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Student or Refugee?

Isak Wurman’s application to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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»I request to be admitted as a student for this semester; I am a refugee from Austria,« explained Isak Wurman in his application to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in January 1940. Clearly evident in the student applications received by the Hebrew University from young European Jews prior to the State of Israel’s establishment was their experience of migration and flight. The various documents in the application files reveal the course of the applicant’s migration and escape and tell of the refugee candidates’ distress and hopes. While their reasons for applying to the university included the desire to study there, escape from the dangers they faced in Europe was no less (and perhaps more) of a motivation. First and foremost, the candidate had to convince the admissions officer on Mount Scopus that he or she was deserving of the university’s request on their behalf for a certificate to Palestine from the British Mandatory government.

The correspondence between Wurman and the university continued for nine months. On 26 March 1940, he sent a registration form along with his photo, a copy of his birth certificate, his CV, proof of his studies from the University of Vienna, and a recommendation letter from the Viennese Hebräischer Lehrerverband (Hebrew Teachers’ Union) attesting to his occupation as a Hebrew teacher. Wurman’s documents indicate a lengthy migration path, which already began in his childhood when World War I broke out and his family left his birthplace – Nadwórna, Galicia– and proceeded westward, to Vienna. His registration form states that he was »currently stateless.« Despite this, his CV does not address his plight as a refugee and instead focuses on its primary purpose as supporting documentation for his application. Written in prose style, this is an ego-document, a brief autobiography as it were, which describes the series of events that led the writer to his decision to apply for admission; each event mentioned, be it private or political and historical, was carefully selected to serve the overarching aim of being admitted to the university and of obtaining a certificate for Palestine.

Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
First letter from Isak Wurman to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 3/1/1940, [originally dated according to the Hebrew calendar].
Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
Isak Wurman’s registration form for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 19/03/1940 [originally dated according to the Hebrew calendar].
Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
Isak Wurman’s CV, 26/3/1940.
Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
Isak Wurman

Wurman’s »scholar self« opens the CV: As a child he was a diligent student in the Talmud Torah School. He acquired his general education in a public school in Vienna, but parallel to this he also acquired »a solid acquaintance with the Hebrew language and speech« through afternoon studies at the Jewish gymnasium, the Zwi-Perez-Chajes-Schule. Despite his scholarly talents, however, he chose a different path: »I made up my mind not to continue my studies at the gymnasium but to learn a trade and make Aliyah.« Indeed, despite his intellectual abilities, he took up work in various factories. His dream of making Aliyah was not realized, however, due to his mother’s illness. It was only following a conversation with Rabbi Dr. Wunderman, a family friend, that Wurman decided to return, at the age of 22, to his academic studies. This required him to first take his matriculation exams at the Bundesrealgymnasium XIV, which he passed with honors. He spent the next three years studying Semitic languages, history, and economics at the University of Vienna, achieving very good grades. At the same time, he did not abandon the Zionist path: »I successfully taught Hebrew to many private individuals and gave courses at various Zionist organizations.« He stressed his affiliation with the Zionist party collective where he was »a member of ‘Mizrachi’ for about 14 years.« Here, Wurman did go on to describe political events: In March 1938, following Austria’s Anschluss to Germany and the anti-Jewish legislation that was introduced in its wake, he was expelled from the University of Vienna. He then briefly summarized his escape: »I was subjected to many dangers in Vienna and afterwards in Germany but with the help of God, I finally managed to escape to Belgium.« He ended by insisting that he wished »to make Aliyah and complete my studies at the Hebrew University.«

This being the case, the writer made it clear that the time had come for the reader to help him to fulfill his dream. Wurman enlisted his »worker/pioneer self« to this end who, despite being learned, did not shy away from manual labor, implying that he would not be a burden on the Yishuv in Palestine. He portrayed his decision to turn away from life as a Hebrew proletarian to academia (and to the bourgeoisie) as not taken lightly but made following the intervention of a public figure. In contrast with his later letters, where it commanded a central place, his »refugee self« was here only casually mentioned.

On 7 May 1940, despite already being 31 years old (which contravened admissions policy), the university’s admissions office determined: »Desirable material, admit unconditionally.« Wurman was accepted as a regular student, provided that he registers for a two-year program, since the Mandate government did not issue students‘ certificate for less than two years, and the university saw the need for him to use another year to further improve his Hebrew skills. He arranged for his sister in Buenos Aires to settle the deposit and fees. Still, he had to wait until the certificate will be issued.

Postcard written by Isak Wurman from Pomérols, France to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Postcard written by Isak Wurman from Pomérols, France to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 20/5/1940.
Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
Postcard written by Isak Wurman from Pomérols, France to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 20/5/1940.
Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
Postcard written by Isak Wurman from Pomérols, France to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 7/6/1940.
Hebrew University Archive, Isak Wurman, Box 153, File 2100 – vav-II.
Postcard written by Isak Wurman from Pomérols, France to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 7/6/1940.

On 20 May, Wurman sent an urgent postcard from Pomérols, France, pleading for his life: »Avez pitié et envoyez moi ici le certificat imméditement!!! […] Elle est une question de la vie.«Have pity and send me the certificate immediately!!! (…) It is a matter of life and death. This was after he had escaped by the skin of his teeth from Belgium, which had been invaded by Nazi Germany just ten days earlier. The university agreed that it was »a tragic case« as they were »about to arrange a certificate for him on the day of the German invasion of Belgium.« The university did not give up and applied again for a certificate on 29 May, but the British Consulate in Paris turned Wurman down. On 7 June, he again cried out for help: »Avez pitié donc et intervenez s.v.p. immediatement chez le gouvernement Palestinien […]. Je suis obligé de souligner: mon affair est tres urgent et pressante.«Have pity and please contact the government of Palestine immediately (…). I must emphasize: my case is very urgent and pressing. On 30 June, a university clerk noted in the margins of the letter: »Now with the surrender of France there is nothing more we can do.« On 5 September, however, it turned out that Wurman had managed to escape from France to London, and the Mandate government was willing to reissue his certificate. Here, his escape route came to an end, at least according to his application file.

Bilha Shilo is a PhD student at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her current research deals with student applications to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before the establishment of the State of Israel. She is currently working on a book manuscript, based on her MA thesis, regarding the Restitution of YIVO’s Collections after World War II, to be published by the Dubnow Institute | bilha.shilo[at]mail.huji.ac.il

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