The Book That Survived Kristallnacht and Made It to the Land of Israel

A battered copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” rescued from anti-Semitic riots in Germany, was returned to its author, S.Y. Agnon, with a letter telling the incredible story of its survival

The day after Kristallnacht, November 11, 1938

In the cultured, sophisticated environment of Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s, Jews made up an integral part of German society, experiencing the best that the country had to offer. When the Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1933, life as the Jewish community knew it was quickly brought to an end.

On November 3rd, 1938, a young Jewish man named Herschel Grynszpan, in an apparent reaction to his family’s deportation from their home in Germany to Poland, shot a German diplomat in Paris where he was living at the time.

The Palestine Post, November 8th, 1938

The death of the diplomat sparked rage in the Nazi party, which decided to use this incident as an excuse to carry out a widespread pogrom against the Jews of Germany.  Testimonies that came forth following the events told of how the press was instructed to push the story and to exaggerate the details of the incident to inspire anger among the public while the Nazis prepared for a carefully orchestrated night of violence against the Jews.

November 9th, 1938. Kristallnacht. Some 90 Jews were murdered, more than 30,000 were arrested. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses, so carefully grown and cultivated, were trashed, looted, and burned to the ground along with more than 1400 beloved synagogues.

On that fateful night, Felix Pinczower, a resident of Berlin at the time, found himself in the streets, amid a maelstrom of anti-Semitic violence. He was pushed into a large crowd and witnessed a mob looting a Jewish book store. The vandals had shattered the store windows and were systematically throwing the books out into the street for the pages to be torn out and stomped on before being discarded into a large trash heap.

As he watched the violence unfold, Piczower noticed a copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” a book by the famed author, S. Y. Agnon, in the original Hebrew, lying on the ground. The book tells the story of a group of Hasidim on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This particular book was spared the fate met by thousands of other volumes which were destroyed that night. This copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” with its simple white cover, was saved by Felix Pinczower on the terrible night of bloodshed and cruelty which shattered Germany’s Jewish community.

The cover of the rescued copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” by S.Y. Agnon, from the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon at the National Library.

As the mob around the book store was broken up, Pinczower was arrested along with thousands of others who were rounded up on Kristallnacht. He was taken to a concentration camp where he stayed for six long weeks. Pinczower was eventually released from the camp once his official request to leave Germany was approved.

On May 8th, 1939, he sent the rescued book along with a descriptive letter of the violence he had experienced to S.Y. Agnon, the book’s author, after immigrating to the Land of Israel and establishing his new home in Tel Aviv.

In his heartfelt letter, Pinczower described how, upon witnessing the scene at the Jewish bookstore, he had become consumed with rage.  Just as he was about to take action, something that could have cost him his life, a gust of wind picked up and a small, simple-looking book landed at his feet. He quickly picked it up, brushed off the cover, and took it home.

“The little book eluded my memory,” wrote Pinczower.  “Only when my belongings was being packed beneath the eyes of the customs clerks, did it reemerge. ‘Do you want to take this dirty book with you?’ the customs man asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It’s an interesting book that contains a special story.’ He nodded and examined it again. Suddenly, he had an idea. I saw how his face was contorting into a devilish smile. He uttered not a word, but flipped through the book, page by page, checking it against the light, apparently with the thought that foreign currency was hidden among its pages. And then, when the inspection yielded nothing, he returned the book to me. I expressed my preference to place the book in my carry-on luggage, rather than stowing it in the baggage compartment, so that I might read it on the voyage.”

The letter sent to S.Y. Agnon from Felix Pinczower on May 8, 1939, from Agnon’s personal archive at the NLI

It was only once he had boarded the ship to take him to safety that Pinczower finally had the opportunity to properly examine and read the book. He was amazed at what he found between the stained covers: the story of a group of Hassidim who set out on a sea voyage lasting several months before finally arriving at their destination – the Land of Israel.

“Was it not a direct sign from heaven that this, of all books, fell into my hands, truly in the literal sense of the expression? I do not believe in coincidence in life,” wrote Pinczower.

“Is it not true that today, as well, ships set sail and make their way over months at sea in order to bring refugees to Eretz Israel? People waiting in anticipation for the land of their longing, with the same sentiment.”

The book became Pinczower’s companion, a constant reminder of what awaited him on the other side of his journey. Once he had arrived safely in Mandatory Palestine and settled into his new home, Pinczower felt the time had come for the book to return to its author and to tell the story of its incredible journey.

He concluded his letter with a simple request of Agnon, “to integrate the book into your library as an anecdotal item – a book that has its own story, like that of any human being.”

“If only this book, which came out of Zion and returned to Zion, might serve as a symbol of the ingathering of our dispersed writings, which are held in unworthy hands.”

Today, the letter and book sent by Felix Pinczower to S.Y. Agnon, can be found in the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon, housed at the National Library of Israel.

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Else Lasker-Schüler’s Drawing: “The Banished Poet”

Since 1974, Lasker-Schüler's artistic estate has been preserved at the National Library of Israel

“The Queen of Expressionism”: That is how Else Lasker-Schüler is known to this day. Her place in this artistic stream, which reached its peak some 100 years ago, has remained uncontested and unique, both since she was a woman (almost the only woman among the prominent representatives of this style) and because she was a poet, playwright and painter all in one. The multi-disciplinary nature of Lasker-Schüler’s work characterizes her as an outstanding representative of Expressionism, since the boundaries of her various genres of expression (writing, theater and drawing) within this stream were quite blurred. Among her outstanding works were love poems, some of which were translated into Hebrew by Yehudah Amichai, Natan Zach and others.

Photo of Else Lasker-Schuler as a young woman in Berlin

Else Lasker-Schüler was born in 1869 in the city of Elberfeld, Germany, today a neighborhood of the city of Wuppertal, to a family of Jewish bankers. She was trained in painting in Berlin, and from the early 20th century, began publishing poems, and later, also plays, only a few of which were staged during her lifetime. Despite this, Else Lasker-Schüler is considered to this day one of the most important poets in the history of German literature in the 20th century. In 1932, she was even awarded the most prestigious literary prize in Germany at the time, the Kleist Prize.

With the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, the poet was forced to leave Germany. Until 1939, she lived in Switzerland, but she visited Eretz Israel in 1934 and 1936. During her third visit, the outbreak of World War II caught her by surprise, and at the same time, the Swiss authorities forbade her return to Switzerland. In Eretz Israel, Lasker-Schüler settled in Jerusalem, where she continued writing in German. One of the last works she wrote is a play entitled, “I and I” (Ichundich), in which she describes the fall of the Nazi regime. And yet, her death in January 1945 prevented her from carrying on with her work and witnessing the turning point in European history.

Since 1974, Lasker-Schüler’s artistic estate has been preserved at the National Library of Israel. The poet’s personal archive contains manuscripts of her works, drawings and correspondence with her contemporaries, including S.Y. Agnon, Samuel Hugo Bergmann, Gottfried Benn, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Max Reinhardt, Salman Schocken and Akiba Ernst Simon.

Among the artist’s drawings is a chalk drawing mounted on a piece of cardboard (142X225 mm), entitled “Die verscheuchte Dichterin” (“The Banished Poet”).

Drawing by Lasker-Schüler: “The Banished Poet”

The picture – combining poetry and drawing – might be seen as a synopsis of Else Lasker-Schüler’s fate: On the drawing’s cardboard base, the poet wrote out an excerpt of a poem she had published in her first poetry collection of 1902: “If I knew of a stream as deep as my life, I would flow with its waters.”

In addition, Lasker-Schüler scribbled the words “Drawn in 1935 in the hospital due to my injuries caused by the Nazis.” And yet, on the drawing itself, she wrote “in 1942” and by way of summary, also “1935-1942.” At the center of the drawing one can make out two human forms; a woman is sitting, her gaze case downwards, arms linked with another figure that is standing next to her. The woman in the drawing is apparently Lasker-Schüler herself, and indeed, the contours of the woman’s profile recall her other self-portraits. The second figure, apparently a man in Oriental dress including a head covering, is soothing the woman, whose body language powerfully suggests weariness and mourning.

Art experts believe that the drawing was created at least partially in the mid-1930s, but it is likely that Lasker-Schüler added details and the caption only later, apparently some time before 1942. In this work, the artist demonstrates all of her drawing ability: the composition conveys Lasker-Schüler’s desperate mood using simple lines and a refined technique. The five chalk colors and the basic tone of the paper were sufficient for the artist to draw one of her last works, characterized by a richness of artistic expression.

Divided Germany, relations with Israel and the reunification of Germany

The partitioning of Germany into occupied areas was, in effect, the beginning of the political division of the state which endured until 1989. Each of the Allied powers advanced its interests in the area under its control

Berlin Wall

As a result of World War II, not only were many countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world destroyed and their residents murdered by the German Army, but in response to the activities of the Wehrmacht, the SS and other units in occupied countries, dozens of cities in Germany itself were bombed, entire neighborhoods destroyed, and large numbers of civilians killed. The winds of war sowed destruction.

For the first time since the days of Napoleon, Germany became an occupied country. Its territory was divided into four occupied areas, with the British in the Northwest, the Soviets in the East, the Americans in the Southwest, and the French in the West. With the military surrender, the German government ceased to function. Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and later, also Goering, committed suicide. The remaining Nazi leaders were arrested or changed their identities and tried to flee. Very quickly, many Germans from the ranks of Nazi rule became “victims” who ostensibly knew nothing about the deeds of the German soldiers in the occupied countries, and certainly nothing regarding the murder of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Taking responsibility was not a high priority. Most German civilians were occupied with obtaining food and essential products, and rebuilding what had been destroyed as a result of the extensive bombing throughout the war. Holocaust survivors and freed concentration camp prisoners tried finding a new direction in life. Tens of thousands of Jews, a large portion of them refugees from the East, took refuge in displaced persons camps established in the western occupied areas. Millions of German refugees who had been deported from areas in East Germany tried to find housing and employment, and were not always kindly accepted by local residents.

The partitioning of Germany into occupied areas was, in effect, the beginning of the political division of the state which endured until 1989. Each of the Allied powers advanced its interests in the area under its control. Very quickly, it became clear that Josef Stalin in Moscow had different ideas and intentions than the leaders of Britain, France and the United States. The conflict of interest grew worse over the years, and as a result, in 1949, two German countries were established: The Federal Republic in the West, and the Democratic Republic in the East. The so-called “Democratic Republic” turned out to be democratic in name only, never fully implementing the rules of democracy. The leadership of the Soviet Union ensured the founding of a socialist community country in the East, after expanding Poland hundreds of kilometers to the West, such that Germany lost vast swaths of its territory. The Allied powers subsidized the territories under their control, and supported the development of a democratic government in the western part of Germany. As a result, beginning in the 1950s, the West German economy recovered and began once again to flourish. Large portions of East Germany’s industry were dismantled by the Russians and transferred to the Soviet Union as reparations, such that from the outset there was no economic parity between the two Germanys. Later, the rules of communist economics also failed to advance East Germany’s development.

The political partition was also reflected in the approach of the two countries towards the State of Israel. Until 1989, the year when East Germany ceased to exist, it did not recognize the State of Israel. West Germany, in contrast, began negotiations with Jewish representatives and the State of Israel regarding reparations for Holocaust victims, a concept that was unacceptable to portions of both the Israeli and German populations, though for different reasons. In Israel, many people opposed any kind of contact with Germany, and were not prepared to receive money as compensation for genocide. In contrast, Nazi supporters (who remained in Germany after 1945) were opposed to giving “gifts” to the Jews. Despite the difficulties, the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany was signed in 1952 in Luxemburg. Following the agreement, additional steps were taken in the economic realm, and in 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion met with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York.

Reparations Agreement

The 1960s saw many changes and developments. In 1961, the partitioning of Germany became more pronounced due to the construction of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin, as well as the construction of a border fence between East and West Germany. In both Israel and Germany, notable members of the Nazi leadership were tried and convicted. The Eichmann Trial in Israel and the Auschwitz Trial in West Germany were both followed very closely by the media and international community. In 1965, the governments of Israel and West Germany finalized the decision to initiate diplomatic relations. Later, additional informal steps were taken to bring the countries closer, including translation of German literary works into Hebrew, and vice versa. In the 1970s, West German society was rocked by terror attacks perpetrated by groups on the radical left. These terrorist groups collaborated with Palestinian political and terror organizations. The terror attack against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, as well as the hijacking of airplanes (the Air France jet that was the focus of Operation Entebbe was hijacked by both Palestinian and German terrorists) were a manifestation of this state of affairs. During these years, young German volunteers also began coming to Israel to volunteer on kibbutzim, in order to get to know Israel and its residents.

In the 1980s, the two Germanys grew closer to one another, and the Communist government in the East was weakened both economically and ideologically. In the autumn of 1989, flight of citizens to the West and mass demonstrations led to the collapse of the Communist government, and ultimately to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place on November 9. Alongside this historical development, similar changes occurred in almost all of the Communist bloc countries, completely changing the face of Europe. A year later, the two countries were united into today’s Federal Republic of Germany.

Letter of First German Ambassador, Rolf Pauls, to Chava Steinitz (Buber)

Some of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of relations

After the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, it was necessary for the decision to assume a practical form. The first Israeli ambassador to Germany was Asher Ben Natan (1921-2014), a native of Vienna, while Germany sent Rolf Pauls (1915-2002) to Israel. Some of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of relations and especially the appointment of Pauls due to his activities from 1933 through 1945. Pauls was already an officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht in 1934 and went on to fight in World War II, where he was gravely wounded, ultimately receiving the prestigious Knight’s Cross military honor. After the war, he began studying law, and later became part of the West German diplomatic corps

The Israeli press covered Pauls’ appointment and arrival, as well as his first activities as ambassador. The Davar newspaper, reporting about the West German diplomat’s first speech on the front page of its August 12, 1965 edition, quoted Pauls as saying, “I come with a single thought in mind: The Germans and the Jews are living with a horrific past that cannot be forgotten, that must not be forgotten, and that we are not forgetting. But I think that there is a future for the Jews and the Germans, and our generation must pave the way to a clear future of freedom, peace and justice together.” Pauls’ words clearly reflect that at the official level, Germany viewed the State of Israel first and foremost as the Jewish state, and approached every issue accordingly. During his three years as ambassador, Pauls tried to advance economic and cultural ties between the two countries. Throughout his tenure, he proved to be a skilled diplomat in the complex and charged role with which he was vested. He later served as the West German ambassador to the United States and China.

Immediately after the death of philosopher Martin Buber in 1965, a motion was put forth to name a West Berlin street in his honor. A small street in Berlin-Celendorf was selected, which had previously been called Kaiserstrasse (in honor of the Kaiser). When the formal process was completed, the new name was given on June 13, 1966. A year after Buber’s death, Rolf Pauls sent notice to Martin Buber’s daughter, Chava Steinitz (née Strauss), announcing the change in the street’s name. The embassy clerks were apparently not yet proficient in Hebrew names, and slightly misspelled Steinitz’s name; they also mistakenly noted that the ceremony took place two years after Buber’s death. Today, many German cities have streets named after this important Jewish philosopher.

The letter displayed here reached the National Library’s archives approximately two years ago, together with many other letters, as an addition to the Aryeh Ludwig Strauss Archive.

Source: Aryeh Ludwig Strauss Archive, ARC. Ms. Var. 424/7/105