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Palestine Diaries

The Lost Notebooks of David Werner Senator


One February day in 1990, the Zionist Archive received a small package containing several slim notebooks, which formerly belonged to David Werner Senator (1896–1953). Senator, a senior Jewish Agency official and the Chief Administrator of the Hebrew University during the British Mandate, had left a long paper trail documenting his work. This modest box, however, contained materials of a different sort: Senator’s personal diaries, written over two decades between 1929 and 1950.I am grateful to Giora Katz (the Zionist Archives) and Ariana Cohen (Gottesman) for their assistance.

David Werner Senator’s journals. Source: Central Zionist Archive (CZA), AK100. Photographer: Giora Katz .
David Werner Senator’s journals. Source: Central Zionist Archive (CZA), AK100. Photographer: Giora Katz .

The sender was a woman with a Haifa address. Having been born in Egypt, she explained, she did not read German and thus could not understand the journals. However, the first pages – dated to the summer of 1929 – were in Hebrew: Senator was attempting at the time to improve his command of the language. The German-Jewish political economist was then Secretary-General of the Joint Distribution Committee in Europe. In the journal, he contemplated whether to move to Jerusalem, where he had been offered a seat on the Jewish Agency’s Executive: »I want to move to Eretz Israel because I feel it is my life’s goal […] but I am a little fearful of all the disorder and the intrigues.«

An extract from Senator’s 1929/30 Journal. Source: CZA, AK100/4. Photographer: Adi Livny.
An extract from Senator’s 1929/30 Journal. Source: CZA, AK100/4. Photographer: Adi Livny.

Senator’s ambivalence about Palestine was partially related to an unresolved relationship. The woman he was involved with, the diaries reveal, could not – or would not – join him in Palestine. Perhaps channeling the standards of his bourgeois Berlin upbringing, Senator, then 34 years old, felt it was time for him to settle down. Leaving Berlin, however, would mean leaving this relationship behind.

A few months later, Senator was already in Jerusalem. The diaries, written in a crowded, almost impossible handwriting, recount Senator’s »Palestine years.« They describe his central role later in the absorption of German Jews following their exodus from Nazi Germany as well as his growing disillusionment with the Agency’s leadership (especially David Ben-Gurion, a »prima donna, a tyrant, an anarchist,« according to an entry from 6 January 1937) for ignoring the »Arab problem« and its petty politics. The diaries also recount his years as Chief Administrator of the Hebrew University, which he ran single-handedly during World War II. Documenting day-to-day encounters, the diaries unravel the internal dynamics between faculty, students, and administration, as well as relations between Jews, Arabs, and Britons.

For years, the Zionist Archive searched to no avail for Senator’s personal estate. Senator did not marry or have children. Nor did he have any family in Israel (his mother and two brothers immigrated to the United States in the 1930s). As a student in Jerusalem in the late 1940s, Michael Heyman had sometimes spotted Dr. Senator on the streets of Rechavia. In 1981, now Director of the Zionist Archive, Heyman noticed something that sparked his interest: The Stargardt auction house in Berlin put three letters up for sale that the poet Elsa Lasker Schüler had written to Senator in Jerusalem in 1940. He wondered how these private effects of Senator’s had found their way to a Berlin auction house.

Gershom Scholem had also crossed paths with Senator, first in Berlin and later in Jerusalem. Then 84 years old, the scholar was also curious about the fate of Senator’s personal estate: Considering the latter’s tendency to produce a written account following every conversation, it had to be vast. Thirty years after Senator’s death, many of his Jerusalemite Jekke friends were also deceased. However, a remaining few advised Heyman to inquire with a chemist, a senior official at the Haifa Oil Refineries. The chemist, Eduard Gottesman, who received his PhD from Berlin’s Technical University, had emigrated from Germany to Palestine in the mid-1930s. He had been among the dozens of recent immigrants whom Senator assisted by supporting their applications for Palestinian citizenship.

One day in January 1990, the phone in the Zionist Archive rang. On the line was the woman from Haifa, Lucy Gottesman. She identified herself as the chemist’s wife, whom Heyman had tried to reach almost a decade before concerning Senator’s estate. Her husband had died a few years back. She thought that the archive might be interested in Senator’s journals, which had belonged to her husband, and before that to his mother, who had passed away in 1970. Senator, who died unexpectedly in Atlanta in 1953 during a study tour of American universities, had left most of his property to the chemist’s mother, Eugenie (Gita). She had been born in 1889 in Saint  Petersburg, where she married a Jewish Polish engineer with whom she had three children. Following the Russian Revolution, the family moved to Berlin, where she met Senator.

There is practically no paper trail connecting Senator to Eugenie, no correspondence between them, not a mention of her in any of his materials kept in various archives. Only the diaries attest to their relationship, which stretched over more than three decades and multiple locations. Beginning in Berlin in the early 1920s, it continued in Palestine, where Eugenie arrived a few years after Senator, settling with her husband in Tel Aviv following the Nazi takeover in Germany. While two of her sons also managed to arrive in Palestine, the oldest, Naum, remained in Berlin, from where he was sent to his death in 1942. The diaries reveal that Senator and Gottesman did return to Europe together after the war. In 1949 they had traveled to Switzerland, where they spent time together almost thirty years earlier. To Berlin, nonetheless, they did not return.

Calling the Zionist Archive in 1990, the chemist’s wife explained that while she could not read the diaries, she also had a photo collection that had belonged to Senator. Therein, she identified many public figures that might be of general interest. She promised to send the package soon.

Adi Livny is a historian of knowledge institutions. In 2022/23 she will serve as the Israel Institute Visiting Fellow at Middlebury College. She recently completed her dissertation, entitled »The Hebrew University in Mandatory Palestine. A Relational History (1918–1948),« which she wrote under Yfaat Weiss’ supervision. She first met Yfaat in 2010, in a seminar about Postwar Germany, an experience that led her – then a student of Political Science – to the archives. Since then, she has collaborated with Yfaat on various projects and was fortunate to have been trained by her as an historian | adilivny(at)gmail.com

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