In France, It’s The 14th of July. Elsewhere: Bastille Day

Whatever the holiday’s name, the French Revolution brought Jews equality. The National Library of Israel’s holdings help tell the story.

Prise De La Bastille832

"Prise de la Bastille" (The Taking of the Bastille), by an anonymous artist, circa 1789-1791, musée de la Révolution française

Jews in France typically don’t mark The 14th of July differently than do their fellow citizens.

But just as the holiday — known in France by its calendar date and as Fête Nationale Française (French National Holiday), and elsewhere as Bastille Day — is cause for celebration, it holds meaning for the country’s Jews because it launched the process leading to attaining equal rights in the country for the first time.

That was no small matter, given that France had expelled its Jews in 1394 — and later, when Jews legally returned, only tolerated them.

The term “Bastille Day” is shorthand for a crowd’s storming of Paris’s Bastille fortress in 1789 that started the French Revolution and ultimately overthrew the monarchy. The Bastille riot was “the beginning of the process, but more significant for Jews were 1791 and 1905” — when all French Jews were granted full citizenship and when France instituted a separation between church and state, respectively — said Raphael Hadas-Lebel, a Parisian Jew retired from a distinguished career in national government, including as an advisor to three prime ministers.

The National Library of Israel’s collections contain an eight-page document of an address delivered on August 3, 1789, to the National Constituent Assembly, or legislative body, requesting legal decrees and equal rights for Jews living in Lunéville and Sarreguemines, towns in the northeast province of Lorraine. A digital scan of the document can be found on the NLI website, here.

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Mémoire pour les Juifs de Luneville et de Sarguemines, 1789, ARC. 4* 1823 02 07, André Neher Archive, the National Library of Israel

The document, printed that year, came from secular officials of the areas around those towns, home to a relatively large Jewish population. It demonstrated support for the request submitted by Ashkenazi Jews for full legal equality.

The document and its address were “not unique,” at the time, with other municipalities submitting such requests — but were important “because it reinforced the notion that there was significant support for the demands of the Jews for legal equality,” said Gerard Leval, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who authored a 2021 book published by Hebrew Union College Press, Lobbying for Equality: Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Equality During the French Revolution.

Godard, a Catholic, represented municipalities in their motions. He had previously represented other minorities, including a slave seeking freedom and a Protestant defending his property rights. Godard died at 29 in 1791 following a brief illness, possibly typhoid fever. He’d just been elected to France’s first national legislature and taken his oath of office.

Leval’s book includes additional references to municipalities’ shows of support that Godard solicited on behalf of his clients.

Godard’s petitions “would have a decisive effect on the struggle to destroy one of the oldest prejudices infecting the Western world, a struggle to fulfill for the Ashkenazi Jewish community of France its deep-seated desire to become fully integrated into French society while remaining faithful to its religious practices,” the book states.

Approximately 40,000 Jews lived in France at the dawn of the revolution. They were second-class citizens, their residential and professional options limited. The assembly in January 1790 granted Sephardi Jews full citizenship and in September 1791 extended citizenship to Ashkenazi Jews.

“The French Revolution was a very seminal event for Jews that provided opportunities they didn’t have before. … [It] really broke down old prejudices and barriers in ways that hadn’t been seen before,” Leval said in a phone interview.

“Jews for the first time were given full legal rights. That was a pivotal moment for Jews — not to be considered a nation apart, but a people who happened to have a different religion and were citizens like anyone else.”

The revolution in France was part of the enlightenment then advancing across Europe, and the spread of liberty was influenced by the American revolution that began in 1776, he said.

Leval is Jewish, was raised in France by French-Jewish parents, speaks French fluently and visits the country several times each year. His late father moved to France from Poland in 1932, served in the French military during World War II and was wounded in battle in Belgium. His late mother’s ancestors migrated from Bohemia to eastern France in the 1630s.

In a Paris shop many years ago, Leval bought a book for which his maternal grandfather had conducted research. The book is about the emancipation of French Jews; at various points it mentioned Godard. Leval later decided to write an essay on Godard, but became convinced that he merited fuller treatment in a biography. His book includes a portrait of Godard that Leval purchased — the only image known to exist.

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The only known portrait of Jacques Godard, which appears in Lobbying for Equality: Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Equality During the French Revolution, by Gerard Leval. The portrait is from Leval’s personal collection.

The book may be read on-site at the National Library of Israel. It is one of more than 2,000 books in 24 languages about the French Revolution that are available in print and digitally within the building and elsewhere.

The Library’s collections also include dozens of articles, pamphlets and archival documents relating to this subject, some going back to 1789.

Said Leval: “The 14th of July and the French Revolution are a high-water mark for Jewish equality.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].

The Lost History of the Jews of Corfu

In memory of an ancient community snuffed out by the Holocaust.

The Corfu Jewish cemetery, photo: the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On March 22, 1946, the Sephardic Jewish newspaper Hed HaMizrach (“Echo of the East”) published a pained Hebrew letter written by Haim Mizrachi (1901-1969), a resident of the island of Corfu and a Revisionist Zionist activist, parts of whose personal archive are kept at the National Library of Israel. The Jerusalem weekly didn’t make the letter a front-page affair, instead tucking it in between pages 9 and 10 of a 12-page publication, but the content remains difficult to stomach.

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The beginning of the Hed HaMizrach article. March 22, 1946. Click here for the full article.

In the text he wrote and published, Mizrachi mourned his community’s destruction in the Holocaust. He told of how on June 9, 1944, the Nazis, with the aid of Greek police officers, arrested most of the Jews on the island of Corfu and sent them to the Birkenau death camp. Of some 1,700 Jews on the island, only 200 survived – 80 of them managing to escape the Nazis altogether and 120 surviving the camps. The rest were murdered.

Mizrachi issued a desperate plea for aid to help for the remnant of Corfu Jewry – the orphans, widows, sick, and unemployed. They needed clothes, blankets, funds and assistance in rebuilding the one remaining synagogue, which was left “half-demolished.”

Mizrachi added that of the 200 surviving Jews, 30 had already made Aliyah to the Land of Israel and many more intended to follow “for they do not see any hope of rearranging their lives in the exile”. Thus did an ancient Jewish community, which had survived for over 700 years, come to an end. The story of the Corfu Jewish community, especially its final years, is not widely known to the public, and deserves elaboration.

The island of Corfu rests in the eastern Mediterranean, near the western shores of Greece and Albania, and not far from southern Italy, occupying a militarily and economically strategic point. As such, it has been conquered many times: by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Venetians, the Kings of Sicily, the Ottoman Empire, and the armies of Napoleon. In 1815, it was occupied by Britain, which handed it over to the Kingdom of Greece in 1864.

Jews are known to have been present in Corfu since the Middle Ages. The famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions visiting the island in the 12th century and encountering a Jew named Yosef, who worked as a dyer of fabrics. Two major communities lived on the island – one composed of Romaniote Jews and the other of Italian Jews.

In a letter published in the Berlin-based Hebrew weekly HaMagid on September 24, 1891, a Corfu Jew named Halevi said the following of his community:

 “…the Jews of Corfu separated here into two communities regarding matters of worshipping God. The first, the smaller of the two, includes the descendants of the first exiles from the time of the exile of the First Temple, and it has a synagogue built according to tradition in the first year of the Christian calendar, and the second community includes the children of the exiles of Spain and Neapol (Naples – N.G.), and it has three synagogues and its prayer is according to the Sephardic rite. The two communities conduct themselves according to special committees, which occasionally meet when needed in matters regarding the public.”

The community of Corfu is mentioned in rabbinic literature, and some of its pinkasim (community ledgers), piyutim (liturgical hymns) and songs have survived. In the 19th century, a Jewish printing press operated in Corfu owned by the Nachmoli family, which printed religious books.

ספר הוצאת נחמולי קורפו 1
Sefer Arvit and Hagaddah. Joseph Nachmoli Publishing, Corfu, 1876, the Rare Books Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Jews of Corfu dealt primarily in trade, and some of them became prominent in trading in etrogim (citrons) grown on the island, which were considered particularly aesthetic and beautiful and therefore appropriate for the holiday of Sukkot. The Jewish traders tended to acquire the etrogim from Christian farmers and then export them throughout the Jewish world. During the 19th century, a religious debate raged across Jewish communities worldwide regarding the kosher status of these etrogim, and some communities preferred to acquire etrogim from other sources, instead.

In 1864, after Corfu was handed over to Greece, local Jews were emancipated and received civil rights. They lived in relative freedom and comfort, and made great efforts to be on good terms with the majority Christian population. Nevertheless, from time to time they did suffer from both overt and covert expressions of antisemitism.

A particularly serious incident happened in 1891, when a blood libel was spread against the local Jews. The story began shortly after Passover, when a young Jewish girl named Rubina Sardas, the daughter of a tailor, went missing and was eventually found dead in a sack. A report that her father was seen with other Jews while carrying the bloody sack in the middle of the night caused a firestorm.

A rumor spread among local Christians that the girl was actually a Christian orphan named Maria Desylla, who worked for the Sardas household, and that the Jews murdered her as part of their religious rituals. Although the legal investigation produced no damning evidence against the Jews, not all the Christians were appeased and some began to attack Jewish homes and businesses. The local police made little effort to stop the rioters, and even helped to spread the rumors that the murder victim was Christian.

On May 12, 1891, the Warsaw-based Hebrew daily HaTzfira reported that

 “from the day of April 14 until today the Jews of Corfu sit imprisoned in their homes as if in jail, for their windows are also closed, and none go outside out of great fear. They are forced to purchase their vital provisions early in the morning from cruel merchants who demand triple the price. Poverty has greatly increased among these miserable souls. From the day of April 23, all the houses of prayer are sealed shut. When one of the Jews died, they could not bring him to a grave but sixty hours later, and twenty soldiers went beside the bed to guard it. Commerce has ceased. The common folk’s hatred of the downtrodden has greatly increased, and the soldiers born of the city help the masses incite evil against the Jews.”

22 Jews were killed in the pogroms.

Eight days later, HaTzfira reported that in response to these events, Austria, France, and England sent warships to the area to protect their citizens. In addition, representatives of France, the Ottoman Empire, and other countries were instructed to protest the Greek government’s failure to rein in the riots, with the German central bank even warning Greece that continued unrest could harm the value of its currency.

In the end, the authorities in Athens sent military units to Corfu, driving away the rioters with gunfire. The Greek government stressed that

“the Jews have since then shared one constitution and one law with all the residents of the country. The government is very saddened by the incidents, but its heart is confident that its actions will prove to all nations that the good of all its servants under its wing is close to its heart” (HaTzfira, May 21, 1891).

The events took the Jewish world by storm. On May 21, 1891, HaMagid published an editorial full of harsh words for the Greek residents of Corfu, who made a fortune selling etrogim to the Jewish world while libeling and murdering the local Jews. The article claimed that the Jews’ main problem was their lack of any defensive force:

“And our hands are powerless to save them from their oppressors by force, for our hands do not pull back the bowstrings of heroes and we have no ships and no war stratagems to avenge the spilled blood of our brothers, for Israel is weak among the nations and its power is but in the mouth.”

Following the blood libel events, which Corfu Jews called “the evil decree,” about half of the Jews residing there left the island. Most of these were the wealthier sort, with many of them immigrating to Italy or Egypt. The Jews remaining in Corfu were mostly poor.

In the years following the “evil decree,” the lives of Corfu Jews were mostly peaceful. They loved life on the picturesque island, and author Albert Cohen, a native of Corfu, described it in longing terms in some of his works. Nata Osmo Gattegno (1923-2019), another Corfu native who survived the Holocaust, attested in her Hebrew autobiographical work From Corfu to Birkenau and Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Aked, 1999), that the community rabbi and the local Greek bishop had mutual respect for one another, with the bishop being invited to the synagogue on Jewish holidays as a guest of honor. However, when the dates of Passover and Easter fell in close proximity, tension between the two sides increased. In the week before Easter, the Greek Christians would shutter their windows, before later opening them and tossing ceramic vessels out into the street while crying out “On the heads of the Jews! On the heads of the Jews!”

On March 22, 1914, the Jerusalem daily Moriah reported on Greek rioters who smashed up the Corfu Jewish cemetery.

On April 21, 1930, Haim Mizrachi published a report in the Jerusalem daily Do’ar HaYom on another blood libel against the Jews of Corfu. Mizrachi told of how on Monday, April 7, 1930, a great panic arose in the Jewish neighborhood. The Jewish merchants who set out to sell their wares suddenly returned to their homes in fear. Local Christians had threatened to murder them in revenge for the alleged Jewish abduction of a Christian child, whose blood the Jews supposedly sought to use in a Passover ritual.

Community leaders responded by quickly appealing to the authorities to intervene. The situation became even more tense the next day, and some Jews were beaten by their Christian neighbors. The police and the Greek bishop, who Mizrachi called a “friend of the Jews,” intervened, and overnight guards and detectives were sent to protect the Jewish neighborhood. The police published a special pamphlet to calm the mob, explaining that an anonymous individual had tried to kidnap the child to sexually assault him.

Unfortunately, not all the Greek residents believed this statement and some continued with their attacks. Mizrachi claimed that the Jewish community attempted to conceal the incident so that it would not become widely known and damage Greece’s international reputation. He noted that the local educated public and press in Corfu strongly condemned the blood libels, which did not do credit to Greece.

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Opening of a Hebrew report on the blood libel. Do’ar HaYom, April 21, 1930. Click here for the full article.

During the 1930s, despite expressions of nationalism and antisemitism in Greece, Jewish life in Corfu went on as normal. The community had a rabbi, synagogues, a Hevra Kadisha burial society, charity associations, mikvah ritual baths, and even an elementary school with a modern curriculum which included the study of the Greek language.

In April 1933, Haim Mizrachi was given permission to use the matza-baking floor in the community building to set up a night school for young members of the community so that they could study Judaism and Hebrew. The community leadership demanded that Mizrachi, a Zionist activist, ensure that the children were studying both Jewish and Greek history, stressing that Jews living in Greece needed to be both law-abiding Greek citizens as well as “good Jews”.

מכתב הקמת בית ספר לילה ללימוד עברית בקורפו כתבה חיים מזרחי
Approval by the Corfu Jewish community for Haim Mizrachi to establish a night school to study Judaism and Hebrew. April 21, 1933. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

The community also contained social organizations, one of which was the “Phoenix” association of Corfu Jews, founded in 1931.

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Invitation to the Jewish “Phoenix” association’s ball on February 4, 1935. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

There was also Zionist activity, of course. A number of Zionist organizations operated on the island from the beginning of the 20th century. Haim Mizrachi himself worked on organizing Revisionist Zionist activity. As a youth in 1913, Mizrachi organized a Zionist youth group called Tikvat Zion (Zion’s Hope), which operated for a few years before disbanding. In 1924, he established another movement named Theodor Herzl, which he later merged with the Revisionist Betar movement. He kept in regular contact with the global Betar movement, and had close ties to his colleagues in Saloniki and the Land of Israel. He died in Corfu in 1969.

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Haim Mizrachi. Photo courtesy of Guy Raz and the Eretz Israel Museum’s Israel Photography House
המכתב של ז'בוטינסקי כתבה חיים מזרחי
Letter from the Revisionist Zionist leadership, headed by Jabotinsky, to the Revisionist branches in Europe. June 25, 1934. This copy was sent to the Betar branch in Corfu. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

The community of Corfu was wiped out in the Holocaust. In the letter published in Hed HaMizrach, mentioned at the start of this article, Haim Mizrachi described his community’s last moments: In April 1941, fascist Italy conquered Corfu, but the Italians made no distinction between Jew and Gentile and took no special steps against the former.

Things took a turn for the worse in October 1943, when the Italians left and the Nazi Wehrmacht took over. SS units under the command of Jurgen Stroop – who had previously served in Poland, ruthlessly putting down the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion – ordered the Jews to be registered in a special book and present themselves before a town official three times a week. The Jews were also burdened with a heavy tax to serve the Germans’ needs.

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Wehrmacht soldiers entering Corfu, Spring 1944. Photo: German Federal Archive.

In May 1944, a delegation from the Gestapo arrived in Corfu, tasked with planning the deportation of the Jews to the death camp in Birkenau. On June 9, 1944, all Jews were concentrated in the city square, and the Nazi soldiers, with the aid of Greek policemen, herded them into the local fortress at gunpoint. At the same time, pamphlets were published on the island declaring that “Corfu has been liberated from the Jewish monster” and demanding those hiding Jews or Jewish property to immediately surrender them or be executed. Consequently, another 100 Jews hiding among their Christian neighbors were handed over to the Nazis.

Nata Osmo Gattegno attested that at the same time, Greek Christians invaded the Jewish neighborhood and looted it. The Jews were deported from Corfu in boats to the Haidari concentration camp near Athens, and from there they were very quickly sent on trains to the Birkenau death camp. Most were murdered there. Of some 1,700 Jews living in Corfu at the time of the Nazi occupation, only 200 survived.

After the Holocaust, the Greek government ordered the governor of Corfu in 1946 to return all property to the Jewish community and residents without delay, including public buildings used by the community and private property such as homes and stores (HaMashkif, January 17, 1946). But much of the property was in ruins. On the eve of the Holocaust, there were four synagogues. After the war, only one was left standing, and that barely. It was later restored by local authorities together with Jewish organizations.

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The sole surviving synagogue on Corfu. Photo: Dan Lundberg

The ancient cemetery was also seriously damaged. Haim Mizrachi told of how after the war, the Greeks destroyed the cemetery’s fence, desecrated the graves, and turned it into a “place of trash and an abandoned field,” as he put it. In 1960, media outlets in Israel and around the world reported that the Jewish community in Corfu sold the cemetery land to the local authorities, which demolished it.

The Central Council of Greek Jewry denied this (Herut, January 1, 1961), explaining that in 1939, under pressure from local authorities, the community management had to give up a third of the cemetery plot for the sake of a children’s home and a hospital. The site was badly damaged during the war, most of the gravestones were destroyed, and one could only barely discern that this was indeed a cemetery.

After the war, the authorities expropriated the territory, began to level it, and even tossed bones into the sea. The community asked the authorities to stop their work, and in the end both sides reached an agreement to fence off a small part of the original cemetery and leave it alone.

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Corfu Jewish cemetery. Photo: Nikodem Nijaki

In an article published in April 1978 in BaMa’arachah magazine, author David Benvenisti reported on his visit to the community of Corfu. He wrote that the old cemetery was being destroyed, the building once used for the Jewish school now stood desolate, and the few Jewish children living on the island were receiving no Jewish education. As of the 2020s, just a few dozen Jews live there; the desolate synagogue is now more a tourist attraction than anything else, and it is mostly active on weekends and holidays.

The community now uses a new location for its cemetery in place of the old one. In it one can find a memorial plaque commemorating those murdered in the Holocaust.

The Corfu Jews who made Aliyah established a monument in the cemetery of the Israeli city of Holon, which is dedicated to the memory of their brethren murdered in the Holocaust. Every year, on the 8th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, they conduct a ceremony in memory of the ancient Corfu Jewish community, which was wiped out.

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Monument in memory of Corfu’s murdered Jews, Holon Cemetery. Photo: David Shai

The Haim Mizrachi Collection at the National Library of Israel has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel. Dr. Nimrod Gaatone is the director of the Samis Project, and is responsible for handling the Haim Mizrachi Collection.

Thanks to Dr. Shay Eshel and Meytal Solomon for their help with the Greek.

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Franz Kafka on His Deathbed

On the author's last days, and some of the last words that he was able to put in writing.

Franz Kafka

In the early 20th century, tuberculosis was a fairly common disease. At that point in time, an effective treatment had yet to be developed. The disease mainly spread among populations that suffered from nutritional deficiencies. War could often lead to significant parts of the population suffering from malnutrition, and so it isn’t surprising that Franz Kafka contracted tuberculosis in 1917 – in the midst of the First World War.

At first, Kafka tried a very simple method of treatment; he figured a few months of rest outside the city at his sister Ottilie’s home might help. During his years of illness, Kafka occasionally returned to work at the insurance company in Prague where he was employed but he found he increasingly needed long breaks, which he took at various sanatoriums in Bohemia and Austria. During his last weeks, he stayed at a sanatorium in the town of Kierling near Vienna, Austria. Many of the patients there were in the terminal stages of tuberculosis and had hardly any chance of leaving in a reasonably healthy state. For Kafka, the disease had spread to his throat, preventing him from speaking and he switched to exclusively written communication.

The author sent letters and postcards to his friends, like the ones pictured here that he sent to Max Brod in April and May 1924:

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
The last postcards sent by Kafka to Max Brod. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

In these postcards, Kafka wrote about his own literary interests, the works of other authors, and also his unpleasant experiences due to the difficult treatments he was receiving, for example, injections of alcohol. At best, these injections offered a bit of relief.

About 40 “conversation sheets” from this difficult period have been preserved. They contain the ideas Kafka wrote down and the words he wished to express to the people who surrounded him: his friend and lover Dora Diamant, the doctor Robert Klopstock, Max Brod, and possibly others. After Kafka’s death on June 3, 1924, these pages were distributed among his friends, with five of them given to Max Brod. These items were brought to the National Library of Israel, along with Max Brod’s personal archive and a number of Kafka’s writings which were in Brod’s possession. While reading the pages (which were never published), it is not always easy to understand who exactly Kafka was “conversing” with when he wrote a certain line on the page, or what exactly the conversation was about. Some interesting references can be found among the pages, for example, his memories of experiences he had with his father when he was a child:

“When I was a little boy, before I learned to swim, I sometimes went with my father, who also can’t swim, to the shallow-water pool. Then we sat together naked at the buffet, each with a sausage and a half liter of beer. My father used to bring the sausages from home, because at the swimming school, they were too expensive.”

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

Elsewhere in these pages, two lines reveal Kafka’s concern for the flowers that were brought to his room in the sanatorium:

“Not cold water, but not too hot either, so that they don’t get sick.”

“And they should have made sure the flowers that were pushed to the bottom of the vase were not damaged. How can they do that?

Kafka also had comments about his diet: “It makes sense that in the hospital, dinner was between six and seven-thirty, after lying down all day, you can’t eat at half past eight” and “after all, a round of meals without fruit is unbearable over time.” In his deteriorated condition, it wasn’t easy for him to drink, either: “Milk? I drank sour milk for too long, then vinegar. The agony that drinking milk causes, now.

Of course, his illness and the treatments also became an issue: “It was from a cough at the time. I’m still burning from the oil. The injections don’t excite me anymore either, it’s too confusing.”

The exact order of the pages isn’t clear, nor is it clear if they contain all the content of Kafka’s written conversations in his last days or if there were more.

Despite his health and mental condition, he put together several short stories for a final collection he prepared, entitled A Hunger Artist. Proofreading the pages may have been the last literary act Kafka undertook. His friend Brod completed the process of getting it published. Franz Kafka never got to see it in print.

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama
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These and many other items will be displayed in the National Library of Israel’s exhibition on Franz Kafka, which will open towards the end of 2024.

Space Left Behind: Ilan Ramon’s Diary Has Arrived

He was the kind of guy everyone wants to be. Ilan Ramon's story began in Be'er Sheva in Israel's Negev desert and came to an end somewhere beyond our planet. But before he became the first Israeli astronaut, he was just Ilan – a husband, father, son, and brother. Miraculously, the diary he kept aboard Space Shuttle Columbia survived. This diary, containing his personal feelings as well as descriptions of the historic event he was a part of, somehow landed relatively intact in Texas. It later underwent complex restoration processes and recently received a warm welcome at its new home – the National Library of Israel, where it is on extended loan.

Ilan Ramon and a page from his diary which somehow survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

Ground Control: “And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last…”

Commander Rick Husband: “Roger buh…”

That utterance by mission commander Rick Husband was the last communication sent to Ground Control in Houston, Texas from the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was on its way back to Earth on February 1, 2003.

On board the Columbia, which would disintegrate as soon as it reentered the atmosphere, was one Israeli. Almost against his will, Ilan Ramon – the first Israeli astronaut – became a national symbol in his lifetime.

Columbia Makeshift Memorial הכניסה למרכז גונסון ב 1 בפברואר 2003 לאחר שהתברר אסון הקולומביה צילום נאסא
The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on February 1st, 2023, after the magnitude of the Columbia disaster became clear. Photo: NASA

As the son of Holocaust survivors Tonya and Eliezer Wolferman, Ilan Ramon dreamt big when he was growing up. But “being an astronaut” was not one of those dreams. “In Israel, when you tell someone, ‘You’re an astronaut,’ it means that they aren’t…  connected [to reality], so it’s almost a joke,” he explained in one of his last interviews with American media before the Columbia took off. Still, when he accepted his assignment, he was “over the moon” with excitement.

It wasn’t the first time that Ramon was chosen to lead and carry out a mission that had never been done before. He was an outstanding, determined pilot who enlisted in the Israeli Air Force and twice returned to service after an injury. In 1980, he was sent to the U.S. as part of a small elite team tasked with learning to fly the new F-16 aircraft that Israel was about to receive. A year later, he was the youngest pilot in the squadron that flew those aircraft to Iraq to bomb a nuclear reactor being built there by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Along with the space shuttle, an Israeli national symbol was also lost on that fateful day in February 2003. Ilan Ramon served as an example of what we can become. For his family – his wife Rona, his children, his father, and his brother – it was a completely different loss. They lost their loving partner, their father, their son and brother – a serious man with a captivating smile, a sense of humor, an almost childlike enthusiasm, and hopeless optimism. They lost the individual he was, aside from all the incredible things he achieved. “At home, you don’t think of him as if he’s Israel’s first astronaut. He’s that too, but he’s my father. Do I worry about him a bit? No, not really,” Assaf Ramon said during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 filmed before Ilan launched into space, though it was only broadcast many years later.

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The Ramon family at home, screen capture courtesy of Israel’s Channel 13 (formerly Channel 10)

Ramon enlisted in the mission with all his heart and soul. He was well aware of the significance of what he was doing, and he took it seriously. But he was also able see the lighter side of things, and would often laugh and joke with his family.

Everything we know about Ramon’s journey to space consists of these two extremes: the national, and the personal. Among the things he brought with him onto the shuttle were items that carried with them all the weight of Jewish history: a tiny Torah scroll that had come all the way from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a copy of a Petr Ginz painting from the Terezin Ghetto (Moon Landscape), the last letter written by captured Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, wine for Kiddush, and more. He also took with him a letter from his son Assaf (who warned his father only to open it once he had taken off) and a notebook he planned on using to record his personal experience.

יומן אילן רמון 2
One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel
Earth Seen From The Moon
Moon Landscape, the Petr Ginz painting created in the Terezin Ghetto. Ramon carried a copy with him onto the Columbia.

The notebook probably had at least one page written before lift-off, but the rest of the pages were filled in the days that followed. He wrote in a short, purposeful manner, interspersing his words with fragments of thoughts, feelings, conversations, and descriptions of routine actions that became extraordinary, not only because of the place where they were carried out.

An excerpt from the diary reads:

“Launch. No, I couldn’t believe it. Until the moment the engine(s) were ignited, I still doubted it. In the last few days of our isolation in the Cape, since the fateful discussion [on] Sunday afternoon – in those days we all already felt that [this was] real, and yet – we didn’t believe it.”

אילן רמון מרחף במעבורת החלל קולומביה צולם על ידי צוות קולומביה, נאסא
Ilan Ramon, gliding through Space Shuttle Columbia, photo: NASA

In what follows, along with other documentation from the Colombia mission, this duality can be seen again and again. It ranges from the personal to the public, from the routine to the historic. He described how he brushed his teeth and how he performed scientific experiments; he wrote to his family about how much he missed them but also mentioned, almost as an aside, conversations with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, performing Jewish rituals such as Kiddush before the entire world, and strong friendships with the other crew members.

“Travel diary, day six. Today was perhaps the first day that I truly felt like I was really ‘living’ in space! I’ve turned into a man who lives and works in space. Like in the movies. We get up in the morning with some light levitation and we roll into the ‘family room’. Brush my teeth, wash my face, and then go to work. A little coffee. Some snacks on the way, off to the lab…a press conference with the Prime Minister, and then immediately back to work, observing the ozone layer.”

Diary excerpt
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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

On the one hand, he was a representative of the Jewish state. All eyes were on him, and he had something to say to the entire world:

“From our perspective here in space, we look at you and see a world without borders, full of peace and splendor. Our hearts carry a prayer that all humanity as one can imagine the world as it appears to us, without borders, and can strive to live together in peace.”

From a conversation with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

On the other hand, Ramon was a loving family man who missed his loved ones:

“Even though everything here is amazing, I can’t wait any longer until I see you all. A big hug to you and kisses to the kids.”

From an email Ramon sent his family the day before the scheduled landing

But he never saw them again. They waited for him at the base, excitedly watching the clock counting down the minutes till landing, and then with increasing anxiety, watching it reach zero and then switch to displaying the time elapsed since the Columbia was scheduled to land. It wasn’t long before the news channels started broadcasting the image of the space shuttle’s wreckage burning in the Texas sky. Debris from the shuttle and the astronauts’ bodies were scattered over a vast area in Texas and Louisiana. The diary, a personal and national treasure, should have disintegrated along with the shuttle and its crew, but a few weeks after the disaster, to the surprise of the search party, someone found the remains of the diary on a muddy patch of land in Texas.

צילום היומן כפי שנמצא בשדה צילום נאסא
The remains of the diary, found in Texas, photo: NASA

How is it possible that it survived? It withstood the explosion, and then a journey of several kilometers till it hit the earth. No one knows for sure, but leading researchers in the field believe that due to the light weight of the pages, the diary didn’t fall directly to the ground but probably glided slowly downwards, carried on wind currents that eventually allowed for a soft landing. Most of the damage to its pages probably only happened after it reached the ground, resulting from the humid conditions in the marshy area where it landed.

Once it was found, the diary was transferred to the Israel Museum for restoration and preservation. The wetness caused the pages to stick together and blurred the words that were written inside, turning them into shapeless ink blots. It was almost illegible, and restoring it was a complex undertaking that included the use of the most advanced technological means, with the assistance of the Israel Police’s forensics department.

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Yiftach and Tal Ramon with their father’s diary, when it was still at the Israel Museum, photo: National Library of Israel

One of the pages that was recovered was apparently written while Ramon was still on the ground, before lift-off. The restoration team identified letter patterns between the ink spots that had spread across the page. To do so, they used some of Ramon’s other handwriting samples. When they tried to connect the letters and the spaces between them into a meaningful, understandable text, they discovered the words of the Jewish Kiddush prayer recited on Friday night. Ramon had made advance preparations to consecrate the wine during the time designated as “Shabbat” onboard the shuttle (which itself was an interesting question because the Jewish sabbath is from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, but he had traveled somewhere without sunset), and he had made sure to write the exact wording of the prayer in advance so that he wouldn’t forget a single word.

For twenty years the diary was kept in the Israel Museum, but it was recently moved to its new home in the National Library of Israel, where it will be on extended loan.

“If only every item we received was at the level of preservation which this diary was at when it reached us from the Israel Museum,” said Marcela Szekely, head of the Library’s Conservation and Restoration Department.

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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

After the initial intake phase, during which both sides of all pages of the diary were photographed, the diary entered the Library’s rare items storeroom. The storeroom, which serves as a highly guarded vault, is bulletproof and is under strict environmental control. The humidity and temperature are continuously monitored and adjusted to preserve the materials stored inside it.

“Later, after the diary goes through additional conservation processes at the Library, we will consider presenting it to the general public as part of the Library’s permanent exhibition,” Skezely says. “In the meantime, it is being kept in good company here. It ‘lives’ in the same room as the writings of Newton and Maimonides.”

The Library also preserves other items linked to Ilan Ramon as well as the diary of another astronaut.

In 1977, Ramon, then a 23-year-old pilot, wrote a letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, asking him: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz, answered, and this correspondence in its entirety is preserved in the National Library.

In 1985, Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish American astronaut, went into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Like Ilan Ramon, he also wrote a diary documenting his journey in space, and he had also taken with him Jewish symbols such as a small Torah scroll. In March 2023, Hoffmann visited the National Library and handed over that diary, along with several other items that are now preserved in a collection that bears his name.

יומן גף הופמן
An Astronaut’s Diary, by Jeffrey Hoffman. A copy can be found at the National Library of Israel.

The transfer of Ilan Ramon’s diary – which carries both national and personal significance – was accompanied by his sons, Tal and Yiftach.

Their father’s tragic death was not the last tragedy the family would suffer. Assaf, Ilan’s firstborn, was killed in an operational accident six years after the Columbia disaster. Rona, Ilan’s widow who turned Ilan and Assaf’s legacy into a tremendous social and educational enterprise, died of cancer in 2018.

Today, Tal, Yiftach, and Noa are the ones left carrying the flag of this amazing family that, despite all the tragedies it has known, has always continued to look ahead with its head held high.

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Tal and Yiftach Ramon remove the diary from its case upon arrival at the National Library of Israel, photo: National Library of Israel

No words we write will ever be stronger or more accurate than their own:

“My name is Yiftach Ramon, and I have come here to say that my family and I insist that our name not become a symbol of tragedy or mourning. I have come here to say that people can take their grief and their mourning and turn it into action to create a better future.”

From Yiftach’s speech at the annual conference of the Israeli American Council, IAC

We at the National Library of Israel are incredibly moved to have this treasure in our collections. We are grateful for the privilege of preserving this diary, along with the spirit that created it, for future generations.