The Life of a Rescuer: Eva Michaelis-Stern in Dark Times

Eva Michaelis-Stern Dedicated Her Life to Aiding the Vulnerable

To save a child's life is an invaluable act of altruism. Saving thousands of children from a genocidal movement like the Nazis exemplifies supreme humanity and courage. Eva Michaelis-Stern (1904-1992), one of the great rescuers of the mid-twentieth century, did just that.

I became interested in Michaelis-Stern's story after establishing contact with her son, David Michaelis, a veteran journalist and filmmaker. I have known David since 2001, when he learned I was researching his uncle, Günther Stern, Eva's older brother. Familiar to students of European social thought under the pseudonym Günther Anders (1902-1992), he emerged after World War II as a leading critic of modern technology, a determined advocate for Holocaust remembrance, and a militant opponent of nuclear arms. My work on him intrigued David and, in turn, our conversations about the Stern family led me to examine his mother's life and work in much greater detail.

The life and work of Eva Michaelis-Stern were indeed extraordinary. This article will not do justice to them but will focus on her path to and role in Youth Aliyah, and the rescue of Jewish children from Nazi Germany until war broke out in 1939. Her papers are available to researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. What Michaelis-Stern accomplished deserves a far more detailed biographical study than I can offer here.

Born Eva Stern in then Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), in December 1904, she was the daughter and youngest child of William Stern (1871-1938) and Clara Stern (1878-1945). Besides Günther, she also had an older sister, Hilde (1900-1961). In one sense, childhood in this bourgeois German-Jewish household cannot be described as typical. Eva and her siblings were the subjects of a major scientific study before they had even attended school. Today William Stern is mainly remembered for developing the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) evaluation, but he was at that time an eminent psychologist at the University of Breslau, with international recognition for his work on an array of topics comparable to that of Sigmund Freud. In 1914, he published a major work on child psychology, Psychology of Early Childhood Until the Sixth Year, which depended on meticulous observations of the behavior of the three Stern children gathered by Clara. Eventually, the book went through several editions. Thus, an audience around the world knew details about Eva by the time she turned ten! "We children," she remembered, "always felt obliged to live up to the reputation of our famous father."

In a very different sense, however, Eva's early years were stereotypical for a German-Jewish family from the middle class. Her parents had grown up in the years immediately following the unification of Germany in 1871. The new German Empire had formally abolished old forms of discrimination against Jews. With formal legal equality attained, William and Clara Stern, and so many of their generation, grew into adulthood feeling themselves as German as they were Jewish. They believed they no longer needed to keep their distance from the larger German culture.

The Stern family had directly contributed to this development. Eva's great-grandfather, Sigismund Stern (1812-1867), a pedagogue in Berlin, was a leading figure in the development of Reform Judaism. Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the moves toward emancipation that emerged with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, Reform Judaism encouraged Jews to jettison ritual practices, dietary restrictions, and forms of dress separating them from their Gentile neighbors. Worshippers sang hymns in German in the synagogues and embraced a liberal theology promoting social justice. A strong, in retrospect shockingly strong, belief in progress resonated in Reform circles.

How did such convictions fare in the face of continued bigotry and hatred from the surrounding Christian world? According to Eva, her father, who was not particularly religious anyway, "remained convinced that antisemitism was a relic which would soon disappear in a progressive Germany." The Sterns' assimilationist outlook translated into a general disinterest in the holy days honored in Judaism, a secular and scientific worldview mixed with liberal politics, and an incorporation of certain Christian customs. For instance, around Christmas, many Jewish families like the Sterns put up Christmas trees and gave out presents.

Eva was careful, though, to acknowledge the very real limits to William Stern's readiness to assimilate into the larger German culture. When her father's "appointment to a full professorship [at the University of Breslau] was made conditional on his being baptized," she wrote, he "preferred to start anew wherever he would be welcomed on the basis of his then already very considerable scientific achievements." The family left Breslau in 1916, two years into the First World War, and relocated to northern Germany, where William accepted a professorship at the newly-founded University of Hamburg and also became director of the prestigious Psychological Institute.

Clara and William Stern standing. Bottom left to right is Eva, Guenther, and Hilde. Courtesy of David Michaelis.

 

After resettling in Hamburg, the Sterns enrolled Eva, then eleven, in a private Jewish school for girls run by poet and educator Jakob Loewenberg, a family friend. Admired for its progressivism, Loewenberg's institution adhered to basic principles of Reform Judaism and sought the cultivation of body and mind in pupils. Yet it also instilled in many like Eva a deep interest in Jewish traditions. At the age of twelve, she immersed herself in this new environment. "On Shabbat no writing was allowed and a festive atmosphere prevailed at school with Bible and Hebrew lessons only," she recalled. This proved too much for William, who intervened to have Eva exempted from Hebrew instruction. Ultimately, he withdrew her from the school altogether. All the while, the Sterns duly supported Imperial Germany's war effort in World War I. What had sparked in Loewenberg's institution could not be undone, however. Eva won some small victories in the Stern household. Notably, she pressured her parents to rid their home of the Christmas Tree.

We know little about Eva's views on the German Revolution and the collapse of the Hohenzollern Monarchy in November 1918, or the conflict between moderate socialists and revolutionary Marxists over what would succeed the monarchy. Likely the murder of Jewish radicals such as Rosa Luxemburg, Kurt Eisner, and Gustav Landauer in 1919 by extreme right-wing elements horrified her, no matter what she thought of their politics. There is not much information either about how she regarded the newly created Weimar Republic. In fact Eva's initial choice for a career in the aftermath of war and revolution did not appear political at all.

After high school, Eva taught gymnastics to students in Hamburg and then Berlin, a city with which she would be linked for many years. Students can often exert as much influence on a teacher as the teacher does on them. During her teaching, she came into contact with many young people involved in Zionist politics.

Hannah Arendt, for eight years (1929-1937) Eva's sister-in-law, pointed to how so many Central European Jews at the turn of the century gravitated to either Zionism or Marxism. This certainly held true for the Stern family. Hilde entered the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and fought for proletarian revolution. Günther was also attracted to Marxist ideas, especially the writings of playwright Bertolt Brecht and the work of artists George Grosz and John Heartfield. He did not join the KPD, however, but chose to move among a cohort of radical intellectuals connected to the party.

According to David, his mother was drawn to the ideas of the Ukrainian-born Zionist intellectual Ahad Ha-Am (1856-1927). Ha-Am, the pen name used by Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, remained profoundly skeptical that mass Jewish immigration to Palestine, the aim advanced by political Zionists like Theodor Herzl, was really achievable. Moreover, in his writings he called for a spiritual or cultural Zionism that stressed the centrality of the Hebrew language, deep knowledge of Jewish history and traditions, leadership by the learned (not the rich), and a commitment to justice. Such a Zionism, believed Ha-Am, could make the Jewish community in Palestine a source of hope and renewal to Jews who would continue to live outside of the Middle East.

In 1926, the year before Ha-Am's death, Eva's Zionist convictions impelled her to make a first trip to Palestine. Amazed by what she witnessed, she returned two years later. Taking a position as a gymnastics instructor at the recently-founded Ben Shemen Youth Village, home to an agricultural boarding school in central Palestine, Eva spent a year there before contracting malaria. Once she became ill, she decided to recover back in Berlin. While not won over by his daughter's politics, William came to respect Eva's position. In the introduction to the 1929 Hebrew translation of Psychology of Early Childhood Until the Sixth Year, he reaffirmed his long-held view of "Germany as his country, his homeland, his cultural background." Yet Stern also acknowledged those "Jews without a homeland" who "try to create with new vigor their own young culture." The following year he purchased for Eva a copy of Arthur Galliner's new biography of Sigismund Stern, inscribing it with a reminder that her great-grandfather "in common with you strove to pave the way to save Jewry from stagnation and lethargy." The commitment of Eva and her peers to Jewish cultural renewal had impressed him. 

Eva Stern came back to a Germany on the cusp of a fateful socio-economic and political crisis. The Great Depression would devastate the country, unleashing political instability and leading to 30% unemployment nationally. For years an organization on the right-wing fringe of the Weimar political system, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party appealed to the German people's worst fears and resentments. In the September 1930 elections to the Reichstag, the German parliament, the Nazis made their breakthrough, winning almost 19 percent of the vote. Over the next two years, they would double that number. Even when Hitler toned down his antisemitism while campaigning to appear less extreme than he was, Eva realized this was a mere ruse. She became convinced there was no future for Jews in Germany.

Eva could not have been more right. A political deal ushered in Hitler as chancellor in late January 1933. The Stern family felt the impact of this disaster right away. His name found in an address book confiscated from Bertolt Brecht's apartment after the Reichstag Fire, Günther fled Berlin for Paris in early March. After three years in the French capital, he went to the United States, spending fourteen often difficult years in the country. Günther's wife, Hannah Arendt, who stayed behind to undertake research on antisemitism for the German Zionist Organization, was taken into custody for several days. Eva had to assist in securing her release. Police would also eventually arrest Hilde for concealing Communists. She would endure two years in prison before getting out in 1937 and making her way to America to support other refugees.

What happened to Clara and William is especially searing. In April 1933, as part of a wave of antisemitic measures, the Hitler dictatorship passed the notorious Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. This measure instituted a purge of Jews and others considered politically undesirable by the new regime. William was forced out of his faculty position at the University of Hamburg. His enormous contributions to the university, the Psychological Institute, and academic life in Germany-in 1931 he had been elected, unanimously, as president of the German Psychological Society-did not matter to the country's viciously racist masters. Eva urged her parents to leave Germany. Understandably, starting life anew outside of their homeland was no small task. The international atmosphere in Hamburg and the fact that its formidable working class held fast to socialist politics slowed the Nazification of the city. Finally, though, Clara and William departed for Amsterdam in 1935.

Following a stay in the Netherlands, the Sterns left for the United States after Duke University offered William a professorship. Eva reflected on the jarring transition for her parents, particularly for her father. In Durham, North Carolina, "it was not easy for him to adjust to a very hot climate, and to a new language which he did not master sufficiently to express himself freely. He suffered especially from this limitation, as in Germany he had gained a reputation for his brilliant lectures which were always crowded." Thanks to Clara's steadfast encouragement and the assistance of Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, a former student, an English translation of his major work, General Psychology, appeared. The triumph over adversity was short-lived. A massive heart attack struck down William Stern in March 1938, the month Hitler moved into Austria. He was spared the even greater horrors for Germany and Europe's Jews to come.

Eva was not spared them. She was the only one in the Stern family who did not seek refuge in the United States. Staying behind, Eva channeled her energies into a single mission: saving Jewish youth. The old interest in cultural renewal for Central European Jews had yielded, under the most urgent necessity, to a focus on sheer preservation. In choosing such a vital task, she had considerable help. Youth Aliyah (the Hebrew word "Aliyah" means ascent) arose during these dark times. In 1932, Recha Freier (1892-1984), a writer with an interest in folklore, and the wife of a Berlin rabbi, shared Eva's belief that any hope for a decent life for young Jews in Germany had dissipated. Shortly before Hitler became chancellor, Freier established an office in Berlin which made the work of Youth Aliyah possible. The latter would get Jewish teenagers, mostly between the ages of 13 to 16, out of the country to kibbutzim (communal settlements) in Palestine, where they would learn agriculture. Freier persuaded Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), the founder of Hadassah, an organization providing emergency care to Jewish infants and their mothers in Palestine, to assume charge of the teenagers once they made it to Jerusalem. Though she was in her seventies, Szold attempted to personally greet every transport with children upon arrival. Despite the antagonism that developed between Freier and Szold, thousands of lives were saved because of the partnership they created.

Eva was offered administrative work with Youth Aliyah. She demonstrated her organizational skills immediately. Her efforts led to the creation of the Working Group for Children and Youth Aliyah. Based in Berlin, the Working Group raised funds and assisted with publicity for Youth Aliyah. It also handled negotiations with existing Jewish organizations in Germany and beyond. This reduced the likelihood of friction with other groups and promoted a vision of solidarity around a common goal.

Once word spread about Youth Aliyah, Eva recalled, the number of applications overwhelmed them. The Working Group frequently faced despairing parents. The passage in 1935 of the vile Nuremberg Laws, which essentially stripped German Jews of citizenship, compounded the sense of emergency. There was also the overriding problem of British control of Palestine. The United Kingdom exercised a League of Nations Mandate over this territory, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Not eager to inflame tensions with the indigenous Arab population, the British government often proved reluctant to grant permission for Jewish children to journey to Palestine.

In these circumstances, Eva strove to ensure the most suitable candidates among the applicants were selected. Every teenager had to attend a preparation camp lasting up to six months. The rigor of this training engendered careful screening. Eva also backed those in the Working Group who resisted any religious identification or preference in its mission. Meetings took her to many locales within and outside of Germany.

Youth Aliyah Recruiting Pamphlet. Courtesy of David Michaelis.

 

Why did the Nazis tolerate all of this? At this point, before the Second World War, the Hitler regime supported efforts promoting Jewish emigration out of Germany. For years, the Gestapo, the Nazi secret state police, monitored Eva's activities but largely did not interfere. This modus vivendi with the Nazi Party lasted into 1938.

Why did it change? One of the meetings concerning Youth Aliyah occurred in late 1937, across the western border in the Netherlands. After her return to Berlin, Eva received a dreaded summons in February 1938. She was told to report to the office of a Nazi security official. The source of the summons was Adolf Eichmann.

As frightening as he was, he was not yet the inhuman Adolf Eichmann remembered by posterity. Eichmann's interrogation of Eva transpired before he invented the system of compulsory emigration for Austrian Jews or hurled all his organizational and logistical talents into enacting the continent-wide extermination of Jewish communities demanded by Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich. At the time, his reputation confined to the ranks of the SS and SD, the intelligence-gathering branch of the SS. Still, Eichmann was more than frightening enough.

In an April 1965 interview with the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Eva reconstructed the interrogation. When she appeared before Eichmann, he demanded to know the nature of her activities in the Netherlands. What had she said and done there? Eichmann answered his own question, accusing her of spreading anti-German propaganda. He berated her to sign a document admitting she had done just that. Demonstrating her resolve, Eva refused. Then, the SS man ordered her to write her own version. Again Eva said no. Consequently, Eichmann forbade her from working with Youth Aliyah. She could not go abroad and could not have contact with the organization's other members. As the questioning ended, Eichmann insisted she return the next day, passport in hand.

As David notes when he tells this story, his mother understood exactly what that meant. "She knew that her time was up in Germany." Right away Eva Stern left the country for Palestine. Soon after her arrival there, a friend brought a telegram conveying the dreadful news about her father's death in Durham.

Traveling with Eva was Adolf "Dolf" Michaelis (1906-1982). Long committed to Zionism, Dolf had been a member of the Executive of the Zionist Federation of Germany. Eva and Dolf married in Jerusalem in March 1938, the same month that Hitler moved into Austria. Following the Anschluss, the Third Reich's annexation of Austria, the Nazi leadership quickly targeted the large Jewish populace in Vienna. It was Adolf Eichmann who ruthlessly directed the forced emigration of Austrian Jews. His success cemented his stature as a leading figure in the SS and SD. When Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich shifted their approach from expulsion of Jews to mass annihilation and genocide in 1941-42, they relied on Eichmann for the "know-how." 

Throughout 1938, the situation for Jews in Germany deteriorated, culminating in the atrocious Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in early November. Some 100 Jews were killed and another 30,000 sent to concentration camps. During the pogrom, Nazis destroyed the Berlin office of Youth Aliyah. The staff went underground. As things darkened that year, Eva and Dolf did not remain in Jerusalem long. Szold asked her to relocate to London. 

Eva was tireless. Fearing the worst from the right-wing, antisemitic government in Poland, she first set up a Youth Aliyah office in Warsaw. After moving to London, she and Dolf focused on the countries bordering the Third Reich. They worked to evacuate children to several states, including Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Lithuania. Once there, she dispensed certificates to them from the British government and processed funding from Hadassah to cover travel costs to Palestine. Perhaps her most extraordinary moment took place in August 1939, right before the onset of World War II in Europe, when she encountered resistance from the British about guaranteeing certificates for children. Aware that the Danish government would temporarily open its doors to those teens if the U.K.ensured that certificates were forthcoming, Eva signed a guarantee herself. Copenhagen accepted the document and granted 300 children safe passage.

During the Second World War, Eva and Dolf resided in London. They must have felt the terror of a possible German invasion in 1940 and saw the destruction meted out by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. Dolf worked for the MI5, the British security service, investigating possible Nazi spies among German refugees interned in the U.K. More than anything, the incoming news about the Nazi genocide tested them in every way. David relates that Dolf and Eva lost 19 people close to them in the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, they experienced the feeling of having done too little too late for too few. The nightmarish reality of the Holocaust far exceeded what they could have imagined.

In 1946, Eva and Dolf resettled in Palestine and soon had David. Just before their move, Clara passed away in December 1945, still living in the United States. She had lived long enough to see Hitler defeated. Eva continued her work with Youth Aliyah. Upon retiring from the organization in 1952, she threw her energies into a new cause. She devoted some twenty years to the improvement of conditions for people with mental disabilities. Once she joined the National Association for the Habilitation of the Mentally Handicapped in Israel (AKIM), she contributed so much to the organization that she soon directed its International Relations Department. Eva sacrificed much time, particularly, to cases of people with mental and cognitive impairments whose parents, due to advanced age or poor health, could no longer care for them adequately. All this crucial activity ultimately led to the founding of new institutions-The Shield, an organization for mentally-disabled adults, set up with Irene Gaster (who had worked for decades with men and women with cognitive disabilities), and the Clara and William Stern Memorial Fund at Hebrew University to educate social workers assisting people with disabilities. She also aided in the establishment of a special-needs hospital named after Gaster.

Politically, both Eva and Dolf rejected ethnonationalism and sought a binational state for Jews and Arabs. Such a perspective entailed the search for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. David has carried forward this vital work in his career.

Eva never ceased trying to understand Nazi perpetrators like Eichmann. Over two decades after the war, David relates, Hannah Arendt, while covering the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem (April-November 1961) for The New Yorker, visited Eva and her family. Arendt and Michaelis-Stern strongly disagreed about what the Nazi criminal represented. For Eva, there was nothing "banal," to use Arendt's term, about Eichmann's evil. She could confirm from personal experience that he was a cruel, fanatical genocidist.

For her 75th birthday in 1979, Israel's then Minister of Social Betterment, Dr. Israel Katz, announced an award to Eva for her role in the rescue of Youth Aliyah children and her work for the disabled. In publicizing the news, the Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain, which Dolf once served as vice-chair, wished "her many more years of family happiness and of strength to continue her work which brings relief to so many." What does it mean to be a rescuer? In the case of Eva Michaelis-Stern, it meant fighting for the survival of Jewish youth. Hundreds owed their lives to her directly. Overall, Youth Aliyah saved some 11,000 boys and girls from the Nazis. Eva lived a life dedicated to aiding the vulnerable in the darkest of times.  

Contributor

Jason Dawsey

As the DPAA Special Projects Historian in Residence at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, Jason Dawsey, PhD, works on the ...
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