David Wolffsohn (1856 – 1914)

David Wolffsohn (1856 – 1914)

David Wolffsohn was born in Darbenai, Lithuania, a townlet in the Russian Pale of Settlement. His father, the Talmud teacher Rabbi Eisik, had been a man of modernizing tendencies. From his father he had his thorough knowledge of Judaism, his love of Zion and his hope for a Jewish national liberation.

In 1872, David Wolffsohn moved to Memel in order to avoid conscription into the Russian army. There he studied at the Talmud Torah of future Hibbat Zion leader Rabbi Isaac Rülf. David Gordon, in whose house he lived during his short stay in Lyck, East Prussia, strengthened his Jewish national outlook.

David Wolffsohn worked himself up from the most modest of economic beginnings. After various unsuccessful business ventures he became a traveler and ultimately a partner in a large timber firm. He settled first in St. Petersburg and then in Cologne (Köln), Germany.

In Cologne, Wolffsohn struggled side by side with Max Bodenheimer for the furtherance of the Zionist ideal: the dream of a Jewish state had come to them even before they had heard of Herzl. In 1894 Wolffsohn and Bodenheimer founded a special Cologne branch of Hovevei Zion in the form of the Association for the Development of Agriculture in the Land of Israel.

In May 1896, David Wolffsohn sought Herzl out in Vienna to offer his homage and cooperation. All Wolffsohn knew about the author of “Der Judenstaat” was that he was a Viennese editor and man of letters, and he expected “a true Viennese type, well padded and clean-shaven.” Wolffsohn was confounded and amazed by the majestic figure of Theodor Herzl. This first meeting was a fateful encounter. In Wolffsohn, Herzl found not only immediate entree to the German Hovevei Zion, but a devoted and unfaltering follower. He soon became more – a friend, nicknaming him “Daade”.

Wolffsohn did not play a prominent role during the first Zionist congresses, a certain shyness prevented him from making an appearance in public. Before the first congress, Wolffsohn – clever, practical and steeped in tradition – chose the colors of the tallit – the Jewish prayer shawl – for the Zionist flag: a white field with two blue stripes and the Star of David. The majority of the delegates actually took it for granted that this was the old Jewish flag.

Wolffsohn, the keen observer of human nature, mediated between the parties of political and practical Zionists, and even during the dangerous Uganda-crisis he made successful efforts to bridge the disagreements.

After the problem of the foundation of the Jewish Colonial Bank became acute, Wolffsohn was appointed director of Bank activities and later became first president of “The Jewish Colonial Trust”. At the second Zionist Congress, he proudly reported that in the few weeks of intensive work which had been carried on, four million francs had been subscribed, almost all of it in small sums. On 27 May 1899 Wolffsohn gave the account that the minimum for the Jewish Colonial Bank was finally assured.

David Wolffsohn was Herzl’s consultant and confidant not only in organizational and financial matters, but also in political affairs.

Wolffsohn accompanied Herzl to London, Constantinople and Palestine. He was present during the audience with the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in Constantinople and the meeting in Mikveh Israel.

Herzl wrote in his diary: Wolffsohn, the good soul, had taken two snapshots of the scene. At least he thought he had. He patted his kodak proudly: “I wouldn’t part with these negatives for ten thousand marks.” But when we got to the photographers at Jaffa and had the negatives developed, it turned out that the first picture showed only a shadow of the Kaiser and my left foot; the second was completely spoiled.
(29 October 1898.)

Due to the Zionist movement and the friendship with Theodor Herzl, David Wolffsohn outdid himself at an amazing pace and his talents developed quickly. He was appreciated as a man with broad horizons, great perspectives and an all-consuming ideal. However, also Herzl was influenced by Wolffsohn to whom he owed his in-depth interest in the essence of Judaism. The character of David Littwak in Herzl’s utopian novel “Altneuland” is a portrait of Wolffsohn.

At the seventh Zionist Congress, Wolffsohn was appointed leader of the Zionist movement. As he could not leave Cologne and abandon his businesses, he moved all the Zionist offices to Cologne. This encouraged the Jewish National Fund to move there as well. He asked Nahum Sokolow to be the organization’s general secretary and in 1907 he founded HaOlam, the organization’s official newspaper.

Although debate at the eighth Zionist Congress was particularly heated, Wolffsohn again proved himself to be an accomplished mediator by insisting that all of the organization’s practical programs (including Jewish National Fund activities and new settlements) be in keeping with Herzl’s plan.

After the eighth Congress in 1907, an official visit to Turkey was cut short by the revolution there. In the same year Wolffsohn visited Russia, where he was received by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minster and then visited Hungary. His presence in Russia and Hungary bolstered the Zionist cause in both countries. Wolffsohn was re-elected president at the Ninth Zionist Congress in 1909, but by the Tenth Congress, his health was failing and the opposition, the “practical” Zionists, was gaining strength. He resigned from the presidency, however remained active in the financial and economic side of the organization, and intended to move to Eretz Israel, but never fulfilled this wish.

In 1906, David Wolffsohn traveled to South Africa where he set in motion the founding of the South African Zionist Federation.

At the tenth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1911, Otto Warburg succeeded Wolffsohn as President of the Zionist Organization.

1913, at the Zionist Congress in Vienna, Wolffsohn – already in ill health – took the chair and mastered the difficult task with endurance and strength.

David Wolffsohn, the symbol of the synthesis of Eastern and Western Europe, died in 1914. He was buried in Cologne. In 1952 his remains were moved to Jerusalem where they were re-interred next to Herzl’s.