Farming as a point of escape: On Hakhshara in Westphalia
The “Kibbutz Westerbeck” near Westerkappeln: the forgotten vocational training centre for young Jews on a farm in Münsterland, 1933-1938/39
Hakhshara – this Hebrew word means something like “making fit, preparation”. From the 1920s, it stood for a programme of the Zionist youth movement: on farms and estates in Germany, young Jews were to learn everything that they would one day need to live and work on the land in Palestine.
What had begun as a voluntary initiative changed in the face of the increasingly repressive measures taken by the Nazis after 1933, with the vocational training centres becoming one of the few routes of escape for many young German Jews. In 1935, there were 31 Hakhshara vocational schools for agriculture and horticulture in Germany. Between 1933 and 1938, these institutions helped more than 18,000 young Jews emigrate from Germany, most to Palestine – about one in four of the generation of six- to 25-year-olds.
Vocational training: goals and reality
One of the main tasks of the Maccabi Hatzair scout association was to “educate young Jews in Germany for the building of the Land of Israel”, a document of the Zionist youth movement saying that it “trusts that idealistic readiness for action can bring about the rebirth of a unified Jewish people”.
Maccabi Hatzair strove in its Hakhshara centres to provide “a thorough and solid vocational training”, as well as intensive training in sports.
The Hof Stern near Westerkappeln
There was also a Hakhshara school in Münsterland between 1934 and 1938. Located on a farm in the agricultural landscape of Westerbeck near Westerkappeln, it was the only one of its kind in the former Prussian province of Westphalia. The young people themselves called the farm “Kibbutz Westerbeck” in the 1930s, although it was not really a communally managed farm in the strict sense, but a centre of vocational training and place of refuge.
From December 1932, the farm was owned by the Osnabrück horse dealer Rudolf Stern and his brother, the businessman Leo Stern, who also worked in Osnabrück. The two brothers leased the farm to the Jewish scout association “Maccabi Hatzair”, which set up a vocational centre for Jewish school leavers between the ages of 15 and 17. The last to run the school were the couple Dora and Siegfried Löwenstein from Syke near Bremen, who lived on the farm with their daughter Grete.
A total of 104 adolescents and young adults, 32 female and 72 male, lived at “Hof Stern” (as it was also called) between January 1934 and November 1938. They came from major cities like Berlin and Leipzig, from cities such as Bielefeld, Dortmund and Essen, but also from villages such as Madfeld near Brilon, Herzlake in Emsland, and Westerstede in Ammerland.
“educate young Jews in Germany for the building of the Land of Israel”
Monitored, persecuted, forced to flee, murdered
What happened on the farm was of interest not only to its neighbours and the residents of Westerkappeln; events were also closely monitored by the registry authority, by local and regional Nazi officials, and by the police.
On 1 August 1935, the deputy head of the district authority informed the Gestapo in Münster about the “Jewish retraining camp”, and noted among other things: “At the moment, I am still making inquiries (which, incidentally, are very difficult to carry out) as to whether those retrained actually emigrate or whether they remain in Germany”.
On 10 August 1935, the Münster Gestapo informed the head of the district authority in the Tecklenburg region that they had “suggested to the Gestapo in Berlin that the Jewish retraining camp in Westercappeln-Westerbeck be dissolved in the interest of public safety and order”.
Attempts by the Nazis and the Gestapo to dissolve the Hakhshara school came to nothing at the time, however, for reasons not yet known. The Hof Stern and its residents were able to continue the work of Jewish self-help until 1938.
The end of the “Hof Stern” in 1938/39
Members of the SA attacked the farm during the pogrom of 9/10 November 1938, violently assaulting the Löwenstein couple who ran the farm, destroying the furniture, and smashing the windows. Four young men were still living on the farm at the time, and they, along with Siegfried Löwenstein, were imprisoned in Westerkappeln. While Löwenstein was able to return to the farm after a week, the four young men were deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp for several weeks.
One of the four seems to have escaped to a foreign country shortly afterwards, while the other three were deported and murdered during the war years: in the Buchenwald concentration camp, in the Riga ghetto, and in the Stutthof concentration camp.
The Löwenstein couple, Siegfried (50) and Dora (49), were deported to Belarus in 1941, where both died (presumably in July 1942) in the Minsk ghetto.
What happened to the hundred or so young people?
What happened to each individual cannot be stated with certainty to this day. Some managed to reach Switzerland, Great Britain, the USA, or Palestine.
At least ten did not escape. Their names can be found in the register of Shoa victims in Yad Vashem and in the memorial book of the federal archives, which commemorates all Germans of Jewish faith who were murdered in the Shoa between 1939 and 1945.
A preliminary conclusion
The Hakhshara vocational centre in Münsterland was at least a temporary shelter for the young people in the hostile, even murderous, atmosphere of the Nazi regime, helping them escape and saving lives. Not all, but many boys and girls or young adults were helped to escape persecution and violence, and even certain death.
Idea and text: Gisbert Strotdrees
Photos and sources: 1 and 2: Gisbert Strotdrees; 3, 5-7: Westerkappeln municipal archives; 4: North Rhine-Westphalia state archives, dept. Westphalia, Münster
Sources and literature:
Westerkappeln municipal archives
North Rhine-Westphalia state archives, dept. Westphalia, Münster
Deutscher Makkabikreis: Rechenschaftsbericht 1933-1935. Berlin 193, pp. 10-15. (with gratitude to Henry Wahlig, Dortmund, for drawing our attention to this source).
Gisbert Strotdrees: Eine Minderheit in der Minderheit. Jüdische Landwirte und Landeigentümer in Westfalen von den Emanzipationsgesetzen bis zur nationalsozialistischen „ARisierung“ (1800-1939/42). In: Iris Nölle-Hornkamp (ed.): Heimatkunde. Westfälische Juden und ihre Nachbarn. Ausstellungskatalog Jüdisches Museum Westfalen. Essen 2014, pp. 67-79 (on the Hof Stern/Hakhshara in Westerbeck and the sources consulted, see there pp. 72-77).
The author would be pleased to receive information about memories, written reports of contemporary witnesses, and other documents or photographs from that time concerning the Hof Stern/“Kibbutz Westerbeck” in Westerkappeln. The author can be contacted at this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org