Chaim Weizmann

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Nineteenth century Russia was not an easy place for anyone to live. For the Jews of the Pale of Settlement, the czarist autocracy, the hostility of the Christian majority, and the economically underdeveloped society combined to make life particularly difficult. This was the environment into which Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, was born in 1874. In an illustration in this fine book, the family home in Motol, a village near Pinsk, looks rather comfortable, even picturesque. Weizmann’s parents were middle class by local standards; his father bought, sold, and shipped timber. The family, however, was large (Chaim was the fourth of fifteen children), business conditions were fragile, and the potential for anti-Jewish violence made life and property insecure. Young Chaim was not physically injured by the pogroms which shook Russia during the period, but he grew up knowing that the costs of being a Jew were high.

His family was faithful to Judaism, though not particularly orthodox. For him, Jewishness was a question of national identity rather than religion. In 1895, his family sent him to Pinsk to study at a secular high school. The language of his home was Yiddish, his secular schooling was in Russian, and he continued to study Hebrew on the side. He became closely associated with the Hibbat Zion (love of Zion) group, which stressed the virtues of Jewish nationalism and worked to make Hebrew a spoken language. Yet his academic inclinations were toward the sciences, particularly chemistry. His goal was to become a successful scientist, while maintaining his dedication to his people.

In 1892, at the age of eighteen, he was graduated from secondary school in Pinsk and went to Germany for further education, because governmental restrictions on Jews in Russia made further study difficult, if not impossible. He began at the Technical School in Darmstadt, teaching part-time at a local Jewish school to support himself. The next year he shifted to the Charlottenburg Polytechnic in Berlin. He was unhappy among the assimilated German Jews, but more comfortable in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin, where Eastern European Jews were relatively numerous. He studied chemistry and sharpened his political skills in the debates between Jewish nationalists and assimilationist Jewish Socialists. An important influence on the young man was Ahad HáAm (Asher Ginsberg), who believed that the development of Hebrew culture was more important to the Jews that either religious orthodoxy or immediate settlement in Palestine.

Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Viennese-Jewish journalist, was launching the World Zionist Organization while Weizmann was in Berlin, and from the beginning, young Weizmann was involved. Herzl’s World Zionist Organization held its first congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Weizmann was a representative of Russian Jewry at the congress and, like Ahad HáAm, was critical of Herzl and his program. Herzl’s charismatic leadership, his position as a sophisticated Western European Jew, and his tendency to hobnob with the highest society and crowned heads in his efforts to find a haven for oppressed Jewry set him at odds with Weizmann on several occasions. The younger man helped organize a “democratic faction” along with others critical of the aristocratic Herzl, self-consciously took a stance for Eastern Jews, and referred to his position vis-à-vis Herzl as “His Majesty’s most loyal opposition.”

Weizmann’s career as a chemist continued to develop successfully. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1899, and he became a Privat-Dozent (an instructor living directly from student fees) at the University of Geneva. He also developed inventions and patents for the expanding chemical industry. These were not the route to swift fame and fortune, as he had hoped, but they provided him with a reasonable income and a position of respectability. Some of his best work was with dyestuffs for the German firm of Bayer. From Geneva, he moved in 1904 to the University of Manchester, where he became reader in chemistry. While many of his Zionist contemporaries still lived the hand-to-mouth existence of the Bohemian intellectual, Weizmann was able to help support members of his family, marry and establish a comfortable household, and travel extensively in Europe. He spoke of a “tug of war” in his life between chemistry and Zionism, because the time and energy he devoted to the one often conflicted with his commitment to the other. Though each of his two careers included many frustrations, they did complement each other effectively.

As a student in Germany and Switzerland, he had kept company almost exclusively with other Eastern European Jews of similar backgrounds. He learned German and French, but he never sought to assimilate into the local culture. He was first engaged to Sophia Getzova, a...

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