József “Csibi” Braun: The Tragic Story of a Jewish Soccer Star

József Braun was Footballer of the Year and top scorer in his native Hungary, but those that saw him star for the national team couldn't have guessed that his life would come to a tragic end in the Holocaust


Even those that knew him beforehand would have struggled to recognize the frail figure dressed in the uniform of a forced laborer – thin rags that did little to defend against the harsh weather conditions of the Russian front during the Second World War. But if they looked closely, or happened to hear his name, they likely would have known exactly who he was. Some might have even read the book he inspired: Csibi, written by one Bela Senesh (Szenes).

Senesh was none other than the father of Hannah Senesh, the iconic Hebrew paratrooper and poet who was captured and killed during a daring WWII mission behind enemy lines. Well before that, however, Bela Senesh was a fairly well-known playwright and journalist in Hungary, though Csibi became his most famous work. The book was extremely popular in Hungary during the 1920s, and in the 1950s it was translated into Hebrew by Avigdor HaMeiri.

Csibi by Bela Senesh (Szenes), published in Hebrew by Hakibutz Hameuchad Publishers

The plot tells of a fatherless boy, who grows up in a poor working-class neighborhood before being sent to a school where the children hail from more privileged backgrounds. At first, the other children tease him because of his poor upbringing. “Those poor people, they’re unclean by nature”, his classmates remark, while deciding to shun and ignore the boy, fearful that such a person “might suddenly draw a pocketknife and stab us in the back”. They also label him with the derogatory nickname “Csibi” – a word meaning “street urchin” in Hungarian.

Yet over the course of the book, the boy, Istvan Horovecz, displays his virtues and personal integrity, and eventually manages to win over his classmates with his talent on the football pitch. Bravely enduring his classmates’ various pranks and taunts, [SPOILER ALERT] Csibi finally helps his school win a prestigious tournament, and the epilogue tells of how he eventually becomes an international soccer star and later even a doctor. The book became an instant classic for young readers in Hungary.

Though the Jewish connection is not specifically mentioned in the book, the clues are sprinkled throughout. For example, on Csibi’s first day at school, his teacher pronounces his last name as Horovicz instead of Horovecz. The name “Horovecz” with an “e” was adopted by many Jewish families who sought to make their origins less obvious by choosing a more “Hungarian”-sounding name. Csibi’s assimilation into Hungarian society reflected Bela Senesh’s own beliefs regarding the importance of Jewish assimilation.


Bela Senesh, the Hannah Senesh Archive at the National Library of Israel

So who was the original “Csibi”? The inspiration for Bela Senesh’s book was József Braun, whose story is similar to that of quite a few European athletes of the period: They were Hungarians, Germans, Austrians and so on, but for many of their neighbors and acquaintances, they were Jews, first and foremost. In Hungary in particular, many Jews in the late 19th century and early 20th century began turning to a relatively new sport – football. Sports were a path that offered integration into society, a vision that appealed to the young József Braun.

Born to a middle class family in Budapest in 1901, Braun began playing soccer despite his father’s disapproval, and his talent shone even at a young age. At age 13 he was playing with older children and still managing to stand out. In 1916 Braun was invited to join MTK Budapest, one of the biggest clubs in the country, after the coach happened to see him playing in a local park. By coincidence, MTK was actually known as something of a “Jewish” team – aside from the club’s Jewish president, a number of prominent Jewish players also starred for the club, including Béla Guttmann, Gyula Mándi and Henrik Nadler.

József “Csibi” Braun

Braun, who was nicknamed “Csibi”, played on the right wing, and was an extremely impressive player. Israeli sports journalist Ronen Dorfan has described Braun as someone who was capable of carrying out all of his tasks on the pitch with perfect precision. He was incredibly quick, with excellent ball control skills as well as an eye for goal. Braun won nine Hungarian league titles with MTK as well as two Hungarian Cups. Aside from his achievements at club level, he also starred for the Hungarian national team, scoring eleven goals in twenty-seven international appearances. Dorfan explains that in the context of international soccer in the 1920s, this was a relatively high number of appearances. Braun began playing for Hungary at the age of 18, was Footballer of the Year in Hungary in 1919 and also participated in the 1924 Olympic Games.

József “Csibi” Braun (third from the right), with the Hungarian national team in 1924

Unfortunately, Csibi’s football career came to an end in early and abrupt fashion. At age 20, Braun had already suffered a difficult injury from which he was able to recover, but in 1926, when he was only 25, Braun was forced to hang up his boots after yet another major injury. While he did attempt a comeback in the late 1920s with two American teams (including the Jewish club Brooklyn Hakoah), Braun soon put a final stop to his brief and illustrious career, at an age when most soccer players are in their prime.

During the 1930s, Csibi tried his hand at coaching, spending a few years managing Slovakian club Slovan Bratislava. In 1938, however, with antisemitism on the rise, Braun was forced to return to his native Hungary.

Soon came World War II, with Hungary entering the war in 1941 as a member of the Axis. Braun, who was around 40 at the time, was forced to join one of the Hungarian army’s labor battalions, like many of his fellow Jews. These were, in effect, forced labor organizations, with the prisoners, mainly Jews, required to dig trenches and build fortifications on the war front, while completely exposed to Soviet gunfire.

Braun was sent to the eastern front, and was not among those fortunate enough to survive. Csibi, the international soccer star, died of hunger and exhaustion after two years of forced manual labor in subhuman conditions.

Today József Braun’s name is nearly forgotten in Hungary. Something does remain though – the children’s book which bears his name, as well as the author’s hope of assimilation into Hungarian society through football and sport. Unfortunately, we are all too aware of what became of that hope, as well as the tragic fate of Bela Senesh’s daughter.

In late 2020, Hannah Senesh’s complete archive was deposited at the National Library of Israel. A part of it is devoted to the life’s work of her father Bela. We warmly encourage our readers to explore this wonderful archive both online and at the National Library of Israel building itself.

His Sugar Cube Vaccine Beat Polio. Then He Took a Shot at Middle East Peace

Albert Sabin may be less famous than Jonas Salk, but he probably shouldn't be

"A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf." (Photo: Albert B. Sabin, 1962. From the Boston Public Library collection)

Jonas Salk is rightfully credited with developing the first safe and effective polio vaccine, yet his inoculation was not the one that ultimately brought about the near total eradication of the terrible infectious disease known as “poliomyelitis” or “infantile paralysis”.

Signed photo of Jonas Salk, which the famous researcher donated to the National Library in 1958. From the National Library of Israel archives


Superseding Jonas

Salk’s vaccine, administered by injection, was first approved and widely distributed in the United States in 1955.

Around the same time, another Jewish medical researcher named Albert Sabin was busy developing a different type of polio vaccine – one which could be administered orally and provide significant benefits over Salk’s, including cheaper production costs and longer-lasting immunity from polio without the need for “boosters”.

An oral vaccine, as opposed to an injected one, also meant that it would be much easier and more practical to use for massive inoculation drives, especially in poorer countries and regions where sterile syringes were not readily available.

Sabin’s vaccine used a weakened “live” polio virus, as opposed to the “dead” virus used by Salk. This made it theoretically more risky, yet with the benefits far outweighing the risks, the Sabin vaccine largely replaced the Salk vaccine worldwide from the early 1960s.

A child receives an injection of the polio vaccine, ca. 1960. From the Eddie Hirschbein Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Salk’s vaccine has remained in use and was certainly a critical breakthrough in terms of dramatically reducing the debilitating infectious disease’s prevalence, yet for most of the second half of the 20th century, the oral vaccine developed by Sabin is what facilitated the nearly complete global eradication of polio.

Neither of the men ever attempted to patent their discoveries, seeing it as their privilege and purpose in life to help save millions of people from polio and other ailments.

On the day his vaccine was declared safe and effective for use, Salk was asked who owned the patent. He famously retorted, “Well, the people, I would say… There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Sabin once quipped, “A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf.”


From immigrant to global hero

Born in Bialystock in 1906, Albert Sabin moved with his family to the United States in 1921, fleeing the poverty and violent anti-Semitism of their native Poland. Shortly after receiving his medical degree ten years later, Sabin became specifically interested in studying polio.

Portrait of Albert B. Sabin. Published in The Sentinel, 31 March 1966. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His research into polio and other ailments continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s. As a high-ranking officer in the US Army Medical Corps during World War II, Sabin traveled the globe studying viral diseases, even developing vaccines for some, including dengue fever and encephalitis.

After the war, he settled back into civilian life and his research on polio. Determined to better understand the polio virus, Sabin and his colleagues performed autopsies on everyone who died of poliomyelitis within a 400 mile (650 km) radius of his home in Cincinnati. Sabin and his team discovered that the poliovirus was found in the intestinal tract – meaning that an oral vaccine could theoretically be developed for it.

Ultimately one was.


Cold War trials

As the Salk vaccine had already been widely administered in the United States by the time Sabin’s was ready for trial, he had to test it somewhere else.

Like Salk, Sabin first tested his vaccine on himself, though he would need a much larger scale to prove the vaccine’s efficacy.

For that, he reached out to a most unlikely partner: the Soviet Union, then in the midst of a bitter Cold War with the United States. Nonetheless, the dream of eradicating polio trumped geopolitical tensions.

Massive trials on children in the Soviet Union (as well as other locations around the world including Cincinnati) proved the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. The fact that it could be administered via sugar cube made it even more appealing.

Sabin and his successful vaccine were feted across the globe, as it became clear that the seemingly unlikely American-Soviet collaboration had helped bring the eradication of polio nearer than ever. He received a prestigious medal from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Ultimately, the vaccines developed by Salk and Sabin led to the almost inconceivable decrease in global wild poliovirus cases from millions annually in the 1940s and 1950s to well under a thousand by the dawn of the new millennium.


Conflict and collaboration

The Soviet Union trials were a vividly clear reflection of Sabin’s long-held belief in promoting international collaboration and reducing human conflict.

At a public event in Chicago in 1966, he encouraged President Johnson to listen to the Midrashic teaching that “mighty are those who can convert an enemy into a friend,” warning that “competitive military confrontation” would only lead nations “to annihilate themselves”, and that “if we do not learn cooperation on an international scale in the next 25 years we will not survive.”

Following the Six Day War in 1967, Sabin chaired an organization called American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (APPME), which soon boasted thousands of members from hundreds of campuses across the country. APPME promoted the idea that regional peace was possible and must be pursued, and called for direct negotiations between the concerned parties.

Israeli soldiers patrol along the Jordanian border, 1967. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1968, Sabin led an APPME fact-finding mission to the region, meeting with leading political and intellectual figures in Jordan and Egypt primarily “to determine whether there has been sufficient change in attitude toward the existence of a viable Jewish state in the Middle East to provide meaningful approaches to a durable peace that would benefit the Arab people as much or more than it would the Jews in Israel.”

For its commendable task, the delegation concluded their trip disillusioned, coming to the “terrifyingly sad conclusion” that there had been no sufficient change and consequently there were no new “meaningful approaches” to the durable peace they sought. There had been no “agonizing re-appraisal” of the situation following Israel’s “astonishing victory” in 1967, which, they concluded, had “achieved… a reprieve from the immediate and greatest threat to its survival, but no prospects for peace…”

They even gave their final report a depressing title: “The Arabs Need and Want Peace, But – Impressions and Conclusions of the Mission of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East to Jordan and the United Arab Republic, June 24 to July 5, 1968”.

Of course being an expert in infectious disease does not necessarily make one qualified to solve the Middle East conflict, but the mission’s conclusions do seem especially prescient in hindsight, as the War of Attrition raged and the Yom Kippur War would rock the region once again just a few years later.

Two years after the APPME report, Sabin publicly warned a different American delegation that Egyptian and Jordanian acceptance of the US-proposed Rogers Peace Plan was a disingenuous “tactical move in order to restore the pre-1967 borders and leave Israel vulnerable again.”


Beyond infectious disease

Besides armed conflict, Sabin recognized other pertinent issues facing mankind, including global poverty.

He often looked to Israel as a model for the world – a country he saw as being built from nothing by people willing to sacrifice of themselves for the common good.

Sabin was often honored by organizations for his contribution towards the eradication of polio. He frequently spoke at fundraisers for Israeli and Jewish causes.

Sabin receiving an award from Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, presented by a 10 year-old girl “representing a generation freed from the fear of polio.” Published in the B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩⁩, 15 December 1972. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In 1962, the “Dr. Albert B. Sabin Children’s Woodland” was named in his honor in the United States Freedom Forest outside of Jerusalem.

He became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’s preeminent scientific research center, in 1970.

Albert B. Sabin, president of the Weizmann Institute, welcoming former US Vice President Hubert Humphrey to Israel, 1970 (Photo: IPPA Staff). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzer Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Sabin’s tenure at Weizmann concluded about a year prematurely, though, when he stepped down at the end of 1972 following open heart surgery. After moving back to the United States, he continued to lecture, pursue his own research and areas of personal interest.

Though his most well-known accomplishment was helping to all but eradicate polio, Sabin’s words and actions showed a commitment to bettering humanity that far transcended the field of infectious disease.

Later in life he became particularly interested in solar energy, and shortly before he passed away in 1993, the trailblazing scientist advised that, “The earliest possible development of a suitable technology for replacing… fossil fuels by inexhaustible, clean solar energy is of the greatest importance for the whole world.”


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

A Brief Blinken Family History: From Pereiaslav to DC and Back

US secretary of state's immigrant ancestor was a trailblazing Yiddishist, as well as a carpenter and masseuse

Der Kibitzer, a Yiddish publication dedicated to "Fun, Humor and Satire", was one of a number of periodicals that published Meir Blinken's work in the early 20th century (Image: Caricature published in Der Kibbitzer on July 29, 1909, from the National Library of Israel Digital Collection; Photos of Meir and Antony Blinken / Public Domain)

In 2014, Antony (Tony) Blinken guided the American response to civil unrest in Ukraine, yet the U.S. secretary of state’s roots connecting him to the region run much deeper.


The Blinkens of Ukraine

Tony Blinken’s great-grandfather, Meir Blinken, was born in 1879 in Pereiaslav, the birthplace of the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, not far from Kyiv. During his childhood, Meir had a Jewish education at the Talmud-Torah, a religious elementary school.

Synagogue in Pereiaslav-Khmel’nyts’kyi, built ca. 1900 (Photo: Ukrzakhidprojectrestavratsiia, CJA). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In the late 1890s, Meir studied at the Kyivan Commercial College, which was built as part of a joint educational project undertaken by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. The college’s main sponsor was the Kyivan millionaire and philanthropist Lev Brodsky.

In Kyiv, Meir Blinken became a master cabinetmaker, carpenter, and even massage therapist.

His son, Moritz (1900–1986), Tony’s grandfather, who would become a prominent American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kyiv.

If Ukraine would like to present a souvenir to the next U.S. secretary of state, it could be the recently discovered archival documents about his ancestors: civil registration records from the book of the Rabbinate of Pereiaslav and Kyiv for Meir and Moritz, as well as the Blinken family page from the document collection of the 1897 Kyiv census.


Crossing the Atlantic

When Meir was 25 years old, he and his young family moved to the U.S., a tiny drop in the flood of 105,000 Jews who arrived in America in 1904.

There he opened a private massage office on East Broadway.

This district was filled with the bustling life and Yiddish culture of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side had the highest concentration of Jews on the planet: 300,000 Jews occupying one square mile.

Postcard of New York’s Lower East Side, ca. 1906. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Dr. Mordechai Yushkovsky, academic director of the International Yiddish Center at the World Jewish Congress, told the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that Meir Blinken mostly wrote short satirical sketches for the Yiddish satirical journal Der Kibetzer, for example, a feuilleton about a writer who swamps all Yiddish-language newspapers in America with his texts, whenever a new publication appears.


Trailblazing Yiddishist

Blinken portrayed the real world of Jewish immigrants: the poverty and lack of food, unhygienic conditions, religious superstitions, the lack of education, a lack of understanding of the new country, and the desire to find one’s place in it.

Incidentally, the editorial offices of Der Kibitzer were located 400 meters from today’s Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where in the building dating to that period you can see the reconstructed world of Jewish immigrants with all the accompanying difficulties of life in this New York City “ghetto”.

Masthead of Der Kibitzer from the June 11, 1909 issue, which featured an article by Meir Blinken. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His essays and short stories were also published in socialist and left-wing Zionist periodicals, including Chicago’s Der Yidisher Arbeter Velt (Jewish Labor World).

In 1908, Meir Blinken published his book Weiber (Women), a poem in prose, in London. In this work, as well as in his short stories, the young writer – one of the first Yiddish writers to raise the subject of women’s sexuality – writes about marital infidelity, abortion, and sexual desire.

In 1965, the literary critic Dovid Shub noted that Meir Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex.


The ancestral home’s fate

Meir always signed his name as Blinkin, but his descendants changed one letter, and the name became Blinken. Even on the headstone of the prematurely deceased 36-year-old writer (d. 1915),  his children wrote his name as Blinken.

In the opinion of Professor Wolf Moskovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading Israeli Slavist and member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, Blinken’s Jewish surname means that the founder of the family arrived in Kyiv gubernia from the village of Blinki, which was then in Nevel County, Vitebsk gubernia (today’s Belarus).

In Ukraine, there is no settlement with such a name.

It is interesting to note that Nevel is legendary among Hasidim, who belong to the Chabad movement. In the nineteenth century, the town of Nevel and the surrounding district were a stronghold of Hasidic learning.

In 1927, the communist government seized Nevel raion from Belarus and ceded it to Russia. Thus, today the village of Blinki is located on the territory of the Russian Federation, even though it is only two kilometers from the border with Belarus.

Nevel, 2016 (Photo: Vladimir Levin). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel

Between the censuses of 2001 and 2010, the population of the village of Blinki decreased from twelve to ten inhabitants. The irony is that if the incoming U.S. state of secretary decides to visit the village from whose name his surname is derived, he will probably find his ancestral home completely deserted.


A version of this article was originally published by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Less Famous Scholem? Meet Gershom’s Brother, Werner

The renowned Kabbalah scholar's brother chose a very different path, at one point leading the German Communist Party

Gershom Scholem, who was born in Berlin in 1897, had three older brothers. The closest in age, and his closest friend of the three, was Werner, born in 1895.

Gershom Scholem (first from left) with his three brothers, dressed up in “Oriental” garb. According to Scholem’s handwritten description on the back of the photo, it was taken at the wedding of their “Zionist uncle”, Theobald Scholem. From the National Library of Israel archives

Quite a bit has been written about Werner, who eventually became the head of the German Communist Party and was murdered by the Nazis in Buchenwald in 1940. I once heard Prof. Mirjam Zadoff, the author of “Werner Scholem: a German Life”, say that “there was a time when Werner was the famous Scholem”!

In fact there is even a documentary film about him.

Werner Scholem giving a speech at “Anti-War Day” in Potsdam, Germany, 1925. From the private archive of his daughter, Renee Goddard, London

In 1911 or 1912 Werner joined the German Zionist youth movement “Jung Juda”, and convinced his younger brother Gershom (then Gerhardt) to do the same. The brothers’ Zionism was not to the liking of their semi-assimilated book-publisher father Arthur, and from then on the conflicts with the domineering patriarch continued to grow, culminating with the boys’ activism against the First World War.

Through his involvement in Jung Juda, Gershom became a Zionist activist and began his deep involvement in Jewish studies in general, and in Kabbalah in particular. In 1923 he emigrated to Palestine to become the head of the Judaica Department of the Jewish National Library (now the National Library of Israel), then headed by Professor Hugo Bergmann.

Werner’s trajectory was quite different. Within a year of Jung Juda he decided that Zionism was not for him and joined the youth movement of the Social Democrats. From there he moved further and further left politically. In 1917 he married a young working class political activist named Emmy, who was not Jewish, and the couple had two daughters.

The weddings of the Scholem brothers (“Betty’s children”) appearing in the Scholem family Bible. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1924 Werner was elected to the Reichstag as a representative of the Communist Party. There, as well as in the right wing press, he suffered from many base anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually anti-Semitism made its way into the party as well, as Stalin consolidated his leadership over international Communism. Scholem and his (mostly Jewish) comrades were accused of being Trotskyites and “ultra-leftists” and were expelled from the Party.

In the following years, Scholem actually did work with Trotsky, but eventually left politics and became a lawyer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they well remembered the young Jewish former Communist leader and Werner was immediately arrested, and ultimately murdered in 1940.

Emmy and their two daughters managed to escape to England. In 2012 I was privileged to meet the younger daughter, Renee Goddard, while at a conference in London marking thirty years since the passing of Gershom Scholem. During the seven years of Werner’s incarceration, his family made great efforts to have him freed, but to no avail.

In light of Werner’s personal history, I was quite surprised to discover that in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a copy of Prof. Solomon Schechter’s German book on Hasidism, Die Chassidim: Eine Studie Ueber Juedische Mystik (Berlin 1904), with Werner’s signature!

Werner had apparently purchased the book at the famous Berlin Jewish bookstore of Moritz Poppelauer (1824-1888), a well-known antique collector and publisher, who also authored an introduction to the Talmud. The bookshop, which continued to be operated by the family until the Nazis came to power, was not far from the Scholem home and Gershom purchased books there, as well.

When did Werner purchase this small volume on Hasidism? At what stage of his Jewish and/or political development?

Unfortunately, all we know for sure is that by 1923, Gershom already owned the book, as it appears on the inventory he prepared of his library in preparation for his move to the Land of Israel.

But when did Werner gift him the book and why?

Was it early on, in order to bring his younger brother closer to Judaism? Or perhaps at a later stage when Werner became a communist? At that point he may have decided that the volume was no longer meaningful for him, but that for his brother, the young scholar of Jewish mysticism, it would be important. Alas, to this question as well we have no answer.

As with Gershom Scholem, so too with Werner – sometimes the hidden is greater than the revealed. Sadly, today no one remains for us to ask. All that we have is their books, those they wrote or acquired, as a silent testimony to their fascinating lives.