How the Nazis used a Jewish veterinarian’s pioneering work with dogs

Towards the end of her life, Austrian-born Jewish scientist Rudolphina Menzel realized a horrifying reality: the dog training techniques she had developed had been used by the Nazis to commit atrocities.

“I suffered a lot because I knew that my students in Austria and Germany used the knowledge I had acquired to use dogs to exterminate my people and other peoples,” she said in an interview about 10 years before her death in the year 1973

“It had to constantly negotiate a shifting kaleidoscope of political, scientific and cultural considerations…”

But in one of the most remarkable ironies of 20th-century history, Menzel also trained the dogs that helped found the State of Israel. She was a pioneering Zionist pioneer.

a new book, Dog Pioneer: The Extraordinary Life of Rudolphina Menzel (Brandeis Press, 2023), chronicles Menzel’s life and career and examines her seminal role in the development of cynology (the scientific study of the domestic dog) and modern Jewish, European, and Middle Eastern history.

Edited by anthropologist Susan M. Kahn, the book details Menzel’s role in training the dogs used by the German military and police in the 1920s and early 1930s – and how she helped the fledgling Zionist state achieve its independence from Britain to secure and win the Arab of 1948-Israeli War.

“Rudolphina’s long, complicated, and eventful life was peppered with triumphs, marred by tragedy, and riddled with ideological tensions,” writes Kahn. “It has had to constantly negotiate a shifting kaleidoscope of political, scientific, and cultural considerations in order to realize its extraordinarily ambitious scientific and activist goals.”

Zionist and scientist

Menzel was born in 1891 into an upper class, assimilated Jewish Viennese family.

During her childhood she chanced upon a discarded copy of the Zionist newspaper Die Welt and developed a lifelong commitment to the cause. When she received her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1914, she was also a fervent socialist.

After she and her husband Rudolph settled in the northern Austrian town of Linz after World War I, Menzel met the Austrian veterinarian and renowned dog breeder Joseph Bodingbauer. He gave the Menzels their first dog, a sturdy brindle boxer whom they named Mowgli.

Kahn explains how and why Menzel turned her love of dogs into a serious professional endeavor that enabled her to investigate scientific questions and solve societal problems.

She quickly mastered the burgeoning scientific field of cynology and designed an original 16-year research study in which she observed and chronicled the daily behavior of hundreds of boxers, determining which behavioral traits were genetic and how the environment shaped their temperament.

She was also fascinated by the dimensions of canine perception, particularly the sense of smell. In a seminal 1930 paper, she demonstrated that, with the right training, dogs could detect the individual scents of certain people. She then trained her dogs to recognize a person’s scent at different times and in different conditions, making them ideal for tracking criminals and suspects.

Rise of the Nazis

Inevitably, Menzel’s work attracted the interest of the German and Austrian police and military. She worked as a sought-after consultant, lecturing to both groups on her techniques for breeding and training dogs to be obedient, intelligent, and suitable for law enforcement.

It was common to train police dogs in a foreign language so that criminals or prisoners could not communicate with them. Menzel, whose Zionism inspired her to learn Hebrew, trained her dogs to obey commands in the language.

In 1934, a year after Hitler came to power, Menzel stopped working for Austria and Germany. But their dogs and training methods continued to be used by the authorities long after the Nazis took power. It is likely that some of the hounds used by the Nazis were, at least originally, trained to obey orders in Hebrew.

After the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, local authorities in Menzel’s hometown ordered the “immediate removal of the Jewish kennel” on their property. In August of that year, she and her husband fled to Palestine with forged papers, taking only two of their hundreds of boxer shorts with them.

Menzel in Palestine

Many early Zionist settlers were socialists and considered it a middle-class habit to have pets, incompatible with the pioneer ethos. In addition, Jews in general have long had an ambivalent relationship with the canine species. The Hebrew Bible and the Rabbinical Commentaries in the Talmud describe dogs as unclean. In Eastern Europe, “du bist a hunt mit di oyern” – “You are a dog with ears” in Yiddish – was considered one of the worst insults.

Menzel changed all this by convincing Zionists that dogs could be much more than pets. They could be laborers protecting Jewish life and property. “Help us win back the dog for our people,” she wrote to her fellow Jews in Palestine in 1943. “Make way for a new groundbreaking way to win back the dog to build our country.”

Many of the dogs in Palestine were wild and free-roaming. Menzel, who coined the term Canaan Dogs to describe them, bred and trained them. She discovered that some of these so-called “pariah dogs” can be loyal, intelligent, resourceful, and forgiving.

During World War II, Menzel worked with the British and equipped them with dogs to track down the mines that the Germans had laid in North Africa. But she made them promise never to use the animals against the Jews in Palestine, which is still under British control.

Menzel’s dogs were also used to track down invaders and patrol Jewish lands to protect themselves from the Palestinians fighting Zionist settlers. When war broke out against surrounding Arab nations in 1948, their dogs were used by the Haganah, the main Zionist military organization. They carried messages by following scent trails laid between command centers and soldiers in the field. They also carried medical supplies and ammunition in saddles on their backs.

Columns of military dogs marched through the streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv in the 1949 Victory Parades.

Dogs “were tools that built the country no less than the plough, the tractor, the gun, and the water tower,” Menzel later wrote.

A change of focus

In the early 1950s, Menzel radically shifted the focus of her work and began training guide dogs for the blind. She founded the Israel Institute for Orientation and Mobility of the Blind, the first guide dog institute in the Middle East, and conducted extensive research into the mobility needs of the visually impaired in Israel.

Menzel’s death went largely unnoticed, and her contributions to cynology were all but forgotten. This may be due to sexism or the fact that most of her scientific work has never been translated into English and has not found a wider audience.

Kahn sees her book as an important first step in rescuing Rudolphina Menzel from oblivion.

Source: Brandeis University

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