8 November 1933
Letter from Heinz Fischel to Professor Ismar Elbogen
A few days before his twentieth birthday, Heinz Fischel (1913–2008), who lived in Bonn, wrote a letter to Ismar Elbogen (1874–1943), a professor of Jewish history at the College for the Science of Judaism in Berlin. Like all young German Jews in 1933, Heinz Fischel faced an extremely uncertain future. He had graduated from high school that spring and then begun studying law at Bonn University–“a stopgap measure, dictated by material concerns,” as he put it in his letter. His real inclination was to study a subject in the liberal arts and, now that a career in law had become “illusory,” he was following the advice of Bonn rabbi Alfred Levy and writing to Ismar Elbogen for information.
Heinz Fischel was aware of his own talents and shortcomings. Although he lacked adequate knowledge of Hebrew, he believed that he was well suited to the study of theology or a related subject and that he possessed the required “skills to provide practical pastoral care.” He hoped that Professor Elbogen would be able to give him information on the possibility of studying to become a rabbi or teacher.
Elbogen’s reply from Berlin has not survived, but the course of Heinz Fischel’s life shows that it must have been encouraging. Fischel remained at the University of Bonn, but transferred to philology department and began studying Jewish theology with a private tutor. In 1935 he was accepted into the College for the Science of Judaism, where he studied under Ismar Elbogen, among other scholars.
Fischel was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the course of the November Pogrom of 1938. Thanks to a scholarship to study in Scotland, he was released in late January 1939 but remained for a few months in Berlin, where he was ordained as a rabbi.
The scholarship enabled him to escape Germany, but the outbreak of war altered his status in Scotland. After just nine months in Edinburgh, Heinz Fischel was shipped to Canada as an “enemy alien” and was interned in a camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for two years.
After his release he served as a rabbi in St. Catherines, Ontario. In 1945 he received a teaching assignment at Alabama University, which was followed by positions in Pittsburgh and at Brandeis University. Finally, in 1961 Heinz Fischel joined the faculty of the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where he set up the Jewish studies program and served for more than three decades as a professor of Near Eastern languages. In March 2008, Professor Henry Fischel died at the age of ninety-four, almost seventy-five years after writing his fateful letter to Ismar Elbogen.
Bonn, 8 November 1933
Dear Professor !
Rabbi Levy in Bonn has advised me to contact you concerning the following matter:
I am currently facing the difficult decision of choosing a career. I passed my school-leaving examinations (with distinction) at Easter 1933 and afterward studied law for a semester. But this was only a stopgap measure, dictated by material concerns, and a career in philology would better suit my capabilities. I had previously been interested in the humanities, particularly in cultural history, philosophy, music or languages. Since a career in law has now become illusory, I am once again confronting the question of my future.
Although I lack adequate knowledge of Hebrew, I believe that I have the necessary background to study theology (or a related subject such as the philosophy of religion or history) as well as the required skills to provide practical pastoral care.
I would be grateful if you would be so kind as to provide me with information about the prospects, requirements and program for the office of rabbi or teacher.
Please excuse me for making these demands on your time and thank you in advance for your efforts.
Bonn am Rhein