Mazel Tov! Celebrating 150 Years of Postcards

Beautiful, inexpensive and easy to use – postcards were once among the most popular forms of correspondence. In honor of their 150th anniversary, we take a look back at some early examples

A Greek postcard sent by Theodor Herzl to his daughter, Paulina, in 1898

Few of us still take the time to sit down, pull out a piece of paper and write a handwritten letter. Perhaps even fewer still choose to make use of the letter’s “little sister” – the postcard, which nowadays commonly features a picture of a tourist site.

Postcards were first produced in the middle of the 19th century, when a few small companies were given concession to distribute cards with a limited number of words on them. However, the breakthrough occurred on October 1st, 1869, when the Austrian Postal Authority officially announced the new medium that was to serve the general public. Following the Austrian resolution, many countries around the world joined in the new trend. Postcards had an advantage; they were often sold with a stamp already printed on the card, with the price being lower than that of a letter stamp.

For the sake of comparison, you could say that the postcard served a similar function to that of the modern electronic text message. Short messages were sent from one location to another and thanks to the relatively quick delivery times and frequent distribution of mail (in some cases more than three times a day), more and more people began using postcards.

Soon after, postcards began being developed with pictures printed on the backside – paintings, portraits and landscapes. The new medium became extremely popular, with postcards being sent in large quantities, originally in black-and-white print, and later in color, using chromolithographic technology.

Remnants of the massive popularity of postcards during the 19th and 20th centuries can still be found today. Museums carry large public collections, as well as private ones, sorted by era, motif and the like. Many postcards are also found scattered in archival collections, among correspondence which was more commonly conducted via letters. Naturally, personal archives hold more postcards than institutional archives, as sending a postcard to a government office or an official authority would generally be considered inappropriate. The National Library of Israel also has many postcards in its collections, distributed among the different correspondence files as well as in our special Postcards Collection.

In the gallery below you can view a selection of postcards from the NLI collections:



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How a 500 Year-Old Torah Scroll Was Saved from the Nazi Conquest of Rhodes

The scroll was hidden away from the German occupiers in an unlikely location…

The Torah scroll pictured above was originally inscribed in Spain in either the 14th or 15th century, but that was just the beginning…

At some point, it arrived at the famous Kahal Shalom synagogue on the island of Rhodes, which is today the oldest active synagogue in Greece. It was likely brought there by Jewish exiles from Spain or their descendants and may very well have been stored in the synagogue since its founding in 1593.

The Book of Exodus, from the Rhodes Torah scroll. The National Library collections

The first evidence of a Sephardic-Jewish presence on Rhodes dates to the Ottoman period, which began with the conquest of the island in 1522.

For hundreds of years, the members of Rhodes’ Jewish community would read from this scroll at services held at Kahal Shalom. The community thrived and by the 1920s, a quarter of the town of Rhodes’ population was Jewish.  It all came to an end with the Nazi conquest and the deportation of the island’s Jews to Auschwitz in July of 1944.

Just a few days before the deportation, members of the community were able to smuggle the scroll out of the synagogue and place it in the custody of the Mufti of Rhodes, Sheikh Suleyman Kasiloglou. The mufti is said to have hidden the Torah under the pulpit of the Murad Reis Mosque, where the Nazis would never think to look.

1,673 Jews were sent from Rhodes to Auschwitz where they were put to death. Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul-General on the island, was able to save around 50 members of the community by stating that they were Turkish citizens. This was only true for a dozen or so. Regarding the rest, Ülkümen fabricated a lie claiming that spouses of Turkish citizens were citizens themselves. His heroic intervention saved their lives.

The Rhodes Torah Mantle, the Natonal Library collections

Following the conclusion of World War II, the Torah scroll was returned to the community’s few surviving members, in the presence of soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.

In June of 1999, the scroll was deposited at the National Library of Israel by Jacqueline Benatar and her sister Miriam Pimienta-Benatar, to serve as a memorial to the martyrs of Rhodes, their parents among them. The donation was carried out at the suggestion of the President of the Rhodes Jewish community, Mr. Moise Soriano.

The women of the Benatar family depositing the Torah scroll at the National Library of Israel

You can find the Rhodes Torah scroll today at the National Library of Israel.


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The Letter of Apostasy: Maimonides as a Refugee

A glimpse of the Letter of Apostasy ("Iggeret HaShmad") sent by Maimonides as a message to Jews who were forced to convert to Islam and now wished to return to Judaism

The letter reveals the greatness of Maimonides as a rabbinic decisor (posek) who relied on his life experience as a war refugee to benefit his rejected people

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s (Maimonides) life experience taught him from a young age that he and his contemporaries were living in an era of destruction in Jewish history. When the great Jewish philosopher was in his early twenties, the Almohad (“the unifiers”) movement came to power in Muslim Spain. The radical Islamic movement’s main goal was to forcibly spread their extreme version of Islam. To this end, they worked to shatter the communal life that had developed in the areas they conquered. “The Golden Age” of Jewish life in Spain had come to an end.
The Almohads conquered North Africa and Andalusia, attempted to eliminate any “foreign influence” on what they saw as “True Islam”, and forced non-Muslims to choose between Islam and death. In many cases, non-Muslims were not given the choice to convert and were executed immediately.

דיוקנו המפורסם של הרמב"ם, אשר צויר לראשונה שנים רבות לאחר מותו. לפריט בקטלוג לחצו
The renowned portrait of Maimonides was originally painted years after his death. To view this item in the National Library catalog, click here

As the conquerors progressed, Maimonides’ family fled to Morocco and the Maghreb, presumably in 1159. It is unclear why they chose to immigrate precisely to the stronghold of the Almohads, especially at a time when the Jewish communities were being annihilated under the orders of the movement’s leader, Abd al-Mu’min. One theory is that the family’s anonymity in Morocco made it easier to hide their Jewish background.

The flag of the Almohad dynasty

By this period, Maimonides was already engaged in the heated halachic debate on the question of forced conversion among Jews of the Maghreb and Andalusia. Jews who managed to escape the Almohad terror after being forced to convert to Islam, turned to different decisors with the question: What were they to do now?

A famous, widespread halachic decision stated that Jews who were persecuted were to refuse to convert to Islam even if it cost them their lives; this was because the practice of Islam was considered idolatry. The rabbi who published the decision (his identity is unclear) added that Jews who were forced to convert to Islam were not only unable to return to Judaism in freedom, they were condemned to death. When Maimonides heard of this decision, he felt it was his duty to reply. He wrote the Letter of Apostasy and sent it to the persecuted Jews of the Maghreb.

Maimonides’ Letter of Apostasy

From the very beginning of the letter, it is apparent that Maimonides could not contain the rage he felt towards the hasty rabbi who had declared that forced converts to Islam were to be expelled from the Jewish people. He stated that anyone who publishes such a severe decision is like an empty vessel that “should not speak at length”. After reading the rabbi’s decision in full, Maimonides stated that this man was not “clear-headed”.

A manuscript of the Letter of Apostasy held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. To view this item in the National Library catalog, click here.

After completely annulling the rabbi’s authority, Maimonides utilized his profound knowledge of Jewish wisdom and gathered several sources from the Midrash and Aggadah. He wished to show that throughout history, the people of Israel sinned time after time and committed idolatry, yet the Lord forgave them each time they professed repentance. Maimonides further wrote that there were numerous incidents in which even great sages of Israel were forced to pretend and commit sins, while they secretly continued to practice the laws of the Torah.

“If these well-known Heretics were generously rewarded for the little good that they did, is it conceivable that God will not reward the Jews, who despite the exigencies of the forced conversion performed commandments secretly? Can it be that He does not discriminate between one who performs a commandment and one who does not, between one who serves God and one who does not?”. In this, Maimonides concluded that not only were the Jews of the Maghreb who converted to Islam not to be expelled from the Jewish people, but they had become a link in the chain of persecuted Jews throughout the generations.

A nineteenth century copy of the Letter of Apostasy, Frankfurt University. To find this item in the National Library catalog, click here.

Maimonides did not stop there; he tried to lessen the sense of guilt and rejection caused by saying the Islamic Shahada – the proclamation declaring “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. He clarified to the Anusim (forced converts) that in saying this they were not betraying the God of Israel, as these words were meaningless to those Jews who were forced to utter them. At the end of the letter, Maimonides advised the forced converts to immigrate to regions in which they could return to the embrace of their people and live as Jews leading lives of Torah and mitzvot.

Maimonides’s grave in Tiberias. The Photohouse Collection, 1952. Photograph: Rudi Weissenstein

Though Maimonides’ years of wandering came to an end upon his arrival to Egypt in the year 1166, the immigrant and Almohad war refugee never forgot the years of wandering and religious persecution that were the fate of his family and people. To the end of his days he would address himself in his writings as the “Sephardic one” or the “Andalusi one”.

הדפסה משנת 1850 ב"ברעסלויא". תוכלו להוריד את הספר בחינם באתר Hebrew Books
An 1850 Breslau print of the Letter of Apostasy


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When Ingrid Bergman Ate a Soviet Labor Camp Dinner

The legendary movie star was enlisted to join a campaign raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry during the Cold War era

Ingrid Bergman. The iconic actress was a star of American and European films, with a career spanning over forty years

“Do I really have to eat it?” asks this female icon, this woman who represents all women who have loved. She stuck to her own principles against all odds, which caused her to be shunned in her country of birth, yet she never let this defeat her courage and spirit.

I looked into that wonderful face with the artfully enticing eyes which graced the silver screen and melted hearts in the time-warped, yet timeless movie Casablanca, and replied, “Yes you do”.

Ingrid Bergman takes a bite of the unappealing food served to Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience

And so, Ingrid Bergman took a spoon to the watery cabbage soup, accompanied by dried rough black bread, a small potato, a slither of dried cod, a ¼ oz of sugar and margarine. This meal represented the daily intake of Sylva Zalmanson, a Prisoner of Zion in a Soviet labour camp. Ingrid had flown to London on her behalf. “It’s terrible,” she had said earlier about Sylva, but was currently referring to the food.


Footage of Ingrid Bergman eating the Soviet labour camp meal (0:18). Video: Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center

Ingrid had come to London in March 1973. She was invited by the “The 35’s”, also known as “The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry“, to raise the profile of Sylva Zalmanson’s plight. Sylva was one of the few Jewish women to ever be incarcerated in the Soviet Union. In Hanukkah 1970, the news reached London that twelve Jews in Leningrad who had been refused visas to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, were arrested and charged with attempting to “hijack” an airplane. Consequently, Sylva’s husband, the pilot Eduard Kuznetzov and his co-pilot were sentenced to death. There was not a chink in the Iron Curtain at the time.

When Ingrid heard Sylva’s story, she rose to the challenge. Georges Weill, an internationally acclaimed jeweler, had designed a medallion engraved with the name, Sylva Zalmanson, within a Star of David. Hundreds of these medallions were reproduced in solid silver and, with several special orders in gold. A gold version was to be presented to Ingrid Bergman that day.

Sylva Zalmanson finally arrives in Israel, accompanied by Foreign Minister Yigal Allon, 1974. Photo by Akiva Nof, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Everyone was busy. I was one of the women in black demonstrating outside the Imperial Hotel in the heart of London, where she was staying. Suddenly Big D, our leader, called me over and said, “She has to be interviewed by the BBC. They’ll be here any minute! Would you take her up to her room and stay with her for the interview?”

Who would say no?

As soon as we entered the ornate period style suite, she collapsed into a pink brocade antique wingchair. Her nobility of effort, paired with the adoration and esteem in which the public held her, did little to offset the harrowing and emotional experience.

I poured her a small brandy and handed her a large glass of water. She smiled and seemingly relaxed. At that moment, there was a tap on the door. The female journalist entered, microphone in hand.

At the end of the interview, Ingrid was asked, “Was it due to your own personal suffering that you identified with Sylva?” (In the 1950s, as a result of her torrid and turbulent love affair with the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini and the subsequent birth of their son, she was scandalized and denounced in the United States and Sweden, an indication of the puritanical times).

Those beautiful eyes widened, “Not at all,” she said. “My suffering, as you call it, was of my own doing. Sylva has been denied every person’s human right, by a cruel and tyrannical regime”. I found that to be deeply profound.

On November 7th, 2019, an event commemorating The 35’s was held at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center at Glilot. The event was organized in collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office – “Nativ” and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The occasion celebrated the unveiling of archival collections belonging to members of The 35’s and preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The evening was also an opportunity to tell the story of this group of British Jewish women who fought for the rights of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience being held against their will in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s.