Contagious Books: Epidemics in Literary Masterpieces

Coronavirus? We've seen it all before… A look at several plagues (both real and fictional) that were commemorated in literature over the years

In these tumultuous days of corona, as we all endure the weighty rules of social distancing, allow me to recommend that you keep the four following books close by – at best they will provide comfort; at worst, they’ll remain sealed on your book shelf, because this article will tell you all you need to know (spoiler alert!).

Let’s start with The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a common folk tale which dates back to the Middle Ages, and which has been told and retold in many different versions. The story takes place in the year 1248, in the city of Hamelin, Germany, during the outbreak of a disease among the city’s rats.

Just when the residents of Hamelin despaired of their unsuccessful struggle against the pestilence, a mysterious piper appeared and offered to remove all the rats from the city for a fee. After facing the ridicule of the city’s residents, the city council approved the pact with the odd visitor. The piper took his pipe and started playing a tune as he strode along the streets of the city. As he played, the rats were lured out of their hiding places, to the great surprise of the locals.

A painting of the Pied Piper on stained glass, 1592

When all the rats were gathered, the piper left the city and walked down to the Weser River. When he reached the water, he walked into it, while still playing his pipe. The rats followed him in and drowned. The city of Hamelin was saved from the rats, and the city council immediately declared a holiday and held a festive ball.

When the piper came to demand his fee, he was met with derision, and to his surprise, the locals even demanded that he be thrown out of the city. When the residents were exposed as ungrateful villains, the piper once again took up his pipe and began to play. This time, he played another magical tune – yet it wasn’t the rats that ran after him bewitched, but the children of the city! Once all the children had gathered around him, the piper made his way into a large mountain, from which no child ever returned. And so, the city of Hamelin lost all its children, as a result of the evil deeds of its people.

The story was rewritten again and again over the course of history; including by the Brothers Grimm. The moral of the story teaches us that the punishment of a corrupt, rotten society is annihilation – just like the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and the following literary plagues.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Hebrew edition, Guy Publishers, 1990

Unlike the previous story, the next book isn’t based on an actual historical plague.  However, just like the tale of the Pied Piper, it also makes use of the theme of disease to hint at a process of decay in society (and rats are again at the center of it all! Is someone trying to give us a hint…?)

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus, a French Algerian author, and a Nobel laureate in Literature.

The novel is divided into five parts: in the first, we are told of an outbreak of plague in the city of Oran, in Algeria. The locals grow anxious as the city is filled with dying rats and before long people begin to succumb to the disease as well, at an ever-growing rate. Preventive measures are taken and a special department is opened in order to treat the patients and isolate them. Due to the sharp increase in the number of people infected and the lack of proper equipment to take care of them, the city is sealed off and a state of emergency is declared.

In the second part, all resources are severely limited and the city is completely cut off – communication with the outside world is impossible, apart from phone calls in cases of emergency. The narrator emphasizes the separation of family members, friends, and couples. The separation and lockdown affect daily activity in the city and crush the peoples’ spirit, despite their attempts to continue to behave normally.

(Don’t panic, it’s only a book…)

The remainder of the book reads like the script of your typical post-apocalyptic thriller, as the atmosphere in the city descends into chaos, and attempts to revolt and escape are violently suppressed. Just as people begin to despair, the disease miraculously abates and the rats return to the city.

The book, perceived as an allegory of the maladies of human society, was published in 1947 after World War II. Some also consider it a metaphor for the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.

The Plague, Albert Camus, a Hebrew edition, Am Oved Publishers, 2001

And now let’s head down the Atlantic coast from France to Portugal…

Blindness is a novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago, published in 1995.

The story begins with a driver who suddenly goes blind. However, this is no ordinary blindness – the only thing the driver sees before his eyes is the color white! A passerby volunteers to bring the driver home, but exploits his blindness and steals his vehicle. The blind man contacts an eye doctor, who is unable to find anything wrong with his eyes.

Gradually, the blindness becomes contagious, spreading from person to person: when a blind person looks at someone, that person also becomes blind. This is how the car thief is afflicted with blindness, the people in the doctor’s waiting room, and the doctor himself. The only person who remains immune to the blindness is the doctor’s wife. As the epidemic of blindness continues to spread, the authorities declare a state of emergency, placing all the blind people in isolation in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, in order to prevent the spreading of the blindness, which becomes known as “the white sickness.”

The patients suffer hardships until they manage to escape the asylum and return to the city. There, they discover that all of the city’s residents have gone blind and that chaos rules. The group tries to establish a measure of structure and order in what has become a lawless world, and is confronted with the difficulties of this strange new life and the necessity to search for food and water (and, I assume, toilet paper, as well).

At the end of the book, the blindness is lifted, and all the residents of the city get their sight back in the same order in which they were infected – starting with Patient Zero and so on. The cause of the strange blindness isn’t explained in the book, and remains a mystery.

Blindness, Jose José Saramago, a Hebrew edition, Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, 2000

And now, an abrupt transition, from the white plague to the black plague, in a literary masterpiece which narrates a fictional plot against a backdrop of historical reality. Here, too, we see an attempt to preserve normal social order amidst instability and social disintegration, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s great work – The Decameron.

Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the 14th century, as the bubonic plague (“The Black Death”) ravaged Florence.  In his story, ten young noble Florentines flee from the plague to an unaffected rural area. Quarantined with their servants in a luxurious villa, they spend ten days telling each other stories. We won’t dwell on these fascinating tales, but rather on the introduction describing the situation in the city during the epidemic.

A painting by Sandro Botticelli, Decamaron, 1487

Instead of explaining and expanding, I’ll just let the text speak for itself.

“Thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had passed since the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God, when there came into the noble city of Florence, the most beautiful of all Italian cities, a deadly pestilence, which… several years earlier had originated in the Orient, where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward its strength grew monstrously. No human wisdom or foresight had any value: enormous amounts of refuse and manure were removed from the city by appointed officials, the sick were barred from entering the city, and many instructions were given to preserve health… at the beginning of the spring of that year, that horrible plague began with its dolorous effects in a most awe-inspiring manner, as I will tell you.

…But what gave this pestilence particularly severe force was that whenever the diseased mixed with healthy people, like a fire through dry grass or oil it would rush upon the healthy. And this wasn’t the worst of the evil: for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or mixed with the sick, but also touching bread or any other object which had been handled or worn by the sick would transport the sickness from the victim to the one touching the object.

…Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health.”

The Decamaron, Giovanni Boccaccio, a Hebrew edition, Carmel Publishing, 2000

It’s true that the social distancing that’s been forced upon us isn’t easy to cope with, but let’s stay optimistic (and adhere to the rules), and remember that things are gradually getting better (and warmer). Let’s hope we get a few good books out of this pandemic too!


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The Jewish Heroes and Heroines of Victory Day

These Jewish soldiers took part in the liberation of Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany

During the Soviet era, the 9th of May – Victory Day – became the main national holiday of the U.S.S.R., celebrating the great motherland’s victorious triumph in the war against Nazi Germany. It is still celebrated today in Russia and other countries, while in Israel, many immigrants from the nations of the former Soviet Union also mark the holiday with various parades and events (many other countries, including the U.S. and U.K., celebrate a variation of the holiday, VE Day – Victory in Europe Day – on the 8th of May).

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel has revealed rare images of Jewish heroes and heroines of the Red Army during World War II. The images were found thanks to a special documentation project being conducted by the Central Archives, in collaboration with the Eva Jewish Charity Organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which provides homecare services and various social and cultural activities for the elderly. In the course of the project, family photo albums are scanned and supplementary documentation is also collected.

Many Jews took part in the war effort against Germany and the Axis nations during World War II, and around 250,000 lost their lives as a result. Their story has been somewhat overlooked because of the dominance of the Holocaust in Jewish collective memory of the war period. Even the “Heroism” ethos of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) emphasizes the role of the Jewish rebels in the ghettos and the Jewish partisans. The contributions of the many Jews who took part in the war itself are often forgotten.

In these family photo albums, the place of Jewish soldiers in the Red Army is emphasized. Sometimes the fallen family member is a father of the album’s owner, and sometimes it is a long-lost aunt.


The Photographs

Israel Danilovich Stackelberg was severely wounded in battle in 1942. In the first photo he appears alongside the nurse who saved his life. In the second photo, he is seen with the soldiers of his company, holding a machine gun, and in the third he is wearing a medal. Captain Stackelberg fell on the frontlines in 1944 at Leningrad. His son Leonid brought the photographs to Daria Zacharova, who scanned them for the project.




The family of Gregory Meller brought forward the photograph below, in which he is seen adorned with medals. On the other side of the photograph, Meller wrote: “Me, right after the Battle of Stalingrad, December 1943”.

Many women also filled combat roles in the former Soviet Union, among them many Jewish women. One of these was Sofia Zacharovna Golovinskaya (1909-2005). During the siege of Leningrad, Sofia was drafted into a military fire-fighting unit, in which she served for more than a year, until the siege was lifted. After the siege she received training to join a bomb-removal squad in the engineering corps, and worked to locate and disarm mines that had been placed in strategic locations throughout the city during the siege, to be used in case the Germans were able to force their way into the city. Afterwards, in May 1944, she joined the local air defense regiment. Sofia disarmed 750 mines, and was awarded a citation and five medals for her contributions. Sofia made aliyah and arrived in Israel in 1994.

מימין: גולובינסקאיה סופיה זכרובנה
On the right: Sofia Zacharovna Golovinskaya

Mayor Smuelovich Kalibko was drafted into the army, despite being short-sighted. He took part in the conquest of Berlin in May, 1945. In the picture below he is seen with a friend, on Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm monument.

משמאל: מאיור (מארק) סמואילוביץ קאליבקו
On the left: Mayor Smuelovich Kalibko


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Why ‘Anti-Semitism’ Was Not in the Original Oxford English Dictionary

In a newly surfaced letter, the dictionary's founding editor wrote that it was not thought likely to be more than a "passing nonce-word…"

A recently surfaced letter penned by James Murray, the Oxford English Dictionary’s founding editor, sheds new light on “anti-Semitism” in the English language. The letter appears online here for the first time.

“Anti-Semitism” and related words do not have their own entries in the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the massive project which sought to publish a comprehensive lexicon of the entire English language. Murray became the founding editor of the OED in 1879, with the full edition taking 40 years to publish.

James Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

The reasons for the word’s exclusion are elaborated by Murray in the letter, which he wrote on July 5, 1900 to Claude Montefiore, a scholar, ardent anti-Zionist and scion of the renowned British Jewish family. Montefiore was a founder of Liberal Anglo-Judaism, and the great-nephew of Moses Montefiore, one of the most important early supporters of the modern Zionist movement.

Portrait of Claude Montefiore, by Christopher Williams, 1925

Besides the fact that “the material for anti- words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed” to get them all in, Murray noted the following:

Anti-semite and its family were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words, & hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article. Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make Anti-semite a main word, and add ‘hence Anti-semitic, Anti-semitism.’

You will see that Anti-slavery, which was, then at least, a much more important word, is also treated among the Anti– combinations (sense 4). Would that Anti-semitism had had no more than a fleeting interest! The closing years of the 19th c. have shown, alas! that much of Christianity is only a temporary whitewash over brutal savagery. It is unutterably sadding to one like myself who remembers ’48 and the high hopes we had in the fifties that we had left ignorance, superstition[?], and brute force behind us, and that the 19th c. was to usher in the reign of righteousness. How the devil must have chuckled at our fond & foolish dream!”

James Murray’s letter to Claude Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel

In a post-script, Murray also notes that according to his German assistant, a variety of “anti-” terms were “English newspaper coinages” – “hardly words” at all, but rather “condensed expressions”.  It was shorter to write “anti-imperialistic opinions”, for example “than ‘opinions opposed to the new imperialism’.”

Some prevalent “newspaper coinages” of this type at the time included “Anti-boer, anti-foreign, anti-Japan[?], anti-imperialistic, anti-expansion, anti-silver”. The term “Anti-semitic”, in his view, did not seem to fit into this category: “Anti-semitic has however a flavor of the professor about it, not of the penny-a-liner, & looks like the perpetration of some Viennese pundit. The man in the street would have said Anti-Jewish.”

The letter came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in NLI archival collections, which include personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of the 20th century’s most prominent cultural figures.

According to expert National Library archivist Rachel Misrati, who catalogued the letter as part of the initiative and has written extensively on NLI archival materials, “The Oxford University Press was unable to locate Montefiore’s original letter to Murray. Nonetheless, we can see from the context that Montefiore was apparently surprised by the fact that ‘anti-Semitism’ seemed to be conspicuously absent from the dictionary intended to be the English language’s definitive authority.”

Interestingly, the term “Semitism” did appear in the first edition of the dictionary, along with mention of the fact that “In recent use,” it had already come to be associated with “Jewish ideas or Jewish influence in policy and society”.

Special thanks to Rachel Misrati for her keen eye and expertise.

The Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

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.


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A Tango in Auschwitz

"I'm still young, I want to live"; even in their darkest hour, the prisoners of the Nazi camps wrote songs of hope


In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill arrived at the Hotel Marseilles in New York, a gathering point for Jewish refugees who had arrived in the United States after World War II. He brought with him heavy recording equipment and placed it in the hotel lobby. Why would an American Jew of Polish descent who worked for a living installing linoleum, carpets and wallpaper haul heavy recording machinery and set it up in the hotel lobby? The purpose was to record the refugees singing songs they remembered from their homelands; folk songs their parents sang; holiday songs from synagogue; songs from school and youth movements; and also – the songs they sang in the concentration and extermination camps, in the ghettos and in the hiding places, where they had spent the long years of war.

The songs that Stonehill recorded were stored in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research dedicated to the documentation and preservation of a rich, pre-WWII Yiddish culture. The recordings eventually made their way to the National Sound Archive at the National Library of Israel. Among them are two songs that share a number of similarities. They provide a glimpse of moments of both despair and hope, conveyed through popular music of the 20th century’s first half.

The name of the first song essentially reveals the whole picture: Tango in Auschwitz. It is, indeed, quite a concise description. The song was written in Polish by a 12-year-old Polish girl named Irka Janowski. Unfortunately, we do not know much about her other than her name and age. We do know she was not Jewish and that she perished in one of the Auschwitz camps. The song she wrote was set to a well-known pre-war tango tune and had become popular among the prisoners of the camps in the extermination complex; many remembered it later as they were being recorded by Ben Stonehill’s equipment.


Janowski’s song and biography remind us of a facet that is usually neglected in the recollection of Auschwitz. The complex comprised several extermination camps and many labor camps, and among the prisoners were many non-Jews. Tens of thousands of Poles, Romanis and people of color, as well as French and Russian war prisoners were murdered at Auschwitz. Janowski’s lyrics (translated into Yiddish by survivors) speak of the Auschwitz prisoners, but, surprisingly, do not focus on Jews:

The black man soon takes up his mandolin,
and will soon start to strum his little tune here,
and the Englishman and Frenchman sing a melody,
so a trio will arise out of this sadness.

And also the Pole soon takes up his whistle
and he will emote to the world –
The song will light up the hearts
who are longing for the freedom they miss. 

The song’s chorus ignites hope in the hearts of the listeners:

Our slave tango – under the whip of the beater,
Our slave tango in the Auschwitz camp…

Oh, freedom and liberty call!

Tango in Auschwitz was not the only tango heard in the camps. Perhaps the musical genre, which grew extremely popular in Europe in the early 20th century, served as a reminder of pre-war life – a spark of hope that the war would eventually end, and life would return to normal. And so, in Stonehill’s collections another song was found, sharing many similarities with Janowski’s song, most notably – it, too, was a tango.

This song was probably written in Auschwitz, though its writer is unknown. This time the song was written in Yiddish, not Polish. The song’s name is “Oh I Used to Have a Father” (Oy gehat hob ikh eynmol eyn tatn) and it tells the story of an orphaned child whose parents were murdered in the notorious extermination camp. The soft, comforting melody of the tango rhythm soothes the pain of loss and lessens the sting of the harsh words that describe life in the camp. The end of the song, much like Tango in Auschwitz, maintains an optimistic note: The narrator declares that he is still young and therefore chooses life and will continue to live in spite of everything.


There are many similarities between these two recordings, which represent rare documentation of the extermination camp songs that gave the prisoners a bit of hope. Both songs were most likely written by young children. They both describe the harsh reality of life in the camp, yet they express true hope that the nightmare will soon end. They are the only two songs in the collection that explicitly mention the name ‘Auschwitz’. In both cases, pain and hope are accompanied by the tango rhythm, its origin far from the land of Poland. For those listening, the songs symbolize the hope that one day, everything might return to normal.


This article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Gila Flam, a scholar of music in the Holocaust and the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel.


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