A postcard written by Paul Spitzer, a prisoner at Monowitz camp, a subcamp of the Auschwitz complex. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People
Sender: Sajden Efroim, Birkenau Labor Camp, House 1, Upper Silesia
Adressee: Mr. Sznajd, Karl, Vienna, Zeitenstetngasse [Seitenstetten] 2
Date of arrival: Feb. 1st 1943
Mr. Sznajd, Karl
…I inform you that I am working as a tailor and that I am doing fine and that I am healthy and I hope to receive your reply soon.
Kind regards to the Berger Family
Brief, laconic messages, short on detail, with only minimal expressions of affection…
These postcards and letters were written by Jewish prisoners being held at different Nazi camps within the Auschwitz complex. The writers were attempting to contact their relatives in Vienna.
The postcards were all addressed to a contact in the Jewish community of Vienna, Karl Schneidt (variously spelled as Schnied, Schneit or Sznajd), who was usually asked to pass on word to relatives of the sender, though Schneidt was not always successful in this.
Though few Jews remained in Vienna, the community’s “Jewish Council of Elders” (Ältestenrat der Juden in Wien) was still a functioning entity, right up until the end of the war (many of those who remained were half-Jewish or married to non-Jews).
Perhaps the most striking feature of this correspondence is that which is left unsaid. These letters and postcards passed through Nazi censors. It was clear to all that no mention could be made of the atrocities taking place in their immediate vicinity.
Most of the writers cited here were prisoners at the Monowitz subcamp in the Auschwitz complex, which provided slave labor for a number of German factories built nearby. The correspondence is part of the Vienna Jewish Community Archive held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.
Karl Schneidt wrote the following response to the letter from Efroim Sajden cited above:
Dear Mr. Seiden,
I am happy to hear that you are working and that you are doing fine. Sadly I cannot forward your regards to the Berger family for I do not know their address. If you need anything else, please let me know and I shall see if I can send it to you.
Below is a letter written by Leibisch Sperber, a prisoner at Monowitz.
Dear Mr. Schneit
Thank God I am healthy and I am doing well, hoping the same for you.
What news do you have? What are my relatives up to? Hope that you are fine, I thank you for everything and please stay healthy.
Many kind regards
Dear Mr. Sperber,
Thank you for your letter, I am happy to hear from you again.
Attached to this letter is a package that has been sent to you with best regards from your cousin Minna.
I do not know the address of your relatives, therefore I cannot find out how they are.
Sperber was later murdered at Auschwitz, in August of 1943.
Here is a letter from Paul Spitzer, who enquires about Schneidt himself.
Dear Mr. Schneid!
…I inform you that I am in good health and hope to hear the same from you. I would be happy if you could tell me about yourself.
With best regards
Monowitz Labor Camp
Schneidt would later respond:
Dear Mr. Spitzer,
I am happy to hear from you again. Please do not hesitate to write me, if you want to know something, just ask.
Until then best regards
Paul Grünberg wrote and told of how he was allowed to receive food packages.
Dear Mr. Schneidt!
I inform you that I am healthy and I would like to hear the same from you. I may receive food packages of up to 60 Shillings and up to 250 grams.
Kind regards and thank you
Dear Mr Grünberg,
Attached to this letter is a package that has been sent with best regards from Mister Reiss to you. You forgot to tell me in which time intervals you are allowed to receive those packages and if you have any wishes regarding the content.
Please answer my questions when it is possible for you.
Until then best regards
A scan of Grünberg’s letter is displayed at the Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. Grünberg passed away in Vienna in 2018.
Abram Tenenbaum, a prisoner at Birkenau, wrote directly to his wife in Vienna.
I am healthy and I work as a tailor.
With kind regards and kisses
The response, however, came from Schneidt. It is unclear if Mrs. Tenenbaum ever received her husband’s letter.
Dear Mr. Tenenbaum,
I am happy to hear from you, that you are working and that you are doing fine and that you are healthy. If you need anything, write me.
The letter below was written by Isidor Bretholz
Because I have not heard from my family for some time, I want to tell you my requests. I have been at the Monowitz labor camp for three months where I am healthy and doing fine. I ask you courteously to send me standard reading glasses and ask you to answer me immediately.
Thank you in advance and best regards
Schneidt sent the following response
Dear Mr. Bretholz,
I have received your letter but sadly I am not able to send you glasses without you letting me know what type you need and if you are short-sighted or far-sighted. Please answer me these questions and I hope that I will be able to get you the glasses. If there is anything else that you want, please let me know and I will see if I can make it possible.
Bretholz never received Schneidt’s letter. He was murdered at Auschwitz on February 22nd 1943, nine days before Schneidt sent his reply.
Many thanks to Carl-Philipp Spahlinger, an Action Reconciliation Service for Peace volunteer at the CAHJP for his help in translation, to Udi Edery for his wonderful photographs and to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia of the CAHJP for his assistance in the preparation of this article.
Ilya Dvorkin is a man of vision. His white hair and matching beard give him the appearance of precisely the kind of person who dreams big. Ilya Dvorkin’s dream is to document, distribute and memorialize the rich culture of the Jewish diaspora in the former Soviet Union. He has probably done more than anyone to realize this vision. Dvorkin is the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies (previously known as the St. Petersburg Jewish University), where he has been working on his huge project for nearly 40 years.
The history of Jewry in Russia and in the territories of the former Russian Empire stretches back many centuries. According to some theories, Jews have been living in the Caucasus region since the Second Temple period, possibly even earlier. It is only natural that such a lengthy, rich history should consist of a wide range of stories; stories of assimilation and separation, nationalism and cosmopolitism, religious persecution and religious tolerance, subjugation and autonomy, and so forth.
The Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union were never monolithic. For the better part of this history, most Jews did not live in Russia itself, as we know it today. In fact, the only thing connecting the different Jewish communities was the prosaic fact that they were all ruled by the Russian-speaking USSR for roughly 70 years. The communities differed in ethnic origin, language, dress and even in religious and cultural customs. Jews from the shtetls of Poland or Ukraine were different than the Jews of Bukhara, Moscow and the towns of the Caucasus. All were consumed by the USSR.
It was this vast cultural wealth that Ilya Dvorkin set out to conserve. In 1981, he took up what seemed like a crazy idea – photography expeditions to the Jewish communities of the USSR. Dvorkin himself funded the expeditions. He brought along a photographer and set out to find Jews in different towns under Soviet rule. The expeditions lasted until 1998, through the years of glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In many cases, Ilya and his photographers were only able to find the last remnants of Jewish communities which had almost completely dispersed, only a few years earlier. Dvorkin’s photography project provides unique documentation of these disappeared communities.
We may not have time or space to conduct a complete review of the history of Russian Jewry, but we can offer a peek at it. The first Jews to settle in the areas that would eventually come under Soviet sovereignty apparently lived in the ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. Archeological evidence suggests Jews began to settle there as early as the first centuries CE, possibly even earlier. Many centuries later, a large percentage of the Russian Empire’s Jews lived in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. Others came from the republics of central Asia.
Dvorkin’s documentation project reached all of these communities. Community buildings such as synagogues and batei midrash (“Houses of Learning”) that no longer exist were recorded as part of his project, as were ancient Jewish cemeteries. Customs, rituals and cultural traditions that were common among local Jews were also documented. In addition to the many photos taken, interviews with members of the different communities were recorded on video, as were local songs and unique prayers. Dvorkin and his team also documented Jewish daily life in what was then known as Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Some of the community’s public figures were also captured in this documentation. One of these was the Prisoner of Zion, Ida Nudel, who later immigrated to Israel.
The massive project contains valuable documentation of life in the USSR during the 1980s and 1990s – a unique period in Soviet and Russian history. Dvorkin takes special pride in images of “the last European shtetl” – photos from the town of Sharhorod, which is today part of Ukraine. Sharhorod was one of the only towns in the region that was conquered by Romania and not by Nazi Germany, which is why most of its Jews survived. There, Dvorkin’s team recorded a klezmer musician playing one of the local Jewish community’s songs.
The true gem of the collection is undoubtedly the huge and unique assortment of photos, video recorded interviews, and other recordings and items that came from the Jewish communities of Bukhara. These Jews, who lived in the territory covered by modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, represented one of the oldest Jewish communities in history. The Nevzlin Collection is an exceptional treasure of unique Jewish history.
This project, which documents the various Jewish communities in Russia and the USSR, would not be accessible without the support of the Leonid Nevzlin Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University. Thanks to the Nevzlin Center, visitors of the National Library website can explore the documentation project which includes approximately 10,000 photos, and counting.
In late April of 1719, the English author Daniel Defoe published the story of the wonderful tales of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe was a young Englishman who ran away from home at the age of 18. He spent a few years on merchant ships in the New World, was taken captive at sea and became a slave of the North African Moors. After escaping captivity, he settled in Brazil and bought an orchard where he, a freed slave, hired African slaves who were forcibly brought to the New World. From Brazil he decided to embark on a trade expedition that ended in a shipwreck on a deserted island.
At first, he spent his days building a shelter to protect from predators and natives whom he believed inhabited the island. When the awaited deliverance failed to arrive, he began establishing a new one-man civilization. Crusoe lived on the island for 28 years before returning to England, his homeland, along with a friend he met on the island. He made a promise to never disobey his father again and to refrain from dangerous adventures at sea, but this vow was not kept for long. Though the novel’s plot was a figment of Defoe’s imagination, the author’s name did not appear on the cover of the book’s first editions and Crusoe’s memoirs were depicted as authentic.
1,000 copies of the original April 1719 edition of Robinson Crusoe were printed. The May edition consisted of another 1,000, and an additional 1,000 copies were printed in June of that year. The same year, the novel was translated into French, German and Dutch. By the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew readers – or more accurately readers of the Hebrew letter – living in Thessaloniki, Warsaw and Tunisia, could choose from approximately ten different translations of the tales of Robinson Crusoe. However, most Jewish readers would have their first encounter with the character through a later adaptation of the novel, which appeared in Germany in the 18th century; This German adaption was created in the year 1779/1780 by the teacher and author of children’s books, Joachim Heinrich Campe.
As previously noted, in the first year Robinson Crusoe was published, the name of the author did not appear on the book which was initially presented as a record of the true adventures of an English sailor who survived for 28 years on a deserted island. Campe created a new structure for Defoe’s realistic novel – a didactic book delivering a universal moral in the form of a father telling his children a story. When the time came and Campe’s book was adapted into various other languages, most Jewish translators omitted its dialogue-like style but kept the educational tone, which they preferred to the religious Christian tone of the original novel.
The first “Jewish” translation of the work remained in the realm of European language. This edition was in fact a Hebrew transliteration of German (German in Hebrew letters), published in 1784/1785. A single copy is kept at the British Library. Aside from various omissions, the transliteration remains largely faithful to the Campe adaptation.
The second version, also in German transliterated into Hebrew characters, was published in Frankfurt in 1813. A copy of the transliteration is kept at the National Library of Israel and can be accessed via the following link. It is called The Story of Rabanizn(מעשה ראבאניזן).
Why translate into German instead of into Hebrew or Yiddish? One theory is that the translation was meant to bring readers closer to German culture; another is that it was motivated by commercial concerns. Either way, the most popular version of Defoe’s bestseller among European Jewish readers was not written in German at all…
The first translation into a Jewish language is the one attributed to the maskil Yosef Vitlin, who translated Campe’s adaptation into Yiddish. It is probably the most successful Jewish adaptation of the novel in the 19th century and we have much evidence of its great popularity. Campe’s didactic tone is preserved but the dialogue between a father reading to his children and the children answering was omitted. The book’s title translates into ‘Robinson: The history of Alter Leb: a true and wonderful story for entertainment and education.’ It can be viewed here.
The work’s name indicates just how far apart the English Crusoe and the Yiddish Alter Leb were. Alter Leb is Robinson Crusoe’s alter ego, and he is the hero of Vitlin’s translated novel. A rich Jewish merchant from Lemberg, Alter starts out as a drunk transgressor. As the story unfolds, the translator takes several opportunities to teach readers about the basics of sailing – how to use an anchor and what a lighthouse is – while also offering lectures on Jewish law.
Alter Leb isn’t the only character with Jewish characteristics; his companion, named Friday in the original novel, is called ‘Shabbos’ (Sabbath) here. Shabbos teaches Alter how to quickly light a fire and Alter teaches Shabbos about monotheism, the Torah and the Sabbath customs. Seeing as Alter Leb’s prayers are answered time and again throughout the novel, it’s hard to say which of the two benefited more from their companionship. The story concludes with a good Jewish ending – Torah study, proper spouses for Alter and Shabbos, and lives lived happily ever after with plenty of cute children all around. Amen!
From Yiddish, we move on to Hebrew. The first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe was written in 1823/1824 by the Galician maskil David Zamośź, though we will not elaborate on it here. This translation is also loyal to Campe’s adaptation, and it is the only version that keeps the structure of the father speaking with his children.
The reason we won’t go into detail is simple: The second translation is considered far more influential and includes some fascinating additions to the Hebrew language. This translation was titledKour Onni (“The Furnace of Affliction”), written by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch and first published in Vilnius in 1862. Rumsch was a teacher at a government boys’ school and later became the principal of a private girls’ school. Translating the book into Hebrew was not a simple task. For example, Rumsch decided to leave the names of people and places in Yiddish transcript (ראבינזאן, לאנדאן, בראזיליען), while providing Hebrew alternatives for many of the tools used by Robinson. Rumsch even coined Hebrew terms for the words ‘telescope’ (קנה הָרֳאי) and ‘compass'(מַרְאֶה-פְּאַת-הצפון), though these were not generally accepted into the Hebrew canon.
In the introduction to Rumsch’s translation, he discounts the previous complete Hebrew translation. It is unclear if he blames David Zamośź for the poor job or if he attributed the flaws he saw in the translation to the state of the Hebrew language at the time, though it is clear he felt it was his role to make things right. Particularly unnerving for him was Zamośź’s use of Mishnaic Hebrew. Rumsch and others in his generation preferred Biblical Hebrew. Rumsch’s translation coined the modern Hebrew term for “breakfast”, or more literally “morning meal” (ארוחת בוקר), which is a combination of two biblical words replacing the Mishnaic פת שחרית which can be literally translated as “dawn’s bread/morsel”.
We mentioned that this was a particularly influential translation and now it’s time to prove it: One famous reader was Eliezer Perlman, who would soon change his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, commonly known as the “reviver of the Hebrew language”. Perlman came across the book in the possession of his teacher, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, and wrote as follows:
And gradually and quickly he began to tell me, little by little, that there are books written beautifully and poetically in the holy language, and one time as I sat before him to study a ‘Gemara page’, and no one was home, he pulled out a small book from under his seat and opened it and told me to read before him. It was the book Kour Onni, a Hebrew translation of the story of Robinson Crusa. Before I could read two pages there was a knock on the door. And the head of the yeshiva grabbed the book from my hand and hid it back under his seat, and together we returned to discuss the issue in the Gemara before us.
Yael Baruch shared a similar, though naturally different, story about her grandparents in Tunisia.
In the 1930s and 1940s in Tunisia, children and adults would visit the home of Rabbi Rahamim Baruch and his wife Simcha on Sabbath mornings to hear the honorable Rabbi read from a different book each time. Two novels were at the forefront on those mornings: The Count of Monte Cristo and Robinson Crusoe. The translations were in Judeo-Arabic, the language of North African Jews. In the National Library catalog, we found the translation from which Rabbi Baruch used to read to the neighborhood children. The title of the translation was Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi translated by Hai Sitruk. It is a condensed version of the novel, and in it, too, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of his adventures.
In a bibliography written in 1939 by the Jewish Tunisian author Daniel Hagège, we find a few crumbs of information on the English novel’s Judeo-Arabic translator. Like Yitzchak Rumsch, Hai Sitruk worked as a school principal at a large boys’ school in Tunisia, which was later used as the Agudat Zion (Zionist Society) building. His work, including Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi (The Stories of Robinson Crusoe) was first printed at a publishing house owned by the Vazan family in Tunisia. From the 1930s on it was printed at the Makhluf Najar publishing house in the town of Susah. This wasn’t Sitruk’s only translation of world literature; he was also a proofreader, journalist, and the translator of Alexander the Great, The Mysteries of Paris, and more.
The decision to translate Robinson Crusoe into the language of the North African Jews is somewhat surprising. Most of the Judeo-Arabic translations of world literature were of French origin, not English. French literature was often translated into yet another Jewish language – the language of the Spanish exiles.
Two Ladino translations of Robinson Crusoe were written at the end of the 19th century; the first translation was created in 1881 and published in Thessaloniki. The translation was printed as the third and final part of a book called Bracha Ha’meshulushet. It was printed again in the year 1900. The editor of the second version was Elijah Levi. The translation ends with Robinson Crusoe in his second year on the deserted island.
In 1897 the second Ladino translation of Robinson Crusoe was published in Jerusalem. The translator, Ben-Zion Taragan, was a Hebrew teacher; this is noticeable in the way his translation is influenced by Hebrew syntax. Here and there we find a Turkish word thrown into his 150-page-long translation. This translation covers most of the original novel’s story.
In the beginning of Taragan’s Ladino translation, which we were able to loosely translate into Hebrew with the help of Ilil Baum, Robinson Crusoe addresses the readers in an attempt to lure them to read on:
Many of you, my dear readers, have surely heard my name, and many of you had the privilege of seeing me in my goat leather clothes with my loyal dog, cat and parrot at my side, and will surly take great pleasure in hearing my story. And now I am here before you to tell you my story, and I truly hope you learn many good things from it.
It may be that this introduction, which is different than the beginning of the original novel and that of Campe’s adaptation, is an original adaptation by the translator. The translation ends with three educational pieces on ethics, the last of which is directed at young girls.
For both the Ladino and Judeo-Arabic languages, the first half of the 20th century was the golden age of popular literature intended for adults and teens. The Robinson Crusoe translations are one example of that. The golden age which began at the turn of the 20th century ended with the outbreak of WWII. The Holocaust was terribly destructive to Yiddish and Ladino culture. Most of the world’s Ladino speakers were murdered when the Jewish communities of Thessaloniki and other Ladino centers in the Balkan were nearly completely wiped out. The fate of the Yiddish language was all too similar.
Following the waves of immigration to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish State, Judeo-Arabic has gradually faded away and is rarely used today. We may not see new translations of the work into these three languages which continue to struggle in the early 21st century. On the other hand, it is likely that in Israel the classic book will continue to be translated and updated so long as the local language, Hebrew, continues to evolve. A translation into an additional local language, Arabic, was published in 1835 by an anonymous translator in Europe. As for the second most widely-spoken language in today’s Jewish world, readers can simply choose to make their acquaintance with Robinson and Friday, in the original English.
Many thanks to Iris Idelson-Shein, Anabel Esperanza, Ilil Baum, Marta Katarzak, Tamir Karkason, David Guedj, Yael Baruch, Idan Perez and Ofek Kehila for their cooperation in writing this article.
Alpert, Michael. “The Ladino Novel”, European Judaism 43, no. 2 (2010)
Backscheider, R. Paula. Daniel Defoe: His Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989
Baroukh, Nehama. 2010. “’A Language That Was Torn from its Biblical Slumber’: Changes and Shifts in Written Hebrew (1880–1980) as Reflected in Translation of Books for Children.” [In Hebrew.] PhD diss., Tel Aviv University
Garrett, Leah. “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe.” Comparative Literature 54, no. 3, (2002).
Idelson-Shein, Iris. Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2014), 151-178
Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1850-1950, Wayne State University Press, 2014
Saraf, Michal. “Daniel Hagege and His Essay on the History of Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1862-1939” (in Hebrew), Pe’amim 30 (1987): 41-59.
Shavit, Zohar. “Literary Interference between German and Jewish-Hebrew Children’s Literature during the Enlightenment: The Case of Campe,” Poetics Today (Children’s Literature) 13, no. 1 (1992).
Wolpe, Rebecca. “Judaizing Robinson Crusoe: Maskilic Translations of Robinson Crusoe,” Jewish Culture and History (2012)
Crossing the Divide: Walter Grab and the East-German Historical Establishment
The Vienna-born Israeli historian Walter Grab was among the few to venture across the academic Iron Curtain in pursuit of his research...This is the story of his unique relationship with East German scholar Heinrich Scheel
“Are there any other studies published in East-Germany, with which I am not familiar?” wrote Walter Grab, a Viennese-born Israeli historian, to his East-Berliner colleague Heinrich Scheel in August 1971. “Professors Steiner and Markov did not know of any,” he continued, “but here you are the uppermost authority”. By ‘here’, Grab meant East Germany. When he first entered the field of historical research dedicated to the study of German Jacobins, his colleagues considered him a representative of the West, if not a West-German historian proper. Some addressed him in person as the initiator of West-German scholarship on the German Jacobins. Eventually, this was not too far from the truth, given that Grab published his works exclusively in German, and that up until the early 1960s, his field of expertise hardly existed in West-German academia. Apparently, the field had to be invented or at least reintroduced, if it was not to remain an exclusively East-German scholarly endeavor.
Grab himself could not deny his somewhat soloist positioning within the western context, he even fancied its benefits. “There are no true experts in this field in the Federal Republic”, he wrote to a young German scholar, Helmut Haasis, who sought his aid and collaboration in the late 1960s, as a forerunner in the field. For sure, he considered himself the right man for the task. “Is it not also natural, that I, myself a victim of persecution, [am] the first to stimulate the study on the Jacobins in the Federal Republic?” he later reflected. Grab’s positioning was unordinary indeed: a displaced historian of misplaced histories. One who considered himself, as Dan Diner noted, an exiled Jew in the land of Jews, fully devoted to retrieving the roots of failed attempts to constitute a democratic tradition in Germany during the late 18th and early 19th century, following the tides of revolution.
Grab first won recognition as a documenter of the influence and impact of the French Revolution in Germany, following the appearance of his book in 1966 on the Northern-German Jacobins (Demokratische Strömungen in Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein zur Zeit der Ersten Französischen Republik). This was an elaboration of his dissertation, completed shortly before (at the age of 46) at the University of Hamburg, supervised by the by then already controversial figure of Fritz Fischer. When he first received his doctorate, East-German research on the effects of the French Revolution in Germany, German Jacobins and demagogues and early German revolutionary literature and theater was rather well established and lead by historians and literary scholars such as Walter Markov, Gerhard Steiner, Karl Obermann, Helmut Bock and Hedwig Vogt. Above all, the study of the German Jacobins was tied to the figure of Scheel, a historian committed to the ruling socialist party in the one-party state, and a long-term member of the East-German academy of sciences in Berlin. In 1962, Scheel published an extensive volume on the South-German Jacobins, and earned his place as an expert in a scarcely populated field. Grab, who, albeit ideological differences, acknowledged the pioneering role played by East-German scholars in the study of early revolutionary democracy, established close contacts with all relevant figures in his field, including Scheel. Given the gloomy reality of Cold-War rivalries, this was not all too common. Repeatedly he insisted to his West-German counterparts that without collaboration with East-German scholars and without an acquaintance with exclusive materials kept in East-German archives, no serious progress in the study of a neglected German democratic tradition could be made.
While cataloging Grab’s personal archive for the National Library in Jerusalem, as part of a collaborative research project conducted by the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Centre and the German Literature Archive in Marbach, I came across revealing footprints of an allegedly East-West exchange enterprise. These footprints, highlighting an entanglement of political constraints, ideological obligations and professional profit, provided for a larger picture of the relationships between the German-speaking, formerly light-communist Israeli historian, and his East-German counterparts, completed by institutional correspondences kept in the historical archives of Tel-Aviv University. Especially interesting in this regard is his correspondence with Scheel. At the time when Grab first appeared on the academic stage, Scheel, only slightly older than him, was much more versed in the study of a shattered German democratic past. However still, Grab managed to utilize the geographical division in their areas of study (Scheel was ‘in charge’ of southern Germany, Grab of the northern parts), along with Scheel’s geo-political and cultural isolation, in order to balance-out the power equation between them and act accordingly.
The partnership between the two set off in 1963. They met in East Berlin, and Scheel offered his Israeli colleague considerable help in negotiating with East-German archives. Later on, Scheel even offered a joint research project, whose results were to appear in an East German academic journal in 1967. This was a huge opportunity for Grab, which never materialized. That very year marked the harshening of East-German policy towards Israel following the Six Day War, and the German historian decided not to risk breaching the party line. Thus from very early on, the political sphere made it very difficult for this partnership to succeed. Nevertheless, Grab, for his own sake, and for the sake of beneficiaries from all sides, sought to make sure that the professional, political and ideological gaps remain somehow manageable. “I will continue my efforts in keeping you updated with regards to new publications in the West”, he wrote to his East-Berliner colleague in October of 1972, “and would appreciate it if you could do the same. […] Inobservance or lack of knowledge of researches on both sides,” he further added with a pinch of discontent, “is only harmful for scientific insight, and creates unnecessary tensions between scientists, who should otherwise be on friendly terms with each other.”
However keen, there was only so much Grab could do to prevent global politics from intervening in their partnership. As ideological disagreements between the two sharpened towards the mid-1970s, the burden grew heavier to carry. Scheel, taking more than a step back, began questioning whether Grab’s works on the German Jacobins were not “imperialistically misused” by West-German institutions of higher learning. Grab replied to this accusation in a letter from March 1976. As a sign of his willingness to overarch political obstacles, he stated that he would not mind publishing his works in the journal of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin (Das Jahrbuch für Geschichte(, and that he was by no means shy of crossing communist thresholds, “But the gates to which are shut, as you may well know, and especially after the Six Day War” he wrote. “My willingness, to also publish in the GDR,” he added, “differs me doubtlessly from those systemkonservierenden West-German historians, who criticize my works in the Frankfurter Rundschau.” The correspondence between the two, which recently arrived in Jerusalem, is very telling in regards to understanding Grab’s unique positioning as an émigré scholar and outsider, with its obvious benefits and less apparent limitations. On the one side, there were no institutional constraints which could hinder him and prevent him from promoting his research in the name of preserving a united front. On the other, perceived as a voice from the outside, Grab apparently had to negotiate his stance and accept the fact of being ideologically ‘marked’ by both sides, in order to be considered a legitimate participant in a highly charged field of historical investigation.
Walter Grab’s archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel
This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.
This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.