How a Diamond From the UK’s Imperial State Crown Ended Up in an Israeli Engagement Ring

Set in the center of the Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom is an enormous diamond. A part of the original stone is in the possession of an Israeli family. How did this happen?


Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation wearing the Imperial State Crown with the diamond at its center. Photo: Cecil Beaton. Source: Wikipedia

In the Imperial State Crown that Queen Elizabeth II wore at her coronation, the same crown that has now passed to King Charles III, you will find 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies. Embedded in the center of the crown is a huge diamond. A piece of the original stone from which it was cut is in the hands of an Israeli family. This is the story of that diamond’s fascinating journey:

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom. Some of you may recognize it from the opening credits of the Netflix series The Crown. Source: Wikipedia

In 1907, an unusual diamond was mined in South Africa. At the time, it was the largest diamond ever found, weighing 3,106 carats, the size of a human heart. It came to be known as the Cullinan Diamond. The new government in South Africa, which only five years earlier had gained independence from the British Crown, decided to give the stone as a gift to King Edward VII, Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, on the occasion of his birthday.

The unpolished Cullinan Diamond. Source: Wikipedia

A good diamond requires top diamond cutters who can bring out the stone’s brilliance, so King Edward looked for someone to entrust the job to. He found the Asschers—a Dutch family known for its supreme diamond cutting skills. This is my grandmother’s family.

My grandmother Elizabeth (Elisheva) and her older sister in Amsterdam before WWII. Photo courtesy of the family

From London to Amsterdam – A Bold and Discreet Operation

How does one securely transport such a precious treasure from London to Amsterdam without having it stolen? In 1908 a British battleship left London for Amsterdam. In its belly it carried a secure box with the unpolished diamond inside—or at least that is what many were led to believe. This operation was actually a cover up, because at the same time, the real diamond was in the pocket of one of the sons of the diamond cutter family. Abraham Asscher set sail from London to Amsterdam around the same time on an ordinary ship traveling without baggage – only a large coat to protect himself from the cold and to disguise his precious cargo.

Queen Elizabeth II with her husband Prince Philip on her coronation day, 1953. The Queen is wearing the Imperial State Crown with the large diamond at the center. Source: Wikipedia

The operation was a success and the diamond arrived safely in Amsterdam. But then a new problem emerged—the Asscher family discovered that the huge diamond could not be cut. The chisel broke with the very first blow! It would take another two years, and the invention of a new diamond cutting patent—which to this day is called the “Asscher Cut”—for the Asscher family to finally cut the treasure as requested.

The nine diamonds cut from the original Cullinan Diamond. Source: Wikipedia

Finally, some two years later, the Asschers were able to return the diamond to King Edward, after it had been cut into nine polished diamonds and 96 smaller stones. The same year, 1910, the central diamond, weighing 530 carats, was placed in the scepter of the King of England and given the name “The Great Star of Africa.” This diamond alone was then valued at £2.5 million, which is about £52 million today. The second largest diamond was named “The Second Star of Africa” ​​and was set in the center of the Queen’s crown.

The nine diamonds cut from the original Cullinan Diamond. Source: Wikipedia


When Cutting Diamonds, Expect the Chips to Fly

How much were the Asschers paid for their work? When diamonds are cut, chips fly. In this case, the chips turned out to be reasonably sized diamonds, which were given to my great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Asscher, as payment for his work. Shortly afterwards he also received a knighthood from the Queen of Holland.

The Queen of Holland bestowed a knighthood upon Joseph Asscher, a report from January 22, 1909 in the Hebrew Standard newspaper

The Asschers decided that the diamonds would be passed down from generation to generation by the men in the family, who would give them to the women they married in their wedding rings. Many members of the Asscher family were murdered in the Holocaust, but my grandmother, Elizabeth Asscher, survived. After the war, she was able to retrieve two of the diamonds that somehow managed to be hidden from the Nazis.

My grandmother’s family. From right to left: Jul was murdered in the Holocaust; Jap survived and lived to the age of 100 in the United States; my grandmother Elizabeth (Elisheva) survived the Holocaust and lived in Israel until her death a few years ago; Betty who is still alive and lives in Israel, just celebrated her 103rd birthday a few months ago. Photo courtesy of the family

One of these diamonds adorned my Grandmother Elizabeth’s ring for 65 years—a royal diamond set in a cheap metal ring, in the best thrifty Zionist-Dutch tradition.

One of the diamonds was given to my brother, who, with the help of an amazing jeweler on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, set it on a ring and gave it to his beloved Nynke, who happens to be both adorable and Dutch.

The family diamond ring my brother gave to his fiancée Nynke. Photo courtesy of the family

And so, a piece of the magnificent Imperial State Crown diamond ended up in Israel, by way of my family’s connection to the British royal family. Who knows how the diamond’s journey will continue?

“Vienna of the Sewers”: A School for Dictators

In 1907 a young man from a small provincial town in Austria arrived in Vienna, the European art capitol of the era, with hopes of enrolling in the art academy. His rejection led him to roam the streets of “the other Vienna,” which many historians viewed to be a “school for the future dictator.”

Adolf Hitler’s Party Membership Card. Though in Mein Kampf he claimed that he was the seventh member to join the Nazi party, this card proves that he was in fact the 555th

In 1907 a young man from a small provincial town in Austria arrived in Vienna, the European art capitol of the era, with hopes of enrolling in the art academy. His rejection led him roam the streets of “the other Vienna,” which many historians viewed to be a “school for the future dictator.”

The young Adolf Hitler

The Vienna Hitler met with was not the same Vienna familiar to art lovers. The neighborhood where the impoverished young man lived was not one of the glorious cultural districts that had produced cultural and artistic greats like Gustav Klimt, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler. The Vienna where Hitler lived was known as the Vienna of the sewers: a city where thousands of penniless young people wandered in search of a paltry income. It was a Vienna of poor men struggling to live in crumbling apartments or pay-by-the-day government subsidized public housing. This was a school for the future dictator: in Vienna, the multinational capitol of a mighty empire, Hitler encountered an array of cultures and “races.” He perfected the poisonous hatred of foreigners he had brought with him from his provincial upbringing. From his visit to the multilingual parliament he developed a hatred of democracy which he viewed as a nonfunctional system of government. He saw Vienna as a place where the glorious German race had deteriorated by mixing with inferior races, chief among them of course, the hated Jews.

Adolf Hitler, The Vienna State Opera House, first decade of the twentieth century

His failure to gain entry to the art academy and the general failure that characterized his life was a blow to his pride. From a deep loathing of the miserable situation in which he found himself, Hitler was drawn toward German nationalism, which enabled young Austrians like him to see themselves as part of something greater than just themselves. They were the superior German race that will once again have the upper hand and rule over others. During those days when he was barely eking out a living from selling postcards with his drawings to passersby, he entertained himself with fantasies of the restoration of Greater Germany (which included Austria) and the part he would play in it.

The outbreak of World War I (known as The Great War for that generation) offered the young man an escape from the suffocating capitol. A year earlier he had crossed the border to Munich and in 1914 joined the German army. For most of the war he was running along the French/German front, a post he dutifully fulfilled at great personal risk. Word of the German defeat reached him in a hospital where he was recovering from a gas attack.

Hitler celebrates with the crowds in Munich at the outbreak of the First World War

After the war, while looking for a job, he found his true calling: inspiring crowds to hatred and violence. As more and more crises plagued his new-old homeland Germany, the party he had founded rose higher and higher. In 1933, the man who declared himself Führer (the leader) of the Nazi party was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

Adolf Hitler’s Party Membership Card. Though in Mein Kampf he claimed that he was the seventh member to join the Nazi party, this card proves that he was in fact the 555th

The kind of popular politics that characterized Hitler was the politics of shrill and venomous attacks. They characterized his professional career as a dictator and led him on 1 September 1939 to form a temporary alliance with the Soviet Union and divide between the two powers neighboring Poland. After the West’s appeasement with Germany in Munich the previous year, Hitler believed that the occupation of Poland would also pass without much of a response. He was mistaken. The invasion of Poland, Britain and France’s close ally, sparked the most terrible war humanity had ever known. It was during this war that the most systematic and brutal genocide in the annals of history was perpetrated: the Holocaust of European and North African Jewry.

Adolf Hitler passed six directionless yet intense years in Vienna. In his autobiography from1924 he wrote, “Vienna was and still is for me the most difficult school but also the most profound I have attended.”

Historians have been grappling for generations with the question of whether history is created by great people or by great events? Either way, many historians, philosophers, and ordinary people believed that had a rather spoiled young man had been accepted to the academy of art in Vienna back in 1907, the world might have gained another mediocre painter but also would have avoided the most bloody and terrible war of all time.

A Kol Nidre Prayer on the German Warfront in 1870

Even on Yom Kippur, German Jews in the 19th century were ready to sacrifice themselves for their homeland

A Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz, 1870

The Franco-Prussian War broke out in the summer of 1870 and ended about six months later with the defeat of France. The war brought about the unification of the many German states and the establishment of the Second Reich.

These were not the first Jewish soldiers to fight for their country, far from it. Years before, Jews were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian and French armies. Jewish soldiers also took part in the American War of Independence, and the Russian army forcibly took Jewish children from their homes for military service as early as the 1820s, following the Cantonist Decree. In 1870, German Jews saw the war against France as an opportunity to show their gratitude for the equal rights they had been granted not long before. Against this background, about 4,700 Jews joined the German army to fight for their homeland.

On August 19th, 1870, the French Army of the Rhine retreated to the fortresses of the city of Metz and the Prussian army imposed a siege on the city.

One of the Metz fortresses after the war

The German Jews who were among the soldiers maintaining the siege must have hoped that it would end before the Jewish High Holidays. But Rosh Hashanah came, and the siege of Metz remained in place. The Jewish soldiers were allowed to hold prayers, but there were no chaplains to handle the preparations and lead the ceremonies. A young rabbi named Isaac Blumenstein took up the task, arriving at the military camp on September 30, just before Yom Kippur. The prayers were to take place at the First Army headquarters in the village of Sainte-Barbe, about eight kilometers from the battlefield.

The rabbi was offered to hold the Yom Kippur prayers in a local Catholic church. He refused and instead turned his and his neighbor’s personal quarters into a makeshift prayer space. Two candles were placed on a table that substituted as the bimah, and some 60 to 70 soldiers gathered there for the prayer.

Rabbi Blumenstein’s description of the event

Rabbi Blumenstein described the extraordinary event in an article that was published in the press after the holiday. A few days later, a soldier who had been there described it in a letter, adding that some officers and members of the command had also come. The soldier described Rabbi Blumenstein’s stirring sermon and how it even moved some to tears.

The German artist Hermann Junker (who was not Jewish) created two paintings commemorating the Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz in 1870. Not having been present at the event, the artist had to imagine both scenes, although the first painting is based on Rabbi Blumenstein’s description. The caption at the bottom of a postcard featuring the painting describes it as the Kol Nidre prayer on the eve of the Yom Kippur holiday. At prayers the next day, since there was no Torah scroll, Rabbi Blumenstein recited the Torah reading and Haftarah from memory.

Postcard based on Junker’s painting

The second painting documents the Yom Kippur-day prayers being held outdoors in an open field. The painting shows dozens of soldiers, most of them wrapped in their prayer shawls and holding prayer books, gathered around a rock that is being used as a bimah. At the center are three soldiers reading from the Torah scroll. Piles of weapons and even a cannon are shown at the ready. A number of civilians are also included in the picture.

This painting is based on a description written by an anonymous soldier before Yom Kippur that was published in the Jewish press after the holiday. His description noted that 1,174 Jewish soldiers from Silesia and Poznań were planning on attending the prayer. The soldier wrote that, with God’s grace and in the hopes that the French commander — that is, the enemy — would allow it, the prayer would take place in an open field. The soldiers would wear their Pickelhaubes (the typical Prussian spiked helmet) and wrap themselves in their prayer shawls. During the prayer, their non-Jewish comrades would keep watch from a distance to avoid any disruptions. However, things did not go as planned because shortly before the prayer service was to begin, most of the soldiers were called away on a mission.

Yom Kippur prayers in the field

Nevertheless, the painting of the prayer on the battlefield thrilled all who saw it. German Jews viewed it as conclusive proof of their loyalty, notwithstanding their religion and beliefs, to the German people and their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the homeland.

The importance of the German Jews’ military service in the war is also evident in a pamphlet published at the beginning of the war containing a sermon by Rabbi Rahmer of Magdeburg in German, which also included quotes in Hebrew from the scriptures.  The pamphlet is titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”).

The pamphlet was titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”)

In 1871, after the war was over, a memorial book was published for the Jewish soldiers who served in the Prussian army. The book describes the war’s events and includes a long roster of the names of all the Jewish soldiers who fought in it as well as special mention of the 70 or so Jewish soldiers who were awarded the “Iron Cross” for bravery in battle.

Unlike the painting commemorating the more modest service in Rabbi Blumenstein’s private quarters, Junker’s painting of the Yom Kippur prayers in the open field was copied, elaborated and distributed across Germany and beyond. It inspired other paintings of the same event, most of them more elaborate and detailed than Junker’s original, even replacing the natural rock bimah with a proper one as well as a Torah ark. In some of the paintings, non-Jewish soldiers are seen in the surrounding mountains guarding the Jews as they pray in the open field. One picture even shows Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Bismarck, Chief of Staff von Moltke and other high ranking officers in attendance.

The Prussian military leadership at the prayer

Another notable difference between Junker’s original image and the versions it inspired is that most of the later versions were colored, which made it possible to distinguish between the different military uniforms and units. Some of these versions also added poems and prayers in German and Hebrew.

An illustration inspired by Junker’s painting

Junker’s painting also inspired a version that was printed on red cloth and decorated with inscriptions, most notably the verse featured at the top from the book of Malachi (2:10): “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” In other words reflecting the notion that all German soldiers are equal, regardless of their religion.

Cloth banner with the quotation from Malachi

Forty-four years after the Franco Prussian-War, Germany was at war again. Many photographs document German Jewish soldiers praying at different locations on the various Jewish holidays throughout the First World War. But the German Jewish families who still had Junker’s famous picture hanging on their walls must have been happy to see a similar painting from the latest war. In the first year of the Great War, an artist by the name of Pusch painted a picture inspired by Junker’s from 1870. Although it records a different place and time, here too, a large group of Jewish soldiers is portrayed praying for their salvation and the success of their countrymen on the battlefield.

Jewish soldiers praying during the First World War, inspired by Junker’s 1870 painting

Stolen by the Nazis: A Book’s Rediscovery in Jerusalem

The long journey of a book of Leviticus that was hidden in a Vienna basement during the Nazi era, before eventually making its way to the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Lab…

We recently came across a unique copy of the book Mesilat Yesharim in the collections of the National Library of Israel. The book had been given as a gift to a bar mitzvah boy in 1936. Tragically, the gift’s recipient and his family perished in the Holocaust some years later. The Nazis looted many Jewish libraries in Austria on Kristallnacht and in the period that followed. Among them were the Jewish Community Library in Vienna (the IKG library), and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library (ITLA), private libraries, bookstores, and publishing houses.

Most of the books were sent to Berlin to the huge library of looted books in the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA). Part of this library was destroyed in the bombing of the German capital, other parts were discovered after the war. We do not know the exact route this bar mitzvah book took, but in the 1950s, thanks to the persistent efforts of the National Library, and with the assistance of the Ministry of Religions and the consent of Vienna’s remaining Jewish community, many books, including this one, were brought to the National Library of Israel. A label affixed by the Library informs that the book was donated by the Jews of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

“Donated by the Jewish Community of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust” – a label affixed to books stolen during the Holocaust and later discovered in Vienna

Some weeks later, we discovered another interesting book that had once had a Jewish owner in pre-Holocaust Vienna. According to old Library records from 1956, the book, The Pentateuch: Book of Leviticus – With Onkelos Translation & Commentary by Rashi, was sent to the Library as part of the work of the “Diaspora Treasures” project—an enterprise that brought books from Europe to Israel after the Holocaust.

We couldn’t see any label on the book at first, so it wasn’t clear that this copy had, in fact, been looted by the Nazis.

Pentateuch, Leviticus, 1797/98, inside front cover, with a barely visible label underneath the paper

Suspecting that this was indeed a book that had survived the Holocaust, I brought it to Hagar Millman, a conservator at the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Laboratory. “As soon as the book arrived at the lab, and in light of the possibility that it had survived the Holocaust, I immediately put our special equipment to work to determine what was underneath the inside cover page” Millman says. “It’s hard to describe my excitement when I discovered the label hidden underneath the page. I knew immediately that this was a special item that had undergone a tortuous journey before finally reaching the National Library, and that it must have come with a fascinating story”.

The label is revealed

Before treating the book, a written report on its condition was prepared and the item was also photographed so that we could compare it before and after restoration. The removal of the paper covering the label and all the adhesive residue was an extremely delicate process that took several hours and required special tools—a thin spatula, tweezers and a scalpel, controlled humidity and reversible adhesives.

Hagar Millman revealing the hidden label

On the book’s back cover we found another important label that had also been partially hidden by a white sticker and a fabric binding on the spine (the book had been rebound at some point so that a fabric binding partially covered the label).

The partially hidden label of the Institute of Oriental Studies on the back cover, prior to the restoration work

“Here too, very delicate work was required, until I was able to uncover the entire label, which made it possible to trace the item’s history” says Millman.

The label emerges from under a striped cloth cover, the remains of which are seen on the left
The outside cover of the book with the label of the Institute of Oriental Studies, once covered by a sticker and a later rebinding

The “donation” label of the Vienna Jewish community that had been partially covered shows definitively that the book had been sent to Israel from Austria. But this was only half the story.

During the war, many books were transferred to Austria from the central library of the Advanced School of the NSDAP, established by the main ideologist of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg. The books were looted from all over Europe, not only from the Austrian Jewish community. A signature and stamp on the front pages of the book and the label glued to the back cover and recently revealed in the lab led us to the book’s origins.

According to the frontispiece, the book was printed in Vienna in 1798. The signature at the top of this page belonged to a man named Sheftel Bientz who was probably one of the book’s first owners. On the same page there was also a stamp of the Viennese branch of Agudath Israel. This was an interesting twist, as the secretary of that organization in Vienna was the person who gifted the copy of Mesilat Yesharim to the bar mitzvah boy back in 1936, writing the dedication contained within as well. It is possible that both books passed through his hands.

The book’s frontispiece with the signature at the top of the page and the stamp of the Vienna branch of Agudath Israel

The label on the back of the book reads: Orientalisches Institut – Universität Wien (“Institute of Oriental Studies – University of Vienna”) and below it appears the word Leihgabe, meaning loan, indicating that the book was not originally part of the university library.

How did a book belonging to an ultra-orthodox organization find its way to the University of Vienna?

Kurt Schubert was an Austrian student who opposed the Nazis and their actions, but for obvious reasons he wasn’t able to voice his opinion publicly. Due to his asthma, he had been released from military service and used the war years to pursue academic studies. Schubert enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied under Professor Viktor Christian, an Assyriologist, who was also a member of the SS and among whose research activities was the exhuming of skeletons of Jews for the purpose of racial and hereditary testing.

As part of the effort to spread Nazi ideology among German academics, SS commander Heinrich Himmler founded the Ahnenerbe organization in 1935. University researchers serving in the organization were tasked with discovering the roots of the German people and scientifically proving the superiority of the Aryan race. Ahnenerbe transferred books looted from Jewish and other libraries to Professor Christian and asked him to catalog them in the hope that they would help researchers in their study of the soon-to-be extinct Jewish race. As more books continued to arrive from Austria, Germany, and Poland, Schubert and other students assisted their professor in his work.

In lieu of military service, Schubert was made an air raid warden. While on duty, he discovered a basement in the Jewish Center of Vienna where many books from the community libraries were stored. Arguing that they were a fire hazard, he obtained Professor Christian’s consent to transfer the books to the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna. Thus Schubert saved about 20,000 books and when the war ended he returned them to what remained of Vienna’s Jewish community. These and others books eventually made their way to Israel, accompanied by Schubert himself who was invited to visit the new state.

The Pentateuch we discovered was probably kept in that very basement in Vienna. It was transferred to the University of Vienna, affixed with a university label and used for antisemitic academic research. Thanks to Schubert and the Vienna Jewish community, today it is available for viewing and research at the National Library of Israel.