Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Nazis' Hebrew-speaking dogs

A bizarre (or should I say barking?) story in Ha'aretz on how the first dogs in the Austrian police and German army spoke.... Hebrew.

[Dog trainer] Rudolphina Menzel's occupation with and love of dogs also had a Zionist bent: Some of the dogs she trained in Austria were sent to the Yishuv (Jewish community) in Palestine. "From the outset we thought about the Land of Israel settlement project," she said years later. "From the start of our work, we considered introducing the use of dogs for the defense of the isolated settlements in the country as our principal mission."

Rabbi Zwi Perez Chajes, who was the chief rabbi of Vienna and a Zionist activist until his death in 1927, visited the Linz dog farm in the 1920s and was very impressed. Dogs who responded to names and words in Hebrew symbolized the revival of both the Jewish language and people, he said. The Menzels agreed....

It was not long before the Austrian authorities heard about the Menzels' prestigious private institution. As a result, the first dogs to serve in the Austrian police were trained at the Menzels' farm - obeying orders in Hebrew and responding only to their Hebrew names. Clad in the Austrian police uniform, Rudolphina Menzel trained the force's dogs. In an old, crumbling photograph held at the Central Zionist Archives, she can be seen calling the attack dog Maggie Bat Hasatan (Maggie the Devil's Daughter) to rush to the aid of her owner - after a supposed attack by a stranger - during a police training session.

Menzel also spent time in Berlin in the service of the German army, setting up courses to train dogs to attack, defend, track and guard. In Germany, too, the dogs were trained to obey orders in Hebrew - responding to "shev" (sit), "artza" (down) and "kum" (up). A few years later, when the Nazis rose to power, the dog trainers in the German army discovered that the dogs would not respond to commands given in any other language. By order from above they had to continue speaking to them in Hebrew, however difficult and burdensome it might be. "The pair of Zionist researchers is indirectly but deliberately forcing the Germans to speak Hebrew," wrote one German newspaper published during that time.

Hearing that the dogs she had trained were later used to attack Jews weighed heavily on Menzel. "During World War II, I suffered a great deal from the reports that pupils of mine in Austria and Germany were exploiting the knowledge they had acquired from me in order to use dogs to help exterminate people from my nation and from other nations," she said in an interview about 10 years before her death in 1973.

So I guess that Miky, the Hebrew-speaking dog belonging to a police force in Montana, is not so original after all....

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