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    Rabbi Zimmels & the Dunera

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 2022, Vol. 26, Part 1.

    Amongst the thousands of Continental refugees rounded up in Britain early in World War Two and transported to Australia on the notorious HMT Dunera was Rabbi Dr Hirsch Jacob Zimmels, a historian and teacher from Vienna who later returned to England and eventually became principal of Jews’ College, the London rabbinic seminary. His solid body of writing picked out and utilised the historical, theological and liturgical themes of the rabbinic responsa literature. Zimmels was one of a group of Orthodox rabbis who were transported on the ship and were subsequently held behind barbed wire in Australian internment camps. Many eventually stayed in Australia and made it a more civilised place. Others helped Britain win the war. This is the story of Hirsch Jacob Zimmels as a “Dunera Boy”.

    At Jews’ College, London,[1] one of my professors in the minister’s diploma course was Rabbi Dr Hirsch Jacob Zimmels. The main subject he taught us was the difficult Talmudic tractate of Chullin. Dr Zimmels told his wife one day: “If Mr Apple says he understands the Gemara, he understands it!” To what extent Mr Apple really understood the Gemara is hard to say, but Zimmels himself certainly had a master’s understanding of the Talmud and many other subjects, and a chapter of that story has an Australian connection. In pre-war Europe, Dr Zimmels (the surname probably has Yiddish origins and derives from the name Shimon) had been an eminent Judaica scholar, author and seminary teacher and then a communal rabbi in Vienna before going to England in 1939 as a refugee and there being arrested as an enemy alien and transported to Australia on the Dunera.

    The son of Myer and Mindel (née Barsam), Zimmels was born on 29 December 1900 in Jaworow in Galicia (now part of Ukraine). He gained a PhD at the University of Vienna in 1926 followed by rabbinical ordination the following year. He specialised in research into rabbinic responsa[2] – she’elot u’t’shuvot – and became an authority in his field. He lectured at the rabbinic seminary in Breslau from 1929-1933 and from 1934-39 was rabbi of the Jewish community of Vienna. He left continental Europe a few months before the Second World War, finding sanctuary in England thanks to the spirit of tolerance and justice that historically marked the British people. His period of safety in England did not last long, however, and he was one of a large number of refugees[3] sent to Australia in 1940 on the notorious HMT Dunera about which so much has been written and reported.

    Built in 1937, HMT (Hired Military Transport) Dunera was not designed to be a passenger liner but a troopship, though when not needed for that purpose it did service as a cruise liner. It was utilised to transport enemy aliens from Britain to Australia in 1940. Once the Australian government had on 1 July signified its willingness to accept 6000 enemy aliens, the Dunera set sail from Liverpool a few days later. Before the first week was out the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. The haste with which the voyage was commissioned led the ship to become embroiled in a major controversy and the name Dunera has ever afterwards borne unpleasant overtones. The 2542 detainees on board formed a number far in excess of the ship’s official capacity. Apart from a few non-Jews (some of whom had Nazi sympathies), most of the passengers were not enemy spies but cultured Jewish refugees whose status had not been properly investigated and who were badly mistreated by the largely untrained guards, some of whom had apparently been released from prison to assist the British war effort.

    Many of the supposed guards abused the passengers and stole or destroyed their belongings, including watches and money, and threw their suitcases overboard. The crew of the ship were often more decent and considerate, but on the whole the Dunera was a hell-ship, possibly comparable to the convict ships of early Australian history. It was, however, not Australia’s government or its people who were mostly responsible for the tragic miscalculations that brought the Dunera to Australia. It was the United Kingdom government under Chamberlain and subsequently Churchill that echoed the populist anti-alien agitation fomented by the press and sections of the public (the mantra was “Collar the Lot!”), feeling they were protecting Britain and the Empire against an invasion by enemy aliens. It miscategorised many of the refugees and “captured” (rounded up) many thousands of harmless men whose only crime had been to oppose and escape the clutches of the Nazis.

    In both the United Kingdom and Australia the internment policy had its critics. Churchill eventually acknowledged that “a deplorable and regrettable mistake” had been made, and the stain of guilt was removed from many hundreds of inoffensive refugees. The guards who behaved with such callousness and cruelty against the deportees were court-martialed and punished. Nonetheless, in the long run the so-called Dunera Boys brought benefit to the allied war effort and most of those who stayed in Australia aided and enriched the development of Australian science, commerce and culture. Many historians have compiled lists of notable citizens who came on the Dunera and significantly contributed to disciplines as varied as sport, music, engineering, economics, philosophy, art, photography, mathematics, chemistry, theoretical physics, political science and religion.

    In a commemorative address at Sydney Harbour on 6 September 2000 I said the following: “To most Australians, Dunera is merely a word – at best, part of a book title about something that happened a lifetime ago. But to the Dunera Boys it still, 60 years after the event, vividly evokes memories of a racist enemy which engulfed so many of their families; of a hoped-for haven that thoughtlessly, unfairly moved them on; of cautious officialdom that did not understand, and officers who exploited their vulnerability; of a new southern country that, after a sometimes hesitant beginning, took them to its heart and gave them hope.”

    Some of the “Boys” were Orthodox Jews, some were Liberals, a number were rabbis; some had no interest in religion of any kind, some were not Jewish. A few of the non-Jews were antisemitic and taunted the Jews. The challenge of being an Orthodox Jew on board the ship gravely compounded the difficulties of the voyage. Few internees were able to save their possessions including their tefillin (phylacteries) from confiscation and destruction. Some were able to hide their pocket editions of religious books. An ad hoc Beth Din (Rabbis Blumenthal, Ehrentreu, Feuchtwanger, Schaffer and Zimmels) came into being in order to address halachic (Jewish legal) issues. Rabbi Blumenthal tells the story in his autobiography.[4]

    After calling in at Melbourne, where some deportees disembarked, the ship docked in Sydney on 6 September 1940, on a Shabbat. The Orthodox Jews came down the gang plank wearing tefillin to overcome the problem of carrying things (even religious articles) from place to place on a Sabbath. The Australian press did not know the circumstances and thought the Jews were wearing radar equipment. The internees, who were mostly “refugee” and not “enemy” aliens, were sent to an internment camp in Hay, NSW, where the heat was so intense that there was a saying, “There’s no ‘ell as ‘ot as ‘ay”. A few weeks later, the summer heat melted the candles during the festival of Chanukah.

    A number of internees – possibly for health reasons – later went to Orange. This group might have included Zimmels, though their stay in Orange was short. Most internees were moved to Tatura in Victoria. Australian rabbis (especially Jacob Danglow of Melbourne and LA Falk of Sydney) – and a Sydney bishop (C Venn Pilcher) – paid visits to the camps and tried to help. Tatura was near the Shepparton Jewish agricultural settlement headed by Moshe Feiglin,[5] who had arrived in Australia in 1913 and brought the Orthodox internees kosher food, religious appurtenances and reassurance. The Australian Jewish Welfare Society also gave some assistance.[6]

    Though the internees were under guard, they were generally supervised by laid-back Australians who treated them with some friendliness and humour. It is said that an Australian guard gave an internee his gun to hold while he lit a cigarette. The internees resourcefully created a range of facilities for communal living including their own currency. Few considered themselves to be immigrants and/or Australians. They resented their situation but realised that they had to put up with things for the time being. During their absence from Britain, their situation continued to be vigorously debated.

    There was a range of attitudes towards the internees (ranging from embarrassment to outright antagonism) on the part of Australian public figures. Some Jewish leaders felt that Jewish community stability was under threat and were prejudiced against “foreigners”.[7] Australia’s government basically tolerated the injustice that had been perpetrated bythe United Kingdom government and presumed that Mother England knew what it was doing. Australian policies finally became relatively permissive.

    Family members in Britain often had no information about the whereabouts of relatives who had been arrested and sent away somewhere. There is a view that the men were going to Canada, where they would be joined by their families – but it was all rather mysterious. Only when the Dunera reached Australia were the internees able to write and tell their families where they were. Their fear and aggravation were already at a high level because of the Nazi campaigns against Jews. During the voyage a number of deportees kept diaries, often using toilet paper for this purpose.

    Zimmels is listed (E7693) as a Dunera refugee in Cyril Pearl’s book but nothing is said about his background and concerns, though it was acknowledged that the ship’s passengers included other rabbis and an Orthodox Jewish group. The fact is that the voyage was decided upon hastily without the Jewish, human and religious needs of the deportees being properly considered. Kosher food was unobtainable. Life on the ship was rough. Though there were informal on-board universities and yeshivot (rabbinic study groups), the British army guards were brutish and tended to call the Jewish refugees demanding, arrogant liars and swine. Most of the time the detainees were kept below decks, had only short periods of fresh air, and found hygiene almost impossible to maintain. Some deportees bore the physical and psychological marks of previous persecution in Germany.

    The whole episode was a jumble of mistakes which added up to what the Manchester Guardian called a scandal. Major Julian Layton was sent out to Australia to inquire into the “dreadful muddle”, which is how Australia House described the affair. Layton, who had a long record of work for refugees, was expected to help the internees to repatriate when shipping became available. Eventually about half of the internees returned to Britain, where many enhanced the Allied war effort. These days, Hay and Tatura in Australia, where the Dunera Boys were interned, have museums which feature the Dunera story.

    Much of the information in the next two sections of this article comes from Carol Bunyan, an indefatigable, reliable research worker/historian whose database about the Dunera episode and its passengers including Zimmels is valuable and extensive. I have drawn on her previously unpublished data, with her generous permission and (I trust) her approval. Much of the information about Zimmels from his arrival in Australia until his return to Britain comes from Carol Bunyan’s database. Information in her database is derived from National Archives of Australia (NAA) MP1103/1 and MP1103/2 files on Dunera internees; NAA A2908, P22 parts 4-11; other NAA files; and other sources including genealogical sites such as ancestry.com.

    Zimmels on the ship and in Australia
    Zimmels had arrived in Britain in March 1939 and initially worked as a Hebrew teacher at a London synagogue. More details of the immediate period after his arrival in London are unknown. Nor do Australian records show how he gained entry to Britain. The “1939 Register” – accessible through ancestry.com – which records all civilians in England and Wales on 29 September that year, gives his residence as 17 Sneyd Road, Willesden. “Rabbi (former)” is recorded as his occupation. Also living there was a married domestic servant, Rifka Rauchwerger, who may have been the employee of a relative.

    Zimmels appeared before an enemy aliens’ tribunal on 12 December 1939. The resulting index card records that he was a refugee of German nationality and exempt from internment and the special restrictions applying to enemy aliens. He was placed in the lowest category (“C”) which meant he was considered as being no threat to Britain. The card also indicates that he lived at 99 Walm Lane, Willesden; he must have moved from Sneyd Road. His normal occupation was stated as “Rabbi”, and he had no occupation at that time; nor did he seek repatriation to his previous country.

    The general internment of all free male enemy aliens in categories B or C, aged 16 to 70, began in May 1940 after the invasion of the Low Countries. Zimmels was among those interned in the last stages of the process, that of London residents in category C. According to his Australian records he was “captured” on 27 June when his private address was 16 Stanley Gardens, Willesden Green. His first internment camp was a transit camp set up at the Lingfield racecourse in Surrey. From here he and 299 others left by train. Many, if not all, were unaware of their immediate or longer-term destination. After arriving at Liverpool, they were embarked on the Dunera which had previously ferried New Zealand troops to Egypt.

    Zimmels was probably in the forward area of Dunera where others from Lingfield are known to have been located. This part of the ship also housed religious Jews from other camps along with secular Jews, non-Jewish refugees and others. The problems of the voyage such as overcrowding, poor hygiene and sporadic illness, theft and other mistreatment are well known. Kosher meat or other kosher food was not available; cheese was ruled as a necessity for life although not all the Orthodox Jews accepted it. Religious life continued as far as possible with prayer or study groups and talks. Orthodox Friday evening and Saturday morning services were on one deck, Liberal services on another. There were also talks on general topics, given by deportees who were specialists in a variety of subjects.

    On arrival in Hay, everyone was housed in the one compound (later known as Camp 8). Zimmels chose to move to what became Camp 7 a week or so later when it was completed. Possibly he had a few Hebrew books but apart from this, his only luggage was a suitcase, which other internees reported as in good condition. His name does not appear amongst applicants for a visa for the USA, nor among those wanting to go to Palestine. He was one of 25 known residents of Hut 6, eight of whom began their journey at Lingfield.

    Nothing has been found regarding how he spent his time, but it seems logical that he continued to study and instruct others. His academic reputation must have given him especial status amongst the internees. It also motivated efforts to secure his release. These efforts were spearheaded in Britain by Chief Rabbi Hertz and in Australia by Rabbi Dr Israel Porush of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, who knew of Zimmels’ scholarly record.

    British policy about internment of all males had changed by the time that the Dunera arrived in Australia. It was realised after parliamentary debates that the earlier policy had been based on misapprehensions. Internees in Category C, like Zimmels, could apply for release under specified categories, and this applied to those in Australia. In his case, his application for release reached the Australian authorities on 20 March 1941. However, as it took time for mail to reach Britain, the Home Office would have only received it on or after 6 May. His application was forwarded some three weeks before the first visit to Hay of the Home Office’s liaison officer, Major Julian Layton, who was charged with making arrangements for the internees’ future.

    With others from his hut, Zimmels left for Orange on 22 May 1941. Whether this was to convalesce from an epidemic of tonsilitis and heart problems is unknown. On July 25 he arrived at Tatura, probably among the 29 from Orange joining the kosher group in Camp 3 Compound B. Assuming this was so, he would have moved to Camp 4 Compound C in mid-August and then Camp 2 at the end of January 1942. Irrespective of what area he was in at Tatura, he was one of the most popular religious lecturers there.

    The Home Office’s approval for his return to Britain and his release was cabled to Australia on 22 July. His release was approved under Category 20 which applied to “persons of eminent distinction who had made outstanding contributions to Art, Science, Learning or Letters”. Having received this approval he then had to wait for a place on a ship going to Britain. His allocation was one of Julian Layton’s responsibilities. Ships and berths were in short supply and the priority group for the next ship consisted of internees returning to join the Pioneer unit. Another priority group were those with technical or other skills, including farming experience, needed for industry and the war effort. Zimmels was not among the 599 allocated a berth on the next four ships, two in October and one each in November and December.

    In January, a planned departure of more internees was cancelled as ships became scarcer after Japan’s entry into the war. Releases, on parole, in Australia were beginning to be considered in certain cases, usually for work of national importance. In light of this, Julian Layton sought approval, on 16 January 1942, to release Rabbis Blumenthal, Ehrentreu and Zimmels to serve as ministers for Australian Jewish communities. Approval for Zimmels was cabled on 6 February. No information has been found regarding why this approval was not acted upon. It could have been a personal choice, or a suitable synagogue might not have been available. While Blumenthal left internment in April and Ehrentreu in May, Zimmels remained in camp. Blumenthal did not take up a vacant position at the Central Synagogue, Sydney, because the synagogue had a mixed male-and-female choir. He and Ehrentreu engaged in other rabbinical work. Zimmels, on the other hand, was anxious to return to England. On 18 July 1942, he and 297 others, including some Italians, sailed for Britain on TSS Themistocles. Among them were six others who had lived in Hut 6 at Hay, only one of whom had le” from Lingfield. Their route took them around the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in Liverpool on 6 October. On arrival Zimmels was released. He was naturalised in 1948. His parents were in The Netherlands during the war. His father died in The Hague on 8 February 1941, and his mother in Auschwitz on 29 October 1942.

    Camp 7
    According to their recorded occupation, Camp 7 internees included ten rabbis; two ministers of religion; two cantors; three teachers who added to their statement of occupation “cantor”, “precentor”, or “religion”; nine Talmudic students (there were probably more, as some simply said “student”); and six students of theology, two of whom were Anglicans. There were Orthodox, Liberal and secular Jews as well as adherents of other religions (e.g. Roman Catholics) and people of no religion. Space was allocated for Orthodox worship; Liberal Jews had a separate space. There was a yeshivah and a kosher kitchen (although kosher meat only began to appear after about five months, thanks to the presence of a shochet) and a kosher dining area. Two other kitchens prepared vegetarian or standard meals. The area of Camp 7 where the Orthodox and Liberal Jews and others who had been at Kitchener Camp in England had their sleeping huts became known as West Hay.

    There were 25 known residents of Hut 6. The internees themselves decided who would occupy a hut. They often chose to live with others they knew, or those with similar beliefs or interests. Austrian was the nationality of 18 men; four were Germans; Polish, Austrian and German was the former nationality of the three who said they were stateless. Vienna was the birthplace of eleven men; four had been born in Mattersdorf. Some but not all were relatively fluent in English. Most allowed their names to be released to the Red Cross but few wanted the German government to know who and where they were.

    The oldest and the only married man, Alter Josef Sturm, was born in Dąbrowa, Galicia, in 1877. Zimmels was the third oldest. The youngest was Jakob Alfred Benjamin, born 31 May 1924 – one of 12 born in the 1920s. Only two of the internees had been captured’ outside London: Sturm, interned on landing at Folkestone, Kent, on 23 May 1940; and Günter/Samson Bier, who had been on a farm at Castleton, Lancashire, in early July. Eight of the 23 rounded up in London were placed at the Lingfield Camp in Surrey prior to embarking on the Dunera in Liverpool: Michael Austern, Paul Braun, Fritz Hofbauer, Siegfried and Wilhelm Huss, Leon Rintel, Julius Schechter and Hersch Zimmels. They were probably not told of their destination or that they were being sent overseas. Siegfried Schaffer, Norbert Sternfeld and Zimmels were rabbis. Internees included cutters, an electrician, merchant, sausage maker, tailor and three students who did not indicate their field of study. The known Talmudic students were Benjamin Bier, Abraham Heftler, Israel Heszel, Oskar Lewin, Ernst Neufeld, Moses Rabi, Julius Schechter, Isidor Stern and Leo Elieser Stern. Lewin had initially gained entry to Britain to study at the Talmudical College in Liverpool; Bier was a student at a London yeshivah. Zimmels gave well supported lectures and shi’urim. He kept the notes he made for his lectures. Hebrew books (including the Chabad philosophical work, the Tanya) were supplied through or by Moshe Feiglin, who also provided employment for some internees who were able to leave the camp.[8]

    The advent of Passover presented major problems. There were a number of Seder services. Oskar Lewin wrote out from memory the text of the Haggadah, with assistance from Eli Loebenstein. The internees made their own matzah (unleavened bread). Passover wine was made by Herman Halberstadt. For maror (bitter herbs) they used quinine, which was bitter and had been supplied to prevent malaria.[9] Schaffer supervised Loebenstein’s shechitah (kosher slaughter) and later gave him a certificate testifying to his capacity as a shochet. A kosher kitchen and dining room were built by the internees in Camp 2, which also had a hut for worship.

    The internees – Orthodox or otherwise – were aggrieved that the Australian people were not more active on their behalf, even though the governor-general and various churchmen were aghast at how the internees had been treated. The Jewish internees felt that the organised Australian Jewish community had not exerted itself enough for them. They felt that the Jewish leadership should plead their cause more vigorously with the Australian government. Many Australian Jewish leaders – both lay and rabbinic – were rather ambivalent towards the refugees, possibly fearing that representations would invite an outbreak of antisemitism.[10]

    In January 1941, Sturm left for Tatura with nearly 100 others on health grounds. In early May, Shaffer and four others were among a group of about 170 sent to Tatura. This signalled the removal of all Dunera internees from Hay, 19 more following later that month. On May 22, Braun, Hofbauer and Zimmels left for Orange. This left only a handful of hospitalised Dunera internees in Hay, and they too left for Orange in early June. Former Camp 7 residents occupied the smaller part of the Orange camp. Among them were other religious Jews.

    There are no known hut lists for Tatura, making it impossible to discover if all ended up in the same camp or compound. Camp 2 housed many from May 1941 and most who were still there were co-located in Camp 2 by the end of January 1942. From 22 May 1941 a kosher group of 129 was located in Camp 3 Compound B and they may have been joined by others. The number grew in July when those from Orange arrived. In mid-August that group of about 195 moved to Camp 4 Compound C with their last move being at the end of January 1942.

    There was only one departure of former Hut 6 residents in 1941, the bulk occurring in 1942. The nearly 300 leaving for Britain in July 1942, including seven from Hut 6, was the last large group before 1945. Those who sailed in August were moved to another ship in Africa. The Abosso was torpedoed on 29 October, and four members of Hut 6 were among
    the 41 former internees who died.

    NameYear BornPlace of BirthDate Left CampWhere Released and WhyLast Country Resided In
    AUSTERN Michael1899Horodnica18/7/42UK: PioneersUK
    BENJAMIN Jakob Alfred1924Würzburg15/2/43Australia: WorkUSA
    BERNSTEIN Max1923Vienna18/7/42UK: Case considerationIsrael
    BIER Günter Heinz1923Cologne30/11/43UK: Case considerationUSA
    BRAUN Paul1921Cluj28/1/42Australia: Labour BnAustralia
    HEFTLER Abraham1920Vienna18/7/42UK: releaseUSA
    HESZEL Israel1911Warsaw18/7/42UK: releaseUSA
    HOFBAUER Fritz1911Vienna2/6/42Australia: Labour BnAustralia
    HUSS Siegfried1904Vienna24/8/42UK: Case considerationn/a
    HUSS Wilhelm1906Vienna24/8/42UK: Case considerationn/a
    LAMM Erwin1921Vienna24/9/42Australia: Labour BnAustralia
    LEWIN Oskar1921Frankfurt am Main24/5/43Australia: WorkUK
    LÖBL Emmerich1917Lackenbach7/12/42PalestineIsrael
    LOCK Hermann1910Vienna18/7/42UK: Case considerationUK
    NEUFELD Ernst1922Mattersdorf7/12/42PalestineIsrael
    RABI Moses1922Frankfurt am Main16/4/43Australia: WorkAustralia
    RINTEL Leon1913Vienna24/8/42UK: Case considerationn/a
    SCHAFFER Siegfried1918Vienna7/12/42PalestineIsrael
    SCHECHTER Julius1921Vienna24/8/42UK: Case considerationn/a
    SOBELMANN Samuel1922Mattersdorf1/7/45UK: TransferUK
    STERN Isidor1922Mattersdorf3/8/43PalestineIsrael
    STERN Leo Elieser1912Wachen-buchen16/7/42PalestineIsrael
    STERNFELD Norbert Gabriel1918Vienna22/8/41PalestineIsrael
    STURM Alter Josef1877Dąbrowa18/7/42UK: Case consideration of age releaseUK
    ZIMMELS Hersch Jakob1900Jaworów18/7/42UK: releaseUK

    Bier was the last to sail. He had objected that a roll call interfered with Yom Kippur observances, telling the guard commander that religion was “more important than the Camp Commandant’s orders”. He was then placed in the detention cell overnight. Sobelmann was the only hut member still at Tatura from 1944. In July 1945 he and all remaining civilian internees still at Tatura were transferred to Britain. Many internees enlisted in the UK Pioneers or the Australian Army’s labour force, but this presented problems for some. No guarantees were given that kosher food would be available or religious requirements respected. That such facilities were actually provided was due to the commanding officer, not to army policy. Some men returned to Britain and there picked up the pieces of their lives. About half remained in Australia, some rising high in national life.[11] Both in Britain and Australia most succeeded in building a new life and creating a new family for themselves. Some were able to reunite with relatives, friends and colleagues. Whilst their cases were under consideration by the UK government, most had to wait on the Isle of Man. In 1944 Zimmels became a teacher at and later principal of Jews’ College in London. His post-war career is summarised in the next section of this paper. As far as we know, he had no further contacts with Australia apart from occasionally having an Australian student in one of his classes.

    Zimmels’ post-war career
    After the scandal of the Dunera voyage and the internment, the deportees claimed compensation for the loss of, or damage to, their belongings. The United Kingdom government also made ex gratia payments, even compensating one internee for the loss of an unpublished novel. It now adopted a realistic policy (in the words of Psalm 126) “to reverse the captivity”. The Dunera returned to service as a troopship and after the war was refitted as an educational cruise ship.

    On his return to Britain, Zimmels secured work as librarian of Jews’ College.[12] He discovered that the books had suffered by their wartime evacuation. Years later his daughter-in-law Erla served as college librarian. He presumably did not wish to join the congregational ministry but preferred to resume his academic work. At the end of the war Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein, who had been on the College staff for many years, became director of studies and subsequently principal. Zimmels became a lecturer at the College in 1944. He taught in English but was competent in a range of classical and modern languages. His teaching program included Talmud, history and Bible. Other postwar appointments of continental scholars to Jews’ College posts included Rabbi Dr Naphtali Wieder (liturgy, Midrash and Talmud) and Rabbi Koppel Kahana (Kagan) who conducted the rabbinical diploma class. Zimmels was married at Golders Green Beth Hamedrash in London in 1943. A daughter was born to him and his wife in 1945, and a son in 1948.

    Zimmels’ earlier career was in the best traditions of continental Judaic scholarship. He was one of a number of continental rabbis and scholars who sought to be slotted into the British community structure by the chief rabbi, but there were not enough pulpits available because chaplains were due to return from military service. In any case, Germanic rabbis did not always feel at home in the British milieu and some found themselves more or less destitute. Jews’ College did not have enough students to warrant more than a handful of academic appointments. Some scholarly rabbis found positions in the Reform and Liberal synagogues, led by Rabbi Leo Baeck. Zimmels’ academic and literary work was known to and encouraged by Chief Rabbi JH Hertz who was acting principal of the College after the death of Dr Adolph Buechler. The next chief rabbi, Israel Brodie, greatly appreciated Zimmels, who co-edited a two-volume Festschrift for Brodie’s 70th birthday.

    Zimmels was an industrious, reliable and erudite researcher and writer. All his writings were carefully and meticulously refined and revised, a task in which, during the latter period of his life, he had the help of his son. As a teacher we knew him for his mannerisms and modesty. He treated his students with more respect than they possibly deserved; we were moved by his genuine piety; and his humility, kindness and deference were often summed up in the words “I beg your pardon, Mr. X!” He was a gentle person and a great inspiration but he lacked the dominant and dynamic personality of his colleague Dr Wieder.

    Anglo-Jewry was not known to be a community that valued serious thought or scholarship but Zimmels seemed to keep his misgivings to himself. He was on the Jews’ College staff at the time of the so-called Jacobs Affair in the 1960s. Zimmels was not uncritical of Louis Jacobs or his aspirations. Other members of staff took a more activist part in the debate about Jacobs whilst Zimmels seemed to prefer to get on with his work. When Epstein retired in 1961, Jacobs was vetoed from assuming the principalship by the chief rabbi, who also refused to let him resume the ministry of the New West End Synagogue. Zimmels, by now the senior member of the academic staff, became director of studies, and then, from 1964-69, principal. The deputy principal was Rabbi Dr JJ Ross, who found himself out of place at the College and thought the principal was a mere figurehead. However, the history of Jews’ College written by Derek Taylor remarks on the efficiency of Zimmels’ administration.

    After retiring in 1969, Zimmels continued to study, research and write. Although his earliest writings were in German, from the 1940s he mostly wrote in English. He always had literary projects under way. Tragically, he was knocked down by a car in Golders Green, London, on Shabbat 9 November 1974 and died from his injuries. His final book was published by his son.


    Dr Zimmels’ writings
    The following are Zimmels’ major works, the first four of which were on display at the Jews’ College library in 1955, the year of the College centenary:

    Beitraegezur Geschichte des Juden in Deutschland im 13. Jahrhundert (Vienna, 1926). In this work Dr Zimmels delves into the history of the Jews in Germany in the 13th century as documented in rabbinic responsa, and shows himself to be a solid historian of immense capacity.

    Rabbi David ibn Abi Simras Leben und Lebenswerk (Breslau,1932). A biographical and cultural study of the Radbaz, a 15th-16th century Talmudist and kabbalist, author of over 3000 responsa, and liturgical innovator. Another significant work of historical research and record which uses responsa to reveal history.

    Die Marranen in der rabbinischen Literatur (Berlin, 1932). Further utilising his responsa research skills, Zimmels produced an important book on the culture and mores of the Iberian crypto-Jews known as the Marranos.

    Magicians, Theologians and Doctors: Studies in Folk Medicine and Folklore as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa (NY: Jason Aronson, 1997). Zimmels’ first book in English, first published in 1952. Its 293 pages gather together the lore surrounding folk medicine, based on responsa from the 12th to the 19th centuries. It addresses concepts and methods of healing, including dentistry, obstetrics, the causes of disease, and folk remedies.

    Leopold Zunz: His Life and Times (London: Jewish Religious Educational Publications, reprinted 1964) In 39 pages the author presents the life story, ideas and achievements of Leopold Zunz, one of the great names in 19th century Jewish scholarship. Zunz had no patience for rabbis as ecclesiastical officials and pastors. This small book does not openly display the author’s disapproval of Zunz’s non-Orthodoxy.

    Ashkenazim and Sephardim: Their Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa (London: Oxford University Press, 1958). This seminal work of 347 pages – the second in a new series of Jews’ College Publications – went through several editions to become the definitive study of the ways and usages of the two major rites in Judaism, the Ashkenazi and Sephardi. The author traces the history of the two rites and their differences in relation to liturgy, poetry, Hebrew pronunciation and matrimonial law together with their respective modes of life and family customs and daily practices. He also examines the influence of each rite on the other. To write this book the author harnesses his encyclopedic knowledge of the responsa literature. The book has a Foreword by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, to whom the work is dedicated.

    Dubnow’s Presentation of Sephardi Jewry (a chapter in a Memorial Book to Simon Dubnow, ed. Aaron Steinberg) (Paris: World Jewish Congress, 1963). Marking Dubnow’s centenary, this volume includes an essay by Zimmels showing how Dubnow treated the Sephardi contribution to Jewish history. Zimmels argues that the Ashkenazim and Sephardim not only differ on religious grounds but have different styles of concern for “the common cause of the Jewish nation”.

    The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature (London, 1975). A massive work of 372 pages (published posthumously) which details how Holocaust-era rabbis, often themselves in circumstances of mortal danger, gave halachic responses to agonising questions on Jewish law posed by sufferers from Nazi ruthlessness. The book is evidence that the majority of Holocaust victims were traditionalists. Apart from documenting the questions posed to the rabbis, and summarising their responses, the author often adds his own perceptive comments. The book shows that a large proportion of victims and survivors were believers for whom, despite the unprecedented scale of the catastrophe, life (and death) had to and could be faced in an ordered Jewish way. We see how the tragedy unfolded and how the response came in a series of stages. The book is one of the most significant works in the genre of Holocaust literature. It is dedicated to the memory of the author’s mother, who was a victim of the Nazis.

    Dunera studies
    Anne Andgel
    Fifty Years of Caring: History of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society,1938-1988 (Sydney: Australian Jewish Welfare Society/Australian Jewish Historical Society, 1988)
    Raymond Apple
    – “Address at 60th commemoration of Dunera”, Sydney Harbour, 6 September, 2000 (typescript)
    – “Halachah of the Holocaust” (typescript)
    Paul R. Bartrop and Gabrielle Eisen (eds.)
    The Dunera Affair: A Documentary Resource Book (Melb.: Jewish Museum of Australia, 1990)
    Michael Blakeney
    Australia and the Jewish Refugees 1933-1948 (Sydney: Croom Helm Australia, 1985
    Australian Journal of Politics and History 31:1 (ed. Konrad Kwiet & John A Moses, 1985), “On Being a German-Jewish Refugee in Australia”
    – Hans Elchanan Blumenthal, Trials and Challenges (Jerusalem: Jewish Academy, 1994), pp. 59-70
    – Carol Bunyan, Dunera Database (unpublished)
    – Colin Golvan, The Distant Exodus (Melbourne: ABC, 1990)
    – Ken Inglis et al., Dunera Lives – vol. 1: A Visual History, vol. 2: Profiles (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, vol.1:2018, vol.2:2020). Writers: Carol Bunyan, Bill Gammage, Ken Inglis, Seumas Spark, Jay Winter
    = François Lafitte, The Internment of Aliens (London: Penguin Special, 1940)
    – Benzion Patkin, The Dunera Internees (Sydney: Cassel Australia, 1979)
    – Cyril Pearl, The Dunera Scandal: Deported by Mistake (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1983 limited edition of 120 signed copies, 1990)
    – Daniel R Schwartz, “A Submarine, some Suitcases, and Salvation … The Dunera Miracle Story”, AJHSJ, 24:4 (2020), pp. 722-73
    – Astrid Zajoband, German Rabbis in British Exile: From “Heimat” into the Unknown (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016)

    1. Derek Taylor, Defenders of the Faith: The History of Jews’ College and the London School of Jewish Studies (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2016), passim; Isidore Epstein, The Contribution of Jews’ College to Jewish Learning (lecture on 25 October, 1960).
    2. One of the pioneers in the use of rabbinic responsa as a source of history was Isidore Epstein in his two doctoral dissertations: on Solomon ben Adreth re Spain and Simon ben Zemach Duran re North Africa. Zimmels took a different approach, not so much investigating what the responsa could tell us about the history of the times but what they revealed about the history of themes and ideas.
    3. Carol Bunyan, unpublished data on the voyage and internment.
    4. Blumenthal, Trials and Challenges, pp. 59-70.
    5. Uri Kaploun, Avraham Avinu of Australia: The Life of Reb Moshe Feiglin, (AAA Publications, 2002), passim.
    6. Anne Andgel, Fifty Years of Caring (Sydney: AJWS/AJHS, 1988).
    7. Much more research needs to be done about the views of the local population in Hay, Orange and Tatura.
    8. Jewish leaders’ attitudes to “foreigners”: Suzanne Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia (2nd edition, Sydney: Brandl and Schlesinger, 1997), parts 2 and 3; Blakeney, passim.
    9. Pearl lists of deportees on pages 234-49.
    10. Email from Judge Martin Zimmels, 30 May 2022.
    11. Carol Bunyan, unpublished data on the internment camps and the internees’ departure from Australia.
    12. Taylor, op. cit., chapters on the postwar period.


    I greatly appreciate the information and other assistance generously given by Rabbi Zimmels’ son, Judge Martin Zimmels; by Carol Bunyan,
    the remarkable co-author of the two-volume work, Dunera Lives, who kindly gave me extensive material from her database files and graciously permitted me to use it; and by Emeritus Professor Konrad Kwiet, who put me in touch with Carol Bunyan and gave me other valuable leads. The late Henry (Heinz) Lippmann, a member of my congregation at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, often discussed Dunera matters with me and gave me his personal copy of Cyril Pearl’s book – number 103 of a limited edition of 120 copies autographed by the author. My own reminiscences of Dr Zimmels have been utilised throughout this essay.

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