Freier, Recha (1892–1984)

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Freier, Recha (1892–1984)

German-born Israeli Zionist leader, teacher, and writer who, as the founder of Youth Aliyah, rescued thousands of young Jews from Nazi Germany. Born Recha Schweitzer in Norden, Ostfriesland, Germany, in 1892; died in Jerusalem in 1984; married Moritz Freier; children: Shalhevet Freier; Amud Freier; Zerem Freier; Maayan Freier.

Married to Rabbi Moritz Freier (1889–1969) and the mother of four children, Recha Freier was living a busy and contented life in Berlin in the early 1930s. But for Jews like the Freier family, there were darkening clouds on the German horizon. The impact of the world economic depression devastated all sectors of German life, and many Jews who had once been prosperous were now struggling or out of work. For Jewish youth, prospects of finding jobs were dim. In the streets of Berlin and other German cities and towns, hatefilled Nazi brownshirts attacked at will those political and racial foes they deemed to be "un-German." What could one woman do to respond to this bleak situation? As it turned out, a great deal. Throughout Recha Freier's long life, people unacquainted with her passionate determination greatly underestimated her willpower and many talents. A lover of music and poetry and a gifted poet herself, Freier gave every impression of being a rather sheltered member of Berlin's cultivated German-Jewish bourgeoisie. She dressed in an oldfashioned way, wearing long white dresses and wide-brimmed hats (she continued to dress in this distinctive fashion in her 80s in Israel).

The opportunity to leap from her sheltered life into the turmoil of a society in the throes of political and moral upheaval presented itself in February 1932, when 16-year-old Nathan Höxter, acting as the leader of five friends in one of Berlin's Zionist youth groups, appealed to Freier to help them find work. She had long nursed the hope that, instead of passively remaining in a Europe increasingly threatened by Nazi racism, young Jews could take the lead in an exodus to the Zionist homeland of Eretz Israel (at that time the British-controlled Mandated Territory of Palestine). After a meeting with Enzo Sereni, the representative in Germany of one of Palestine's leading kibbutz movements, boosted her confidence, she told Höxter that young Jews had no future in Germany; their true home was Eretz Israel.

But turning ideas into reality entails much time and effort, as well as a great deal of luck. Freier met with skepticism if not downright hostility when she brought her idea of creating an organization that would enable young Jews to immigrate to the Palestine's kibbutzim, where they would submit themselves to a regimen of Zionist-inspired agricultural training (hachsharah). It was a common belief among many German Jews that they were a community that was too assimilated, too urban, and simply too "soft" to ever thrive in a harsh land like Palestine. On a visit to Dr. Georg Landauer, director of the Palestine division of Berlin's Zionist organization, she chanced to read a circular intended to be mailed to the organization's branches in which they were warned to beware of her "reckless" plan of aliyah (emigration to Palestine) for German-Jewish youth. Incensed by what she had just read, Freier slipped the entire printing of the circular into her handbag, then triumphantly dumped them into a garbage pail on her way home.

Refusing to be discouraged, Recha Freier worked countless hours intent to organize a mass movement of youth to Palestine. The odds against her were enormous, not the least of which was the passive attitude that characterized the assimilated, complacent majority of Germany's Jewish community. Feeling themselves to be patriotic citizens who had sacrificed more than 12,000 of their sons in World War I, many German Jews refused to believe that their beloved Fatherland would ever turn on them. Many Jewish parents were extremely skeptical of a plan to send their young sons and daughters, aged 14 to 17, to a far-off desert territory, cut off from parental authority and prey to countless dangers and temptations. Even before the scheme received its official name, Jugendaliyah (Youth Aliyah), the first tiny vanguard of thousands to come—Nathan Höxter and his group of five—arrived in Jaffa, Palestine, on December 2, 1932.

On January 30, 1933, the day that Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, Freier announced the official establishment of the Society for Youth Aliyah. Despite the rapid establishment of a Nazi dictatorship based on terror and propaganda, Freier and her husband decided not to flee Germany. Instead, she traveled to Palestine in May 1933 in an attempt to win over for her plans the most powerful woman in the Zionist movement, American-born Henrietta Szold . Despite her passionate pleas on behalf of the Youth Aliyah concept in the face of the now poisonously anti-Semitic German environment, Szold remained unconvinced of the viability of the idea. She told her visitor from Germany that the fragile Palestinian economy could not possibly absorb urban, middle-class youth without skills when impoverished refugees from Eastern Europe were already to be found sleeping on the beaches of Tel Aviv. The most encouraging response Freier got from Szold was her endorsement of preliminary agricultural training of young Zionists in Germany, who would then at least bring useful skills along when they finally arrived in Eretz Israel at some undetermined date in the future. Although Szold remained largely hostile to the practical possibilities of Freier's work, she was by no means indifferent to the potential power that would accrue by being linked to an organization that might one day achieve success; thus she became director of a still largely theoretical Youth Aliyah organization in Palestine on November 27, 1933.

Disappointed but by no means stopped by Szold's skepticism, Freier returned to Germany in July 1933 to build a strong alliance with an older, stronger organization, Jüdische Jugendhilfe (Jewish Youth Assistance). Her efforts to convince Jewish youths (and their parents) of the desirability of settling in Palestine brought about concrete results: on February 19, 1934, the first organized group of young emigrants from Germany arrived in Haifa harbor on board the S.S. Martha Washington.

A victory of sorts was achieved for Freier at the World Zionist Congress held in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1935 when Szold publicly acknowledged her as leader of the Youth Aliyah movement. But Szold also saw to it that Freier would have neither power nor influence within the Palestine branch of the organization. Undeterred, Freier continued to concentrate on what really mattered to her—the rescue of Jewish youth from the increasingly hostile environment of Nazi Germany. Working without rest, she was able to raise the funds to instruct hundreds of youth in training courses lasting from four-to-six weeks so as to prepare them for aliyah to Eretz Israel.

The number of emigrants who were able to gain entrance to Palestine during the first two years of the Youth Aliyah program was relatively modest: 363 in 1934, increasing to 550 in 1935. In the second half of the 1930s, however, these numbers would jump dramatically. By the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, 5,012 had been able to immigrate to Palestine; during the war, 1939–45, an additional 9,342 lives were saved by Youth Aliyah. From 1945 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, an additional 15,999 youth left Europe for Palestine. Having been responsible for the emigration to Palestine of a total of 30,353 from 1934 to 1948, by any criterion Youth Aliyah must be recognized as the most successful rescue project of young Jews during the entire Holocaust period. The Youth Aliyah organization not only rescued these individuals, but created programs designed to integrate them into a new life in Jewish Palestine. The members of over 50 kibbutzim not only made these refugees feel welcome in a strange new environment but tutored each of them so that they would succeed in learning a new language, absorbing new cultural traditions and mastering practical agricultural and industrial skills.

In 1938, Youth Aliyah headquarters had been transferred from Berlin to London but Freier remained in the German capital to direct the work of her organization. In 1939, her husband immigrated to Great Britain, taking with him three of their four children. The youngest child, daughter Maayan Freier , remained in Berlin with Recha. Only in 1940 did Freier decide to leave Germany. This remarkable woman, often dismissed as "an impractical poet and dreamer" by her critics within Zionist circles, fled the borders of the Reich to Yugoslavia, eluding the Gestapo with a group of 120 children as well as her daughter.

Realizing that she, Maayan, and her band of youth were still in danger in Yugoslavia, Freier worked to secure immigration certificates valid for travel to Palestine. By the time Nazi Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941, she had been able to secure passage for herself, her daughter, and 90 of her brood. In Palestine during the war years, Freier grieved for the 30 she had been forced to leave behind, but a near-miracle took place in the depths of the Holocaust when she received word in 1945 that they had all survived the war, due at least in part because of the remarkable abilities of their Youth Aliyah leader, Joseph Indyk.

Recha Freier's tense relationship with Henrietta Szold did not improve when she arrived in Palestine. In early 1941, Szold simply informed her that there were no positions open for her anywhere within the Youth Aliyah organization in Palestine. The historical record of Freier's achievements was also either grossly ignored or even falsified on several occasions, including a Jewish Agency exhibition in 1944 in which a decade of Youth Aliyah work was commemorated without a single mention of her rescue efforts in the heart of Nazi Germany. These slights, along with the normal stresses that invariably accompany acculturation to a new environment by someone who was entering middle age, left their mark on Freier. During these difficult years, she was often depressed and at times suicidal. But her continuing work among underprivileged children in kibbutzim, and the fact that her daughter needed a mother, finally enabled her to evolve toward a more hopeful life. The war also served to alienate Freier from her husband, who remained in Europe after 1945 to serve as rabbi to the remnants of post-Nazi Berlin's Jewish community. Moritz Freier would die in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1969, at age 80.

In the 1960s, Freier took on a new role, that of music patron. In 1966, she collaborated with Polish-born Israeli composer Roman Hauben-stock-Ramati to found a concert series designed to reflect the various Jewish traditions throughout history. Naming it "Testimonium," Freier emphasized that it was her wish that the concerts would bring together both non-Jewish as well as Jewish artists. The series was a success from the start, and by the early 1980s had become an internationally recognized institution. Among those who composed works that were first performed at Testimonium festivals in Israel were such internationally recognized composers as Luigi Dallapiccola, Lukas Foss, Alexander Goehr, Mauricio Kagel, George Rochberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis. Recha Freier the poet was proud to see some of her own texts used in compositions performed in Testimonium festivals.

Despite having been born and raised in the conservative Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Freier remained receptive to new cultural and artistic experiences even in the final decades of her long life. In 1983, when she was 90 years old, she attended a Testimonium concert at which Pleuk was performed, an aggressively modernist work by the German composer Hans Joachim Hespos. His home was Friesland, the North Sea island on which Freier had herself been born. In her final years, she rekindled her relationship with Germany and in the 1970s witnessed the publication in Hamburg of two volumes of her poetry. Recha Freier's death in Israel in 1984 ended a remarkable odyssey begun half a century earlier. In April 1990, the West German ambassador to Israel and the mayor of what was then still East Berlin attended the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Recha Freier Educational Center at Kibbutz Yakum near Herzliya. Partially funded by the German government, the center honors not only Recha Freier but was designed to house part of the archives of the pre-Holocaust Berlin Jewish community.


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John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia