Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 to a well-to-do Jewish family. As the younger son, Zweig was exempt from the obligation to pursue a traditional, breadwinning profession and, instead, dedicated himself to the art of writing. He wrote poems, novellas, historical biographies, novels, and essays. Zweig traveled extensively throughout Europe and his books were sold in many languages with great success.
His most well-known work, The World of Yesterday, discusses the rise of German populism and the long-term tenure of Vienna’s antisemitic mayor, Karl Lueger. As someone who had experienced these developments first-hand, Zweig understood that this “new,” venomous iteration of politics had paved the way for the rise of the Nazis. He realized that the xenophobia and antisemitic rage that characterized this particular political movement would be exploited and perfected later by the head of the party, Adolf Hitler.
With the ascension of the Nazis to power in Germany in 1933, Zweig found himself gradually pushed out of the German-speaking world. In 1938, with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, Zweig moved to England. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he traveled to the United States and visited South America. In 1941 Zweig immigrated to Brazil with his second wife, Charlotte Elizabeth (‘Lotte’).
Zweig viewed Brazil as a land of hope with a bright future. He believed that there was a chance that the values he cherished could flourish there: the unity of the human race, peace, brotherhood among men, and equality among different races. However, as the Nazis advanced their conquest and the war spread to the Atlantic, the ramifications were felt even in South America. Zweig himself felt ever more isolated and grew aware that the European world he knew and loved was lost forever.
On February 22nd 1942, Zweig and his wife, Lotte, were found dead in each other’s arms. The couple committed suicide by taking a lethal dose of pills. Zweig passed first, with Lotte following.
Before parting from life of my own free will and in my right mind I am impelled to fulfill a last obligation: to give heartfelt thanks to this wonderful land of Brazil which afforded me and my work such kind and hospitable repose. My love for the country increased from day to day, and nowhere else would I have preferred to build up a new existence, the world of my own language having disappeared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.
But after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.
I salute all my friends! May it be granted them to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.
Postcard commemorating the 1912 Esperanto congress in Krakow, marking the language's 25th anniversary. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel)
Sub la sankta signo de espero
Kolektiĝas pacaj batalantoj,
Kaj rapide kreskos la afero
Per laboro de la esperantoj.
Under the sacred sign of hope
Gather the peaceful warriors,
And rapidly the cause will grow
By the labor of the hopeful.
(L.L. Zamenhof, “La Espero”, the hymn of the Esperanto movement; third stanza)
Leyzer (Eliezer) Levi Zamenhof was born in 1859 into a Jewish family in Belostok, a provincial city in the Russian Empire, now Bialystok, Poland. Roughly two-thirds of its inhabitants were Jews. Most of the rest were Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Russians, and Germans. Like many other Jews in the Tsarist Pale of Settlement, the Zamenhofs lived in a multilingual environment. His educated, secularist family spoke Russian at home, but were also intimately familiar with Yiddish, the language that most Ashkenazi Jews spoke on a daily basis – it was, according to one turn-of-the-century statistic, the native tongue of 96% of the Jews in the Russian Empire. The men of the family were also literate in Hebrew and Aramaic, the sacred tongues of the Bible, of prayer, and of Talmudic study.
Zamenhof’s father Marcus, although a maskil (secular or “enlightened” Jew), read from the Torah at the Choral Synagogue in Bialystok, and after the family moved from there to Warsaw, the elder Zamenhof worked as an Imperial censor of Hebrew and Yiddish books and periodicals. Leyzer’s father thus had a solid grounding in Jewish practice and ritual, and thorough knowledge of the sacred tongue. The Zamenhofs also knew Polish, the native language of most of the gentile population, as well as German, then the speech of science and progress, and the children learned French and English at school.
Sympathetic in his youth to Zionism, in 1882 Leyzer opened a local Warsaw chapter of Ḥovevei Tsiyyon (“Lovers of Zion”) in the wake of the pogroms that swept the Russian Empire. He even met his future wife, Klara Silbernik, at a clandestine meeting of the group. Though in his later years Zamenhof ceased to actively champion Zionism, he never actively opposed it. Rather, like many other European Jews in the years before the unimaginable horrors of Nazism, he thought quite reasonably that life in the European Diaspora, though very challenging, was ultimately viable. Europe was then the center of the world’s progress in science, in culture and learning, and in political reform; and the connection to that continent of the Jewish people, so deeply rooted and so actively involved in and committed to all the facets of its civilization, was surely so vital as to be irrevocable.
Universal and Jewish questions
By the late 19th century, which we now look back to as an age of optimism, political activism and the belief in social and ethical progress were commonplace in the Jewish community. What may seem particularly strange or even absurd to many now, though, is the attachment of ideas precisely about language to schemes for social progress. Many polyglot idealists in the 19th century proposed that an invented language shared by people across borders would be the key factor in the promotion of other ideals of social reform and international peace. Like the belief most Jews still held of a viable Diaspora, this conviction was not at all unusual for the time, and it seemed eminently practical as well. If only people could understand each other and not believe their own native language to be intrinsically superior to that of others, the line of reasoning went, reason would triumph over enmity; fraternity, over chauvinism. The idea that a common language resolves differences seems hopelessly naïve now: one can understand one’s fellow perfectly and still despise him or even want to kill him.
Language carried a special weight in the age of romantic nationalism that it is fair to say it no longer does: the national language, and the cultural, collective memory it enshrined in sacred texts and in secondarily sacralized epics, histories, and collections of folklore, were held to be as much the markers of nationality as territorial boundaries. Perhaps because the language battles have been fought to a conclusion in one way or another over much of the world’s surface, that is no longer as much the case. In the 19th century, though, an official language was a foundation of national identity, together with a native land and, if possible, a sovereign state. Indeed, for Poles and other national minorities deprived by aggressive imperialism of independent statehood on their native soil, language assumed still greater importance as the bearer of identity. By the same token, conflicts between ethnic populations frequently manifested themselves in the form of linguistic clashes. These conflicts were particularly common in the Tsarist Empire, where it seems that however intensely each minority group might detest another, they often all agreed on a common hatred of the Jews. Thus the context of Zamenhof’s childhood and youth was more like Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night,” amidst the ruins of the tower of Babel, than a bright mosaic of diversity.
It is not surprising that language, which was so much at the core of identity in 19th century Europe, became the basis for the expression of Zamenhof’s much wider ideals and the arena of his life’s work. The fruit of that noble labor was the invention that has made him immortal – the international language named Esperanto after the modest nom de plume of its creator.
Given the precarious predicament of the Jews, his plans naturally addressed the “Jewish Question”. Zamenhof, a Jew who loved his people, worried about its future and was even sympathetic to Zionism. Yet he was not a nationalist per se, as he stressed the apolitical character of his aspirations, while emphasizing a commitment to ideals of human equality and social justice that transcended partisan politics. Even though Zamenhof saw himself as soaring over the roadblocks, customs houses, and border fences that divide states, and although Esperanto has no earthly locus other than where a speaker of it hangs his hat, the ideas that inform Esperanto still do have a precise location on the intellectual map of Eastern European Jewry of the period. “Esperantoland” on our imagined chart of the intellect is a left-leaning clime situated close to the Bundist and Socialist districts.
Language was to be the vehicle of international understanding and reconciliation, of universal peace and brotherhood, but which of the many tongues spoken or written by the Jews of the Russian Empire was to be harnessed to his chariot of fire? The future father of Esperanto experimented. At first, the young Zamenhof aspired to adopt the imperial tongue and become a Russian poet, but gave up his dream because of the pervasive antisemitism of the empire. He then turned his efforts inward and toyed for a time with reforming Hebrew, but rejected that, too, as impractical. He worked on a grammar with the aim of regularizing and reforming Yiddish, the spoken language of most Eastern European Jews. But he abandoned this effort, as well: fluid, lively Yiddish simply would not bend to his iron grammarian’s will. Besides, no matter what he did with Yiddish, it would be a hard sell for poor Jews interested in breaking out of their physical and linguistic ghetto.
Doctor Hopeful’s linguistic Genesis
Zamenhof invented his new universal language twice. His father found and burnt the first manuscript when the youth was away in Moscow at university. We have but one poem in this precursor to Esperanto; its predictable theme, kindness, fraternity, and romantic striving. Esperantists thus have a small fragment of a proto-language, just enough to be certain that the later invention proceeded from it, as well as so little as to leave room for wondering speculation about what else there may have been in those early writings that were consigned to the flames and irrevocably lost. Esperanto as an invented language has no pre-existence, no antiquity ipso facto; so its creator’s first attempt is the subject of fascinated study, a bit like mystical speculation about the ages that preceded Genesis.
In Warsaw on July 26, 1887, Zamenhof published in Russian La Unua Libro, literally The First Book of his fully-formed second try, signing it “Doktoro Esperanto”. He gave the language a core lexicon based mainly on Latin roots, yet it is not an ersatz Romance language. The roots Zamenhof ingeniously selected were specifically those that are more or less readily recognizable to speakers not only of the living Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, but also to speakers of a spectrum of Germanic and Slavic ones, including German, English, Russian, Polish and even Yiddish.
By using common Latinate words the inventor sought to ensure a linguistic equality and neutrality, whereby speakers of different national languages might meet on a level playing field, employing for mutual communication a language supported not by governmental domination, economic hegemony, or military force, but by a humanistic ideal that takes precedence over political power and territorial control. He saw in his efforts a religious undertaking of sorts. He even went so far as to compare Esperanto congresses to the three obligatory Jewish pilgrimages to the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem!
Zamenhof never actually gave a name to his new language, perhaps because names help to reify things, to create boundaries and exclusive identities – the very ills he wanted to avoid, transcend, and remedy. He termed his invention simply an “internacia lingvo” and, as we have seen, modestly employed as a nom de plume in his manual of the language the present participle singular “Esperanto“, which means in it “One who hopes”. As noted above, that first edition of the manual, La Unua Libro, was published in Russian, though translations into other languages swiftly followed – and indeed for the first two decades or so of the existence of Esperanto, about 90% of the movement’s subscribers and supporters were subjects of the Russian Empire. A majority of those were Jews as well, and though statistics are hard to come by, it might be fair to estimate that perhaps as much as a quarter of the present Esperantist community is Jewish.
Esperanto emerged in the conditions of the Jewish Diaspora, addressed its concerns, was suffused with its hopes, and was shaped by its linguistic environment. It attracted a disproportionately large number of Jewish adherents and its enemies attacked it as a Jewish language. In many ways, it was and continues to be.
Generations of Esperantists
The geographical trajectory of Zamenhof’s life matched the Diasporist aspect of his universalist convictions: he traveled within Europe to congresses, but never set foot in the Land of Israel. Indeed, he never lived permanently very far from his birthplace, spending much of his youth and all his adult life in the poverty-stricken Jewish neighborhood of Warsaw where his parents had moved the family in his boyhood. His oculist medical practice, in keeping with his humanitarian ideals, served the community while barely supporting his own family. He charged his patients the nominal sum of 20 kopeks a visit. Like Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, he received some financial aid from his father-in-law to augment the meager income with which he provided for his wife and three children. Much of the expense of printing and mailing Esperanto periodicals and other publications came out of his own pocket. The three Zamenhof children, Adam, Sofia, and Lidia, were devoted to their father’s cause, yet though Doctor Hopeful had placed his confidence in the lands of exile, his children paid the ultimate price for that decision.
One daughter, Lidia, born in 1904, embraced the universalist Baha’i faith, a creed proclaimed by Baha’ullah, an Iranian mystic of the mid-19th century whom his fellow Muslims executed as a heretic. The Baha’i leadership looked favorably on Esperanto: the leader ‘Abd al-Baha encouraged it and Mirza Muhammad Labib taught it in Iran to Baha’is. Lidia traveled to America in 1938 to propagate the new religion and teach Esperanto. Despite the events of Kristallnacht in November of that year and the swiftly worsening plight of the Jews in Europe, the American government turned down her petition for an extension of her visa, claiming that her work as a teacher had violated its conditions. The Baha’i leader Shoghi Effendi, her spiritual guide and close friend, refused politely and inexplicably to help her find refuge in British Mandate Palestine, where the religion still has its center, a golden-domed building surrounded by Persian gardens overlooking Haifa. So she returned to Poland in November 1938.
The following September, the Germans destroyed the Zamenhof house and its priceless Esperanto archive in their terror bombing of the Polish capital. The family moved to an older home, within the area soon to be demarcated as the Warsaw Ghetto. Zamenhof’s son Adam was killed in prison by the Germans as a hostage in the early days of the occupation, and the Nazis murdered both daughters in the death camp at Treblinka later on, during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Their house was right next to the Umschlagplatz, the space into which the Jews were herded before boarding the trains for deportation, mainly to Treblinka.
The fate of the international language under fascism was grim. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had condemned Esperanto as part of the Jewish world conspiracy, and the regime outlawed the international language in Germany. To the east, the situation was little better: Esperanto had flourished in the young Soviet Union, where it was seen as a means of getting the workers of the world to unite. But there, too, the Stalin regime, suspicious of its cosmopolitanism and the contacts it facilitated between Soviet citizens and foreigners, banned it and executed numerous Esperantists. Yet the movement and many of its adherents survived the dark years. Following liberation, in 1946 Esperantists planted a green flag on the mound of rubble where Dr. Zamenhof’s home had stood. Zamenhof’s gravestone, a handsome monument of gray Aberdeen marble, is still standing in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. His new language survived and survives still – out of the hundreds invented in the optimistic 19th century it is indeed the only one that has endured.
The hymn of the Esperanto movement became and remains a poem Zamenhof composed, “LaEspero” – “The Hope”. It is often sung ceremonially at Esperanto congresses and other gatherings, where Zamenhof’s rallying cry still echoes: “Let us labor and hope!” Some estimates optimistically place the number of people familiar to some degree with the language at nearly two million, and it is now among the languages taught on the popular website and app Duolingo. But there are only perhaps some ten thousand fully fluent speakers. There are also a small number of native speakers of Esperanto (known as “denaskoj” – “from-birth(er)s”) – people who learned it from parents who used both it and a native natural language at home. The Internet (“reto” in Esperanto) has enhanced Zamenhof’s vision of a linguistic community with a home in the noosphere, though the high ideals of Dr. Esperanto remain far from being realized.
Yet now, in the 21st century, what is it Esperantists are hoping for?
Legacy on a coin
In 2007, the Coins and Medals Corporation of the State of Israel struck a handsome medal in gold, silver, and bronze issues to commemorate the publication of Zamenhof’s book, La Unua Libro. It is a generous tribute by the victorious Zionist project, with its invented language, to an alternative vision, with its own language, that through no fault of its own did not attain its highest aspirations. I have the bronze medal, which is the largest in size of the series, before me as I write these lines describing it. It is a handsome object. The medal is a dignified tribute to a beloved son of the Jewish people, to his genius, his noble, self-sacrificing ideal and invention; the design breathes the artist’s respect and affection for his subject.
On the obverse is a frontal portrait of the gentle, bushy-bearded Zamenhof, his spectacles perched on his nose. He has on a bow tie, pleated dress shirt and three-piece suit (there is just the hint of a waistcoat below his right lapel), and above his heart the five-pointed green star is inset in enamel on his left lapel: he’s all ready to address a “kongreso” somewhere in Europe, sometime in the halcyon years before the Great War. To the right of his head, though, the inscription is in Hebrew: “Yotser ha-safah ha-beyn-le’umit Esperanto” – “Creator of the international language Esperanto”. His name appears in both Hebrew and Latin characters. Below, there is a rendering of his signature, almost as though to say, “I may have invented Esperanto, but I wrote the above statement in Hebrew myself” (as indeed he was capable of doing).
The medal’s reverse shows a stylized, ziggurat-like tower of Babel with an ascending spiral path leading up to the new reversed-and-joined-E symbol of the Esperanto movement, and along the rim is the Biblical verse partially in Esperanto and fully in Hebrew, “Va-yehi kol ha-arets safah aḥat u-devarim aḥadim/ Unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero” – “(And all the earth was of) one language and one manner of speech” (Genesis 11:1). At the base of the tower is the word “Esperanto” in Latin script, flanked by little male and female silhouettes holding hands. Letters of many languages, including Chinese, Greek, Sanskrit (Devanagari), Latin, and Russian, are worked in delicate relief on the surface of the tower. The Hebrew words for “One” and “peace” stand out, the latter echoed by the equivalent in Esperanto and Russian, as the emblem of Esperanto just above the tower’s summit attests to the nobility of human striving to resolve the disunity of Babel. Towards the top of the tower, delicate and faint, but unmistakable in its script and message, is the Hebrew word “hatikvah” – “hope”.
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.
This Jewish War Hero Protested the Nazis… Then Helped Defeat Them
A decorated German soldier in World War I, Richard Stern opposed Nazism from within. After fleeing, he joined the US Army at age 43, and soon became a hero there, as well...
Colorized photo of Richard Stern as a German soldier in World War I (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)
What do we view as heroism? We acknowledge those who win medals for amazing actions done in the military, honoring them for performing in an admirable way during battle. We see those people as heroic because they act with bravery despite the life threatening circumstances of war.
Often, however, we do not look the same way at protestors. Perhaps we disagree with the issues they stand for. Perhaps, if there are many other protestors or if we ourselves are even protesting along with them, it becomes hard to see the act as heroic or exceptional.
Yet, a protest can most certainly also be an heroic act.
This photo is of Richard Stern standing in the doorway of his store in Cologne, German on April 1, 1933:
A Nazi SA soldier is standing next to him. Stern was protesting the boycott of Jewish businesses initiated by the German government of Hitler and the Nazi party, who had taken power just two months earlier. This was Hitler’s first official action against the German Jews.
Stern turned out to be the only Jewish protestor against the Nazis in Cologne on April 1, 1933. Today, the photo is featured in at least five different museums in Germany.
On January 31, 1933 the Stern family along with all the Jews in Cologne, had seen a shocking number of Nazi flags hanging from stores and houses all over the city. It was a celebration of Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power.
On February 17, Hitler ordered all local police headquarters to create working relationships with the Nazi party’s paramilitary SA and SS units, helping to set the stage for the Nazis’ official suppression of German Jews. A detailed plan was put together for the boycott of all Jewish businesses to take place on April 1, 1933. SA soldiers were ordered to stand in front of Jewish stores to warn German citizens not to enter them.
In addition, the Nazis began to take control of all of the news organizations. They wanted newspapers to support the actions against the Jews, so their planning instructions stated, “if newspapers do not do this or do too little, they must immediately be removed from every house where Germans live.”
Most of the Jewish community knew the boycott was coming.
Richard Stern told his family and friends, “I cannot be silent.”
He was a strong supporter of the Weimar Republic’s civil rights and was an active member of the Social Democratic Party. Stern believed that other Jews would join him in protesting. However, the bulk of Jewish leaders in Cologne believed that finding a way to cooperate with the Nazi government would ultimately protect German Jewry. They were afraid to take an open stand against the oppression of Jewish people, so Richard Stern found that he was the city’s sole protestor.
Stern felt that protesting as a war veteran would be the most effective action, and so he donned the Iron Cross he was awarded in World War I.
He had been drafted in June of 1917, a point in the war when most Germans knew they would lose. Nonetheless, Stern acted bravely enough to be awarded the Iron Cross in August of 1918, very close to the end of the conflict.
Following announcement of the 1933 boycott, Stern wrote a pamphlet condemning the Nazis for their actions against the Jewish people despite the dedication of Jewish soldiers like him during World War I. The pamphlet declared that “We see this action against German Judaism as an insult to the memory of 12,000 German combat soldiers of the Jewish faith killed in action,” and he signed it “Combat Veteran Richard Stern.”
Stern handed the pamphlets out to everyone passing by his store. Look at Stern’s face in the photo. He is smiling, displaying his feeling of being a true soldier, while the SA “soldier” standing next to him was an impostor. When the Nazis took power, typical SA soldiers were young, never having truly served in the German army, and certainly not in any fields of combat comparable to those in which Stern and others like him had fought.
Richard Stern even gave the pamphlet to the SA soldier standing next to him. This was particularly brave as there was a Nazi newspaper station right next to his store. An hour later he was arrested and taken to police headquarters. While he was sitting there, he felt nervous. A police officer who, like many others had joined the Nazi party because of Hitler’s orders, approached Stern because he knew him.
He asked, “What are you doing here?”
“They arrested me,” Richard Stern answered.
“You better get out of here.”
The policeman saw Richard Stern as a friend because he was also a German war veteran and sneaked him out the back door.
As the Nazi actions against German Jews got worse through the 1930s, there were times when Richard Stern felt fear for himself, his sister and her son. He became determined to get the three of them out of Germany and to safety in the United States. Yet before he managed to get out, he continued to help his fellow Jews. When Germany took over Austria in March of 1938, a chunk of Austrian Jews began to flee to try and escape the Nazis. A number came to Cologne and Stern harbored them and tried to help them escape to Belgium.
After Kristallnacht, in the fall of 1938, he connected to family in New York and finally succeeded in immigrating there in May of 1939.
Once the United States entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Richard Stern, then 43 years old, volunteered for the American army so that he could fight against the Nazis. He was accepted in October of 1942 and began training with the engineering battalion to which he was assigned. Stern refused an honorable discharge due to his advanced age, and by the end of October 1943, his battalion was involved in difficult battles in Italy. Before he deployed he donated his German war medals (including one he received from Hitler himself, who had not realized that Stern was Jewish) to the national scrap drive in support of the war effort. Then, in early January of 1944, he became a hero in the American army for saving his company, which had been surrounded by German machine gunners at the top of Italy’s Mount Porchia.
He reportedly persuaded the Germans to surrender “if they wished some day to return to the Fatherland.” Stern was promoted and awarded a Silver Star. His valor was reported in newspapers around the world and he was even played by a famous actor on the radio.
What do we view as Richard Stern’s heroism?
His actions in World War I and World War II, each for a different side, fit how people usually judge a hero, yet was his protest against the Nazis and standing up for civil rights any less exceptional?
Richard Stern did not succeed in causing any significant change in Germany through his moral and principled stand. He certainly had moments of fear and doubt, yet the feelings of failure he felt following the protest caused him to be even more determined to find a way to continue opposing the Nazis and Hitler.
Heroism is not just a particular action. It is also devotion to proper morality. Richard Stern teaches us that.
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.
For the Sake of Love: The Jewish Women Left Behind
We never heard these stories. Forgotten stories of Jewish women who lived in Egypt and chose to remain there with the Muslim men that they loved, even though their families had immigrated to Israel. It’s time we shared these stories.
A Jewish wedding in Ayala Deckel’s family, held in the Great Synagogue in Alexandria
She boarded the ship along with the rest of her family. Everyone was excited about the voyage that would eventually bring them to Israel, the journey that would begin the great change in their lives. Yet, her heart was heavy. She didn’t really want to leave Egypt. A few minutes later, she muttered casually, “I forgot my bag by the ship, I’ll be right back.” That was the last they saw of her. She left the ship behind and returned to her lover in Egypt, choosing to stay there with him.
We never heard these stories during our childhood nor later on. The stories, like the women concealed in them, were left behind. Jewish women who lived in 20th century Egypt and who chose to remain there, though their entire families had immigrated to Israel. Women who chose to marry outside of the Jewish faith, who in most cases were expelled from home and family, left alone in a Muslim country. It’s time to tell their stories.
One of them was my aunt, Rachel. I only became aware of her existence a year ago.
My grandfather had a large, warm and noisy family. They were five brothers and one sister. Their pictures always stood on the bookcase in my grandparents’ home. It turned out that someone was missing from the photos. Rachel wasn’t in any of them.
Rachel had fallen in love with a young Muslim man and married him when the family was still living in Egypt. Her father, my great-grandfather, did not approve of the marriage and banished her from the family home. He also demanded that everyone sever ties with her. But one sister refused to comply and kept in touch with Rachel despite her controversial marriage. Her name was Susan, I called her Tante Zuza. She would visit Rachel’s home frequently and even developed a close relationship with her son. Until it came time to immigrate to Israel.
Egypt in the early 20th century had been a cosmopolitan country to which many Jews from the Mediterranean basin had immigrated because of its economic and business potential. The essayist and author Jacqueline Kahanoff describes her childhood in Egypt at the beginning of the previous century thus, “In my youth it was only natural for me that Cairo’s residents understood one another even though they spoke different languages and had names that disclosed their different origins – Muslim, Arab, Christian, Syrian, Greek, Armenian, Italian. . .”
The Jewish community developed within this diverse climate; a traditional community with unique characteristics that set it apart from the others around it. At the same time, it was a community rooted in the local culture. Jews, Christians and Muslims had strong mutual ties of business and friendship. Marriage ties existed as well.
The turning point in the life of the Jewish community came precisely with the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1948, the war between Israel and Egypt reached the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, with a series of explosions and acts of sabotage in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter. The streets were no longer safe and the Jewish community was affected directly, its members began to emigrate from Egypt to Europe, the United States and Israel.
The writings of contemporary rabbis on the issue of conversion suggests that intermarriage was a common phenomenon. They were preoccupied with it and with the dilemma of whether or not to convert a spouse who marries a member of the Jewish community.
In one of his halakhic rulings, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote that in his opinion it was worth converting a Christian woman who marries a Jew even if she does not keep the commandments, arguing that if she was not converted, the couple would be likely to seek comfort among the Christian community. Rabbi Yosef believed that in the interest of keeping members in the community, it was better to convert the Christian spouse than to lose the entire family.
In another case, Rabbi Aharon Mendel HaCohen told of a young woman who wanted a young Muslim man to convert so that they could marry. The rabbis of the community agreed and married the two in a religious Jewish ceremony. However, two days after the conversion, the new convert decided to return to Islam, and took his Jewish wife with him. Since then, Rabbi Mendel HaCohen wrote that he was no longer willing to convert Muslim partners.
The famous actress and singer Leila Murad is another interesting example. She was born Lilian to a devout religious Jewish family. Her father came from Iraq and her mother from Poland. Lilian, who began singing when she was fourteen, was called the “Cinderella of Egyptian cinema.” In 1947, she married and converted to Islam. Her family, who immigrated to Israel, rarely spoke of her, perhaps one reason she is not more known in Israel.
Another was Soad Zaki, a famous singer and actress in Egypt who also married a Muslim. They eventually divorced, and he moved to the United States while she immigrated to Israel. Later, the couple renewed their relationship and he came to live with her in Israel. After both had passed way, they were buried alongside each other here.
Returning to my family—in the 1950s, when it was no longer possible to remain in Egypt, my aunt, Tante Zuza, finally left Cairo and her sister Rachel. For many years, they lived in enemy countries and all communication between them ceased. During the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, they were on opposite sides of the border. While fierce battles were waged between Egypt and Israel, each worried for her family and country, but also for the sister on the other side. During those years, neither one tried to contact the other nor did they speak openly about the other. Both kept the other sister’s existence a secret. In the Israel of those years, it was disgraceful to say that you had a sister who had converted to Islam, a sister who was on the side of the enemy. In Egypt, it was extremely dangerous to say that you were from a Jewish family. Each sister lived her life. The secret remained buried in their hearts and was never spoken aloud.
After the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978, Tante Zuza, who lives in Israel, managed to contact her older sister Rachel in Egypt. My cousins who witnessed the first conversation between them said that Tante Zuza sat for half an hour crying and hugging the phone receiver as if it were a human body. I imagine Rachel did the same on the other end of the line, in Egypt.
The discovery of this story shook my world. It was during the COVID pandemic, the whole country was in lockdown, and I found myself sitting at home trying to imagine what had happened back then and what was happening right now with my Muslim relatives in Egypt. I couldn’t stop thinking about how one event completely changed the fate of our family on both sides of the border.
I started researching, asking and gathering every sliver of information and very quickly, I discovered that this story was not unique to my family. Many more women had found themselves in similar situations. Women whose stories had been silenced, women whose voices have not been heard in Israeli society to this day.
Though I tried every way possible to find them, I wasn’t able to contact my Muslim family in Egypt. Instead of meeting them, I sat down and wrote. I let my thoughts travel and in my mind began to weave together the gaps that had emerged among the historical facts. This is how my [Hebrew] book Habaytah Haloch VeChazor(“Back and Again”) came into being. It tells the story of a journey between the present and the past, between secrets and facts. It is a book that strives to give voice to silenced stories and provide a meaningful platform for the women who chose to remain behind.