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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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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The Chad Gadya Melody That Survived the Holocaust

Shmuel Blasz was murdered at Auschwitz, but the original melody he wrote for the beloved Passover song lives on

חד גדיא

Shmuel Blasz's version of Chad Gadya, the Music Department at the National Library of Israel

Hungary, 1940-1942

Shmuel L.:

Shmuel Lazarovich, a young Jewish man in his early thirties, is recruited to the Hungarian Labor Service. He leaves his wife and children behind. The Hungarian military has no interest in Lazarovich and his Jewish brethren, who are forced to take on difficult and arduous labor tasks.

Shmuel B.:

Shmuel Blasz, a Jewish musician, is also recruited to the Hungarian Labor Service. Blasz, who works alongside Lazarovich, teaches his new friend his own original melody, a Hungarian version of the famous “Chad Gadya” Passover song. One of the two jots down the notes on a random sheet of paper, thus preserving Blasz’s composition. Later on, during a short vacation in his home village of Hőgyész, Lazarovich places the notes in a side cabinet in his home.


“Chad Gadya” – a Hungarian version composed by Shmuel Blasz


Shmuel Lazarovich (right) during his time with the Hungarian Labor Service


Hungary, 1944

On the 19th of March, 1944, the German army invaded Hungary. Many Hungarian Jews perished, including Shmuel Blasz and Shmuel Lazarovich’s wife and children. Shmuel Lazarovich himself was sent to the Dachau concentration camp.


Shmuel Lazarovich wearing a prisoner’s uniform at Dachau


Hőgyész, Hungary, 1945

As a holder of a certificate attesting to his being a Yugoslav, Shmuel Lazarovich was allowed to return to his home in Hőgyész. Wearing a German soldier’s hat emblazoned with the symbol of the Wehrmacht, he received a warm welcome from the Swabian villagers who greeted him. Lazarovich hurried to his house to check if everything was in order. The wooden cupboard in which he had concealed his Jewish ceremonial items remained intact. He opened the cupboard and saw his complete set of tefillin and his Talit (prayer shawl) just as he had left them. Next to them lay a Passover Haggadah, with a single brownish sheet covered in musical notes inserted between its pages. This was the music composed by Shmuel Blasz for his Hungarian version of Chad Gadya.


Listen to Shmuel Blasz’s Hungarian version of “Chad Gadya”:


Israel, 1964

Following the war, and after many hardships, Lazarovich remarried. Until 1956, he continued to live in Hőgyész where he served as a cantor, shochet and mohel. Later, he was asked to move to Budapest and serve in similar positions for the local community. In 1964 he immigrated to Israel and settled in Bnei Brak where he lived for nearly two decades. In 1983, Shmuel Lazarovich passed away, leaving behind a daughter – Judith.


Shmuel Lazarovich. Photo: Gabriel Laron


Israel, the National Library, February 2019

Gabriel Laron, Shmuel Lazarovich’s nephew, approaches the Music Department at the National Library, offering to donate a manuscript of the notes to Shmuel Blasz’s Chad Gadya melody. The original manuscript had been preserved for many years by Judith Lazarovich – Shmuel Lazarovich’s daughter – who had passed away a few years earlier. Following her death, the manuscript was handed over to Gabriel Laron.

Laron himself was even recorded in the Sound Archive studio, so that the songs which were sung in his childhood home could be documented and preserved.

During the recording process, he told of another Hungarian song he had learned from his uncle: “The story takes place in 1882, in a village in northeast Hungary. A maid, who had apparently quarreled with her (non-Jewish) masters, took a walk along the banks of the Tisza River, where she either committed suicide or fell to her death.

“It was the eve of Passover. The local Christians claimed the Jews had killed the girl because they wanted to use her blood to make matzot. The body was found but there were no signs indicating that the girl was murdered. Her mother refused to identify her and claimed it was not her daughter. The local prosecutor, who was anti-Semitic, forced the shochet‘s son to admit he had witnessed the murder while peeking through the keyhole of the synagogue. The trial lasted many years. The shochet, the rabbi, and other members of the community were sent to prison, tortured and punished. A Hungarian nobleman who advocated on behalf of the Jews was able to prove that the shochet‘s son was too small and short to see what was happening through the keyhole. Things eventually escalated to the point where only the intervention of Emperor Franz Joseph finally put an end to the trial… Many years later, my uncle heard the tale being sung by a female servant in a house he was staying in.”


A Hungarian Folk Song:


And now back to Chad Gadya and Shmuel Blasz’ melody. Laron, Lazarovich’s nephew, did not know any details about Blasz’s identity. A search of internet sources led me to an article published in the United States in 2011, titled: “Holocaust survivor to hear live performance of father’s music“, as well as two additional articles “Springs Holocaust survivor hears father’s music for first time since WW II” and “Giving Voice to History: Shoah-Era Scores Get First Hearing“.

Eva Egri, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor, was able to give new life to pieces of music written by her father Shmuel Blasz. Blasz was a composer and the chief cantor at the synagogue in Eger, Hungary. Egri managed to survive the war and made her way to the United States after many long, difficult years. For about six decades, she preserved many of her father’s manuscripts which had ended up in her hands. In 2011, Samuel Blasz’s compositions were performed in New York and later in Florida.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact Egri and other family members. Eventually, Professor Nachum Dershowitz referred me to Judy Merrick, who knew Blasz’s daughter and had also performed and directed some of his works. She confirmed that this was the same Shmuel Blasz.


Berlin, Germany, December 2019

Nur Ben-Shalom is a Jewish-Israeli clarinetist living in Berlin. “When you perform a composition you never know what will happen. You start something, throw something into the air and don’t know how it will end,” he told me. In a sense, this is the story of Blasz’s Chad Gadya melody – words and notes that have moved between different places and time periods, music that has been given new interpretation, beyond what the original composer could have imagined. Ben-Shalom heard the story of the melody and decided to give it a new life. He extracted the notes from a scan of the manuscript (which appears above) and arranged the song for a chamber music ensemble including clarinet, violin and piano.

“I’ve performed in different parts of the world, with ensembles and orchestras, and nothing has given me such special satisfaction as reviving this kind of piece,” he said. “There is a very strong connection here which is difficult to explain, a connection to tradition, a connection to history, a musical connection. It’s a special feeling to be able to revive the stories of Jews who were part of this culture, who were valued, and to tell their stories in Germany of all places.”

Ben-Shalom arranged the song in two different versions; one is slow and lyrical and the other is faster, with a Klezmer feel to it. The piece was performed at a Protestant church in Berlin before an audience of 1,300 people. When I asked if this represented a contradiction – performing a work by a Jewish composer who was murdered in the Holocaust in a Christian church – he answered: “I think it’s a statement. When the head of the church in Germany comes and says: ‘I want to perform Jewish music in the church’ – that’s a strong statement. The church in Germany is a powerful force with a significant influence on culture in Germany.”





“And there is also something special about dealing with the source material. After the concert, people approached me, asking questions about Shmuel Blasz and Shmuel Lazarovich, wanting to know more. I had printed the scan of the notes and people were examining it. People asked for the arranged version. I have no control over what will happen from here on out. The music will live on. Someone else will arrange it in one way or another. The story will be told and suddenly Samuel Blasz will be resurrected. “


Thanks to Gabriel Laron, Anat Wax and Elena Kampel for their assistance in preparing this article.


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A History in Pictures: The Jews of the USSR

In the early 1980s, Ilya Dvorkin came up with the idea of documenting the lives of Jewish communities throughout the vast territories of the Soviet Union


Jewish children at school in Bukhara

Ilya Dvorkin is a man of vision. His white hair and matching beard give him the appearance of precisely the kind of person who dreams big. Ilya Dvorkin’s dream is to document, distribute and memorialize the rich culture of the Jewish diaspora in the former Soviet Union. He has probably done more than anyone to realize this vision. Dvorkin is the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies (previously known as the St. Petersburg Jewish University), where he has been working on his huge project for nearly 40 years.

The history of Jewry in Russia and in the territories of the former Russian Empire stretches back many centuries. According to some theories, Jews have been living in the Caucasus region since the Second Temple period, possibly even earlier. It is only natural that such a lengthy, rich history should consist of a wide range of stories; stories of assimilation and separation, nationalism and cosmopolitism, religious persecution and religious tolerance, subjugation and autonomy, and so forth.

The Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union were never monolithic. For the better part of this history, most Jews did not live in Russia itself, as we know it today. In fact, the only thing connecting the different Jewish communities was the prosaic fact that they were all ruled by the Russian-speaking USSR for roughly 70 years. The communities differed in ethnic origin, language, dress and even in religious and cultural customs. Jews from the shtetls of Poland or Ukraine were different than the Jews of Bukhara, Moscow and the towns of the Caucasus. All were consumed by the USSR.

A synagogue in the town of Slonim. Photo credit: Vladimir Levin, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

It was this vast cultural wealth that Ilya Dvorkin set out to conserve. In 1981, he took up what seemed like a crazy idea – photography expeditions to the Jewish communities of the USSR. Dvorkin himself funded the expeditions. He brought along a photographer and set out to find Jews in different towns under Soviet rule. The expeditions lasted until 1998, through the years of glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In many cases, Ilya and his photographers were only able to find the last remnants of Jewish communities which had almost completely dispersed, only a few years earlier. Dvorkin’s photography project provides unique documentation of these disappeared communities.

Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A cat in the town of Gorodkovka. Photo credit: Yefim Babushkin, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

We may not have time or space to conduct a complete review of the history of Russian Jewry, but we can offer a peek at it. The first Jews to settle in the areas that would eventually come under Soviet sovereignty apparently lived in the ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. Archeological evidence suggests Jews began to settle there as early as the first centuries CE, possibly even earlier. Many centuries later, a large percentage of the Russian Empire’s Jews lived in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. Others came from the republics of central Asia.

Dvorkin’s documentation project reached all of these communities. Community buildings such as synagogues and batei midrash (“Houses of Learning”) that no longer exist were recorded as part of his project, as were ancient Jewish cemeteries. Customs, rituals and cultural traditions that were common among local Jews were also documented. In addition to the many photos taken, interviews with members of the different communities were recorded on video, as were local songs and unique prayers. Dvorkin and his team also documented Jewish daily life in what was then known as Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Some of the community’s public figures were also captured in this documentation. One of these was the Prisoner of Zion, Ida Nudel, who later immigrated to Israel.

Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, The Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel
A synagogue in the town of Tyachiv. Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Ida Nudel in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

The massive project contains valuable documentation of life in the USSR during the 1980s and 1990s – a unique period in Soviet and Russian history. Dvorkin takes special pride in images of “the last European shtetl” – photos from the town of Sharhorod, which is today part of Ukraine. Sharhorod was one of the only towns in the region that was conquered by Romania and not by Nazi Germany, which is why most of its Jews survived. There, Dvorkin’s team recorded a klezmer musician playing one of the local Jewish community’s songs.


A home in Sharhorod. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A celebration in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Chanukah in Leningrad, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

The true gem of the collection is undoubtedly the huge and unique assortment of photos, video recorded interviews, and other recordings and items that came from the Jewish communities of Bukhara. These Jews, who lived in the territory covered by modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, represented one of the oldest Jewish communities in history. The Nevzlin Collection is an exceptional treasure of unique Jewish history.

A Tashkent local. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A school in Bukhara. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A wedding in Samarkand. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Jews in Samarkand. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

This project, which documents the various Jewish communities in Russia and the USSR, would not be accessible without the support of the Leonid Nevzlin Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University. Thanks to the Nevzlin Center, visitors of the National Library website can explore the documentation project which includes approximately 10,000 photos, and counting.


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