THE JEWISH WANDERINGS OF HARRY MAOR
By Julian Levinson
My grandfather died at the holiest moment of the Jewish year. At sunset on Yom Kippur, when the Neilah prayer is recited, the gates of heaven are said to close, sealing God's judgment for the coming year and bringing to an end the ten days of repentance. Those that pass away at this moment are said to proceed directly to heaven. That my grandfather -- the dedicated secularist with a portrait of Sigmund Freud hanging over his front door -- should die at precisely this moment was merely one more in a series of ironic reversals that characterized his life. Had it been the punchline to one of the folk stories he loved to tell, he would have smiled as if to say, "yes, some people actually believe such things can happen."
Harry Maor was a beloved and inspiring teacher as well as a tireless lecturer, scholar, translator, and raconteur. He spent the final seven years of his career at the Gesamthochschule Kassel. Spending his life traveling between Germany and Israel, he also directly experienced many of the major upheavals of the twentieth-century, and the circuitous itinerary of his life reflects the travails as well as the idealism of modern Jewry. The momentous tone of such an analogy, however, should not obscure the essential lightness of his spirit: his delight in other people and his almost quixotic ability to animate the world.
Maor was born to Josef Gischner and Amalia Obermayer in Munich on May 27, in 1914. His father had moved there from the culturally vibrant city of Chernowitz, (today in Western Ukraine) then an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a large Jewish population. His mother was from a Bavarian family of circus performers. (Her two sons inherited her ear for music and her passion for the theater). As if to underscore their cultural radicalism, they named their two sons after famous Jewish dissidents: Harry after the iconoclastic poet Harry (later Heinrich) Heine, his younger brother Maimon after the Talmud prodigy cum enlightener Solomon Maimon (who himself had taken the name of Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, as a token of his admiration, an admiration shared by Josef Gischner and his son Harry). When the unwed couple of mixed descent split up, Harry received financial support from Munich's Jewish community to attend the the Juedische Lehrerausbildungsstaette in Hoechberg near Wuerzburg, a boarding school organized by the local Jewish community. It was here that Harry was first exposed to the world of Jewish learning and the music of Jewish lithurgy that he would treasure his entire life, long after he would reject its basic premises.
The curriculum at Hoechberg was geared towards preparing students to become teachers or cantors. Many former students recall the school's friendly environment, its "schoenen Schulgeist," and Maor would look back fondly on his early school years, not least his exploits on the soccer field. As for Hoechberg's religious curriculum, Maor soon supplemented study of the Torah with readings in Marx and Freud. By the age of 16 he had so thoroughly internalized the Marxist view concerning the evils of capitalism and the urgency of an international workers revolt, that he could no longer see for himself a place within a religious boarding school. He confided his conflicts to the headmaster, who counseled Harry to keep his new-found views to himself for another year or two so he could graduate. This, the headmaster assured the young man, would be no act of treason to Judaism, the proletariat or the unconscious. But without completing his studies, and much to the consternation of his teachers, Maor returned to Munich. His friend Simon Berlinger recalls Maor's departure as a dramatic gesture of defiance. "Although it is almost seventy years ago, I remember the moment he told me of his decision in a private conversation. Utterly stunned and deeply affected I could not comprehend at the time how a thoroughly wonderful fellow like Harry could commit such a deed. After 15 years of profound internal conflicts I had to acknowledge that I too was on his side." ("Trotz der fast 70 Jahre, die seither vergangen sind, kann ich den Moment seiner Mitteilung darueber in einem diskreten Gespraech nicht vergessen. Niedergeschlagen und tiefstens deprimiert konnte ich damals nicht fassen, wie so ein guter Kerl eine solche Tat begehen kann. Nach 15 Jahren schweren inneren Konfliktes bakannte ich mich zu seiner Seite.") (Flade, Roland: Lehrer, Sportler, Zeitungsgruender: Die Hoechberger Juden und die israelitische Praeparandenschule. Wuerzburg 1998, Page 81)
In Munich, Maor began attending classes in Philosophy and History as a non-matriculating student at the university. During this period, Maor was powerfully drawn to the writings of Ber Borochov, founder and leader of the labor Zionist party known as Poale Zion. Borochov provided a Marxist analysis of the economic structure and social situation of the Jewish people, arguing that settlement in Palestine would allow for the renormalization of Jewish economic and sociallife. Maor ardently defended these views in discussions with his closest and lifelong friends from Munich's Jewish community, Ali Frohlich (later a mathematician in London) Hans Lamm (later editor and president of the Jewish community of Munich) and Fritz Rosental (later a proponent of Zionist revisionism who would change his name to Schalom Ben-Chorin and become a renowned scholar of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem). Being an internationalist Harry saw the Jewish national state only as an interim goal towards elimination of all national states.
As the Nazi party gained momentum and ultimately seized power, Maor became an active opponent. Outraged at the exclusion of workers from the agenda of the newly-installed Nazi government, he appeared at a meeting of the N.S.B.O. (National Socialist Workers Organization) and demanded to speak on behalf of the rights of workers. When he was immediately denounced as a Jew (Jews were not permitted to attend such meetings), he responded that he was speaking not as a Jew but rather as one of the working class. He was forcibly taken into custody, charged with disturbing the peace ("Hausfriedens Bruchs,") and sent to prison for a ten-day sentence. In the newspaper account of the ensuing conflict and arraignment, his actions were described as a "typical case of Jewish-communist harassment" ("ein typischer Fall juedisch-kommunistischer Frechheit.") Recognizing in Maor a loose-canon, friends involved with the Zionist movement advised him to move to Palestine, supplying funds for him to live on a Slovakian farm, where he would gain the farming skills necessary for life on a Kibbutz. A one year period of apprenticeship ("Hachscharah") was required by the British authorities governing Palestine at the time in order to obtain an entry visa. Maor (still using the name Obermayer) moved to Palestine. He lived briefly on the Tel-Joseph Kibbutz, before establishing himself among the intellectual and literary community of German Jewish immigrants in Haifa.. He would later attribute his disenchantment with Kibbutz life to the difficulties it placed upon his beloved pastime of book-buying. He was and would remain drawn to ideas more than to the rigors of realizing idealistic schemes, and the strict regimen of collective life on a self-sustaining farm proved too much for him. In Haifa, Maor eked out a living doing construction work and teaching Hebrew. Most days would find him in a café frequented by numerous German emigres, known as "Café Atara," which functioned as his classroom. Sitting with students for an hour, Maor would earn five Liras. During this period, he also developed what would remain his lifelong interest in Arabic culture and language. Everyday he would visit the Arabic market, the shuk, where he began to study the language by conversing with Arab street merchants. For several months he worked in Beirut as an editor for a German newspaper based there.
It was also during this period that Maor developed a correspondence with the radical psychologist Wilhelm Reich. Reich attracted Maor, as he did many during these years, because of his unique synthesis of Marixism with Freudian thought. Maor publicly defended Reich against his detractors in Palestine. And yet Reich's attempts to enlist Maor as his official representative in Palestine ultimately failed, owning to Maor's growing skepticism about the health benefits of Reich's "orgone box."
During these years Maor was a supporter of a bi-national state in Palestine. He was also an admirer of Leon Trotzky, and he was aligned with the goals of the fourth international. The Moscow show trials and the reports which trickled out of the Soviet Union confirmed his suspicion about Stalin. Nevertheless Maor was and remained a staunch internationalist, a position expressed in his dedication to the movements for Esperanto (he had attended an Esperanto congress when he was a fifteen year old student) and for the spread of "Basic English", pioneered by the British linguist C. K. Ogden.
In 1939, Maor met his future wife, Gila Reifen, a fellow progressive thinker. Raised in a Hasidic family in the German town of Plauen, Reifen managed to leave for Palestine in June of 1933, a few hours before the Gestapo came looking for her. (Reifen's parents and siblings were to follow soon thereafter, but the entire extended family perished in the Shoah). Like Maor, Gila frequented cafes for left-leaning intellectuals. In 1942 they moved together to Tel Aviv, where they had two children: Eleanor (named for Karl Marx' daughter) and Maimon (named for Harry's younger brother, who had remained in Germany and died in the Holocaust). During these turbulent years at the end of the British mandate period, Maor felt ambivalence about the Zionist project. On the one hand, he strongly supported the notion that Jews could establish themselves as a community within the Middle East. Indeed, he sought to forge personal connections with Arab communities. On the other hand, he was suspicious of the Zionist revisionists, who by the mid-1940s had become the dominant voice in the Zionist camp. His own political views tended to side with the leftist factions of the labor Zionist party and he never wavered on the fundamental need to establish a national home for the Jewish people. Still, he greeted the new state with some caution. According to one of his students, Maor would look back on 1948 and remark with characteristically allusive wit, "I sat down on the banks of the Yarkon and wept."
Maor was also skeptical of all attempts to establish Jewish religious tradition as the official national culture. This skepticism found expression when, applying for a teaching position at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was told to put on a Yarmulke for his exam on rabbinic literature. He refused to do so, even though it jeopardized his candidacy. In his view, a requirement to demonstrate piety had no place in the secular university.
After the war of Israeli independence, Maor presented himself at the British Consulate in Cypress to take his exams and he received his diploma from the University of London. But the economic situation in the young state was harsh and there was no question of commencing a course of higher studies. Maor became a social worker, quickly rising to head the social services of Ramlah, until the offices were shut for lack of funds.
In 1953, Maor moved with his family back to Germany, to accept the position of editor for the first postwar Jewish weekly to appear in Germany, "Juedische Allgemeine Wochenzeitung." Maor had been contributing to the paper as a freelance journalist since 1951, when he spent several months in Germany visiting his mother (no trace of his father could be found) and exploring opportunities to pursue his doctoral studies. He was drawn by the idea of moving to East-Berlin and met with an old friend, the writer Arnold Zweig, then president of the East German Academy of Art. Zweig suspected that Maor would always speak his mind openly, and he advised against such a move. "Don't come here," Zweig told Maor, "if you don't want to land in Siberia."
Dedicating his energies to the fractured Jewish communities living in Germany, Maor worked from 1955 to 1958 in Frankfurt for the Central Welfare Agency for Jews in Germany (Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der Juden in Deutschland), a project of the Joint Distribution Committee. An enthusiastic teacher, he was in charge of educational programs and activities for young people. At a summer camp he directed in Wembach, Jewish youth from all over the country assembled to gain a deeper awareness of Jewish history and religion. While he himself had not observed Jewish law since his early years in Hoechberg, his thorough knowledge of the traditions enabled him to provide young people a positive introduction to Judaism. He became a mentor and role-model for children and adolescents, showing them a way of identifying themselves with something other than victimhood.
It was upon Maor's return to Germany that he abandoned his mother's Bavarian family name and took on the resolutely Israeli one he would use from then on. Having defended his "Europeanness" in the new Jewish State, he proclaimed his Israeli identity when he returned to Europe. As for his political allegiances, he continued to define himself as a socialist, though, as his later mentor and colleague Professor W. E. Muehlmann would write, "He was [a socialist] in an un-ideologist manner out of the spontaneity of his heart, and the temperament of a hands-on helper" ("Er war dies voellig unideologisch, aus einer Spontanitaet des Herzens und aus einem Temperment des zugreifendem Helfens heraus.")
It was also during the 1950s that Maor began what would be a long and fruitful side career as a translator. He would eventually translate into German more than sixty books, working primarily from English, but also French, Danish, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Among his translations were eight titles by the historian and biographer of Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, and two by Erich Fromm, along with works by writers as diverse as Saul Friedlander, Leroi Jones, Chaim Potok and Herman Wouk. What was arguably among the most important of his translations, however, would never be published. Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jewry the controversial source for Hannah Arendt's Eichman in Jerusalem would remain, fully translated, in his drawer. In 1963, publishers in Germany shied away from this controversial work, with its complicated reading of the relationship between victims and aggressors during the Holocaust. (The first German translation did not appear until1982).
Alongside these various endeavors, Maor, now over forty, set to work on his doctorate in Sociology, first in Cologne and eventually Mainz. His dissertation, written under the aegis of Professor Muehlmann, was entitled "On the Rebuilding of Jewish Communities in Germany since 1945." The work presents a wealth of previously unavailable data concerning demographic developments and patterns of self-identification amongst Jews living in postwar Germany. It remains an invaluable resource for the study of postwar Jewish communal life. Among his unlikely findings, Maor documents the paradoxical situation whereby Germany became a temporary safe haven for Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe after the war. Many of these eventually left Germany, settling in Israel, the United States, or elsewhere. Yet a small number banded together with Jews who survived the war in Germany or had returned from exile. Maor traces the efforts of this variegated group to reconstruct Jewish communal life, ultimately establishing the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
After receiving his Ph.D., Maor held a number of different positions before finally ending up in Kassel. Returning to Israel for a few years to teach in a college preparatory school in Gedera, he would also spend time at Freiburg, Goettingen, and at King's College in Western Ontario, Canada. He also spent a few years at the Institut fuer Soziologie und Ethnologie in Heidelberg, where he moved away from the empirical focus of his early work, writing his Habilitationsshrift on Moses Mendelssohn and the secularization of German Jewry. During this period he was also a tireless public lecturer, speaking throughout Germany on topics such as "Die Juedischen Wurzeln der Psychoanalyse," "Die Gott-ist-tot-Hypothese im Judentum," and "Messianismus und Zionismus." ("Jewish Roots in Psychoanalysis," "The God-Is-Dead Hypothesis," and "Messianism and Zionism").
The period Maor spent in Heidelberg coincided with the height of the student protests of the late 1960s. Student radicals made it a practice to break into lectures and seminars, condemning the power structure of the university and demanding curricular changes. One of the targets of student anger was Maor's senior colleague Professor Muehlmann, who a few years prior had been held up to public scrutiny for his allegedly racist writings from the 1930s. (During that episode Maor had written a letter to Die Zeit defending Muehlmann's character.) Ultimately, the student unrest led to the temporary closing of the institute, precipitating Maor's departure for Canada. Despite his overall sympathy for leftist political movements, Maor was disappointed by the student protest movements of 1968. He found the students aggression misguided and their tactics ineffectual. Certainly it was a painful irony to find himself positioned by them as a representative of German authoritarianism.
Maor spent the last seven years of his career at the Gesamthochschule, Kassel. This period proved to be his most stable and perhaps his happiest. His publications during this time included two well-received works, Soziologie der Sozialarbeit and the Lexikon der Sozialen Arbeit (both with Kohlhammer-Verlag), but he made an even more significant contribution through his teaching. At the Gesampthochschule he inspired a generation of students, who benefited from his warmth, generosity, and enthusiasm. He taught a full range of courses on both general and specialized sociology and supervised numerous student theses. His retirement in 1979, after which he returned to Israel with his wife, was marked by warm celebrations.
My own memories of my grandfather date from this period. Whenever he would visit us in San Francisco, he would take my brother, Gordon, and me on adventurous expeditions throughout the city. It was exciting for us to go with him into neighborhoods we would otherwise not have explored. Often he would strike up conversations with local business-owners particularly when they spoke Arabic or another of the languages he was studying. He reported to us later in great detail what he found out. He delighted in expanding on his reports with wondrous tales of far away places, tales of wise fools, who miraculously elude life's perils.
I was lucky enough to be one of his very last students. A few months before he was diagnosed with cancer, we completed the private course of study that led up to my Bar Mitzvah. Reaching back to his early training at Hoechberg, he taught me to read the canticle marks above the letters in the Torah. At the end of every lesson we reviewed the prayer that is said before a portion of the Torah is read. This prayer, he loved to reiterate, represents the minimum requirement for a Bar Mitzvah boy. When I would say it, he would with a mixture of pride and irony pronounce me "a Bar Mitzvah for the hundredth time." Somehow he relished the economy of the ritual, the idea that elaborate displays of piety were unnecessary to claim one's position in the tradition. In his repeated conferrals of Jewish adulthood upon me he was also signaling to me the importance of distinguishing the essential from the ancillary. And it was his insistence on this distinction, I now realize, that must have come to his aid through his turbulent life. By hewing down his ideas, his hopes, even perhaps his sense of self, to their irreducible essentials, he became eminently adaptable and portable while preserving intact whatever we mean by the term soul.