Book Diplomacy: Curt Wormann and the International Librarians

How the former director of the National Library of Israel played a key role in the "book diplomacy" of the 1950s and 60s...

Curt Wormann, former director of the Jewish National and University Library, is seen in the back row of this group photo (2nd from the right), along with directors of national libraries from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, among others. November, 1961, the Curt Wormann Archives at the National Library of Israel.

In November of 1961, at the peak of the Cold War, librarians from all over the world came to New York to take their seats in the United Nations Plenary Hall. It was as if the international body’s diplomats had been supplanted by an assortment of bookish types from the four corners of the Earth. Among those gathered was Curt Wormann, the longtime director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. His archives allow an insight into the role played by a handful of leading international Librarians in the cultural politics of the 1950s and 1960s. But they also reveal another story: the internationalization and professionalization of Israeli librarianship against the backdrop of Cold War politics.

Essays and Studies in Librarianship: Presented to Curt David Wormann on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, edited by M. Nadav, J. Rothschild, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1975

But why did Curt Wormann and his colleagues from around the world travel to the United Nations in 1961? Among the hundreds of folders which can be found in the Wormann archives, there is one that contains documents and letters relating to the event at UN Headquarters in 1961. Let’s take a closer look at one of these letters, a typewritten carbon copy: At first glance, the document seems like a polite everyday exchange between colleagues: On December 19th, 1961, Curt Wormann wrote a letter to his colleague Josef Stummvoll, the director of the United Nations Library in New York.

As Wormann was formulating his letter, a year of heightened tensions between East and West  was coming to a close: The Berlin Wall was erected in August, and by October, American and Soviet tanks sat facing each other in the center of the divided city. Not far away from the place that would later become the borderline dividing East and West, in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, a young Curt Wormann had begun his career as a librarian in the 1920s. By 1926, he was already director of the district library. Born into a German-Jewish Family in 1900, Curt Wormann devoted his professional life to the development of public libraries and higher education during the years of the Weimar Republic. But when the Nazis came to power, he was forced into retirement, losing his position as a result of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”. Shortly after, he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, together with his wife, the physician Dr. Carola Gottheil, and worked as a librarian at the Shaar Zion Public Library in Tel Aviv. Although his career had been violently interrupted by the Nazi regime, he soon gained a reputation within German-Jewish intellectual and cultural circles. In 1947, he was appointed director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem (today’s National Library of Israel). In this position, he would not only play a major role in gathering Jewish cultural treasures in Israel as part of “The Politics of Restitution”, he would also travel the world as Israel’s leading book diplomat.

Wormann’s letter to Dr. Josef Stummvoll, director of the UN Library, written on December 19th, 1961; the Curt Wormann Archive at the National Library of Israel, click to enlarge

In December 1961, Curt Wormann had just returned to his office in Jerusalem from New York, where he had taken part in an international librarians’ symposium on the occasion of the opening of the newly constructed United Nations Library building. With his letter to the UN Library director Josef Stummvoll, Wormann wanted to express his gratitude and appreciation “for the hospitality I enjoyed during my stay in New York as a guest of the United Nations” and “the possibility of taking part in the Symposium”. Indeed, thirty leading librarians from all over the world had been invited personally by the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to attend the Librarians’ Symposium dealing with librarianship and the UN Library’s role in international relations. When Curt Wormann received the invitation in Jerusalem, he immediately and happily accepted, replying with a telegram. Tragically, a few weeks before the library’s opening ceremony, Secretary-General Hammarskjöld, in office since 1953, died in a plane crash in Africa. The international librarians were deeply saddened, but decided to proceed as planned. They dedicated the new building to Dag Hammarskjöld, who had closely followed the construction of the new library building and who was also known as an ardent book collector. Thus, Curt Wormann addressed his letter of December 19th to Dr. Josef Stummvoll, the director of the “Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations”.

Curt Wormann (center) enjoying a meeting with international colleagues, November, 1961; the Curt Wormann Archive at the National Library of Israel

The UN Library’s new building fulfilled all the requirements of a modern library, and was financed by the Ford Foundation. Thus, both the building and the symposium reflect the globalization of librarianship after World War II within the framework of international cultural politics under American auspices. Knowledge, information, education, and thus libraries, as key infrastructure, were understood to represent a competitive advantage during the Cold War. Curt Wormann’s correspondence with Josef Stummvoll and other international colleagues, mainly from Europe and the United States, allow deep insight into their thought processes and roles as agents in the international cultural politics of the early Cold War era. In his letter to Josef Stummvoll, Curt Wormann described the New York UN Symposium as a “demonstration of world librarianship and a really important event in the development of international cooperation in our profession”. Indeed, this “world librarianship” – to use Wormann’s accurate description – was a network of leading international librarians who contributed to the internationalization and professionalization of librarianship through organizations like the United Nations or UNESCO. Founded in 1945, UNESCO defined its goal as – “contributing to the preservation of peace and security by promoting cooperation between peoples in education, science and culture […]”. Thus, Curt Wormann and his colleagues from the Jewish National and University Library and the Hebrew University perceived the membership of the young state of Israel in UNESCO since 1949 as a means of diplomacy in both external and internal politics. This included establishing and maintaining communication with other countries through UNESCO, developing librarianship in Israel through international cooperation, and defending the JNUL’s interests, mainly concerning the book collections which remained on Mount Scopus (an Israeli controlled enclave which was surrounded by Jordanian territory until the Six Day War of 1967).

However, UNESCO’s stated aim of overcoming cultural boundaries revealed its limitations during preparations for yet another important meeting of librarians, in 1958. As part of the UNESCO program, an international symposium on the role of national libraries was to take place in Vienna, where Josef Stummvoll served as director of the Austrian National Library (before his appointment as director of the UN Library). However, the UNESCO symposium in Vienna in 1958 was intended exclusively for librarians from European countries. Israel was excluded for geographical reasons and this made Curt Wormann’s participation impossible. However, Josef Stummvoll insisted on Wormann’s participation in a letter written to Luther Evans, the director-general of UNESCO, who also knew Wormann personally. In his letter, Stummvoll did not only describe Curt Wormann’s expertise in questions of librarianship, but he also underlined the truly European background of the German émigré who had started his career as the head of the public library in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stummvoll’s intervention was a success and the UNESCO officials were convinced: Wormann was invited to the conference as an external expert. His conference report, National Libraries in our Time, which was published in Libri, the scholarly journal edited by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), contributed much to Wormann’s international reputation.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations in 2010, image credit: Gryffindor

While the meeting of European librarians in Vienna strengthened the ties between Curt Wormann and Josef Stummvoll, their first contact goes back to the early 1950s. As director of the Austrian National Library, Stummvoll was in contact with the JNUL and responsible for issues of cultural restitution, on which he collaborated mainly with Shlomo Shunami from the JNUL. Last but not least, Josef Stummvoll of Vienna and Berlin-born Curt Wormann shared the same mother tongue. Thus, Wormann could have easily written his grateful letter in German, as he had done with previous letters to Stummvoll. This time, Worman chose to write in English, thus expressing the international character of the United Nations Librarians’ Symposium, as well as that of their own professional and friendly relationship.

Indeed, while the history of librarianship in Mandatory Palestine and Israel is often presented as a history of knowledge transfer by German speaking émigrés, the archives of Curt Wormann depict him as one of the agents of the internationalization, professionalization, and institutionalization of Israeli librarianship during the first twenty years of statehood. In 1968, Wormann’s term as director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem came to an end, a role in which he had served as an agent of “cultural internationalism” (see the work of Akira Iriye). Even afterwards, he continued to be involved in international librarian associations and to further the cause of Israeli librarianship. He died in 1991. His personal archives are preserved in the library to which he dedicated his life’s work, waiting to be explored.

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.


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How Israel Overcame the Polio Epidemic of the 1950s

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk announced the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug in the battle against polio, but he would soon meet resistance…

Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

In 1921, during a family vacation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began developing alarming medical symptoms. At first, the 39-year-old attorney began suffering from debilitating back pains. After that, he experienced nausea and uncontrollable tremors, as well as a burning fever. He was bedridden for weeks. From day to day, he felt he was gradually losing the ability to move his feet. The doctor called to the scene provided a diagnosis that would accompany Roosevelt for the rest of his life: a severe case of polio, a disease that ravaged the entire East Coast of the United States during that fatal summer.

Although the future President of the United States was perhaps the most famous victim of polio in history, this disease had been plaguing humanity for thousands of years. First identified in 1789, it wasn’t until the twentieth century – when repeated polio outbreaks claimed thousands of victims – that a Jewish-American physician named Jonas Salk managed to develop the first-ever vaccine for the devastating virus.

Salk’s Vaccine Is Revealed

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk published a radio-advertisement announcing the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug, which he hoped could soon be developed into an effective vaccine for polio.

But after publishing his results, Salk’s work was met with derision and ridicule. His idea of injecting the “killed” polio virus (as opposed to simply weakened strains) into the bodies of children and adults initially seemed too bold – it was believed to be impossible to implement. Many doctors and researchers were quick to declare that the tailor’s son from Manhattan was nothing but an over-enthusiastic young scientist at best, a charlatan and crook at worst.

Salk chose to ignore the criticism. He felt that he couldn’t convey the significance of the vaccine using the conventional method – publishing his results in academic papers in order to convince the scientific community of the validity of his theories. Instead, Salk worked six days a week, 16 hours a day, to put his theories into practice. As he neared the breakthrough he’d hoped for, he searched for funding for the clinical trials that would prove his daring theory.


Dr. Jonas Edward Salk working to find a polio vaccine, photo from the 1950s

Although two of his employees in the lab resigned in protest at the “feverish and unreasonable pace” of the experiments, Salk was intent on beginning tests on human patients as quickly as possible. By the end of 1953, more than 7,000 children had received the vaccine. The experiment was beyond successful. After another two million children were vaccinated in one of the largest clinical trials in history, Salk was given permission to inform the American public that he had found a way to overcome the horrible disease. He added that he and his lab were giving up all patent rights – the vaccine they had been working on for years would remain in the public domain.

This was just the news the young state of Israel was waiting for.


The Israeli Vaccine

The news regarding the polio vaccine soon reached Israel and caused much excitement among its concerned citizens. In the summer of 1950, there was a severe outbreak of polio in Israel. Over one thousand children were hospitalized. Many suffered from paralysis, which was one of the most frightening symptoms of the disease. Parents ordered their children to stay at home, summer-camps were shut down, and the Ministry of Health forbade children under the age of ten (the most at-risk age group) from entering various recreational venues and places of business.




Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

At first, the Israeli government tried to buy the vaccine directly from the US, but public outcry prevented it. Many parents claimed it made no sense for the US government to sell vaccines to foreign countries when not all American children had been vaccinated. Therefore, Dr. Natan Goldblum was appointed to produce the vaccine locally in Israel, based on Salk’s methodology. Together with Prof. Tamar Gottlieb, the two doctors recruited a team and set up their laboratory in Jaffa.



Working to produce the polio vaccine in the Yaffa Goldblum lab, November 1956, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

One year later, the vaccine was ready, and by January 1957, the mass-scale vaccination of Israel’s population was underway.

Mass-scale vaccination underway in Israel, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

More often than not, when invited on honorary visits abroad, Dr. Salk declined. But when he was invited to Israel in 1959 for an official visit, he agreed and explained that the reason for his consent was his deep affection for the people and state of Israel. The doctor added that “what is being done in Israel is both profound and exalted. And I think the Israelis understand this, because they are the ones carrying out a revolution in the lives of the Jewish people.” In Israel, the good doctor was greeted with the respect and honor worthy of heads of state. He met with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, from whom he received a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

David Ben-Gurion presenting Dr. Jonas Salk with a certificate of appreciation, Jerusalem, 1959, photo: Fritz Cohen


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The Epidemic That Brought Jews Back to Jerusalem

Fleeing a Galilean plague, a handful of the Vilna Gaon's students rewrote the holy city's history

The 'Vilna Gaon Map' is believed to be a copy of a map drawn by the Gaon, which was illustrated by his students shortly after his death around 1800. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

A century ago, the Spanish Plague killed tens of millions of people globally.

A century before that, communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean were devastated by a bubonic plague outbreak, which reached the ancient Galilean city of Safed in 1812, quickly decimating its population.

Just a few years prior, three waves totaling some five hundred followers of the Vilna Gaon – one of Jewish history’s intellectual and spiritual giants – had come to the Land of Israel from White Russia, fulfilling their leader’s own dream a decade after his death. It was a significant demographic boost to the relatively small and overwhelmingly Sephardi Jewish community already in what was then Ottoman Palestine.

An illustration of the Vilna Gaon. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nearly a full century before Herzl, some consider the arrival of the Vilna Gaon’s students to be a watershed event in the history of modern Zionism.

The failure of the last major group of Ashkenazi Jews that tried to establish itself in the Land of Israel was the main reason why this group had to settle for the slightly less holy city of Safed, instead of Jerusalem.  At the end of the 1600s, a group led by Polish Jew “Judah the Pious” had set out to establish a community in Jerusalem. Arriving in 1700, the community was soon unable to support itself, nor pay off its growing debts. Ashkenazi Jews were banned from living in the holy city. Those already there either moved out or lived in disguise, dressing like their Sephardic brethren. Not particularly interested in the differences between a Litvak and a Hassid or any other intra-religious distinctions for that matter, the local authorities held all Ashkenazim accountable for the debts owed.

Needless to say, a large group of Jews from White Russia would not feel particularly welcome.

In fact, it would take the bubonic plague to get Ashkenazim back into Jerusalem.

With the plague ultimately claiming the lives of some 80% of Safed’s Jewish community, towards the end of 1815 some of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples decided it was time to finally go up to Zion.

Safed in the 19th century. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

The group was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, a man who had led efforts to organize and print the Vilna Gaon’s writings following his death in 1797, and who had also led the first wave of immigrants in 1808. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the other leader of the community, would briefly flee to Jerusalem but ultimately choose to stay in Safed. Efforts were made to ensure that Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s group remained small in number and did not syphon off too much funding from the communities’ patrons throughout Europe, many of whom had been cultivated by Rabbi Yisrael as he made fundraising trips across the continent.

According to various legends, the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem was so small that they did not have a minyan (traditional Jewish prayer quorum of ten adult males), and would either pay a Sephardi Jew to be their tenth man; utilize a legal loophole to count a child holding a Torah scroll as a member of their prayer quorum; or simply count the Torah scroll.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his band were determined to reestablish an Ashkenazi presence in the holy city.

It took about five years, but after sending representatives all the way to Istanbul to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s men succeeded in securing a royal decree annulling the debts owed by the previous un-related Ashkenazi community, decades earlier. They then successfully focused their efforts on securing additional documents from local and international Islamic and civil authorities that would ultimately allow them to develop the compound which had been abandoned by the previous Ashkenazi community and destroyed by its creditors. Warm relations with some of the Christian and Muslim neighbors certainly did not hurt these efforts.

Letter from R. Yisrael of Shklov asking an emissary to speed up efforts to obtain Turkish approval for rebuilding Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue, and not to hesitate to go to Vilna to collect donations for distribution to the community. From the National Library of Israel archives

Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his group thus succeeded in both ridding themselves of the debt left by a community to whom they had no connection, and then achieving official recognition as (in some way) the lawful heirs to the property rights of that very same community!

While visiting Jerusalem in 1837, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the head of the Safed community, received word of a devastating earthquake in the Galilee. His entire city was destroyed, 4,000 members of its Jewish community lost. Perhaps he took it as a sign or else simply had no other options, but Rabbi Yisrael decided to stay in Jerusalem for the last two years of his life. Many refugees from Safed did the same, joining the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and their descendants.

Ultimately, this small contingent of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples laid the foundation for much of the dramatic renewal and expansion of Jewish life in Jerusalem which continues until today.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is one of many notable descendants of these early Zionists. A mysterious and controversial work entitled Kol HaTor (“The Voice of the Turtledove”) was purportedly passed down in the Rivlin family for generations before being published in the 20th century. It includes Kabbalistic teachings attributed to the Vilna Gaon and relating to the Messianic age. In the work, two dates on the Jewish calendar were identified as having exceptional spiritual qualities especially as related to the redemption of the Jewish people. The first was the Fifth of Iyyar, which we now celebrate as Israeli Independence Day. The second was the 27th of Iyyar, the date on which – at the height of the Battle for Jerusalem in 1967 – the decision was made to unify the city under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in two millennia.

Israeli soldiers overlook the newly liberated Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


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 in Europe and beyond.

Thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism for his insightful comments.

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The Israeli Roots of the Penalty Shoot-Out

Cherry tomatoes, soup mandels and penalty shoot-outs – all Israeli inventions! This is the story of the most significant Israeli contribution to the beautiful game


From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was a hot summer’s day in July, 1994. Millions of viewers were glued to screens around the world, watching Italy and Brazil compete in the FIFA World Cup final, taking place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. It was a tedious affair, with not a goal being scored, even during thirty minutes of extra-time. Thus, the stage was set for the great climax – the World Cup final would be decided for the first time by a penalty shoot-out! Football (soccer) fans who watched the event still remember how Roberto Baggio, the star of the Italian team, missed the final penalty kick, and the Brazilians were crowned world champions.

It seems that the roots of this dramatic scene reach all the way back to… Israel? Yes, the man responsible for implementing this method of deciding international football matches was named Joseph Dagan, an Israeli journalist at the time. It was he who came up with the radical new system which to date has caused the downfall of many a footballer, brought about countless moments of joy and despair for fans and players alike, and more than anything, contributed to extreme levels of tension and anxiety for all involved.

“The Cruelest of Them All – The Penalty Kick” Ma’ariv, February 23rd, 1969. For the full Hebrew article, click here

Until the 1970s, whenever a victory decision was required in a football tournament, matches which ended in a draw were primarily decided by playing a replay match in a neutral venue, or worse, by flipping a coin. Apart from the heavy burden that the replay matches placed on the players, they also led to complicated logistical problems, since it wasn’t always possible to schedule replay matches in tight tournament schedules. As regards coin flipping, there’s no real need to explain the problem – this odd method had nothing to do with sport, and matches decided in this way were naturally a source of much grief and disappointment. Penalty shoot-outs had been used here and there during several specific tournaments, for example in Yugoslavia. From there, the method spread to Israel where it was used in cup matches (the newspapers called it “the Yugoslav method”).

“The Decision Came by Penalty-Kicks, Bnei Yehuda-Maccabi Petah Tikva 5-2”, a report on a cup game in Israel from May 30th, 1968, by which time the penalty shoot-out was already in use. For the full Hebrew report, click here

Dagan was a sports writer for the Ha’aretz newspaper and soon became a member of the Israeli Football Association, being appointed its general-secretary. He had a front row-seat during the Israeli national team’s fantastic campaign at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. At the time, there was no age limit set on players in the Olympic tournament, and the Israeli team included the likes of Mordechai Shpigler and Giora Spiegel, who would famously be part of the only Israeli team to participate in the World Cup, two years later.

Giora Spiegel playing for the Israeli national team, Ma’ariv, December 5th, 1969

The Israelis succeeded above and beyond expectations at the 1968 Olympics and reached the quarter-finals, where they played against the esteemed Bulgarian team. The game ended in a draw, even after extra-time, and the Bulgarians were finally declared victorious following a coin toss, continuing on to the semi-finals. Israel returned home, with only the flip of a coin preventing a sensational sporting achievement. However, Dagan had an idea. These games needed to be resolved differently – and following the incident, Dagan decided the penalty shoot-out, used to this day, should be established as the proper method for deciding matches which ended in a stalemate.

“The Coin Defeats Israel – After Extra Time”, Al Hamishmar, October 21st, 1968, for the full Hebrew article, click here

Micha Almog, who at the time was chairman of the Israel Football Association, brought Dagan’s idea to FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, and in 1970, the method was approved by the international organization. Later that year, the penalty shoot-out was used for the first time in a cup game in England, and gradually, the system spread across the world. Penalty shoot-outs were first used in the World Cup in 1982, and since then, they have twice decided the result of the final. Although penalty shoot-outs have also been criticized over the years, no better method has yet been suggested.

“Penalty-Kicks to Replace Coin Toss”, a report describing FIFA’s decision to adopt the Israeli system, Ma’ariv, June 28th, 1970

Dagan, who passed away in March 2020, was officially recognized by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, for his contribution. In fairness, it should be noted that a German football referee named Karl Wald also claimed to have invented the method – at the exact same time – before offering it to the Bavarian football association, from where the idea reached FIFA. But as far as we’re concerned, with all due respect, this is yet another Israeli invention.


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