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Yad Vashem To Witness and Proclaim

Rabbi Dr. Zvi Asaria-Hermann Helfgott – Life Story

Hermann Helfgott. Yad Vashem Archive P.53/8546_8c

Rabbi Dr. Zvi Asaria Helfgott (z”l), Mrs. Malka Asaria-Helfgott, and their daughter Nurit (z”l), who passed away at age 1

Zvi Asaria-Hermann Helfgott was born in September, 1913, in Yugoslavia. He studied theology in Sarajevo, and then continued his rabbinical education in Vienna while studying Philosophy at the University of Vienna. In 1938, after the Anschluss, Helfgott fled Vienna and completed his studies in Budapest. He was ordained as rabbi and received his Ph.D. in 1940, and was elected rabbi of the Veliki Beckerek community in Yugoslavia.

In 1941, while serving in the Yugoslavian army, Helfgott was captured by the Germans and detained in POW camps. For the next four years, he tried to help his fellow prisoners, raise their spirits and morale and bring them closer to Jewish values. He celebrated the Jewish holidays and festivals with them, and nurtured their study of Hebrew and the history of the Jewish people. Helfgott also kept a diary in which he detailed his and his comrades’ experiences.

Immediately after his liberation from captivity in 1945, Helfgott went to the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, where he aided survivors in their most difficult hour, buried the dead, and provided emotional and spiritual assistance as well as help in obtaining vital aid. He was appointed Chief Rabbi of the British occupied zone in Germany, and acted as representative of the survivors vis-à-vis British institutions. In 1948, he became a member of the “National Recruitment Office,” established by the Jewish Agency to enlist Holocaust survivors into the Hagana.

Rabbi Helfgott immigrated to Israel in 1948. He joined the military chaplaincy, and then the Culture Section and Welfare Department. Ranked Major, Helfgott was responsible for welfare in the military hospitals. Five years after his conscription, Helfgott was transferred from the IDF to government work, and left with a reparations delegation to Cologne, Germany. During that period, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Cologne. As chairman of the “Ahavat Reim” Association, Helfgott helped Jewish youth immigrate to Israel. He greatly contributed towards improving Israeli-German relations, established the Israel-Germany Friendship League and initiated youth exchanges between the two countries.

In 1961, Helfgott returned to Israel, and became rabbi of Savion. He continued to work in Israel and abroad in the fields of education, religion, culture, and Holocaust research and remembrance. Among his many activities, Helfgott was one of the founders of the She’erit Hapleita (The Last Remnants) movement, chaired the Yugoslavian Fighters Association in Israel and was a member of the Yad Vashem Council and Directorate. He published a number of books dealing with the history of the Jewish people, the Holocaust, and Philosophy.

Rabbi Zvi Asaria-Hermann Helfgott passed away in 2002.

Rabbi Helfgott’s personal archives comprise a great amount of material documenting his life and work in Israel and abroad, including personal documents; the original diary he wrote during his four years as a prisoner of war; documents relating to the burial of Jewish victims at Bergen-Belsen; correspondences about the postwar plight of agunot (women unable to get a divorce because their husbands’ whereabouts are unknown); sermons and speeches from the Holocaust and afterwards; and many photographs. After his death, his wife, Malka Asaria-Helfgott (née Bodner), submitted extensive parts of her husband’s collection to the Yad Vashem Archives.