On a Man’s Greatness

One of Israel’s most esteemed poets celebrates her teacher, scholar Paul Ernst Kahle, for his quiet heroism in Nazi Germany.

Lea Goldberg Translated by Tsipi Keller
April 7, 2020
Members of the SA picket in front of a Jewish place of business during the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, on April 1st, 1933. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lea Goldberg, one of Israel’s most esteemed and admired poets, is also widely celebrated for her novels, plays, and children’s books. In 1970, the year of her death, she was posthumously awarded the Israel Prize for Literature, the country’s highest literary honor.

Born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), in 1911, Goldberg began writing Russian and Hebrew verse at a young age. In April 1932, after completing her studies in philology at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University), she went on to the University of Bonn to pursue her PhD in Semitic Languages. It was there that she worked with Professor Paul Ernst Kahle (1875–1964), director of the university’s Semitic Languages Institute and the leading authority in the field. Goldberg’s doctoral dissertation, written under Kahle’s supervision, analyzed the Aramaic translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch. Her research was closely related to Kahle’s own; he and his students—including a number of East European Jews—sought to reconstruct ancient Hebrew as it existed before the Massorah, the 10th-century body of scribal notes that form a textual guide to the Tanakh.

But to Goldberg, Kahle was much more than an intellectual mentor. Soon after the Nazi regime took over in January 1933, Goldberg became aware that Kahle, using the power of his position and reputation, was doing all he could to challenge the new anti-Jewish laws, and to protect his students—and his Institute—from the Nazis, whom he called “lowbred louts.” In Goldberg’s novel
Losses—written in the years after she emigrated to Palestine in 1935, though unpublished until 2010she reimagined three characters from this period: Kahle; his wife Marie; and his brilliant Jewish assistant, Kurt Levy, who was fired by the Nazi authorities in 1933 and died by suicide two years later. In the essay translated here, Goldberg honors the Kahles more directly, writing that they “came to represent for me a great symbol, as one of the last vindicators of faith in humanity.Goldberg and the Kahle family renewed their friendship after the war.

This essay, originally published in Palestine in the Hebrew publication Mishmar in 1945, is included in the appendix to my translation of The Diaries of Lea Goldberg. 

Tsipi Keller 

On a Man’s Greatness

SOME TIME AGO, I chanced upon an issue of The Manchester Guardian featuring an article about German universities, authored by Professor Paul Kahle. It was the eighth installment of a long essay where Professor Kahle talks about the German universities when the Nazis rose to power; how their agents among the students and docents took over and, eventually, expelled the free-thinking professors. He cites the example of Professor Karl Barth, the Protestant theologian whose lectures attracted a great number of students, including many Jews. After he was forced to resign, the number dropped from 600 to 30 students. The author of the article discusses the matter with objective dispassion and with the stern discipline of a scientist, endeavoring to be as truthful and precise as possible. But those who knew the man and kept up with him over the years, from the rise of the Nazis until today, also know that beneath the orderly style there lies a deep and painful personal experience.

More than once, I’ve had occasion to talk about him, verbally or in writing, and tell about the words and deeds of this man of science, the renowned scholar of Semitic languages, and his extensive knowledge of the Massorah; a person who seemed to me, during that awful period that distorted the very essence of man, as one of the great wonders of humanity. Every now and then, when I see his name in the newspaper, or when I hear of him from someone who met him in England, I am moved to repeat the story, to record all that I heard and saw personally, and all that I have learned about him from others.

He and his wife, and their entire household, came to represent for me a great symbol, as one of the last vindicators of faith in humanity, and I believe that sharing their story with others may benefit us all, casting some light onto our boundless despair.

I don’t know why, but every time I think of him I don’t see him at the podium, or in his office, surrounded by books and manuscripts. Nor do I see him at the seminar table, sitting with his students. The first image that surfaces in my mind is a most idyllic one, the last vestige of the quiet and comfort of home: Christmas Eve, December 1932. Everything seemed like a page from Dickens’s Christmas Stories. The Christmas tree laden with its brilliant ornaments. Around the table, the family members: the five sons, an old grandmother, and a student and family relation who lived with them; the maid standing at the door; and we, his students, who were regular guests in the small, cozy house where we were always received with warmth and friendship. 

The professor himself sat at the piano, playing a Christmas carol—“Silent Night, Holy Night.” It was a small, brown piano, very old and creaky, and he charged it as one wishing to challenge the instrument into obedience. He actually played the simple tune quite badly. The rhythm was tense, the sound too loud, and nothing to suggest the mood of “Silent Night”: it was an attack, combat, warfare. 

His great solemnity still reflected some remnants from his past, from the days he served as a Protestant pastor in Cairo and Jerusalem, but more pronounced was his restless personality, his steadfast readiness to do battle: this was how he approached his scientific research, as well as every new subject he discovered through his work. This was how, during lectures, he would reach a crescendo of excitation, delivering a string of insults, deriding his scholarly rivals (to this day, the familiar phrase still rings in my ears: “This is not science, this is drivel, idiocy, villainy, ignorance, garbage, muck, fantasy!”). Later on, this was how he would, foaming at the mouth and with edgy humor, rail against the “criminals,” the “barbarians,” the “lowbred louts” who rose to power; and not only in private—with me and his close associates—but also when facing his students and colleagues, who wore the S.A. uniform and a swastika lapel pin. 

But on that beautiful night—with the soft winter of the Rhineland blooming in the windows (“Tonight I picked the last rose in our garden,” his wife told me), and the warmth, and the festive lights in the home—the looming future seemed improbable, inconceivable. And even though we were all aware that things were not going well, and that the worst was yet to come, we dared to believe that this home and others like it (in our gullibility, we believed there were many like it) would forestall the calamity.

It was a very modest house, tastefully furnished, but not ostentatiously. A wall in the library was hung with an oriental rug, bearing a gem against the evil eye. There were also a few bronze pieces and a nargila he had brought from his travels in the East. And near the door—the red horses by Franz Marc, Mrs. Kahle’s favorite painter. The library wasn’t very extensive: “You cannot focus on your private library when you must diligently work to improve the library of your students,” he would apologize, and, indeed, he was most proud of the Semitic Studies library at the Bonn seminary; the seminary was his crowning achievement, his great love. Life in that home was simple and industrious, and, for many years, the home served as a meeting place for the students the professor was fond of. Five young sons were raised in that home; they had to be provided for, while a professor’s salary was not very large. 

Mrs. Kahle, who came from a family of officers, was an erudite woman, well read in early and modern German literature, and I vividly remember seeing her in town, on her way home from market, riding her bicycle, her basket filled to capacity. She was always busy at work as mother and housewife. She was never at rest, except for a few hours on Saturday, when the professor would gather his sons and his students and go on an outing in the countryside. He was most generous on these occasions, and never let us pay for our meals; we were his guests, and he was a very genial host. Often, he would (with difficulty) put study aside, and focus his attention on us, on our lives and our private affairs. There were always Jews among his friends and guests, with whom he had more than a professional relationship. His wife once told me about a Berlin rabbi and scholar of Semitic languages who was a guest in their house. She knew he ate kosher only, and, since she didn’t want him to have to eat elsewhere, she bought an entire set of new dishes and for eight days served only dairy and vegetarian meals. 

Also present around Professor Kahle were Jewish students and assistants who came from Eastern Europe. This wasn’t as easy as it may sound: there were psychological barriers, having to do with education, upbringing, a way of life and, often, our particular inferiority complex. For a man like Kahle, who came from a totally different background, these barriers had to be overcome, circumvented, and he endeavored to never let the students become aware of these differences. But one day, when he was very tired, he did confide in me, knowing that he can talk openly: “At times, it is very hard for me to be surrounded by Eastern European Jews. I don’t know what it is, but it does trouble me.” He knew that I wouldn’t take it personally, or interpret this as antisemitic, and I greatly appreciated his confessing this, as I was certain that he would never say such things in the presence of a German Christian, or even a German Jew. It was a moment of weakness that came after battling the “Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” in his failed attempt to keep his Jewish assistant, and having learned that one of his own students had blamed him for this failure.

When the Nazis came, he never wavered and never adopted the “correct” public position, even if he could not rebel openly. But every chance he got, he did rebel in small ways available to him, always stressing and stating his position, to spite. After a Jewish docent left Germany and emigrated to America, Kahle, in his lectures, repeatedly quoted the docent’s research, whether warranted or not: “Doctor Schfarber, my dear and esteemed colleague, had said . . . ”—enraging the students in brown. One of them, gritting his teeth, assured me that the professor would come to a bad end. It never occurred to him that this “bad end” would be the great triumph of the man.

One day he appeared at the seminary and gleefully announced: “There is going to be a great scandal next week! Just wait and see. In the next issue of the scientific journal Study of the Old Testament I quote nine of my students, eight of them Jewish!” And indeed, as he had said, the issue appeared, and it scandalized his conformist colleagues.

Kahle did everything in his power to ridicule the new government. At the time, a request to add a chair in Japanese studies was sent to the Nazi Education Ministry. It was denied, since Germany had not yet formulated its relations with Japan. Professor Kahle entered the reading room, beckoned us to join him, and then turned to a student in an S.A. uniform: “Listen up. This is the new cultural style of your Education Ministry: ‘The Third Reich has no interest in Asiatic languages!’” In a few years, the Third Reich would be very much interested in that particular Asiatic language.

I could recount hundreds of similar instances. Something happened every day, and he would respond with clever retorts, derision, and anger. We were all astonished that he was allowed to keep his university post, but in those days the Reich was still quite cautious, reluctant to dismiss its best, non-Jewish minds that were renowned the world over. Eventually, though, they hired replacements who were loyal to the new regime. I also know, from reliable sources, that the Nazis “courted” him, attempting to bribe him, employing various tactics. They even promoted him, appointing him director and head of the German Eastern Studies Society. And yet, he did not change his attitude, and used his position as long as he could to help others, especially Jewish scientists. I recall from that period one particular instance I must recount here.

One day, in July 1933, I sat in his office as we read together a dissertation relevant to my subject. Suddenly the door opened, and a messenger delivered a letter in a blue envelope. I was already familiar with the look of such a letter and its content—an affirmation in the notorious style: “I hereby affirm that, to the best of my knowledge and conscience, I am of the Aryan race, down to the third generation.” All the professors had to sign this illustrious affidavit.

“Forgive me a moment”—he turned to me—“I must make a phone call.”

He went to the telephone, and to this day I recall verbatim what he said: “Schtessel”—this was the name of the official—“Kahle here. Stop sending me these nonsensical notices. You have no right to demand of me, a scientist and a linguist, to sign this vulgar farce. I am not Aryan. Indians or Persians may be Aryans. I am not Indian or Persian. I’m German, and God knows who the Germans are. I’ve already written to you. And I won’t write differently. Never send this to me again. I won’t sign it!”

How many intellectuals took such a stance in those days?

And, like him, so his wife, who was even more adamant in her approach. Her distress was so great, it drove her sometimes to near-breakdown, to open revolt. On April 1st, the day of the boycott, she deliberately went to see her Jewish doctor at whose door stood S.S. guards. This, of course, caused such an uproar, it became the talk of the town. When something unpleasant happened to me—like the incident with the six Nazis who stood near the war memorial at the University gate—she insisted that I tell her all the details and, when I was done, she said with tears in her eyes: “The pigs! The name of Professor Landsberger’s son who died in the war is engraved on that memorial, and his father is forbidden to teach at the university because he is Jewish.”

“What would become of my five sons who attend their schools and live under this regime, they would become murderers, criminals!” she would protest with terrible agony.

“I envy the Jews,” she told me several times. “At least they don’t have to be ashamed of their own people, whereas I am shamefaced by my people’s infamy.”

On the day I left Bonn, I came to say goodbye to the home that had been very dear to me for a year and a half, a place where I learned how science is done, how “dry” science is not dry at all, and how the humanity of individuals is revealed. Professor Kahle and his wife warmly shook my hand; the turmoil of the past few months had brought us closer, and even though, compared to them, I was nearly a child, there was a deeply felt understanding between us.

Mrs. Kahle, who came out of the kitchen to say goodbye, said to me: “When you’re back home, Miss Goldberg, don’t forget that even in this Germany there are still people who think decent thoughts and who act decently.”

I haven’t forgotten, but they could not survive much longer in “this Germany,” the Germany that expelled them a few years later. When I left Bonn on August 1st, 1933 their five sons were young: the youngest, aged six, had just enrolled in school—a Nazi school, of course—and the eldest was 14 years old.

AFTER I LEFT GERMANY, we corresponded for a while. Kahle’s last letter reached me here at the end of 1936, responding to my inquiry about the tragic suicide of Dr. Kurt Levy, who had been his assistant before the Nazis rose to power, and who continued to work with him even after he had been fired, until the Nazi woman, who was his official replacement, brought about his death, threatening to report him to the authorities. Kahle’s letter was charged with sadness and bitterness, and his last line read: “All my efforts to hire a Jewish teacher have been for naught!” Such willful gullibility in 1936, and so very moving.

I stopped writing him so as not to cause him any difficulties for having “contacts” with Jews in the Land of Israel. But, even though the personal contact had stopped, I did hear of him from time to time; the first, as mentioned, was the astonishing news that not only did he manage to hold on to his university post, but that he was actually promoted and his name adorned the DZMG (Journal of the Eastern Studies Society) publications. However, later on we learned from a Jewish professor, who had left Bonn, that Kahle was fired when it was discovered that he had been hiding Jewish scientists in his home while helping them to emigrate. He had to leave the university, but remained in Bonn, and we knew that he and his wife were still engaged in assisting Jews, and that their lives were under constant threat. 

One day in 1939, after the war had started, I was reading Picture Post, and, looking at a page featuring photographs of German émigrés—intellectuals, artists, scientists, nearly all of them Jewish—I suddenly noticed a familiar face peering at me: Professor Paul Kahle, an émigré, living in London. It was a happy, thrilling encounter. That day I committed an act of thievery: I tore the page from the magazine. 

Sometime later, Norman Bentwich published an article about Kahle in The Palestine Post, and I learned how the Kahle family left Germany: on the day of the pogrom in Bonn, his wife and one of his sons—a student at the Conservatory—helped one of the Jewish grocers to collect his vandalized merchandise strewn about in the street. The S.A. men swooped down and arrested them. Articles appeared in the newspapers about “this malignant family of traitors.” Still, Mrs. Kahle was released, and she and her son crossed the border to one of the neighboring countries. From there they went to Paris, where they were soon followed by the professor and their four other sons. All this happened right before war started.

I’ll never understand this miracle, this amazing strength of human morality—how two people in such a Germany managed to raise five boys in the spirit of integrity, dignity, and emigration; five boys who were constantly exposed to peer pressure, propaganda, schooling, the youth organization. 

On my bookshelf, among old and new books, there’s a book bound in brown and gold leaf—Jerusalem by Selma Lagerlöf. Professor Kahle had gifted me the book on that Christmas Eve. This book, the photograph I stole, and a few letters from 1933–36 constitute a great weave of memories, blending with the present: this is my private treasure that always recounts for me the most engrossing tale of all—the tale of a man’s greatness.

Lea Goldberg (1911–1970) published nine books of poetry, three novels, a collection of short stories, three plays, ten nonfiction books, 20 books for children, and literary translations from the Russian, German, Italian, and English. Goldberg was awarded numerous literary prizes, and her work has been published in 14 languages.

Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator and the author of 14 books. Her most recent translation is of Mordechai Geldman’s Years I Walked at Your Side (SUNY Press, 2018).