Know Your History: The German Nazi Templers Of Palestine
A series where I bring to you news from the newspaper archives and historical documents to debunk common misconceptions about the Middle East conflict.
Did you know there were German Nazis living openly in “Palestine”, even after the war?
Via JTA, 1946:
Gotthilf Wagner, former mayor of the German colony of Sarona, near Tel Aviv, and one of the leading Palestine Nazis, was today shot to death as he journeyed from Sarona to Wilhelma, another German community. Before the war he was a S.S. group leader.
The attack took place on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. One man alighted from a taxi and approached the car in which Wagner and a police escort were sitting, and opened fire. No one else in the car was hurt. The attacker immediately re-entered the taxi and fled. Although Wagner was carrying over $3,000, no money was taken.
Wagner, an owner of a large iron foundry in Jaffa, was interned by the Palestine Government during the war. He acted as liaison agent between the other detained Palestine Nazis and the Administration, and also served as trustee for their property. Throughout the war he paid taxes to the Tel Aviv municipality in order to maintain German claims to various plots of land in the city.
Note how no money was taken from him. The Haganah wanted the Nazi dead, plain and simple.
But the elephant in the room is how on earth were Nazis living there, openly, while owning land and paying taxes?
Apparently, there was a messianic Templer community in Palestine, and they owned much property. They were later deported.
Upon Hitler’s rise to power, the messianic Templer community underwent a metamorphosis from serving God to the cult of the Reich. The British authorities related to them as a fifth column and the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine imposed a general boycott on them. When the war broke out, the British put the Templers under house arrest within their seven colonies, on grounds of their being citizens of an enemy country, and their property was put under the supervision of the custodian of enemy property. Two weeks before that move, a German ship had sailed from Haifa port with 232 Templer recruits to the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo, and with them 88 members of their families. After three citizen-exchange deals the Templer population shrank to only 1,007. On July 31, 1941, as the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel approached the gates of Egypt from Libya, the British deported 536 Templers to Australia, among them 188 from Sarona, who were considered the Nazi hard core.
Eliezer Shinnar, who eventually became head of the Israeli delegation on the matter of German reparations, testified: “On their way from their colony of Sarona through the streets of Tel Aviv – most of whose inhabitants at that time had been victims of Hitler – they sang the Nazi anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied.’ By chance I happened to witness this, and saw and heard this macabre event with my own eyes and ears.” Among the deportees was the petitioner’s mother, Julie Erni, daughter of Philipp Groll, who bequeathed to his widow and their four daughters an estate of 24.5 dunams, on part of which the Weizmann Center stands.
A shrunken community remained in four detention colonies: Waldheim (now Moshav Alonei Abba, near Tivon ), Wilhelmina (Moshav Bnei Atarot ), the German Colony in Jerusalem, and Sarona, today the Kirya defense compound in Tel Aviv. At that time, the overall population of Tel Aviv was about 170,000, and its area was 6,635 dunams; Jaffa had some 70,000 residents, and an area of 6,155 dunams. The total area of land owned by Templers from Sarona, which constituted its own municipality, exceeded 6,500 dunams. About 4,400 of those dunams had been included in the Tel Aviv master plan for building since the 1920s (the Geddes plan ).
In March 1943, the Mandatory government published an order expropriating lands for public purposes, which enabled transfer of some of the property of Sarona to the expansion of Tel Aviv (the Kiryat Meir neighborhood ). At the time, mayor Yisrael Rokach was actively looking to purchase lands for the city’s expansion, as it was hemmed in from all directions. Most of the Templers were interested in selling theirs, but refrained from doing so under firm pressure from the burgermeister (mayor ) of Sarona, Gotthilf Wagner. Beginning in 1944 the British government leased extensive areas of the expropriated Sarona lands to the Tel Aviv municipality . In that year as well, the demand first arose to settle Holocaust survivors in Sarona.
After the Germans’ defeat, Moshe Sharett, head of the diplomatic department at the Jewish Agency, demanded of the British high commissioner that he deport the remaining Germans from the country and transfer their lands for the settlement of Holocaust survivors and Jewish soldiers who had served with the British Army “as compensation Germany owes the Jewish people.”
In January 1946, an Allied committee meeting in Paris decided that German property, including property outside Germany and property of private German citizens, would serve as reparations payments to the victorious countries.
In the midst of the armed struggle against the British Mandate, on March 22, 1946, a pistol-wielding duo from the Haganah pre-state underground assassinated Gotthilf Wagner on Levinsky Street in Tel Aviv. The murder shocked the waning Templer community. Land prices in Sarona fell, and the deportees in Australia urged those remaining in Palestine to come to terms with the new reality and emigrate.
In November 1947, the British high commissioner ordered the seizure of Templer property as enemy property; two months later, the Tel Aviv municipality purchased 4,236 dunams from the British custodian, with the Templers’ agreement. Three weeks before Israel declared its independence, the British evacuated the last of the Templers from Palestine to Germany and Australia.
In July 1950, the Knesset passed the German Property Law, whereby a special custodian for German assets in the country was appointed. Two years later Israeli and German delegations began hammering out a reparations agreement in Cologne. Despite Israeli objections, at the last minute the Germans demanded discussion of the question of the Templers’ property as a condition for signing the agreement; it was agreed the Templers would be compensated with 54 million marks to end the demands. On September 10, 1952, the reparations agreement was signed, though negotiations on the question of compensation for the Templers went on for another decade between the two countries, with the mediation of a Danish lands assessor, Prof. Max Sorensen. That agreement was finally signed on June 1, 1962, in Geneva. In March 1969, the last reparations payment was made, and in 1981 the fund established for that purpose in Australia was closed.
Meanwhile, check out this BBC report on the Templers – it paints them sympathetically!