A 90-second film clip screened in movie theaters in British Mandatory Palestine in August 1939 provides a quick glimpse of an exceptional person to whom many owe their lives but whom few have heard of. The silent film, which was produced for Carmel newsreels – the news program of the pre-television era – shows a group of young people in a tent encampment on a bare hill abutting the coast near Atlit.
The women are busy setting up fishing nets while the muscular men, in bathing suits, undershirts or shirtless, board boats and sail out to the stormy sea. In the midst of the tumult, the figure of the handsome captain stands out. For a moment it looks as if the news clip is a Hollywood film and the captain is actually an actor.
It’s not just his appearance. The man’s name – Capt. Gustav Pietsch – also attests to the fact that he is an exception on the local landscape among the group of Zionists, members of the Maapilim-Gordonia youth movement who immigrated to Palestine from Poland and in the film are building the fishing village which later became Kibbutz Neve Yam.
“There was something unique and incomprehensible about that young, typically Aryan-looking German, who walked around in the uniform of a German captain, rejected his entire past and yearned to become part of the young group of pioneers,” read a eulogy published after his death in Australia in 1975.
What was a German officer, one who had previously been active in a nationalist anti-Semitic party, doing on the coast of the Land of Israel on the eve of the outbreak of World War II? Pietsch’s unusual story is at the center of a new study by German historian Prof. Suzanne Zeller, who researched his activities in Germany, Poland, Israel and Australia. “His life is material for a book or a film. It should be saved from final oblivion,” she recently told Haaretz in the midst of her research.
‘Love of the sea’
Pietsch was born in the late 19th century in a seaside resort in northern Germany, near the border of present-day Poland. During World War I he was trained as a sea captain and served on a minesweeper and a submarine escort. He returned from the war decorated with medals from the kaiser, settled into life in Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland) with his wife and their three children and worked in fishing and shipping.
Danzig was an important port city and most of its residents were German. Between the two world wars it was a “free city” under international protection, and was the focus of a conflict between Nazi Germany and Poland that was one of the reasons for the outbreak of World War II.
As the Nazis were rising to power in Germany, Pietsch was an active member of the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP), the ultranationalist and anti-Semitic German National People’s Party. But as his fellow party members started to join the Nazi Party, he refused, instead starting to demonstrate opposition to the Nazis.
At first he didn’t comply with the demand to remove the Jewish members of the World War I veterans association, which he headed. He then organized protection for the largest synagogue in the city, and was able to interfere with the plans of thugs sent by the Nazis to interrupt a memorial service for the Jewish victims of World War I.
That same year, 1935, Pietsch even dared to run as an independent candidate in the last free parliamentary election in Danzig. He was arrested several times, and once was badly beaten by street thugs, who attacked him with iron bars and pushed him in front of a moving streetcar.
His wife Gertrude, who ran a bakery, also suffered at the hands of the Nazis. At first thugs would come to the bakery to prevent customers from entering. They sprayed anti-Semitic slogans on it and shattered its windows. In the end they made sure that her business license was not renewed.
When there was no other choice, Pietsch and his family left the city and moved to the nearby city of Gdynia (Gdingen), in Poland. It was there that he expanded his opposition to the Nazis and started to rescue Jews. He started a Zionist seafaring school where he gave lessons to members of the Zionist seafaring youth movement Zevulon – which was active in the Land of Israel, England, Poland, North America and in Danzig – in order to “establish a generation of Hebrew seafarers.” Pietsch prepared the members of the movement, who called themselves the Zebulun Palestine Seafaring Society, for the journey to the Land of Israel.
“Love of the sea was in his blood and it wasn’t hard for him to kindle this love in the hearts of the young people, too,” wrote his friend Dov Shmida, who was also one of his students, years later. “The members of the hachshara [pioneer training group] didn’t know what to think of it at first. Some were afraid and some were suspicious of him, and most thought that his enthusiasm would fade quickly, but he surprised all of them, both the pessimists and the optimists, because he stayed with the challenge and met all the difficult tests of hachshara life as though it were his destiny,” he added.
“He was a dreamer with a lot of imagination … In the company of the young men who dreamed of a new homeland, with a big blue sea waiting for them somewhere in the desolate East and of a fishing village along its shores, which would provide their livelihood, he found his inner world, something that aroused in him the desire to build a new life,” Shmida said.
“It was love at first sight. The German officer immediately understood that they were about to do something great and exceptional here, and his enthusiasm knew no bounds,” wrote Yosef Michalsky in the Hebrew-language newspaper Lamerhav in 1968. He added that Pietsch “looked like the embodiment of the Nordic race” and was “a man who was entirely a legend.”
“There is no more beautiful task than training Jewish fishermen and settling them in their homeland, nor is there any profession more respectable than fishing and no better and more honest people,” he quoted Pietsch as saying. “He was vivacious and a heartbreaker, there was no force capable of resisting his enthusiasm and his energy,” said Shmida.
In 1937 the Jewish Agency sent him to Palestine to conduct a survey of the coastline and determine the place where the desired fishing village would be built. Upon his return to Europe, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, he embarked on a campaign of speeches and fundraising in Polish cities, including Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow. Armed with his splendid uniform and his charisma, he worked to win hearts and raise money for aliyah to Palestine.
A long journey
When the time was ripe, he smuggled his students in boats straight to the ships that would take them to the Land of Israel. Two of them were Polish Jews Shimon Magerkevich and Aharon Sherman. His own turn came in late 1938. After the Jewish Agency organized an entry certificate for him, he, his wife, children and several of his students boarded boats and fled to Palestine on a journey that lasted 17 days. At the request of the Jewish Agency, he also brought professional shipbuilding equipment to the country.
In Palestine he joined his Zionist friends, settled in Nahariya and built boats with his own hands in preparation for the establishment of the fishing village in Neve Yam. It was there that he was filmed for the newsreel described at the start of this article. But the enthusiasm and the Zionist spirit that are so obvious in the film dissipated over Pietsch’s insistence on using methods that were more suited to the Baltic Sea and less to the Mediterranean, and on ignoring the knowledge and experience of the neighboring Arabs, whom he dubbed “primitives.” After the outbreak of World War II, as a German citizen, he was arrested by the British and held for a time in a facility designed for enemy aliens.
After his release he moved to Tel Aviv, where he established a private fishing company. Later he was said to have been among the first to bring shrimps to Israel – from his sailing trip to El Arish in Egypt. He wasn’t successful: He went bankrupt and his property was seized. But the failures didn’t deter him, and he went on to live on a boat, continuing to fish and help those who were conducting the ha’apala, the illegal immigration to Palestine.
After the founding of the state he went down to Eilat, where he was appointed port director. But health problems and his and his wife’s difficulties in adapting to the local climate led to their departure to Moshav Nahalat Yehuda near Rishon Letzion. In the late 1950s he left for Germany to arrange receiving pension payments and compensation he was owed for the loss of his property during the Nazi era.
In his homeland he received a hero’s welcome and made headlines in newspapers that described his rescue of Jews on the eve of the war. One article reported that he had rescued 400 Jews from Germany and Poland thanks to the nautical training that helped them escape in time.
“They made a cocktail party for me, flattered me and fawned over me, and I stuck to my guns, I didn’t stop telling them: You’re all Nazis who have changed your stripes, we can’t trust you, but only young children who were born after the war,” he said after his return to Israel.
His sons Carl and Heinz were among the first seamen in the State of Israel. Carl even converted to Judaism and married a Jewish woman. His daughter Ursula married a British policeman in Israel who had served in the Acre Prison, where members of the Jewish right-wing organizations Etzel and Lehi, who fought the British and the Arabs, were hanged. As fate would have it, Pietsch’s grandson had a grandfather who rescued Jews and a father who participated in killing them.
Pietsch spent his final years in Australia. There, too, he engaged in fishing and joined the Jewish community. During his final decade, before his death in 1975, Pietsch visited Israel three times. On his last visit in 1972, he told his former student Shmida: “I want to return to the homeland in order to end my life here, because although I was born in Germany, I long ago erased it as a homeland, and I count the years of my life starting from my first visit to Israel.” His wish was not fulfilled and his descendants also eventually emigrated from Israel. As far as we know, despite his rescue operation, his name is not commemorated in this country.