Curator’s Catch

August 2017: Historic Passport from Germany

Historic Passport from Germany
  • Object No.: 2000.04.18
  • Donor: Amy Goldstein
  • Description:

    ink on paper, 1845

This historic passport shines in a new light thanks to its complete makeover and newly uncovered stories behind it. Learn more about the recent conservation of this artifact on our blog.

In lieu of a historic picture, Bernhard Behrend comes to life for us through the passport’s wordy description of his physical appearance. He was a man of 51 years, 5'2" (German feet)  tall and stocky, with black and grey hair, brown eyes, a black/brown beard, good teeth, an oval face, and healthy skin tone.

 We always knew that the passport allowed the merchant Bernhard Behrend (1793-1865) from Rodenberg, Germany to travel to the city of Frankfurt in February and March of 1845. Originally we thought that this passport documented the discrimination that Jews faced in Europe by not being able to travel freely. 

Yet, looking closer at the circumstances of traveling during the 1840s, we can paint a different picture. Germany had not come into existence yet as a unified country. Instead there were many independent states, principalities, and cities that formed a German Confederation. When Behrend traveled from his hometown, Rodenberg near Hanover, to the city of Frankfurt, he had to cross several borders and pass through a variety of independent German territories. Like every other traveler taking this 240 miles trip, he had to carry a passport. 

German Confederation, 1815 – 1866. Copyright: Putzger – Historischer Weltatlas, 89. Auflage, 1965.

Even though he officially stated that the purpose for his trip was “family affairs,” he had other important business to attend to. Consulting historic resources from the 1840s, we know that he went to see Baron de Rothschild, a prominent Jewish financier and philanthropist, in February 1845 in order to convince him to support his idea of founding a Jewish colony in America.

Behrend had been writing to Rothschild since 1832 in an effort to get him excited and involved in his Zionist plan, but his letters had not resulted in the desired outcome. Eventually, he decided to pay him a visit to make a stronger argument.

He proposed that Rothschild purchased land in North America to establish a Jewish state. As a deeply spiritual person, Behrend referred to biblical heroes like Moses, Nehemia, and Ezra, who had freed the Jewish people from slavery and oppression – alluding that the new colony would offer a safe homeland for millions of German, Polish, and Italian Jews facing increased anti-Semitism in their countries. He envisioned a society of Jewish farmers and craftsmen who could work and pray in peace and freedom. At the same time, he hoped that mass emigration to America would weaken anti-Semitism and ease the living conditions for the remaining Jews in Europe.

Having already rejected Behrend’s plea for financial support in his letters, Baron de Rothschild met him at his house anyway – and dismissed his plan for a Jewish colony in America as “shtuss” (Yiddish nonsense). Rothschild did not see a realistic chance for it to be successfully implemented and declined Behrend’s proposal to spearhead this endeavor.

While this and other of Behrend’s attempts to gather monetary and intellectual support for his Jewish colony in America were in vain, his passport still tells a story of empowerment, strong will, and innovation. Behrend’s adventurous proposition was rooted in his Zionist thinking that he had started to develop as a young man and for decades he tried to find a way to improve living conditions for European Jewry.

In fact, Bernhard Behrend did not give up on his idea of America as the land of freedom for Jews. In 1849 -- four years after his visit in Frankfurt -- he and his wife, together with their children, immigrated from Rodenberg to America. He was 56 years old at the time and an established merchant. Following his dream of owning land and raising his children as farmers, he bought a farm in Narrowsburg, NY. After years of rather unsuccessful farming and the loss of his savings, he opened a small store in Narrowsburg to provide for his family. In 1863/64, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived with one of their daughters.

Among a few other historic documents Bernhard Behrend brought with him to the nation’s capital was the passport he had used on his trip to Frankfurt – maybe as a keepsake for his utopic Zionist idea or maybe as a symbol of making his dream come true, on a personal level.