The Woman Who Conjured Up Cruella de Vil

She went from selling furniture to becoming a successful screenwriter and author, but she wrote her best-loved and best-known work, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, when she was sixty years old. Her own nine Dalmatians were her inspiration, along with a passing remark made by a friend, that sparked an idea for one of the most beloved villains in popular culture…

Dodie Smith with her black and white companions

When you hear the word “Dalmatians,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Disney movie, though the particular version might vary, depending on your age.

Promotional material for a Hebrew version of the 1961 Disney film, 101 Dalmatians

There is also a slight chance that you might also remember the book on which the films are based, and which had considerable success when it was first published. But do you also remember the author’s name? No, it wasn’t Walt Disney. It was an Englishwoman named Dorothy Smith, who was affectionately called Dodie. She gave the world The Hundred and One Dalmatians and the supervillain Cruella de Vil. She was also the author of another bestseller, I Capture the Castle, which was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, and which was also adapted into a film.

The Hebrew translation of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith, from 1966

Dodie Smith was born in 1896 and when her father died two years later, she went to live with her mother in her grandparents’ house along with her mother’s unmarried brother and sisters. Little Dodie was everyone’s favorite and she absorbed her family’s great love for the theater. At the age of 18, she enrolled in the Academy of Performing Arts in London, but after a few years she realized that she was not meant for an acting career. To make a living, Dodie began working in a furniture store, but this did not diminish her love for the stage, and she soon turned to playwriting. She managed to sell a screenplay for a motion picture under the pen name Charles Henry Percy and published a stage play under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony, which was also a success.

The writer Dodie Smith

We’ll never know if she would have been as successful had she published them under her own name, but when her identity was revealed, the furniture saleswoman turned playwright became a sensation (“Shop-Girl Writes Play” blared the headlines). From there Smith went on to become one of the most successful playwrights of her time. Her writing career took a new turn during World War II, when she moved with her husband to the United States. Her longing for home led her to write I Capture the Castle, a book centered on a teenage girl who describes the world around her in her journal, while telling the story of her extraordinary family who live in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. The book captivated readers and was reprinted many times, making Smith not just a successful screenwriter but also a novelist.

A cover of a 2018 Hebrew translation of I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

But Smith’s most successful book came a few years later, when she was 60 years old. The inspiration for the book were her and her husband’s nine Dalmatians, the first of which was named Pongo, naturally. A friend of Smith’s once commented that Pongo would make an excellent fur coat, and in that instant, the character of Cruella de Vil was suddenly born in Smith’s mind. The rest of the plot would gradually develop around the figure of Cruella.

The book’s success led to a phone call from Walt Disney who offered to turn her story into a movie. The animated film was released in 1961 (Smith loved the film, but was disappointed to not have her name featured more prominently in the opening credits), leading to a rise in books sales, and likely also to the translation of the book into Hebrew in 1966. About ten years after the first book was published, Smith published a sequel titled The Starlight Barking, but it was not as successful as the first and, in fact, the Disney sequels are not based on it at all. Incidentally, Disney also acquired the rights to I Capture the Castle, which was supposed to star Hayley Mills, but due to disputes between the screenwriter and Smith, the project was shelved. After Smith’s death, Disney eventually released the film rights and in 2003 a feature film was made by BBC Films.

Disney released a live action adaptation of 101 Dalmations in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.

Smith, however, did not live to see the film. She passed away in 1990, four years after her husband, who had died unexpectedly, and left her heartbroken. Her Dalmatian Charlie served as her faithful companion, support and source of strength in her later years.

As inevitably happens when a book is adapted to film (even one starring Glenn Close) there will always be nuances that cannot be transferred to the big screen. So it is with Cruella de Vil who in the book is even more ruthless and has an even darker back story. The same goes for the book’s sense of humor, especially as it applies to human-dog relations, as can be seen from the book’s opening lines, “Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.”

So if you’re a dog person or have an appreciation of finely-crafted villains, or if you’d simply like to read a work by a talented, but unfortunately long-forgotten best-selling author, I recommend adding Dodie Smith’s books to your reading list.

And finally, a full disclosure to readers of I Capture the Castle—I didn’t write this article while sitting in the kitchen sink. 😉

Maya the Bee in the Service of Germany’s Soldiers

The beloved children’s book about the brave little bee who saves her beehive became one of the most popular books among German soldiers during the First World War. What led them to carry this book about the adventures of a small bee with them onto the battlefield? Does it contain hints of the devious ideology that would cause global devastation only a few decades later?

Maya the Bee and German Soldiers in WWI

Maya the Bee is all grown up, and this year (2022) she celebrates 110 years of delighting the world’s children with her adventures in a multitude of languages ​​and media. It was therefore all the more disappointing to discover that the creator of this beloved character was openly antisemitic and promoted some questionable values. However, if you are one of Maya’s fans, don’t worry. We aren’t going to spoil the image of this adorable fictional and animated character. Along the way, we’ll meet Henrietta Szold’s younger sister Adele, who will remind us that books can be read in many ways.

Maya and Willy seem concerned. From the 1975 television cartoon series

First published in Germany in 1912, The Adventures of Maya the Bee tells the story of a little bee who leaves her hive in the midst of a rebellion, encounters the outside world with its friendly and dangerous creatures, and eventually returns to her hive to save it. The book was written by Waldemar Bonsels (1880–1952) for his sons, and became a great success when it was published.

First edition of The Adventures of Maya the Bee

The fact that it was popular not just among German children, but also among Germany’s soldiers in the First World War suggests that there is more to this book than meets the eye. What was it about this story and the adventures of a little bee that brought young men on the battlefield to eagerly read a book that was clearly intended for children?

The reason is that among the flowers, insects and adventures, hide militaristic and nationalist messages and values which can be interpreted as a parable of the German people and its army.

One of the clear messages conveyed in the book is that one must fight—and if necessary be prepared to die—for the homeland. Already at the beginning of the book, the nanny Cassandra says to the newly born young bee: “So do not sting . . . except in dire need, and then do it without flinching or fear of death” (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Adventures of Maya the Bee [New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1922]). Maya internalizes this lesson and when she finds herself captured (for the second time in the book!) she thinks, “I am doomed anyhow. So since death is certain one way or another, I may as well be proud and brave and do everything I can to try to save them . . . If my people are to be vanquished and killed, I want to be killed, too. But first I must do everything in my power to save them.” This message reaches its climax in the battle that takes place between the bees and the wasps, where we find this exchange: “’I should like to die for you,’ Maya stammered, quivering. ‘Don’t worry about us,’ replied the queen. ‘Among the thousands inhabiting this city there is not one who would hesitate a moment to sacrifice his life for me and for the welfare of the country. You can go to sleep peacefully.'”

Here too death in battle is presented as sad but also heroic. The brave commander bee perishes in battle, and the readers learn how “His brave death inspired them all with the wild rapture that comes from utter willingness to die for a noble cause.” Reading these passages makes the book’s presence on the brutal battlefields of the First World War a little more understandable.

The book also emphasizes the duty of loyalty to the homeland. Maya’s leaving the hive is a reprehensible act, and only the fact that she returned to save it means that she is forgiven for “the crime of  leaving her homeland” (from the Hebrew translation by Aryeh Leib Smiatitzky, Devora Zivit, Omanut Publishers, 1928). Even during her journey, the readers understand that it is better to shelter in the shadow of the rulers and serve them, rather than set out on an independent path. “Oh, thought Maya, how happy it made you to be able to count yourself one in a community like that, to feel that everybody respected you, and you had the powerful protection of the state. Here, out in the world, lonely and exposed, she ran great risks of her life. She was cold, too.” Even the wasps admit that “we are a more powerful race, but the bees are a unified nation, and unflinchingly loyal to their people and their state.”

“You did not forget your home and your people… In your heart you were loyal.” The illustration above is by Franz Franke, from a German edition dating to 1920

As can be understood from the last sentence, nationalism is not limited to loyalty to the homeland but also includes expressions of national and racial superiority. Emphasized throughout the book is the bees’ superiority over all other insects. “For it is to our courage as well as our wisdom that we bees owe the universal respect and esteem in which we are held,” explains Cassandra to the young bee Maya. In her meeting with the beetle, the narrator points out that “The bees had more culture and better manners,” than the other insects, and the fly, which is afraid of being stung, declares “Everybody knows that you bees are the most respected of all insects.”

The author Waldemar Bonsels

This feeling of superiority is connected to the fact that Bonsels, a humanist and lover of nature, was also an avowed antisemite. He openly expressed his support for the Nazis with their rise in 1933 by publishing a hateful article about the Jews. According to the article, the Jewish people are a deadly enemy that poisons German culture and must be stopped. The book about Maya the Bee was written years before, but some believe that an inkling of this thinking can also be found among its pages. On one of the first pages of the book, the governess Cassandra tells Maya: “The hornets are our most formidable enemy, and the wickedest, and the wasps are a useless tribe of thieves, without home or religion. We are a stronger, more powerful nation, while they steal and murder wherever they can.” It is not unreasonable to assume that the evil wasps in the book symbolize the Jewish people. Bonsels was even approached to turn Maya the Bee into an animated film in the service of Nazi propaganda. The request came from a German studio established in 1941, with the aim of presenting an alternative to Walt Disney’s American studios and spreading German ideology through animated films. Bonsels accepted the offer and only a financial dispute led to the deal’s falling apart. After the war, Bonsels’ ties with the Nazi Party led to the boycott of his books for a short period.

Maya the Bee appears in a Nazi magazine for Germany’s soldiers, June, 1941

In the United States, the book was first published in 1922. The English translator was none other than Adele Szold-Seltzer, the younger sister of Henrietta Szold, leader and founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. At the time, Bonsels’ views were not yet widely known and the story was seen as a naïve children’s book. Reading it today, we cannot ignore what we now know about the writer’s personal views or the various militaristic messages embedded throughout. Nevertheless, it also shows appreciation for nature’s beauty, as well as the values of curiosity, compassion, and coming to the aid of one’s fellow creatures. Maya befriends many insects she meets along the way, marvels at the beauty of the butterfly, the dragonfly and the night gnome, the song of the red-breasted robin, the melody of the cricket. The various insects share information with her and come to each other’s rescue—Maya helps the dung beetle regain its footing, and later he will be the one to save her from almost certain death in the spider’s web. And we haven’t yet mentioned love. In one episode, upon seeing a loving young couple and thinking it the most glorious sight, Maya says to herself “human beings are most beautiful when they are in love.”

The American edition of The Adventures of Maya the Bee, translated by Adele Szold-Seltzer

But let’s be honest, most of us first fell in love with Maya the Bee at the movies or on television and not in the pages of a book. The first film adaptation was a silent film starring real animals, released in 1926 during Bonsels’ lifetime and with his collaboration. Yet Maya’s great success came only in 1975, over twenty years after Bonsels’ death, and from Japan, of all places. It was the Japanese animated 104-episode series that brought Maya into homes all over the world and turned her into a famous and beloved children’s character and star of an array of merchandise from chocolates and puddings to dolls and bedding. The series also brought us Willy and Flip, two beloved characters who don’t appear in Bonsels’ book and were only added in the animated series. Willy became so popular that he appeared in almost every adaptation of the story (for example, in the French animated series from 2012), even though, as mentioned, he doesn’t appear at all in the original book.

A Hebrew poster for the movie Maya the Bee. L.A.C. Productions


The first Hebrew translation of the original book was by Aryeh Leib Smiatitzky in 1928, titled Hadvorah Zivit. A new translation by Bezalel Wechsler appeared in 1977 under the title Hadvora Maya VeHarpatka’oteha.  Added to these were shorter books based on the television series, which were already far removed in spirit from the original.

Hadvora Maya Veharpatka’oteha, 1977


Hadvora Maya Nilhemet BaTzra’ot (“Maya the Bee Battles the Wasps”)


The makeover was finally completed in 2014, with another motion picture based on the book (Maya the Bee Movie), featuring even fewer ties to the original narrative. The film received poor reviews but was quite successful at the box office and also spawned two sequels. It even managed to completely overturn Bonsels’ doctrine from beginning to end. Not only does it erase all traces of any antisemitic undercurrent and offer a practically pacifist message, but it also reverses Bonsels’ most basic message for young, especially female readers – to obey and conform. Instead, the film teaches its young viewers to see Maya’s free spirit and independence in a sympathetic and positive light, and in the spirit of the times educates them to listen to their hearts and to be themselves. Bonsels, who died in 1952, but whose name appears in the credits as one of the writers, would not have approved.

A Hebrew poster for Maya the Bee Movie, 2014

An Inimitable Talent: The Qanun Player Yusuf Za’arur

Yusuf Za’arur was a talented musician and expert qanun player who served for many years as the musical director of the Radio Baghdad Orchestra. When he immigrated to Israel, he had to fight for recognition, but his great talent led him to renewed success in Israel as well

Yusuf Za’arur at the International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo, 1932

One day, during a rehearsal of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Iraqi Maqam Orchestra, the qanun player Yusuf Za’arur saw a fellow qanun player, Avraham Salman, sitting outside the door trying to imitate Za’arur’s wonderful technique. Za’arur approached Salman and said to him jokingly: “What are you doing, young man? Trying to imitate my playing? Copying from me?” The joke was an attempt to diffuse the inherent tension that is palpable whenever a student tries to outdo his master. After all, Za’arur knew Avraham Salman from their days back in Iraq, when Za’arur had been the musical director of the Radio Baghdad Orchestra. Za’arur would promote talented young musicians, mainly from among the Jewish community. Avraham Salman was one of them.

The Baghdad Radio Orchestra, 1936

Yusuf Za’arur was born in 1902 to a wealthy family in Baghdad. He displayed musical talent from a young age, and at 18 bought himself his first qanun. He also played the violin and cello. In 1932, he participated with other Iraqi musicians (all Jews) in the First International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. A rare recording from this event can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel. On track five, one can hear Za’arur’s virtuoso playing on the qanun. His talent earned him a medal and first place in the Congress.

Za’arur joined Radio Baghdad in 1936 and by 1941, he was appointed the station’s musical director. He held this position until his immigration to Israel in 1951. While working at Radio Baghdad, he promoted many Jewish musicians, among them the singer Salim Shuwat, Albert Elias, Avraham Daoud, Avraham Salman, Daoud Akram, Haki Ovadia, Shuweh Yehezkel, Elias Zebida, Sasson Abdu, Yosef Yaakov Shem Tov and the young singer Saleh Alshabli.

The Radio Baghdad Orchestra, 1938

Za’arur did not just promote Jewish singers. When the Iraqi singer Nazem Al-Ghazali came to audition for him, he sang a song in an Egyptian style. Za’arur then asked him to sing an Iraqi song and told him that the Iraqi maqam was better suited to his style of singing. After the audition, Za’arur told Ghazali that he was very talented and he predicted a great future for him, which indeed turned out to be true.

During the years he worked at Radio Baghdad, Za’arur composed many popular tunes and worked with the great Arab singers of the time, from the respected composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab to the great singer of the Arab world Umm Kulthum.

Although he was a much sought-after musician, as a civil servant he gave private performances only to a limited number of personalities, among them King Faisal of Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said.

The famous violinist Sami al-Shawwa performing in Baghdad in 1931, at the Cinema Royale, with Yusuf Za’arur on the qanun and Ezra Aharon Azouri on the oud

Immigrating to Israel inevitably brought a sharp decline in Za’arur’s status, and he went from managing singers and orchestras to playing private concerts for families from the Iraqi community in Israel. Although having fallen from his revered status in Iraq, he continued to try and include other musicians. His family says that when he was offered to play at a family celebration, he would ask the hosts if they were also interested in having a violin or oud player accompany him on the qanun. The hosts generally declined his offer because they only wanted to hear him play. However, out of appreciation for his great talent, they paid him as if he were an entire orchestra.

The 1932 International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. All the Iraqi musicians were Jewish with the exception of the singer Mohammad al-Gubenchi. Yusuf Za’arur was among the senior members of the orchestra and won first place in the qanun

His great talent brought him renewed recognition in Israel and he founded the Chalery Baghdad maqam orchestra which was part of the Arab Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Many of Yusuf’s recordings from his time with the Israel Broadcasting Authority can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel. However, he had to fight for his place among established musicians in Israel, some of whom he had promoted and cultivated in Iraq.

Yusuf Za’arur in his home in Israel, 1966

The story with which we began this article demonstrates the struggle for recognition between newer and older immigrants and Yusuf Za’arur’s unique and inimitable talent. Many musicians have tried to achieve his level of skill, including his great-grandson, the qanun player David Regev-Za’arur, who says that he tries to play like his great-grandfather, and hopes that he will one day succeed.

Many thanks to David Regev-Za’arur for the stories and photographs

How a Diamond From the UK’s Imperial State Crown Ended Up in an Israeli Engagement Ring

Set in the center of the Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom is an enormous diamond. A part of the original stone is in the possession of an Israeli family. How did this happen?


Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation wearing the Imperial State Crown with the diamond at its center. Photo: Cecil Beaton. Source: Wikipedia

In the Imperial State Crown that Queen Elizabeth II wore at her coronation, the same crown that has now passed to King Charles III, you will find 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies. Embedded in the center of the crown is a huge diamond. A piece of the original stone from which it was cut is in the hands of an Israeli family. This is the story of that diamond’s fascinating journey:

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom. Some of you may recognize it from the opening credits of the Netflix series The Crown. Source: Wikipedia

In 1907, an unusual diamond was mined in South Africa. At the time, it was the largest diamond ever found, weighing 3,106 carats, the size of a human heart. It came to be known as the Cullinan Diamond. The new government in South Africa, which only five years earlier had gained independence from the British Crown, decided to give the stone as a gift to King Edward VII, Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, on the occasion of his birthday.

The unpolished Cullinan Diamond. Source: Wikipedia

A good diamond requires top diamond cutters who can bring out the stone’s brilliance, so King Edward looked for someone to entrust the job to. He found the Asschers—a Dutch family known for its supreme diamond cutting skills. This is my grandmother’s family.

My grandmother Elizabeth (Elisheva) and her older sister in Amsterdam before WWII. Photo courtesy of the family

From London to Amsterdam – A Bold and Discreet Operation

How does one securely transport such a precious treasure from London to Amsterdam without having it stolen? In 1908 a British battleship left London for Amsterdam. In its belly it carried a secure box with the unpolished diamond inside—or at least that is what many were led to believe. This operation was actually a cover up, because at the same time, the real diamond was in the pocket of one of the sons of the diamond cutter family. Abraham Asscher set sail from London to Amsterdam around the same time on an ordinary ship traveling without baggage – only a large coat to protect himself from the cold and to disguise his precious cargo.

Queen Elizabeth II with her husband Prince Philip on her coronation day, 1953. The Queen is wearing the Imperial State Crown with the large diamond at the center. Source: Wikipedia

The operation was a success and the diamond arrived safely in Amsterdam. But then a new problem emerged—the Asscher family discovered that the huge diamond could not be cut. The chisel broke with the very first blow! It would take another two years, and the invention of a new diamond cutting patent—which to this day is called the “Asscher Cut”—for the Asscher family to finally cut the treasure as requested.

The nine diamonds cut from the original Cullinan Diamond. Source: Wikipedia

Finally, some two years later, the Asschers were able to return the diamond to King Edward, after it had been cut into nine polished diamonds and 96 smaller stones. The same year, 1910, the central diamond, weighing 530 carats, was placed in the scepter of the King of England and given the name “The Great Star of Africa.” This diamond alone was then valued at £2.5 million, which is about £52 million today. The second largest diamond was named “The Second Star of Africa” ​​and was set in the center of the Queen’s crown.

The nine diamonds cut from the original Cullinan Diamond. Source: Wikipedia


When Cutting Diamonds, Expect the Chips to Fly

How much were the Asschers paid for their work? When diamonds are cut, chips fly. In this case, the chips turned out to be reasonably sized diamonds, which were given to my great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Asscher, as payment for his work. Shortly afterwards he also received a knighthood from the Queen of Holland.

The Queen of Holland bestowed a knighthood upon Joseph Asscher, a report from January 22, 1909 in the Hebrew Standard newspaper

The Asschers decided that the diamonds would be passed down from generation to generation by the men in the family, who would give them to the women they married in their wedding rings. Many members of the Asscher family were murdered in the Holocaust, but my grandmother, Elizabeth Asscher, survived. After the war, she was able to retrieve two of the diamonds that somehow managed to be hidden from the Nazis.

My grandmother’s family. From right to left: Jul was murdered in the Holocaust; Jap survived and lived to the age of 100 in the United States; my grandmother Elizabeth (Elisheva) survived the Holocaust and lived in Israel until her death a few years ago; Betty who is still alive and lives in Israel, just celebrated her 103rd birthday a few months ago. Photo courtesy of the family

One of these diamonds adorned my Grandmother Elizabeth’s ring for 65 years—a royal diamond set in a cheap metal ring, in the best thrifty Zionist-Dutch tradition.

One of the diamonds was given to my brother, who, with the help of an amazing jeweler on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, set it on a ring and gave it to his beloved Nynke, who happens to be both adorable and Dutch.

The family diamond ring my brother gave to his fiancée Nynke. Photo courtesy of the family

And so, a piece of the magnificent Imperial State Crown diamond ended up in Israel, by way of my family’s connection to the British royal family. Who knows how the diamond’s journey will continue?