The Ad Campaign That Told the Other Story of Soviet Jewry in 1999

In the late 1990s, advertising executive Gary Wexler visited Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union that had suddenly rediscovered their own religious and national identity in the wake of the collapse of communism. These ads captured some of the powerful moments and images of that period in Jewish history...

An image and slogan appearing in one of the ads created by Gary Wexler following his trip to the former Soviet Union, the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was the story that many Jewish organizations in the U.S., as well as the Jewish Agency for Israel didn’t want people to hear. It was the counter narrative of Jews who had no intention of leaving after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were the thousands committed to building a Jewish life, in the place where Jews had been murdered and oppressed, and Judaism had been wiped out for nearly eighty years.

Jews in the U.S. didn’t know this story. And many would dismiss the legitimacy of these Jews of the FSU (Former Soviet Union), when they did finally hear it. It wasn’t the story they had been cultivated to believe or accept.

“This is my home,” people in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and in many small towns told me. “This is my community. This is where my livelihood is. Do you know what we say? ‘The more that leave, the more that stay.’”

“What does that mean?,” I asked them.

“It means that yes, many are leaving. And our numbers should shrink. Yet, the community either continues to maintain its numbers or even grow. Because every day more people come out of the woodwork and introduce themselves to us as Jews who had been in hiding. They want to stay and build Jewish life along with us.”

I had been brought to the FSU (Former Soviet Union) by Rabbi Rachel Cowan (z”l) Director of the Jewish Life program of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Martin Horowitz (z”l), founder of Jewish Renewal in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. My job was to meet the Jewish organizations they were funding in the FSU and create an ad campaign in the Jewish press across the US, to convince people to help support their efforts.

Former advertising executive Gary Wexler has donated his ad portfolios dealing with the Jewish world to the National Library of Israel

Once there, I heard about the tensions arising from organizations of the worldwide Jewish community each trying to stake their claim upon the Jews of the FSU. There was the Jewish Agency encouraging people to make Aliyah.  Chabad had moved in with the speed of lightening, establishing communities from the Black Sea to Siberia. The Reform Movement hit the path to make sure that this revival went beyond Orthodoxy. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was ever-present, providing much needed social services and aid to help these emerging Jewish communities flourish. And then there were the people who brought me, who had identified their own Jewish leaders and communities and were helping them fund Jewish schools, universities, libraries and culture.  In just a few short years, Jewish life in this vast reclaimed territory had quickly become like Jewish life everywhere, where people were crawling all over one another, staking their claims and criticizing everyone else’s efforts. I felt right at home, with my People.

I had one very emotional experience which turned out to be quite personal. I was taken out to central Ukraine to a little village called Korsun Shevchenkovsky. As we neared the village, women in babushkas were plowing fields with oxen, there were tiny little houses, unpaved roads and men with donkey carts. It was like a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. The village was poor, shabby and depressing.  I could see that every little ramshackle home had an outhouse. But the story I heard from a little man who spoke some Yiddish was emotionally overwhelming.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union there had been an anti-nuclear march through Poland and Ukraine, organized by a Jewish woman from Chicago, Sally Gratch. Sally and a few of the other Jewish American women organizers all wore Magen David necklaces, in case they encountered any Jews along the way. In Poland, no one. When they arrived in Ukraine, no one, until they reached Korsun Shevchenkovsky. A little man speaking Yiddish approached and asked if they were Jewish. They answered, “yes” and asked how many other Jews were in the town. The man said he wasn’t sure because no one would dare to identify as Jewish, but he knew a few. Sally told him that they would meet for Shabbat  that evening up on that hill, at 6pm, pointing to the location. She told the man to tell whatever Jews he knew and for them to tell whatever Jews they knew. At 6 pm, five-hundred people appeared. The day I arrived there, several years later, between the town and oblast (the surrounding area) there were approximately 5000 Jews now involved in the community.

In the community’s building, I had to introduce myself. When I said my name was Wexler, pronouncing it “Vexler,” there was a murmur in the crowd of several hundred people. I then went on to tell them my grandfather was from a shtetl in Ukraine that disappeared during World War II. They asked what it was called. I answered, “No one I’ve asked since being here has ever heard of it. Zhivitov.” They all started screaming. “It was up the road here in this oblast. You’re one of us!”

I looked around at the poverty and misery, the people with missing and gold teeth, their worn out clothing and thought, “Thank you. Thank you to my grandfather for getting the hell out of here.”  As much as I could appreciate the Jewish revival, in Korsun Shevchenkovsky, I wanted to tell these people, “Leave as soon as you can. There’s a better life outside.”

As a Communication professional, I knew that the story of Korsun Shevchenkovsky was compelling. But the photos would not be the right ones for communicating the bigger story. It was when we arrived in Moscow that I directed the Russian photographer I hired to begin shooting.

The photo we captured for the first ad in this series told the whole story. There almost didn’t need to be other ads. I was about to pass through a doorway of a Jewish school in Moscow, where an aleph-bet poster was pinned when I looked up and saw a leftover Soviet hammer and sickle that had never been removed, directly above it. A perfect image for everything I wanted to say.

The Soviet red star hanging over the Hebrew alphabet, in a Moscow classroom in 1999, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

That evening was Simchat Torah and we went to the Archipova Synagogue, the main Moscow shul which existed during the Soviet era, even if it was barely used and had KGB crawling all over it. As I arrived several blocks away, the streets were teaming with people squeezing in, taking every seat and hundreds gathering outside. The Russian photographer, not Jewish, said to me, “I feel like I’m in a foreign country. What do I do?”

“Snap pictures. Don’t stop,” I told him. That became the second ad.

A crowded Moscow synagogue in 1999, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

As we left the synagogue I felt the first chill of being a Jew in Russia. A man came up to me who I had seen in the synagogue. He said, “Move as quickly as you can. Get away from the crowds. Don’t talk about being Jewish.  Throw away your yarmulke if it is still in your pocket. It’s not safe.” Within minutes, the streets were empty. Then three teenage guys came up to me. They spoke a bit of English. “We saw you in the synagogue taking pictures. It’s not safe for you. People know you are walking from the synagogue. We will walk with you until you reach where you are going.” I didn’t know to trust them. I asked, “Does anyone speak Hebrew?” One of them recited the Shma. One of them actually spoke some Hebrew.  We moved fast through side streets and alleys until we reached my destination.

In St. Petersburg, we visited the Jewish University, where the rector traced my family history in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, telling me stories of the shtetls my grandparents came from. I remembered my wife’s grandmother telling me about the “fortichka,’ the little window within a window that was opened for air in the winter. I glanced over from the rector’s desk and saw a little window within a big window. I pointed.  “A fortichka,?”

“See, you are one of us,” he answered. He looked like a cross between a chasid, pictures of my great grandparents, and Rasputin. I turned to the photographer, “Take his picture.” That was the third ad.

“a cross between a chasid, pictures of my great grandparents, and Rasputin…”, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Jews of St. Petersburg were different from the Jews in the rest of the FSU. They spoke incessantly about the poet, Anna Akhmatova, literature, theater, art and music. The Jewish revival there was based in culture, more than anywhere else. They were ahead of others in the Jewish world using culture as an engagement tool. It took several years for Jewish communities around the globe to catch up to them, using and funding culture as the way to bring young Jews closer to their Jewish identity.

It was in St. Petersburg that everywhere I went, the Jews said to me, “But wait until you meet Larisa Pecherskaya.” Her name came up constantly. I was taken to see a Jewish school and there was a young woman with flowing hair, teaching third graders the Rebbe Nachman song, “Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar m’od.” She was dancing it out, like theater. Then she taught a Yiddish song, in the same way. She was mesmerizing. I asked, “Who is she?”

“Ah, that is Larisa Pecherskaya,” they said proudly. Three months later, I had Larisa Pecherskaya on the bimah in my Los Angeles synagogue, having raised the money for her to come to L.A., to tell the story of the revival of Jewish life in the FSU. But three years later, Larisa was living and teaching in New York. Her son recently graduated from Harvard.

Over the years, I have bumped into many of the young people I originally met on my trip on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Quite a few of them, I see on Facebook, are now in the U.S., and many have stayed in Russia and Ukraine.

The photographer in St. Petersburg and I became fast friends. He brought me to his apartment in an old building which he explained had been a grand apartment split between many families during the Soviet era. He brought me to meet friends, other artists, photographers and even journalists. We talked to each other for hours, explaining our lives.  After a few days together, I thought I knew him well.  On our last day, I wanted to go out and have him photograph the Jewish cemetery. He reluctantly took me. Once there, he said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” He took me to a grave. “This is my grandmother.”

“You’re Jewish,” I asked incredulously.

“My mother’s mother was Jewish. Being with you this week at all these Jewish places and events has woken me up to my Jewish connection.” The last time I ever heard from him, was several years later. A postcard from Tel Aviv.

This ad campaign captured a moment in Jewish life, a revival, a controversy, a reality. We Jews are filled with triumphs and conflicts. We are builders of Jewish life, no matter what the circumstances. With all our faults, we are an amazing people.


The Tulsa Race Massacre and Oklahoma’s Jews

How local Jews - some with fresh memories of European pogroms - did their small part to help victims of one of the worst acts of racial violence in US history

"All That Was Left of His Home after the Tulsa Race Riot, 6-1-21" (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

The Tulsa Race Massacre – also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre and the Tulsa Race Riot – was one of the most horrendous incidents of racial violence in United States history. On May 31 – June 1, 1921, hundreds of people were injured and killed, and thirty-five blocks of the city were destroyed, along with over 1,200 homes.

“Ruins of the Tulsa Race Riot, 6-1-21” (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

While relatively few whites exhibited empathy and compassion to the persecuted African American community of Tulsa – largely due to the influence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and others – many Jewish families made efforts to help African American families by taking them into their homes or businesses, feeding and clothing them, as well as hiding them during and after the atrocity.

During the time of the Race Massacre, a number of the Jewish families went into North Tulsa to secure their black employees, friends, and their families, in order to protect them at least until Martial Law was over on June 3rd… some even longer.

Many of the Jews in the city were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who remembered firsthand suffering through violent pogroms and anti-Semitic policies in the Russian Empire and elsewhere.

Scenes like this undoubtedly brought back memories for many Tulsa Jews who had survived pogroms in Europe (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

Here are a few family stories from that terrible time that have been passed down within the Oklahoma Jewish community.


Pickle vats and underskirts 

Jewish Latvian immigrant Sam Zarrow (1894-1975) and his wife Rose (1893-1982) owned a grocery store and hid some black friends in their large pickle vats at the store, while Rose concealed some of the little kids under her skirt! In addition, they hid others in the basement of their home. Sam and Rose’s sons, Henry (1916-2014) and Jack Zarrow (1925-2012) became two of the most well-known and philanthropic men in Tulsa’s history, supporting a range of causes across the city.


Waiting with a shotgun

Tulsan Abraham (Abe) Solomon Viner (1885-1959) and his wife Anna (1887-1976) owned the Peoples Building and Loan Association. On the day of the Massacre, Abe went to all of the homes on his block, collected all of the maids from their quarters and assembled them in his living room. He then sat by the front door with a shotgun in case anyone broke into the house.

Smoke billowing over Tulsa during the Race Massacre (Photo: Alvin C. Krupnick Co. / Public Domain via Library of Congress)

Threatening the Klan

The Race Massacre had a far-reaching effect even outside of Tulsa. At the time, Mike Froug (1889-1959), his wife Esther (1889-1967) and daughter Rosetta Froug Mulmed (1914-2003) were living in Ponca City, Oklahoma running a clothing store called the Pickens Department Store. Immediately after the Massacre, several Ku Klux Klan members came to his house at night and set a cross on fire on his front lawn.

Ponca City, Oklahoma, 1920s (Photo: Virgil T. Brown / Public Domain via Library of Congress)

Knowing who the perpetrators were (frequent shoppers in his store), Froug went to the head of the Klan with his gun and told him that if they ever did that again, he would shoot them. This act had such a profound effect on Froug that when he and his cousin Ohren Smulian (1903-1984) opened the first Froug’s Department Store in Tulsa in 1929, they became the first store in the city after the Massacre to allow whites and blacks to not only shop together but to try on clothes at the same time. In fact, Frougs was also the first white-owned store in Tulsa to have black salespeople.


“Get your Jew crew out of Tulsa”

Successful oilman N.C. Livingston was an active leader in the Tulsa Jewish community, heading the establishment of the burial society and Orthodox synagogue, where he also served as president and taught a Talmud class. From B’nai Emunah, 1916-1966, part of the National Library of Israel collections

Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and oilman Nathan C. Livingston (1861-1944) and his wife Anna Livingston (1871-1934) had a newly married black couple named Gene and Willie Byrd working for them in 1921. Gene was the family driver while Willie was their housekeeper. During the Race Massacre, the couple and eight others of their family stayed in the Livingston’s basement and in their garage apartment for several days until they felt safe to go home. The following year, N.C. Livingston’s son Julius received a letter from the KKK telling him and his brothers Jay K. and Herman to “get your Jew crew out of Tulsa.”

1922 Letter to Julius Livingston telling him to get his “Jew Crew out of Tulsa” (SMMJA Livingston Archives)

Staying home

During the Massacre, Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and oil producer Jacob Hyman Bloch (1888-1955) and his wife Esther Goodman Bloch (1895-1927) told their two young daughters, Jean and Sura, to stay away from the windows and no to go to school or outside to play, while hiding their housekeeper in their home.

Jacob Hyman Bloch was also an active member in the local community, succeeding N.C. Livingstone as synagogue president in 1924. From B’nai Emunah, 1916-1966, part of the National Library of Israel collections

Driving to safety

Jewish Latvian immigrant Jacob Fell (1885-1959) and his wife Esther Fell (1886-1980) owned The Mis-Fit Clothing Store in Tulsa. During the race riots, Jacob gathered up several black friends, hid them in his large storage car trunk, and drove them to a safe area.

The Mis-Fit Clothing Store in Tulsa

“But not you Mr. Katz”

In Stillwater, Oklahoma the Ku Klux Klan also had a robust chapter. German immigrant Jacob Katz (1873-1968) started his department store in Stillwater in 1894, becoming the first Jew in the town. Katz was a highly respected merchant and town promoter and was on the Stillwater Board of Commissioners. During the heyday of the KKK, right after the Tulsa Massacre, members marched through Stillwater with anti-Jewish signs (there were only 12 Jews in Stillwater at the time!), along with one that read at the end of the line: “But not you Mr. Katz.”


A version of this article was originally published in the May 2021 edition of the Tulsa Jewish Review. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

In Photos: Jewish Africa

Jono David's 'never-ending Jewish photo tour' led him to document a diverse collection of the African continent's often-overlooked Jewish communities, both new and old

Lemba community members. Manavhela, Limpopo Province, South Africa ©Jono David

In July 1997, I embarked upon a six-week rail odyssey from Beijing, China to London, England.

The journey was the realization of a long-held dream. Its promise was greater than I could have imagined.

Sojourns in bucolic Mongolia and at Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and largest freshwater lake, in Siberia, did not disappoint. Down the line, I would alight in Moscow, St. Petersburg, each of the Baltic states, and Warsaw, before pulling into London’s Waterloo Station, spitting distance from the shabby digs I once called home.

But something unforeseen happened on that great adventure.


Unexpected change of course

In Irkutsk, I stopped into the synagogue and was warmly welcomed by a few locals and an American visitor who was residing there temporarily for a research project. The encounter unwittingly set in motion an entirely different thought approach to the journey.

Irkutsk Synagogue, August 1997. Irkutsk, Russia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

While I was wholly engrossed in everything the train journey in itself had to offer, I became equally focused on my Russian Jewish roots on my father’s side. When I reached Poland, I wondered about my Polish Jewish heritage on my mother’s side and, more specifically, where my great-grandmother’s hometown may be. I knew her — and her latkes — well. She passed away when I was 18.

By the time I got home to Osaka, Japan (where I had been living since 1994) that September, my mind was already made up: I was going to go back to Central Europe in February-March with the sole intent of taking as many “Jewish photographs” as possible.


My first “official” Jewish photo tour

I flew to Frankfurt, then took a train to Prague. From there, the haphazard journey took me to several corners of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Austria.

It was utterly unorganized. No appointments. No advance permissions. No schedules. No benefit of the internet. And poor photo skills.

I could not have known it at the time, but the trip was my first “official” Jewish photo tour. It sparked a lifelong commitment to documenting the Jewish world in photographs.

Photo taken at Auschwitz in February 1998, on the author’s first “official” Jewish photo tour ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Over the years and many trips of a lifetime later, I realized it was time for something bigger, better, bolder. In 2010, I turned my sights to Jewish Africa. While I had previously visited some parts of northern Africa and traversed southern Africa, those trips — like the Trans-Siberian Railway — were primarily for tourism peppered with a few Jewish photo ops. In other words, they were not Jewish photo tours per se, and they were certainly not structured.

I had merely amassed a collection of images. But Jewish Africa was going to be different.


Developing African Jewish communities

Between August 2012 and April 2016, I embarked upon eight unique Jewish Africa photo tours comprised of some 60 total weeks of travel to 30 countries and territories. Ultimately, I archived some 65,000 Jewish Africa photographs, and I did so with the aim of answering one primary question: Who are the Jews of Africa?

Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community spiritual leader Serge Etele (L) inspects a new mezuzah at the Ambomo family home. Douala, Cameroon ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Matzoh Bakery. Hara Kebira, Djerba, Tunisia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

I was particularly interested in the emerging Black Jewish communities in places such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, Gabon, and Cameroon. Over the last 20 or so years, the phenomenon of religious renouncement and self-conversion to Judaism has – in some cases, such as in Ghana, Cameroon, and Gabon – grown with the rise of internet connections there: Real-time connections are weaving a Black Jewish tapestry across the continent.

Children of the Kasuku Jewish Community. Kasuku, Ol Kalou, Nyandarua, Kenya ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

So far, these small but fervent communities remain largely ignored by official entities in Israel and in the mainstream Jewish world — the century-old Abayudaya community in Uganda is officially recognized by Conservative Judaism, but that is an exception.

Connections with outside Jewish organizations and rabbis are increasing, however, and official Jewish recognition remains an important aim.


European roots across the continent

In my travels, these communities held a particular fascination, but I was equally mindful of the European-rooted congregations. I was curious not merely about their history, but about their manifestations of Jewish life in comparison to the familiar ways in Europe.

The community in South Africa, for instance, began mainly under British rule in the 19th century. They are predominantly Ashkenazi Jews descended from pre- and post-Holocaust immigrant Lithuanian Jews. Between about 1880 and 1940, the community had swelled to some 40,000 (it peaked at about 120,000 in the 1970s).

Ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), Benoni, South Africa, 1922. From the National Library of Israel collection

It may even be said that a Jewish influence in the region dates back to the 1400s and Portuguese exploration with Jewish cartographers who assisted explorers Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama. But it was not until the 1820s that Jews had any significant presence. In 1841, they built their first synagogue in Cape Town. In the 1880s, a gold rush lured thousands more Jews, mainly from Lithuania.

Over the years, Jews all across the southern African region have had a disproportionately large influence on local society, politics, business, and history. In fact, the same may be said of Jewish settlements from Kenya to northern African nations too.

Upshernish at Northcliff Hebrew Congregation. Northcliff, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Jewish colonies in what are today Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Namibia all thrived. They built their synagogues, schools, and social centers very much in European architectural styles — with some notable exceptions in South Africa, which feature Cape Dutch designs and in the Maghreb, which feature Islamic and Moorish lines — and maintained all the trappings, traditions, customs, and culinary flavors from their homelands. I found these consistencies compelling evidence of the ties that bind Jews the world over.

Windhoek Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. Windhoek, Namibia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Rabbi Bisal El Synagogue. Hara Kebira, Djerba, Tunisia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Synagogue at Talmud Torah Jewish School. Sefrou, Morocco ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Despite their successes in these far-flung lands, there were hardships aplenty. Early settlers in the southern African region forged across dry and dusty lands to create new settlements. Some sought riches in diamonds, sealing and whaling, and ostrich farming. Others, meanwhile, went on to prominent political and judicial posts. Yet, anti-Semitism had not been entirely left behind in Europe.

Though freedom of worship was granted to all South African residents in 1870, an 1894 law, for instance, debarred Jews from military posts and various political positions. In 1937, the Aliens Act aimed to stem the flow of Jewish refugees coming from Germany. Jews also faced resistance from pro-German Afrikaners. And they waded through the emotional and moral minefield that was apartheid.

Today, while Jewish communities of the southern African region shrink and ancient ones of the Maghreb cling on (notably in Morocco and Tunisia), Black Jewish groups are growing in number, in location, in commitment. Following subjugation over the centuries by both political and religious invaders, motivating factors for this Jewish awakening are rooted in a quest for truth and identity: a truth rooted in the tenants of Judaism and the Torah, an identity founded in self-determination.

Book cover, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths

My photographs endeavor to weave together this complex tapestry of the Jewish African peoples segregated by historical, cultural, linguistic, and regional divides yet united by a faith in Hashem.


Since the late 1990s, British-born photographer Jono David has traveled the globe, amassing an extensive archive of contemporary images of Jewish heritage and heritage sites in the world – a growing compendium of more than 120,000 photographs from 116 countries and territories. His recent book, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths, is based on years of travel to some 30 African countries and territories. It includes 230 photographs and 14 essays by scholars, rabbis, and members of Jewish African society.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish Heritage Europe. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Age of Discovery as Reflected in Antique Maps

The Age of Discovery led to the broadening of human knowledge about the geography of the world we live in and landscapes and peoples in faraway regions in America and Asia. These discoveries are reflected in antique maps preserved in the National Library

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan. His voyages in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns led to the discovery of sailing routes and parts of the world that were previously unknown in the West. It is possible to trace Magellan’s travels and discoveries as well as the knowledge accrued by other travelers and researchers during the Age of Discovery by studying the antique maps preserved in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Gregor Reisch’s unique world map from 1503 is one such interesting example. The basic format of the map follows the famous Ptolemy world map, which includes the ancient world that was known to geographers before the Age of Discovery.

However, at the bottom of this map, on the land bridge linking Southeast Asia to Africa there is an inscription (marked in yellow): “Here there is no continent but a sea with islands that were not known to Ptolemy.” This is the first ever reference on a printed map hinting at Columbus’ discoveries and his belief that he had discovered islands off the coast of Asia.

This is also the first time that the winds are depicted as individualized, stylized faces (and not as cherubs as had been the practice until then); one of the winds is even wearing spectacles, the first printed representation of their use.

As everyone knows, one of the most significant finds of the Age of Discovery was Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492. In the first decades after Columbus’ voyage, the continent was referred to on maps as the “New World”:

A New Description of America the New World, 1570

This map of North and South America from 1596 titled “America the New World” includes the figures of explorers Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Magellan and Francisco Pizarro, along with the year of their voyages, as well as depictions of ships, an anchor, and navigation tools such as compasses and maps.

Ferdinand Magellan
Amerigo Vespucci after whom the continents of America are named

The Clover Map, 1585, presents the continents of the ancient world in the shape of three clover leaves, with “America the New World” in the lower left corner.

This map represents the old and the new. On the one hand, it presents the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa as well as the religious motive behind the map’s creation, with Jerusalem at the center and the city of Rome – the seat of the Pope – also highlighted.  On the other hand, the map also features the “new” geographical reality – the discovery of the continent of America.  Although the book from which the map is taken deals with sacred literature, the author felt he could not ignore the new discovery and decided to include it in the map.

World atlas, 1585

The first map appearing in the atlas is a world map that includes America. A caption in the southwestern part of the map refers to Magellan’s discoveries.

The second map in the atlas is entitled “America the New World.”

This meticulously hand-painted pocket atlas makes use of gold leaf to give it an impressive, high-quality finish.

Map of America, circa 1610

The map features the captions Nova Francia, (today—most of the Quebec region in Canada) and Nova Hispania (today—the central United States and the countries of Central America). With the discovery of these new lands, the European powers were quick to take control of the territories and exploit them for their own needs.

The Europeans who came to South America viewed the indigenous peoples of the new continent with curiosity and they adorned the maps with illustrations depicting the daily lives of the natives. Here, indigenous people in Brazil make an alcoholic beverage from the manioc root (fermentation of the plant root involves a process of cooking, chewing and spitting).

Hunters and fishermen in boats:

This picturesque map includes both local and mythological fauna. In the sea, we can see a flying fish and a sea monster, and along the bottom frame, the map’s illustrator includes birds native to South America.

The explorers were not always able to accurately determine the nature of their discoveries in real time. An example of this is the representation of the Baja California Peninsula:

Map of North and Central America, 1669, with the incorrect identification of the Baja California Peninsula as an island.

One can see that the shoreline is mapped in relative detail, while the interior is mostly empty because the cartographers did not yet have the time to study it and map it accurately. Illustrations of animals typical of the area do appear on the map.

This world map from around 1580 includes an inscription referring to Columbus and the date of the discovery of America, 1492, as well as the inscription “America or New India.” This inscription matches Columbus’ belief that he had reached India (this is the origin of the term “Indians” for the indigenous people of this continent).

Map of the region of the Philippines, 1593 [Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippine islands during his voyage in 1521]

In the illustrations on the map in the south and the areas of the oceans, the indigenous peoples engaged in fishing and hunting using spears and bows are depicted half-naked. On land, in the north, most of the figures are clothed.

Map of the region of the Philippines, 1595, pointing south. The map features illustrations of animals and a European ship.

The areas of China on the map include beautiful illustrations of animals that contemporary Europeans were unaccustomed to seeing:

In 1519, Magellan’s ships passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through what would later be named the Strait of Magellan.

Map of the Strait, 1638

Next to the strait is a pair of penguins standing in the territory of Chile.

A Portolan chart from Blaeu’s Atlas, 1663, includes markings of the sailing routes in the East Indies and Philippines and illustrations of European ships.

World Map with New Discoveries—Including Figures and Landscapes of Recently Discovered Lands, 1748

The illustration below shows an example of a newly discovered land in which farmers gather crops in the fields, packed goods await shipping, a hunter shoots an arrow from a bow, while ships sail in the background.

And here we see the deserts of Africa, and a figure with a lion.

Map of the region of Polynesia and Australia, 1790. The map includes markings of the sailing routes of explorers such as James Cook (who was the first European to reach Eastern Australia) and Abel Tasman (after whom Tasmania was named) who discovered New Zealand.

Australia is called Ulimaroa—the name given to it by a Swedish geographer, which remained in use in European maps for about four decades.

The northeast region of New Zealand with Cook’s and Tasman’s travel routes and the years of their journeys.

Map of the region of Australia and Polynesia, 1796, with the caption “New Holland” for Australia. This was the period when the Netherlands was one of the leading powers in maritime trade and shipping, and the area of Western Australia was under Dutch ​​control.

This map too, features the sailing routes of navigators and explorers, including their names and the dates of the voyages.

Magellan’s discoveries and the new findings of the Age of Discovery are reflected in these picturesque antique maps that offer evidence of a changing worldview in light of the new discoveries and the scientific innovation in the fields of navigation and cartography. The maps document not only the new continents, but also the landscapes that were so unique to the Western eye. Today they still offer the viewer an experience that is both aesthetic and educational.

You are welcome to continue browsing the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection– on the National Library of Israel website.