Hannah Senesh was born and raised in Budapest, in an urban Jewish environment that was well-versed in the trends and fashions of Hungary’s cultural elite. In her teenage years, she cultivated her literary talent by writing diaries and poems. Her ambition was to continue in the footsteps of her father, Béla Szenes, an acclaimed writer, journalist and playwright in Hungary who died prematurely, at the age of 33.
Among Hannah Senesh’s archival materials deposited at the National Library of Israel in 2020, is a notebook containing poems she wrote in her youth starting from when she was just seven years old. She would dictate her poems to her maternal grandmother, Fini, who would write them down in beautiful and neat script in special notebooks that are now preserved in Jerusalem. The poems that Hannah wrote throughout her childhood years reveal her sense of grief following the death of her father, as well as her joy and excitement at the changing of the seasons and the transformation of the landscape in her native Hungary,
However, alongside these writings dedicated to her homeland and her own personal experiences, there is also one surprising poem dedicated to the festival of Hanukkah. Senesh wrote this one on December 10, 1933, when she was only 12 years old. The Senesh family were not particularly religious, and it appears that Hannah wrote the poem while attending the Baar-Madas school in Budapest. Though Baar-Madas is a Calvinist institution, the poem was likely written after one of the “religion lessons” given to Jewish girls who attended the school.
Senesh’s mother Katrina brought these notebooks to Israel, and the poem was later translated into Hebrew by the poet Avigdor Hameiri, on the occasion of the publication of the book Hannah Senesh: Her Life, Mission and Death (Hebrew), on the first anniversary of her death.
Here is a translation of the poem into English:
On Hanukkah, the candles are kindled, every Jewish heart quivers;
In our hearts rise up images of nations long since passed, ancient and great;
Of the days of Egyptian suffering, the kingdom of Greece, and our strength was not broken by any foreign rule;
We carried our Torah from place to place, from which we drew our faith and virtue;
We wandered through the wilderness, hungry and destitute, but God is with us – we will not be alone;
And we are descended from the same fathers, we will not give up. But will stay and fight;
These candles encourage us at every turn, fear not Israel, the time is yet to come.
Despite her young age, the poem already hints at the spirit of national pride and determination that would characterize Senesh in her adulthood, and also the impression left by Hanukkah’s nationalist ideas on her youthful soul.
The Senesh Family Archive is deposited at the National Library of Israel, with thanks to the Eisen Family.
Who Are the Jews Depicted in These Holocaust-Era Portraits?
“These were powerful images I saw – to give form to all that misery – to show it to the world – this was always my intent”. The artist David Friedmann produced hundreds of portraits during the time of the Nazi occupation in Prague. Surviving are only ninety-four portraits of members of the Prague Jewish Community from the years 1940-1941. Yet numerous subjects depicted in these artworks remain unidentified to this day. Can you help us solve this mystery?
A charcoal portrait drawing of an unknown subject, from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum
I was born in Israel in 1950, and named after my father’s first daughter.
In 1954, our family immigrated to America and settled in St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up immersed in the world of art and culture. One day my father took an album from the bookcase and there, at the dining room table, I learned more about his art and the great losses he endured during his life.
My father, David Friedman(n), was born December 20, 1893, in Mährisch Ostrau, Austria-Hungary, (Ostrava, Czechia). In 1911, he ventured to Berlin and studied etching with Hermann Struck and painting with Lovis Corinth. During WWI, he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a battle artist and returned to his Berlin studio after the war. He achieved acclaim for his portraits drawn from life and became a leading press artist of the 1920s, sketching hundreds of cultural icons such as Albert Einstein and Max Brod.
The Nazi regime abruptly upended his flourishing career in 1933. Friedmann fled to Prague in 1938, with his wife Mathilde and infant daughter Mirjam Helene, escaping the Nazis with only his artistic talent as a means to survive. The Gestapo looted his oeuvre left behind in Berlin. In Prague, my father worked as an artist again, making it known he wished to produce an album. He received orders for portraits and sketched the leaders of the Jewish Community and officials of the Palestine Office, many of them prominent Zionists, later murdered in Auschwitz.
In 1941, David Friedmann was deported to the Lodz Ghetto with his family, and the Nazi authorities once again looted his works. He continued to depict human fate in his art, as a prisoner in the Lodz Ghetto, in the Auschwitz subcamp Gleiwitz I, and as a survivor. His wife and daughter were murdered.
Liberated at the age of 51, Friedmann believed he lived for a reason, as noted in his 1945 postwar diary [in German]:
“These were powerful images I saw – to give form to all that misery – to show it to the world – this was always my intent.”
The art series was titled, “Because They Were Jews!” In 1948, in Prague, Friedmann wed Hildegard Taussig (1921-1989) a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Christianstadt. High-ranking military officers wanted his artwork for Prague’s War Museum. Defying an export prohibition, the couple fled communist Czechoslovakia to Israel in 1949, thus saving his artwork, albums, and historical documents.
Miracles of Survival
The album my father showed me many years ago contains 50 postcard-size portrait prints and photos amid other works produced throughout his life. Among the subjects are Jakob Edelstein, Dr. Franz Weidmann and Fredy Hirsch, but many are still nameless today. The serious faces reflect the stress of persecution and an uncertain future. I was captivated. At my request, my father entrusted this treasure to me at the age of 22 years. I wondered how he could part with the album, a profound piece of his past and the people he had sketched and befriended.
My father added names and captions to numerous portraits — invaluable clues for the task ahead — to identify and learn the fate of each subject — and reconstruct the story. Thus began a decades-long project in 1994. I shared the portraits worldwide and several subjects were recognized by survivors.
Portraits were discovered at the National Museum and Jewish Museum in Prague, Beit Terezin in Israel, as well as in private collections. At the National Museum theater department, three identical postcard-size portraits of František Zelenka awaited me. The fourth is displayed in my father’s album along with duplicates of Dr. Leo Kraus and Viktor Popper. I wondered what was the significance of the identical duplicate portraits. The story continued to unfold.
Thirty-six postcard-size portraits surfaced at Beit Terezin. Among this collection are Franz Kahn, Leo Janowitz, and Otto Zucker. Seven portraits were identical to those displayed in my father’s album: Hans Löw, Stefan Pollak, Rudolf Leipen, Wally Bloch, Ernst Jelinek, Viktor Popper and Hannah Steiner. However, the Eureka moment was Elly Eisinger. The Jewish Museum holds the original pen-and-ink drawings on tracing paper mounted on paper of Eisinger and Weidmann. Somehow the larger originals were used by my father to produce his smaller-sized prints.
Numerous portraits have dedications handwritten on the reverse side to Dr. Leo Kraus, the law department head of the Palestine Office in Prague. However, the Beit Terezin archive did not have the Kraus portrait or evidence he was the donor. Kraus was interviewed by Beit Terezin. At 98 years, he had no recollection of the portraits, but remembered the artist. It is still a mystery how the collection survived, but the provocative question remains – who donated the portraits to Beit Theresienstadt?
I contacted Dorit Gan-Mor, Kraus’ daughter, who searched among her father’s books and discovered his postcard-sized portrait, as well as Dr. Kurt Heller and Dr. Ruth Hoffe. I saw the identical Hoffe portrait print in the collection of Judita Chudy. Then, as fate would have it, the original charcoal pencil drawing of Hoffe emerged at the Jewish Museum. His tracings were made “after” the completion of the larger, original portrait drawing. To summarize: The drawings of Weidmann, Eisinger and Hoffe, are evidence they were used to produce the smaller postcard-size versions with the subject and artist signatures as part of the print. The portraits were ordered in multiples and exchanged between colleagues and friends, often with dedications on the reverse side.
Help Us Identify the Subjects – Can You Decipher These Signatures?
One of the starkest traumas of the Holocaust — people not only lost their lives, but also traces of their existence. A portrait may be the only image to remain of the victim.
Impeding a successful search are subjects who signed only their surname, eg., Batscha, Adler, and those with common names like Otto Löwy. Even if the signature is legible, one cannot always confirm the identity. In the case of the two victims pictured below, the signatures are unreadable, even among Czech and German friends. Klara is the only subject with a real smile, but only her first name warrants a guess. The second portrait reads D. or Dr. Hermann.
Subjects lacking a positive match despite signing a complete name are Hans Kaminsky and Fritz Löwenstein. The ID photo is imperative for comparison. However, the complete name is necessary to search databases, testimony, documents, and deportation lists. Ninety-four meticulously portrayed subjects by David Friedmann are known to have survived.
The portraits are a testament to the enormous loss of lives, creative potential and accomplishments of the Jewish victims. The expressions he chose, his ability to capture emotions, the attitude of his line, all show us his thoughts. The portraits give face to numerous known and unknown victims — historically significant evidence of a dynamic Jewish community destroyed by the Nazi regime. Additional portraits could still be in private collections.
The charcoal drawings below were not signed by the subject because the portraits were not intended for prints.
I donated my father’s album to the Yad Vashem Art Museum in Jerusalem. My journey’s reward is the recognition of my father’s work as a valuable resource and contribution to Holocaust history, as well as the preservation of his portraits for future generations.
David Friedmann died February 27, 1980 in St. Louis, Missouri.
This article is based on a version titled, David Friedman Portraits of the Prague Jewish Community 1940-1941: A Timestamp in History During the Nazi Occupation,originally appearing in “Dapei Kesher,” the Beit Theresienstadt Newsletter.
A new Holocaust documentary, “Dear Miriam – The Art and Survival of David Friedmann”, by Emmy Award Winner John Rokosny, is currently in production.
With the return of Jews to England in the 17th century, the developing community’s members surprisingly saw no need for a Jewish printing house. The first printed book was published decades later and only in the wake of a controversial internal dispute…
An 18th century view of London. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art
Not many years after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century, printed books began to appear targeting Jewish audiences. In Spain, Italy, the Ottoman Empire and other places, Jews could enjoy scholarly texts and prayer books that were either printed in their own countries or imported from other places.
This important development skipped over England.
The Jews, expelled from its shores in the year 1290, were only allowed to return in 1656. Even after their return, primarily from Holland and Germany, there was no rush to establish a printing house to publish new or existing books for the Jewish community’s own purposes. For decades, Jewish books continued to be brought over from the continent.
A handful of works featuring Hebrew print were published in England before the Jews were allowed back into the realm, but these were usually individual words or brief Hebrew passages printed for Christian scholars who were interested in the language or in the early roots of Christianity.
The first book published in England to include Hebrew letters was Oratio de laudibus & utilitate trium linguarum: Arabicae, Chaldaicae & Hebraicae. This was a printed copy of a lecture given by Robert Wakefield, a scholar and lecturer at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. The lecture was delivered in 1524 and printed soon after in London. Later, books featuring Hebrew words were also printed in Oxford and Cambridge, among them several books on Hebrew grammar and language. The first complete Hebrew text to be published was a translation of the Book of Psalms in 1643. The next twenty years saw the printing in England of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, and the Mishnah tractates Berakhot and Yoma. All of these were intended for Christian scholars of one sort or another.
The first publication in Hebrew intended for the Jews of England was only published in 1705, in response to an acute controversy that had engulfed London’s Sephardic community.
The community’s rabbi, David Nieto, was born in Venice in 1654. He studied medicine at the University of Padua after which he worked as a physician, rabbinical judge and rabbi in the city of Livorno. It was in Livorno that he wrote his first work entitled Pascalogia – a study in Italian that dealt with efforts to determine the date of the Christian festival of Easter and the differences between the Catholic, Greek and Jewish calendars. He dedicated the work to a powerful Italian nobleman – Francesco Maria de’ Medici, a member of the famous family from Tuscany. Throughout his life, Rabbi Nieto continued to grapple with matters related to the Jewish calendar.
In 1701, Rabbi Nieto was invited to serve as the leader of the Sephardic community in London on the condition that he promise to not practice medicine there. Shortly after his arrival he had already composed and published a prayer for the success of King William III in Spanish.
One Shabbat in November 1703, a few days before Hanukkah, Rabbi Nieto gave a sermon in which he stated, among other things, that God and “nature” are one. Even today, these words might seem provocative and even offensive to some, but for English Jews in 1703, most of whom had come to London from the Netherlands, the rabbi’s words had a particularly negative resonance.
Some who were present at his sermon must have been familiar with their Dutch Jewish compatriot Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher whose views were contrary to the principles of Judaism. Among other things, Spinoza (like other philosophers of his time) claimed that nature itself was the true God, not the spiritual entity accepted by Jewish believers. This worldview, known as pantheism, claims that God did not create the universe, but that the universe and the laws of nature are an infinite entity that creates and animates reality. According to this view, the concepts of reward and punishment, good and evil, as well as personal providence, do not exist.
For some listeners, Rabbi Nieto’s sermon was an expression of heresy, in the spirit of Spinoza.
Some members of the London community expressed concern and even anger at the words of their new rabbi. The climax came when a member of the congregation, Yehoshua Zarfati, refused to take part in a wedding attended by Rabbi Nieto on the grounds that he was an apostate. In response to the division and strife that arose in the community, Rabbi Nieto published his book De La Divina Providencia on the subject of divine providence. The book contains a dialogue between two Jews, Reuven and Shimon, in which one explains to the other the principles of individual providence and God’s relationship to nature. The book was published in London in 1704. It was written in Spanish and surprisingly, was never translated into Hebrew.
In his book, Rabbi Nieto claimed that the very use of the word “nature” (teva טבע, in Hebrew) was new to Judaism, in circulation for only a few hundred years. Before that, there had been no need for a word to describe God’s creation. It was only after Greek philosophy became known to the Jews through its translation into Arabic that the need arose for an appropriate term with which to contend and debate with those holding other scientific and philosophical opinions. Rabbi Nieto emphasizes that God and nature are the same and cites Psalm 147:
Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving, make music to our God on the harp; He covers the sky with clouds, he supplies the earth with rain, and makes grass grow on the hills.
Nature’s meaning is “providence” and providence is divine. Those who claim otherwise, says Rabbi Nieto, are “Karaites and apostates.”
The book did not do what its author had hoped and the storm did not subside even after the rabbi’s opponents were banned and some members of the community expelled from the synagogue.
The community decided to turn for help to the prestigious rabbinical court of Amsterdam to rule on the matter. For various and perhaps not entirely innocuous reasons, the Amsterdam rabbinical court did not deliver a clear answer. The members of London’s Sephardic community then thought to turn to the Sephardic community in Hamburg, but that community was without a rabbi at the time, and so the leaders of the London community turned to Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of Altona (in Germany), who was known as “the Hakham Tzvi” and was considered one of Europe’s greatest rabbis in his day. Rabbi Ashkenazi, who was born in Moravia, had served for a significant part of his life as a rabbi of Sephardic communities, and thus the Sephardic community of London also saw him as a trustworthy figure.
In August 1705, a letter arrived in London from the Hakham Tzvi, in which he placed his full support behind Rabbi Nieto.
In his answer, he quoted from 16th-century Italian preacher Rabbi Judah Moscato’s commentary “Kol Yehuda” on the Sefer HaKuzari (“Book of the Khazar”) by Judah Halevi. Moscato explains that the Hebrew root teva – that is “nature” – also appears in the Hebrew word hatba’ah (הטבעה), meaning the act of imprinting or stamping. The context here being the stamping or imprinting of the seal and very essence of God, the Holy One, blessed be He, on all of His deeds and creations.
In his answer, Rabbi Moscato discusses the semantics of the Hebrew word teva, “nature” and the differences between general nature and individual nature in the context of divine providence. The issue was a theologically and philosophically complex one, but the Hakham Tzvi saw no point in delving more deeply into the matter since the purpose of the correspondence was mainly to hear his opinion about Rabbi Nieto. Hakham Tzvi reassured those who feared the use of the word “nature” in relation to God and noted that other great rabbis, such as Rabbi Isaiah Halevi (1555–1630), also used “nature” in this way in their writings.
The Hakaham Tzvi concluded his answer with the following words:
“We must give thanks to the wise and exalted Rabbi David Nieto for the sermon he preached warning the people not to let their hearts follow the opinion of the philosophers who speak of nature for this has led to many faults and rather enlightened them with his true belief that everything is by His blessed providence.”
This letter sent by the Hakham Tzvi was printed at a non-Jewish printing house in London and distributed by the community’s leadership among the Jews of London in 1705. Although comprising only a few pages, and not an actual book, it was the first publication in Hebrew to be published in England explicitly for a Jewish audience. Later, the letter was also printed in a book of Hakham Tzvi’s halakhic responsa (questions and answers about Jewish religious law).
The controversy subsided and the life of the London Jewish community returned to normal. In the end, it had all been either a simple misunderstanding on the part of those who had come to hear Rabbi Nieto’s sermon or an unclear explanation of a charged philosophical issue.
Two years later, two slightly longer books were printed in Hebrew. In this case as well, the books were published in the wake of a debate that arose in the community. Only this time it involved the Ashkenazi community of London, but more on that another time…
The Woman Who Conjured Up Cruella de Vil
She went from selling furniture to becoming a successful screenwriter and author, but she wrote her best-loved and best-known work, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, when she was sixty years old. Her own nine Dalmatians were her inspiration, along with a passing remark made by a friend, that sparked an idea for one of the most beloved villains in popular culture…
When you hear the word “Dalmatians,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Disney movie, though the particular version might vary, depending on your age.
There is also a slight chance that you might also remember the book on which the films are based, and which had considerable success when it was first published. But do you also remember the author’s name? No, it wasn’t Walt Disney. It was an Englishwoman named Dorothy Smith, who was affectionately called Dodie. She gave the world The Hundred and OneDalmatians and the supervillain Cruella de Vil. She was also the author of another bestseller, I Capture the Castle, which was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, and which was also adapted into a film.
Dodie Smith was born in 1896 and when her father died two years later, she went to live with her mother in her grandparents’ house along with her mother’s unmarried brother and sisters. Little Dodie was everyone’s favorite and she absorbed her family’s great love for the theater. At the age of 18, she enrolled in the Academy of Performing Arts in London, but after a few years she realized that she was not meant for an acting career. To make a living, Dodie began working in a furniture store, but this did not diminish her love for the stage, and she soon turned to playwriting. She managed to sell a screenplay for a motion picture under the pen name Charles Henry Percy and published a stage play under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony, which was also a success.
We’ll never know if she would have been as successful had she published them under her own name, but when her identity was revealed, the furniture saleswoman turned playwright became a sensation (“Shop-Girl Writes Play” blared the headlines). From there Smith went on to become one of the most successful playwrights of her time. Her writing career took a new turn during World War II, when she moved with her husband to the United States. Her longing for home led her to write I Capture the Castle, a book centered on a teenage girl who describes the world around her in her journal, while telling the story of her extraordinary family who live in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. The book captivated readers and was reprinted many times, making Smith not just a successful screenwriter but also a novelist.
But Smith’s most successful book came a few years later, when she was 60 years old. The inspiration for the book were her and her husband’s nine Dalmatians, the first of which was named Pongo, naturally. A friend of Smith’s once commented that Pongo would make an excellent fur coat, and in that instant, the character of Cruella de Vil was suddenly born in Smith’s mind. The rest of the plot would gradually develop around the figure of Cruella.
The book’s success led to a phone call from Walt Disney who offered to turn her story into a movie. The animated film was released in 1961 (Smith loved the film, but was disappointed to not have her name featured more prominently in the opening credits), leading to a rise in books sales, and likely also to the translation of the book into Hebrew in 1966. About ten years after the first book was published, Smith published a sequel titled The Starlight Barking, but it was not as successful as the first and, in fact, the Disney sequels are not based on it at all. Incidentally, Disney also acquired the rights to I Capture the Castle, which was supposed to star Hayley Mills, but due to disputes between the screenwriter and Smith, the project was shelved. After Smith’s death, Disney eventually released the film rights and in 2003 a feature film was made by BBC Films.
Disney released a live action adaptation of 101 Dalmations in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.
Smith, however, did not live to see the film. She passed away in 1990, four years after her husband, who had died unexpectedly, and left her heartbroken. Her Dalmatian Charlie served as her faithful companion, support and source of strength in her later years.
As inevitably happens when a book is adapted to film (even one starring Glenn Close) there will always be nuances that cannot be transferred to the big screen. So it is with Cruella de Vil who in the book is even more ruthless and has an even darker back story. The same goes for the book’s sense of humor, especially as it applies to human-dog relations, as can be seen from the book’s opening lines, “Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.”
So if you’re a dog person or have an appreciation of finely-crafted villains, or if you’d simply like to read a work by a talented, but unfortunately long-forgotten best-selling author, I recommend adding Dodie Smith’s books to your reading list.
And finally, a full disclosure to readers of I Capture the Castle—I didn’t write this article while sitting in the kitchen sink. 😉