The Two Pages That Survived the Nazi Book Burnings

In May of 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, organized the burning of thousands of books in Berlin. Two scorched pages survived the burning and made their way to the National Library in Jerusalem.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The May 1933 book burning in Berlin is remembered by many as one of the key events of the early days of Nazi Germany. It is tempting to view the symbolic moment as foretelling of what was to follow during 12 years of Nazi rule; its significance amplified by Heinrich Heine’s famous quote, proclaimed more than 100 years earlier.

 

A brief report on the burning of Jewish books in Berlin, The Palestine Post, May 1933

Though the book burning at the Opernplatz was not an isolated event, it is likely that a person with a heightened sense of historical awareness would have recognized its symbolism and significance. Such a person was indeed present at the book burning – a publisher by the name of Rubin Mass.

The name may ring a bell for those of you who are familiar with Hebrew books, as the publishing house established by Mass still exists today in Israel, its books still appearing on the shelves of bookstores across the country. Rubin Mass Publishers and Booksellers is one of the oldest publishing houses still operating in Israel, founded by Mass in Berlin back in 1927. In his shop in Germany, customers could find Hebrew newspapers, books and practically any item printed in Hebrew and published in Israel, Poland, the United States and elsewhere.

After arriving in Mandatory Palestine in 1933, Mass became well-known for other reasons; he was among the first Jews to settle in Talbiya, a Jerusalem neighborhood then mostly populated by Arabs. His son, Daniel Mass, was the commander of the famous “Convoy of 35” (Lamed He) and was killed in the notorious battle on the road to Gush Etzion during Israel’s War of Independence. Following his loss, Rubin Mass served as the chairman of Yad LaBanim (Israel’s commemoration organization for fallen soldiers) and was particularly active in commemorating those who died in battle.

A newspaper ad for books on Hebrew and Arabic grammar. both published by Rubin Mass. The Palestine Post, August 1942

It is therefore no surprise that a man who had earned his living since the age of 21 by dealing in books would truly comprehend the significance of the unbearable event. That is precisely why Mass made a point of going to watch the massive burning which was publicized in advance through the Nazi party’s various propaganda platforms. When the flames that lit up the skies of Berlin died out, Mass approached the charred remains of the 20,000 books that had been thrown into the bonfire; he retrieved two half-burnt leaves of paper from the pile, a total of four pages, from a book written in German – historic remnants, literally snatched from the fire.1

Two charred pages retrieved from the Nazi book burning, Berlin, 1933. The National Library of Israel collections

As mentioned above, Mass made Aliyah later in 1933. It seems he understood the status of Jews in Germany would soon greatly deteriorate, and that the Nazis would not be satisfied with the annihilation of books. When he moved to Israel, Mass deposited the pages for safekeeping at the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel). Rubin Mass indeed possessed a heightened sense of historical awareness. The pages were kept in an envelope, on which Abraham Yaari, then the director of the Library archives, wrote: “Delivered by Mr. Rubin Mass, who pulled them from the fire with his own hands”.

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The envelope containing the burnt pages with Abraham Yaari’s handwriting

As the years went by, the pages remained in the archives. The Library only began to keep a record of its archives around the same time as their arrival. Thus, the pages ended up in a collection with the curious title, ‘Miscellaneous Items’, along with various writings and items that did not quite fit in with the Library’s existing collections. To this day, the scorched pages remain somewhat of a mystery. Over the years, the Library’s top experts and researchers have attempted to decipher which book the pages belonged to and so far a final conclusion remains elusive. It appears that the book was dedicated to psychoanalysis or sexual education – subjects that were considered “Jewish” by the Nazis and worthy of being cast into the fire. Still, we do not have an exact identification of the book that was destroyed over 86 years ago in central Berlin. Perhaps you, our readers, might have a clue?

 

Update: We have received many suggestions regarding the book’s identity. It is highly likely that this was a copy of Sexualpathologie, written by the Jewish German physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld was a world pioneer in sexual research and among the first to advocate for LGBT rights. He founded the Institute of Sexology in Berlin, which was the source of the majority of books burned by the Nazis on the infamous night of the 10th of May, 1933. Please comment below and offer your thoughts.

 

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Mazel Tov! Celebrating 150 Years of Postcards

Beautiful, inexpensive and easy to use – postcards were once among the most popular forms of correspondence. In honor of their 150th anniversary, we take a look back at some early examples

A Greek postcard sent by Theodor Herzl to his daughter, Paulina, in 1898

Few of us still take the time to sit down, pull out a piece of paper and write a handwritten letter. Perhaps even fewer still choose to make use of the letter’s “little sister” – the postcard, which nowadays commonly features a picture of a tourist site.

Postcards were first produced in the middle of the 19th century, when a few small companies were given concession to distribute cards with a limited number of words on them. However, the breakthrough occurred on October 1st, 1869, when the Austrian Postal Authority officially announced the new medium that was to serve the general public. Following the Austrian resolution, many countries around the world joined in the new trend. Postcards had an advantage; they were often sold with a stamp already printed on the card, with the price being lower than that of a letter stamp.

For the sake of comparison, you could say that the postcard served a similar function to that of the modern electronic text message. Short messages were sent from one location to another and thanks to the relatively quick delivery times and frequent distribution of mail (in some cases more than three times a day), more and more people began using postcards.

Soon after, postcards began being developed with pictures printed on the backside – paintings, portraits and landscapes. The new medium became extremely popular, with postcards being sent in large quantities, originally in black-and-white print, and later in color, using chromolithographic technology.

Remnants of the massive popularity of postcards during the 19th and 20th centuries can still be found today. Museums carry large public collections, as well as private ones, sorted by era, motif and the like. Many postcards are also found scattered in archival collections, among correspondence which was more commonly conducted via letters. Naturally, personal archives hold more postcards than institutional archives, as sending a postcard to a government office or an official authority would generally be considered inappropriate. The National Library of Israel also has many postcards in its collections, distributed among the different correspondence files as well as in our special Postcards Collection.

In the gallery below you can view a selection of postcards from the NLI collections:

 

 

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The Jewish Gangster Who Founded a Gambling Desert Paradise

Benny “Bugsy” Siegel hoped to transform the little-known town of Las Vegas into the gambling capital of the world

The city of Las Vegas was founded in May, 1905. It was not a typical American city; for the first forty years of its existence, Las Vegas was a sparsely populated town located in the dusty, desert state of Nevada, some eighty miles from Death Valley. The first generation of residents never imagined the tourist paradise their city would eventually become.

If the Second World War had wreaked total destruction upon large swaths of Europe and Asia, in the United States, the war had actually given the Depression Era economy a much needed boost. In its wake came a period of unprecedented prosperity. The American century began with an enormous economic boom and the middle class was at last able enjoy the good life that until then had been the preserve of America’s wealthiest citizens. Among other things, this included some of the more suspect activities like gambling, prostitution, and the consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Most of the illegal gambling institutions were in the hands of the National Crime Syndicate — a loosely-connected umbrella organization which covered much of the American underworld. It was controlled by “Lucky” Luciano, an Italian immigrant, and Meyer Lansky, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Gambling joints and casinos were situated in two main locations: Miami and Cuba. The new technology of air flight had made America smaller and the fact that Nevada was the only state in the union where gambling was legal made it a bright spot on the investment map of the criminal world.

One of the most notorious personalities of this underworld was Benny “Bugsy” Siegel, who had paid his first visit to Nevada in 1941, in the hope of finding an ideal location that he could turn into the legal gambling capital of America. Bugsy came up empty-handed after his first scouting mission. While he recognized Las Vegas’ potential, the owners of the city’s first casino refused the Jewish gangster’s offer to buy out their shares. Eventually Bugsy found the right seller and managed to purchase a small gambling hotel downtown using a combination of cold hard cash and a few well-placed threats. Meyer Lansky did not share his long-time partner’s optimism regarding the future of the desert town, but he decided to support his friend and invest, while bringing along several other figures from the crime world.

From the start of his work on the project, Bugsy’s ostentatiousness knew no bounds: he hired the best interior designers money could buy and equipped the hotel with the most expensive furnishings available. He himself undertook the design of the deluxe suites. Above all, Bugsy invested in the casino and the bar, which he believed would provide the primary income of the new Flamingo Hotel.

 Police mug shots of the gangster Benny “Bugsy” Siegel

Within the first month of opening, Lansky’s misgivings proved correct. Las Vegas did indeed grow over the years and moved away from its image as a sleepy desert town, but it did not have the power to draw continuous streams of tourists beyond the Christmas holiday season – the date set for the grand opening. The Flamingo Hotel closed within a month. The hotel and Siegel’s angry investors incurred heavy losses. The gangster refused to give up and in order to get back in the game he borrowed additional funds from banks and outside investors, doubling the usual investment for a Las Vegas hotel at the time, which stood at around one million dollars. The main funding once gain came from members of the Jewish underworld. This time, along with the money, came a warning: The “Flamingo” had better make good on the investment and turn a handsome profit for the investors, or else…

Bugsy brushed off the threats and invested the cash in additional renovations, but still, the casino business in Las Vegas would not take off. At first, Bugsy thought it was just a slow period that would eventually pass, but as the losses continued to pile up he could not ignore the hard truth – his business was simply not working.

His partners (who also suspected Bugsy of having sabotaged a drug deal) were convinced: either their friend was swindling them, or he had lost his business touch. Whatever the reason, Las Vegas was becoming more and more of a burden.

On June 20th, 1947, the violence that had accompanied Bugsy Siegel’s whole life finally caught up with him. During a vacation in Las Vegas, Siegel was shot in the head at point blank range, dying instantly. Photographs of his body were published across the United States and afterward around the world. In the weeks and months following his assassination, news stories appeared about the Jewish gangster who had made the little-known city of Las Vegas the capital of his crime empire.  While he may have failed in his mission, in his death he contributed to the city’s reputation for decadence and corruption, a reputation which would transform Las Vegas into Sin City within a few years.

During the Cuban revolution of 1959, the casinos owned by Lansky and his fellow gangsters were nationalized by the new regime. Their other businesses in Miami were also damaged as a result. Only at this point did the Jewish mafia boss turn his attention to Las Vegas, the city that had been so dear to his late friend.

 

Meyer Lansky, worried by the Cuban takeover of his businesses and the continued harassment of the police, turned his sights on Las Vegas

This story has an Israeli angle. It is known that Lansky contributed money to the Jewish yishuv during the War of Independence. But besides that, in the 1970s he even asked to be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return in an attempt to escape a federal investigation against him back in the United States. He visited Israel on a number of occasions and during his stays identified Eilat as a potential gambling paradise – another desert town located far away from the country’s bustling central region.

 

 

Meir Lansky visits the Western Wall, in an attempt to persuade the immigration authorities that he was simply a Jew yearning from his homeland (from the book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob)

The Israeli government rejected his request, fearing that his presence would attract the attention of other American criminals. Did Eilat miss out on an opportunity to become the Las Vegas of the Middle East? We will likely never know. Lansky, of course, had another spin on this story. In an interview with the journalist Dan Raviv, the old gangster said that all he wanted in his retirement years was to live in Israel “just like any other Jew.”

 Meyer Lansky during an interview with the Israeli journalist Dan Raviv (from the book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob)

How a 500 Year-Old Torah Scroll Was Saved from the Nazi Conquest of Rhodes

The scroll was hidden away from the German occupiers in an unlikely location…

The Torah scroll pictured above was originally inscribed in Spain in either the 14th or 15th century, but that was just the beginning…

At some point, it arrived at the famous Kahal Shalom synagogue on the island of Rhodes, which is today the oldest active synagogue in Greece. It was likely brought there by Jewish exiles from Spain or their descendants and may very well have been stored in the synagogue since its founding in 1593.

The Book of Exodus, from the Rhodes Torah scroll. The National Library collections

The first evidence of a Sephardic-Jewish presence on Rhodes dates to the Ottoman period, which began with the conquest of the island in 1522.

For hundreds of years, the members of Rhodes’ Jewish community would read from this scroll at services held at Kahal Shalom. The community thrived and by the 1920s, a quarter of the town of Rhodes’ population was Jewish.  It all came to an end with the Nazi conquest and the deportation of the island’s Jews to Auschwitz in July of 1944.

Just a few days before the deportation, members of the community were able to smuggle the scroll out of the synagogue and place it in the custody of the Mufti of Rhodes, Sheikh Suleyman Kasiloglou. The mufti is said to have hidden the Torah under the pulpit of the Murad Reis Mosque, where the Nazis would never think to look.

1,673 Jews were sent from Rhodes to Auschwitz where they were put to death. Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul-General on the island, was able to save around 50 members of the community by stating that they were Turkish citizens. This was only true for a dozen or so. Regarding the rest, Ülkümen fabricated a lie claiming that spouses of Turkish citizens were citizens themselves. His heroic intervention saved their lives.

The Rhodes Torah Mantle, the Natonal Library collections

Following the conclusion of World War II, the Torah scroll was returned to the community’s few surviving members, in the presence of soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.

In June of 1999, the scroll was deposited at the National Library of Israel by Jacqueline Benatar and her sister Miriam Pimienta-Benatar, to serve as a memorial to the martyrs of Rhodes, their parents among them. The donation was carried out at the suggestion of the President of the Rhodes Jewish community, Mr. Moise Soriano.

The women of the Benatar family depositing the Torah scroll at the National Library of Israel

You can find the Rhodes Torah scroll today at the National Library of Israel.

 

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