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  • "One of Hitler's Professors":Max Weinreich and Solomon Birnbaum confront Franz Beranek
  • Kalman Weiser

In late june 1946 Max Weinreich, a cofounder and guiding spirit of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), received word in New York City that Franz Beranek was looking for him. From Berstadt, Germany, Beranek had inquired with an office for Jewish refugees in Geneva about the welfare of Weinreich and other YIVO workers.1 By coincidence, only a few months earlier, Weinreich had written concerning Beranek to his son Uriel (1926–67), a U.S. Army soldier in Germany who would soon establish himself as a leading linguist and Yiddish scholar of his generation. In this letter, he asked Uriel to acquire Beranek's 1941 book Die Jiddische Mundart Nordostungarns—a study of the phonology of Yiddish in Carpatho-Ruthenia, a region annexed by Hungary in 1939 after the Nazi dismantlement Czechoslovakia.2 While he needed the book, Weinreich spurned the book's author: "My demand would be to tell him that the government that paid him murdered the largest part of those people, and to try him for complicity."3

Who was Franz Beranek? As if anticipating this question, Weinreich explained that he was an Ostflüchtling, a German expelled from Czechoslovakia in the wake of the collapse of Nazi Germany. "When we knew him, he was a teacher in a German gymnasium in the Sudetenland, until 1945 was a docent in the German university in Prague. That is, he was [End Page 106] one of Hitler's professors. He worked on Yiddish dialectology, in 1939 YIVO was in the process of publishing one of his studies about Yiddish in Carpatho-Ruthenia; in 1935 he was even with us at the [YIVO] World Conference in Vilna (now I suspect that some Hitler institute sent him)."4

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Figure 1.

Three generations of the Birnbaum family in 1931: Solomon A. (standing, behind), Jacob (standing, front left), Nathan (sitting). Photo courtesy of the Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Archives, Toronto.

Max Weinreich (1896–1969), a native of Goldingen (Kuldiga in today's Latvia) in the Courland province of the Russian Empire, lost nearly everyone and everything of importance to him during World War II. Almost miraculously, his wife and younger son managed to join him and Uriel in New York City, but his "first born," the YIVO in Vilna, Poland, along with its personnel and much of its collections, fell victim to the Nazis and their accomplices. A refugee in 1940s New York City, he [End Page 107] channeled his turbulent emotions into feverish industry, consumed with the task of transforming YIVO's American branch into its world headquarters and adapting its academic mission to the post-Holocaust reality in North America.5

For Weinreich, the contributions of German academics to the systematic destruction of Jewish lives and culture was not only a cause of inexpressible pain but the source of a profound sense of personal betrayal. Among those who had lent their support to the Hitler regime were his mentors and colleagues at German-language universities, as well as those to whom YIVO had provided moral, intellectual, and material support. In the early months of 1946 Weinreich was putting the finishing touches on his Hitler's Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany's Crimes against the Jewish People. The mordant Yiddish-language manuscript, a translation of the more restrained English original he prepared for use in the Nuremberg Trials, was a radical departure from the studies of Yiddish language and the sociology and psychology of Eastern Europe Jewry with which he had earned an international reputation. Published less than a year after the war's end, it relied on Nazi publications collected by YIVO during the war and captured archival materials to indict collectively the academics of the Third Reich for their contribution in providing the intellectual foundations and legitimization for the recent genocide of European Jewry.6

That Beranek's name does not appear in the book suggests only that Weinreich did not consider him important enough a villain. Anticipating Daniel Goldhagen's controversial thesis about the uniqueness of "eliminationist antisemitism" in Germany,7 he maintained that...


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