Historian Walter Grab was a faculty member of Tel-Aviv University specializing in Modern German and Central-European history, founder of the Institute for German History and serving as head from the very beginning in 1971 until his retirement in 1985. He was born in 1919 to a Jewish middle-class family in Vienna, where he spent the years of his childhood and youth. At the age of 18, following the “Anschluss”, Grab was forced to quit law school and flee Nazi persecution. The family found shelter in Palestine and settled in Tel-Aviv. However, Grab never left the sphere of German culture in which he was deeply rooted; he remained loyal to his mother-tongue and to Central-European manners and habitus, repeatedly stressing that “he did not arrive in Palestine from Zionism, but from Austria”. Indeed, his relations to Mandate-Palestine and later to the state of Israel were and remained ambivalent; throughout his life, his position as a stranger was maintained. As a Marxist, he denied the adoption of a national ideology and frequently expressed his critique of Zionist institutions, Israeli policy in the occupied territories and its relations to the neighboring nations.
After his arrival in Palestine, Grab enrolled to a bachelor degree in history and English literature in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Soon he had to quit his studies once more, this time due to the economical situation of his family. Grab assisted his father in establishing a leather-workshop which became his primary source of income for the next 18 years. In 1942, driven by a sense of commitment to the German culture and a thirst for an intellectual challenge, Grab joined the ‘Kreis für fortschrittliche Kultur’ – a literary-circle meeting in Tel-Aviv between the years 1941-1946. In 1958, 39 years of age, Grab returned to the class rooms, after enrolling for a degree in history and philosophy at Tel-Aviv University, which was first established two year earlier. In 1962, Grab travelled to Hamburg where he wrote his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Fritz Fischer. Following his return to Tel-Aviv three years later, he was offered a position in the university and began teaching modern European history. Towards the end of the 60s, Grab began working on laying the foundations for the establishment of the first institute in Israeli academia to be dedicated to the study of German history and committed to the task of facilitating research cooperation between German and Israeli scholars. It didn’t take long before Grab’s vision was realized: in 1971 the research center was inaugurated owing to VolkswagenFoundation’s consent to fund the institution during its initial five years of operation.
Grab wrote his dissertation on the topic of democratic currents in Northern Germany following the French Revolution. Throughout his entire academic career Grab nourished his fascination with themes relating the influence of the revolution on varied political movements in Germany, their heroes and faiths during the 19th century. In addition, Grab invested a great deal of his time and skills in closely investigating the phenomena of German Jacobinism, becoming an acknowledged expert in the field. In this regard, Grab is affiliated with essential contributions to the study of the history of concepts relating to the periods of the enlightenment and the revolution within the German sphere. Furthermore, Grab was eager to fulfil the task of revealing political and revolutionary elements in the works of German poets and dramaturgs of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Grab quickly reached international recognition as his works were published in renowned journals and enjoying considerable resonance, especially within the circles of German academia. During the years, Grab carefully weaved close relations with leading experts in his field, thereby promoting a variety of research collaborations among other with East-German scholars. He died in December 2000 in Tel-Aviv, leaving behind a unique yet institutionalized research tradition.
Susanne Blumesberger, “Walter Grab”, Handbuch österreichischer Autorinnen und Autoren jüdischer Herkunft 18. bis 20. Jahrhundert, Bd. 1 (München: Saur, 2002), 3469.
Walter Grab, “Jessas der Herr Grab is zruckkumma!” – Ich stamme aus Wien. Lebenserinnerungen vertriebener Juden, Wiener Journal, December 2000, iv-vii.
Iris Nachum, “Es muss nicht immer Wiedergutmachung sein – Walter Grab und das Minerva Institut für deutsche Geschichte an der Universität Tel Aviv”, in Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte 40 (2012), 237-275.
Walter Grab, Meine vier Leben: Gedächtniskünstler. Emigrant. Jakobinerforscher. Demokrat (Papyrossa, 1999).