The Chad Gadya Melody That Survived the Holocaust

Shmuel Blasz was murdered at Auschwitz, but the original melody he wrote for the beloved Passover song lives on

חד גדיא

Shmuel Blasz's version of Chad Gadya, the Music Department at the National Library of Israel

Hungary, 1940-1942

Shmuel L.:

Shmuel Lazarovich, a young Jewish man in his early thirties, is recruited to the Hungarian Labor Service. He leaves his wife and children behind. The Hungarian military has no interest in Lazarovich and his Jewish brethren, who are forced to take on difficult and arduous labor tasks.

Shmuel B.:

Shmuel Blasz, a Jewish musician, is also recruited to the Hungarian Labor Service. Blasz, who works alongside Lazarovich, teaches his new friend his own original melody, a Hungarian version of the famous “Chad Gadya” Passover song. One of the two jots down the notes on a random sheet of paper, thus preserving Blasz’s composition. Later on, during a short vacation in his home village of Hőgyész, Lazarovich places the notes in a side cabinet in his home.


“Chad Gadya” – a Hungarian version composed by Shmuel Blasz


Shmuel Lazarovich (right) during his time with the Hungarian Labor Service


Hungary, 1944

On the 19th of March, 1944, the German army invaded Hungary. Many Hungarian Jews perished, including Shmuel Blasz and Shmuel Lazarovich’s wife and children. Shmuel Lazarovich himself was sent to the Dachau concentration camp.


Shmuel Lazarovich wearing a prisoner’s uniform at Dachau


Hőgyész, Hungary, 1945

As a holder of a certificate attesting to his being a Yugoslav, Shmuel Lazarovich was allowed to return to his home in Hőgyész. Wearing a German soldier’s hat emblazoned with the symbol of the Wehrmacht, he received a warm welcome from the Swabian villagers who greeted him. Lazarovich hurried to his house to check if everything was in order. The wooden cupboard in which he had concealed his Jewish ceremonial items remained intact. He opened the cupboard and saw his complete set of tefillin and his Talit (prayer shawl) just as he had left them. Next to them lay a Passover Haggadah, with a single brownish sheet covered in musical notes inserted between its pages. This was the music composed by Shmuel Blasz for his Hungarian version of Chad Gadya.


Listen to Shmuel Blasz’s Hungarian version of “Chad Gadya”:


Israel, 1964

Following the war, and after many hardships, Lazarovich remarried. Until 1956, he continued to live in Hőgyész where he served as a cantor, shochet and mohel. Later, he was asked to move to Budapest and serve in similar positions for the local community. In 1964 he immigrated to Israel and settled in Bnei Brak where he lived for nearly two decades. In 1983, Shmuel Lazarovich passed away, leaving behind a daughter – Judith.


Shmuel Lazarovich. Photo: Gabriel Laron


Israel, the National Library, February 2019

Gabriel Laron, Shmuel Lazarovich’s nephew, approaches the Music Department at the National Library, offering to donate a manuscript of the notes to Shmuel Blasz’s Chad Gadya melody. The original manuscript had been preserved for many years by Judith Lazarovich – Shmuel Lazarovich’s daughter – who had passed away a few years earlier. Following her death, the manuscript was handed over to Gabriel Laron.

Laron himself was even recorded in the Sound Archive studio, so that the songs which were sung in his childhood home could be documented and preserved.

During the recording process, he told of another Hungarian song he had learned from his uncle: “The story takes place in 1882, in a village in northeast Hungary. A maid, who had apparently quarreled with her (non-Jewish) masters, took a walk along the banks of the Tisza River, where she either committed suicide or fell to her death.

“It was the eve of Passover. The local Christians claimed the Jews had killed the girl because they wanted to use her blood to make matzot. The body was found but there were no signs indicating that the girl was murdered. Her mother refused to identify her and claimed it was not her daughter. The local prosecutor, who was anti-Semitic, forced the shochet‘s son to admit he had witnessed the murder while peeking through the keyhole of the synagogue. The trial lasted many years. The shochet, the rabbi, and other members of the community were sent to prison, tortured and punished. A Hungarian nobleman who advocated on behalf of the Jews was able to prove that the shochet‘s son was too small and short to see what was happening through the keyhole. Things eventually escalated to the point where only the intervention of Emperor Franz Joseph finally put an end to the trial… Many years later, my uncle heard the tale being sung by a female servant in a house he was staying in.”


A Hungarian Folk Song:


And now back to Chad Gadya and Shmuel Blasz’ melody. Laron, Lazarovich’s nephew, did not know any details about Blasz’s identity. A search of internet sources led me to an article published in the United States in 2011, titled: “Holocaust survivor to hear live performance of father’s music“, as well as two additional articles “Springs Holocaust survivor hears father’s music for first time since WW II” and “Giving Voice to History: Shoah-Era Scores Get First Hearing“.

Eva Egri, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor, was able to give new life to pieces of music written by her father Shmuel Blasz. Blasz was a composer and the chief cantor at the synagogue in Eger, Hungary. Egri managed to survive the war and made her way to the United States after many long, difficult years. For about six decades, she preserved many of her father’s manuscripts which had ended up in her hands. In 2011, Samuel Blasz’s compositions were performed in New York and later in Florida.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact Egri and other family members. Eventually, Professor Nachum Dershowitz referred me to Judy Merrick, who knew Blasz’s daughter and had also performed and directed some of his works. She confirmed that this was the same Shmuel Blasz.


Berlin, Germany, December 2019

Nur Ben-Shalom is a Jewish-Israeli clarinetist living in Berlin. “When you perform a composition you never know what will happen. You start something, throw something into the air and don’t know how it will end,” he told me. In a sense, this is the story of Blasz’s Chad Gadya melody – words and notes that have moved between different places and time periods, music that has been given new interpretation, beyond what the original composer could have imagined. Ben-Shalom heard the story of the melody and decided to give it a new life. He extracted the notes from a scan of the manuscript (which appears above) and arranged the song for a chamber music ensemble including clarinet, violin and piano.

“I’ve performed in different parts of the world, with ensembles and orchestras, and nothing has given me such special satisfaction as reviving this kind of piece,” he said. “There is a very strong connection here which is difficult to explain, a connection to tradition, a connection to history, a musical connection. It’s a special feeling to be able to revive the stories of Jews who were part of this culture, who were valued, and to tell their stories in Germany of all places.”

Ben-Shalom arranged the song in two different versions; one is slow and lyrical and the other is faster, with a Klezmer feel to it. The piece was performed at a Protestant church in Berlin before an audience of 1,300 people. When I asked if this represented a contradiction – performing a work by a Jewish composer who was murdered in the Holocaust in a Christian church – he answered: “I think it’s a statement. When the head of the church in Germany comes and says: ‘I want to perform Jewish music in the church’ – that’s a strong statement. The church in Germany is a powerful force with a significant influence on culture in Germany.”





“And there is also something special about dealing with the source material. After the concert, people approached me, asking questions about Shmuel Blasz and Shmuel Lazarovich, wanting to know more. I had printed the scan of the notes and people were examining it. People asked for the arranged version. I have no control over what will happen from here on out. The music will live on. Someone else will arrange it in one way or another. The story will be told and suddenly Samuel Blasz will be resurrected. “


Thanks to Gabriel Laron, Anat Wax and Elena Kampel for their assistance in preparing this article.


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Robinson Crusoe in the Languages of the Jews

How the classic English novel spread throughout the Jewish world and its many languages

In late April of 1719, the English author Daniel Defoe published the story of the wonderful tales of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe was a young Englishman who ran away from home at the age of 18. He spent a few years on merchant ships in the New World, was taken captive at sea and became a slave of the North African Moors. After escaping captivity, he settled in Brazil and bought an orchard where he, a freed slave, hired African slaves who were forcibly brought to the New World. From Brazil he decided to embark on a trade expedition that ended in a shipwreck on a deserted island.

At first, he spent his days building a shelter to protect from predators and natives whom he believed inhabited the island. When the awaited deliverance failed to arrive, he began establishing a new one-man civilization. Crusoe lived on the island for 28 years before returning to England, his homeland, along with a friend he met on the island. He made a promise to never disobey his father again and to refrain from dangerous adventures at sea, but this vow was not kept for long.  Though the novel’s plot was a figment of Defoe’s imagination, the author’s name did not appear on the cover of the book’s first editions and Crusoe’s memoirs were depicted as authentic.

The first edition of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719, held at the British Library

1,000 copies of the original April 1719 edition of Robinson Crusoe were printed. The May edition consisted of another 1,000, and an additional 1,000 copies were printed in June of that year. The same year, the novel was translated into French, German and Dutch. By the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew readers – or more accurately readers of the Hebrew letter – living in Thessaloniki, Warsaw and Tunisia, could choose from approximately ten different translations of the tales of Robinson Crusoe. However, most Jewish readers would have their first encounter with the character through a later adaptation of the novel, which appeared in Germany in the 18th century; This German adaption was created in the year 1779/1780 by the teacher and author of children’s books, Joachim Heinrich Campe.

As previously noted, in the first year Robinson Crusoe was published, the name of the author did not appear on the book which was initially presented as a record of the true adventures of an English sailor who survived for 28 years on a deserted island. Campe created a new structure for Defoe’s realistic novel – a didactic book delivering a universal moral in the form of a father telling his children a story. When the time came and Campe’s book was adapted into various other languages, most Jewish translators omitted its dialogue-like style but kept the educational tone, which they preferred to the religious Christian tone of the original novel.

The first “Jewish” translation of the work remained in the realm of European language. This edition was in fact a Hebrew transliteration of German (German in Hebrew letters), published in 1784/1785. A single copy is kept at the British Library. Aside from various omissions, the transliteration remains largely faithful to the Campe adaptation.

The second version, also in German transliterated into Hebrew characters, was published in Frankfurt in 1813. A copy of the transliteration is kept at the National Library of Israel and can be accessed via the following link. It is called The Story of Rabanizn (מעשה ראבאניזן).

German in Hebrew characters: The Story of Rabanizn by Daniel Defoe, unknown translator, 1813

Why translate into German instead of into Hebrew or Yiddish? One theory is that the translation was meant to bring readers closer to German culture; another is that it was motivated by commercial concerns. Either way, the most popular version of Defoe’s bestseller among European Jewish readers was not written in German at all…

The first translation into a Jewish language is the one attributed to the maskil Yosef Vitlin, who translated Campe’s adaptation into Yiddish. It is probably the most successful Jewish adaptation of the novel in the 19th century and we have much evidence of its great popularity. Campe’s didactic tone is preserved but the dialogue between a father reading to his children and the children answering was omitted. The book’s title translates into ‘Robinson: The history of Alter Leb: a true and wonderful story for entertainment and education.’ It can be viewed here.

The first Yiddish adaptation/translation: Yosef Vitlin’s “Alter Leb”, 1820s

The work’s name indicates just how far apart the English Crusoe and the Yiddish Alter Leb were. Alter Leb is Robinson Crusoe’s alter ego, and he is the hero of Vitlin’s translated novel. A rich Jewish merchant from Lemberg, Alter starts out as a drunk transgressor. As the story unfolds, the translator takes several opportunities to teach readers about the basics of sailing – how to use an anchor and what a lighthouse is – while also offering lectures on Jewish law.

Alter Leb isn’t the only character with Jewish characteristics; his companion, named Friday in the original novel, is called ‘Shabbos’ (Sabbath) here. Shabbos teaches Alter how to quickly light a fire and Alter teaches Shabbos about monotheism, the Torah and the Sabbath customs. Seeing as Alter Leb’s prayers are answered time and again throughout the novel, it’s hard to say which of the two benefited more from their companionship. The story concludes with a good Jewish ending – Torah study, proper spouses for Alter and Shabbos, and lives lived happily ever after with plenty of cute children all around. Amen!

Robinzon der yingere (“The Young Robinson”), translated by David Zamośź, 1824

From Yiddish, we move on to Hebrew. The first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe was written in 1823/1824 by the Galician maskil David Zamośź, though we will not elaborate on it here. This translation is also loyal to Campe’s adaptation, and it is the only version that keeps the structure of the father speaking with his children.

The beginning of the first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe by David Zamośź, 1824

The reason we won’t go into detail is simple: The second translation is considered far more influential and includes some fascinating additions to the Hebrew language. This translation was titled Kour Onni (“The Furnace of Affliction”), written by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch and first published in Vilnius in 1862. Rumsch was a teacher at a government boys’ school and later became the principal of a private girls’ school. Translating the book into Hebrew was not a simple task. For example, Rumsch decided to leave the names of people and places in Yiddish transcript (ראבינזאן, לאנדאן, בראזיליען), while providing Hebrew alternatives for many of the tools used by Robinson. Rumsch even coined Hebrew terms for the words ‘telescope’ (קנה הָרֳאי) and ‘compass'(מַרְאֶה-פְּאַת-הצפון), though these were not generally accepted into the Hebrew canon.

Kour Onni, the second Hebrew translation by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch, 1872

In the introduction to Rumsch’s translation, he discounts the previous complete Hebrew translation. It is unclear if he blames David Zamośź for the poor job or if he attributed the flaws he saw in the translation to the state of the Hebrew language at the time, though it is clear he felt it was his role to make things right. Particularly unnerving for him was Zamośź’s use of Mishnaic Hebrew. Rumsch and others in his generation preferred Biblical Hebrew. Rumsch’s translation coined the modern Hebrew term for “breakfast”, or more literally “morning meal” (ארוחת בוקר), which is a combination of two biblical words replacing the Mishnaic פת שחרית which can be literally translated as “dawn’s bread/morsel”.

We mentioned that this was a particularly influential translation and now it’s time to prove it: One famous reader was Eliezer Perlman, who would soon change his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, commonly known as the “reviver of the Hebrew language”.   Perlman came across the book in the possession of his teacher, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, and wrote as follows:

And gradually and quickly he began to tell me, little by little, that there are books written beautifully and poetically in the holy language, and one time as I sat before him to study a ‘Gemara page’, and no one was home, he pulled out a small book from under his seat and opened it and told me to read before him. It was the book Kour Onni, a Hebrew translation of the story of Robinson Crusa. Before I could read two pages there was a knock on the door. And the head of the yeshiva grabbed the book from my hand and hid it back under his seat, and together we returned to discuss the issue in the Gemara before us.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda working on his great dictionary, the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yael Baruch shared a similar, though naturally different, story about her grandparents in Tunisia.

In the 1930s and 1940s in Tunisia, children and adults would visit the home of Rabbi Rahamim Baruch and his wife Simcha on Sabbath mornings to hear the honorable Rabbi read from a different book each time. Two novels were at the forefront on those mornings: The Count of Monte Cristo and Robinson Crusoe. The translations were in Judeo-Arabic, the language of North African Jews. In the National Library catalog, we found the translation from which Rabbi Baruch used to read to the neighborhood children. The title of the translation was Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi translated by Hai Sitruk. It is a condensed version of the novel, and in it, too, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of his adventures.

Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi, translated into Judeo-Arabic by Hai Sitruk, (apparently) during the first decade of the 20th century

In a bibliography written in 1939 by the Jewish Tunisian author Daniel Hagège, we find a few crumbs of information on the English novel’s Judeo-Arabic translator. Like Yitzchak Rumsch, Hai Sitruk worked as a school principal at a large boys’ school in Tunisia, which was later used as the Agudat Zion (Zionist Society) building. His work, including Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi (The Stories of Robinson Crusoe) was first printed at a publishing house owned by the Vazan family in Tunisia. From the 1930s on it was printed at the Makhluf Najar publishing house in the town of Susah. This wasn’t Sitruk’s only translation of world literature; he was also a proofreader, journalist, and the translator of Alexander the Great, The Mysteries of Paris, and more.

The decision to translate Robinson Crusoe into the language of the North African Jews is somewhat surprising. Most of the Judeo-Arabic translations of world literature were of French origin, not English. French literature was often translated into yet another Jewish language – the language of the Spanish exiles.

Two Ladino translations of Robinson Crusoe were written at the end of the 19th century; the first translation was created in 1881 and published in Thessaloniki. The translation was printed as the third and final part of a book called Bracha Ha’meshulushet. It was printed again in the year 1900. The editor of the second version was Elijah Levi. The translation ends with Robinson Crusoe in his second year on the deserted island.

El isolado en la isla (“The Isolate on the Island”), a Ladino translation by Elijah Levi, 1881

In 1897 the second Ladino translation of Robinson Crusoe was published in Jerusalem. The translator, Ben-Zion Taragan, was a Hebrew teacher; this is noticeable in the way his translation is influenced by Hebrew syntax. Here and there we find a Turkish word thrown into his 150-page-long translation. This translation covers most of the original novel’s story.

In the beginning of Taragan’s Ladino translation, which we were able to loosely translate into Hebrew with the help of Ilil Baum, Robinson Crusoe addresses the readers in an attempt to lure them to read on:

Many of you, my dear readers, have surely heard my name, and many of you had the privilege of seeing me in my goat leather clothes with my loyal dog, cat and parrot at my side, and will surly take great pleasure in hearing my story. And now I am here before you to tell you my story, and I truly hope you learn many good things from it.

It may be that this introduction, which is different than the beginning of the original novel and that of Campe’s adaptation, is an original adaptation by the translator. The translation ends with three educational pieces on ethics, the last of which is directed at young girls.

The second Ladino translation, La ermoza istoria Robinson o la miseria. This is a late edition published in Constantinople in 1924, translated by Ben-Zion Taragan

For both the Ladino and Judeo-Arabic languages, the first half of the 20th century was the golden age of popular literature intended for adults and teens. The Robinson Crusoe translations are one example of that. The golden age which began at the turn of the 20th century ended with the outbreak of WWII. The Holocaust was terribly destructive to Yiddish and Ladino culture. Most of the world’s Ladino speakers were murdered when the Jewish communities of Thessaloniki and other Ladino centers in the Balkan were nearly completely wiped out. The fate of the Yiddish language was all too similar.

Following the waves of immigration to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish State, Judeo-Arabic has gradually faded away and is rarely used today. We may not see new translations of the work into these three languages which continue to struggle in the early 21st century. On the other hand, it is likely that in Israel the classic book will continue to be translated and updated so long as the local language, Hebrew, continues to evolve. A translation into an additional local language, Arabic, was published in 1835 by an anonymous translator in Europe. As for the second most widely-spoken language in today’s Jewish world, readers can simply choose to make their acquaintance with Robinson and Friday, in the original English.

Many thanks to Iris Idelson-Shein, Anabel Esperanza, Ilil Baum, Marta Katarzak, Tamir Karkason, David Guedj, Yael Baruch, Idan Perez and Ofek Kehila for their cooperation in writing this article.



Alpert, Michael. “The Ladino Novel”, European Judaism 43, no. 2 (2010)

Backscheider, R. Paula.  Daniel Defoe: His Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989

Baroukh, Nehama. 2010. “’A Language That Was Torn from its Biblical Slumber’: Changes and Shifts in Written Hebrew (1880–1980) as Reflected in Translation of Books for Children.” [In Hebrew.] PhD diss., Tel Aviv University

Garrett, Leah. “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe.” Comparative Literature 54, no. 3, (2002).

Idelson-Shein, Iris. Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2014), 151-178

Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1850-1950, Wayne State University Press, 2014

Saraf, Michal. “Daniel Hagege and His Essay on the History of Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1862-1939” (in Hebrew), Pe’amim 30 (1987): 41-59.

Shavit, Zohar. “Literary Interference between German and Jewish-Hebrew Children’s Literature during the Enlightenment: The Case of Campe,” Poetics Today (Children’s Literature) 13, no. 1 (1992).

Wolpe, Rebecca.  “Judaizing Robinson Crusoe: Maskilic Translations of Robinson Crusoe,” Jewish Culture and History (2012)


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Crossing the Divide: Walter Grab and the East-German Historical Establishment

The Vienna-born Israeli historian Walter Grab was among the few to venture across the academic Iron Curtain in pursuit of his research...This is the story of his unique relationship with East German scholar Heinrich Scheel

Walter Grab

“Are there any other studies published in East-Germany, with which I am not familiar?” wrote Walter Grab, a Viennese-born Israeli historian, to his East-Berliner colleague Heinrich Scheel in August 1971. “Professors Steiner and Markov did not know of any,” he continued, “but here you are the uppermost authority”. By ‘here’, Grab meant East Germany. When he first entered the field of historical research dedicated to the study of German Jacobins, his colleagues considered him a representative of the West, if not a West-German historian proper. Some addressed him in person as the initiator of West-German scholarship on the German Jacobins. Eventually, this was not too far from the truth, given that Grab published his works exclusively in German, and that up until the early 1960s, his field of expertise hardly existed in West-German academia. Apparently, the field had to be invented or at least reintroduced, if it was not to remain an exclusively East-German scholarly endeavor.

Grab himself could not deny his somewhat soloist positioning within the western context, he even fancied its benefits. “There are no true experts in this field in the Federal Republic”, he wrote to a young German scholar, Helmut Haasis, who sought his aid and collaboration in the late 1960s, as a forerunner in the field. For sure, he considered himself the right man for the task. “Is it not also natural, that I, myself a victim of persecution, [am] the first to stimulate the study on the Jacobins in the Federal Republic?” he later reflected. Grab’s positioning was unordinary indeed: a displaced historian of misplaced histories. One who considered himself, as Dan Diner noted, an exiled Jew in the land of Jews, fully devoted to retrieving the roots of failed attempts to constitute a democratic tradition in Germany during the late 18th and early 19th century, following the tides of revolution.

Heinrich Scheel

Grab first won recognition as a documenter of the influence and impact of the French Revolution in Germany, following the appearance of his book in 1966 on the Northern-German Jacobins (Demokratische Strömungen in Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein zur Zeit der Ersten Französischen Republik). This was an elaboration of his dissertation, completed shortly before (at the age of 46) at the University of Hamburg, supervised by the by then already controversial figure of Fritz Fischer. When he first received his doctorate, East-German research on the effects of the French Revolution in Germany, German Jacobins and demagogues and early German revolutionary literature and theater was rather well established and lead by historians and literary scholars such as Walter Markov, Gerhard Steiner, Karl Obermann, Helmut Bock and Hedwig Vogt. Above all, the study of the German Jacobins was tied to the figure of Scheel, a historian committed to the ruling socialist party in the one-party state, and a long-term member of the East-German academy of sciences in Berlin. In 1962, Scheel published an extensive volume on the South-German Jacobins, and earned his place as an expert in a scarcely populated field. Grab, who, albeit ideological differences, acknowledged the pioneering role played by East-German scholars in the study of early revolutionary democracy, established close contacts with all relevant figures in his field, including Scheel. Given the gloomy reality of Cold-War rivalries, this was not all too common. Repeatedly he insisted to his West-German counterparts that without collaboration with East-German scholars and without an acquaintance with exclusive materials kept in East-German archives, no serious progress in the study of a neglected German democratic tradition could be made.

While cataloging Grab’s personal archive for the National Library in Jerusalem, as part of a collaborative research project conducted by the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Centre and the German Literature Archive in Marbach, I came across revealing footprints of an allegedly East-West exchange enterprise. These footprints, highlighting an entanglement of political constraints, ideological obligations and professional profit, provided for a larger picture of the relationships between the German-speaking, formerly light-communist Israeli historian, and his East-German counterparts, completed by institutional correspondences kept in the historical archives of Tel-Aviv University. Especially interesting in this regard is his correspondence with Scheel. At the time when Grab first appeared on the academic stage, Scheel, only slightly older than him, was much more versed in the study of a shattered German democratic past. However still, Grab managed to utilize the geographical division in their areas of study (Scheel was ‘in charge’ of southern Germany, Grab of the northern parts), along with Scheel’s geo-political and cultural isolation, in order to balance-out the power equation between them and act accordingly.

A letter from Grab to Scheel (German), October 1972, click to enlarge

The partnership between the two set off in 1963. They met in East Berlin, and Scheel offered his Israeli colleague considerable help in negotiating with East-German archives. Later on, Scheel even offered a joint research project, whose results were to appear in an East German academic journal in 1967. This was a huge opportunity for Grab, which never materialized. That very year marked the harshening of East-German policy towards Israel following the Six Day War, and the German historian decided not to risk breaching the party line. Thus from very early on, the political sphere made it very difficult for this partnership to succeed. Nevertheless, Grab, for his own sake, and for the sake of beneficiaries from all sides, sought to make sure that the professional, political and ideological gaps remain somehow manageable. “I will continue my efforts in keeping you updated with regards to new publications in the West”, he wrote to his East-Berliner colleague in October of 1972, “and would appreciate it if you could do the same. […] Inobservance or lack of knowledge of researches on both sides,” he further added with a pinch of discontent, “is only harmful for scientific insight, and creates unnecessary tensions between scientists, who should otherwise be on friendly terms with each other.”

A letter from Grab to Scheel (German), March 1976, click to enlarge

However keen, there was only so much Grab could do to prevent global politics from intervening in their partnership. As ideological disagreements between the two sharpened towards the mid-1970s, the burden grew heavier to carry. Scheel, taking more than a step back, began questioning whether Grab’s works on the German Jacobins were not “imperialistically misused” by West-German institutions of higher learning. Grab replied to this accusation in a letter from March 1976. As a sign of his willingness to overarch political obstacles, he stated that he would not mind publishing his works in the journal of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin (Das Jahrbuch für Geschichte(, and that he was by no means shy of crossing communist thresholds, “But the gates to which are shut, as you may well know, and especially after the Six Day War” he wrote. “My willingness, to also publish in the GDR,” he added, “differs me doubtlessly from those systemkonservierenden West-German historians, who criticize my works in the Frankfurter Rundschau.” The correspondence between the two, which recently arrived in Jerusalem, is very telling in regards to understanding Grab’s unique positioning as an émigré scholar and outsider, with its obvious benefits and less apparent limitations. On the one side, there were no institutional constraints which could hinder him and prevent him from promoting his research in the name of preserving a united front. On the other, perceived as a voice from the outside, Grab apparently had to negotiate his stance and accept the fact of being ideologically ‘marked’ by both sides, in order to be considered a legitimate participant in a highly charged field of historical investigation.


Walter Grab’s archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel


This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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Carl Ehrenstein: Expressionist Writer, Cultural Critic and Literary Agent

Rare items from the Carl Ehrenstein Archive

From the Carl Ehrenstein Archive, The National Library of Israel

Generally, the name Ehrenstein brings a twinkle to the eye of experts in German Expressionist Literature. For the most part, anyone who hears the name assumes it refers to Albert Ehrenstein, one of the most prominent poets of the avant-garde movement, whose poems are still being published to this day and have recently even been translated into Hebrew (in the anthology “Weltende : eine Anthologie von expressionistischer Lyrik ins Hebräische übersetzt”, translated and edited by Asher Reich, HaKibbutz Hameuchad, 2013).
Very few remember that Albert had siblings: Otto (who died during World War I), Fritz (killed in the Holocaust), Carl and a sister, Freida. Every one of them stood in the shadow of their famous brother, who was the only one of them to receive an academic education. An interesting symbiosis developed between Carl and Albert, since Carl also had literary aspirations. Albert supported Carl for as long as he was part of the makings of modern German literature.
It can must be assumed that without Carl, we would know much less about Albert: after Albert died in 1950, Carl saw to it to collect the various parts of his personal archive and sent them to the National Library in Jerusalem in 1956.

Carl Ehrenstein was born in Vienna in 1892. After graduating from high school, he received training in a college of economics in his home town. He then worked in a number of insurance companies and banks, and even spent a few months in London in 1911. Little did he know then that  in the future he would live in London and the surrounding area for many years.  Concurrently, inspired by his brother Albert, Carl tried his hand at literature. With Albert as his agent, Carl’s first work, Klagen eines Knaben (The Complaints of a Youth), was published as part of a series of young and modern literature by Kurt Wolf’s famous publishing house in Leipzig. Over 80 Expressionist works were published in that series, including one of the first works by Franz Kafka. During World War I, Ehrenstein feigned insanity to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungrian army. He spent time in a convalescent house in Switzerland. It is possible that there was an element of truth to his charade, as Carl suffered from a few nervous breakdowns over the course of his life.

During most of the 20’s of the 20th century Carl lived in Berlin and worked, for the most part, as a cultural critic for a local Communist newspaper (Die Welt am Abend). In the framework of his work for the newspaper he visited theatres, exhibitions, movie theatres and even sporting events, and wrote many reviews that appeared in the newspaper.  In many cases, Ehrenstein kept the invitation, program, ticket, manuscript of the review and its final printed version in his personal archives. At the same time, Ehrenstein began to translate texts from English to German, mostly popular literature. He tried to find German publishers interested in publishing translations of English literature into German. In January of 1928, Carl Ehrenstein travelled to London, with letters of recommendation from German publishers, in order to find new English books to translate into German. The visit, which was planned to last two months,, was extended indefinitely, and Ehrenstein never saw continental Europe again.

In England, Ehrenstein began to work for a number of English publishers,mostly for Putnam. He read numerous books in German and wrote reviews which often determined whether the book would be translated into English or not. In 1933 he came across a book by the German author Hans Fallada. Fallada’s work greatly excited Ehrenstein.  In the following years, until 1938, Carl Ehrenstein repeatedly wrote positive reviews of Fallada’s books and even corresponded with the author. This was, possibly, Carl Ehrenstein’s greatest achievement: introducing Fallada’s works to the English speaking public. There are indications that Ehrenstein even knew about the attempt to extract Hans Fallada and his family from Nazi Germany – an attempt that failed, as Fallada changed his mind at the last minute.



Portrait of Hans Fallada


In England, Ehrenstein began to write poetry in English. However, he did not make an effort to publish the poems. Their quality possibly justifies Ehrenstein’s reluctance; his works are not generally considered to be the best of his era.His personal archive, however, (which includes portions of the estates of his sister, Freida, and his friend Thomas Schramek) is important because it includes a wealth of correspondences with publishers and writers from the 20s and 30s of the previous century as well as the cultural criticism and reviews that he wrote. All of these elements come together to create a colorful picture of culture and international relationships in the era before World War II.