“Trial and Error” – the Memoirs of Chaim Weizmann (ten cents)

“Trial and Error”, the autobiography of Chaim Weizmann, has been sitting on my bookcase shelf for centuries. I have the Jewish Publication Society edition, in two volumes, published in 1949, three years beforehis death. I assumed, when I finally picked up the first volume, that I would be reading through a dry volume, and that there was a 50-50 chance that I wouldn’t make it through the entire book. Boy, was I wrong. For anyone interested his Weizmann and the pre-state history of twentieth century Zionism, I could not recommend this book more highly.

There are a number of reasons for this. For one, assuming the book was not substantially ghost-written, Weizmann is a very good wordsmith. The style of the book, which is quite personal, keeps you going, just like a good thriller. He is especially good, I think, at describing the people with whom he had come in contact – and he sure came in contact with a lot of well known people.

This in itself is extraordinary, and is obviously a reflection of Weizmann’s exceptional qualities. He was born in a small shtetl, not far from Pinsk, in czarist Russia (in 1874). His family was large; he describes his family as middle-class, but if so, it was middle-class without money. He was sent to school in Pinsk, presumably because of his intelligence, which was a monetary strain on everyone. His description of his home town of Motol and his years in Pinsk are fascinating:

“I have said that Motol lay in one of the darkest and most forlorn corners of the Pale of Settlement….It is difficult to convey to the modern Westerner any idea of the sort of life which most of the Jewish families of Motol led, of their peculiar occupations, their fantastic poverty, their shifts and privations. On the spiritual side they were almost as isolated as on the physical. Newspapers were almost unknown in Motol. Very occasionally, we secured a Hebrew paper from Warsaw, and then it would be a month or five weeks old. To us, of course, the news would be fresh.”


“In Pinsk, as in Motol, I had no social contact with gentiles. They formed, indeed, a minority of the population, and consisted chiefly of administrators, railway officials and workers, the management of the canal and a number of big landowners whose estates were in the vicinity but who maintained town houses. The Jewish population differed from that of other towns of the Pale in that it possessed, in additional to the usual overload of traders and shopkeepers, a comparatively large class of river and factory workers. Jews made up the majority of the porters, navvies and raft pilots. These last were a skilled class. It needed training and aptitude to manipulate the rafts upstream on the Pina and into the canal in such a fashion as not to damage the locks. Other Jews worked in the match factory and the sawmills.”

After learning a little about Zionism in Pinsk, he continued his studies in Berlin:

“It was a curious world, existing, for us Jewish students, outside of space and time. We had nothing to do with our immediate surroundings outside of the university. In Berlin – and later when I was at Freiburg and Geneva – local politics, German and Swiss, did not exist for us In part this was due to our tacit fear of destroying our own refugee opportunities. But it sprang mostly from the sheer intensity of our inner life. And there was a third factor. If we constituted a kind of ghetto…it was to a large extent because most of us were practically penniless. I, with my hundred marks allowance a month…was among the well-to-do. But I think I can safely say that during all the years of my sojourn in Berlin I did not eat a single solid meal except as somebody’s guest.”

In Berlin, Weizmann studied chemistry, a field in which he excelled as much as he did in Zionism:

“Here, in Berlin, I grew out of my boyhood Zionism, out of my adolescence, into something like maturity. When I left Berlin for Switzerland, in 1898, at the age of twenty-four, the adult pattern of my life was set. Of course I learned a great deal in later years; but no fundamental change took place; my Zionist ideology, my scientific bent, my life’s purposes, had crystallized.”

He was in Geneva when Theodor Herzl appeared on the world scene. Weizmann’s Zionism was different from Herzl’s. Herzl was a proponent of political Zionism – work with the world’s political and financial leaders to set aside the land for Jewish settlement, and Jewish settlement and development would follow. Weizmann was closer to the philosophy of Achad Ha’am, cultural Zionism – create the basis within Europe’s Jewish population for the development of a new state, and the people will be ready when the land is ultimately available. Not that Weizmann disagreed that some political activity also was required – but this was not then his primary focus.

As an example of Weizmann’s ability to capture the personality of those with whom he came in contact, try this:

“Martin Buber is now a professor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; fifty years ago, he was a young aesthete, the son of a rich father, a rather odd and exotic figure in our midst. In spite of his handsome allowance from home, he was usually in debt; for he was a connoisseur of the arts and a collector of expensive items. We were good friends, thought I was often irritated by his stilted talk, which was full of forced expressions and elaborate similes, without, it seemed to me, much clarity or great beauty. My own inclinations were towards simplicity, and what I admired most was the ability to reduce a statement to its essential elements. Buber was only beginning to develop the incomparable German style which, many years later, produced his remarkable translation of the Bible.”

His reason for his move to England in 1904, when he was thirty, is expressed as follows:

“My flight to England, in 1904, was a deliberate and desperate step. It was not, to be sure, real flight….I was in danger of being eaten up by Zionism, with no benefit either to my scientific career or to Zionism. We had reached, it seemed to me, a dead end in the movement. My struggles were destroying me; an interval was needed before the possibilities of fruitful work could be restored. Achieving nothing in my public effort, neglecting my laboratory and my books, I was in danger of degenerating into a Luftmensch, one of those well meaning, undisciplined, and frustrated “eternal students” of whom I have already written. To become effective in any sense, I had to continue my education in chemistry and wait for a more propitious time in the Zionist movement”.

In England, Weizmann went to Manchester where he wound up teaching and running a laboratory at the University, while maintaining contact with Manchester Zionists. Two years after his arrival, he increased again his Zionist activity, coming out against the Herzl proposal to have Uganda substitute for Palestine, at least on a temporary basis. While Weizmann is quite critical of Herzl throughout the book, at no time is he more critical than when speaking of the split in the Zionist movement (which he fully describes) over the issue of Uganda.

While still at Manchester, Weizmann made his first trip to Palestine, describing in detail what he saw, and first began to think about the possibility of establishing a university in Palestine, which eventually became a reality as Hebrew University. His description of the germination of thoughts about such an institution, the acquisition of a site, the holding of a keystone ceremony well before any construction could start, and the eventual fundraising for and creation of the university itself makes up a significant part of Weizmann’s story. As does the decision to create a technical institute in Rehovoth, and the dedication of that institute as the Weizmann Institute of Science.

We all know what a tragedy World War I was. Weizmann discusses the war, among other things, from a Jewish perspective. He describes the fate of the Jewish populations of central and eastern Europe – the Polish Jewish population was pushed further into poverty by the armies crossing the country back and forth, and the Russian Jewish population (the other massive group assumed to be major source of future Zionist activity) was simply and quickly lost to the Zionist movement by virtue of the Bolshevik revolution and the cut-off of all contact with the rest of the Jewish world. These events turned Zionism upside down, and some Jewish leaders felt that the practical basis of Zionism was lost, and that assimilation into European populations was the more likely future course of action.

But it was also the war that led Weizmann to the next phase of his career – working with and for the British government helping the development of artificial acetone and the production of substitutions for rubber. What you learn is that Weizmann was as accomplished as a scientist as he was a Zionist leader. And it was the scientific work that Weizmann was providing to the government that brought him into contact with the British political leadership, and it was this contact that led to the eventual issuance of the Balfour Declaration, providing that the Jews had a right to a homeland in Palestine.

The details of the events leading to the Balfour Declaration, the effect of the declaration on post-war politics, the British assumptions that led to the League of Nations mandate to control Palestine (in part to counter French influence in the middle east), and the grave disappointments during the mandate period are all described from the author’s unique perspective, as are the events that led to the end of the mandate period and the declaration of the state of Israel. And of course, Weizmann’s reaction to the tragedies of the Second World War, not only of the Holocaust, but also the death of his oldest son, a pilot for the RAF, whose plane was lost off the coast of France. And, finally, the growth of the American Zionist movement, and how the Brandeis faction of American Zionism refused to let the World Zionist Organization (of which Weizmann was then president) to take a lead role in the Zionist movement, preferring more of a federating movement, with each national group acting independently, the international group having only a coordinating function. This led to a lengthy estrangement between Brandeis and Weizmann, although Weizmann respected Brandeis’ abilities greatly.

“Trial and Error” is a memoir of a fascinating and talented personality, it is the story of Jews of the shtetl, Jews of pre-war Europe, Jews of England and Jews of Palestine. It is the story of the important career of a world class chemist, and of the growth, and tribulations, of the world Zionist movement. It is the story of a world of personalities with whom Weizmann was in contact: Zionist leaders (Herzl, Achad Ha’am, Jabotinsky), religious leaders, Jewish intellectuals, military leaders (Allenby, Lawrence, Wingate), leaders of finance, scientists (including, among others, Albert Einstein) and political leaders: not only did Weizmann associate with British leaders (such as Lloyd George, Asquith, Balfour, Chamberlain, Churchill), but with Americans (Roosevelt, Welles, Brandeis, Frankfurter) and other world leaders (including Mussolini, with whom he met several times).

But who is omitted? Who is left out? Like the absent Moses from the Haggadah, the missing person in this set of memoirs is David Ben-Gurion, who is mentioned only two or three times, each time almost as an aside, towards the very end of the story. Weizmann and Ben-Gurion did not get along at all – two strong men with very different ideas on how Jewish Palestine should be developed. While with regard to the other figures with whom Weizmann came into conflict or had particular disagreements, he has no hesitancy to explain in detail their opposing principles and the effect of these differences on their personal relationship, he did not do so with Ben-Gurion. Why, I am not sure. He just chose to ignore him.


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