We Hosted Our Very First Hackathon!

We are incredibly proud of the winning teams who produced cutting-edge digital tools that will open access to the National Library's treasures in new and creative ways!

On November 23-24, some 150 programmers, project managers, web developers, and others huddled together at the Library for 24 hours with one purpose:

To make the Library’s treasures as accessible as possible.

The participants of the Hackathon had two technological challenges with which they had to contend. The first was the Creative Challenge, in which teams had to come up with, creative ways to make the Library’s treasures as accessible as possible. The second was the Data Challenge, where teams had to develop tools to improve the metadata of items kept in the Library’s collections.

The winning independent team was Team Pi! They created an interactive educational tool that enables children and pupils to do associative research through video and audio files, bringing to life historical items from various collections in the Library, making the items and subjects being researched tangible and accessible.

The tool itself is based on several AI and Machine Learning Technologies. These introduce new types of information to the library, improve access to existing information, and create innovative product opportunities. These technologies will develop new points of access for new audiences and improve the research capabilities of the library’s materials. The technologies are based on voice recognition from visual and audio files, pattern recognition in other kinds of files as well as ranking them by priority. Over time the tool will be able to find connections between items through the AI and Machine Learning patterns, as well as user based contexts placing them together.

Team Pi’s presentation is available here.

The demo for the tool is here.

Team Pi

The winning team from a company or organization was Wikimedia Israel. They created a data tool that will identify people in historical pictures even when the picture itself is lacking a description of the figures in it. This tool will help search and find famous and historical people in the Library’s collections.

This tool will enable Wiki editors to search and locate images of historical value from a wide variety of databases. In addition, a tool was developed for Wikitext that can splice scanned manuscripts into sections made up of several words or single lines, specifically for objects that don’t cooperate with OCR software. Then with the help of a chat-bot, editors can upload these sections to Wikitext via Telegram or Facebook. This tool will enable researchers and readers to search for manuscripts that have been scanned but haven’t been fully digitized.

Team Wikimedia’s presentation is available here.

Team Wikimedia Israel
And for a photo-finish – here are a few pictures from the first ever 24-hour National Library of Israel Hackathon!

“My Heart is Ripped to Shreds”: Sarah Aaronsohn’s Moving Letter

The letter from over a century ago in which Sarah Aaronsohn writes of the tragic death of her beloved friend, Avshalom Feinberg.

July 14, 1917

My dear Rivkati and Alex!

You cannot imagine, my beloved ones, how many times I have begun writing to you and stopped. I myself do not know why. I have a burning desire to speak to you and tell you many things, as we have not talked for many eons, but suddenly I feel some kind of opposition and do not write.

During my silence, which has lasted over a year and a half, we have experienced and undergone all kinds of happy events and also, or primarily, unhappy ones. But there is nothing that can be done, it seems this is the way of the world, not everything can happen together, and the suffering always overpowers the joyous occasions.

This is the beginning of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter to her beloved siblings who were in America at the time, a letter written only a few short months before her death.


Sarah Aaronsohn, a photograph from the NILI Museum


Sarah wrote the date on the Hebrew letter in French, which may have been to mark the historical connection to the French Bastille Day and the Jewish people in the Land of Israel’s dream of independence. Sarah, one of the heads of NILI – a Jewish underground espionage movement which worked in favor of the British and against Turkish rule in the Land of Israel – longed for that day and dedicated her life to it.

In her letter, Sarah sorrowfully relates the story of the death of Avshalom Feinberg, the founder of NILI, who she had a special relationship with and who was also engaged to her sister Rivka:

I wish to begin, and I do not know what to call the beginning, so I will begin with the first which is most beloved.

Regarding our dear Avshalom, I want to begin by telling you in detail what happened to him, because according to what I know from Rivka’s letter to Penina Levontin, you do not know any details about our deceased beloved one, and it is also so hard to talk about it because my heart is ripped to shreds, and because the sorrow is so extremely great and terrible.

My dear ones, you knew our Avshalom very well, and you knew how much the young man wanted to make contact with the English over the question of our Jews and Jewish matters, and you know that he arrived, and when he returned to the Land of Israel hoping for good and for success, the connection was suddenly cut off, no one knows why that happened.

Perhaps it is due to lack of trustworthiness of the people who go down to the beach and many other reasons, but when communication ceased, the beloved one suffered greatly, and began to look for ways to travel by land, if not by sea. And you are aware of his fate. His journey to the desert was solely a search for a way to meet up and to get close, he also went to Constantinople, and he was never able to rest and he chose the most dangerous ways, and even if people dared comment, it was of no use.

And one day he decided together with Aaron [Aaron Aaronsohn, Sarah’s brother and a fellow member of NILI], that Aaron would travel to Constantinople and attempt to continue from there and reach their destination. And that is what happened, and as you see, Aaron finally arrived, but it took a long time, the whole matter took 6 to eight months, and our beloved one lost patience and began once again to search for dangerous ways. Even though we pleaded with him, it was to no avail, as much as I begged him and showed him how dangerous the way is, and I saw in advance that he will lose his head in this manner, and it was impossible to deter him from his idea. My dear ones, our tragedy is too great to bear, and it is extremely intense and deep.


The first page of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library collection
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Sarah relates everything she knows about Feinberg’s death, expresses her personal pain, and attempts to comfort her younger sister Rivka, Avshalom’s fiancée:

And our dear one went out into the desert with another friend who liked to endanger himself, who is actually the head of a family… and they set out, and on the way they encountered a patrol of Bedouins who shot at them and pursued them, and the dear one fell dead, the other was only injured in three places, and after much effort he reached the English station, and they transferred him to Egypt, where he met up with Aaron, lay in hospital and recovered, and after he recovered Aaron sent him here to work and continue our holy mission, as he spilled his blood and gave up his young life for an idea which was incredibly holy to him.

The sacrifice is too great, and even if we were to be successful in our work, and the salvation of Israel should come through such a sacrifice, believe me my dear ones that I would not desire our dear sacrifice. But this seems to be the fate of those who have aspirations for their nation and their land, and in addition, the beloved one went of his own volition, wholeheartedly, and he know just how dangerous it was, no matter how much we talk and how many tears we shed, it will be insufficient to calm the heart, or satiate it, the suffering is very, very great, and why should I come and pour salt on your wounds.

My dear child Rivka, you must be more miserable and suffering much more than all of us, but I feel you and am here together with you suffering and crying about your sad fate. My child, you have no idea how much your beloved one and I connected during the time we were together, I was the only one with whom he could share what was on his heart, his thoughts and hopes, and I helped him a lot, I encouraged and strengthened him, and I am suffering very greatly from the tragedy. But can we come and complain before anyone? This is what our fate decreed for us, that we will not have the merit of seeing greatness and action from our dear one who aspired and suffered throughout his young life. But our constantly ongoing work will always serve as a reminder, and will be named after the beloved instigator, Avshalom. It will soon be six months since his death.

He passed away on the 20th of the month of January. Believe me my dear ones that I am talking and writing about his death, yet it is still unclear to me and it is impossible to become accustomed to his death. His family still know nothing, we do not want to tell them until after the war, as why should they suffer at a time when it is impossible to move or do anything.


Page two of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library collection
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Sarah, who coordinated all the NILI underground’s activities in Ottoman Palestine at the time, tells about the dangers and the hope. A month before she sent this letter, on June 4th, 1917, the French government published a memorandum which “considers it to be an act of justice and correction of a wrongdoing to assist the revival of the Hebrew nation in its land, which it was exiled from hundreds of years ago”. It could be that Sarah heard about this declaration and refers to it in the letter:

I have a large role in the work here, and if we have to endanger ourselves, my dear one, I think not of it. The work is dear and holy to me, you must understand. If our dear one would have been able to hear the good news, that we were promised the Land of Israel, what would he not do in sheer joy? And we have merited to see it due to his idea and his head which he endangered.


Page three of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library Collection
Click to Enlarge


Later in the letter, Sarah describes the dismal condition of the “Station for Agricultural Experiments in Atlit”, the life work of the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, a place for agricultural experiments as well as the location the NILI spy network operated from. Sarah Aaronsohn also describes the wretched condition of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel at the time under the yoke of Turkish rule:

You are certainly aware of the situation of the deportation of our Jews from Jaffa, their poverty and suffering are inconceivable. Hundreds and thousands of people were simply taken and destroyed to their very core, and people who did not know what aid was and who lived like princes, now need help. The poverty in the cities of Jerusalem, Tiberius and Safed is also horrendous.

It is impossible to comprehend what has happened in Israel. The produce this year was also very poor. The winter crop was completely unsuccessful, and there are those who claim that the hunger will be terrible this year. And now, my dear ones, regarding the station.

We have not received a penny from there for over two years, at a time when other institutions received money from outside of Israel and we did not receive a penny, it therefore seems that they simply decided not to believe in the station… the only thing is for you to take action with publicity in order to send us money, money, because in such a time money is crucial.


Page four of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, National Library Collection
Click to Enlarge


Sarah ends the letter with a request from Rivka and Alexander to lobby the Americans and to try to raise money for the station, she adds words of encouragement to her beloved ones and signs: “Farewell, your Sarah”.

Farewell to you and warm kisses, and greetings to all the American friends with a request to work more and more for the station, paint the situation to be as bleak as possible, it will not be worse than the truth.

And you my children, and especially Rivka, keep strong, because your friend and beloved fell like one of the heroes, in his hope to save his nation and his land, we can be proud of such a friend, and we must bear the tragedy silently.

Warm kisses and make an effort my dear ones,

Farewell, your Sarah


Page five of Sarah Aaronsohn’s letter, the National Library Collection
Click to Enlarge


Only a few months after this letter was sent, in early October 1917, Sarah Aaronsohn was captured by the Turks and brutally tortured. She eventually shot herself to prevent them from extracting information from her about the underground, its activities and members in further interrogations. She hovered between life and death for three days until her soul departed.

Less than a month later, on November 2nd of the same year, the British foreign minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour sent Lord Walter Rothschild the famous declaration according to which “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Sarah Aaronsohn, who was so close to this moment, did not see it. A century has passed since her death, and the death of her beloved, Avshalom Feinberg.

Thanks to Dr. Gil Weissblei for his assistance in research for the article. 

The 304th Bavarian Squadron Documents the Land of Israel at the End of the First World War

A glimpse into the book of the German theologian who collected 100 aerial photographs of the Land of Israel

"The courtyard of the Temple" in the words of the German researcher and theologist Gustaf Dalman. An aerial photograph of The Temple Mount.

It is common for the most brutal and bloodstained wars to serve as catalysts of technological progress; the First World War was no exception: the development of modern-day bombs, the first military use of tanks (still only as means of transport, not as weapons), the first military flamethrower, and more. No place was left unchanged: the shells scarred the battlefields, the trenches changed the lay of the land and the majority of the ancient empires which fought in it collapsed during or after it, never to rally again.

The Land of Israel was not the most deadly battle front, but here too the War completely changed life, and brought some of the European technological developments with it. An example of one such development can be found in an unexpected place: a book name “One Hundred Aerial Photographs of Palestine“, published by the German theologian Gustaf Dalman.

Gustaf Dalman in German Army uniform

Aerial Photographs in the Service of Christian Theology

Dalman’s tremendous interest in the Land of the Bible and everything connected to it led him to many diverse fields of research: during his long life the German theologian researched Jewish history, archeology of the Biblical period and the language of residents of the Land and their neighbors. Dalman did not only delve into the Bible and the New Testament, but was also fluent in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period onward. In 1902, the theologian was one of the founders of the “German Evangelical Institute for Research of Ruins in the Holy Land in Jerusalem” – an institute he headed until 1917, and which still exists today.

Dalman was not only interested in the culture of the Biblical period, but he also researched the landscapes, animals and plants of the Land. He wholeheartedly believed that only the most encompassing understanding possible of the nature and people who live in the Holy Land will enable theologians to correctly understand and interpret the holy works God bestowed upon his creations. Therefore, Dalman wrote about and documented the Land of Israel in thousands of pictures and words.

In 1925, Dalman collected a hundred aerial photographs in his book, taken by Squadron 304, the Bavarian Squadron of the German army. All the collected photographs were photographed between 1917-1918, in other words, toward the end of the First World War – some after the British conquered the Land of Israel. These seem to be the first aerial photographs of the Land of Israel, or at least – among the first ever taken in Israel.

An aerial photograph of Jerusalem from the south-east
This photograph presents a slide placed on the ancient map to show what can be learned from the air about places from the time of the Bible
Bethlehem from the South
A bird’s eye view of Safed

Even when he acted as a preserver and editor – work which was fully expressed in the book he published in 1925, the fingerprint of the researcher of the land of the Bible is clearly visible in the book. Dalman used the hundred photographs which appear in the book as a mirror into the past, and ponders what the landscapes teach us about the world of Jesus and the prophets. This fact leads Dalman to interesting editing choices: as Professor Binyamin Zev Kedar notes in his book ‘Looking Twice at the Land of Israel’, “Dalman, who researched the Land of Israel…did not feel the need to bring photographs of the new Jewish settlements.”

Haifa and the Carmel, but not Tel Aviv and other new settlements
Not all the photographs in the book were taken from the air, such as an on the ground photograph of Tiberius

It would be naïve to see Dalman as an apolitical researcher interested solely in the past. As the first director of the institute he established, Dalman helped the German empire to infiltrate deeper into the Middle East under a religious-Christian guise. It is possible that when he published his book in 1925, almost a decade after the collapse of the Ottoman and German empires, Dalman (like many of his German contemporaries) had abandoned his imperialistic aspirations regarding the Middle East. However, Dalman’s curiosity about and love for the land of the Bible remined strong until his death in 1941.

How the Conquerors of the Land of Israel Spent their Time Between Battles: Hasty Photography, Football, and Boxing

A photo album taken by an unnamed British soldier during the First World War reveals the route of his unit.

The Conquerors of the Land Photographed in the Shade

The First World War was the first time in world military history that soldiers of all armies could carry a personal camera with them and document not only the fierce battles they encountered, but some of their unit’s experiences in their free time.

For the Protestant British soldiers stationed on the front line in the Middle East who beheld the Land of Israel for the first time, this was a golden opportunity: a combination of religious fervor (which intensified as the capture of Jerusalem became increasingly imminent) together with a healthy dose of curiosity about the new-old world which surrounded them, caused many of those equipped with cameras to document, in many dozens of albums, the natives of the land, its exotic scenery, as well as “down time” between resting, training and fighting.

Several of the private albums of soldiers from both sides of the conflict are stored in the National Library. One of the most interesting of them was given a name in the Library catalog which conceals this fact: “The Photographs of a British Soldier from the First World War in the Land of Israel”.

As the album name reveals – the photographer’s identity is unknown, but it appears to be a soldier in the 74th cavalry battalion of the British Army. The soldier, presuming that it is a single soldier, mapped out the route his unit advanced through photographs which he took and pasted into an album.

Most of the photographs are from Jerusalem and the surrounding area – with captions stating the subject of the photograph.



Hebron Road


German Hospice


The Western Wall


Jerusalem looking toward Mount of Olives


Hill of Temptation


Mary Magdalene Church Jerusalem


Dome of the Rock


Valley of Judgement Jerusalem


As we delve further into the album we discover that the writing disappears and the photographs depicting central sites in the Land of Israel are replaced by a different type of photograph; depicting daily life in the battalion, and primarily the various ways the soldiers passed their time. The majority of the photographs appear to have been taken in Alexandria in Egypt, where the British Army camped prior to setting out to capture the Land of Israel in 1917.


The battalion dog
A musical interlude
The Gang
The military orchestra
Fighting in His Majesty’s Army

:View the entire album