Poems and Stories by the Jewish Children of Kharkiv, Ukraine

A booklet labeled “The Lives of Children”, preserved at the National Library of Israel, contains Hebrew stories and poems written a century ago by Jewish high school students in Ukraine

Cover page of the booklet “The Lives of Children” composed by students at the Tarbut high school in Kharkiv

The National Library of Israel’s Rare Items Collection contains a special booklet of poems and stories written by boys and girls in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, ahead of the Passover holiday in the year 1920.

A language in the process of revival needs speakers, young speakers most of all: nursery, kindergarten and school age children, who will grow up speaking the language fluently and freely. Apart from speakers, such a language also needs tools for teaching it, and the main early tool developed by the Zionist movement to teach its young followers Hebrew was a compilation of stories, songs, poems, and rhymes. In 1887, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and David Yellin published the first Hebrew “Reader for Jewish Children” (המקראה לילדי ישראל).

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century and until after World War II, teachers, students, and writers contributed hundreds of original Hebrew texts for the benefit of the young learners in the many Hebrew schools established in Europe. It was a huge project in both its scope and importance, and yet, anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows that even that it is not enough.

The first stage in language learning is passive absorption; the second stage is practice. The booklet “The Lives of Children” is a vivid example of this second stage: the transition from reading to writing, from passive absorption to spontaneous creation. The truth is that students of the “Tarbut” school (tarbut is Hebrew for “Culture”) in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine could not have chosen a more appropriate theme for their reader: the renewal of spring and the commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery to freedom on Passover.

The Tarbut organization, which aimed to establish a network of Hebrew schools across Eastern Europe, was founded only three years before the publication of the booklet, in April 1917, in Moscow. It was a fateful year that saw the fall of the tsar and which ended with the establishment of the Bolshevik government, hostile to both Zionism and the Hebrew language. Following the Russian Civil War and especially due to the Bolsheviks’ anti-Zionist policy, the Tarbut organization was forced to close its Moscow headquarters and start again from scratch in Kiev, Odessa, and Krakow in mid-1918. At first, Tarbut’s Ukrainian branch received short-term funding from the independent Ukrainian government, but this ended when the communists took over that country as well. It also spelled the end for the short-lived flourishing of Hebrew in Ukraine. The booklet from the Tarbut school in Kharkiv was published during that small window.

The booklet “The Lives of Children” offers us a glimpse into the world of Kharkiv’s Jewish children in their own words, in clear and elegant Hebrew. Each piece of prose or poetry is accompanied by the writer’s name, and all the writings, as mentioned, deal with the coming of spring and the festival of Passover. It is in fact a collection of “songs, stories, memories, impressions, and imaginings,” by first and second division Tarbut students. From the texts, it is clear that these are not first or second graders, but most likely boys and girls around the age of 14 or 15.

Following the table of contents is an illustration of a peaceful landscape with the caption, “On the shores of the Dnieper”— that is the Dnieper River, which flows from Russia through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea.


The first work is a poem by Daniel Prakhabmek called Winter is Over. The poem is even dated – 5th of Nisan, 1920:


Winter is over, the cold is gone,

The universe is filled with joy.

The southerly winds slowly blow

Repairing a gloomy soul.


Young sun, spring sun,

Shining in the sky,

Casting a wealth of light on the Earth,

Blinding eyes.


The naked trees,

Are awakened again,

The noisy city,

Dons a new face.


Everything is joyful, alive, and glowing,

The spirit of spring washes over all

Happy are the tall buildings,

Crowned by high mountains.


Still, there remains a glassy film of ice,

Over the swamps, over the streams,

Still, the trees are bare,

The leaves not yet budded.


The birds not yet returned,

Singing their joyful songs,

But spring is already felt,

In every corner and square.


The sky has changed

The sea foam is different,

And spring is already seeping,

Into the depths of the soul.


This is not the world,

This is not as the heights of Creation,

Everything is alive, fresh, happy

Everything returns to life!



Student Sarah Aspel writes about trees blooming in spring:


How awful is winter’s great cold

How beautiful spring’s pleasant winds,

The trees, have you seen, how beautiful they are in the spring,

In winter, they stood, mourning and asleep,

And here, spring is come, they have woken, risen,

They begin to look around, around,

-“Thank God, winter is over!”

The trees begin to whisper among themselves

-“Now we will grow with the coming of spring!”


After nine poems devoted to the end of winter, the coming of spring and the Passover celebrations, comes the first in a series of stories. Eliezer Aharonov writes about preparations for Passover:

In our house, work is at full speed. All the members of our household are preparing for the great holiday, the Feast of the Redemption of Israel, which is Passover. My father takes the Haggadot from the closet, my mother and aunt turn over the rooms, clean the tables, chairs, and beds: I wanted to help them but mother shoos me out for a walk. I went outside, the air was clear, the sky was pure and as if the whole world had cleansed itself, to meet the great feast. And here is my sister calling me in for lunch. How hard it was for me to leave the shore and go home, but I comforted myself with this thought: maybe my mother would let me go out after lunch. I went home, ate, and went out again. It’s hard to describe what pleasure I felt in that moment!!!

In all the stories (with one exception), the writer is also the main character, and many make mention of the authors’ parents, especially the mothers. Eliezer’s mother sent him for a walk outside so he wouldn’t interfere with the cleaning, while Chaim Sheingald’s story begins with a question he asks his mother: “Why is it bright today? Why are there no clouds like yesterday?”

Contrary to the Zionist myth that the Diaspora Jew was disengaged from his or her surroundings, it is clear that the students in Kharkiv feel an affinity for the nature around them. They experience spring as a vivid and glorious time of the year, a time of incredible changes and beautiful transformations. The cold departs and the rain clouds give way to the warming sun. To these young poets and writers, the association of burgeoning nature with the approaching Passover holiday is clear.


How wonderful to read and reflect on these scenes from the lives of Jewish children in Ukraine—not for the distance in time (more than a century has passed), but rather for the similarity between the students who lived and wrote Hebrew a hundred years ago and the children we were once ourselves. Who cannot relate to the scene of sitting in the classroom and feeling that itch for the school day to end? To finally be released into the great outdoors to roam about in freedom…As David Lomzov writes in his story, “Spring is Come”:

I’m lying in my bed. I’m already awake, but I don’t understand why the light has such a reddish hue? I opened my eyes and here was the sun warming me while I lay on my bed! Happily, I jumped across the bed and saw: the little snow that remained had melted. Spring is come! A thought crossed my mind what a wonderful word is spring! How many thoughts it conjures in my heart! I’ll go to the parks, maybe we’ll go to summer camp, I’ll pick mushrooms, and walnuts and more and more…

I took my book and went to school with a happy face, where I met the cheerful faces of my friends. “Maybe we should go on an excursion today?” one child said to me. Suddenly the bell sounds and I run to our classroom. There they explain all sorts of lovely things and we are not at all interested in the things they are explaining to us, and we pretend to listen, but our hearts are outside.


Most of the texts share three main locations: The home – where preparations for Passover are taking place and the Seder night is celebrated; The outdoors – where nature is awakening from its winter hibernation; the synagogue – where the community meets together with the rabbi. Some of the stories, such as the one above, mention a fourth location as well – the classroom.

So, how did Kharkiv’s children spend their Passover? The evidence certainly shows that not much has changed, which is what is so beautiful and moving. Mordechai Halevi Izgur writes:

A few days before Passover, my mother and I carried our Passover utensils to our cousin, because we celebrated the holiday with him in his house. There they began to prepare the utensils and clean the rooms. At nine o’clock in the morning on the eve of Passover, we hurried to eat the chametz [leavened bread] and remove what remained from the house. In a word: we tried to make “Passover” in all the rooms.


Most of the passages in the booklet were written by boys, but Hannah Brik’s story is unique in that it is included in the section called “Imaginings.” This is the only text not written in the first person. The protagonist is little Sarah, who, feeling tired on the eve of Passover, falls asleep just before her father returns from synagogue.

Sarah proceeds to dream of a joyful venture into the forest – she joins the birds in song as time passes among the trees. Later, as evening falls in the dream, Sarah’s mood shifts – “My old tree,” she sadly asks one of her woodland companions, “where is my home?” – “I know not,” the tree replies, “go and ask the birds”. Yet the birds are unable to help as well. Just as Sarah breaks down in anguish, she is awoken by her mother’s kisses, urging her to rise from her bed and come to the Passover table. Father has returned…

We cannot do justice in such a short space to the writings of all the students at the Tarbut school in Kharkiv. But we are happy to tell that the entire booklet has been scanned and uploaded to the National Library of Israel website as part of the “450 Years of the Hebrew Book” project. You can read the booklet here. Incidentally, this booklet is numbered 12, which means that there were at least 11 previous booklets, and presumably more.

We conclude with a prayer for the end of the current war in Ukraine and for the quick return of peace and quiet to the region.


Further Reading:

Kenneth B. Moss, Bringing Culture to the Nation: Hebraism, Yiddishism, and the Dilemmas of Jewish Cultural Formation in Russia and Ukraine, 1917-1919, Jewish History 22,3 (2008) 263-294

Cultivating a Jewish Literary Legacy

Author Lisa Leff, winner of the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, offers her thoughts on the significant role played by Jewish research libraries, which she believes serve as "a kind of portal to the past"

An employee of the National Library of Israel sifts through a small fraction of the Library's collections back in 1960, during the long, complicated process of transferring books to the NLI's current location on the Givat Ram Campus. Photo taken by David Harris, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

As a Jewish historian, I’ve spent decades traveling across the world to read old and rare Jewish books in the research libraries that house them. Physical books are fragile things, and for people in my profession, there is nothing quite like them. These bundles of paper, sewn or glued together and bound between covers, contain writing that, once deciphered, connects us to voices from the Jewish past in a way that can feel eerily direct. So direct, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that without the librarians who have cared for the books over the years, we would not be able to access the voices they contain.

It used to take some detective work to figure out where a long-out-of-print book might be held. But today, thanks to the massive catalog digitization projects of research libraries such as the National Library of Israel, that information sits at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. One thing that remains as mysterious as ever is how books like the ones I pursue– written by Jewish writers centuries ago in Europe– survived through the years.  Just as mysterious is the question of why so many of these European books have found their way into the collections of the National Library of Israel and other major Jewish research libraries outside of Europe, far from where they were written and published.

Books and various other treasures confiscated by the Nazis in Ratibor, modern-day Poland. Photo: Yad Vashem

The fact that these books survived at all is truly amazing, given the massive destruction of Jewish life and property by the Nazis and their allies, and the fact that Jewish libraries had been singled out for looting. The books’ survival was no accident. During the Holocaust, Jews in Europe did whatever they could to protect their libraries and archives, sometimes at extreme risk to themselves and their families. This was the case, for example, of the heroic slave laborers of Vilna’s Paper Brigade, who hid precious books from the Nazis to save them. Similarly, in France, the leaders of the Paris Consistory are purported to have protected their archives from Nazi looting by hiding them in the walls of the Rothschild family’s chateau.

Despite these efforts to protect Jewish collections, the Nazis laid their hands on millions of European Jewish books and papers and brought them to Germany. When the Allies stumbled on them at the end of the war and proposed to return only the books whose owners could be easily identified, Jewish cultural activists in New York and Jerusalem were horrified. Knowing the scope of the destruction, they knew such a restitution would be very partial, since so many of the original owners had perished and most of the great Jewish libraries of Europe had been destroyed. Knowing the Allies’ policies, they feared the worst: that these books would remain in Germany, where few Jews remained.

The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, by Lisa Moses Leff, New York : Oxford University Press, 2015

To ensure that Jewish books would be preserved for future use in the new centers of Jewish population, Jewish cultural activists mobilized. On behalf of the Jewish National and University Library (the NLI’s predecessor), Gershom Scholem traveled to Allied-occupied Germany and returned with many rare books and manuscripts. Through Scholem’s work and that of many others, Jewish research libraries today serve as a kind of portal to the past, where contemporary Jewish writers can, in some sense, commune with Jewish writers from bygone centuries through the act of reading old books.

Gershom Scholem, From Berlin to Jerusalem [Hebrew], Am Oved Press, 1982

The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature shines the spotlight on emerging writers because its founders understand that over the course of their careers, these writers will play a critical role in interpreting and transmitting Jewish culture for new generations. Without libraries like the National Library of Israel, institutions dedicated to the preservation of voices from the Jewish past for use by future generations, Jewish writers could not do this important work.

Together, the National Library of Israel and the Sami Rohr Prize are working to preserve voices from the Jewish past while nurturing talent that will ensure the future of a vibrant, global Jewish literary culture.


The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Library of Israel recently announced a new collaboration that will promote their shared vision to further cultivate a vibrant international Jewish literary culture and community. Read more here.


A Chronicle of Humanity: From Creation to the Year 1492

Among the National Library of Israel’s treasures is a book that changed the face of the nascent printing industry, by incorporating spectacular woodcuts alongside the text. Written by Hartmann Schedel, the book systematically describes the history of the world and of the human race, while also documenting antisemitism over the centuries

Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge and the serpent, the Nuremberg Chronicle

About forty years after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, a book was printed in the city of Nuremberg the likes of which had never before been seen.

This was in fact a chronicle, describing the history of humanity from the creation of the world up until the year 1492. In the late Middle Ages, this type of chronicle was a very popular genre, and the various printing houses across Europe printed quite a few of them. However, a number of features made the Nuremberg Chronicle unique among its brethren. For starters, the book’s physical dimensions were remarkable – it measured 49 centimeters in length and 32 centimeters in width. In addition, the chronicle’s 290 pages featured 1,800 woodcut images, which appeared alongside the text.

This was the first book in the history of printing to combine text and image to such a degree, which lends it something of a “modern” appearance, even in our eyes, despite the chronicle having been printed more than 500 years ago. The expenses invested in its production superseded all other “incunabula” (a term referring to books printed between 1450 and 1500).

The seventh day of Creation. The concentric circles in the center show the solar system with the Earth in the center, the Nuremberg Chronicle

What was the idea behind this complex and costly project?

At the end of the 15th century, the German Free Imperial City of Nuremberg (meaning it was subordinate only to the Holy Roman Emperor), was considered a metropolis, with more than 30,000 inhabitants, including some 300 Jews (who were expelled from the city in 1498). It was also a center of international trade and home to some extremely wealthy merchants. Two of these, who apparently were also very well educated persons, approached the city’s physician, Hartmann Schedel, around the year 1487, with a commission to write the work. Schedel, himself a learned man who had acquired his medical training in Italy, and who possessed a private library containing some 1,000 books, apparently relied heavily on his own book collection in completing the monumental task, in particular an earlier chronicle published in Italy. Schedel slightly changed the perspective of the historical narrative, however, focusing primarily on events that took place in Central Europe, alongside other major events in the continent’s history.

An imaginary view of Jerusalem, the Nuremberg Chronicle

Aiming to appeal to a scholarly readership across Europe, Schedel composed the work in Latin; however, because the final sections of the book focused on German history, a German translation was published as well. The chronicle also mentions a number of historical events of anti-Jewish background, including expulsions of Jewish communities from cities in Europe, pogroms, and even the unfortunate affair of the “murder” of the boy Simon of Trent (modern-day Trento in northern Italy) in 1475, for which the city’s Jews were blamed.

Jews being burned alive, illustrating the pogrom in Nuremberg. This image appears a number of times in the book in conjunction with various pogroms in Germany during the Middle Ages, the Nuremberg Chronicle

During the writing of the text, the commissioners of the work also approached the Nuremberg artists Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleitgen to create woodcut illustrations of historical figures, prominent events, and panoramic views of large and well-known cities. The images of the urban landscapes of European cities are considered relatively authentic, and some of the buildings depicted in them (such as various churches and gates) survive to this day. At the time, a little known apprentice by the name of Albrecht Dürer was employed in the workshop of the two painters and may have supplied a number of the woodcuts for the book, but there is no scholarly consensus on this. Years later, Dürer, who was by then a renowned artist, painted a portrait of his teacher Wolgemut, who had given him his professional start.

Michael Wolgemut, by Albrecht Dürer, 1516, lent to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum by the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

We know who the author and the illustrators of the chronicle were, but who was the printer?

The famous Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger operated a large printing house that employed about 100 typesetters, printers, and other professionals, and published more than 250 titles. Koberger was promised a respectable sum for this particular job, and in 1493, he set his press to work on the project. In all, 1,400 copies were printed in Latin, and another 700 in German. Accounting receipts and documents preserved to this day reveal the scope of the book’s dissemination across Europe, which was sold from Danzig to Florence and from Paris to Krakow. The papers, kept in various European archives, tell the entire backstory of this enterprise, and it is only through these records that we know the identity of the author, whose name does not appear even once in the book.

Moses at Mount Sinai and the Israelites Dancing around the Golden Calf, the Nuremberg Chronicle

Despite the marketing efforts, the project was not a great success. More than ten years after it was printed, hundreds of unsold copies were still sitting in the publisher’s warehouse. With no copyright laws in place back then, rival printers often printed their own editions of books, which was also the case here: a “pirate” edition was printed in the nearby city of Augsburg, which adversely affected sales.

Panoramic view of the city of Nuremberg, the Nuremberg Chronicle

There are many extant copies of both the Latin and German versions of the Nuremberg Chronicle produced in Anton Koberger’s printing house. The National Library of Israel possesses four copies of the Latin edition and one copy in German. It is possible that the work’s beauty and size are responsible for the survival of so many copies; its historical and artistic value abundantly clear, even to viewers today.

Browse through the Nuremberg Chronicle, here.


This Flamboyant New York Jew Amended Black Legal History

Eight Black youths were hastily sentenced to death in 1931 Alabama. Global outcry ensued, and a flamboyant New York Jewish lawyer was sent down to defend them...

The Scottsboro Boys in a pamphlet published by the International Labor Defense, 1931 (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg / Public domain)

From the hobo jungles of the American south to the Yiddish stages of Eastern Europe, news of the affair and the injustice that followed spread quickly.

Two white women of “easy virtue” (in the words of the judge in a subsequent legal proceeding), had claimed to have been raped by a gang of Black teenagers. Following a three-day trial, all but one of the nine defendants were sentenced to death.

The “Scottsboro Boys,” as they came to be known, lacked suitable legal representation. The case was almost completely based on questionable testimonies, with little evidence presented before the all-white jury. Hundreds of angry white locals kept at bay outside the courtroom by National Guard troops had demanded justice, insinuating that they would take matters into their own hands in case the court happened to not reach the “right” conclusion.

Outcry following the death sentences came quickly. Civil and Black rights groups across the United States denounced the trial and its unjust outcome. Justice for the young defendants was quickly adopted as a cause by activists across the globe. Protests were held outside American embassies and consulates abroad.

Protestors on the cover of a pamphlet published by the International Labor Defense, 1931 (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg / Public domain)
Demonstrators, including members of the Finnish Workers Club, protesting the death sentence imposed on the Scottsboro Trial defendants, 1931 (The New York Public Library Digital Collections / Public domain)

In the years (and decades) to come, the affair inspired countless works of literature across the racial and geographic spectrum, from Langston Hughes to Yiddish playwright Leib Malach, whose work based on the events debuted in Warsaw in 1935, as the actual case’s legal proceedings were still ongoing. The locally and internationally acclaimed play highlighted the injustices of the American South, resonating with Eastern European Jewish audiences. Even though the real case took place in the neighboring state of Alabama, Malach named his work “Mississippi”.

Poster for the original 1935 Warsaw production of Leib Malach’s “Mississippi”.  From the Leib Malach Archive, National Library of Israel

Soon after the initial verdict in the Scottsboro case, one of America’s most celebrated lawyers – a New York Jew who had never lost a single capital case – would be called in to lead the retrial efforts.

Not yet 40, Samuel Leibowitz was by then one of the most well-known, successful and flamboyant defense attorneys in New York, defending numerous well-known clients including notorious mobster Al Capone.

By late 1932, the International Labor Defense (ILD), a legal organization founded by Clarence Darrow among others, which was associated with the Communist movement, had taken the lead in defending the Black youths. The case was generally seen by the communist leadership as an opportunity to not only achieve justice for the “boys”, but also to secure significant support for communism among Blacks in the United States.

Samuel Leibowitz, however, was not a communist. Before agreeing to defend the Scottsboro Boys alongside the ILD’s general counsel, Joseph Brodsky, Leibowitz demanded that he be allowed to manage the defense without any political interference. He also refused any payment for his services, paying all expenses out of pocket.

He had reviewed the case thoroughly and perhaps out of arrogance or simple naïveté, Leibowitz was convinced that there was no way he could lose.

According to Leibowitz’s son, who wrote a book chronicling his father’s legal career, the elder Leibowitz told Brodsky:

“… no matter what the prejudice may be, there is a basic rock of decency in every individual… We cannot lose this Scottsboro case. A Chinaman or a Zulu lawyer, barely able to speak pidgin English, must get an acquittal if the evidence at hand is presented to even twelve of the most bigoted, prejudiced creatures that can be corralled into a jury box.”

The fact that Leibowitz was Jewish and brought in by communists certainly did not help his cause – nor that of his clients – once the retrial commenced. His style and bravado were not welcome in northern Alabama. His New York manner and approach were seen as discourteous, not suitable to Southern mores. The courtroom was appalled, for example, when at one point he demanded that the prosecutor address a Black witness as “Mr. Sandford”, rather than simply as “John.”

Leibowitz in the courtroom during the Scottsboro case. He used the trainset behind him to try and discredit the alleged victim’s account of the events. Published in The Forward on April 16, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in Romania, Leibowitz had immigrated to America with his family when he was four years old and studied law at the prestigious Cornell University. In an April 1933 interview in which he asserted that he was “strictly orthodox” and had had a Passover seder after he returned from the trial, Leibowitz exclaimed that “The snake of anti-Semitism cannot live in the spotlight of public opinion”. He recounted that when someone suggested he change his name to something less Jewish, “I promptly told him to go to hell.” And, in fact, antisemitism played little to no role in Leibowitz’s personal and professional life – until the Scottsboro case.

Published in The American Jewish World on April 14, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Prosecutor Wade Wright peppered his arguments with blatant antisemitic language and innuendo. After one of the alleged victims recanted her claim that she’d ever been raped at all, and her new testimony was corroborated by someone named Lester Carter, Wright referred to the man as “Mr. Carterinsky”, describing him as “the prettiest Jew” he had ever seen. Alluding to the traditional Jewish peddler, Wright declared that if Carter “had been with Brodsky another two weeks he would have been down here with a pack on his back a-trying to sell you goods…”

In his closing remarks, Wright asked the jury, “Is justice going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?”

Leibowitz responded with the following words:

“I am proud of my state. I would die for it just as I would die for my nation. We have as decent people in New York as you have in Alabama. They talk about communists to befuddle you. I’m a Roosevelt Democrat and I served my country when the Stars and Stripes were in jeopardy and when there was no talk of Jew or Gentile, white or black…

And they talk of ‘Jew money from New York.’ I’m not getting a cent for my services, or even for the expenses for myself or my wife down here. I’m not interested in Communism or any other ‘ism’. I’m interested solely in seeing that that poor, moronic colored boy over there and his co-defendants in the other cases, get a square shake of the dice, because I believe, before God, they are the victims of a dastardly frameup…

Let them take me out and hang me. My mission will have been served if I get these unfortunates the same justice that I would seek to achieve for any of you gentlemen if you came to New York and were unjustly accused…”

He called the previous trials “an insult to God himself and a mockery of justice,” and argued that the prosecution was simply “appeal[ing] to prejudice, to sectionalism, to bigotry…”

Before the re-trial started, Brodsky had countered Leibowitz’s confidence, telling him that he would “be a sadder but wiser man” after the trial. And, in fact, Brodsky’s prediction proved more accurate than Leibowitz’s, as the first retrial ended with another guilty verdict and another death sentence.

Leibowitz called it “a black page in the history of American civilization…”

His participation and the involvement of other “outsiders” had not always been welcome, even by the defendants and their families themselves. It was sometimes seen as a distraction or even a hindrance, as the white jury resented the interference of the Northern outsiders. The defendants and their lawyers were surrounded by armed guards, following repeated threats to lynch them.

The Scottsboro Boys under heavy guard. Published in The Forward on April 7, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Leibowitz leaving the courthouse flanked by two bodyguards, who were appointed by the judge following threats to the lawyer’s life. Published in The Forward on December 2, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Yet Leibowitz and his team kept fighting. One of his main initial points of attack – that Blacks had been excluded from serving on the original jury – ultimately helped set an important legal precedent that would ensure Black inclusion on jury rolls across the United States.

The Scottsboro Boys spent years in prison, but thanks to the efforts of Leibowitz and others, they were all ultimately spared the death sentence. In the years and decades that followed, all of the “boys” had their convictions overturned or were pardoned. This included three posthumous pardons granted by the governor of Alabama in 2013, more than two decades after the last of the Scottsboro Boy passed away.

Leibowitz stayed in touch with some of the Scottsboro Boys, even providing personal and professional help and support. In 1937, there were reports that his birthday would be celebrated as a “national” holiday by the American Black community, though that didn’t seem to ever materialize in any notable way. Leibowitz defended a few more high-profile clients and then became a judge, ultimately serving on the New York Supreme Court.

According to Quentin Reynolds’s book, Courtroom, a few years after Leibowitz’s involvement in the Scottsboro trials, he was on vacation in Miami and decided to visit a local courtroom in session. He noticed that there was a single Black man on the jury and when the proceedings recessed, he told the defense attorney that he had a question.

“I’m from the North, and I never knew you allowed Negroes on your juries here in the South. Isn’t that something new?” he asked.

The lawyer bitterly responded, “Yes it is something new. This is the first time in our state we have had a n***er on a jury and it’s all on account of a son-of-a-bitch named Leibowitz from New York. He came down to Alabama a few years ago to try a case and somehow he got to the Supreme Court in Washington, and damned if we haven’t had to put n***ers on our juries ever since.”


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.