African Jews in Berlin

Jews, Africans and African-Jews - A Few (Self) Discoveries

Part 2 of articles about Berlin’s African Diaspora(s)

A Jewish Mystery...


To my surprise, when looking into the presence of African people in Berlin, I obviously looked into the Jewish point – as we always do. After all, we offer many Jewish heritage tours in Berlin and feel connected to its Jewish history. 

Imagine my delight when I found this picture, taken by Abraham Pisarek, who was a prominent Jewish photographer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. The picture note discusses a certain Mr. Mekonen(? name is not clear) who is an “Abyssinian” , or “Falasha” cantor, giving a concert in the Berlin Singakademie. The mystery cantor is dressed in the traditional German cantorial garb. I went on a detective spree, to find out who is our Ethiopian Jewish cantor in Berlin. 

african-american jewish cantor in berlin, 1930

It wasn’t easy – but I received much help: first a little from Dr. Menashe Anzi of the Ben-Gurion University, but then – my main helpers were Jews of Ethiopian heritage : Shwanesh Maniov,, a Berlin-based Israeli (who was born in Ethiopia) and members of the heritage site “Ethiopedia” (in Hebrew). I am so thankful to Shwanesh and her friends from “Ethipian Nostalgia” – without them, we would have a nice photo, but no story. 

Jacques Faitlovitch brings Ethiopian Jews to Europe

Jacques Faitlovitch was a Jewish activist and researcher, who travelled to Ethiopia in the beginning of the 20th Century and established a Jewish school in the capital of Addis Ababa. He also sent a few Jewish students back to Europe – to learn European Jewish traditions. The first students to be sent by Faitlovitch were Taamrat Emmanuel and Gete Yirmiahu. Some of Faitlovitch students became later prominent leaders of the Ethiopian Jewry throughout the first half of the 20th Century, some have also become active in the general Ethiopian public sphere. Abraham Adgeh, for example, studied in London (at St. George College) and later became a senior civil servant in the Ethiopian government. 

The Faitlovich students were sent to locations all over Europe. German Jewry was also impressed by the operation and the “discovery” of those distant brethren. By the turn of the century, the Berlin-based “Assistance Organisation of the German Jews” (Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden) started to raise funds for schools and assistance to the Jews of “Abessinia”, as Ethiopia was then known. They also established a German-Jewish school in Jerusalem, in which Solomon Isaac (one of Faitlovich’s students) went, before leaving due to difficulties learning German. Isaac later became the inspiration for Selig Schachnowitz’s 1923 novella “Salomo der Falascha”, a German-language literary piece that further enhanced the interest of German Jews in Beta Israel. 

collage of James Simon, Paul Nathan and Selig Schachnowitz
From right to left: Writer Selig Schachnowitz and Hilfsverein leaders Paul Nathan and James Simon. The three raised attention to assist Ethiopian Jewry in the early 20th Century.

Some students came to Germany – most prominently Yona Bogale , who later became the head of the network of Jewish schools in Ethiopia. Bogale studied in Heidelberg and in Frankfurt and travelled throughout communities in others parts of German-speaking Europe. After returning to Ethiopia he worked in the Jewish school and later was active in the anti-facist resistance to the Italian occupying government. Bogale, who helped many emigrate to Israel, later became trapped in Ethiopia – after the revolution that ousted the Emperor and following anti-Semitism, he wanted to immigrate to Israel, but was refused. Graenum Berger, an American Jew and the founder of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, managed to organise his immigration. 

But who is the man in the picture?

Members of the Ethiopian nostalgic community were as baffled as I was. One option raised, given the name “Mekonen” on the picture, was Mekonen Loewi (or Mekonen Gobaw), a Faitlovitch student sent to London. Mekonen was a nephew of Taamrat Emmanuel, one of Faitlovitch first students – who was the head of the Jewish school in Addis Ababa . Loewy reportedly suffered in London (many of the students suffered from the weather, the different customs, unknown diseases etc.). After returning to Ethiopia, he became a teacher in the Jewish school but in 1937 he killed an Italian officer (perhaps as part of the resistance to the Italian occupation). He joined the partisans outside the capital and last thing known about his fate, was that he was killed in the countryside in 1940. It is possible that this is the person, although Mekonen was not known to have been in Germany. 

Others did live and study in Germany. Yona Bogale who was already mentioned before, but also Hailu Desta (or Elazar Desta, as he was known by his Hebrew name). Desta planned at first to study medicine, but later studied  governance . Here is a picture of him posing in Berlin with a fellow Jewish student from Ethiopia (maybe, not definitely, Menase Yosef , some claim it is Abera Getahun). 

Hailu Desta and a fellow Jewish-Ethiopian Student in Belrin
Hailu (Elazar) Desta and a fellow Jewish-Ethiopian Student in Berlin

It fits the time Desta had lived in Berlin. His time in Berlin was also under the patronage of Eugen Mittwoch, who was an important “Orientalist” in German academe, important supporter of the Hilfsverein and its efforts to assist the Jews of Ethiopia. Desta later returned to Ethiopia and taught at the Jewish school. He, too became a resistance fighter against the Italians. After the war he was a government official in Ethiopia and later immigrated to Israel. 

However, more likely that “our mystery man” is an African-American who became a cantor and marketed himself as “Abyssinian” and “Falasha” – but was actually American-born. One possibility (in fact, an almost sure-bet) is Thomas Jones LaRue, a New York native who marketed himself as “Tuvye, der schwarzer chazan”. The book “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway” claims that LaRue was not Jewish at all (although there were African-American Jews at the time and Taamrat Emmanuel even visited them). Other sources claim he was Jewish (and a traditional cantor next to his commercial work), and that he had also attended an Orthodox Day School. You can read more about LaRue in Henry Sapoznik’s review of his life

An advertising in Yiddish for Thomas LaRue
An ad for Thomas LaRue, from Henry Sapoznik's Blog

So, while our mystery cantor came from another part of the Jewish world, I am thankful for the journey that took me to discover other African Jews in Berlin, as I have written above. 

Ethiopian Jewry “Returns the Favour” and attempts to save European Jews

Most Ethiopian students were sent to Europe in the second and third decade of the 20the Century. With their return, they fought against the axis powers. Before the occupation of Ethiopia by the Italians, Taamrat Emmanuel did this best to convince the Ethiopian Emperor to allow Jewish-German immigration to the country. A few German Jews have actually used this invitation and migrated to Ethiopia. 

The community back in Ethiopia suffered under the Italian rule. Many have joined the partisans. Others (including Emmanuel) have fled the country, to assist the British war effort from Egypt However, by 1943 they again concentrated their efforts in saving Jews from Europe – including some Greek Jews who have found refuge in Addis Ababa, Here is report in the “Palestine Post” about those efforts

From the Palestine Post
From the Palestine Post: An attempt by the Ethiopian Jewry to save fellow European Jews

And much more...

I am pretty sure I have touched only the tip of the iceberg.

Take this story, for example: A distant relative of mine was born Isaak Eduard Schnitzer and Jewish-German,  but became famous as Emin Pascha, a ruler of southern Sudan in the late 19th Century. He married there an “Abyssinian” native called Safaran. His daughter, Ferida, was returned to Germany and died in Berlin in the 1920s.