Today, December 14th, is my grandfather’s birthday. He was born in 1913, 106 years ago, in Berlin. Known by most people as Heinz Pollack, his full name was Heinrich Israel Pollack, named after his grandfather, Heinrich. “Israel” was a name he wasn’t born with. Hitler added it to all Jews in Germany, to keep track, and my grandfather insisted on keeping it. His mother never liked the name Heinrich, and nicknamed him Heinz, which stayed with him throughout his 98-year long life.
Many people in the Messianic Community here in Israel, especially the older generation, remember him fondly as one of the early pioneers. It is often easy for them to place me if I only tell them I am Heinz’ grandson.
He was the first in the family to embrace faith in Jesus and to persist in keeping Jewish traditions, but it was a long journey until he reached that point. His story with the land of Israel didn’t start until the 1960s, and he wasn’t the first in his family who moved to Israel.
Let me take it from the beginning. He was born in a Germany ruled by an emperor. They only allowed Christians to reach the highest positions of society, but anyone was welcome to get baptized. Many secular Jews got baptized for this reason, and my grandfather’s liberal secular family was no different. I once went through the family tree with him, and he showed me “This uncle married a Catholic and got baptized, this uncle joined this and that church,” etc. For this reason, Heinz’ father decided that little Heinz would grow up without religion and be free to pick his own. “My father probably thought I might become Christian, but I don’t think he ever imagined I would believe in it for real,” he once told me.
Heinz’ father died very young from an illness, when Heinz was only one and a half year old, in 1915. Heinz grew up alone with his mother and their housekeeper. His father had been a law scholar, the son of a judge, and he had left them with a big enough fortune for them to live on for the rest of their lives. But he hadn’t foreseen that Germany would be defeated in WW1, nor that the hyperinflation following it would wipe out the family fortune. Heinz’ mother made ends meet by taking secretary jobs and renting out rooms in their large apartment until they eventually had to give it up.
When he was five years old, he caught the housemaid sitting and crying over a book she was reading. He asked her what it was, and she explained to him that she was reading the New Testament about how Jesus died on a cross for our sins. It made a great impression on him, and a few years later after he had started school he told his mother he wanted to be baptized. Remembering her late husband’s instructions, she allowed it.
Had the holocaust never happened, this is where it would end. Heinz became a Christian, and he was no longer a Jew. That’s how both he and everyone around him thought of it. Both Jews and Christians agreed on this – if you believe in Jesus you are no longer a Jew.
But do you know who disagreed with them? The Nazis. Faith didn’t matter to them. Race did. Inspired by Darwinism, they believed the genes themselves were the problem.
When Hitler came to power, Heinz was 20 years old and had recently graduated. His plans for studying theology to become a priest were quickly ruined. The antisemitic decrees banned Jews from these types of educations. He started to work in a bookstore, but after a few years they banned Jews from working in bookstores too. Eventually he found work in a Jewish liqueur factory.
One after another, his relatives fled from Germany. His aunt Erna Meyer moved with her husband to the British Mandate of Palestine where she later wrote the first ever Zionist Hebrew cooking book in 1937, for Wizo (She passed away childless in Haifa in the 1970s). His cousin Nicholas Pevsner moved to England, where he became an architectural historian, eventually knighted by the queen in 1969. His uncle Georg who was a doctor and an expert in exotic diseases after having served in Germany’s African colonies, moved to Afghanistan. Another aunt and cousin moved to the US. But where would he go?
He wanted to go to Sweden. He had already learned the Swedish language because he wanted to read Selma Lagerlöf in the original language, and he had a Swedish girlfriend. He went there in person, but wasn’t able to secure a visa. One person in Sweden advised him to go back to Germany and wait it out. “This Hitler thing can’t possibly go on much longer.”
In 1938, Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the confession church (seriously, look him up if you haven’t heard of him, he was a true hero), secured visas to England to 50 people from his church who were under threat of persecution. Somehow, Heinz made it on that list. He was only 25, and the youngest person on the list. Seeing how the church saved his life, it convinced his mother to give her life to Christ (which makes me 4th generation of Messianic Jews). He gave her a little cross as a souvenir before he left. He never saw her again.
After his arrival to England in 1939, he received a note that they had approved his application to study in Lund in Sweden. Sweden’s borders were closed for refugees, but they let him in as a student.
He didn’t have any work permit, but he had friends who said they would help support him while he studied. But as WW2 broke out, the possibility to move money over country borders became limited, and he got stuck without support. Alone in a foreign country, after failing exams, he reached a point where he didn’t know what to do. His mother had recently moved to her brother in Afghanistan, and he corresponded with her, telling her that his studies were going great. In reality he was contemplating suicide.
On his way to the balcony where he planned to jump, he noticed a cross on the wall. It made him stop, sit down and open a Bible. It opened up in Ezekiel 18:23
“Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?”
An inner voice told him to look up the Salvation Army, which he did, and they practically and spiritually saved his life. He became a Salvation Army officer, met my grandmother who he married in 1949, and had three children born in the 1950s, including my father. For some years he worked in the Salvation Army in West Germany, helping to rebuild the operations there. He was in West Berlin in 1961 when the Soviets built the Berlin wall. Many were afraid that they would occupy all of Berlin and urged people to flee. Heinz refused, saying that working in a position in uniform is a commitment to stand up for your beliefs and not flee.
After he came back to Sweden, his eyes slowly started to open about the significance of his Jewish heritage. It didn’t happen overnight, but he started to get involved in Christian ministries that were supporting Israel. In 1970 he left his position at the Salvation Army and made aliyah to Israel, working in a ministry on the mount of Olives. My grandmother divorced him and stayed in Sweden. My father lived with him in Jerusalem for a while, but eventually went back to Sweden. In Israel Heinz met his second wife, Gabriella, who was from England. They got married in 1973.
One day in the 1970s a woman heard his last name and came up to him. “I cared for your mother in Kaboul before she passed away. She gave me this and wanted me to give it back to you if I ever found you.” He received back the little cross he had given his mother in 1939.
I grew up in Sweden, knowing that I have a grandfather in Israel. Even though we lived in Sweden, my father always insisted that this was temporary. I grew up always knowing that Israel is our true homeland, and one day we will move there. It finally happened in 1995, when I was 13 years old. But only five years later, difficulty making a living and learning the language, forced my parents and siblings to move back to Sweden. I stayed.
In 2001, at the age of 87 and 82, Heinz and Gabriella moved to the Ebenezer old age home in Haifa. Gabriella passed away in 2002, and Heinz spent several years after that writing his memoirs, “Deine Treue Ist Gross” – Great is Thy Faithfulness, published in 2007. He passed away in 2012, a few months before he would turn 99. I had the privilege to sit with him during his last moments on earth. I played old hymns to him from my smartphone and read to him from Revelation. I realized he was ironically in a much better situation than all the doctors and nurses at the hospital. He knew where he was going.
The many years he and Gabriella spent in Jerusalem between 1970 to 2001 left its mark on the Messianic body of Christ in Israel. Many people of that generation remember them fondly. After he retired, they would spend their time inviting people, connecting with the community, praying for people, and hosting a Bible study in their home. He wrote articles for Christian magazines in Sweden, Finland and the German-speaking world, and was a sought-after lecturer in both Germany and Sweden. When my parents started to follow Jewish customs back in Sweden, he helped us out. He sent us a list of the blessings, instructions, song texts, and the New Testament verses that he added to the blessings. I am still using this Messianic version of the kiddush with my children today.
If you want to read more about him, a blog called “On This Day in Messianic Jewish History” has written about him today. We also have a Facebook page dedicated to his memory, managed by me and my father. There are also videos of his funeral, held the day after his death, on September 2nd 2012. For German speakers, there is an interview with him in German published on Youtube.
I see him as the Abraham of our family. He was the first one to put his faith in the God of our forefathers and the Messiah of Israel, and to persist in acknowledging our Jewish heritage and move to the land of Israel, despite the difficulties. I thank God for the grace to have this heritage. I pray that I will be the Jacob of our family: the patriarch whose children form the foundation of a long continuous dwelling in our ancient eternal homeland.