With humble beginnings in Chicago in 1905, Rotary has grown to over 32,000 clubs world-wide in 518 districts in over 200 countries worldwide with a membership exceeding 1.2 million members. The Rotary Club of Teaneck, chartered in 1929 is just one of those 32,000 plus clubs and as such shares in a very interesting history. Rotary and the United Nations have a long history of working together and sharing similar visions for a more peaceful world. In 1942, Rotary clubs from 21 nations organized a conference in London to develop a vision for advancing education, science, and culture after World War II. That event was a precursor to UNESCO. In 1945, 49 Rotarians went to San Francisco to help draft the UN Charter. Rotary and the UN have been close partners ever since.
Just as Rotary is around the world promoting peace, polio eradication, literacy programs, fresh water, gift of life, international student exchange, ambassadorial scholarships, Hurricane Sandy relief, Earthquake Haiti relief and rebuilding, just a tip of the involvements that Rotary is known for, René Nehring’s “A Difficult Way Back” appearing in the Jewish Voice From Germany, January 3, 2012 tells still another story of Rotary.
The fact is: When the lawyer Paul Harris founded the first Rotary Club in Chicago on February 23rd, 1905 together with his friends Silvester Schiele (a coal merchant), Gustav Löhr (a mining engineer) and Hiram Shorey (a master tailor), German and Jewish elements were both represented. The name “Rotary” was derived from their practice of meeting at the members’ offices in rotation.
The political mood after World War I was still filled with hatred and resentment, but Rotary stood out in a positive light for its focus on maintaining friendship. The movement’s popularity in Europe increased quickly. In 1927, the first German Rotary Club was chartered in Hamburg by the former Reich Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno, who served as its founding president.
The German Rotary movement united the educated bourgeoisie, merchants, industrialists, doctors, lawyers and university professors from various disciplines. Many Jews, who were part of the German middle class, found a place in the Rotary movement. But anti-Jewish and anti-Rotary smear campaigns arose quickly, often from the same sources. In 1932, a libelous pamphlet with the title “Germany’s Secret Overlords. The Rotary Club and the Herrenclub as the Shock Troops of Judas” “revealed” that a number of prominent Germans were Rotarians. In addition to the banker Carl Melchior, the publisher August Neven du Mont and the then Mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, the pamphlet identified the “department store Jew Alfred Tietz,” or the “Jewish writer Bruno Frank” as members. It also contained diatribes against “international freemasonry,” high finance and the “world government of international Jewry.” One important Jewish Rotarian at this time was the writer Karl Wolfskehl, who was a member of the circle surrounding the poet Stefan George. Wolfskehl was also the editor in chief of the Rotary member magazine, “Der Rotarier,” which was based in Munich at the time.
Munich was not just the “capital of the national socialist movement,” but also the site of the most important case of “cleansing,” in which Rotary was edged out of German society under the Nazis. On February 10th, 1933, the Nobel laureate for literature, Thomas Mann, gave a lecture on the “The Suffering and Greatness of Richard Wagner” at the University of Munich. He also delivered the same lecture in Paris and Brussels. None other than his fellow Rotarian Hans Knappertsbusch published an open letter of “Protest by the Richard Wagner City of Munich” in the paper, “Münchner neuste Nachrichten” that complained of Mann’s supposed slander against Wagner. In addition to Knappertsbusch, a number of other members of the Munich Rotary Club signed the letter. Although he was not a Jew himself, Thomas Mann was married to a Jewish woman and was recognized as a citizen of the world. As such, he stood for a cosmopolitan civic sensibility that no longer had any place in National Socialist Germany.
A short time later, Jews were driven out of the German Rotary Clubs. The clubs acted under massive pressure from the Nazi Party and government agencies, but also out of an overeager sense of obedience to the new regime. On April 6th, 1933, already in exile, Thomas Mann noted in his diary: “Bruno Frank informed quite tersely that he, like other Jews, has been struck from the Rotary Club’s roster. A new indication of the state of mind that now dominates Germany. Very disconcerting. My exit from Rotary is now a closed matter. The only question is whether I will draw attention to the absurdity of the club’s actions.”
Many clubs faced a crucial test of their cohesion when the “Civil Service Restoration Act” was announced in April of 1933. While some were in favor of disbanding in order to evade pressure from the Nazi party, others argued for excluding Jewish members or asked Jewish members to “do Rotary one final service” and leave the club voluntarily. The times called for non-Jewish Rotarians to show solidarity with their Jewish friends. Many, who ought to have been committed to preserving human dignity based on the club’s ideals, behaved dishonorably instead.
By the middle of 1933, Rotary had lost about one third of its membership. The decline stemmed largely, but not exclusively, from the Jews who were kicked out or left of their own accord. Many non-Jewish Rotarians who protested against this policy because it was not in keeping with Rotarian principles left or were forced out of the club as well. The Rotary Club of Munich lost 26 members, 13 of them Jews. Only in a few exceptional cases, such as that of the Rotary Club of Erfurt, did the clubs stand by their Jewish friends until Rotary in Germany “voluntarily” disbanded and wound up the association in 1937. This had been preceded by the German Rotary organization declaring itself “Jew-free” in 1936. Of course, even this disgraceful accommodation of the fascists could not save the club. The Nazi Regime’s suspicion never abated, and the club disbanded in 1937 in the face of overwhelming political pressure.
Therefore, it was at once astonishing and shameful for the “Aryan” Rotary members who accommodated the regime when, despite the decidedly cowardly behavior of their non-Jewish erstwhile friends, many Jewish Rotarians nevertheless affirmed their enduring allegiance to the Rotary movement. Mr. Wertheimer of Stuttgart wrote the following in a letter marking his exit from the Rotary Club in 1934: “This Reich and this German people will remain my fatherland and my homeland, which, in my heart, no one can ever deny me. I was, am and shall remain bound to it, no matter what happens. The same goes for Rotary… Rotary has been a wonderful experience for me […] It was something I could never have imagined possible in my life until it happened.”