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Airstop in Israel

By Stephan Theodore Norman

What Herzl's grandson found when he visited Palestine in 1945.


Theodor Herzl’s untimely death in 1904 at the age of 44, and that of his wife Julia three years later, left the couple’s children-Pauline, Hans, and Trude-orphaned in their early teens. This was merely the first of many tragedies to befall Herzl’s children: Pauline died in a Bordeaux sanatorium in 1930 at the age of forty, and Hans took his own life a few days later, in grief at having failed to prevent his sister’s death. They both died childless; only Trude, who married Jewish industrialist Richard Neumann in 1917, continued the family line through the birth of an only son, Stephan Theodore, in 1918.

As the Nazis began gaining power in Austria in 1933, the Neumanns enlisted the aid of the Zionist Organization to send their son to England for schooling. After the annexation of Austria by the Germans in 1938, Stephan began to study his grandfather’s writings on Zionism. A short time later, he wrote to his parents and suggested they emigrate to Palestine, where he hoped the three of them might live together. His parents were unable to leave Austria, however, and with the outbreak of World War II, Neumann obtained British citizenship, changed his family name to Norman, and joined the Royal Artillery Regiment to fight Hitler and the Nazis.

In 1945, at the war’s conclusion, Norman stopped in Palestine on his way home from India, making him the only descendant of Herzl to do so. The trip left him deeply moved, and impelled him to visit Palestine for a second time that same year.

The following year, the British Foreign Service posted him to Washington. Two months after his arrival, Norman learned that both his parents had perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Grief-stricken, he jumped to his death on November 25, 1946 from the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge.

Norman wrote the following essay after his first visit to Palestine, and it is published here for the first time. Its publication comes at a time when there is a renewed initiative in Israel to inter the remains of Herzl’s descendants, who are buried in France and the United States, in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery.

This essay is reproduced from the Central Zionist Archives, file no. H3425.


The Dakota, caught in an air pocket, bumped, leveled, and bumped once more. The tarmac of the landing strip rushed towards us, appeared below our windows, straightened out. Braking gently, the plane came to a stop, turned, and taxied rapidly to dispersal. A last revving of engines and silence, but only momentarily; the door of the plane was opened, and a red-haired, sandy-faced flight lieutenant appeared, grinned, and said: “Welcome to Palestine. This is Lydda.” Another moment and I stood, inhaling fresh air, on the soil of Palestine.

I had reached the halfway post on my journey to England. After two and a half years in the Far East, I was to have twenty-eight days of home leave before continuing my tour of overseas service.

As soon as the news of my leave had come through, I knew I would be going by air: Knew, too, that Palestine lay en route. I was not aware of the length of my stay there, which might be a ninety-minute fuelstop or a two- or three-day “acclimatization halt.” How I hoped it would be the latter.

Long-distance flying is a monotonous business. Usually there is little to see. Your time is spent reading, dozing, and sleeping. In spite of large meals at all airstops, your waking moments are passed in the continuous nibbling and chewing of stale biscuits and sticky, hard-boiled sweets.

But now, on the last hop from Habbaniya in Iraq, I could not sleep; nor could I read, or nibble. Flying parallel to the pipeline, I watched the sepia-colored desert below for hour after hour, and time suddenly seemed to stand still.

My ever-mounting excitement at the prospect of seeing Palestine had been a matter of days: My desire to visit it was of many years’ standing. I cannot say that my upbringing had been markedly Jewish or Orthodox. Nor was the idea of Zionism, in spite of my family connection with it, ever at any time rammed down my throat, either at home or subsequently at school and university. But I had found and read my grandfather’s writings, which make, I think, fascinating reading to anyone even remotely interested in Judaism, and which were, of course, of considerable interest to me.

I had long determined to see this Palestine that had grown from the prayers and longing of centuries of dispersed Jews; that had been shown the way to practical realism by Herzl; and that had, especially in the last thirty years, become socially and economically real.

It had been my intention to visit Palestine after the completion of my studies in 1939, but the war that had been threatening for so long came at last, and once again my visit was postponed indefinitely. Now, chance had presented me with an opportunity. I determined to make the most of my few hours in the land of Israel. I believed in the idea and the aims of Zionism, and in the moral, ethical, economic, and social need for it that had been made even more urgent and important by world events and the tremendous problems created by the new scientific anti-Semitism of the last decades. I desired to see with my own eyes a little of what had been created in Palestine, of what the feeling was in the country, and what its potential may be. I knew I could not do that in a few hours, but one must begin sometime. Later I would have the chance to pay a more extensive visit.

Of one thing I was determined: I would not let my emotions get the better of me. It was easy for that to happen when you approve of an idea in advance, and the Jews are an emotional people. I wanted to see with my own eyes, and to remember what I saw.

 

 

My first view of Palestine was from the air. I had flown for several hours above the unrelieved barrenness of Arabia. Small signs of cultivation had become apparent as my plane neared the valley of the Jordan. After flying over the twisting, curving river, these signs increased. But the general bleakness continued. Jerusalem lay about thirty miles to the south, among rocky hills. As we began to descend, the sea and the coastal plain came into view, and then the great city of Tel Aviv. Now there were many villages and orderly settlements and carefully planted citrus groves. Trees, too, appeared, and I could see that all of them were young. 

The large aerodrome of Lydda stretched below us, fringed with plantations. We had landed in Palestine—for a two-day halt!

I hitched a lift into Tel Aviv as soon as I was free. Driving along good, even roads, we soon reached the outskirts of the city and saw the first Hebrew street sign. Notices warned drivers to proceed slowly and beware of children. I looked around, and there they were, the children. They were playing, like children play in an English street. But here they romped in a Jewish street. I thought of their little brothers and sisters who had not been allowed to play in German streets, and it was good to see these free Jewish children. I had been told, You will be amazed at Jewish youth in Palestine: They are fair and sturdy and handsome. Therefore, I might have known what to expect, yet when I saw them, it was somehow new. These children bore the mark of freedom. It was quite unmistakable: In their bearing, in their eyes. I did not know who they were; workers’ children, no doubt, for this was a workers’ district, not a residential quarter. They might have been born in Palestine—sabras, cactuses, as they are called—or they might be recent arrivals. Whoever they were, they had the look of freedom. I thought of the dark, sallow, unhappy Jewish children of Europe. I had seen pictures of their faces; their youthful frames had borne the features of old men and women, and now I saw these little ones who look like children again.

I walked into the city. In this Jewish metropolis, everyone and everything would be Jewish: The bus conductors and the milkmen and the town councilors; the laundresses; the shopgirls; the lady doctors. All this is common knowledge. Yet to see it was, once again, new.

The buildings were upright and simple and modern; the streets were of an incredible cleanliness. To one coming from the dirt and squalor of India, it seemed almost unbelievable. For after all, this was still the East. I had seen modern houses and streets in Bombay and other cities, but they always bore signs of the dirt and refuse that continue on in a sewerless country, even after it had been given sewers. The streets of Tel Aviv were clean.

I walked on Allenby Street and saw the shops of all the big capitals of the world in their prewar splendor. The wartime flavor was, alas, present too. It was in their prices.



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