When all that Remains is a Crust of Bread

Meet Jelena Kon, the woman who broke down cultural barriers to feed and care for the poor and orphaned children of Novi Sad.

“In 1932, 11,920 kilograms of bread was distributed to the poor people of Novi Sad… Every morning, parents brought children ages 1-6 years to the kindergarten and came to pick them up in the evening. The children had three meals here, were medically treated and learned good manners, order and hygiene…”  – From the “Crust of Bread” Report (1933)

Ilona “Jelena” Kon was born on September 1, 1882 in Eisenstadt, Austria to Hermine nee Schlesinger and David Spitzer who was a grape dealer and vineyard owner. Jelena had two brothers, Géza (George), and Igo Johann. In 1904, following her marriage, Jelena moved to Novi Sad to join her husband, Gyula-Julije “Jules” Kon, who was a reputable trader, politician and an active member of Novi Sad’s Jewish community.

Jelena Kon, from “Kora hleba i dečije obdanište u Novom Sadu” [Crust of Bread and Children’s Kindergarten in Novi Sad,] Novi Sad, December 1, 1933.

Jelena quickly became well known in Novi Sad through her interest in charitable work and her love of the arts and culture. During the severe economic crisis of the 1920s, Jelena founded the charitable organization called Kora Hleba, or, in English, Crust of Bread.

In that period, it was common for each ethnic community to have its own humanitarian organization to specifically help the impoverished members of that particular ethnic group. Jelena’s organization was determined to be different. Jelena Kon’s altruistic and noble goal was to improve the health, well-being and education levels of local children regardless of their religious denomination or ethnic background. Despite the fact that its activities were for the benefit of the entire community, Crust of Bread was considered to be a Jewish organization due to its predominantly Jewish membership.

Crust of Bread took care of orphans and poor children. After a while, the organization grew into a kindergarten with a sector for infants and a medical clinic to provide basic care. For years the organization functioned out of several different locations before a purposely designed building was completed in 1933.

Crust of Bread Building, Novi Sad. Photo Credit: Olga Ungar

As part of her fundraising activities for this grand project, Kon organized a number of cultural events, some of them featuring the best known musicians of the time including Bronislaw Huberman, Paul Hindemith, and Arthur Rubinstein.

The Crust of Bread center was officially opened on July 9, 1933, under the patronage of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia.  The Queen’s emissaries, Ministers for Public Health and Education, and representatives of the local government attended the opening ceremony.  The building, designed by architect Đorđe Tabaković, was one of the most prominent examples of modernist architecture in the city. The entrance was decorated with a massive sculpture of a mother holding a child created by Jewish sculptor Michael Kara. The building accommodated a day care center for children, including a kindergarten, medical offices, and a soup kitchen with the capacity to feed one hundred orphans and children from poor neighborhoods.

Mother and Child, Statue by Jewish sculptor Michael Kara, on the Building of Crust of Bread, 1933. Photo Credit: Olga Ungar

The center stopped its activities at the beginning of World War II. Jelena, the woman who had dedicated herself to helping the poor and needy, was arrested, tortured, and murdered during the Novi Sad Raid of January 1942, when 1,200 Jews, Serbs and Roma were murdered and thrown into the frozen Danube by the Hungarian police.

Following the war, the Crust of Bread building was nationalized and served as a children’s hospital and in 1963, it was transformed into a municipal preschool institution and has served as a public kindergarten ever since.

The Monument to the Victims of the Raid in Novi Sad. By Pokrajac – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

There is no memorial plaque on the building to commemorate Kon’s humanitarian work. Even the original panel carrying the name of the charitable society was removed by the Communist authorities after World War II. The last attempt to rehabilitate the memory of Kon was made by her brother George Spitzer in 1955, in an emotional letter sent to the city mayor and the representatives of the Jewish community of Novi Sad.

Letter Sent by George Spitzer in 1955 to the Leadership of Novi Sad, The Jewish Community of Novi Sad.

“I want to suggest to you that the city of Novi Sad do something toward creating some memorial for Mr. and Mrs. Kohn,” wrote Spitzer.  “My brother- in-law and my sister, with their own money, created a place where children could be taken care of during the day while their parents worked. They took care of all children, regardless of their race or religion…

As their bodies were thrown in the Danube River, there is not even a grave to mark their resting place and I think it is very sad that these two wonderful people, who did so much for others during their lifetime, should not have some permanent memorial.”

George described one of his visits to Novi Sad to see his sister at Christmas time. “I remember that the post office turned over to the Kohns the letters which poor children had written to Santa Claus and my sister and brother-in-law personally visited the homes of the writers of these letters and brought, not only what was asked for, but other items of food, clothing and toys as well.”

“They died as heroes,” concluded George. “The Serbian people should not allow their memory to die.”

Spitzer pleaded with the mayor and the Jewish community to commemorate his sister and ensure her memory would never be forgotten, but sadly, his request remained unanswered. Kon and her work for the benefit of the entire community have since been largely forgotten and removed from the city’s historical consciousness. Only the Raid Victims Memorial by the Danube River commemorating innocent victims of this brutal event bears her name and preserves the memory of Ilona (Jelena) Kon.

Memorial plaque at the Raid Victim’s Memorial listing Jelena Kon’s name (line 6).

The Jewish Community of Novi Sad

The Jewish Community of Novi Sad was established in 1749 as an official administrative and religious organization of Jews in the town. During its peak years between the two world wars, the community had 4,000 members, which constituted 10% of the total city’s population. The community centered around the Neolog Synagogue designed by the famous Hungarian-Jewish architect Lipót Baumhorn (1860-1932). Completed in 1909, the synagogue was part of a larger architectural compound, which included the Jewish communal building, the Jewish school, and the ritual bath.  In 1935 this complex was expanded with the Jevrejski kulturni dom (the Jewish Cultural Center). The building housed the majority of Jewish organizations and clubs, a kosher restaurant, a lecture auditorium, a sport hall, a preschool, and the regional bureau of the National Zionist Organization.

Synagogue in Novi Sad. Photo by Ivan Čerešnješ, from the Center for Jewish Art Collection at the National Library.

Novi Sad communal life was intensive and diversified between the two world wars. The Zionist Association was active in the city from 1919 and held the majority in the Jewish Community Board. The Jewish Political Party was established in 1927 and had representatives in the city council. The appearance of the Jews as a national group in the city council not only helped to provide a better understanding of the unique position of the Jews in the society, but also strengthened the sense of Jewish identity and belonging to both Jewish community and to their city.

After the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, Novi Sad was annexed to Hungary. On January 21-23, 1942, during a raid (Razzia) around 800 Jews were marched to the Danube river, where they were murdered and thrown into the frozen river. During that year, all male Jews between the ages of 18 and 45 were gathered into labor battalions and sent to the Ukrainian front, where they perished. The last phase of the extermination of the Jews of Novi Sad occurred in April 1944, when about 1,600 people were deported to Auschwitz. From the pre-war Jewish population of Novi Sad of 4,350, only around 1000 survived the Holocaust.  After the establishment of the State of Israel, some 700 Jews left the city.

The Palestine Post, Sunday, February 27, 1944

Today, the Jewish community has about 650 members. The main goals of the community are to preserve and develop Jewish identity, culture, and tradition of its members and to fight assimilation. To achieve that, the community organizes activities in the field of education, culture, religion, heritage, as well as humanitarian and social work. Within the community, there are various social services, such as a soup kitchen and home for elderly members, cultural and social life including a choir, folklore dance group, art club, klezmer band, children and youth clubs, women’s section, Hebrew language courses, while members also have access to valuable books and documents from the library and the archives.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

The Surprising Jewish Story Behind a Traditional Spanish Bullfight

Read the story behind a poster advertising a bullfight in honor of the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.

Take a look at the rather unique poster below from the National Library of Israel’s European Ephemera Collection. What makes it extraordinary is not the illustration of a black bull hurtling towards the matador’s red cape, nor is it the elegance of his stance opposing the power of the bull’s massive body. It is one word above the names of the two bullfighters that makes this poster so extraordinary.  That word, written in small font close to the bottom of the poster is Maimonides- the name of one of the greatest Jewish writers of the last two thousand years.

Poster advertising a bullfight set to take place on Sunday, March 31, 1935 in honor of Maimonides from the National Library Ephemera Collection.

As the text of the poster says, a great bullfight was set to take place in the Cordoba bullring on the 31st of March 1935, at four in the afternoon, “in commemoration of the Eighth Centenary of the major philosopher of Cordoba, Maimonides.”

It is perplexing to see that particular name on that poster, because, in 1935, Jews like Maimonides had been expelled from Spain for nearly 450 years.  Until about 100 years ago, Spain was officially a Jew-free zone, and ancient Jewish Spaniards, however wise and influential, were not celebrated with stately occasions.

This event is also rather puzzling because Spain at that time was just one mountain range and one river away from Germany where Hitler was in power. Already in 1935, Hitler’s intentions towards the Jews were clearly outlined in his best-selling Mein Kampf.  The Nuremberg laws were just months away. Isn’t it odd that the Jews were being denounced in one country and yet were suddenly embraced in another so close by?

Maimonides himself would have found the event perplexing.  He thought needless cruelty to animals was abhorrent and believed that, as stated by Menachem Kellner in his book, “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” sacrifices of bulls and sheep in the Temple “were not God’s ideal plan for the Torah, but rather an accommodation to the unfortunately primitive character of the ancient Israelites.” It is unlikely he would have agreed to being lauded at an event that involved harming animals for entertainment.

The bullfight itself was part of a five-day state festival in celebration of his life.  It included receptions, cultural events, garden parties, society balls, the opening of a Maimonides museum at Madrid University and the renaming of a square in Cordoba in his honor. Jewish representatives from around Europe were invited to attend the lavish affairs as honored guests. As part of the festivities, the centuries old expulsion of the Jews was reversed – the Jews could now come back to Spain, and some did choose to return.

One of the Jewish visitors to the festival was a young man from Northern England named Chaim Raphael. He reported that there were Jewish men from Lithuania, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, and even Palestine, in attendance. He noted how, despite their national differences, there was a palpable kinship among them.

A list of the books and papers written by Maimonides on display at the Jewish Museum in Cordoba. Photo by Janine Stein.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency was there too and reported on March 31, 1935:

“A ban proclaimed by the Jews of the world against Spain about 450 years ago, was officially lifted today at an impressive ceremony concluding the five-day celebration arranged by the Spanish government to honor the 800th birthday of Moses Maimonides, Jewish philosopher and physician of the Middle Ages.

The festivities closed with a banquet at which high civil and military Spanish authorities were present. President Zamora and Premier Lerroux sent messages to the banquet.

A moving scene was the reopening of the old Cordoba synagogue and with Jewish religious services for the first time since 1492, when the entire Jewish population was expelled from Spain. Chief Rabbi Julian Weil of France recited a special prayer for the President of the Spanish Republic and for Spain, for restoring the Hebrew language and Judaism for the first time since 1492.”

Beyond the emotions of the day, several questions still remain unanswered. Why Maimonides, why Cordoba and why then? Why the sudden interest in reclaiming Maimonides in pre-Spanish Civil War Spain?

The first two questions are easy to answer.  Maimonides was born in Cordoba and left with his family at age 13, after the Almohad invasion in 1148.  Although he lived in Morocco, and ultimately settled in Egypt, he was always nostalgic for the Andalusian Jewish tradition of learning of his youth.

The last question is more difficult to answer.

In March 1935, the government in power in Spain was made up largely of communists, socialists and anarchists united in the hope that they could change the conditions for farm workers. They were opposed by the right-wing Nationalists, including Fascists, the Monarchy and the Church, who rejected any land reform.  This schism became the Spanish Civil War in 1936, with Hitler actively supporting the side of the fascists.

Idealistic young men from Europe and beyond joined the fight to defend the Republican state against the Nationalists led by General Franco. Of this International Brigade, 25% were Jewish.

Janine Stein in Cordoba with a statue of Maimonides. According to Janine, the local tour guide claims that rubbing the shoe of the statue will make you wise. Photo courtesy of Janine Stein

But all of this was in the future on that Sunday afternoon in Cordoba.  Chaim Raphael reported from the event:

“It was too early in the season for the real thing. The fight was little more than a testing of bulls, a gay frolic in which the experts pricked and prodded the young animals to find out which of them had enough spirit to fight for their lives on another day. There were moments of discomfort, when the rabbis and the other visitors wished themselves elsewhere, but for the most part they were able to see the thing through. The Jews and the Spaniards were for the moment at peace.”

Trying to understand the events twenty years later, he wrote:

“Even I, longing to believe, could sense uncertainty in the air. The Republic had run through its first rapture. The graceful gesture toward the Jews of the world was like the wave of a hand from a train passing through a country station. The passengers on the train are not quite sure of the name of the station; the country folk watching the train wave happily in return, but they do not belong on it, and they have no idea where it is going”

The Jews of Europe would soon be on a train themselves, and, looking back, we now know the destination of that train.

But that poster commemorating Maimonides birthday stands as a witness to a different possibility. For one afternoon in Spain in 1935, history took a different turn and for a brief moment there was a celebration of an extraordinary Jewish life.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

The Nazi Atrocities Revealed in Invisible Ink

Postcards and coded letters sent from a concentration camp written in urine reveal the secret experiments performed on human subjects.

Lola Bergman's postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The Yad Vashem Archives.

In a small museum in Poland there is a display of letters which reveal information on a series of Nazi experiments on humans subjects. These letters were written in invisible ink made from urine in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The medical experiments were performed on Polish political prisoners. The letters were donated to the “Saints Under the Clock” museum in Lublin in Eastern Poland, by the family of one of the former prisoners, Krystyna Czyż-Wilgat.

During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany conducted medical experiments on humans – not only in the Auschwitz camp, but also in Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and others. Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp for women in northern Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, some 132,000 prisoners passed through the camp, including about 40,000 Poles and 26,000 Jews.

At Auschwitz, brutal experiments of marginal medical value were conducted, such as attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of children. At Ravensbrück however, the experiments were designed to improve the health of German soldiers. Modern penicillin was not yet available and many German soldiers died of gangrene caused by infected wounds. In the attempt to find alternative medicines to cure infections, the Nazis implanted bacteria into the leg bones and muscles of soldiers by inserting pieces of wood or glass into the wounds. The human victims of experiments in the lab were called little rabbits. The experiments were also conducted on 74 Polish women, young and healthy, whose names appear in the 27 letters that contain hidden messages about the horrors of the experiments they were part of in the camp.

In the concentration camps it was forbidden to hold any personal belongings. Correspondence was permitted under strict regulation and with the scrutiny of censorship. It was possible to send letters from the camp that contained neutral information that was approved by the censors, but several prisoners managed, through the use of invisible ink made of human urine, to inform their families and the world of the shocking medical experiments being conducted.

The brilliant idea to write using urine as ink belonged to Janina Iwańska and was carried out by Krystyna Czyż who had a very clear and beautiful handwriting. Their extraordinary intelligence and love of literature was the key. In her first letter to her brother, Krystyna mentioned the period when they would read books together. She particularly emphasized the book, “Satan from the Seventh Grade,” by the Polish children’s author Kornel Makuszyński. In that novel, the hero sends a letter in which the first letters of each line of text, when put together, form a secret message. Krystyna also placed the words “letter,” and “urine,” in the overt text. Krystyna’s brother understood the intentions and knew what to do. That was how their secret correspondence began.

One of the envelopes containing text written in human urine from the Ravensbrück women’s camp between 1943-1944

Janina Iwańska planned to escape the prison and wrote a secret text on the envelope containing a letter addressed to her father. The letter itself contained some clues indicating that the envelope held secret information written in invisible ink. Since the letter did not have a censorship stamp, it was likely smuggled out by prisoners working in the factories outside the camp. Once the letter reached its destination, the recipients still faced the task of reading the invisible text. The usual method was to heat the pieces of paper with the hidden text using an iron. Thanks to the encrypted messages, the list of 74 women from Lublin who had undergone medical experiments by Nazi doctors in Ravensbrück was made public in the first few years following the end of World War II. In addition to information on medical experiments which included the intentional infection of wounds for the sake of testing new drugs, the letters also contained information about the camp’s operations, punishments and executions.


A letter written and sent by Janina Iwańska from the Ravensbrück concentration camp to her father on May 6, 1943

In 1995, Yad Vashem received a postcard containing a message written in hidden ink to add to their collections. This seemingly innocent postcard was sent by a woman from Krakow, Poland, to Bucharest, the capitol of Romania in 1943. It contains a secret message written in invisible ink describing terrible conditions in a concentration camp. The postcard is part of a collection of letters and postcards, yellow patches and other objects which were donated to the  Yad Vashem Archives as part of the estate of Theodore Feldman, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who passed away in 1993. According to the donor of the collection, Elisheva Ezri, Feldman’s daughter, her father purchased the postcard in a small town near Bucharest. On the postcard, in addition to the addressee and the address, there is a short text is spread out along two lines and written in German: “My dear, I’ll remember you with love. Lola, Krakow, 20.8.1943.”

The back side of Lola Bergman’s postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The postcard is kept in the Yad Vashem Archives and is an integral part of a collection of letters from the Holocaust period.

The sender of the postcard was Lola Bergmann of Krakow. Her address did not contain a street name. The recipient was Yaakov Rosenblum, who, according to the address, lived in the Jewish ghetto in Bucharest. The invisible message included was sent by a man called Otto. The text, written in invisible ink, was in German and contains inside information about one of the concentration camps in the area, incuding details of a well-organized underground movement. The letter even contained a request for aid and equipment suitable for advanced underground warfare conditions, which lends to the theory that this was a part of an espionage operation on behalf of the Allies.

The front of Lola Bergman’s postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The postcard is kept in the Yad Vashem Archives and is part of a collection of letters from the Holocaust period.

The postcard bears the stamp of the Romanian censor, indicating that it had indeed reached Romania, but it is unclear whether it was read by the addressee or not. According to Elisheva Ezri, Feldman himself made the secret text visible by heating up both sides of the postcard with a household clothing iron. If that is the case, it can be concluded that the postcard did not reach the destination or that if it arrived, it seems that it was not clear to the recipient that it contained a message written in secret ink. In addition, the ink may belong to a group of chemicals that can be removed and then made visible when it comes in contact with another chemical. There are many materials and recipes for manufacturing hidden ink and many methods for making the hidden text visible. The use of secret ink for transmitting secret messages was already well known during World War I, and the censor was alert to this even during World War II. Across the postcard is a thick, light brown line. This line attests to an attempt to discover the hidden text using chemical material. Was the hidden text of the postcard visible and therefore caught by the censors? Or was it able to evade censorship because censorship checks could not identify the secret ink?

The contents of the hidden text and its interpretation, including the attempts to discover the identity of Otto, were presented at length on pages 6-7 of issue No. 7 (fall 1997) of Yad Vashem Magazine.

Frederick Accum and the “Death In the Pot”

That time the immigrant chemist from Germany decided to rock the boat and change the English food industry forever.

Frederick Accum qutoes the Book of Kings 2 on the cover of his treatise, 1820

In 1820, an essay about the fraudulent additives put in food was published in England, by one Frederick Accum. It was titled, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, and it sold over one thousand copies in the first month.

Frederick Accum was a pharmacist in Hanover who immigrated on his own to England at the age of 24. He made his way into the the world of apothecary and chemistry in England and was soon mastering English and the science field in which he was apprenticing.

At the turn of the 19th century, Compton Street in London was the center of scientific research in England and it was there that Accum situated himself selling lab equipment and taking his own risks in the lab while working on gas and gaslight. It was that audaciousness in the lab that would lead him on his crusade against the liars in the food industry.

Title page of “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons”. From the Sidney Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

“Adulteration of Bread.

This is one of the sophistications of the articles of food most commonly practiced in this metropolis, where the goodness of bread is estimated entirely by its whiteness. It is therefore usual to add a certain quantity of alum to the dough; this improves the look of the bread very much, and renders it whiter and firmer. Good, white, and porous bread, may certainly be manufactured from good wheaten flour alone; but to produce the degree of whiteness rendered indispensable by the caprice of the consumers in London, it is necessary (unless the very best flour is employed,) that the dough should be bleached; and no substance has hitherto been found to answer this purpose better than alum.”

His risk taking and seemingly condescending attitude was clear when he went after those he considered food tainters and fraudsters. In 1820, Accum’s treatise denounced the use of toxic food additives and marked the beginning of a social consciousness in the approach to food. Accum’s publication addressing the issue of food adulteration by companies became a best seller, with three editions come out in the same year.

The treatise contained methods of detecting the additives, explained in what foods they were found, and the harm they could do if and when consumed.

“Poisonous Soda Water.

The beverage called soda water is frequently contaminated both with copper and lead; these metals being largely employed in the construction of the apparatus for preparing the carbonated water, and the great excess of carbonic acid which the water contains, particularly enables it to act strongly on the metallic substances of the apparatus; a truth, of which the reader will find no difficulty in convincing himself, by suffering a stream of sulphuretted hydrogen gas to pass through the water.”

While his treatise became immensely popular, London’s food producers viewed him as enemy number one.

In the second edition of the book, Accum writes in the foreword that he had received threats from the businesses whose reputation he had “tarnished” by publishing the truth about their dealings. Accum would continue to report the crimes of these businesses and the cheats who were not only guilty of lying to the public, but who were in fact, poisoning the public.

“Poisonous Cheese.

Several instances have come under my notice in which Gloucester cheese has been contaminated with red lead, and has produced serious consequences on being taken into the stomach. In one poisonous sample which it fell to my lot to investigate, the evil had been caused by the sophistication of the anotta, employed for colouring cheese.”

Accum continued publishing more works on food  that the public consumed much like the recipes contain within “A Treatise on the Art of Brewing,” “A Treatise on the Art of Making Wine,” and “A Treatise on the Art of Making Good and Wholesome Bread”.

“A Treatise on the Art of Making Good and Wholesome Bread”. From the Sidney Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

Though he was forced to return to Germany after being persecuted by his poisonous enemies, his works continued to be printed and reprinted and were then translated into French, Italian and German, reaching a wide readership in Europe and in the United States.

Frederick was born in 1769 to a father and a French mother who had fled from France with her family due to the persecution of Protestants by Catholics. His father had converted from Judaism to Christianity and had changed his name from Markus Herz to Christian Accum at the time of his baptism in 1755. Beyond picking the name “Christian”, Accum’s father made the interesting choice of changing his surname to a word derived from the Hebrew “Akum”, an acronym meaning “a worshiper of stars and signs”, which was traditionally used to refer to Gentiles.

Portrait of Frederick Accum, 1820. From the Sidney Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

This article was written with the help of Chaya Meier Herr, curator of the the Sidney Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel.