Rare Documents from Belgrade Tell Tragic Tale of Lives Taken Too Soon

The documents from the Historical Archives of Belgrade tell the story of Isak Darsa, a young boy murdered in the Sajmiste concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis.


Application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade

Tracing the lives of average Jewish citizens who perished during the horrors of the Holocaust can be extremely difficult- especially if there were few to no survivors in their immediate family. The Historical Archives of Belgrade holds several documents that have helped retrace a part of the story of Isak Darsa, a young man with a bright future ahead of him, that was cut short by the Nazis.

Benjamin Darsa, Isak’s father, was registered for the first time as a citizen of the Belgrade municipality in 1924.  Benjamin’s certificate of permanent residence can be found in the Citizens’ Cards Register within a collection marked Administration of the City of Belgrade. The certificate reveals that Benjamin was born in 1896 to parents Isak and Gintil Elic in Zemun, which at that time was considered a seperate city but today forms part of Belgrade.

Certificate of permanent residence of Benjamin Darsa, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrad.

Benjamin worked as a clerk in a French-Serbian bank and on November 18, 1923, he married Estera-Stela nee Kalef of Belgrade at the old Synagogue Bet Israel. The young couple lived together in a leased house in the center of Belgrade.

Isak himself was born to the couple on May 29, 1926, and the next year, the little family moved into their own home on Prince Evgenie Street (modern-day Braca Baruh Street) in Dorcol, a Belgrade district where Jews formed a majority of the population. Technical documentation belonging to the city of Belgrade has preserved the floor plans of the Darsa family house and show that the architect who designed and built their home was Franja Urban, who would later become famous for his work in designing the new Belgrade Synagogue, also known as Sukkat Shalom Synagoue, in 1929.

Floor plans of the Darsa family house, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Isak Darsa attended a local elementary school in the neighborhood. A glance at his school register shows that his grades were nothing more than average as he was marked with a three on a scale of five in all of his school subjects.

In 1938/39, after finishing four grades of elementary school, Isak Darsa continued his education in the First Male Gymnasium. While he may have proven himself to be average in elementary school, he did not manage to keep to that standard in secondary school as his grades in the Gymnasium were even poorer. Isak barely managed to pass his final exams. While it is unclear if it was due to his poor grades or due to the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, at the age of 13, Isak did not return to the Gymnasium for the next school year.

Isak Darsa’s grade report from the First Male Gymnasium, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

While school may not have been the right place for him, Isak Darsa did manage to leave us another clue as to what he accomplished in pre-war Belgrade. In February 1941, three months before the war broke out in Yugoslavia, Isak began working with a merchant’s apprentice in a fashion store named Benvenisti and Pinkas on Kolarceva Street in the city center. At that time, sixteen-year-old Isak put in a request with the Merchants’ Association to be issued an occupation license. He submitted his photograph along with his application to the association as a part of his request for a license.

Isak Darsa’s application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Unfortunately, the Darsa family met the same fate as most Jewish families living in Belgrade during the Holocaust. Benjamin, Stela and young Isak were murdered by the Nazis.  Isak’s aunt and Stela’s sister, Regina Kalef Eskenazi, who survived the war, reported the deaths of all three Darsas in 1945. Stela and Isak met their end in the Sajmiste concentration camp in 1941 and Benjamin was shot at the Tasmajdan killing site in October 1941. Regina also submitted their war damage claim describing their destroyed and confiscated furniture, clothes, and jewelry.

The Darsa Family in Yad Vashem’s records.

Benjamin, Stela and Isak Darsa have since been registered in Yad Vashem’s victims’ database.

The Boy Who Sent Martin Buber a Birthday Gift, and Was Later Murdered in Auschwitz

A letter and drawings sent by the young Wolfgang Steinitz to Martin Buber in honor of his sixtieth birthday reveal the rare talent and sensitivity of its creator whose life was cut short.

Martin Buber in the “He-Atid” bookstore in Jerusalem, 1946

While searching for documentary material about my family in the National Library’s archives in Jerusalem, the title “Letter by Wolfgang Steinitz to the Philosopher Prof. Martin Buber” came up.

The Wolfgang Steinitz in our family was an anthropologist, linguist and well known communist in Germany. I imagined that it was entirely possible that he had corresponded with Buber. Curious to know what the linguist and the famous Zionist philosopher had in common, I asked the archivist to see the letter. About an hour later the file from the Martin Buber archive with the letter was delivered to me.

I opened the envelope, which was missing the sender’s address, and pulled out an undated letter obviously written in a child’s handwriting, and again without the address of the sender. Attached to the letter were three pages containing drawings.


Following is my translation of the letter:

Very Distinguished Professor Buber!

After receiving your book Erzählungen von Engeln, Geistern und Dämonen (Tales of Angels Spirits & Demons) as a prize in the spring of last year, I tried to illustrate the contents. I am sending you the attached drawings along with wishes for your 60th birthday. So that you can appreciate them, I wish to note that I will celebrate my bar mitzvah on Shabbat (and will be reading from the Torah portion known as) Mishpatim.

With heartfelt wishes,

Wolfgang Steinitz

The letter’s content did not fit with the Wolfgang Steinitz from our family, who was twenty-seven years younger than Buber and would no longer have been a boy on Buber’s sixtieth birthday on February 8, 1938. What’s more, knowing our family history, it was not likely that our Wolfgang would have celebrated his bar mitzvah. And yet, I hoped that perhaps I had come across an unknown family mystery. I sent a picture of the boy’s letter to Wolfgang’s daughter in Berlin, with whom I am in contact, and asked her whether her father drew as a child and whether he had had a bar mitzvah. She answered in the negative to both questions.

I also searched for the book the boy had referred to in his letter to Buber. The entire book is devoted to stories of Hasidic rabbis, towns and courts, and is written in an archaic and not easy-to-read style.

As I followed various avenues of inquiry, my daughter asked me: “Have you tried searching in Yad Vashem?”


I hadn’t even considered Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial)… but I immediately wrote them and not long after received the chilling reply.

Piecing together the information from Yad Vashem, the boy’s bar mitzvah Torah portion and the date of Buber’s sixtieth birthday, I concluded that the writer of the letter was a boy from the city of Gera, near Leipzig, who sent Buber the drawings when he was thirteen years old. He was murdered in Auschwitz when he was all of nineteen.

I wrote about my findings to the Yad Vashem Art Museum and asked whether they were interested in the drawings and perhaps had additional drawings by this boy in their collection. I did not receive a response. I was left with the story which I reveal here for the first time.

I believe that the drawings that have been preserved in the archive for almost eighty years should be published in some way, both for the skill of the illustrations and the possibility that exposing them may lead to other works coming to light by this gifted young man whose life was tragically short.

Thanks to the Martin Buber Estate for permission to publish these items.

Thanks to Dr. Stefan Litt from the Archives Department of National Library of Israel.


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Documenting the Lost Jewish Communities of Bavaria

Theodor Harburger’s photographs of synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects are all that remain of the rural Jewish communities of Bavaria after the Holocaust.


File record from Theodor Harburger's collection of photographs for a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) from Munich, Germany, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

By the end of the 19th-century, many of the smaller Jewish communities in rural Germany had begun to shrink. Many young people were leaving home for the big cities or for America in search of higher education and employment. Several smaller Jewish communities were completely dismantled, their synagogues abandoned, and objects of religious, cultural and artistic value were lost or sold off.

In the Bavaria region, the Jewish communities, fearing their cultural heritage may be lost to time, took initiative and established an association for the documentation of Jewish art and culture. They brought an art historian named Theodor Harburger on board to begin documenting the unique culture that existed in the rural Jewish Bavarian communities at the time. Harburger took on the project gladly and set his own goal of providing his Jewish contemporaries an awareness of their own heritage and local culture.

Pappenheim synagogue
A synagogue in Pappenheim, Germany that was built in 1811. This photograph by Theodor Harburger on 6.12.1926, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Between 1926 and 1932, Theodor Harbuger photographed and documented Jewish ritual objects and synagogues dating as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. Harburger was acutely aware of the importance of his work and took the assignment very seriously, working in an organized manner, documenting every step of the way, preserving for the future those items which characterized Jewish life.

Over the course of six years in the field, Harburger managed to take over 800 photographs in 213 communities in Bavaria. In addition to thoroughly cataloging each subject by including the name and material of the item, its measurements, and the name of the artist, he also included handwritten notes for each place he visited.

menorah card
File record card from Theodor Harburger’s photography project featuring a Menorah from Munich, Germany. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects all underwent the intensive documentation process set up by Harburger to ensure he was preserving the community in the best way possible. While he did not photograph every object he came across, he highlighted the most interesting items and took notes on others that were not to be included in the images.

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Harburger set about his work with the hope that his intensive study of the rich and vast history of Jewish communities of Bavaria might bring about a renewal of modern Jewish life in the area and that perhaps even the local Christian communities could benefit from the rich cultural heritage the Jews had to offer. Little did he know that, just a few years after completing his work, those Jewish communities would be no more.

Bechhofen Synagogue
The interior of a 17th-century wooden synagogue in Bechhofen, Bavaria. Photograph by Theodor Harburger, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

With the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, Harburger immigrated to the Land of Israel with more than 1,000 glass negatives and hundreds of pages of drawings. That was all that remained of his six-year project when the reality he so painstakingly documented disappeared just five years later, in November 1938, during the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The sites he had photographed were destroyed and many of the objects he documented were stolen while others were vandalized or destroyed.

Kleinbardorf cemetary
A Jewish cemetery in Kleinbardorf, Germany as photographed by Theodore Harburger. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Harburger’s photographs, many of which were unique, bear witness to all that was there before the Holocaust, to the communities that once thrived and contributed to Bavaria’s rich cultural tapestry. Not much is known about his activities in Germany or in Israel following this project but his work has had a lasting impact. Approximately twenty percent of the items he photographed have since been rehoused in museums around the world. It was his work that provided accurate geographical and technical information to those institutions.

A set of bechers, cups used to make the ceremonial blessings on wine, in Munich, Germany, photographed by Theodor Harburger on 14.10.1927, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Theodor Harburger died on October 15, 1949. In 1957, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) acquired his collection of glass negatives, slides, contact photos, notes and booklets from his widow, Meta Harburger. Hundreds of photographs from Harburger collection were published in a three-volume catalog, edited by Bernhard Purin, following an exhibition in Fuerth, Germany. The photographs are being used today in various studies in the field of provenance research.

harburger publication
Publication of Theodor Harburger’s works, 1998, by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in the city of Fürth in Germany

Thanks to Hadassah Assouline from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) for her help in writing this article. Parts of this article first appeared in an issue of Segula Magazine in December 2010.

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.

How Lenin’s Great-Grandfather, a Convert, Informed on the Jews

“I had already recognized their stupidity thirty years ago” - Secret police files reveal how the Russian leader's ancestor betrayed his brethren.

Lenin and his great-grandfather's letter

Lenin and his great-grandfather's letter.

By Hadassah Assouline


The letter below was sent to Tsar Nicholas I on January 5, 1845 by Moshe Itzkovich Blank, a Jewish convert from Zhitomir who had taken the name Dmitry Ivanovich Blank after his conversion (converts were not permitted to change their family name). Written in Yiddish, the letter along with a Russian translation, reached the head of the “Third Section”—which functioned as a secret police—at the Tsar’s private office. It remained unknown to researchers until the 1990s when the Russian translation appeared in newspapers in Russia.

The letter aroused great interest due to the identity of the writer’s great-grandson—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—who was none other than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. However, the real significance of this letter lies not in the relationship of its author to Lenin, but in the information it reveals about the world of many Russian Jews who had converted to Christianity over the course of the nineteenth century.

Vladimir Illyich Lenin, great-grandson of Moshe Blank. The father of the communist revolution apparently was not aware of his Jewish roots. Photo: LOC

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of the archives in former Soviet Union countries, a wealth of evidence was discovered about the conversion of Jews. The material was located in the files of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches and in the files of various police institutions, including the Third Section, where an additional category of converts was uncovered. It seems that among the converts were informants who informed on members of their community because of personal disputes, as well as others who quarreled with their communities or community leaders as a result of informing on another community member. Their appearance in the police files was usually related to the information the informants provided and the follow-up investigation.


The Quarrels that Bred an Informer

We know of at least two episodes in which Moshe Blank, the author of the letter presented here, quarreled with a fellow townsman and members of the community of Starokostiantyniv (Alt Konstantin) in Volhynia province. In 1809, after a string of earlier disagreements, the Jewish community accused him of setting fire to the town. A trial acquitted Blank but he left the community and moved to Zhitomir, also in Volhynia province, from where he continued his retaliation against members of his former community in a letter of complaint which he sent to Tsar Alexander I. This letter, which predates the one below, never reached the Tsar but remained with the local authorities in Zhitomir.

Blank also became embroiled in disputes with the local Jews of Zhitomir and following legal proceedings he lost most of his vast property, including a local brick factory. The episode stretched from 1838 to 1844, and immediately after it Moshe Blank converted, changing his name to Dmitry Ivanovich.

Unlike other letters from informants in the Third Section files, Blank’s does not inform on a particular person or on members or leaders of a particular community, but on the Jews of Russia in general, and his missive had consequences for Russian Jewry for years to come.


The Letter’s Contents: The Jews “are not worthy of the grace bestowed upon them by the Emperor”

To our Lord the Emperor, His Merciful Excellency, Father of us all, May God grant him Life, Peace, Blessings and Fortune at Every Turn for His Longevity, Nikolai Pavelovich.

Our Lord Emperor, His Mercy rewards many favors to the Jews [Note: This is the tsar who conscripted young Jewish boys into twenty years of army service!] with his royal decrees that Jews must educate their children in government schools. It is clear to people of intelligent that in his mercy the Emperor wishes for the Jews to be educated and to dress as decent people.

The boors among the Jews do not understand this benevolence. They call these munificent decrees edicts. They are not worthy of the goodness the Emperor bestows upon them. I am now close to ninety and I was baptized in the Christian faith on the first of January 1845, and I attend church and see how every day the prayer is recited for the welfare of his Excellency the Emperor, for the welfare of the heir to the throne and for the welfare of his family. And this is right, because it is written in the Talmud “Oh pray for the welfare of the Kingdom” etc. And the Jews, even on the Day of Atonement, when they sit in the synagogue for the entire day … they do not say even one prayer for the welfare of the kingdom, despite that the prayer for the welfare of the Emperor His Excellency himself, not his family, is found in the prayer book, though the Jews never recite this prayer. It is there for the sake of appearances only … I had already recognized their stupidity thirty years ago, and distanced myself from them. And I placed my two sons in [government] schools, and twenty years ago I sent them to Petersburg to the university and there they completed their medical studies and were baptized. One, a military physician, died in Petersburg from cholera, and the other [Lenin’s grandfather] serves the Emperor in the city of Perm. I could not be baptized as long as my wife was alive, and after her death I was baptized so that I might end my life in the true faith. I know that not a few Jews would like to sway the Jews from their silly ways … but they must remain silent because there are some that hope to gain from their parents’ inheritance and there are some who fear their wives.  

… For the Jews receive many benefits from Christians both in terms of religion and in life. First, if the Christian will not buy the non-kosher meat [from the Jews] they will have to throw the meat away; and if the Christian will not buy the leavened bread on Passover, they will have to forfeit it. And second, the Christian serves the Jews on the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement by lighting the lamps in the synagogue and he [the Jew] profits from the Christian. The Jew should not despise the Christian, it is only that the Jew waits his entire life for the coming of the Messiah and a few times a day says in his prayers “I believe in the coming of the Messiah,” etc., and asks daily to be liberated from [Russian] citizenship and to be free. 

My Lord the Emperor, His Excellency, it is my wish that the Jews will be pressed so that they will not be permitted to benefit from Christians as I have written and that their prayers which they pray about the Messiah be erased so that they will no longer be remembered anywhere. First, because they cannot be educated while they look forward to happiness [the coming of the Messiah]. And second, it is outrageous that they have sworn to be true citizens at the same time as they are praying for “liberation.” They must also be ordered not to travel to the rabbis and the rabbis must be forbidden to travel to them, because the rabbis sway them from the right path. And may they be instructed to pray for the welfare of the Emperor, [for the welfare] of the heir to the throne and [for the welfare of] his family. And if this is true in the eyes of the Emperor, certainly the Jews will be educated and will thank him greatly for the good things he wishes to do for them.   

Dmitry Ivanovich Blank

January 5, 1845

סבא רבה של לנין
The letter, click to enlarge.


Response to the Letter: Edicts

Two days after the head of the Third Section read the letter, he presented Tsar Nicholas I with a report about the letter of the “convert from among the Jews.” In the report, the head of the department noted all of Blank’s accusations against the Jews and he suggested adopting a series of measures in the spirit of Blank’s letter.


ניקוליי הראשון
Nicholas I, the Tsar to whom Blank wrote, was also called the “Iron Tsar” for his belief in the absolutist regime. His lust for power was to a great extent turned toward the Jews through the “Jewish Reforms”—hundreds of harsh edicts, the cruelest of which was the Cantonist edict.

At the end of the report is a note by the governor of Zhitomir who wrote/had this to say about Blank: “A convert from the Jews, whose character suggests he is a troublemaker with a tendency to snitch, and who is not at all well-behaved.” Yet this negative characterization did not prevent further contact between the Russian authorities and Blank. In August 1846, Blank wrote another document, again in Yiddish, “about various methods of converting the Jews.” This document was sent to the Ministry of the Interior, which passed it on, by order of the Tsar, to the “Committee for Jewish Affairs.” In addition to his earlier recommendations, Blank suggested to forbid gatherings of Hasidim, whom he called “known zealots.”

Based on this document, on December 4, 1846, the committee concluded that conversion of the Jews was not on the agenda but their reluctance to recite the prayer for the welfare of the Tsar was intolerable. The committee noted that information on this failure was received from other sources, and therefore ordered—through the Ministry of the Interior—to monitor the attitude of the Jews to this prayer and punish those who did not recite it.

Over the course of a decade, central and local committees continued their activities throughout Russia regarding the prayer for the tsar and his family. It was only in May 1855 that the text of the prayer was agreed upon and approved by the tsar. Blank’s other proposals were submitted to the rabbinical committee but yielded no practical results. Indeed, “your ruiners and destroyers will come from amongst you.”


This article originally appeared in Hebrew in issue #16 of Segula – The Jewish History Magazine.


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