A Student Admission Request to the Hebrew University on the Eve of the Destruction of European Jewry

"I will pay you with my blood for homeland and science.”


The third gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel will take place in Jerusalem on March 17-19, 2019, bringing together prominent figures to discuss this year’s topic: “Migration-Borders-Identity”.   The following article is presented in the context of this year’s theme, encouraging broader discussions of these topics.


Kobe, 9 February 1941

To: The Administration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


It is now ten days since I arrived in Japan after an arduous and perilous journey, and having risen at last from my sick bed on which I fell with my arrival here, I reach out to you now in high hopes.

My name is Tanchum Rabinowicz. When I was in Vilna as a refugee, I sent you all the requisite documents in order to obtain a student-certificate, that is, a notarized copy of my Hebrew high school diploma, the application, photographs and curriculum vitae, for all of which I received from you an official letter informing me that you are willing to accept me on condition that tuition and other fees will be paid in Palestine. The letter bearing the date 9 June 1940 is in my possession.

I do not as yet feel well enough to describe in detail all the events of the Polish refugees in Vilna after the arrival of the Russians, and my own ordeals. I will describe them only in brief so that you will understand how I arrived in Japan in my wanderings to Eretz Israel.

Just as the Russians entered and consulates began to close, a few hundred refugees managed to obtain visas on their Polish passports to Dutch-American Curaçao [one of the islands], and based on these – Japanese transit visas, though no one believed at the time that any of this had any practical purpose, but the psychosis that infected everyone was the same, to acquire any type of visa. I too was among those who bought such a visa, and I kept it with me, and on the basis of it, I presented a request for an exit visa from Soviet Russia. The matter dragged on for months, but there was no one to receive the exit requests, on the contrary—we were prepared for them to send us to the dark mountains, or the “white-bears” [Siberia] as we called it in Vilna. Suddenly the situation took a turn and they started giving out massive numbers of exit visas. Among the recipients was myself.

Who could imagine my joy, who can describe the happiness and my friends’ jealousy? And indeed, the first group numbering 67 persons received exit visas and I was among the first. But all this was mingled with mostly pain and suffering, the Intourist [the official Soviet travel agency] would not accept rubles in payment for travel expenses, only dollars, and I had none. Because the visa had an expiration date, I didn’t think too long, and I and three other friends set off on the journey on our own and without our accounts (without getting in touch with Intourist). Thus, I traveled across Russia, buying tickets from one stop to the next, until I reached Vladivostok. I would never again attempt such a journey and in such a manner. Even now it is difficult for me to describe the hardships and obstacles we faced along the way and how we boarded the Japanese ship. Enough said that the Japanese consul from Vladivostok who helped me tremendously, came himself before the boat sailed and parted with me in front of everyone, and said it was an amazing feat of human heroism to make such a journey as I had.

Dear friends! I am, to my sorrow, once again a refugee. From my escape from the Soviets in Vilna, I left everything at home, I took only my high school diploma in order to contact you and only in this have I placed my hope, today as I am twice naked and a refugee + the letter from you which I have kept. Here am I lonely and deserted, and to whom should I turn if not to you—for your help. My situation is that I am on the edge of an abyss. The government does not permit me to remain here long, and since I am here only in transit, and if in case in the near future I do not receive any help to immigrate, the government will send me to Shanghai, where the material plight of the refugees is awful, without any aid, dying of starvation, and as bread is the most important force in our lives, and when one feels its lack it can bring a person to the brink, such is the situation in Shanghai. Dear friends, I cannot imagine that, for a few dozen Pounds that I have to pay, you would forsake a man – I risked my life on the path to Zion, I was educated in the spirit of loyalty to the homeland like you, who take care of homeland matters, I do not write in detail here because my head is still spinning, but I ask please, find my curriculum vitae in my documentation and read it again, and this letter afterward, and certainly you will not turn me away empty-handed.

I am pleading with you, send me a student certificate because I am standing at the precipice, don’t be so formal, I will pay you with my blood for homeland and science, but do not let me fall, I am already tired, and only just 23 years old, I send this letter to you without knowing if it will reach you, like a drowning man casting a message in a bottle into the ocean. I find myself now in a place foreign to my spirit and my soul, among people traveling to America with unused certificates in their possession, and they look at me, someone who is trying to reach and talking about Eretz Israel, with derision. Oh, that I may be able to find the time to describe everything, about Jewish psychology, about the awful collapse of ethics among the wealthy Jews in times of catastrophe and hardship. My telegraph address is Kobe Jewcom for Tanchum.

I am done, I know not whether there is any point to my letter, because as I said my head is still spinning. But know this, you will be saving a man for science and for Zionism.

I am awaiting your help via telegraph, and nevertheless keeping the faith!

Tanchum Rabinowicz

The Telegraph regarding my issue was sent to you by the Committee for Refugees!

(Letter from Tanchum Rabinowicz to the Hebrew University, 9 February 1941, Hebrew University Archive, box 138, file 2100-r-I)


The letter written by Tanchum Rabinowicz was recently discovered in the archive of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was presented for the first time in the exhibition Uprooted: The German-Jewish Scholars of the Hebrew University, now on view at the National Library in Jerusalem. This is one document from Rabinowicz’s file for admission to study at the University which includes his application form and photograph, a copy of his high school diploma and curriculum vitae written in the first-person. The file also includes the correspondence he conducted with the university between May 1940 and March 1941 and uncovers a life trajectory that began in Poland before the war and ended with an escape to Japan four months before the onset of the destruction of European Jewry. Rabinovitch’s request is one of many such requests sent to the university in the 1930s by young Jewish men and women who hoped that studying at the university would grant them a certificate to enter Palestine. As expected, most were unsuccessful in this hope, and what remains is this record documenting their lives, desires, fears, and lives as refugees while trying to extricate themselves from Europe.

The letter of Tanchum Rabinowicz stands out among the nine requests for admission presented in the exhibition’s display case devoted to students, while as a group they reflect the cultural and geographic variation of the Jewish communities on the eve of the Holocaust. Rabinowicz, who was born in Stołpce in Poland (now Stowbtsy, Belarus), to a well-to-do Zionist family, was a revisionist and active in the Beitar movement in his hometown and completed his studies in the Hebrew high school “Tushia” in Vilna. With the outbreak of World War II, like many among the Jewish intelligentsia, he fled to Vilna, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact but after a few months was transferred to the Provisional Government of Lithuania. As Rabinowicz describes, during his flight eastward in the hope of one-day reaching Eretz Israel, he carried with him all of his possessions— “my high school diploma, […] the only possession remaining to me on my way toward Zion.” While a refugee in Vilna, he filed an admission request to study at the university in Jerusalem to which he added a notarized copy of the diploma he had with him.

This document was sent from Kobe in Japan after Rabinowicz had succeeded, with great difficulty, in crossing the Soviet Union with the help of a visa he was given by the vice consul of Japan in Kaunas (Kovno), Chiune Sugihara.  Against orders, Sugihara issued visas to thousands of Jews looking to escape from Europe, in the aftermath of the re-annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. In light of the Soviet’s intention to close the foreign consulates in Kaunas and the prohibition against traveling across the Soviet Union without a valid visa, Sugihara, who would one day be awarded the title Righteous among the Nations, gave out 2,139 transit visas to Japan with the final destination being the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean, which was then a Dutch colony and did not require entry visas.

The secretariat of the university was not indifferent to the cry of Rabinowicz’s letter and replied: “We do not have a single permit at our disposal […] but we want to help him and will do what we can to save him. […] We will try to find the means for this purpose from the national institutions, but it will not be easy, because the number of needy is great and the means minimal.”

It is unknown if the certificate from the university is what helped Rabinowicz to complete his journey to Palestine via India in 1941, the year the letter was written, at least according to the newspapers from that period. Upon arrival in Palestine, he enlisted in the British army and the Irgun and later joined the Jewish Brigade and was sent to the Italian front. In March 1945, while returning from a patrol, he was accidentally shot and he died a few days later. As he promised, Rabinowicz paid with his blood for his homeland but had not yet paid for science. At the age of 26, he was buried in Italian soil.

What Became of Two Jewish Thieves Caught in Frankfurt in 1714?

In August 2018, the National Library purchased a rare item at auction: an anti-Semitic pamphlet published circa 1714, that mocked two Jewish thieves who were publicly executed for their crimes.

גנבים מפרנקפורט

In the early modern era, scores of impoverished individuals, groups, and even penniless families migrated across the roads and streets of Europe. They travelled from region to region in search of work or charity. Among these wandering migrants were downtrodden Jews. Their stories usually do not appear in the archives. The exceptions are the miserable souls who ran into trouble: Jews who were arrested, imprisoned and brought before judges to face trial.

Such was the case in the city of Frankfurt in 1714, which back then was already a bustling urban center, full of opportunity and industry. There was a well-known, established Jewish community in the city which owed its status to, among other things, its well-groomed relationship with the Holy Roman Emperors (in other words, the German emperors) as well as the abundance of employment opportunities available.

Poor, wandering Jews knew that they could find food, shelter, and charity in Frankfurt because of the generosity of its Jewish residents. At times, the wandering Jews socialized with the poor locals, who at least benefited from being members of the community.

This may have been the background setting for the events of the summer of 1714, when a gang of at least four Jews burst into the shop of a Christian clothes merchant named Maria Elizabeth Lochmann. The widow Lochmann ran a thriving business. Her shop was located in Frankfurt’s city center, already known for its valuable real-estate, and the loot from the burglary was reported to be 2,500 florins, a very high sum of money at the time. The circumstantial evidence was documented in a criminal case brought against the thieves and is preserved in the archives of the municipality of Frankfurt to this day.

But, there is another document that details the affair, which resulted in the execution of two of the accused Jews. In August 2018, the National Library purchased a very rare item at an auction: an anti-Semitic pamphlet that ridiculed the two Jews who were, ultimately, executed. One was named Lev Hertz (apparently a resident of Frankfurt). The second was named as Solomon Dickkopf (the surname means “thick head”). The four pages of this satirical anti-Semitic text detail the final moments of the two thieves’ lives. The anonymous author was undoubtedly familiar with Jews, their customs and their style of speech and subjected these to twisted mockery in his work. He described the execution of the two as a “wedding” between the condemned men and the new gallows which had been erected outside the city walls.


1 1

Anti-Semitic pamphlet recently purchased at auction by the National Library

The pamphlet purchased at auction by the National Library is quite rare. The only other known copy is found in the criminal files of the Frankfurt city archives. A number of details in the pamphlet indicate that the precise documentation of the crime was of little interest to the author. It makes no mention of the reasons for the execution (the theft) and also ignores the fact that the other two participants were apparently given only minimal punishments.

A curious detail appears at the bottom of the pamphlet’s first page, where we find the name of the printer, Veit Schnitzler, and the town in which it was printed, Katzenelnbogen (west of Frankfurt). However, we know of no printing presses owned by a man of this name. A logical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that “Veit Schnitzler” was actually a fictitious name that was chosen in order to hide the true source of the text.

It is possible that the author feared that the Jewish community would press charges against him for the abhorrent content of the pamphlet. A similar situation had occurred several years earlier, when the Jewish community sued anti-Semitic author Johann Andreas Eisenmenger. Eisenmenger had authored a book referred to in short as “Judaism Unveiled” (the publication’s full name was: “Judaism Unveiled, a thorough and genuine account of the horrific manner in which the stubborn Jews sully the Holy Trinity and disgrace it”). The Jewish community of Frankfurt successfully blocked the publication of the book in the Holy Roman Empire because of its well-established relations with the imperial court.

In 1734, nearly twenty years after the affair, additional information was published about the incident in a historical chronicle. The author, Georg August von Lersner, mentions the hanging of two Jews on the 31st of August, 1714. According to von Lersner’s account, the authorities ordered that the bodies not be taken down following the execution. They wanted them to remain hanging as a warning to any other would-be thieves. But, on the night of November 14th, the bodies were removed without authorization. The identities of the perpetrators were never discovered. Von Lersner took the liberty to assume that it was another thief, but it could just as well have been a gesture of decency by local Jews in order to recover the bodies of their brethren for the sake of a proper Jewish burial.



The section dealing with the hanging begins on the left page and continues on the right


This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Verena Kasper-Marienberg, an expert in the field of the Frankfurt Jewry.

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The Lost World of a Wedding Comedian – The Story of Avraham Horowitz

Avraham Horowitz (Gurewitz), a wedding merrymaker by profession, wrote poems, novels and novellas in Yiddish and Hebrew. He also adapted and modified the works of others, signing with his own name or with a variety of pen names in Yiddish and Russian.


The Faust Family Jewish Klezmer orchestra, Rohatyn, 1912. (Wikipedia)

The Avraham Horowitz archive was handed over to Professor Dov Noy in 1974 by Horowitz’s grandson Meir, with the purpose of it being permanently deposited in the National Library. This was carried out only when the Dov Noy archive was transferred to the National Library in 2018. The Avraham Horowitz archive contains manuscripts, poems, novels, essays, anecdotes and other writings relating to the profession of merrymaking, as well as an autobiography and correspondence with his son Shaul-Hoshea Horowitz (1886-1956) and his family from Brooklyn.

Avraham Horowitz was born to his parents Israel and Elka on February 26th, 1863 in the city of Borisov, in the district of in White Russia. His family of nine was not wealthy. His father earned his living as a melamed (religious teacher), while his mother supplemented the family’s livelihood as a cook in the wedding kitchens of the rich.

As a young man, Avraham studied in the cheder (traditional elementary Jewish school) where his father and one of his uncles taught. Afterward, he attended the local yeshiva in Borisov for thirteen years.

Avraham was not a very diligent yeshiva student, but he liked the joyous atmosphere of the rich weddings he used to attend when he accompanied his mother in her work. There he enjoyed the cheerful atmosphere and formed an emotional attachment with the merrymakers and the Klezmer musicians. The mother made sure that his father would remain unaware of his son’s new friendships with the local comedians.

Avraham would secretly  read pulp fiction stories that he borrowed from the local book-merchant and author Hillel Klivanov. Since Klivanov had a physical disability, Avraham used to help him and write down the poems that Klivanov dictated to him.

At the age of sixteen, Avraham wrote his first poem in Yiddish, a lid fun Chaya-Rone-Meren (“A Poem about Chaya-Rona Mere”), which told the story of the boys and girls who would roam the local forest together on Sabbaths and holidays. The poem was written in a tone that was not acceptable in the society to which his family belonged. When his father found out about the poem, Avraham even received lashes for it.

When the conflict between him and his father grew worse, he left the house and lived with a relative who owned a kiosk at the train station in Borisov. Abraham worked there as a porter, carrying suitcases and unloading freight cars. Later he became a guard at a textile factory. There he had an accident. His right hand became stuck in the wheel of a weaving machine and broke in three different places. Avraham was interned in a hospital in Minsk, where the doctors had to amputate his arm past his elbow. After his release from the hospital, he returned home to his parents for recovery. There he received support and encouragement. As time passed, Avraham learned to write with his left hand. In 1881 he composed the poem der umglicklicher (“The Unlucky One”), in which he expressed strong remorse for the rebelliousness against his parents which had led him to leave the family home. This poem should not be confused with the poem der umglicklicher yidele (“The Unfortunate Jew”), written in 1884, which tackled the subject of Jewish life in the Exile.

דער אונגליכליכער יידעלע
The first of the six verses of the poem der umglicklicher yidele written in the years of the pogroms in White Russia. (To view the poem, click on the image.) Below is the first verse in my free translation from the original Yiddish:

“There, deep in the forest,

From where comes no answer,

There, where there is no rest,

My life becomes a nightmare!

There screams the Jew; He is very angry:

Why all this torture, oy?

He is frightened and shivers badly,

Now he is in Raswoy*.

Hear it! How he shrieks,

How he cries for weeks:

What is the vice for which you blame me

What have I done?

What should I’ve done?

But the Jew gets no mercy. “

(* Probably the name of a place)

View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel

Avraham became a wedding merrymaker (a badchan, a joke-teller or comedian) by chance. It happened once that the Klezmer musicians from the local orchestra in Borisov came to Hillel Klivanov, bringing with them the famous wedding jester known as Chaimke, who was also a member of the Klivanov family. On that day, two weddings were being celebrated at once – one in Borisov and the other in one of the neighboring villages. Chaimke the merrymaker, who had no substitute in the region, decided to perform at the wedding in Borisov. Thus, it was suggested to Avraham that he attend the wedding in the neighboring village and performing there as a jester in Chaimke’s place. Avraham agreed, since he had composed his own poems and limericks and was fairly well versed at coming up with sarcastic barbs as well.

וכך הוא היה מונה
Five out of the seven verses of the song Echad Mi Yodea? Horowitz would perform at weddings (apparently, the manuscript is not Horowitz’s own). This is a Jewish wedding folk song, which was popular at the time. The song is a combination of three different elements: a song based on the Mishnah from the Yom Kippur service, the traditional Echad Mi Yodea song from the Passover Haggadah and the Seven Blessings recited under the Chuppah (the canopy under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony). Horowitz used many terms, phrases and even whole sentences in Hebrew. (To view the item click on the picture). Here is the sixth verse of the song in my free translation from the original Yiddish:

“And so it was, and so he counted.

Let us open with an explanation

Six, who knows?’

Let us begin to explain

Six, what can they be?

Six are the in-laws, luckily

Ready to count all their money.”

View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel

For the 1955 recording of the wedding song Echad Mi Yodea by Sam Trooper from the National Sound Archive, click here

Avraham bought himself a thick notebook, in which he wrote down the popular songs and the poems of the period. He compiled Hilel Klivanov’s songs and adapted them to a style acceptable for Jewish weddings. Abraham also composed poems and songs of his own, and even sang or recited them to entertain the guests of the weddings at which he performed. Apart from his performances in the city of Borisov, which was where Chaimke Klivanov usually performed, Avraham would also make appearances in the many surrounding towns and villages. Finally, he settled down in the city of Berezino (Berzin) which lacked its own comedian. He built up a local reputation, got married and remained in Berezino for the rest of his life.

He was said to have the appearance of “a quiet fool”. Behind his back, they called him “Avrahamel der marshelik” (Avraham the clown), but officially, he was called “Rabbi Avraham badchan” (Rabbi Avraham the Comedian). In the towns surrounding Berezino, he was referred to as “der Bereziner marshelik” (The clown from Berezino), or “der odnaruker”, which means “the amputee” in Russian and Yiddish.

Avraham Horowitz had a beautiful baritone voice, long hair, and on his little finger he regularly wore a thick ring and wore a short coat. His clothes were not new, but perfectly polished and clean, including his trademark short coat. Under the chuppah and in the bridal seat, Avraham would wear a silk kippah or yarmulke.

He had earned his living as a wedding merrymaker for more than thirty years, but the last twenty were difficult. The customs of the Jewish community changed, weddings celebrations grew smaller and more modest, and there was hardly any need for jesters and comedians. Therefore, to earn some extra income, Horowitz bought  in partnership with others an industrial shredder. He then opened a small grocery store and even rented an apartment out for members of the Bund (the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Russia), where they would hold their meetings. During the High Holy Days, he served as a cantor in one of the local synagogues. Following the Russian Revolution he suffered from financial distress and became a guard on a landowner’s estate.

Avraham Horowitz also wrote a poem dedicated to the memory of Theodor Herzl, marking the anniversary of the Zionist visionary’s passing:

הערצעלס יארצייט
This page includes, among other things, the song Herzl’s Yohrzeit (To view the item, click on the image) Here are the first two verses of the song in my free translation:

“Come, my people, the exile nation

Come into the  shul today, not tomorrow

Spill your tears there in lamentation

Full of grief and  sorrow.

On the  day he  died

Herzl, the hero of the nation

Zion’s light became slight

On the dead land of annihilation.”

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During his lifetime, only the first two chapters of his novel der schwartzer peltz mit’en weissen kallner (The Black Fur Coat with the White Collar) were published in Minsk in 1928. He was sixty-eight years old when he began to rewrite his works and sent them to his son Saul Hosea. On the recommendation of Dr. Yaakov Shatsky, Avraham Horowitz wrote memoirs, based on recollections of local people as well as other sources, in order to document and preserve the wedding customs of the period. This collection of memoirs was meant to be published in volume 2 of the book “Archiv far Geschichte fun Yiddishen Teather und Drame” (Archive of the History of Yiddish Theater and Drama), but the book remained unpublished due to the outbreak of World War II.

Avraham Horowitz became blind in his old age and sought the help of doctors in Minsk, but without success. In the last two years of his life he suffered from paralysis, and died, completely blind, on December 30th, 1940, thirteen days after the death of his wife. He was buried in the cemetery in Berezino.

(The article above is based on biographical notes, written in Yiddish, by Avraham’s son Shaul-Hoshea Horowitz)

“Shabbat” – the front page of a humoristic article in Yiddish handwritten by Avraham Horowitz. (To view the item click on the picture)
View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel


זכור אב נמשך
“Remember, a father is drawn after you like water” – the front page of a humoristic Yiddish article handwritten by Avraham Horowitz. It was probably intended for a Bris performance. (To view the item click on the picture)
View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel


די פרויליכע מיידלאך
The first two pages of a three-part novel about the Polish revolt “The Happy Girl”. (To view the item click on the picture)

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מכתב אל שאול
Letter from Avraham and Ravia Horowitz to their son Shaul-Hoshea and his family in the United States (Lipshe his wife and their son Meir), 1931. (To view the item click on the picture)

View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel


מכתב אל י' שאצקי
The first page of a letter in Yiddish by Avraham Horowitz to Dr. Jacob Shatzky, Berezino, March 6th, 1832. (To view the item click on the picture)

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מכתב דחיית השיר "האלוקים אנה לידי"
A letter rejecting the publication of the poem “God did it to my arm (?)” from the editorial board of the HaDoar weekly newspaper, June 9th, 1939. (To view the item click on the picture)

View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel


השיר "האלוקים אנה לידי"
The poem “God did it to my arm (?)” sent by Avraham’s son, Shaul-Hoshea Horowitz, to the editorial board of the Israeli weekly “HaDoar” which was later rejected on June 9th, 1939. (To view the item click on the picture)

View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel

מכתבים ממאיר הורוויץ אל דב נוי
Two letters in Yiddish from Meir Horowitz (the grandson of Avraham Horowitz) from New York to Dov Noy in Jerusalem, in which he expresses his desire to permanently deposit his grandfather’s collection in the National Library. Brooklyn, October 22nd, 1974 and January 26th, 1975. (To view the item click on the image)

View this item in the Archives of the National Library of Israel


The Avraham Horowitz Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

How the Antisemitic Dreyfus Affair Led to the Creation of the Tour de France

How a group of anti-Dreyfusards channeled their anger into the creation of one of the world's most popular sporting events, centered on a new invention: the bicycle.

Alfred Dreyfus, stripped of his ranks, La Petite Journal, January 13, 1895. From the National Library’s collections

Alfred Dreyfus is stripped of his ranks, La Petite Journal, January, 1895. From the collections of the National Library of Israel

This is the story of a footnote to two major events in French history – the Dreyfus Affair and the introduction of the world’s greatest bicycle race, the Tour de France, that briefly, and ever so slightly intersected in June of 1899.

Following a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the French Third Rebublic placed its focus on the rebuilding of national pride – Revanchism.

The newly invented bicycle quickly became a symbol of health, fitness, and modernity, and a national obsession with cycling saw races taking place all over the country by the 1890s. The insatiable appetite for cycling meant an increase in the desire for news about the sport while manufacturers of bicycles and cycling components made use of the media for advertising purposes. Competing newspapers set up races to promote themselves.

In many senses the Third Republic was progressive but it was also beset by crises. One of these, the Panama Canal scandal, fostered growth in antisemitism since two of the businessmen at the center of it, and upon whom the patriotic press focused, were German Jews. This brought monarchists into conflict with Republicans, and Catholics into conflict with secularists – antagonisms that continued with the Dreyfus Affair. Throughout the nineteenth-century Jews enjoyed a degree of emancipation and political and commercial influence, thus feeding the antisemitic “international-Jewish-lobby” trope.

The Trap set for Dreyfus​ "Dreyfus the Martyr", The Graphic London, 1899 National Library of Israel
The Trap Set for Dreyfus, “Dreyfus the Martyr”, The Graphic London, 1899. From the collections of the National Library of Israel.

Four years after Dreyfus’s original conviction based on concocted evidence, the affair rumbled on.  The real culprit, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, had been identified but was quickly cleared by a military court determined to hold tight to the army’s position and avoid humiliation. By the time Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse” article was published, the country was deeply split between those who were for and those who were against Dreyfus.

Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse”
“J’Accuse”, Emile Zola’s famous article in L’Aurore, January 3, 1898, from the collections of the National Library of Israel.

On February 16, 1899, French President Felix Faure suffered a brain hemorrhage while in the arms of his Jewish mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. His sudden death presented an opportunity for the Dreyfusards as Faure was succeeded by Emile Loubet, a left-leaning senator from humble origins who was very much a friend of the underdog. He was popular enough with other members of the national assembly to easily beat his opponent for the Presidency, but not universally popular across the riven nation; Loubet was seen as an enemy of the anti-Dreyfusards because he supported reviews of the trials of Dreyfus and Esterhazy.

On June 3, 1899, the Supreme Court overturned the original court-martial judgment against Dreyfus and ordered a retrial. Tensions were high when, the following day, Loubet accepted an invitation to watch horse-racing at the Auteuil Race Course.

Alfred Dreyfus at his Rehabilitation Ceremony
Alfred Dreyfus at his Rehabilitation Ceremony, July 21, 1906, from the Dreyfus Family Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Unlike the Longchamp racecourse which was frequented by the lower classes, and therefore Loubet’s core support, Auteuil was the playground of the wealthy, monarchist, anti-Republican and mainly anti-Dreyfusard classes. Loubet’s presence was seen as provocative and he was confronted by hordes outraged by the order for a retrial. The demonstration turned violent almost as soon as the President took his seat. Among those who were arrested following the fracas was the wealthy industrialist Jules Albert Compte de Dion.

The pugnacious de Dion had two passions – engineering and dueling.  At one point, his automobile company, De Dion Bouton, was the largest manufacturer of cars in the world.

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Pierre Gifford, the editor of the Le Velo newspaper, criticized the demonstration, as did much of French society, appalled at the humiliating treatment of the President by these uncouth aristocrats.

Politically, Gifford was on the left and wrote scathing articles criticizing De Dion and other anti-Dreyfusards, despite many of them being important advertisers in his newspaper.  Gifford’s reporting of the demonstration incensed De Dion and others industrialists such as Eduard Michelin, a vigorous antisemite, and Gustave Clement.

The Le Velo newspaper which covered sport and politics, dominated the sports paper market, enabling it to command high advertising rates. It was also financially backed by the Darracq motor company – a rival automobile manufacturer to De Dion and Clement.

Giffard’s criticism following the Auteuil incident was the last straw.  The anti-Dreyfusard businessmen were already frustrated that Le Velo had a virtual monopoly and was controlled by one of their rivals. Dion and his allies decided to withdraw their advertising and to launch their own rival paper, L’Auto-Velo, under the editorship of Henri Desgrange, a man with significant experience in journalism and the world of cycling.

L’Auto Velo, the first edition.
L’Auto Velo, the first edition.

De Dion chose Desgrange to be his editor for his hard-headed, opinionated and autocratic style.  He left the running of the paper to Desgrange with a single instruction: to drive Le Velo out of business.

L’Auto-Velo was launched on October 16th, 1900 and was printed on yellow paper to distinguish it from the green of Le Velo, a decision that was to have lasting significance.

In November 1902, as the renamed L’Auto struggled with circulation at consistently around a quarter of that of Le Velo, Desgrange held a crisis meeting.  It was at this meeting that a young reporter by the name of Geo Lefevre, allegedly desperate to suggest something, spontaneously floated the idea of the Tour de France as a promotional enterprise.

Desgrange initially received the idea with skepticism, but after consulting his finance manager, he decided to launch the race in January of 1903. To his surprise “Le Tour” was an immediate success for the paper with circulation rising from around 25,000 to 65,000 after the first edition of the race, spelling disaster for Le Velo which ceased publication in 1904.

Le Tour de France is announced in L’Auto.

L’Auto went on to enjoy massive benefit on the back of the Tour de France, and, by the time of the 1923 tour, it was selling 500,000 copies a day during the race. Sales peaked at over 850,000 during the 1933 tour.

Desgrange stayed in charge until his death in 1940 when the paper was taken over by a German consortium.  During the war period L’Auto was not unsympathetic to the Nazis, allowing it to continue operating under the Vichy government, but after the war, it was shut down along with all other pro-German publications. From the ashes of L’Auto emerged the now popular French sports paper, L’Equipe.

So, if we look back and connect the dots, we can see that, if it wasn’t for Alfred Dreyfus and his antisemitic ordeal, there would be no Tour de France.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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