“The Caine Mutiny”, “The Juggler”, Hemingway – Michael Blankfort and Me

Howard Kaplan looks back on his special relationship with his mentor – legendary Hollywood screenwriter and author, Michael Blankfort

Howard Kaplan (left) and Michael Blankfort (right) during the 1970s

Tuesday night, July 13, 1982. Michael Blankfort died today. Twelve highly acclaimed novels; one biography, theatrical plays; a horde of movies, collaboration on the film version of The Caine Mutiny, adapting the film The Juggler from his novel of the same name, the first Hollywood picture shot in Israel starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor, 1953.  I met Michael in 1973. I had returned from Israel clutching a 300 page manuscript about my travels and arrest in the Soviet Union. I had heard the name Michael Blankfort as a board member when I attended the Brandeis Camp Institute.

The Juggler, 1953

I looked up his number in the phone book. In a rush of nervousness: I was interrogated by the KGB for four days, I had been among the first to meet with the Hebrew teachers in Moscow, told him I’d written a book about my experience and asked if he had time to read it.

“No,” came his response. Then he said, “But I’ll read it anyway.”

That was Michael, he never turned anyone away. The following day I met him in his office. He was 65 and I was 23. For the next nine years we had lunch together about every ten days.

I walked through his world in Beverly Hills that morning in 1982, stood outside the Writers and Artists Building, subsidized by a patron of the arts. It once housed Billy Wilder, Ray Bradbury and Jack Nicholson. An old manual Royal typewriter sat on his desk beneath a cork wall crowded with the pictures and clippings. His row of pipes and classical tapes rested to the right of the paper-strewn desk. Books spilled from the shelves and there was always the volume (or more likely the two) that he was reading at the time, there on the narrow cot against the wall behind his chair.

Though earlier he had shunned art as bourgeois, in the 50s he and his friends started to buy contemporary works they liked and rarely paid more than $100 a painting. Michael’s de Kooning, Montauk Highway, is now on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His hundreds of other works were all bequeathed to LACMA and I was there at the preview reception in March 1982. I did not appreciate how unique and fabulous my young life was.

Montauk Highway, Willem de Kooning, 1958

Michael lent his precise eye and understanding to everything I wrote. I would leave each of my manuscripts with him, then wait nervously. When he finally called, there were no wasted words. Either there would be praise or he would say quietly, “I’ve read your material. You better come over.” When that happened, I knew as I grabbed a notebook and pen that I would be out of trouble before the long lunch was over — he would exhaust himself repairing my work during the time he should have been resting from his own.

Always lunch. Unlike many people who listed their office numbers and held their homes sacrosanct, Michael did the opposite. The day I looked him up in the phone book, I found only his home number. He thought he wouldn’t be disturbed as much with his office unlisted. It didn’t work. The phone rang constantly and with a humanity I came to be in awe of, he made time for everyone. There was a different name scribbled in pen every day at 12:45 in his little appointment book. In addition to me, there was an entire stable of young writers he helped.

An elegant, dashing man, with a moustache and a full head of wavy gray hair, Michael was always ebullient and full of humor. He had a breadth of spirit: there was nothing small or petty about him, something I only partially achieve as I’m inclined to dream of revenge though I don’t pursue it. And perhaps most of all, he was a lover — of people, and especially of women. The eyes of the maître d’ at the Swiss Café lit up when he came through the door; he always had a few moments to smile that huge smile of his and talk to her.

He transformed Mrs. Kramer, a little old lady who owned a tobacco shop near his office, into a young, beautiful woman with all his attention and the way he flirted with her. He went to see her every day, and if he didn’t need anything, he’d buy a candy bar or some gum. But most importantly was Dorothy — Dossy — his wife, partner, companion. He discussed everything with her and made no major moves without her counsel.

Once he took me to see The Juggler (Columbia Pictures 1953), screened as part of a Film Festival at UCLA. He was in a wonderful mood, bear-hugging friends as he always did though a little nervous; he had not seen the movie in over twenty years. I watched Kirk Douglas, as a German juggler, the toast of Berlin who believes he won’t be touched by the Nazis, a concentration camp survivor running through the streets of Haifa, unable at first to accept either his new homeland or what had happened to him.

Afterwards Michael told me that he had been set to direct the picture but the McCarthy hunters had taken his passport. The only part of the movie he saw filmed was the scene of a hora danced around a fire shot in a Hollywood backlot.

Michael’s fiction is a remarkably eclectic yet cohesive body of work. The Brave and the Blind (1940) about the Spanish Civil War which Hemingway panned in a national review and then apologized years later to Michael saying it was a great novel and he had been worried it would eclipse the coming For Whom The Bells Toll. The Strong Hand (1956) about the dead hand that holds back change when an Orthodox rabbi falls in love with a woman whose husband has been killed over the Pacific but not declared legally dead; I Didn’t Know I Would Live So Long (1973) about an out of fashion painter who leaves his marriage and then returns; Take the A Train (1978) about a Jewish boy who befriends a charismatic black con man from who he learns honor.

The day before the accident, Michael came to my Third Annual 30th Birthday Party. In the nine years we had known each other, it was the first time he visited my home. Two years before he had forgotten my (first) 30th birthday party (the second was never held) and called the following morning. He had remembered as he went to bed, and upset, had lain awake much of the night. He wanted to apologize and asked if I would forgive him.

He had finished his new novel on Saturday, the day before the party, and was rereading it. On Monday, he took it home with him as he did each night, stood near the bottom of his steep driveway, the manuscript in one hand, the garage door clicker in the other, pushed the button, lost his balance and toppled backwards. All six feet of him. Unable to break the fall, his head crashed into the cement. Neighbors across the street immediately called the paramedics, then ran to the house to get Dorothy. Though bleeding, Michael was still alert. They exchanged a few words and she kissed him on the lips, twice. He went into surgery, then into a coma and never regained consciousness. The world lost a treasure.


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Graffiti in Budapest: The Mystery of Renée Nadler

A young girl, her soccer star brother, tragedy and the unknown

In June 2018, I started a project called “Budapest Téglái” (“The Bricks of Budapest”) to document old graffiti on the walls of Hungary’s capital. People used to write their names, sometimes dates and even short stories on the buildings in which they lived, worked or even just passed by, often offering enough information to identify them and begin exploring their stories. These prewar works of graffiti left written on the walls of Budapest are my favorite signs from the past to discover.

In the early 1900s, Budapest’s Place de Berlin – now known as Nyugati tér – was home to numerous Jewish businesses (Publisher: Divald Karoly György Monostory; from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

One of my favorite spots to find old graffiti is the Anker Palace (Anker-palota in Hungarian), a huge building located in Terézváros, the 6th district of Budapest. The Anker Palace was designed by the architect Ignác Alpár and built in 1908. Many Jews bought or rented flats in this huge building located in the center of the city. Of the people who lived there before the war, the most famous was probably Léopold Szondi, the psychiatrist who developed the Szondi test and fate analysis.

Budapest’s Anker Palace today (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)


Looking down into the Anker Palace (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

When I see this old graffiti, I always wonder about who the people were who wrote it and what happened to them. During my last visit to the Anker Palace, I found graffiti left by a girl called Renée Nadler who used to live there.

Renee Nadler’s “graffiti” on the Anker Palace in Budapest (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

I did some research using various databases and I managed to find some information about her. Like many of the Anker’s inhabitants, the Nadlers were Jews. Her father, Izsák, made and sold suitcases and passed away in 1935. Her Mother, Roza Acht, was the daughter of Lazar Acht, a tailor from Lemberg (today Lviv in Ukraine) who settled in Budapest in 1902. Renée had 6 siblings: Gizella, Emma, Rozalia, Henrik, Illés and Bertalan.

I found a picture of Renée in an old Hungarian magazine called Szinházi Élet from 1932 where she sent her greetings from the town of Héviz to her friends in Pest:

Renee Nadler sending greetings to her friends (Image from Szinházi Élet magazine, available online through the Hungarian National Library, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Renée had a brother called Henrik. His nickname was “Pubi” and he was a famous football (soccer) player on the MTK football club, with whom he became a 7-time Hungarian champion. The MTK used to be considered to be a “Jewish football club” since most of its founding members and players were Jews. The team still exists.

Soccer star Henrik Nadler during his playing days

Tragically, Henrik was murdered in May 1944 either as a forced laborer in Austria or at the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was not the only MTK football player to be murdered; József Braun, Antal Vágó and Imre Taussig were also victims of the Holocaust.

Renée was very interested in football and she was a supporter of MTK where her brother played. The Sporthirlap newspaper, which specialized in sport, reported on how Henrik, Henrik’s wife and Renée had some passionate debates about the performances of certain football players while riding the 38 line tram in June 1933.

Henrik’s murder was not the only tragedy to strike the Nadler family. Renée lost a second brother, Illés Nadler, who was also murdered during the Holocaust. Renée’s sister, Gizella, wrote to all leading Hungarian newspapers in 1945 in order to find more information about Henrik and Illés’ fates.

Unfortunately, I could not find much information about the fate of Renée. It seems that she probably survived the Holocaust and married a man named Árpád Weisz. Her husband was a leather trader and he changed his name to “Varga”. They apparently left Hungary and settled in Israel or the United States.

It is incredible to see how simple graffiti written by a little girl in the 1920s helps us explore the past and honor the memory of people who where murdered and suffered during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this old graffiti is endangered, with much of it disappearing when the buildings are renovated. I do my best to document it while we can, posting the results of my research on the Budapest téglái (in Hungarian) or Buildings Tell Tales (in English) Facebook pages.


Anyone with information about Renée or the rest of the Nadler family is invited to email: buildingstelltales@gmail.com.

This article has been published 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.


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The Jews Who Treated the Hindenburg Survivors

The little-known story of two immigrant professionals who acted quickly after the Nazi airship disaster

The Hindenburg disaster, May 6, 1937 (Public Domain / Gus Pasquarella)

The pride of Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg — officially designated LZ-129 Hindenburg — was the biggest commercial airship ever built, and, at the time, the most technologically advanced. It was 803.8 feet (ca. 245 meters) in length and 135.1 feet (ca. 41 meters) in diameter. It was more than three times larger than a Boeing 747, and four times the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Four engines powered the Hindenburg and it could reach cruising speeds of 76 mph (ca. 122 km/h) with a maximum speed of 84 mph (135 km/h).

The Hindenburg featured 72 passenger beds in heated cabins, a silk-wallpapered dining room, lounge, writing room, bar, smoking room, and promenades with windows that could be opened in-flight. Special precautions were taken to ensure that the smoking room was safe, including a double-door airlock to keep hydrogen from entering.

The Hindenburg was named for former German Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934). It took its first flight in March 1936, and flew 63 times, primarily from Germany to North and South America.

The recently launched Hindenburg over the Zeppelinfield in Nuremberg, Germany (Public Domain / Bulgarian Archives State Agency). Click image to enlarge

The Hindenburg was already under construction when the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933. The Third Reich saw the Zeppelin as a symbol of German strength, as the Hindenburg was partly owned by the government and partly owned by the Zeppelin Company, its creators. Giant swastikas were painted on its tail fins. The German minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, ordered the Hindenburg to embark on a propaganda mission early on, before the ship’s endurance tests had even been completed. For four days, it flew around Germany, blasting patriotic songs and dropping pro-Hitler leaflets.

After opening its 1937 season, by completing a single round-trip passage to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in late March, the Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt, Germany on the evening of May 3. It was the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States that were scheduled for its second year of commercial service. American Airlines had contracted with the operators of the Hindenburg to shuttle the passengers from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Newark, New Jersey for connections to airplane flights.

Except for strong headwinds that slowed its progress, the Atlantic crossing of the Hindenburg was otherwise uneventful, until the airship attempted an early-evening landing at Lakehurst three days later on May 6. Although carrying only half of its full capacity of passengers for the accident flight, the return flight, which never happened, had been fully booked. Many of the passengers with tickets to Germany were planning to attend the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London the following week.

The Hindenburg’s first landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1936 (Public Domain / Wide World Photos/Minneapolis Sunday Tribune). Click image to enlarge

The airship was hours behind schedule when it passed over Boston on the morning of May 6, and its landing at Lakehurst was expected to be further delayed because of afternoon thunderstorms. Advised of the poor weather conditions at Lakehurst, Captain Max Pruss charted a course over Manhattan Island, causing a public spectacle as people rushed out into the street to catch sight of the airship.

After passing over the field at 4:00 p.m., Captain Pruss took passengers on a tour over the seaside of New Jersey while waiting for the weather to clear. After finally being notified at 6:22 p.m. that the storms had passed, Pruss directed the airship back to Lakehurst to make its landing almost half a day late.

At 7:25 p.m., the Hindenburg caught fire and exploded during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, filling the sky with smoke and fire. On board were 97 people (36 passengers and 61 crewmen). There were 36 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen), as well as one ground crewman, a civilian linesman.

The massive airship’s tail with its Nazi symbol fell to the ground, while its nose, hundreds of feet long, rose into the air like a breaching whale. It turned to ashes in less than a minute. Some passengers and crewmembers jumped dozens of feet to safety while others burned. Despite the sheer ferocity of the colossal fire, 62 of the crew members and passengers survived, but most of them were severely burned.

The majority of the victims were burnt to death, while others died jumping from the airship at an excessive height, or as a consequence of either smoke inhalation or falling debris. Immediate survivors were taken with broken bones and burns to the small, 40-bed, Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood, New Jersey, eight miles (13 kilometers) away, which was overwhelmed by the number of patients.

A passenger of the Hindenburg sheds his burning clothing as he is helped away from the wreckage of the airship (Public Domain / Acme News Photos)

Treating the Hindenburg patients, regardless of Nazi party affiliation or religion, was prominent Lakewood physician, Adolph Towbin, M.D. (1888-1966), a Jewish immigrant from Kaments-Podolski, Ukraine. Dr. Towbin arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15 in 1903, and had graduated from Fordham University Medical School in 1916. After an internship at Flushing Hospital in New York, he was drafted into the army and assigned to Lakewood, New Jersey in 1918 as WWI soldiers were being treated at the Laurel in the Pines Hotel, following poison gas injuries. He liked Lakewood so much, he decided to stay and open up his medical practice after the war.

Dr. Adolph Towbin, prominent Jewish physician who treated the survivors (Courtesy: Phil Goldfarb)

The treatment at the time for burns, malaria, herpes, and smallpox, was picric acid, as it was an astringent and antiseptic. With the number of patients being treated, the hospital quickly ran out of picric acid, gauze, bandages, and other medical supplies. Dr. Towbin immediately called his best friend and relative by marriage, pharmacist Max Gitow, R.Ph. (1894-1973), the owner of Lakewood Pharmacy, to bring him all that he had in stock.

Max Gitow, RPh, Jewish owner of the nearby Lakewood Pharmacy, who provided critical supplies to treat the injured (Courtesy: Phil Goldfarb)

Gitow, (whose original name was Moishe Gitovich), was another Jewish immigrant, from Mogilev, Belarus, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1904. He had graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1913 at the age of 18, and his father, who was also a pharmacist in Belarus and later in Ukraine, had purchased Lakewood Pharmacy in April 1914. He personally brought over the needed supplies to the hospital 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away and stayed to see if he could be of assistance. It was these two Jewish professional men whose quick actions helped save the lives of numerous German (several of whom were Nazis) and non-German Hindenburg passengers.

At the time, the Hindenburg was supposed to be ushering in a new age of airship travel, but the crash instead brought the age to an abrupt end, making way for the era of passenger airplanes. The crash was the first massive technological disaster caught on film, and the scene became embedded in the public’s consciousness.

The actual site of the Hindenburg crash is marked with a chain-outlined pad and bronze plaque where the airship’s gondola landed. It was dedicated on May 6, 1987, the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Hangar No. 1, which still stands, is where the airship was to be housed after landing. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1968.


Special thanks to David Richmand, M.D., of Plainfield, New Jersey, the maternal grandson of Dr. Adolph Towbin, who provided input for this article. Max Gitow, R.Ph., was the maternal grandfather of the author.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 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.


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New Effort Launched to Identify and Catalogue Every Hebrew Book in Italy for First Time Ever

Some 35,000 volumes from dozens of communities and institutions across the country will be included

A ground breaking collaborative effort to create a unified listing of all Hebrew books in Italy for the first time ever has been announced by The Union of Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI), the Rome National Central Library (BNCR), and the National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem. The “I-Tal-Ya Books” initiative is being made possible through the support of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.

Jewish communities have existed in Italy for more than two millennia and over the centuries it has played a critical role in global Jewish history, particularly as a significant center for manuscript production and printing.

Today in Italy, thousands of uncatalogued rare Hebrew books dating back hundreds of years are held among collections belonging to local Jewish communities, as well as libraries owned by the state, the Italian Church Institutions (CEI) and the Vatican.

Some of the collections have been partially catalogued; however, there is no single integrated and standardized listing of these holdings and so while many of these books have significant historical importance and hold tremendous potential for scholars, they are often difficult if not impossible to find.

The “I-Tal-Ya Books” initiative will ensure the protection, preservation and provision of access to these cultural treasures as never before using technology developed specifically for the project. The Union of Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI) will oversee the project, with the Rome National Central Library (BNCR) hosting the catalogue, and the National Library of Israel (NLI) providing the relevant training, support and expertise related to Hebrew books.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel commented: “As the national library for both the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, we are honored to partner in the I-Tal-Ya Books initiative, sharing our expertise with colleagues in order to help identify and catalogue thousands of texts that would otherwise essentially be lost to history.”

An initial pilot phase has just concluded, and the full-scale project starting now will include an estimated 35,000 volumes from 14 Jewish communities and 25 state institutions. It will take approximately three years to complete.


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