Beit Hatfutsot https://www.bh.org.il Museum of the Jewish People Thu, 10 Oct 2019 05:09:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.2 https://www.bh.org.il/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-512-32x32.png Beit Hatfutsot https://www.bh.org.il 32 32 The Centennial of “The Jewish Mayflower” – Zionist Celebrities on Board of the “Russlan” https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/centennial-jewish-mayflower-zionist-celebrities-board-russlan/ Thu, 10 Oct 2019 05:09:25 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=44716 It happened in November 1919, almost one whole century ago. World War I was over, the Versailles treaty was signed in Europe, and the Russian civil war was raging, between the reds and the whites – supporters of the old Czarist regime. Jewish refugees from all across Europe, including those deported from Palestine by the [...]

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It happened in November 1919, almost one whole century ago. World War I was over, the Versailles treaty was signed in Europe, and the Russian civil war was raging, between the reds and the whites – supporters of the old Czarist regime. Jewish refugees from all across Europe, including those deported from Palestine by the Turks, gathered in Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea. The leadership of the Odessa Committee, formerly Chibat Zion, applied for refugee status papers on behalf of the Eretz Israeli refugees, in which the applicants were required to prove their knowledge about their homeland.

Soon enough training courses were held for the refugees, both Israelis and many others, guided by the Odessa Committee people, in which they studied various details about the homeland, such as names of streets in Tel Aviv, settlements, personalities and the like. Within just a few days the number of participants skyrocketed. The Odessa Committee was running a negotiation with owners of the ship Russlan, that took advantage of the high demand and raised the price. Records describe how Jews literally sold their last belongings in order to raise money to board that ship.

Odessa in 1910's. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Yevgeni Yarushevitz, Israel

Odessa in 1910’s. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Yevgeni Yarushevitz, Israel

Following quite a few delays, the Russlan weighed anchor, carrying 671 excited and weary people. They sailed on stormy water, suffered hard conditions, crowdedness and insufficient food. After 21 rough days, the ship finally reached the shores of Eretz Israel, but faced a strong storm, and had to sail to Egypt. Only after a few more days the Russlan returned and docked in Jaffa. Meanwhile, in the Yishuv the news – and rumors – of its arrival were spreading recklessly.

Rumors mentioned thousands of immigrants on board. Menachem Ussishkin, chair head of the Zionist Commission, assigned a huge amount of 1,000 Egyptian pounds for festive receptions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Doar HaYom newspaper reported that “the entire street leading to shore was crowded with people, and many more were reaching, pouring and filling the shore, so that the shore’s policemen had to be assigned to maintain the order.

It was believed for decades that the Russlan was the first harbinger of the third Aliyah, which is fixed in the national memory as the most ideological-pioneering Aliyah. The Russlan myth built up gradually, becoming an integral part of the Zionist mythology. But was Russlan indeed the first ship of the third Aliyah? Were the passengers on board really pioneers? Well, they were most certainly not.

Historian Prof. Gur Alroi has shown (in an essay published in the periodical Cathedra), that not only was the Russlan not the first ship to bring Jews to Israel in 1919, it was rather one of the last ones that year, and certainly did not mark the beginning of the third Aliyah, nor did it carry a larger number of pioneers than previous ships.

The Russlan docks in Istanbul (Constantinople) on its way to Eretz Israel, 1919 (Wikimedia)

The Russlan docks in Istanbul (Constantinople) on its way to Eretz Israel, 1919 (Wikimedia)

Why then did the Russlan win all those fame and respect? The reason laid in one small group of passengers, most unique and versatile, with a sharp historical sense. These people were about to become the cultural and political elite of the State of Israel, which was to be established three decades later. That gallery of talents and capacities was so rare, that the ship was sometimes referred to as Noah’s ark.

One famous passenger, who was already a celebrity then, was the literature scholar Prof. Joseph Klausner; he was joined by Israel Gury (father of the poet Haim Gury), who later became a member of the Knesset; founder of the Canaanite movement, Yonatan Ratosh; and a young anonymous woman called Rachel Bluwstein, whom everybody will call Rachel the Poetess one day.

The construction field was represented on the ship by architects Yehuda Magidovitch, who became one of the most prolific Israeli architects, master of the eclectic style in Tel Aviv; and Zeev Rechter, Israel’s greatest architects, and herald of the Bauhaus style (whose grandchildren are the musician Yoni Rechter and the actress Dafna Rechter). If you suffered from health problems onboard you could consult with Dr. Chaim Yassky, later director of the Haddasa hospital, who was murdered in the Hadassah convoy massacre in 1948; or with Dr. Arie Dostrovsky, later dean of the Faculty for Medicine in the Hebrew University Jerusalem; or even get a second opinion from Dr. Baruch Nissenboim, co-founder of Magen David Adom organization.

Baruch Agadati, 1925 (Wikimedia)

Baruch Agadati, 1925 (Wikimedia)

And the list goes on: the first caricaturist in Eretz Israel, painter and illustrator Arie Navon; his brother, the author, playwright and composer Shmuel Navon; as well as the painters Isaac Frenkel, Pinchas Litwinowski and Yosef Constant. Press and government ties were also formed on board, for example between the first woman Knesset Member, Rachel Cohen-Kagan (whose signature is on the Israeli Declaration of Independence), and the future “Haaretz” editor, Moshe Yosef Glickson. Rosa Cohen, of the Histadrut and Hagana leadership, whose son is Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Chief of Staff and Prime Minister – was there on board of the Russlan, too. Also attended the historical cruise: dancer Baruch Agadati, founder of the Eretz Israel’s cinema: and actor Meir Teomi, (father to be of Oded Teomi), who was killed 18 years later in the terror attack in Hawaii Garden restaurant in Tel Aviv.

All in all, out of 671 passengers, 60 men and women went on the journey, and became key persons in the Jewish Yishuv and later on, in the new State. But the truth has to be faced – most of the Russlan passengers were not pioneers, but immigrants, and many of them actually left Israel long before the foundation of the State of Israel. The factual details, however, fade next to the historical narrative. Israel was a young state desperately in need of national myths, therefore the Russlan’s story was bigger than the actual facts. Back then no one knew what “fake news” was, and the Russlan story was told again and again, mainly by members of that elitist small circle themselves, who possessed finely tuned national-historical senses.

Rachel the Poetess, 1923 (Wikimedia)

Rachel the Poetess, 1923 (Wikimedia)

They left us various documents: memoirs, letters, journals, and newspapers. They used to celebrate the Russlan’s anniversary day, even after many years, in a festive party held annually in the “Maxim” cinema in Tel Aviv. Marking the 30th anniversary, Tel Aviv municipality finally named a street after the ship.

So here’s the concise recipe for the making of a national myth: in times of trouble, take a dangerous journey, face some natural forces, stir inside some national heroes, and make sure you assign a few collective memory agents to keep the story alive for the next generations.

Happy Sukkot!

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I Miss You, Baruch: Forgiveness and Longing in the Foot Steps of Spinoza https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/i-miss-you-baruch-forgiveness-and-longing-in-the-foot-steps-of-spinoza/ Sun, 06 Oct 2019 08:58:20 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=44566 Growing up as a religious boy in Haifa during the 1990s, I used to argue with a secular boy my age, a sharp clever kid called Baruch, named so by his father, a Math Professor in the Technion, who was an enthusiastic fan of the greatest Jewish heretic ever – Baruch Spinoza. I can still [...]

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Growing up as a religious boy in Haifa during the 1990s, I used to argue with a secular boy my age, a sharp clever kid called Baruch, named so by his father, a Math Professor in the Technion, who was an enthusiastic fan of the greatest Jewish heretic ever – Baruch Spinoza.

I can still remember the passionate theological arguments between Baruch and me. Our budding intellectual Eros; the strong motivation to refute one another’s case, and how each time it ended with the neighbors shouting at us to keep it down, and the two us abandoning the loud debate and go to the court to play together.

Our neighborhood was densely populated with “Yekes”, Jews from Germany, who worshiped their sacred Siesta, from 2 till 4 o’clock, more than anything else. Since then, many taboos in Israeli society were broken, and most of the common denominators are long gone. Religious and secular neighbors arguing with one another with mutual respect, and then forgetting about it and playing together – seems almost impossible nowadays.

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665. Unknown artist

I grew up and left Haifa, but wherever I went, I did not stop looking for Baruch. Then, one day I finally found him, I finally encountered what my soul was wanting – in the late Yirmiyahu Yovel’s book “Spinoza and Other Heretics”.

This year marks 363 years to the excommunication issued by the Jewish community of Amsterdam on the solitary genius, Baruch Spinoza, whose impact on western philosophy was so huge, that Friedrich Hegel, the great philosopher, said that “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all”.

Sometimes I like to picture Spinoza in his small poor bedchamber, which he rented outside of Amsterdam after the community banned him. I wonder how he must have felt, that humble and diligent lens grinder, when he had to listen to his fellow Jews curse him “like Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law”. What went through his mind when the community leaders warned the members “We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.” (from the excommunication document)?

Spinoza’s house in Amsterdam, Holland (Photo: Leni Sonnenfeld. Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, Sonnenfeld collection)

Historical records portray Spinoza as a solid man whom no one could cause to lose his temper. Stubborn, totally devoted to the geometrical pattern of syllogism based on pure intellect, that only a great mind like his own could form.

He was only 24 year of age, not much older than me and my youth opponent, while ruthlessly attacked from all directions. On one hand, the Calvinist Dutch church condemned him for challenging the most principal faiths. And on the other hand, the Jews of Amsterdam, descendants of the Anusim of Portugal, in an ironic act historical blindness, acted against him in the same strategies the Inquisition has acted against their ancestors in Spain and Portugal: denunciation, banishment, and cruel isolation.

What amount of inner strength he must have had, to hold on and not give up. He even turned down a job opportunity offered to him by his colleagues in the Heidelberg University, explaining that it might interrupt his independent thinking. Only a man with this kind of powerful personality and rare confidence could have established the most important movement of the modern era – the secularization.

Yes, Spinoza is responsible for the beginning of the secularization process!

Ban of Spinoza by the Portugese Jewish synagogue Talmud Tora, Amsterdam, 27 July 1656

True, no one visits on his grave or holds festive pilgrim celebrations or mass memorial services for him, but billions of secular, atheist people living worldwide today, owe their freedom to that gifted Jewish Amsterdam scholar. And what’s most funny, is that Spinoza was nothing of an atheist at all, on the contrary, he was “intoxicated by the divine idea”, to use the words of the German poet Novalis. Spinoza believed that the God of wisdom was everywhere – in the laws of nature, in political philosophy and in man’s good virtues.

The first scholars to discover – or rediscover – Spinoza’s works were the giants of enlightened philosophy, Kant, Hegel, and later on Nietzsche. Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) movement, had a high opinion of him, though he strongly disagreed with his ideas about the meaning of Torah and mitzvoth. Jewish scholars gradually began to be more familiar with Spinoza’s bold ideas. The first Jews that reached out for Spinoza were maskilim such as Abraham Krochmal and Fireberg. Herzl and the Zionist movement joined them later on and gladly adopted Spinoza’s philosophy. He granted the Zionist movement with the perfect model of a secular Jewish state. “A day will come, when the time is right, as matters of people are constantly changing, they shall once again establish their kingdom, and God shall once again choose them”. When Spinoza wrote these words in 1670, 227 before the first Zionist congress, in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he must have pictured the pioneers who left their faith, in his imagination.

One specific moment marked the reconciliation between Spinoza and his fellow Jews. It happened during a lecture marking the 250th anniversary to his death. In 1924 the historian and Professor of Hebrew Literature, Joseph Klausner from the Hebrew University, announced that the excommunication was lifted. “250 years after his passing away, we now call to Spinoza from our synagogue here on top of Mount Scopus, which is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – the excommunication is lifted! The Jewish nation’s sins against you are now repented! You are our brother!”

This public absolution was followed by a renaissance in the relations between Spinoza and the Jews. A flood of studies, essays and tractates was poured heavily. In 1953 prime minister David Ben Gurion published “Amending the Injustice”, where he urged to publish all Spinoza’s writings in Hebrew translation right away. “The corpus of Hebrew literature is not complete without the works of Baruch Spinoza, that are an integral part of the spiritual assets of the Jewish people”, Ben Gurion said. The academy took up the challenge as well as various memorialization organizations in the young state. Streets, institutes, and foundations were named after him. This tendency peaked in 1988, when Yirmiyahu Yovel, laureate of the Israel Prize, published his book “Spinoza and Other Heretics”, the most in-depth, comprehensive works about the first secular man in the history of mankind.

The story of Spinoza – the ban, the hatred, the incitement, then the gradual reconciliation, can be a fascinating test case to the fateful secular-religious tension that’s been tearing us apart for centuries. Can we do that? Can we really go on arguing with one another and still maintain mutual respect, and then play together in the hood court? Only Spinoza’s God knows.

Gmar Chatima Tova everybody.

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Pride and Prejudice: The Story of Rabbi Israel of Salant’s Musar Movement https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/pride-prejudice-story-rabbi-israel-salants-musar-movement/ Thu, 26 Sep 2019 08:46:06 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=44493 “Fart Proudly” (also titled “A Letter to a Royal Academy About Farting”, and in some cases “To the Royal Academy of Farting”) is an essay published in 1781 by Benjamin Franklin, who served as the American ambassador to France at the time, about the study of wind passing. Franklin published the essay as a response [...]

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“Fart Proudly” (also titled “A Letter to a Royal Academy About Farting”, and in some cases “To the Royal Academy of Farting”) is an essay published in 1781 by Benjamin Franklin, who served as the American ambassador to France at the time, about the study of wind passing.

Franklin published the essay as a response to an invitation he had received from the Brussel’s Royal Academy. Resenting everything about the European academic sphere’s pomposity, pretentiousness, and narcissism, he composed a sarcastic work in which he suggested to specify funds for studying ways to improve the smell of human farts, in order to produce perfume for commercial use.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

If you are not slightly familiar with Franklin’s biography you might take him for a rude fellow with a bit of humor. But that surely wasn’t the case. Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, is known for having dedicated his life to pursuing moral perfection, towards a methodical removal of all moral vices.

One of his techniques relied on a method he developed, called The Thirteen Virtues Chart, among which were sincerity and humility. He did not care for pompous scholars and upon encountering them he used a blunt sarcastic tone, hence the farts essay.

What we wish to do, however, is not to discuss wind passing, but rather to explain how The Thirteen Virtues Chart by Franklin evolved during the 19th century into a fascinating Jewish ethical movement called “Musar”, founded by rabbi Israel of Salant (Salanter) in eastern Europe.

Rabbi Israel of Salant, born in Zagare in north Lithuania in 1810, was a prodigy. At the age of 12, he went to study in the Salant yeshiva with rabbi Zvi Broide and soon made a reputation as a great Torah scholar. While in the yeshiva, he met rabbi Yoseph Zundel of Salant, who introduced him to the Jewish Musar doctrine – which changed his life.

Town of Salant, Lithuania, Early 20th Century (Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot)

A slight off-topic deviation is now in order:

The formal Jewish theology, represented by Chazal (our sages), perceived moral as a sphere completely detached from what occurs inside the human soul. They did not care whether the worshipper ponders over some mushrooms pizza while praying or wearing tefillin, as long as he performs the practice. “Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzva and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzva and performs it”, is considered one of the well-known rules in the Talmud, as well as Rava’s ruling in masekhet Rosh Hashana, that the commandments do not require any intent. Chazal’s ethics is all about one’s duties, rather than virtues and sincere intentions. They believed that the things we do automatically represent us far more than deeds that derive from the intent of the heart, therefore they focused on actions. The habit matters more than one’s feelings while practicing it. Chazal left the sphere of the internal soul to their main opponent – Christianity. In the words of Paul: Judaism represents Israel of the flesh, while Christianity represents Israel of the spirit.

The first work to challenge Chazal’s moral attitude and lift the curtain on the depths of the Jewish soul was the 11th century classic Duty of the Hearts by rabbi Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda in Muslim Spain. He was followed by Maimonides, that portrayed the doctrine of his own soul virtues in the preface to Masekhet Avot, and later on by Sefer Hahasidim in the Ashkenazi sphere. Then came Kabbalah and Hasidism, both of which focused on the inner spiritual religious experience.

Chovot HaLevavot by Rabi Bahya ibn Paquda, cover, late 13th century

Rabbi Israel of Salant, who lived in the 19th century, was the next link in this glorious chain of ideas. He was a unique innovator because while the other movements mentioned above investigated various realms, rabbi Israel of Salant focused on one goal: he dedicated his life to form a structured methodical moral doctrine, that appealed to the solid intellect and lucid mind. At first, he had a few disciples in Kovno, but within a few years, the small circle became a large movement. Various Jewish communities established a “house of ethical teachings” – Beit Musar, a unique kind of Beit Midras, in which they taught Musar books in particular. In the late 19th century the movement spread throughout eastern Europe. Rabbi Salanter’s ethic studies became a considerable component of the study routine of prominent yeshivot such as Slabodka, Mir, Radun, and Novardok.

At first, the new movement was gravely resented by the rabbinical authorities, partly due to rabbi Israel’s criticism on their exclusive focus on the Mishna and adjudicative literature, that took over the yeshivot, that became institutes of extremely sophisticated, ceaseless debating. Salanter claimed that debating for its own sake uproots the spirit out of religious life and makes Judaism nothing but a procedural system of dos and don’ts, lacking any spirit or inspiration. As a result, Salanter said, many sections in the Torah, dealing with moral virtues or interpersonal relations, were neglected for centuries.

New Years Card. Printed in Germany for ‘Wiliamsburg Art Co.’, New York, USA,1920’s (Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa)

Salanter feared not to borrow from non-Jewish sources and disciplines, such as the notion that one must reach the dark elements of his mind, an idea that resembles the concept of the subconscious, borrowed from Kategorischer Imperativ by Immanuel Kant. Another foreign influence was our acquaintance Benjamin Franklin, whose Thirteen Virtues Chart rabbi Israel of Salant read in the book by the Jewish maskil, Mendel Lefin “Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh (moral reckoning). Rabbi Israel was affected by the moral method of Franklin and introduced it as a central teaching tool in his Musar institutes.

We started with pride, let us conclude with pride as well. According to rabbi Israel of Salant, pride is man’s greatest enemy. “When I see a proud man I feel nauseous”, he used to say. Founder of the Musar movement told his disciples, again and again, that pride is the hardest vice to mend. Unlike Franklin’s strategies upon meeting with proud people, rabbi Israel used to hold special practices in the month of Elul, to drop the ego, which he thought was holding humans back from going through a genuine self-reckoning before the Day of Atonement.

Happy Holidays!

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Send A Shana Tova Card to your Loved Ones! https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/send-shana-tova-card/ Sun, 15 Sep 2019 07:24:37 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=23130/ Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and it’s time to send some virtual Shana Tova cards, the Jewish New Year greetings, to your loved ones, friends and family members, as it been done throughout history. We at Beit Hatfutsot have accumulated A dozen of historical greeting cards from different historical periods and all corners [...]

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Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and it’s time to send some virtual Shana Tova cards, the Jewish New Year greetings, to your loved ones, friends and family members, as it been done throughout history.

We at Beit Hatfutsot have accumulated A dozen of historical greeting cards from different historical periods and all corners of the world for you to choose from.

  • There is A SHARE button on each Shana Tova.
  • Select the one you relate to the most and SHARE it with whoever you choose on social media.
  • Click the one you choose.
  • Choose “share on a friend’s timeline”.
  • Write the friend’s name and select the one you want from the list.
  • Write your greetings and wishes in “say something about this” space.
  • Click “post to Facebook” when you are done.
  • You can “send” as many cards as you like to as many friends and family members as you like.

All set! Have A Chag Sameach and happy new year!

1. USA

Mother and children New Year card Printed for Williamsburg Art Co., New York, USA, 1920s

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

2. Israel

New Year Greeting Card – Bicycle loaded with flowers. Postcard printed in Israel

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Zippi Harel, Israel

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Zippi Harel, Israel

3. Israel

New Year Card – Jerusalem, Eretz Israel, 1918

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, photo: J. Bendow, Jerusalem.

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, photo: J. Bendow, Jerusalem.

4. Libya 

‘Shana Tova’ – New Year Card, Tripoli, Libya, 1908  

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Tel-Aviv, I. Einhorn collection

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Tel-Aviv, I. Einhorn collection

5. Georgia (USSR)

The card was used as invitation to the housewarming of the Synagogue, Kulashi, Georgia (USSR), 1955

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Shimon Hahiashvili, Israel

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Shimon Hahiashvili, Israel

6. USA

Man with the Zionist Flag, Scrap pictures for New Year, New York, USA 1906

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

7. Canada

Boy and girl with the Zionist flag, New Year greeting card sent to Glasgow, Scotland from Montreal, Canada, 1910

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

8. France

New Year Greeting Card, Paris, France, 1920’s. Published by Leon Speiser, Paris

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Tamara Avneri, Geneva

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Tamara Avneri, Geneva

9. Switzerland

New Year Greeting Card for the Jewish year 5689,  Switzerland, 1929

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Tamara Avneri, Geneva

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Tamara Avneri, Geneva

10. Poland

‘Shana Tova’ – Postcard, Poland 1920s

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Louis and Shoshana Shtraus, Israel

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Louis and Shoshana Shtraus, Israel

11. Poland

New Year card Printed in Germany for “Central” publishing house, Warsaw, Poland, c1920

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa

12. Israel

Holocaust survivors (wearing prisoners uniform), on board the ship “Metrua”, hoisting the national flag as they arrive to Haifa Port, Eretz Israel, 1945

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Tel-Aviv, I. Einhorn collection

Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Tel-Aviv, I. Einhorn collection

 

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Deep Shtetel: Jewish elections 300 years ago https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/deep-shtetel-jewish-elections-300-years-ago/ Thu, 12 Sep 2019 15:29:35 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=44116 Cliché has it that Election Day is a holiday for democracy. It’s the political moment in which citizens use their mandate to shape the economic, judicial, cultural, educational future and other aspects of the society in which they live to reflect their wishes. Israel’s 71 years of democracy are just a blink of the eye [...]

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Cliché has it that Election Day is a holiday for democracy. It’s the political moment in which citizens use their mandate to shape the economic, judicial, cultural, educational future and other aspects of the society in which they live to reflect their wishes. Israel’s 71 years of democracy are just a blink of the eye In comparison to the length of Jewish history – when the definition of Jewish politics morphed time and again.

Generally speaking, the status of Jews in Islamic nations was for hundreds of years that of “Ahl al-Dhimma,” protected inferiors. In Europe, Jews were at first a “protected people,” then a “tolerated people,” and then upgraded to “beneficial Jews.” Finally, in the 19th century, they were granted equality that came with a warning: “Be a Jew at home, but heaven outside.”

It appears to many of us who graduated the Israeli school system that Jewish history is binary. The central narrative maintains that the diaspora was fraught with agonizing pain. That Jews wandered from one pogrom to another, fleeing regulations, persecutions, and mass deportation orders. And that this was all reversed by the return to Zion and the establishment of the State of Israel. From exile to redemption, Holocaust to resurrection, darkness to light. Choose your slogan – the meaning is clear. There is no lack of truth in this depiction of reality. But it is certainly not the whole truth.

One of the truths that lies on the cutting-room floor of those who edit the history of the Jewish People is the period in which Jews thrived, enjoyed extensive rights, and most important, conducted their lives in accordance with their beliefs and self-determination. We will briefly describe the fascinating and extraordinary period here in which Jews engendered an unprecedented, new and original political entity.

Map of the Jewish Communities in Poland-Lithuania in early 16th century (From the old Permanent Exhibition, Museum of the Jewish people at Beit Hatfutsot)

The place: The Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. The time: The 16th-18th centuries

The Jews owe the renaissance that took place during those 200 years to the feudal system that pervaded the kingdom’s political domain. During that period, the population was divided in practice into three central and non-hierarchical castes. The Catholic nobility owned estates and controlled the means of production. They had the right to purchase land and enslave groups of – mainly Ukrainian – vassals. The vassals devoted their little free time from harsh labor to hating the third caste. That caste – lower than the vassals in number but higher in the hierarchy – was the Jews.

Historian Israel Bartal describes the Jewish caste as follows: “Their spoken language is Yiddish. Their religion Judaism. They enjoy the rights of urban residents and broad communal autonomy, and the legal right to purchase urban property. A significant portion of their livelihood comes from leasing means of production owned by Polish nobility and managing the vassal work force.” The Jews were the nobility’s emissaries, the Ukrainian vassals’ bosses, and in time, the objects of the vassals’ loathing. They paid a heavy price for that in the Khmelnitsky riots of 1648, in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed.

The “Popper” Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, Cracow, Poland, 1920’s. The synagogue built in 1620 (Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz)

But despite the relatively rare Khmelnitsky events, Bartal describes that period as one in which, “The status of Jews in Poland was good in every sense…They enjoyed freedom of movement and freedom to acquire urban properties, and their bill of rights granted them freedom of religion and freedom to be judged in accordance with their own laws.” It came as no surprise that by the end of the 18th century the Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom numbered nearly a million men and women, about half the Jews in the world.

So how was the political life of the typical Jewish community in Poland organized 300 years ago? Unlike Israeli elections which take place every four years, elections in large Jewish communities like Lvov, Poznan, and Krakow took place every year. The system typically called for a council of nine members comprised of community dignitaries who were obligated by protocol to have the following traits: “People of wisdom and ethics, property owners, of worthy age.” The council met annually on the Sunday of the intermediate days of Passover. They deposited a note in a ballot box bearing five names of members of their ranks. The five of nine chosen members became the “nominating committee” charged with choosing public representatives of three institutions. The first choice was that of a “community leader” or “community elder,” a would-be mayor of the community.

Facade of the synagogue in Orla, Poland, 1920’s. The stone synagogue was built at the end of the 17th century (Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Zusia Efron, Jerusalem)

In order to prevent this leader’s excessive power, that choice was not limited to one candidate, but to four or five who replaced each other in a monthly rotation. The elder determined residential rights and managed the budgets of “public (see below)” institutions. He collected taxes on behalf of the Polish nobility and guaranteed loans among the community’s members. After a “community leader” was chosen, the council elected three or four “good men” to serve as acting community elders.

The next phase was the election of representatives of “public” institutions, which in our terms are equivalent to Knesset Committees. For example, the “charity gabbais” were responsible for charitable institutions like the Chevra Kadisha burial society, the Hekdesh poorhouse, the hospital, and the bathhouse. The “market elders” inspected the weights in fairground booths, oversaw the disposal of garbage from streets, and organized the roster of the “night-watch organization,” that defended the community from theft and warned them of fires. Other “public” institutions included the gabbai of Talmud Torah educational institutions, those in charge of determining Torah study times, the gabbai of the synagogue, the gabbai in charge of redeeming captive or imprisoned Jews, the gabbai of Meut Eretz Yisrael to collect donations for residents of the Land of Israel, and the gabbai moser, who mainly battled frivolous spending and flagging ethics.

Council of the Four Lands, Lublin, Poland, 17th century (From the old Permanent Exhibition, Museum of the Jewish people at Beit Hatfutsot)

The “public” institutions also managed a network of civil servant clerks, or what we now call in Israel “Deep Shtetl.” The most prominent among them was the community rabbi, who also headed its courts, organized its burials, held a monopoly on banishing and excommunicating members of the community, and also supervised the “public” institutions. Other clerks included the shtadlan, a sort of lobbyist who roamed the halls of Polish nobility in an effort to advance the community’s interests; the community darshan, an orator with a gift for rhetoric who delivered the weekly Shabbat sermon, the community scribe with a command of the Polish language spoken by boors, as well as doctors, pharmacists, midwives, etc.

The spread of Jewish residences beyond major cities gave rise to a need for an umbrella political entity to organize Jewish life throughout Poland’s regions. In about 1550, “The Four Lands Committee” was founded, which operated for 200 years and – until 1764 – served as the supreme central institution representing Polish Jewry before the authorities. The Jewish community’s aforementioned political model declined in the late 1800s after Poland was divided and the Jews were integrated in general society.

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Club Med: Rooms with a view and a Jewish story https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/club-med-rooms-view-jewish-story/ Mon, 09 Sep 2019 13:51:24 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=44079 Adi Akunis Club Med’s vacations have always appeared tailor-made for the global rich: Exotic locations in remote regions that offer an “all-inclusive holiday” in the original sense of that term. Food, recreation, sports, organized activities, rest, and good company. But long before this vacation concept was born, it was the idealistic brainchild of two Jews [...]

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Adi Akunis

Club Med’s vacations have always appeared tailor-made for the global rich: Exotic locations in remote regions that offer an “all-inclusive holiday” in the original sense of that term. Food, recreation, sports, organized activities, rest, and good company. But long before this vacation concept was born, it was the idealistic brainchild of two Jews who survived World War II and only wished to benefit Holocaust survivors.

Gerard Blitz was born in Antwerp, Belgium to a pious Jewish family of diamond dealers with a passion for water sports. His father Maurice and his uncle – also Gerard – played in the Belgian all-star water polo league that won two Olympic medals in 1920 and 1924. The younger Gerard also dove into the family pool, participating in several international swimming and water polo competitions.

When the Nazis invaded Belgium, the Blitz family fled to the relative shelter of the South of France. When Blitz turned 18, he joined an elite unit of the French Resistance comprised mainly of athletes, and he fought the Nazis until the end of the war. In no hurry to rejoin his family even after the war had ended, Blitz remained with fellow Underground comrades to help Holocaust survivors try to return to the homes they had been forced to abandon. That was no easy task – sometimes it was virtually impossible. Blitz and his friends moved from one refugee camp to another for several months until they arrived at Alcudia, an azure, virgin beach in Mallorca, an island in the Spanish Mediterranean.

Blitz fell in love with the shoreline and decided to establish there a vacation camp for Holocaust survivors, where they would be treated with his great love since birth – water.  Remembering as walking dead with dim eyes the many thousands of survivors he had seen in the months following the war, Blitz hatched a scheme: If he could only take them for a few weeks, every day, to the beach, he could he could heal them and restore their joy and lust for life.

He rented a lot on the beach from its local owners. Lacking the funding to build a hotel or any other construction, Blitz decided that the “resort” would host its guests in tents. But he could not even afford to purchase tents, and in 1946, returned to Belgium, to attempt to enlist funds for his enterprise. Though he succeeded in convincing some businessmen that his was a worthy goal, none would loan him dozens of tents for free. In 1946 when his fundraising mission in Belgium failed, Blitz went to France to make contact with a manufacturer who mainly produced tents for the French military named “Trigano.”

Gilbert Trigano, born in 1920, was an Algerian theater actor and comic who – like Blitz – was forced to leave the stage and banned from performing when the Nazis invaded. He tried when the war ended to return to the stage, but his father prevented him from fulfilling his dream and urged him to join the family tent manufacturing business in Paris. When Blitz arrived at the tent manufacturers requesting tents for his project, an astounded Trigano asked him why he wanted them. Blitz outlined his intention to establish a convalescent village for Holocaust survivors, where he could heal them by means of water activities. An enthusiastic Trigano fell in love with the concept and offered Blitz a partnership: The Belgian dreamer would heal the vacationers’ ills by means of water, and Trigano would appear nightly to entertain them and soothe their suffering souls with humor. Trigano’s father gave them the tents without payment.

Trigano and Blitz created a non-profit organization in France and continued to Alcudia. They opened the gates of the first Club Med in 1950, offering an all-inclusive vacation for the first time in global tourism history.

Blitz’s motto was, “The goal of life is to be happy. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.” It is thus no wonder that in 1960 he discovered Zen Buddhism and became an internationally acclaimed Yogi.

As they had planned, Blitz treated people by means of the water activities that became part of the ClubMed network’s DNA over the years; and Trigano appeared to entertain the guests in the evening. At the end of every performance, Trigano called the club’s workers to the stage to perform before the audience, thus beginning a new tradition that became iconic in the Club Med chain. Guests arrived at the Club for a relatively extended stay of several weeks, made possible by a French law enacted at the time, granting a mandatory vacation of five weeks to every employee.

In 1955, the two founders realized that the project had become a complex operation. They closed the non-profit organization and established a business. In early 1957, they decided to expand and added two Clubs in Cieplo and in Sicily based on the same simple principle: Sleeping in tents or shacks and activities throughout the day and evening. It was mainly Trigano who objected to spacious rooms with pampering amenities, television, telephone, or anything else that would cause a guest to remain inactive in his room.

Though they were secular Jews, Blitz and Trigano were very proud of their Judaism. Until the 1980s, nearly 80% of the Clubs’ workers were Jews. Club Med was originally based on the values of equality without religion, politics, and status; and a real desire to improve man. The Club’s concept instilled values that related well to Judaism: Family, children, community, and connection. For example, there were no tables for two or for small groups, but tables for 10 or more. That way as many diners as possible could meet one another and create connections, despite their lack of an initial common denominator.

Trigano and Blitz were also avid Zionists. In 1961, Trigano came to Israel to establish its first holiday village. His guiding idea here too was to search for isolated spots in which guests could disengage from their daily lives.

Ben-Gurion immediately recognized the Club’s potential and invited Trigano to tour the nation’s Mediterranean beaches in a helicopter. When they arrived at Achziv, Trigano knew he had found what he was looking for. Ben-Gurion gave him the land free of cost, and the first Club Med in Israel was launched. That year, another highly honored guest arrived at the site: Baron Rothschild. Despite his vast wealth and lofty position, Rothschild slept in a shack like all the other guests. And wonder of wonders, he enjoyed every minute. Rothschild was so enthused by the idea, that he immediately offered Blitz and Trigano to enter as a partner and facilitate a broad, strategic expansion. Rothschild delivered the money and became a partner; and the company went public in 1965 after its first stock issue.

Over the years and with its expansion, Club Med faced financial straits that threatened the chain’s existence. And in 1990, it was purchased by the Fiat corporation. Most of the clubs no longer provide tents and shacks; and they offer instead lavish rooms with upscale amenities. But the daily water activities and entertainment that Trigano and Blitz installed 70 years ago are still Club Med’s leading concept.

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How the abduction of a Jewish boy led to the founding of “Alliance”? https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/abduction-jewish-boy-led-founding-alliance/ Sun, 01 Sep 2019 09:27:02 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43987 The Alliance school network has been considered for years an educational empire. More than a million students have graduated from its hundreds of schools in dozens of countries around the world, since its founding in 1860. Much has been written about Alliance’s educational message. Its leaders’ proficiency in integrating the old and the new, tradition [...]

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The Alliance school network has been considered for years an educational empire. More than a million students have graduated from its hundreds of schools in dozens of countries around the world, since its founding in 1860. Much has been written about Alliance’s educational message. Its leaders’ proficiency in integrating the old and the new, tradition and progress, and excellence and humanity led to a significant cultural and social revolution among the Jewish boys and girls who lived in Islamic nations – from the North African city of Tetouan to the Land of Israel to Tehran.

That is all well and good. But do the thousands of pupils attending the first day of school this morning at Israel’s Alliance schools know that they owe their education to the germ that infected a helpless Italian-Jewish baby 167 years ago? Probably not.

Alliance Israelite Universelle girls’ school in traditional costume, Tunis, Tunisia, 1903 ( Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Abraham Hatal, Jerusalem)

Shlomo Mortara was a successful Jewish tailor from Bologna, whose clientele included the local police. Ten policemen wearing uniforms produced by the Mortaras knocked on their door on the evening of June 23, 1858. Their stern facial expressions signaled to the tailor that this jovial group had not come to praise him for his sewing skills. One officer presented Mortara with a decree signed by Pope Pius IX, stating that he must hand over his six-year old son Edgardo to the church at once. The reason: Church records revealed that Edgardo had been baptized when he was a year old, and the law banned Catholic children from being educated in a Jewish home. Once must remember that at that time, the modern nation of Italy had yet to be established, and the city of Bologna was part of the Papal State. The failing theocracy’s primitive law enforcement answered to Pope Pius IX, the head of state who declared himself the only human on the planet who was never mistaken.

The Jewish tailor begged the Italian officers to grant him 24 hours to clarify the matter and immediately contacted the city’s governor. The governor shared with him some jaw-dropping information. When Edgardo was a year old, he had contracted tuberculosis and appeared to be dying. This much the father certainly knew. But he did not know that – fearing that the infant would pass to the afterlife and burn in eternal hell before he was absolved of his sins – the family’s Christian servant girl, Anna Morisi, took him to the church to baptize him.

The teaching staff of Alliance School, Hamadan, Iran 1947 (Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Moshe Rassek, Israel)

Anna Morisi was not just an innocent believer. She had a complex past. She had become pregnant out-of-wedlock a few years prior. Shlomo Mortara mercifully paid to board her baby in an orphanage. But when she fell pregnant again several years later, the Mortaras refused to collaborate and fired their servant. As the old saw says, you should always beware of those you help. She divulged to church authorities after she was sacked that the Mortara family was holding a baptized child.

The father’s pleas did not help. Two days later, a carriage loaded with toys and sweets provided by the Church stopped in front of the Mortara home, and they were forced, choking back their tears, to bid their little son farewell. They would only meet again when Edgardo was an altar boy named after his abductor, “Pius.”

But what’s the big deal? The Church has kidnapped hundreds of Jewish children throughout history. What made Steven Spielberg consider turning the Edgardo Mortara story into a film? The answer combines technology and politics.

Inspector Milou addresses the director Mr. Lerner and the children and teachers of Alliance School during the end of the year ceremony, Meknes, Morocco, June 1954 ( Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot, Raphael and Georgette Cohen collection)

One must remember that this story did not take place in the dimness of the Middle Ages. It occurred during the last third of the 19th century, when trains began to transverse Europe and the telegraph that connected the four corners of the globe expedited the development of mass communications. The Jewish world exploited the technological revolution, and key figures like Minister Moses Montefiore, shed light on the story that echoed around the world. International press dubbed it the “Mortara Affair.” It represented a significant turning point as it comprised the first public Jewish protest since the Jews’ emancipation.

The Mortara Affair also touched an acutely sensitive political nerve: the battle of secular Western nations to wrest the public arena from religious institutions led by the Papal State. Major French and English newspapers used the kidnapped Jewish boy to lock horns with the Church and the Mortara case remained in the headlines.

“This was an act of arrogance on the part of one of the most backwards nations in the West,” wrote historian Renee Remo about the Papal State. “The abduction of the Italian-Jewish boy from Bologna did much more to foment anti-religious Catholic sentiment than the awkward public blunders of dozens of bishops and priests.” In other words, the free world hated the Church more than it pitied the Mortaras.

Student of the Laurence Kadoorie School, Mosul, Iraq 1930s. In the background the two school buildings: one the Alliance school for boys named after Laurence Kadoorie, and the second, the Alliance school for girls named after Rima Kadoorie. ( Oster visual documentation center at Beit Hatfutsot , courtesy of Ezra Laniado, Israel)

How did the story end? All attempts to free Edgardo failed, because Pius IX refused and because reeducation turned the Jewish boy into a devout Catholic. When he became a teenager, Edgardo changed his name to Pius and joined the Augustine Order. He later served the Church in Germany and New York, earning the title of Papal Emissary. In 1879, 21 years after he was kidnapped from his parents’ home, he was permitted to renew his relations with his Jewish family. He died in a Belgian monastery in 1940.

The most important lesson learned from this dismal affair was that there was a need for an independent Jewish framework to fight the Church’s proselytizing. This was the background for the establishment in 1860 France of the Alliance Israélite Universelle Society, bearing the motto:  “All Jews are responsible for one another.”  Owing its establishment in large part to the “Mortara Affair,” Alliance championed the empowerment of Jewish identity alongside instilling modern values, foreign language acquisition, and science education. The first Alliance school opened in 1862 in Tetouan, Morocco. In 1870, the first agricultural school opened in the Land of Israel in Mikveh Yisrael. The Alliance school in Haifa opened in 1884, and eight years later, another Alliance school opened in Jerusalem.

They say that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the globe can lead to a tsunami on the other. In this story, the emergence of a miniscule germ in the Land of the Boot sparked an educational and social revolution in the Jewish world of the Islamic nations and the Middle East, changing the lives of tens of thousands of children and adults. May this school year be a success!

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Marcel Bloch Dassault: The Jewish engineer who conquered the sky https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/marcel-bloch-dassault-jewish-engineer-conquered-sky/ Wed, 21 Aug 2019 13:57:25 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43892 The possibility of imitating winged creatures has always sparked the French imagination. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly a human-carrying hot air balloon, and Louis Blériot was the first inventor-adventurer to complete an international flight – from France to Britain in July 1909. Several months after Blériot crossed the La Manche (English) Channel, [...]

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The possibility of imitating winged creatures has always sparked the French imagination. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly a human-carrying hot air balloon, and Louis Blériot was the first inventor-adventurer to complete an international flight – from France to Britain in July 1909.

Several months after Blériot crossed the La Manche (English) Channel, a 17-year old Jewish boy crossed Montien Boulevarde toward the Eiffel Tower, when a wondrous and life-changing specter burst through the clouds. A strange winged contraption flew lightly and elegantly over the boy’s head, bearing a grinning Count Charles de Lambert, a pioneer of French aviation and student of Wright Brother Orwell.

The boy, Marcel Bloch Dassault, would one day say that the moment he saw Count Lambert fly over the Eiffel Tower, he decided to join the prestigious club of French engineer-inventors. He did not yet know that his decision would influence a tiny nation that would be established in the Middle East 40 years later.

Young Bloch’s decision evolved from idea to action and immediately after he graduated from high school, he applied to the high college of aeronautics, France’s first school of aviation – from which he graduated in 1913.

Marcel Bloch 1914 (creative commons, wikimedia)

How talented an engineer was he? He is still mentioned with Kelly Johnson and Artem Mikoyan as one of the three founding fathers of aeronautics. At 22, Bloch invented an airplane propeller that was so successful that France dismantled the propellers in its fighter planes and replaced them with Bloch’s propeller. France’s top flying ace Georges Guynemer, who sent 57 enemy planes to their final reward, said at the time he would not have been able to down so many planes had it not been for Bloch’s propeller.

In 1931, Bloch established the eponymous Marcel Bloch plane company, identified by his initials, MB. During that period, the Jewish engineer dreamed up airplanes of all types: the innovative MB-220 passenger plane, the triple-engine, ten-seat MB-120 cargo plane, and the MB-210 bomber, that reached a cruising altitude of 32,840 feet – when no other bomber could fly beyond 30,000 feet.

The quality of the planes produced by Bloch and his then-partner Henry Potez was such that the company’s headquarters in a giant hangar in Bologne was flooded with orders for planes. The two men thus quickly established other factories throughout France. This financial success was nipped in the bud in 1936, when the socialist Popular Front party rose to power. The party did not view fondly capitalist ventures that turned ingenuity and talent into money – it nationalized Bloch’s company.

Mirage III at the Israeli Air Force Museum (IDF)

To the sorrow of zealous defenders of equality, God did not hand out talent equally. And because French aviation minister Pierre Cot was lacking any talent with which to lead the largest industrial aviation firm in France, Bloch was named managing director of the company which had just been seized from his hands. Despite the lack of personal profit during that period, Bloch’s fiery mind did not cease to concoct and produce the MB-150 fighter plane and MB-170 bomber series.

But that was all too little too late. In June 1940, the French personally paid the price of their demonstratively soft-on-Nazi-Germany policy. The land of the tricolor flag was conquered and bisected – the North in German domain and the South controlled by the puppet Vichy government.

The S.S. carried out orders, and their orders explicitly demanded that Jews be exploited to their limits before their extermination. The Nazis considered Bloch to be a useful individual, a wellspring of knowledge and genius whose value was greater than gold. To their surprise, when they asked him to share his knowledge with them – thus saving his own life and that of his family – the Jewish engineer adamantly refused to collaborate.

Israeli Nesher over the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War (IDF)

At first, he was jailed with his wife and son in the infamous Fort Montluc prison. Later, he was sent to the Drancy concentration camp in Paris, considered to be among the cruelest concentration camps, and finally he was sent to Buchenwald to “live” out the war. In the camps, he decided to add the name “Dassault” to the Bloch surname. “Dassault” – meaning, “for battle,” – was the nom de guerre that his brother, General Darius Paul Bloch, used in the French underground. Darius Bloch, a national hero, is worthy of his own article.

Despite partial physical paralysis, Marcel Dassault’s spirit did not flag. Immediately after the war, he tackled the company’s rehabilitation with renewed strength. It quickly became a world leader in the fighter plane and jets field. The “Oregon,” “Mystere,” “Super Mystere,” and of course the “Mirage” Rolls-Royce of aircraft earned Marcel Bloch a place in the pantheon of the greatest engineers in history.

During the years of its operation, the Daussault aviation company produced more than 8,000 planes, including the 50 that star in a special story. In 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on Israel. The Israel Air Force had already signed a contract with the Dassault company to purchase 50 upgraded Mirage 5s.

Angered by the decision, the Israelis did not give in. Less than a year later, a carton of documents landed in Mossad headquarters, including the full plans for producing a Mirage 5. The man who passed along this golden intel was an enlisted Mossad agent, a Swiss engineer named “Alfred.” The more than 200,000 documents transferred by Alfred Frauenknecht were used to develop the Israeli Nesher aircraft, the harbinger of Israeli manufacturing of additional planes like the Kfir which put Israel on the map of aircraft production.

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The Selfish Gene: the Story of Rosalind Franklin  https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/selfish-gene-story-rosalind-franklin/ Thu, 01 Aug 2019 10:43:01 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43516 In 1887, American-Jewish physicist Albert Abraham Michelson developed the interferometer, a remarkably precise system for measuring the speed of light rays. Two decades later, another Albert – Albert Einstein – used Michelson’s system to discover the theory of special relativity. It’s a fair bet that none of you have heard of Michelson. His portrait is unknown; his name has [...]

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In 1887, American-Jewish physicist Albert Abraham Michelson developed the interferometer, a remarkably precise system for measuring the speed of light rays. Two decades later, another Albert – Albert Einstein – used Michelson’s system to discover the theory of special relativity.

It’s a fair bet that none of you have heard of Michelson. His portrait is unknown; his name has not become synonymous with genius; and if you google him, you’ll get very few results.

He is not alone. Many fine men and women have been crushed under the wheels of history. These anonymous figures took a hit on behalf of progress and received no credit for their genius. Siegfried Marcus invented the automobile a decade and a half before Karl Benz grabbed the glory. Belgian priest George Lemaitre discovered that the universe expands several years before Edwin Hubble got the credit. Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier contributed the concepts of socialism before Marx and Engels. And let’s not forget the original augurs of Zionism – Moses Hess and Rabbi Kalischer – who were there long before Herzl took his flight of fancy to Altneuland. Their names are just a drop in the bucket.

Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958 (u.s National Library of Medicine, WikiMedia)

Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958 (u.s National Library of Medicine, WikiMedia)

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 to an aristocratic London family. Franklin’s childhood friend told BBC Radio that there was a warm family atmosphere in the Franklin family home in Notting Hill, and that Rosalind’s many cousins – who also lived in the posh neighborhood – were frequently present in her home. The Franklin family was British upper-class crème de la crème.  Herbert Samuel, the First High Commissioner for Palestine, was her father’s uncle. Their Anglo-Jewish elite established a network of business connections, marriages, and friendships, and nonetheless maintained a deep affinity for their People. In the 1930s, Rosalind’s parents housed many Jewish refugees from Germany in their expansive home and launched philanthropic aide to Eastern European Jews.

Franklin’s personality and outstanding self-esteem as a teenager was shaped by her excellent education, membership in an elite Anglo-Jewish club, the warm and nurturing environs in which she grew up, and her close ties to her parents and four siblings.

Franklin had reason to be proud of herself. From a young age, it was obvious to all that the avid little girl was nothing less than a diamond in the rough. When she was six, her aunt Helen Bentwich said that “Rosalind was frightfully smart.” Her friends at the private Saint Paul girls’ school said that she excelled in every field – from cricket to literature and science. She wasn’t shy, and a childhood friend recalls that whenever someone said something stupid, she would burst out laughing. Her arrogance would one day become her Achille’s heel.

Maughan Library at King's College, London UK (WikiMedia)

Maughan Library at King’s College, London UK (WikiMedia)

At 16, Franklin decided to devote her life to science. Her advance in that field was dizzying. She completed a bachelor’s degree with honors at Cambridge University and completed her doctorate in carbon research at age 25. After a number of years in a Paris laboratory, Franklin surrendered to pressure from her family to return to London. In Paris, Franklin specialized in X-ray crystallography – a technique in which x-ray beams are shot through a crystal to project physical interference onto a screen. That specialty made her a highly desirable researcher. Among many jobs she was offered, she finally chose a research position in a laboratory in London’s prestigious Kings College.

Franklin focused on the structure of DNA. Her ambition, determination, and devotion to the Sisyphean measurement required to achieve an accurate picture of DNA’s structure quickly roused the envy of her colleagues in the lab. Maurice Wilkins, the deputy head of the laboratory, was particularly jealous. The introverted Wilkins was put off by his new researcher’s excessive confidence and by the character of the woman whom he dismissively called “Rosie” behind her back. He shot down anyone who thought differently of her. Her unbridled motivation, contrariness, and impatience for mistakes – the very traits that made Franklin a quality researcher – drew the wrath of her colleagues in the lab. But the more isolated Ms. Franklin became, the more motivated she was to isolate the structure of DNA. One night, it finally happened. A perfect picture finally appeared on the interference screen and Franklin tagged it “Photo 51.”

DNA fragment

DNA fragment. Franklin’s historic breakthrough

The Jewish scientist was unaware that she had discovered the structure of DNA. Wilkins, however, realized the potential of Photo 51, and without Franklin’s permission showed them to two of his science colleagues – Francis Crick and James Watson of Cambridge University. With the help of Photo 51 and Wilkins, Watson and Crick succeeded in determining the 3D structure of DNA. Understanding the structure to be a di-cylindrical helix, the three of them constructed a metal 3D model of DNA. They published the results of their research in Volume 171 of the “Nature” scientific journal on April 25, 1953. And the rest is history.

Rosalind Franklin’s story could have ended in tragedy and injustice. But to her fortune, one of the players in this drama was more big-headed than her. That was, of course, James Watson, who published “The Double Helix” in 1978, a book that outlines in great detail the history of determining the structure of DNA and emphasizes his own significant role in that discovery. Whether for some bizarre reason or because of his own pangs of guilt, Watson portrayed Franklin in his book as a single, manipulative witch with terrible taste in clothes and a penchant for scientific dogmatism.

Watson’s overkill regarding Franklin raised the suspicions of science historians, who began to investigate the story in depth. The story behind Photo 51 and its tremendous contribution to unraveling the structure of DNA was thus exposed. Watson’s curse turned into a blessing.

Unlike Michelson, Franklin earned recognition and her name is known throughout the world. She unfortunately did not live to enjoy that. Ten years before the book was published, she died of ovarian cancer at age 37 – a lonely anonymous genius.

Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois (Jefe317, Wikipedia)

Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois (Jefe317, Wikipedia)

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Glorious Bastards: Incredible Story of “The Ritchie Boys” https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/glorious-bastards-incredible-story-of-the-ritchie-boys/ Mon, 29 Jul 2019 12:21:23 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=43447 These European Jewish boys fled the Nazis to America, leaving parents, siblings, friends and the beloved continent that stabbed them in the back behind. They did not imagine in their wildest dreams that they would return to the scene of the crime as soldiers in the Allied Forces’ special corps. No, this is not a [...]

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These European Jewish boys fled the Nazis to America, leaving parents, siblings, friends and the beloved continent that stabbed them in the back behind. They did not imagine in their wildest dreams that they would return to the scene of the crime as soldiers in the Allied Forces’ special corps.

No, this is not a trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” This is the story of “The Ritchie Boys”, Jewish refugees who arrived in America during the war and seized that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to avenge the Nazi extermination machine that killed their families and so many members of their People.

Fred Howard and Guy Stern remember to this day the moment in which they entered the gates of Camp Richie, a secret intelligence facility in the heart of the Maryland foothills. The two of them said in the 2004 documentary “The Richie Boys” that it was “as close as you could get to the Tower of Babel. you could hear European languages – German, Polish, French, Yiddish and Italian – wherever you turned.”

Most of them lost their families and came back to fight their murderers (screenshot from “The Ritchie Boys” Documentary)

Howard and Stern, who immigrated to the US alone when they were in their 20s, did lose their mothers, but not their mother tongues. That was why they were drafted into the intelligence unit’s special ops. Or as Howard put it, “You can train anyone to shoot a gun and charge in six months. It takes a little more time to teach him a new language.”

The American War Department needed soldiers who spoke European languages for its missions across enemy lines. But soldiers who merely spoke a foreign language did not make the cut – the department meticulously cherry-picked these soldiers. Inventiveness, sophistication, a cool head, and flexibility in complex situations were all required of candidates who would one day don German officers’ and soldiers’ uniforms to plant disinformation among enemy ranks.

Camp Richie maintained an intensive schedule. These soldiers spent several months training in psychological warfare, cracking Morse code, photographing from the air, uncovering the German army’s knowledge of warfare, becoming adept at interrogating German prisoners of war, and learning to kill as swiftly as possible in dangerous circumstances.

Nazi soldier interrogation training in camp Ritchie (National Archives NARA, WikiMedia)

Howard fled to the US in 1938. His parents received one immigration permit from American authorities and immediately handed it to their only son. They never saw him again. Most of those interviewed in the documentary tell similar stories. Jewish refugees alone in a strange land, filled with gratitude to the land that fulfilled their basic human need: To belong to something bigger than themselves and contribute to the free world’s joint effort to quash the Nazi forces of evil.

“As long as we were training, everything was easy,” the two of them recall, waxing nostalgic. “There was a special feeling in the camp. A sort of Jewish shtetl. Here I am with a busy social life and feelings of national pride.” The move to real warfare took place in May 1944, when the officers gathered the teens in one of the camp’s main buildings and ordered them to prepare for D-Day.

D-Day – June 6, 1944 – the Allied Forces’ invasion of Normandy, was a turning point in World War II. “I shook with fear,” says Stern, describing his first moments after landing in Normandy. “I saw human bodies everywhere, and the remains of horses and cows. Death was on the wind. The smell was unbearable. But as soon as I saw the first German soldier, the fear was replaced by a rage for revenge.”

Training at camp Ritchie before departing on their war mission in Europe (National Archives NARA, WikiMedia)

Soon after they landed on the shores of Normandy, the Richie Boys – in teams of two or three soldiers – left their units to perform covert missions across enemy. The missions were varied: Planting disinformation by means of loudspeakers on trucks, misleading radio broadcasts, distributing fliers and more. Because they spoke the native tongue, the American army also used them to perform prosaic tasks: asking locals where they could sleep and acquire raw materials, etc.

But the Richie Boys’ most crucial job was interrogating German prisoners of war. “The idea was to make the German soldiers and officers feel like they were in a safe environment, to give them the feeling that if they cooperated, we’d take care of them,” they said about their interrogation tactics. “One way to do that was not to take any notes during the investigation. Because that would immediately raise their suspicions.”

In addition, the investigators exploited the Germans’ existential fear of Russian soldiers. “The Germans were paranoid of the Red Army’s cruelty.” While Howard was interrogating a German officer, Stern, who spoke Russian fluently, would enter the room wearing a Soviet uniform with full regalia – bars on his shoulders, medals on his chest, and the Red Army’s iconic star embroidered on his shirt. “We just told them that if they didn’t cooperate, we’d have to turn them over to the Russians. That immediately did the job.”

Martin Selling questions German prisoners near the front in France, 1944. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The Richie Boys (including author Klaus Mann and photographer David “Chim” Seymour, whose exhibition of 20th-century photographs is on display at the Museum of Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot) arrived in Paris before it was liberated and fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge.  In the film, they describe how they were constantly plagued by a dual fear. “On one hand, we were afraid that the Americans would mistake us for spies and shoot us, and on the other, that the Germans would discover our background.” At the end of the war, they were among the forces that liberated the concentration camps, and some of them later served as translators in the Nuremberg Trials.

The Richie Boys’ contribution to the Allied Forces was worth more than gold. General Oscar Koch, leader of the legendary US Third Army, said after the war that the boys’ success in demoralizing the German army and in obtaining intelligence about the German enemy significantly helped in breaking German resistance. True, they were not required to bring their officer 100 scalps or to crush German officers’ skulls with baseball bats, but the Richie Boys were bastards who brought us plenty of glory.

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