Gandhi: The Yiddish Connection

This is the little-known story of Mohandas Gandhi's unusual relationship with the Yiddish language…

Gandhi (center) with his secretary, Sonia Schlesin, and his colleague Mr. Polak in front of his Law Office, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1905; source:

What did Gandhi think about Yiddish? That’s a question probably few have contemplated. Yet the answer casts light on the complex relations between Jews and other groups in pre-World War I South Africa.

Gandhi did think about Yiddish quite often during that period because South African Jews were campaigning vigorously to categorize Yiddish as a European language at the time. Why? They wanted to differentiate Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Indian and Chinese immigrants.

This campaign arose because in the early 1900s, the white population of South Africa was looking for a bureaucratic way that was not obviously racist to restrict Indian and Chinese immigration. Since Cape Town was at that time the main port of entry for immigrants, in 1902 the Cape Parliament devised and passed Act 47, an immigration law stating that immigrants arriving there had to be able to fill out an application in a European language.

Gandhi with two Jewish confidants in South Africa – Sonja Schlesin and Hermann Kallenbach, 1913

Some in the Jewish community were concerned that Yiddish, although structurally a European language, appeared suspect because it is written in the Hebrew alphabet and is read from right to left, and hence might be classified as non-European. That classification could then be used by those who disliked Jews to restrict Jewish immigration. A campaign was promptly launched to have Yiddish officially designated as a European language, an effort that ended in success: a proviso to Section 26 in the Immigration Act of 1906 stated that “for the purpose of this subsection, Yiddish shall be accepted as a European language.”  As a consequence, Jewish immigrants, most of whom were Yiddish speakers from Lithuania, were exempt from possible exclusion.

Attorney Morris Alexander was one of the major campaigners. He and his wife Ruth Schechter Alexander were both staunch Gandhi supporters; Gandhi even stayed at their Cape Town home on his very last night in South Africa before embarking for India in 1914. Yet Morris Alexander fought with all his lawyer’s skills to get Yiddish specifically included in the bill that stated that immigrants had to write an application in a European language. As a white European, he could support Gandhi in advocating for the rights of Indians but resist any law that classified Jews with Indians and Chinese.

Gandhi in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1908

During this period Gandhi was a young British-trained lawyer working to help his many struggling clients, mainly Indian immigrants to South Africa, while often facing discrimination himself. He was gradually developing the theory and practice of massive non-violent protest, satyagraha, which he would take back to India and which would eventually bring him worldwide fame, but all that still lay ahead.

Gandhi was not happy about the campaign to declare Yiddish European. He first called attention to the question in June 1903 in his weekly newspaper Indian Opinion in a short piece interestingly entitled ‘Is Yiddish an Eastern Language?’ His comments in June 1906 on the Jewish success in designating Yiddish a European language were bittersweet: “We are very glad that the Jewish community should have been freed from a galling restriction. But…by its non-recognition of the great Indian languages…the Cape has ruled out subjects…who had, by the Queen’s Proclamation, been promised equal liberties with their white fellow subjects.” Gandhi was pointing out that both India and South Africa were part of the worldwide British Empire and hoping—in vain, as it turned out—that promised liberties would extend to Indian subjects who had immigrated to another part of the Empire. Nine issues of Indian Opinion in 1906-07 mention the maneuvering about Yiddish in some way, indicating his ongoing concern with the issue.

Gandhi with leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa

In June 1909, still musing about these matters, Gandhi invoked his ace in the hole: the Sassoons. They were a very large and wealthy Jewish family, originally from Baghdad, who had risen to prominence in India, China, and even England. About Sir Edward Sassoon, who at that time sat in the House of Commons, he wrote in Indian Opinion “…his grandparents lived in Bagdad and Bombay, wore Asiatic costumes, and were never regarded in any other light than as Asiatics”. Yiddish might indeed be linguistically a European language, but Gandhi knew, not from reading it in a book but from his life, that not all Jews were white Europeans. Indeed, he knew about the Sassoons long before he met the Litvaks of South Africa.

Gandhi thought of the Jews as bridging East and West. From his writings one can gather that he felt some combination of disappointment,  exasperation, and resentment that the Jewish communal leaders of that era, rather than join with the Indians and Chinese to oppose what was obviously discriminatory legislation, instead worked vigorously to exempt Jewish immigrants from it.

By contrast, individual Jews were among Gandhi’s closest friends and most devoted supporters. These Jewish allies included the lawyer Henry Polak, the architect Hermann Kallenbach, and Gandhi’s gifted young administrative assistant Sonja Schlesin. These important relationships helped to counteract the distancing he experienced from the Jewish establishment.


This article was adapted from the article “With Gandhi in South Africa: Sonja Schlesin”, by Harriet Feinberg, which appeared in the Passover 2017 issue of Jewish Affairs.


The Prophet of Abstraction and the Master of Light in Darkness: George Steiner and Gershom Scholem

On the unique relationship between two giants of the Jewish literary world

George Steiner in 2013, image courtesy of the Nexus Institute

The philosopher and literary critic George Steiner, who passed away this week, was, like many Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century, enamored of Gershom Scholem and his scholarship. Moshe Idel, in a chapter on Steiner in his 2010 book Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Jewish Thought referred to him as “A Prophet of Abstraction” and addressed the influence of Scholem’s scholarship on his somewhat pessimistic worldview. Idel connects this worldview with Steiner’s fierce criticism of the Zionist project and of the State of Israel.

Gershom Scholem

Steiner himself, in a Jan. 22, 1990 review of the volume of correspondence between Scholem and Walter Benjamin in the New Yorker Magazine had much to say about both Scholem’s scholarship (“Scholem revolutionized the study of Judaism by his philological-editorial investigations of extreme esoterica”) – and his Zionism – (“For Scholem, the messianic…was inseparable from a material, historically grounded homecoming to Israel”).

Addressing his relationship with Scholem, Steiner had this to say:

“Paradoxically, Scholem’s immersion in religious mysticism originated in a deeply ironical, skeptical world view. I had the testing privilege of knowing Scholem in his later years, of seeing him in Jerusalem, Zurich, and New York. I cannot even begin to venture an informed guess as to whether this inspired expositor of the Cabalistic meditation on the self-divisions of the Divine Oneness…believed or did not believe in God [Actually Scholem wrote more than once that he had always believed in God and therefore could not be considered as “secular”]. The quizzicalities in Scholem’s smile and the hints of deep-lying Voltairean merriment were legion”.

In Scholem’s library, there are several of Steiner’s books, two of which contain dedications from the author.

“For Gershom Scholem, with deep respect, George Steiner” This dedication appears in a copy of Steiner’s book, Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture

In one of them, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Steiner addresses Scholem as the “Master of Light in Darkness”.

“For Gershom Scholem, Master of Light in Darkness, George Steiner (Zurich, 25-5-75)” (German)

In Idel’s words. “Drawing on Kafka, Freud and Scholem, Steiner tries…to offer, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, a new Torah”. Kafka also looms large in Steiner’s review of the Scholem-Benjamin correspondence (as well as in Idel’s analysis of Scholem in Old Worlds, New Mirrors). Can pessimism, abstractions darkness and light create a “new Torah”? We will leave that for the reader to decide.


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The Vilna Gaon Makes a Surprise Appearance

Archivists at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives were surprised to discover a famous figure while examining historic 250 year old records from Vilnius

Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon

In 1764, Stanislaw Poniatowsky, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, enacted a number of far-reaching political reforms with the aim of reinforcing his control over the country. Unfortunately, Poland had a much bigger headache to contend with during this period… Eight years later, the combined armies of Prussia, Austria and Russia invaded and carved great chunks out of the country, in what proved to be just the first of three divisions of Poland. By the end of the process, history had accorded Stanislaw a title he’d much rather have done without – that of last King of Poland and last Duke of Lithuania.

Stanislaw’s reforms brought an end to the central autonomous Jewish government known as the Council of Four Lands, (Lithuania was effectively the fifth land governed by the body). The Council had acted as the highest supra-communal authority of Polish Jewry since the beginning of the sixteenth century, at a time when Poland represented the world’s largest center of Jews. The council’s main purpose was to divvy up the government levy on the country’s Jewish minority among the various communities, ensure the taxes were collected and hand them over to the authorities. (Until the modern era, taxes weren’t levied on individuals, but on the segment of the population to which each individual belonged, whether a guild, a church or, in the case of the Jews, the community or Kahal.) The administration of this communal tax was in many ways the most significant expression of Jewish autonomy in Poland.

A panorama of Vilnius (Vilna) and drawings of various sites in the city, including the Jewish quarter, painted in 1901 by Nathan Ben-Zion Chavkin, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

The Polish government generally mistrusted the statistics provided by the Jewish supra-communal authorities, assuming they underestimated the true number of Jews in order to minimize taxation and suspecting that some of the money collected was kept back for Jewish communal purposes. Once the 1764 reform had been enacted, the council was dissolved and the authorities began collecting taxes directly, on the basis of the size of the Jewish population. The number of Jews was estimated on the basis of a general census taken between 1764 and 1766. At the time, the Jews were not thrilled by to the whole idea of the census, but today it’s regarded as crucial resource for the history of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry in the last third of the eighteenth century. Census documents are scattered over the archives of all the various states whose territory was then part of the Kingdom of Poland, and copies of many of them can be found in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Vilnius today


The Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius houses numerous censuses, including examples from the early 1760s, as well as later censuses, and a wonderful collection of BMD (birth, marriage and death) records from the important Jewish communities that populated the region.

The census provides researchers with plenty of useful sociological information, including the average size of families, the number of widows in the community, as well as its members’ occupations. As family names were still not compulsory in Poland when it was taken, it’s not easy to trace individual families in the records, but for genealogists able to puzzle their way back this far, it provides a wealth of detail.

In certain instances, a careful search will award the researcher with great findings that will warm the heart of anyone interested in Jewish heritage, especially those of Litvak origin.

The census page from 1765 mentioning Eliasz Zelmanowiz and his family, courtesy of the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. Click to enlarge


We will focus here on the census taken in Vilnius (then: Wilno) in 1765. The census was arranged according to streets. A few pages are dedicated to one of the main streets of old Vilnius – Niemieckiey (meaning ‘German’ in Polish) Street, now known as Vokiečių Street, an area highly populated by Jews at the time. On one of the pages dedicated to the right side of the street, we find one Eliasz Zelmanowiz, his wife (ZONA) Chana, his son (SYN) Zelman, his daughter (CÓRKA) Basia (=Batia), as well as the servant Nechama. The name of the paternal head of the family, combined with the names of the other family members, reveals that we are dealing with Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon!

Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon


The Gaon was 45 years old at the time. He lived in Wilno and dedicated his life to the study of Torah, but did not serve in any official position in the community. Of his eight known children, only two are mentioned here. Some of them passed away as infants, others were not born yet, and two of the older girls may have been married at the time.

The census sums up that this household consists of four members, as well as one servant. It is interesting to note the fact that the servant also bears a Jewish name – Nechama.


Source: LVIA, Fond Nr. 11, Inventory Nr. 1, File Nr. 1014, page Nr. 7 v. [a microfilm copy can be found at the CAHJP: HM3-204.02]

This census can be accessed through the LVIA website.


The @ the Source training program is bringing together in Jerusalem a group of heritage professionals from the Baltic states. The National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People used this opportunity to invite genealogists and other interested parties to an event titled  “Litvak Roots” which presented the rich palette of historical and genealogical sources stored in the National Archives of Lithuania and Latvia, as well as insight into communal and personal histories brought by expert scholars: Professor Shaul Stampfer and Ilya Lensky, director of the Jews in Latvia Museum. The event included a question and answer session with the panel of presenters.

This document was presented at the event, as well as many other important sources for the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe in the 18th-20th Centuries.


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Postcards from Auschwitz


Postcards from Auschwitz

"Dear wife, I am healthy and I work as a tailor...kind regards and kisses" This chilling correspondence was sent from Nazi concentration camps

A postcard written by Paul Spitzer, a prisoner at Monowitz camp, a subcamp of the Auschwitz complex. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Sender: Sajden Efroim, Birkenau Labor Camp, House 1, Upper Silesia

Adressee: Mr. Sznajd, Karl, Vienna, Zeitenstetngasse [Seitenstetten] 2

Date of arrival: Feb. 1st 1943


Mr. Sznajd, Karl

…I inform you that I am working as a tailor and that I am doing fine and that I am healthy and I hope to receive your reply soon.

Kind regards to the Berger Family


Brief, laconic messages, short on detail, with only minimal expressions of affection…

These postcards and letters were written by Jewish prisoners being held at different Nazi camps within the Auschwitz complex. The writers were attempting to contact their relatives in Vienna.

A letter from Efroim Sajden, a prisoner at Birkenau, to Karl Schneidt of the Vienna Jewish community. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge
Schneidt’s reply to Sajden. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

The postcards were all addressed to a contact in the Jewish community of Vienna, Karl Schneidt (variously spelled as Schnied, Schneit or Sznajd), who was usually asked to pass on word to relatives of the sender, though Schneidt was not always successful in this.

Though few Jews remained in Vienna, the community’s “Jewish Council of Elders” (Ältestenrat der Juden in Wien) was still a functioning entity, right up until the end of the war (many of those who remained were half-Jewish or married to non-Jews).

Perhaps the most striking feature of this correspondence is that which is left unsaid. These letters and postcards passed through Nazi censors. It was clear to all that no mention could be made of the atrocities taking place in their immediate vicinity.

Most of the writers cited here were prisoners at the Monowitz subcamp in the Auschwitz complex, which provided slave labor for a number of German factories built nearby. The correspondence is part of the Vienna Jewish Community Archive held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

Karl Schneidt wrote the following response to the letter from Efroim Sajden cited above:


Dear Mr. Seiden,

I am happy to hear that you are working and that you are doing fine. Sadly I cannot forward your regards to the Berger family for I do not know their address. If you need anything else, please let me know and I shall see if I can send it to you.

Best regards


Below is a letter written by Leibisch Sperber, a prisoner at Monowitz.


Dear Mr. Schneit

 Thank God I am healthy and I am doing well, hoping the same for you.
What news do you have? What are my relatives up to? Hope that you are fine, I thank you for everything and please stay healthy.

Many kind regards




Schneidt responded:


Dear Mr. Sperber,

Thank you for your letter, I am happy to hear from you again.
Attached to this letter is a package that has been sent to you with best regards from your cousin Minna.
I do not know the address of your relatives, therefore I cannot find out how they are.

Best regards


Sperber was later murdered at Auschwitz, in August of 1943.


Leibisch Sperber’s letter from Monowitz Camp. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge
Schneidt’s response to Sperber. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge


Here is a letter from Paul Spitzer, who enquires about Schneidt himself.


Dear Mr. Schneid!

…I inform you that I am in good health and hope to hear the same from you. I would be happy if you could tell me about yourself.

With best regards


Paul Spitzer

Monowitz Labor Camp


Schneidt would later respond:


Dear Mr. Spitzer, 

I am happy to hear from you again. Please do not hesitate to write me, if you want to know something, just ask.

Until then best regards

Paul Spitzer’s postcard. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge
Two nearly identical replies by Schneidt. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

Paul Grünberg wrote and told of how he was allowed to receive food packages.


Dear Mr. Schneidt!

I inform you that I am healthy and I would like to hear the same from you. I may receive food packages of up to 60 Shillings and up to 250 grams.

Kind regards and thank you

Paul Grünberg


Schneidt’s reply:


Dear Mr Grünberg,

Attached to this letter is a package that has been sent with best regards from Mister Reiss to you. You forgot to tell me in which time intervals you are allowed to receive those packages and if you have any wishes regarding the content.
Please answer my questions when it is possible for you.

Until then best regards


A scan of Grünberg’s letter is displayed at the Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. Grünberg passed away in Vienna in 2018.

Paul Grünberg’s postcard. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge
Schneidt’s reply to Grünberg. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

Abram Tenenbaum, a prisoner at Birkenau, wrote directly to his wife in Vienna.


Dear wife, 

I am healthy and I work as a tailor.

With kind regards and kisses



The response, however, came from Schneidt. It is unclear if Mrs. Tenenbaum ever received her husband’s letter.


Dear Mr. Tenenbaum,

I am happy to hear from you, that you are working and that you are doing fine and that you are healthy. If you need anything, write me. 

Best regards

Abram Tenenbaum’s letter to his wife. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge
Schneidt’s reply. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

The letter below was written by Isidor Bretholz


Mr. Schneid! 

Because I have not heard from my family for some time, I want to tell you my requests. I have been at the Monowitz labor camp for three months where I am healthy and doing fine. I ask you courteously to send me standard reading glasses and ask you to answer me immediately.

Thank you in advance and best regards



Schneidt sent the following response


Dear Mr. Bretholz, 

I have received your letter but sadly I am not able to send you glasses without you letting me know what type you need and if you are short-sighted or far-sighted. Please answer me these questions and I hope that I will be able to get you the glasses. If there is anything else that you want, please let me know and I will see if I can make it possible.

Best regards

Bretholz’s letter. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge
Schneidt’s reply, which Bretholz never received. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

Bretholz never received Schneidt’s letter. He was murdered at Auschwitz on February 22nd 1943, nine days before Schneidt sent his reply.


Many thanks to Carl-Philipp Spahlinger, an Action Reconciliation Service for Peace volunteer at the CAHJP for his help in translation, to Udi Edery for his wonderful photographs and to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia of the CAHJP for his assistance in the preparation of this article.


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