north of Melbourne. Some inmates at Camp C in Tatura held a memorial service for Hitler on 6 May 1945.
The British and Germans conducted several prisoner exchanges, which included Cornelius Schwarz, the head of the Nazi party in Palestine. Several Jews imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen were exchanged for Templers in the summer of 1944. Towards the end of the war, the former head of the Hitler youth in Palestine, Kurt Wieland, parachuted into an area near Jericho in Operation Atlas — he and his compatriots were soon arrested. After the war, the remaining Templers were allowed to join their relatives in Australia who had begun to put down roots in their new country.
Delusions of German grandeur entrapped and ultimately ended the Templer experiment in the Holy Land. Their faith did not insulate them from a predatory nationalism which extinguished their original good intentions to build a better world.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Professor Michael Feige of Ben-Gurion University who was murdered in an attack on a Sarona restaurant in July 2016 while waiting for his bill.
Sarona in Tel Aviv has been extensively redeveloped in recent years and its visitors’ centre retells the remarkable story of the Templer presence.
For further information, see https://shimur.org/sites/sarona—hakirya—visitors—center