The header image photograph above dates from about 1933 and shows the Deutsches Familien-Kaufhaus department store in Gleiwitz, from where Franz Bernheim was dismissed. The photograph is from the private collection of South Coast View
Born 15 September 1899 in Salzburg, Austria – Died 22 February 1990 in New York
The Bernheim Petition – About This Article
This article is about Franz Bernheim from Gleiwitz, German Upper Silesia who, as a victim of Nazi anti-Jewish legislation, successfully took the German Reich to court at the League of Nations.
The Bernheim Petition had far reaching consequences. The League of Nation’s Irish Free State representative Seán Lester’s tenacity and skill in pursuing the case (as rapporteur on minorities), during difficult and protracted discussions, ultimately led to Nazi Germany suspending, at least until 1937, some of the worst aspects of anti-Jewish legislation in German Upper Silesia.
Background to the persecution of Jews in Germany
Persecution of the Jewish community throughout the whole of Germany started in the years immediately preceding Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The radio and press were the first means of propagating anti-Jewish persecution, thus depriving Jews of their sense of security.
On 1st of April 1933, the German Government announced the start of a boycott of Jewish companies. This propaganda campaign gained fairly broad public support. Because Jews throughout many parts of Germany and certainly in Gleiwitz belonged to an economic elite, most likely the boycott was seen as a possibility of reversing the roles between Jews and non-Jews.
One of the first companies in Gleiwitz to dismiss Jewish workers was the Deutsches Familien-Kaufhaus department store, commonly referred to as DEFAKA. The store issued customer information posters and press advertisements stating that Out of a total of 4,000 employees, the store is free of Jews.
The associated press cutting is from the newspaper Werkszeitung der Vereinigte Oberschlesische Hüttenwerke A. G., Gleiwitz, 1933, Jg. 7, Nr. 10. (Company newspaper of the United Upper Silesian Metalworks, Gleiwitz. 1933, year. 7, no.10). Archived at the Silesian Digital Library.
Dismissal of Franz Bernheim
Franz Bernheim was a 33 year old accounts clerk at the DEFAKA department store in Gleiwitz. Inline with anti-Jewish legislation, he was dismissed from his post on 1st of April 1931.
Preparation of a draft petition to The League of Nations
In mid-April 1933 the anti-Jewish onslaught prompted Arthur Kochmann and Georg Weissmann, both exiled German Jewish lawyers (from Gleiwitz and Beuthen respectively), in Katowice, Poland, to prepare a complaint to the League of Nations. At the time of drafting the complaint, they were looking for a suitable person who would put a signature to the petition.
The lawyers prepared a document that would later form the Bernheim Petition. After fleeing Germany, Bernheim made himself known at Mark Reichmann’s law firm in Katowice. At the law firm, Bernheim met Kochmann and Weissmann and agreed to sign the petition.
Apart from challenging the legality of Bernheim’s dismissal from work, the document enumerated violations of the provisions of the The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia, in relation to the Jewish population of German Upper Silesia.
Armed with the text of his complaint, Bernheim travelled to Prague, where he was met by Kurt Grossmann, head of the Democratic Refugees Welfare Organisation.
Grossman set up a meeting between Bernheim and the Czechoslovak lawyer Dr Emil Margulies, who was a prominent Zionist leader in Czechoslovakia. Margulies, together with Reichmann from Katowice and Bernheim himself, continued finalising the petition.
Background to the League of Nations legislation that enabled the petition to succeed
On 15 May 1922, Germany and Poland had signed The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia. The convention’s legal status was to last for a period of 15 years.
Immediately following signing of the convention, The Upper Silesian Mixed Commission was established. This Commission was composed of two Germans and two Poles and presided over by a neutral Swiss judge, Felix Calonder.
The Commission had the task of an arbitration panel that attempted to resolve disputes bought by citizens and businesses of German Upper Silesia and Polish Upper Silesia. One of the key points of the Convention was safeguarding the rights of all minorities in both these regions.
Note: The Convention and Mixed Commission remits only applied to the territories of German and Polish Upper Silesia.
Submission of the Bernheim Petition to the League of Nations
On 12 May 1933 the petition, marked as “urgent”, was submitted to the League of Nations in Geneva by the Committee of Jewish Delegations. The Upper Silesian Mixed Committee had been worded to allow complaints to be marked as “urgent”, if it was thought a case was of critical importance.
The wording of The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia had provision for submission of complaints via the The Upper Silesian Mixed Commission. Crucially, however, the wording of the Convention also allowed submission of complaints directly to the League of Nations, thus by-passing the Mixed Commission, in situations where a complainant did not believe in the Mixed Commission’s ability of achieving a successful outcome.
Acceptance of the petition’s urgency at the League of Nations and behind the scenes activity
The Secretary-General of the League of Nations accepted the petition as urgent, issuing a statement on 19th May saying that Germany must grant legal protection to the Jewish minority in Upper Silesia until expiration of The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia, which would occur in 1937.
Seán Lester, the Irish Free State’s Permanent Representative to the League of Nations, was assigned to the case as rapporteur. As soon as the international Jewish community learnt of Lester’s crucial involvement, they enlisted the help of Nahum Sokolow, a prominent Zionist leader who had the reputation of a skilled mediator. Together with the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, they sought the help of Éamon de Valera, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, to whom Lester reported.
A meeting between the Jewish activists and de Valera occurred in Dublin at which de Valera agreed to a timely and discrete intervention with Lester, urging to him the utmost importance of the Bernheim Petition receiving a due hearing and progressing to a successful outcome.
Pre-hearing presentation of documents to the German representative at the League of Nations
As soon as the pre-hearing petition documents were presented to the League of Nations German representative Friedrich von Keller, he immediately stated his intention not to discuss the petition, which of course, was not going to be the end of the matter.
The Bernheim Petition at the League of Nations – Key Meetings
League of Nations closed session meeting held on Friday 26 May 1933
Von Keller stated that following the submission of the petition to the League a few days previously, he had immediately consulted with his government and had been authorised to make a statement.
In a dramatic and more conciliatory change of tone, von Keller stated that:
Internal German legislation cannot affect international conventions previously agreed by Germany. Without a doubt, if infringements of the Geneva convention have occurred, then these were in error and due to misinterpretation of laws by officials at local levels.
Putting the blame on officials at a local level was an unexpected, yet substantial and humiliating climb down by Germany, which paved the way forward for the petition to proceed.
Seán Lester, rapporteur on minorities, stated that in view of von Keller’s above statement, time had to be given so that von Keller’s new statement could be fully assessed.
Following von Keller’s previous statement outlined above, Seán Lester pushed hard to get Germany to make further concrete proposals and was successful in forcing von Keller to make an official declaration that anti-Jewish legislation in German Upper Silesia would be annulled.
Von Keller declared categorically that the German Government would “rectify the measures” complained of in the petition. Moreover, Germany agreed to keep Lester informed as to steps taken for carrying out restoration of Jewish minority rights in Upper Silesia.
Public Meeting held on 6 June 1933 – The League of Nations votes to uphold the Bernheim Petition
Von Keller stated that while he did not accept the League’s findings, he would not vote against them. In a unanimous decision (Germany and predictably Italy abstaining), the League of Nations passed a resolution, noting the German government’s declaration and requesting it keep the League’s rapporteur Seán Lester, informed on further developments.
What changed for Franz Bernheim following the successful outcome of his petition
While Bernheim’s return to his former work at DEFAKA in Gleiwitz would have been unrealistic and neither did he desire it, he pursued a case for financial compensation for loss of earnings due to his unfair dismissal.
Bernheim’s case for compensation due to loss of earnings.
While Bernheim was residing in Prague, the case was heard between 17 October, 1933 and 2 December 1935 at The Upper Silesian Mixed Commission in Katowice, Poland and at the Office for Minorities in Oppeln, Germany
Bernheim was represented by his lawyers Mark Reichmann and Emil Margulies, who had, as previously mentioned, drafted his petition to the League of Nations. The court’s verdict was that Bernheim had been unfairly dismissed.
DEFAKA initially offered Bernheim 600 marks compensation, which equated to two months wages. This offer was refused by Bernheim, whereupon DEFAKA increased their offer to 1,600 marks, which was accepted.
Before the case was finalised, Bernheim emigrated to the United States and settled in New York.
German Government strips Franz Bernheim of Citizenship
Following expiration of The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia in 1937, Bernheim was stripped of his German citizenship.
What changed for the Jews of Upper Silesia following the successful outcome of the petition
In spite of declarations by von Keller at the League of Nations and a subsequent official letter from him to Seán Lester, reaffirming these declarations, progress of rescinding anti-Jewish legislation in Upper Silesia was frustratingly slow.
While Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933, it was still bound by The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia. In particular, Germany did not wish to alienate the German speaking minority in Polish Upper Silesia, who also depended on protection of the Convention.
During the few years left until the expiration of the The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia in 1937, it is true that some of the legal protection promised was fulfilled. German Jews of the region were able to keep their passports and to leave Germany if they wished. While local officials remained obstructive, some Jewish lawyers, doctors and civil servants were able to continue in their work and in some cases receive back their positions. Nazi laws banning marriages between Jews and non-Jews were lifted, as was the ban on kosher slaughter.
Karch, in his article “A Jewish ‘Nature Preserve’: League of Nations Minority Protections in Nazi Upper Silesia, 1933-1937.” describes German Upper Silesia until 1937 as “A Jewish ‘Nature Preserve”.
Source: Karch, Brendan. “A Jewish ‘Nature Preserve’: League of Nations Minority Protections in Nazi Upper Silesia, 1933-1937.” Central European History, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 124–160. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43280552. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
Following expiration of The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia in 1937, the full force of Nazi anti-Jewish legislation was unleashed.
What happened to the players in the Franz Bernheim Petition
Bernheim emigrated to the United States in 1935 and settled in New York, were he died in 1990. Little is know about his life in the USA. He did not keep in touch with any Jewish or Zionist organisations. His nephew, George Wyland-Herzfelde (died 28 June 2011 in Zürich, Switzerland) recalls his uncle as a warm and somewhat withdrawn person. On occasions he accompanied his uncle to a Czech restaurant, as a recall to his time in Prague. Even then Bernheim was reluctant to talk about the days of the petition, saying only that it was “the only possible way to stop Hitler and that was his motivation for participating.”
To the best of my knowledge, there are no photographs of Bernheim accessible via the internet.
In 1934 Lester became the League of Nations High Commissioner to the Free City of Danzig (today Gdańsk in Poland). From there he oversaw the growing crisis between Poland, Nazi Germany and the international community, over the display of overt Nazi policy in the city. After being boycotted by Nazi officials, he tirelessly continued his work of defending Polish and Jewish minorities in the city. In 1937 Lester resigned from his post following Hitler’s demand that he be removed from office. Lester became the last Secretary-General of the League of Nations on 31 August 1940. He died on 13 June 1959 in Recess, County Galway, Irish Republic.
Photograph of Seán Lester archived at NAC National Digital Archive of Poland
In 2010 Lester’s daughter Ann Gorski, together with his granddaughter Lucy Kilroy and great-grandson Brian Gageby, attended a ceremony at Gdańsk City Hall in honour of Lester. The city hall was the very place where Lester’s High Commissioner’s residence and office had been. Earlier in 2010 the main parliamentary party meeting room at the city hall had been renamed as The Seán Lester Room.
Arthur Kochmann (one of Bernheim’s Lawyers) returned to Gleiwitz and in 1941 was the last German Upper Silesian to be deported to Auschwitz, where he died in early 1944. It is thought that he escaped earlier deportation because his son-in-law was Berlin’s Italian liaison officer between Mussolini and Hitler.
Photograph of Arthur Kochmann is from the newspaper Oberschlesien im Bild, issue 1925, No. 2 and archived at NAC National Digital Archive of Poland. In German.
Grossmann (pictured first on left in 1931), emigrated to the USA and died 2 March 1972 in St. Petersburg, Florida
Photograph attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0527-0001-861 / Unknown author / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons
Weissmann, also one of Bernheim’s Lawyers, emigrated to Palestine and died in Tel Aviv in 1963. To the best of my knowledge, there are no photographs of Georg Weissmann accessible via the internet.
Éamon de Valera
President Éamon de Valera, who valuably interceded in the Bernheim Petition. Died in 1975.
Photograph: Public Domain
Friedrich von Keller
Representative of the Third Reich at the League of Nations
Died 8 May 1960 in Tutzing, Bavaria, West Germany
Photograph: Public Domain
If you notice and errors in this article, please contact me. You can write to me in English or Polish.
This article is copyright © 2021 South Coast View
Sources and Links
Historical note: Following post WWII border changes, Gleiwitz came within the new Polish borders and is today known as Gliwice.
Various newspaper articles at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (in English)
Cieplinski, Feigue. The Bernheim Petition: A Last Stand of Gegenwartsarbeit. PDF. 2017. (in English)
Karch, Brendan. “A Jewish ‘Nature Preserve’: League of Nations Minority Protections in Nazi Upper Silesia, 1933-1937.” PDF in English
Note by the Secretary-General of the League of Nations in Geneva. 19 May 1933. PDF. In English
Transcripts of the petition from the American Jewish Committee Archives. PDF. 1933. In English
Muzeum w Gliwicach. Museum in Gliwice. In Polish
Górnośląscy Żydzi procesowali się z Hitlerem. (Upper Silesian Jews sued Hitler) Dziennik Zachodni newspaper dated 19 September 2015. In Polish
Pan Bernheim z Gliwic idzie na wojnę z III Rzeszą. (Mr. Bernheim from Gliwice goes to war with the Third Reich). Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. 14 April 2014. In Polish
Irishman honoured in Polish city where he warned of Nazi danger. Irish Times 27 August 2010
Dr. Emil Margulies, Co-author of the “Bernheim Petition”, Dies in Palestine. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 21 February 1943. In English
Georg Weissmann obituary. Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain. 1963. Page 13. PDF
NAC National Digital Archive of Poland
Bernheim Petition at Encyclopedia.com (in English)
Kurt Grossmann at English Wikipedia
Franz Bernheim at Polish Wikipedia. In Polish
Arthur Kochmann at Polish Wikipedia. In Polish
Friedrich von Keller at English Wikipedia