Let My People Serve! How a Jew Became Mayor of London Against the Odds

David Salomons made it his life’s mission to put an end to the religious restrictions imposed on the Jews of England that forbid them from participation in political and civil life.

Anti-Semitic cartoon published when David Salomons ran for public office. From "Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869", the National Library of Israel collections

For the Jews of England in the mid-19th century, the idea of holding public office was not only outlandish, it was practically impossible due to the religious restrictions, known as religious disabilities, imposed on the Jewish community that excluded them from participation in the political, municipal and civil life of the country.

For David Salomons, the emancipation of the Jews of England became his life’s mission. Born in London in 1797 to Levi Salomons, a prominent stockbroker, David joined the family business and under the tutelage of his father, he became a successful member of the stock exchange.

David felt that a person’s religious beliefs were meant to be private and should be of no public concern – assuming the principles were moral and in line with the views of the state – and that his beliefs and his religion should in no way limit his personal rights or ability to serve the public.

David Salomons. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Eager to remove the religious restrictions imposed on the Jewish community, David decided it was time to break down barriers and boldly announced his candidacy for the Office of the High Sheriff. While his candidacy initially faced opposition, on June 24, 1835, David Salomons became the first Jew to ever be successfully elected to the sheriff’s office. Little did he know that this was just the beginning of the difficult fight he would face throughout his political career.

In order to officially take up his position as sheriff, David was required to take the oath of office – an oath including the phrase, “I make this declaration upon the true faith of a Christian.” This was an oath that no professing Jew could take. Thankfully, just as it seemed David would need to forfeit his seat, the government stepped in and the Sherriff’s Declaration Act was quickly passed, allowing David to take on the role without making the declaration. This declaration was hailed as a triumph over prejudice and a furtherance of civil rights and privileges.

Unfortunately, the law did not take David’s side when he was elected Alderman of the City of London in December of 1835. When David would not take the oath, his election was declared null and void and a new election was held.

Campaign poster. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

David, with the help of other prominent Jews, petitioned the court to make changes to the law, to no avail. David took a chance and again ran for the position of Alderman – this time for the Portsoken Ward. This political race brought with it a new wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric that reared its ugly head in the articles and cartoons in the local papers. Though he was successfully elected, he was once again barred from holding office after refusing to take the oath.

Cartoon published in the local paper when David Salomons ran for Alderman of Portsoken. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

Finally, after years of petitioning and legal action, in 1845, the Jewish Disabilities Removal Bill was successfully passed and a different declaration was composed for Jews elected to public office. Instead of professing to the Christian religion, Jews would vow not to act in a way that would undermine the power of the church.

The oath to be taken by Jews entering public office. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

“I, being a person professing the Jewish religion, having conscientious scruples against subscribing the declaration contained in an act… do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare that I will not exercise any power or authority or influence which I may possess… to injure or weaken the Protestant Church as it is by law established in England.

The next time David ran for Alderman in 1847, he was granted his seat and was permitted to take office after reciting the new oath. That did not stop the anti-Semites from continuing their tirades against him in the press with journalists referring to Salomons as “only half an adlerman.”

The Lord Mayor, David Salomons. From The Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Years later, having served now as sheriff and alderman, and with no religious hindrances in his way, David was elected to the high office of Lord Mayor of London. On November 9, 1855, Mayor-Elect Alderman David Salomon was officially sworn in as Lord Mayor, taking a vow that did not deny his own faith.

Program for the Lord Mayor’s Show on November 9, 1855. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

The Lord Mayor’s Show, a lavish procession and banquet celebration in honor of the new mayor, took place in accordance with tradition. The newly minted Jewish mayor was paraded through the streets with flag bearers, soldiers, drummers and trumpeters walking ahead of his carriage on the way to a bountiful banquet featuring over 1,000 bottles of wine and a decadent dinner. The cost of the celebrations totaled 2,813 pounds, approximately 100,000 dollars today.

The account from the Lord Mayor’s Show. From the National Library of Israel’s European Ephemera Collection

For the Jews of London, the celebration was about more than the appointment of a new mayor; it was a celebration of new rights and new opportunity.

Image from a souvenir featuring drawings of the full procession from the Lord Mayor’s Show on November 9, 1855. From the National Library of Israel’s European Ephemera Collection

Despite facing tremendous opposition and shocking anti-Semitic rhetoric, David Salomons never lost sight of his ultimate ambition: to bring equality and respect to the Jewish community of England.

His persistence and passion drove him to serve in the British parliament, a position that required even more changes in the law to allow for Jews to serve in the government on a national level. His dedication and determination to change the discriminatory laws helped pave the way for future Jewish British leaders and politicians to leave their marks on history.

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.

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.

Jewish History From Bamiyan to Brooklyn

The journey of Jewish languages was the topic of a fascinating lecture held at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on June 11th.

Naomi Schacter speaking at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

In June of 2018, Dr. Yoel Finkleman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, presented fascinating insights about the twists and turns of the Jewish language as it evolved with the wanderings of the Jewish people, in honor of the opening of a new National Library of Israel exhibit at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan, New York.

Throughout history, the Jewish community has been carried by, among other things, distinctive Jewish languages, explained Dr, Finkelman. Over the centuries, Jews have created new languages, combining Hebrew with the dialects of their home countries and developing distinctive localized languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino. In other cases, their language was largely comprised of the local vernacular written in Hebrew characters, such as Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.

Dr. Yoel Finkleman speaking at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, Manhattan

Even when Jews were fully comfortable in the local vernacular, they often had a unique vocabulary that would pepper their speech with uniquely Jewish terms and expressions, such as the Yeshivish dialect of today’s Orthodox young men.

The National Library of Israel recently acquired 250 manuscripts from Bamiyan in Northern Afghanistan, from a collection known as the Afghan Genizah. These manuscripts are written in Arabic, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, exhibiting the diversity of Jewish language. From medieval Afghani receipt books to contemporary comic books, unique Jewish languages are a central building block of Jewish culture.

The exhibit, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” at the JCC Manhattan.

The exhibition, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” developed in partnership with the JCC Manhattan, presents highlights from the Library’s vast collections, which contain manuscripts, books, posters, maps, music, photographs and more. The Library treasures reflect and reveal Jewish life across continents and centuries, and highlight the diverse history and cultures of Israel and its region.

In honor of Israel’s 70th year of independence, the exhibit also includes wonderful examples of the official Independence Day posters produced in celebration throughout the decades.

Independence Day posters from the exhibit, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” at the JCC Manhattan.

The event was attended by over 70 people. Ruth and Sandy Gottesman, leading partners in the Library renewal, participated in the event, along with other colleagues, friends and donors from the area.

Invitation to NLI event at the JCC

Also in attendance was Dr. Jacqueline Heller, who sponsored the exhibit in memory of her parents, Joseph Heller and Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, whose commitment to Jewish life, culture, and history extends from New York to Israel.

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.