The Bullet Retrieved from a Famous Jewish Playwright in the Krakow Ghetto

The bullet was fired by a Gestapo officer during the liquidation of the Ghetto and is now kept in the National Library of Israel.

The projectile fired at Dr. Michael Weichart. Photo: Hadar Ben Yehuda of The National Library

The Krakow Ghetto, May 31, 1942 – the day before the roundup

The Jewish police force was ordered to round up all residents who had not received an official stamp from the SS to remain in the Ghetto. This stamp ultimately determined who lived and who died. Anyone unfortunate enough not to receive one simply awaited his fate. The police knocked on the doors of each house and arrested anyone who could not produce a stamp.

The next morning, people gathered in the main square. It was filled with men and women, young and old, all laden with packages. The sun was beating down, scorching and oppressive. Two cars of Gestapo officers entered the gates of the square. One of the cars drove up to the headquarters of the Jewish police while the other stopped in the square. The Gestapo men carried their revolvers. The streets around the square quickly emptied.

“One of the Gestapo men aimed his gun down Jozefinska Street. Jewish policemen called back and forth to one another. Suddenly, a bullet was fired …one …two…three. The first to be hit was Dr. Michael Weichart, the chairman of the ‘Jewish Self-Help Organization.’ The shooter was Sturmsharfuhrer Wilhelm Kunde, the spokesman for the SS and Gestapo on Jewish affairs. He held the title of Kriminal-Sekretär in the criminal police department (the Kripo). His bullet struck one of Dr. Weichart’s limbs.”

This is how Tadeusz Pankiewicz describes the events that preceded the shooting of Dr. Weichert, who was also a playwright and director, in his book, The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy.

Weichert was wounded by the Gestapo officer’s bullet, but he was not killed. He later removed the bullet from his limb and kept it for his entire life. For him, it served as a memory of that day in the Ghetto when his life was spared.

Back in the square, the Jews were requested to board trolley carts. They did so with the belief that the carts were taking them away from the Ghetto but it was only a charade. It turned out that they were asked to board the carts only for the purpose of being photographed in them. Once the photos were taken, the Jews were forced to depart the Ghetto on foot, leaving the majority of their heavy baggage behind. The group began walking along the railroad tracks to Plaszow.

That night the Gestapo raided each residence in the Ghetto, inspecting papers and catching Jews in the street. Apparently, not enough people reported for the roundup. Throughout the next day, those without a stamp who decided to remain in the Ghetto were forcibly rounded up. This roundup was far more aggressive and cruel.

Who was Michael Weichert?

Michael Weichert (1890-1967) was born in the town of Podhajce in Eastern Galicia. He headed the JSS (Juedische Soziale Selbsthilfe), the Jewish Self-Help Organization that was established in Warsaw in September 1939 to help Jews in the Ghettos. The organization operated throughout the Generalgouvernement (the term for German-occupied Poland during the war).

Weichert, a jurist by education, was a man of extraordinary talents, high intelligence, and great organizational ability. Before the war, he was one of the prominent figures in Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. He was a man of the theater who founded and ran an experimental Yiddish theater in Warsaw. He worked with the “Vilna Troupe,” which put on “The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky even before the Moscow Theater.

Dr. Michael Weichert

Despite the fame he garnered in the world of theater, Weichert was unable to make a living from his art and worked concurrently as a lawyer. He advised several Jewish charities and cultural organizations supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and helped them navigate the laws and restrictions imposed by the Polish regime in the years preceding the war.

Through these connections, Weichert came to head the Jewish Self-Help Organization during the war. As part of his work in the organization, he organized food, medicine and clothing donations for Jews through organizations like the Joint and the Red Cross. He arranged for the distribution of these vital necessities and often interacted with the authorities, intervening on behalf of those who had no other voice.

“No one knew how to speak to the Germans like him. Almost no one understood their mentality and way of thinking,” says Pankiewicz in his book.

Indeed, Weichert often helped Ghetto residents obtain life-saving documents and mediated between them and Polish trustees who agreed to hold money or belongings that were temporarily entrusted to them for safekeeping by the Ghetto residents. These actions were strictly prohibited and to be involved in this meant nothing short of endangering one’s life.

His ties with Poles and Germans during the war, and the very fact that he headed a welfare organization that operated under the authority of the Nazis led to post-war accusations against Weichert.

Weichert claimed that he had not collaborated with the Germans and that all he had done was strive to ease the situation of the Jewish population. Two separate courts dealing with the matter reached opposite conclusions.


“The bullet that wounded me which was removed from my body by Professor Geltzel in surgery.” The caption in Yiddish on the tablet in Weichert’s handwriting. Photo: Hadar Ben Yehuda of the National Library of Israel.

There were those who argued that the reason that Weichert was shot in the Ghetto prior to the roundup was to divert suspicion that he had collaborated with the Nazi authorities. In Weichert’s eyes, however, it is possible that the bullet he kept all these years was not only a reminder of the day his life was miraculously saved, but also conclusive proof that he was not a collaborator.

After the verdict, Weichert never returned to public service in the Jewish community in Poland. The man who worked in the Jewish theater before the war and contributed greatly to cultural life in the Ghettos, returned to the field he loved best and dedicated his life to researching and documenting Yiddish theater.

Weichert immigrated to Israel in 1958. He donated his archive, a collection of documentation and material of immeasurable value on the history of theater, folklore and Jewish theater during the Nazi occupation, to the National Library of Israel. Included in this collection was the bullet retrieved from Weichert’s body on that fateful day in May of 1942. Weichert passed away in 1967.

Thank you to Dr. Gil Weissblei of the Archive Department for his assistance in the research for this article.


In Disguise and Under a Watchful Eye: The Heroic Story of Libyan Immigration

Illegal border crossings, forged documents and sham marriages: The struggle of Libyan Jews to immigrate to Israel prior to the establishment of the State

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Grottaferrata, Italy

Written by: Ya’akov Hajaj Liluf

Libyan Jews began immigrating to Eretz Israel as early as the 1920s. Notably, in 1923, Eliyahu Falah led a group of eleven youths to Mandatory Palestine. The Libyan immigration rate continued to rise throughout the 1930s. Due to the policies outlined in the British White Paper (1939), Jews had to be smuggled into the Land of Israel through Egypt. With the assistance of members of the armed Jewish organizations, the immigrants crossed borders illegally, forged documents and permits and set up sham weddings, all in a desperate effort to reach the Promised Land.


Illegal immigration routes from Libya to the Land of Israel
Illegal Jewish immigration routes from Libya to the Mandatory Palestine.


A forged document given to David Peled (Fadlon) on his departure from Tunisia to France
A forged document given to David Peled (Fadlon) on his departure from Tunisia to France


Following the Libyan anti-Jewish riots of 1945, illegal immigration sharply increased. This happened despite a rigid British policy, which disallowed the issuing of exit permits from Libya as well as entry permits into Palestine. Illegal immigration was a desperate answer to the uncompromising policy, and it was carried out through scorching deserts and on turbulent seas. Prospective illegal immigrants traversed Tunisia disguised as Arabs. With the assistance of Tunisian Jews, they passed into France or Italy, before continuing to Palestine. They navigated the Mediterranean to reach these countries using any means necessary, including forged medical, business, student or tourist visas. They often boarded commercial cargo vessels as stowaways or disguised themselves as crew members.


Illegal immigrants from Libya in Tunisia, disguised as Arabs
Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Tunisia, disguised as Arabs


Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Florence, Italy.
Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Florence, Italy.


Illegal immigrants who were caught by the British on their way to to the Land of Israel were exiled to internment camps in Cyprus. Those who were able to reach the shores of the country immediately joined the armed organizations.

Members of the Zionist movements were sought out in Libya by Yisrael Gur (known as “The Uncle”), a representative of the “Mossad Le’Aliya Bet”, a branch of the Haganah dedicated to immigration.

While Gur handled much of the Libyan side of the operation, Haim Fadlon (Ciccio) and Klimo Adadi operated out of Italy and began organizing ships of immigrants to smuggle groups of youths (organized by Joseph Gueta) into the country. These Hebrew-speaking, military-trained Zionists, served as guides for the immigrants on their way to Mandatory Palestine.

Some 3,500 Libyan Jews reached the Land of Israel through illegal immigration, a number which constituted about 10 percent of the total Jewish population in Libya at the time. This phenomenon was unmatched in other Jewish communities.

Internees in a detention camp in Cyprus.
Internees in a detention camp in Cyprus.


Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya after arrival in their homeland.
Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya after arrival in their homeland.


When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust

What was revealed when Western forces finally captured one of the major Nazi concentration camps? A rare document discovered at the National Library of Israel holds the answers.

The watchtower at the Buchenwald memorial site. Photo: The German Federal Archives.

Content warning – contains graphic descriptions of the realities of the Holocaust

The cars drove down a beautiful country road, lined with blossoming fruit trees, as the warm spring weather heralded a new beginning. The war was nearing its end. Little more than 130 miles away, the Nazis were making their futile last stand in Berlin as the Allies slowly closed in. In a few days, Hitler would be dead.

The vehicles soon made their way up into a wooded, hilly area. Within a few minutes, the short drive from the local airfield came to an end as the trees cleared, and the cars pulled up at the gates of Buchenwald.

Tom Driberg emerged from one of the vehicles along with nine other members of the British Parliament – an official delegation, sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to examine the worst of the newly liberated concentration camps which had been captured by Western forces.

Driberg was many things, but he was hardly a senior member of this group. Quite the contrary, in fact. The official head of the delegation, which was made up of representatives from all political parties, was Earl James Richard Stanhope of the House of Lords. Thomas Edward Neil Driberg was a communist member of the Labour Party, a devout Catholic, and in April 1945,  a 39-year-old backbencher in the House of Commons.

He was also an openly gay man during a time when his lifestyle made him a criminal in the United Kingdom. He would befriend the likes of Aleister Crowley, Mick Jagger and Allen Ginsberg and later in life would be suspected as a possible Soviet spy. Driberg’s larger-than-life persona and tendency to go against the grain would make him famous, but it is often forgotten that he played a small but important role in this particular moment in history.

Tom Driberg
Tom Driberg, the author of the British parliamentary report on Buchenwald. A devout Catholic, a communist and an openly gay man during a time when homosexuality was outlawed. His larger-than-life persona would make him famous but it is often forgotten he played a role in this moment in history.

It was Driberg’s skill as a journalist, his former profession, which gained him his place in the delegation to Buchenwald. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had specifically requested that Churchill include a journalist or two in the group, and so it fell to Tom Driberg to write up the delegation’s official report.

A rare copy of that same report has now been discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

The cover of the British parliamentary report, on Buchenwald discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel
The cover of the British parliamentary report on Buchenwald, discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel


General Dwight D. Eisenhower
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, asked Winston Churchill to send a delegation of British parliamentarians to Buchenwald.

The delegation strode through the gates, above which hung a sign in German: “Recht oder unrecht-mein Vaterland” (My country right or wrong) was the ominous welcoming message. It was April 21st, 1945. Buchenwald had been liberated by the U.S. Army ten days earlier. This was the first time the West was able to directly access the Nazi camps. “Our objective was to ‘find out the truth,’ while the evidence was still fresh,” Driberg wrote in the report.

The barracks and huts of Buchenwald were now visible. “It is badly laid out, on sloping uneven ground.” Driberg wrote of the camp, “The walls and paths are ill kept; at the time of our visit they were covered with dust, which blew about in the wind, and in wet weather the camp must be deep in mud.”

Buchenwald barracks
The barracks at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Colorful slogans were being painted on the sides of the buildings, greeting the liberating soldiers in different languages. A life-size effigy of Hitler hung from a gibbet, adorned with the words “Hitler must die that Germany may live” in German. Many of the former prisoners were still here. The report notes that a “certain number” had already left, but thousands were still too weak to travel.

Driberg described the attempts of the delegation members to communicate with the former prisoners. While two of the members spoke German, there  were plenty of English speakers among the inmates – “Many were unable to speak: they lay in a semi-coma, or following us with their eyes. Others spoke freely, displaying sores and severe scars and bruises which could have been caused by kicks and blows. They lay on the floor on and under quilts… in a state of extreme emaciation.”

Buchenwald was not an official death camp, but death was no stranger here – “a policy of steady starvation and inhuman brutality” had been carried out at the facility. The basic daily ration consisted of “a bowl of watery soup and a chunk of dry bread.” The report cites figures that state that, by April 1945, 51,572 people had died or were killed at Buchenwald, or were removed and immediately killed at one of the subsidiary extermination camps.

Slave laboreres in the Buchenwald concentration camp
Slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Eli Wiesel can be seen in the second row, seventh from left. Photo by Private H. Miller, US Army.

The grim scenes and somber mood stood in contrast to a sense of relief and even happiness that was also present among some of the survivors following their liberation: “One half-naked skeleton, tottering painfully along the passage as though on stilts, drew himself up when he saw our party, smiled, and saluted.” Though treatment was now being given to the victims of the horrors, for many it came too late; 35 people died at Buchenwald on the day before the delegation’s visit.

The worst cases of maltreatment were being treated in one of the few huts that did not have a dirt floor. When the Nazis still ran the camp, this building housed the only women living on the compound. They were brought to Buchenwald from other camps and “induced by threats and promises of better treatment, to become prostitutes, but were subsequently killed.” This had once been the camp brothel, “to which the higher-grade prisoners – those employed in various supervisory jobs, with extra rations and other privileges – were allowed to resort for twenty minutes at a time.”

Driberg described seeing a laboratory “with a large number of glass jars containing preserved specimens of human organs.” He mentioned “experiments in sterilization” performed on Jews, noting that two members of the delegation had seen the unmistakable scars on one of the victims. He and his colleagues were told of “articles made of human skin,” collected by Frau Koch, the wife of the German camp commander. One such item which Driberg saw with his own eyes “clearly formed part of a lampshade.”

The report mentions several of the inmates by name, including 19-year-old Joseph Berman, who had been through several Nazi camps. In one he lost a forefinger when an annoyed Nazi guard pushed his hand into a machine. Driberg would later help the Latvian-born Berman immigrate to Britain and find work. In the coming years he would provide testimony of Nazi crimes in the Baltic States. The delegation also met 14-year-old Abraham Kirchenblatt of Radom, Poland who “impressed members of our party as an intelligent and reliable witness; he stated that he had seen his 18-year-old brother shot and his parents taken away, he believed for cremation: he never saw them again.”

A liberated Russian survivor identifies a Nazi guard, who had participated in the beating of prisoners at Buchenwald.
A liberated Russian survivor identifies a Nazi guard, who had participated in the beating of prisoners at Buchenwald.

Indeed, death was the fate which awaited those of the prisoners who were deemed “useless” or who proved too stubborn to manage. “Hanging appears to have been the regular method of killing,” wrote Driberg. There was one gibbet in the yard, “near a pile of white ashes,” while another was found in the mortuary basement, where the delegation members were also shown a heavy blood-stained club used for knocking out “any who died too slowly.” From the basement, the bodies were transferred to a crematorium on the ground floor using an electric lift.

Buchenwald crematorium
The Buchenwald crematorium. Photo by Pfc. W. Chichersky, US Army

Outside the crematorium, the delegation members were shown carts filled with bodies of prisoners who had died of hunger or disease. These corpses were still waiting for burial. General Eisenhower had personally ordered that the German inhabitants of the nearby areas provide for the individual burial of each body “with their own hands.” Indeed, groups of German civilians were being brought in daily “to see what had been done in their name and in their midst.”

Several different inmates told the delegation that conditions were far worse in other camps, particularly those in Eastern Europe, with Auschwitz (liberated by the Soviets less than three months earlier) being described as the worst of all.

“Such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended.” Driberg wrote in the report’s closing remarks, “The memory of what we saw at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.”



Amy Simon, a cataloguer in the National Library’s Foreign Languages Department, contributed to this article.

The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

Take a glimpse at the coded letters that expose a complex operation to smuggle Jewish women who were in danger out of Italy.

Image from the Livorno Hagadah


The following sentences appeared in a letter sent by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno of Livorno in 1858. Can you guess what the letter is referring to?

“Yesterday, three packages left the city… one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel. Off they went, on their way to a good peaceful life without harm. And may heaven have mercy on this merchandise.”

Let us explain.

A collection of letters donated to the National Library of Israel tells the story of secretive events that took place in Livorno in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters were written by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno (1800-1863) of Livorno, in response to letters from Moise Uzzielli of Florence which are not in out possession. The correspondence between the two men discusses the smuggling of women and their children out of Italy via the port of Livorno to various destinations along the Mediterranean coast.

The port of Livorno (Painting: Bernardino Poccetti). Click on the image to enlarge.

On the eve of Sukkot in the year 1858, Rabbi Piperno was in Pisa for a brit milah (otherwise known as a bris, a ritual circumcision), when he received an urgent letter from Livorno about a woman in danger in the city of Florence. The letter was from Moise Uzzielli who wrote in Italian and asked Piperno to help smuggle the woman out of Italy. Piperno hastened to reply and explained to Uzzielli that his request would not be easy to carry out, “because she is a woman, and because the matter occurred in our midst, and certainly they will search for her. We will risk ourselves fruitlessly, without achieving her salvation.”

“…write henceforth in the holy tongue and use vague language.” Avraham Piperno writes to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.


Despite his discouraging response, Piperno suggested to wait a few days and see what could be done. He also added an important instruction in his letter of reply – telling Uzzielli that, for reasons of secrecy, he should henceforth write in Hebrew and use vague language when describing the matter.

In the following correspondence, Piperno reported on the progress of the smuggling process and the technical challenges involved, giving us a rare peek into this curious historical phenomenon of smuggling Jewish women through the port of Livorno. His writings detail the existence of an entire community network  that set travel arrangements and maintained contact with various Jewish communities along the shores of the Mediterranean, that served as cities of refuge for fleeing women.

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The event described in the document began on September 22, 1858, and was concluded over a month later on October 28. Piperno encountered many difficulties along the way, some of which we learn about in his letters.

“…to inform him that the package he sent is still here,” Avraham Piperno’s second letter to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.

The smuggling plan was laid out in three phases: hiding the woman in Livorno until the day of the journey; sending her by ship to a Jewish community in one of the cities along the Mediterranean coast; and finally finding her work and a place of residence in that community. Piperno utilized his connections in Livorno and various Jewish communities to execute his plan, but he needed money to finance the operation. He asked Uzzielli to urgently transfer the necessary funds to him. In one of the letters, Piperno explains why he could not finance the matter locally. He writes: “Here I cannot take even a pence for such a thing, because they do not wish to give anything, even for our own packages.”

“…and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel,” the third letter of Abraham Piperno to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.

In keeping with his need for secrecy, Piperno refers to the escaping woman as a “package”, a very common word in a bustling port town like Livorno. We can also infer from his words that Livorno already has too many “packages” to handle. In order to clarify the state of affairs in Livorno to Uzzielli, Piperno informs him that he is already caring for a recent arrival from Rome, waiting to be smuggled out. The woman was traveling with her children and was also pregnant with another. Piperno describes the condition of the runaway in his secret code: “one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel.” We can, therefore, infer that the “packages” and “barrels” reached Livorno from many places and that Livorno served as a central smuggling depot for Italian Jews.

There was a brief debate about whether to send the woman to the Jewish community of Tunis or to that of Marseilles. The decision was ultimately made to send her to Marseilles “and to connect her with a single man who will attempt to accomodate her, ether in his home or in another home.” A ship would transport the woman to Marseilles. For this purpose, she would need to carry forged documents (a “transit pass” in the words of the letter). Placing a secret passenger on a ship was a very dangerous step in this process, and it was undertaken with the knowledge of the ship’s owner. In his fourth letter, Piperno reports, “Yesterday I spoke with the owner of the ship to hasten the delivery. He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after.” We do not know whether the owner of the ship was a Jew who cooperated out of sympathy for his people, or whether his loyalty had been purchased by Piperno. In any event, these documents give us a better understanding of the complexity of the matter and the large number of external factors involved in the smuggling process.

“He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after” the fourth letter. Click on the image to enlarge.

After all the hardships and challenges Piperno faced in his efforts to help this particular woman, his last letter details her successful escape to safety. The echo of his sigh of relief can still be heard in his cheerful words: “Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination… and blessed be the Lord, who blessed us with such a great mitzvah, and may he bless all those who joined in this mitzvah with life and good tidings.”

“Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination” the last letter of Abraham Piperno to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.


Early evidence of a broader phenomenon

The phenomenon revealed here raises the question as to why the women were smuggled out of Italy, and if the phenomenon was unique to the period of the mid-19th century. A partial answer can be obtained from the London-Montefiore 467 manuscript, which includes copies of letters from the Jewish community of Livorno. Here we can see an excerpt of a letter sent to the community of Alexandria (around 1739-40), requesting help for a woman and her children who were whisked out of Italy for fear that their father would force them to convert:

“Our sources are speaking of a difficult and melancholy woman… She and her two sons spoke of her husband who entered into a spirit of folly and took his two sons with him in deceit and led them into the midst of the gentiles, subverting their honor without benefit, and they were almost lost… And because of the great miracle and effort of the leaders of the community… they were returned to us and he also returned with them, but there is no faith in his words…” The community acted quickly to send the children away for fear that the converters would try again.

Another letter sent to the community of Aleppo in 1754 deals with a girl who was pressured to “subvert her honor”- to convert to Christianity or to have sexual intercourse – or both. Subsequently, she was smuggled away in haste.

“She is a good girl as is her name… And she sits within the walls of her house with her mother…and the gentiles have laid their eyes on her on her to suvert her honor…She must be rushed out of this land.”

In both cases, we have no evidence as to whether the women’s trip was of a secret nature. These writings do however offer clues as to the circumstances that may have led to an urgent departure, as well as the existence of a network capable of providing immediate transport and maintening contact with various Jewish communities. Therefore, these other incidents may also be related to the smuggling of women out of Italy from the port of Livorno in the mid-19th century.