The Bar Mitzvah Gift That Survived the Holocaust

A special dedication in a copy of the book "Mesilat Yasharim" sparked some fascinating detective work tracing the history of the Austrian Jewish community during the Holocaust, and the story of a young man and his family who were murdered by the Nazis...

In March 1938, the German army entered Vienna and the Jews of Austria realized that it was time to leave, and the sooner the better. The annexation of Austria to the Reich, the Anschluss, and the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws brought with them violence, looting and humiliation for Austria’s Jewish citizens.

Vienna before the Holocaust, photo: Yad Vashem

One of the sources of pride for the Jews of Vienna before the Holocaust was the large community library. The initial core of its collections arrived as early as 1814 with the donation of 133 volumes straight from the printing press. With the entry of the Nazis into Vienna, the library contained tens of thousands of books, including 21 incunabula (books produced during the first few years of the printing era) and 645 manuscripts, and was considered one of the most important Jewish libraries in Europe.

It was no wonder that the Nazis were happy to get their hands on it. They closed the library in July 1938 and moved it to Berlin a year later. Other Jewish libraries in Austria were also looted. Some belonged to Jewish organizations and others were private collections. When the Jews of Austria were deported to Eastern Europe, their property was taken to collection depots, including countless books.

In 1941, Austrian Jews were forced to don yellow badges. Soon Jews were being sent to Eastern Europe by transport. Most of Austria’s Jews managed to leave in time, but about 65,000 were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Jews in Vienna wearing yellow badges, photo: Yad Vashem

After the war, the community’s books gradually surfaced in various locations across Europe. Part of the Vienna community library had been hidden from the Nazis in the city’s Jewish cemetery. Another part, originally sent to Berlin, was eventually found in Czechoslovakia where it had been moved to escape the bombing raids targeting Germany.

Hundreds of thousands of books stolen throughout Europe by the Nazis were brought to Austria during the war and discovered at Tanzenberg Castle by the British army. Most were returned to the countries from which they were stolen but some remained in Austria. It was only thanks to the tireless work of the National Library of Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs that some 80,000 of the Vienna community’s books eventually made their way to the National Library in Jerusalem.

The National Library affixed a special label to these books attesting to their past.

The Hebrew text of the label reads: “A gift of from the Vienna Jewish community, in memory of the victims of the Holocaust

I recently came across one of these books. A copy of the work known as Mesilat Yasharim, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), a classic text on Jewish ethics.

The cover page features a handwritten Hebrew dedication that was unfortunately hidden under a sticker. I turned to the Library’s conservation and restoration lab and with great professionalism and care they were able to remove the sticker and reveal the fascinating story of the book’s original owner.

The dedication reads:

To the nice persistent and [God-fearing] young man [may his candle shine] David Dov in celebration of his Bar Mitzvah, a gift from the family of S. Schonfeld, Vienna, Thursday, [on the eve of the Holy Sabbath], Parashat [Ki] Tissa, 5696 [1936]

The hand-written dedication

David Dov’s last name did not appear, but the information in the dedication indicated that the Bar Mitzvah boy lived in Vienna. By calculating backwards from the Bar Mitzvah date, I realized that he was born in March, 1923. The next step was to locate him using Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. The database is based on information gathered over the decades at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, through pages of testimony filled out by family members and friends of the victims.

With the help of the database, I discovered that David Dov’s last name was Neuwirth and that he and his parents and two sisters were murdered in Minsk in 1942. I found more information in the Austrian Victims of the Holocaust database on the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) website. David Dov and his family left Vienna on September 14, 1942. Four days later they arrived in Minsk. The train continued to the Maly Trostenets estate not far away. When they finally got off, the Jews of Vienna were marched to the killing pits in the forest and shot to death.

The witness who filled out the testimony page was Ilse Deutsch, David Dov’s sister. It turned out that his older sister had managed to escape from Austria in time. According to the information on Ilse on the genealogy website, she passed away in 2018 but was survived by her four children in London.

The testimony page filled out by Ilse Deutsch, David Dov’s sister, Yad Vashem

With some help from my own family in London, I was able to get in touch with some of the family members. Devorah, one of Ilse’s granddaughters who lives in Israel, shared a wealth of information about the family. She explained that her grandmother left Vienna with one of her mother’s sisters. They were in Germany during Kristallnacht but managed to reach England before the outbreak of World War II. There she worked as a kindergarten teacher, got married and raised a family. One of the Neuwirth family’s neighbors in Vienna kept some family photos and a Kiddush cup that David Dov received as a gift for his Bar Mitzvah. These items are in the hands of the family today.

This amazing story made its way within hours from Jerusalem to London to New York and back. Rabbi Shabtai Schonfeld’s granddaughter made contact and added even more information. It was Rabbi Schonfeld who gave the Mesilat Yesharim book to David Dov in 1936. The Schonfeld and Neuwirth families were good friends in Vienna. David Dov was the same age as Rabbi Schonfeld’s son who later became a well-known rabbi in Queens, New York.

The Schonfeld family left Vienna on their own immediately after the Anschluss. Before leaving the country, all Jews were required to fill out an immigration questionnaire that included family details, names, ages, occupations, immigration destination and vocational training. The Neuwirth family’s forms are in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. This is where a large part of the archives of the Vienna community is preserved today.

The immigration questionnaire, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Why then did the Neuwirth family fail to leave Austria in time?

Devorah provided the answer. David Dov was ill with polio. The family sought to immigrate to the U.S., but this depended on passing a medical examination. The U.S. Embassy in Austria apparently did not allow David Dov to immigrate and his family remained in Vienna. David Dov’s father, Rabbi Simcha Shmuel Neuwirth was a community rabbi and principal of a Jewish school in Vienna. He decided not to abandon his congregation and so most of the family died as martyrs al Kiddush Hashem.

The monument in Maly Trostenets, commemorating Austrian  victims of the Holocaust

The family story was preserved by David Dov’s sister Ilse in London, and now with the help of the Mesilat Yesharim book, it is being told and preserved by the National Library of Israel as well.

In the Shadow of War: When Stan Lee and Dr. Seuss Battled Fascism

After serving together in the US Army's Training Film Division during World War II, the two parted ways: Stan Lee went on to create immortal superheroes, and Dr. Seuss used his talents to try to atone for his anti-Japanese propaganda through a new and compassionate children’s book

Stan Lee (left) and Dr. Seuss (right) during their WWII army service

With the world at war in the early 1940s, Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics fame, wound up in the US Army’s Training Film Division almost by chance, after the military found out that he could both  draw comics and write scripts. When Lee showed up at the unit, he encountered the beloved children’s author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, though he wasn’t actually a medical doctor at all. We will tell you all about this World War II-era story, but let’s begin a few years earlier…

Stan Lee (1922–2018), who would come to personify the American comic book industry, started out in the field in 1939 at Timely Comics. His initial connection with the company was through his cousin, who was married to the firm’s publisher. Throughout his life, Lee testified repeatedly that he never really wanted to work there in the first place. This Jewish-American comic book icon had dreams of writing the next “Great American Novel” that would immortalize his name in the pantheon of world literature. In fact, Stan had given himself the penname “Stan Lee”, reserving his real name, Stanley Lieber, for that great and elusive masterpiece he would one day write, when he was finally able to give up his tedious work creating comic books. Ultimately, Lee’s name did enter the global pantheon, but in a slightly different category than he had anticipated.

The Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

On his first day at Timely Comics, Lee met two other giants of the American comic book world: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. His first credit under his new penname Stan Lee appeared in issue #3 of Captain America. When Kirby and Simon left in 1941, the 19-year-old Lee was appointed “temporary” editor, a position he would continue to fill (“temporarily”, of course) for decades to come, that is, until his promotion to publisher. The Marvel Comics brand was established in the early 1960s as part of his decision to remain in the field and at last give up his literary dream.

Just as Lee’s career in the world of comics was taking off in New York, war was raging in Europe. In 1942, Lee was drafted into the US Army. At first, he was slated to serve overseas in the Signal Corps, but the Army very quickly recognized the new soldier’s writing talents and assigned him to the rare position of screenwriter. Lee would later claim that he and only eight others were assigned to this coveted position during the war. He was sent to the army’s Training Film Division unit, where Lee met some great talents, among them the director Frank Capra and the illustrator Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

In his new role, Lee was tasked with writing scripts for films intended to raise the morale of combat troops, propaganda posters for the American public, and from time to time even propaganda comics. It was at this stage that Lee’s commitment, both to the comic book profession that was almost foisted on him as well as to the position he was appointed to at such a young age, was seriously challenged for the first time. Despite being far away from the Timely Comics office in New York, he kept up a weekly correspondence with the staff, suggesting ideas for comics, and reviewing and correcting scripts. His commitment stood the test.

After the war, Lee returned to his job as a comic book editor. In the 1950s, he experienced a professional crisis, becoming dissatisfied with his own work and the traditional limitations of the genre. But in the 1960s, with the encouragement of his wife, Lee decided on a radical change – he would finally make the comic books he had always wanted to make, as a last ditch effort, with nothing to lose, before handing in his letter of resignation. He envisioned a different kind of superhero – imperfect, troubled, human.

The comic book he created, together with illustrator Jack Kirby, was “The Fantastic Four.” Together, Kirby and Lee created the great pantheon of Marvel Comics superheroes: the Hulk, X-Men, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and more. Oh, and of course their most familiar and beloved character, the amazing Spider-Man. When Lee passed away in 2018 at the age of 95, the US Army was among those who paid tribute to this great American artist, for his contributions during wartime and later on in life.

We turn now to Dr. Seuss, Lee’s cohort in the Training Film Division, who underwent a profound change of conscience following World War II.

Like Stan Lee, the writer and illustrator Theodor Geisel (1904–1991) adopted a penname under which he published his stories for children, with the intention of one day writing a great adult literary work under his real name. The alias combined his mother’s maiden name, Seuss, with the title of Doctor – a reference to his doctoral studies at Oxford, which he left in order to focus on writing. Throughout the 1920s, he worked for various magazines, before shifting to writing books of children’s poems and accompanying them with illustrations. It was at this point that history knocked on the door, and Dr. Seuss answered.

After publishing his first successful children’s book, Horton Hatches the Egg in 1940, he took a forced break from writing for children. This pause lasted for seven years, during which time he created hundreds of caricatures depicting the brutality of Hitler and Mussolini. He lent his pen to the struggle against fascism while also criticizing isolationist political tendencies within American society. He did not preach war, but sensed its coming and believed that America had a duty to protect and save the world from murderous fascism.

With the United States’ entry into World War II, the American military sought to exploit these talents for its own needs. In the service of the war effort, Dr. Seuss moved to Los Angeles. There, Hollywood film director Frank Capra teamed up Dr. Seuss with animator Chuck Jones—the legendary creator of Bugs Bunny and Duffy Duck—and the two composed a series of animated propaganda films for American soldiers. Among other things, the two produced a series of animated shorts about “Private Snafu”, a soldier who does just about everything wrong. Later on, Dr. Suess came under sharp criticism for the anti-Japanese propaganda posters he created during the war.

A racist wartime propaganda poster illustrated by Dr. Seuss, showing Japanese Americans as a fifth column trying to destroy America from within

Looking at the books today, it is difficult to connect the racist posters with the compassionate children’s book author. During the war, Dr. Seuss rejected any personal criticism, claiming at the time – “If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs”. After the war, he had a complete change of heart, and this led to the creation of one of his most beloved books.

In 1953, Life Magazine invited Dr. Seuss to visit Japan in order to write about the effects of the war on Japanese children. Accompanied by the Dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto, the beloved children’s illustrator and author traveled around Japan and met with the country’s children. He asked the children to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. These drawings made a great impact on him and when he returned to the U.S., he expressed his deep regret for the biased image of the Japanese he had helped to instill during the war.

He chose to express this remorse in the best way he knew: an illustrated book titled Horton Hears a Who!, which tells the story of Horton the elephant, who attempts to save the tiny town of Whoville, which rests on a speck of dust. As in his previous book on Horton, the elephant’s efforts encounter slander and giggles from his animal friends. When some of them attempt to harm Whoville, Horton and the mayor band together to rescue it. The book contains subtle hints and references to World War II.  The most notable example is the black-bottomed eagle that drops the tiny of town of Whoville from the sky —a clear allusion to the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan.

The original cover of Horton Hears a Who!


Dr. Seuss’s humanistic spirit is expressed in the most famous sentence from the book: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

The book was adapted for the cinema a number of times and is still considered one of Dr. Seuss’s most loved and well-known books. Dr. Seuss himself is still one of the most beloved and popular children’s authors in the world. His books offer a combination of humor, intelligence, and love for humankind. At a time when artists and creators are (rightly) judged for their ideas and actions, the case of Dr. Seuss and his treatment of the Japanese reminds us that – a person’s a person — and a writer’s character is sometimes more complex than that which is portrayed to their readers through their books. So, the next time you read Dr. Seuss, remember that change can happen only when we want it to. While fear can lead to hatred, the way to overcome it is through love, compassion, and understanding of those who are different from you.

The Pope and Haman in Renaissance Italy

The only known manuscript of The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV is at the National Library in Jerusalem...

Like the traditional Purim story, The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV recounts a terrible period in Jewish Italian history, as well as an ultimate redemption from tyranny.

Purim is undoubtedly a time of joy. It is the time set to celebrate Queen Esther and the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from the hands of the evil Haman. People wear costumes, give food and drink to friends and neighbors, eat the traditional hamantaschen. People attend comical Purimshpil performances and raucous Adloyada parades.

However, Purim is much more than that: it is a time to defy evil and pursue social justice. In addition to donating charity to the poor, Jews observe the commandment of reading the Scroll of Esther (the “megillah“) aloud, so that everyone will know about Haman’s downfall, when he was hanged with his sons on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai the Jew.

Puppets representing Haman and his ten sons on the gallows near the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, 2021 (Photo: Martina Mampieri)

The image of Haman has been one of the most common epithets used to identify the contemporary enemies of the Jews over the centuries, including Pope Gregory I, Tsar Alexander III, Adolf Hitler, and Yasser Arafat.

The Hebrew chronicle Divre ha-yamim shel ha-apifior Paolo ha-revi’i ha-niqra Teatino (The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the Theatine) also features Haman. The work is contained in a nineteenth-century manuscript in Italian cursive script, today held at the National Library of Israel. No other examples of the work, including the original, are known.

The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the Theatine was formerly owned by German collector Sigmund Nauheim of Frankfurt (1874-1935), who bequeathed his collection of manuscripts and books to the Jewish National and University Library, today’s National Library of Israel. From the National Library of Israel collection (Ms. Heb. 8°984)

The author of this remarkable work was the moneylender Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan (also known in Italian as Guglielmo di Diodato), whose family had settled down in the city of Civitanova in the March of Ancona, after the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdom of Naples in 1540-41.

The chronicle retraces the four years of Pope Paul IV’s pontificate (1555-59), which caused a radical change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jews. Soon after rising to power, the pope, whose given name was Gian Pietro Carafa, unleashed a number of cruel impositions and restrictions. They were published in the July 1555 papal bull known as Cum nimis absurdum, and included the establishment of ghettos and the requirement that Jews wear yellow badges.

Painting by Palma il Giovane of Paul IV handing down a statute, ca. 1587 (Public domain)

Under the rule of Paul IV – the former cardinal-inquisitor, who, among other things, played a fundamental role in the burning of the Talmud in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome in 1553 – the Roman Inquisition was substantially expanded and strengthened.

In 1556, one of the darkest chapters in the history of Italy Jewry was written when twenty-six Portuguese Jews, who had been baptized in Portugal in the late fifteenth century and who then returned to Judaism after moving to Italy, were declared heretics and burned at the stake in Ancona.

In 1559, the same Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan, his brother Samuel, and four other Jews from Civitanova were arrested by the Roman Inquisition, accused of having tried to convert a Franciscan friar to Judaism and having thrown stones at certain sacred Christian images. The chronicler recounts that a number of slanderers were behind the accusations, including Aharon ben Menaḥem, a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity and became known as Giovan Battista Buonamici.

Benjamin compares this apostate to the evil Haman, because like the latter, he used his eloquent manner of speaking to destroy the Jews. According to the account:

“…in the first days of his conversion, he made himself seem like a man who loved the people of Israel […] but his heart was full of abominations, then he became an enemy of the Jews and injured them with his speech. He was an evil man and an enemy like Haman who used his speech in a deceitful manner.”

This is not Benjamin’s only mention of Haman. Indeed, Benjamin associates Haman with the pope’s nephew and counsellor, Cardinal Carlo Carafa, who, in another passage of the chronicle, is accused of committing murders, raping virgins, steeling goods and perpetrating other shameful deeds.

Portrait of Cardinal Carlo Carafa in Receuil d’Arras, a 16th century collection of portraits copied by Jacques de Boucq (Public domain)

In the chronicle, Benjamin recounts the cardinal arriving at his dead uncle’s bedside, and curses the two evil men with clear reference to the death of Haman and his sons on the gallows: “Both of their burning bodies may be hung on a tree and their souls roasted in the fire!”

Echoing the story of Haman’s downfall, following Paul IV’s death, his successor arrested Carlo Carafa and dragged him through the streets of the Vatican. Moreover, there was a custom to free prisoners following the death of a pope, and so Benjamin and other Jews were released from the Inquisition prisons. According to his own account, Benjamin and his compatriots went to meet the Duke of Civitanova to ask for his permission return home. He granted their request and before they returned to Civitanova, they witnessed the destruction of the previous pope’s statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The manuscript generally depicts Paul IV as evil, and even something of a devil, with the author often cursing him and including him “in the company of the evil”, along with Balaam – the non-Israelite prophet who cursed the people of Israel (Numbers 22-24). Benjamin also links Paul IV to Amalek, the eternal enemies of the Israelites who were first encountered during the forty-year trek in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt, and who, according to tradition, were among Haman’s ancestors. In the biblical account, Amalek’s attack was the first war Israel experienced, and the victory marked a shift in the history of the Jewish people. God ordered Moses to “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14).

In this sense, the writing of a detailed chronicle on the “evil pope” and his reign was perceived by Benjamin as a moral commandment. Like the Scroll of Esther, The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV narrates the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from the evil plots of their enemies, who are ultimately defeated.


Martina Mampieri is the author of Living Under the Evil Pope: The Hebrew Chronicle of Pope Paul IV by Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan from Civitanova Marche (16th cent.), published in 2020 by Brill.

This article has been published 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.

Poems and Stories by the Jewish Children of Kharkiv, Ukraine

A booklet labeled “The Lives of Children”, preserved at the National Library of Israel, contains Hebrew stories and poems written a century ago by Jewish high school students in Ukraine

Cover page of the booklet “The Lives of Children” composed by students at the Tarbut high school in Kharkiv

The National Library of Israel’s Rare Items Collection contains a special booklet of poems and stories written by boys and girls in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, ahead of the Passover holiday in the year 1920.

A language in the process of revival needs speakers, young speakers most of all: nursery, kindergarten and school age children, who will grow up speaking the language fluently and freely. Apart from speakers, such a language also needs tools for teaching it, and the main early tool developed by the Zionist movement to teach its young followers Hebrew was a compilation of stories, songs, poems, and rhymes. In 1887, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and David Yellin published the first Hebrew “Reader for Jewish Children” (המקראה לילדי ישראל).

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century and until after World War II, teachers, students, and writers contributed hundreds of original Hebrew texts for the benefit of the young learners in the many Hebrew schools established in Europe. It was a huge project in both its scope and importance, and yet, anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows that even that it is not enough.

The first stage in language learning is passive absorption; the second stage is practice. The booklet “The Lives of Children” is a vivid example of this second stage: the transition from reading to writing, from passive absorption to spontaneous creation. The truth is that students of the “Tarbut” school (tarbut is Hebrew for “Culture”) in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine could not have chosen a more appropriate theme for their reader: the renewal of spring and the commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery to freedom on Passover.

The Tarbut organization, which aimed to establish a network of Hebrew schools across Eastern Europe, was founded only three years before the publication of the booklet, in April 1917, in Moscow. It was a fateful year that saw the fall of the tsar and which ended with the establishment of the Bolshevik government, hostile to both Zionism and the Hebrew language. Following the Russian Civil War and especially due to the Bolsheviks’ anti-Zionist policy, the Tarbut organization was forced to close its Moscow headquarters and start again from scratch in Kiev, Odessa, and Krakow in mid-1918. At first, Tarbut’s Ukrainian branch received short-term funding from the independent Ukrainian government, but this ended when the communists took over that country as well. It also spelled the end for the short-lived flourishing of Hebrew in Ukraine. The booklet from the Tarbut school in Kharkiv was published during that small window.

The booklet “The Lives of Children” offers us a glimpse into the world of Kharkiv’s Jewish children in their own words, in clear and elegant Hebrew. Each piece of prose or poetry is accompanied by the writer’s name, and all the writings, as mentioned, deal with the coming of spring and the festival of Passover. It is in fact a collection of “songs, stories, memories, impressions, and imaginings,” by first and second division Tarbut students. From the texts, it is clear that these are not first or second graders, but most likely boys and girls around the age of 14 or 15.

Following the table of contents is an illustration of a peaceful landscape with the caption, “On the shores of the Dnieper”— that is the Dnieper River, which flows from Russia through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea.


The first work is a poem by Daniel Prakhabmek called Winter is Over. The poem is even dated – 5th of Nisan, 1920:


Winter is over, the cold is gone,

The universe is filled with joy.

The southerly winds slowly blow

Repairing a gloomy soul.


Young sun, spring sun,

Shining in the sky,

Casting a wealth of light on the Earth,

Blinding eyes.


The naked trees,

Are awakened again,

The noisy city,

Dons a new face.


Everything is joyful, alive, and glowing,

The spirit of spring washes over all

Happy are the tall buildings,

Crowned by high mountains.


Still, there remains a glassy film of ice,

Over the swamps, over the streams,

Still, the trees are bare,

The leaves not yet budded.


The birds not yet returned,

Singing their joyful songs,

But spring is already felt,

In every corner and square.


The sky has changed

The sea foam is different,

And spring is already seeping,

Into the depths of the soul.


This is not the world,

This is not as the heights of Creation,

Everything is alive, fresh, happy

Everything returns to life!



Student Sarah Aspel writes about trees blooming in spring:


How awful is winter’s great cold

How beautiful spring’s pleasant winds,

The trees, have you seen, how beautiful they are in the spring,

In winter, they stood, mourning and asleep,

And here, spring is come, they have woken, risen,

They begin to look around, around,

-“Thank God, winter is over!”

The trees begin to whisper among themselves

-“Now we will grow with the coming of spring!”


After nine poems devoted to the end of winter, the coming of spring and the Passover celebrations, comes the first in a series of stories. Eliezer Aharonov writes about preparations for Passover:

In our house, work is at full speed. All the members of our household are preparing for the great holiday, the Feast of the Redemption of Israel, which is Passover. My father takes the Haggadot from the closet, my mother and aunt turn over the rooms, clean the tables, chairs, and beds: I wanted to help them but mother shoos me out for a walk. I went outside, the air was clear, the sky was pure and as if the whole world had cleansed itself, to meet the great feast. And here is my sister calling me in for lunch. How hard it was for me to leave the shore and go home, but I comforted myself with this thought: maybe my mother would let me go out after lunch. I went home, ate, and went out again. It’s hard to describe what pleasure I felt in that moment!!!

In all the stories (with one exception), the writer is also the main character, and many make mention of the authors’ parents, especially the mothers. Eliezer’s mother sent him for a walk outside so he wouldn’t interfere with the cleaning, while Chaim Sheingald’s story begins with a question he asks his mother: “Why is it bright today? Why are there no clouds like yesterday?”

Contrary to the Zionist myth that the Diaspora Jew was disengaged from his or her surroundings, it is clear that the students in Kharkiv feel an affinity for the nature around them. They experience spring as a vivid and glorious time of the year, a time of incredible changes and beautiful transformations. The cold departs and the rain clouds give way to the warming sun. To these young poets and writers, the association of burgeoning nature with the approaching Passover holiday is clear.


How wonderful to read and reflect on these scenes from the lives of Jewish children in Ukraine—not for the distance in time (more than a century has passed), but rather for the similarity between the students who lived and wrote Hebrew a hundred years ago and the children we were once ourselves. Who cannot relate to the scene of sitting in the classroom and feeling that itch for the school day to end? To finally be released into the great outdoors to roam about in freedom…As David Lomzov writes in his story, “Spring is Come”:

I’m lying in my bed. I’m already awake, but I don’t understand why the light has such a reddish hue? I opened my eyes and here was the sun warming me while I lay on my bed! Happily, I jumped across the bed and saw: the little snow that remained had melted. Spring is come! A thought crossed my mind what a wonderful word is spring! How many thoughts it conjures in my heart! I’ll go to the parks, maybe we’ll go to summer camp, I’ll pick mushrooms, and walnuts and more and more…

I took my book and went to school with a happy face, where I met the cheerful faces of my friends. “Maybe we should go on an excursion today?” one child said to me. Suddenly the bell sounds and I run to our classroom. There they explain all sorts of lovely things and we are not at all interested in the things they are explaining to us, and we pretend to listen, but our hearts are outside.


Most of the texts share three main locations: The home – where preparations for Passover are taking place and the Seder night is celebrated; The outdoors – where nature is awakening from its winter hibernation; the synagogue – where the community meets together with the rabbi. Some of the stories, such as the one above, mention a fourth location as well – the classroom.

So, how did Kharkiv’s children spend their Passover? The evidence certainly shows that not much has changed, which is what is so beautiful and moving. Mordechai Halevi Izgur writes:

A few days before Passover, my mother and I carried our Passover utensils to our cousin, because we celebrated the holiday with him in his house. There they began to prepare the utensils and clean the rooms. At nine o’clock in the morning on the eve of Passover, we hurried to eat the chametz [leavened bread] and remove what remained from the house. In a word: we tried to make “Passover” in all the rooms.


Most of the passages in the booklet were written by boys, but Hannah Brik’s story is unique in that it is included in the section called “Imaginings.” This is the only text not written in the first person. The protagonist is little Sarah, who, feeling tired on the eve of Passover, falls asleep just before her father returns from synagogue.

Sarah proceeds to dream of a joyful venture into the forest – she joins the birds in song as time passes among the trees. Later, as evening falls in the dream, Sarah’s mood shifts – “My old tree,” she sadly asks one of her woodland companions, “where is my home?” – “I know not,” the tree replies, “go and ask the birds”. Yet the birds are unable to help as well. Just as Sarah breaks down in anguish, she is awoken by her mother’s kisses, urging her to rise from her bed and come to the Passover table. Father has returned…

We cannot do justice in such a short space to the writings of all the students at the Tarbut school in Kharkiv. But we are happy to tell that the entire booklet has been scanned and uploaded to the National Library of Israel website as part of the “450 Years of the Hebrew Book” project. You can read the booklet here. Incidentally, this booklet is numbered 12, which means that there were at least 11 previous booklets, and presumably more.

We conclude with a prayer for the end of the current war in Ukraine and for the quick return of peace and quiet to the region.


Further Reading:

Kenneth B. Moss, Bringing Culture to the Nation: Hebraism, Yiddishism, and the Dilemmas of Jewish Cultural Formation in Russia and Ukraine, 1917-1919, Jewish History 22,3 (2008) 263-294