Hannah Senesh’s Final Letter

The letter addressed to her brother George was written in English to ensure it would pass through the British military censors.

Hannah Senesh at Kibbutz Sdot Yam

My dear George!

I send to you again a short letter to make you know, that we are quite ‘O-K,’ and that’s all. I guess all my acquaintances and relations are cross with me, that I never wrote and are perhaps even angry with me. Please try to explain the situation, if possible, if not they will forgive me later.

Hannah and George Senesh (Szenes), from the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

To mother I do not write now either and your letters must replace the mine. For this reason, I give you the right even to forge my signature, hoping you will not use it for “high financial obligations.”

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections

No use writing that I would like to see you, to talk to you and at least to write more detailed letters. I hope you know that very well, and I get your letters with great delay but sooner or later they reach me, and I am always ever so glad to hear about you. Thousand kisses to you and warm greetings to your friends from home.

From Hannah

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections.

On May 20th, 1944, the Jewish paratrooper Hannah Senesh found herself in Croatia, not far from the Hungarian border. Two months earlier she had been parachuted into the region by the British Royal Air Force, in a desperate attempt to save Jews of neighboring Hungary from the Nazi death camps. On this day, Hannah Senesh sat down to write what would become the last letter she ever sent to her beloved brother George. At the time of writing, she had joined up with a group of local partisan resistance fighters.

In just a few short weeks, they would be be captured and tortured by Hungarian forces loyal to the Nazi regime. Six months later, Hannah would be executed by firing squad.

Hannah Senesh and her brother George Senesh . From the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

Hannah Senesh’s last letter was written in English. This was because all letters were required to go through the British army censor before they were sent on to their intended recipients. Senesh wanted to be sure the letter would be approved without any issues so that it would make it to her brother.

Hannah Senesh was executed on November 7, 1944.


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The Egyptian Belly Dancing Sisters with a Secret Jewish Identity

Meet Leila and Lamia Jamal, the nearly identical sisters who took Cairo – and later, the rest of the world - by storm with their exhilarating belly dancing routines.

The Jamal sisters in Cairo

The foreign military forces that filled Egypt’s main cities in the post-World War II era brought about many changes in the local entertainment culture. Many nightclubs were opened and musicians, actors and dancers – both male and female – took advantage of the tremendous thirst for entertainment, which they were more than happy to supply.

One of the most popular and well known nightclubs at that time was Helmieh Palace on the outskirts of Cairo. The entertainment offered by the proprietor of this club was not the regular fare – the special attention paid to costumes, appearances by leading musicians and precise dance choreography, turned the nightclub into a breeding ground for new eastern culture.

The jewels in the crown of the Helmieh Palace were “The Jamal Twins -” belly dancers who introduced a new flair into this ancient eastern dance style. The sisters, Leila and Lamia, became the biggest stars of the Egyptian entertainment scene towards the end of the regime of King Farouk I. Their audiences were always packed and the Egyptian monarch was one of their greatest admirers. But what was the magical secret that launched their star-studded careers?

The Mediterranean Sharkiya dance was one of their specialties. The musicians who accompanied the pair practiced with them for hours at a time to match the choreography to the musical repertoire, which was carefully selected. Grueling practice sessions, endless exercises and daily rehearsals produced extraordinary results. The Jamal sisters’ performance was bright and innovative; the two dancers moved in wonderful harmony, with the dance and the music completely in sync.

Their performances, in which they also used various stage props, were not simply another example of exotic oriental dance. They knew how to create a symmetrical picture, and then reverse it virtuosic fashion, while vibrantly expressing the music they moved to. The connection between them and the musicians was lively and exciting for the audience.

The Jamal sisters’ musical talents were wholly unsurprising. They were daughters of musicians and had learned to play instruments from early childhood. Their father, Fishel Alpert was a violinist in the Vienna symphony orchestra. His name reveals his origins as a Jew who had moved from Chernowitz to the Austrian capital, where he became a professional musician. The reason for his immigration in the 1920s to Egypt is unknown. It could well have been the great economic crisis which propelled him far away from Europe, to a place where he would have a dignified position in an orchestra and a decent income.

In Alexandria, Fishel met his wife, Jini (Janin) Elpert. The impressive presence and the beauty of this opera singer, the daughter of Jewish emigrants, captured his heart. Their firstborn daughter, Helena, was born just a year after their wedding and her younger sister, Bertha, was born two and half years later, in 1932.

Helena and Bertha grew up in a musical home, and were sent by their parents to ballet lessons from a young age but, the environment in which they were raised seemed to influence them to go beyond the usual classic ballet lessons and the sisters began to study Mediterranean dance as well. To their teachers’ great surprise, they revealed extraordinary talent in the eastern dance movements. It was not long before they began to receive offers to appear in public. For their mother, this led to a serious deliberation. She was worried about the future of her young daughters, aged only 12 and 14, who would be exposed to a world she saw as promiscuous. On the other hand, the temptation was great.

At that time her husband lost his fixed source of income and the family ran into financial trouble. Jini did not dare tell him about the girls’ performances, and they decided to keep it a secret between them. The devoted mother accompanied her daughters to every rehearsal and performance, zealously preserving their innocence. She continued to do so for many years, accompanying them on their journeys around the world.

However, the three women of the Alpert family couldn’t keep their secret from the father of the family for long. The talented pair of sisters became a hit almost overnight and their success was dizzying. With the help of their mothers and teachers, they built an inventive performance which showcased their flexibility and abilities as professional dancers.

The stage names they selected, Lelia and Lamia (or: Lyn and Liz) also needed a surname and a cover story which would attract the audience. So Helena and Bertha Alpert, daughters of Fishel from Chernowitz, became “The Jamal Twins”.

The Helmieh Palace nightclub was only the springboard from which the pair leaped to international stardom. Their appearances in a string of Egyptian movies, which began with brief cameos, became longer and more central due to the high demand from the audience. Their names soon became known throughout the Arab world. They don’t appear to have denied their Judaism, but they were rather successful in concealing their origins. The cover story was perfect, and it can be assumed that none of their many admirers – in Egypt and beyond – realized that these girls were not Arab.

The military coup in Egypt and Nasser’s rise to power gradually changed the atmosphere in the country, which had enabled the sisters’ meteoric rise. The two were invited to more and more shows outside of their native country, and they were most popular in Singapore and in India.

A dance routine in one of the Indian films they starred in was censored due to “immodesty.” The military authorities in Egypt became suspicious of the Jamal sisters’ frequent trips, a suspicion that may have been driven by their knowledge of their Jewish origins.

In late 1957, in the midst of a successful tour in the far east, their father, who had stayed in Cairo, suddenly received a telegram. He quickly warned the girls, accompanied as always by their mother, not to return to Egypt. The Egyptian police had issued an order for their arrest – they were wanted for investigation, for the crime of espionage.

It was not hard for the Jamal sisters to find an impresario to invite them to appear in the United States. America had attracted them for a while, and they considered it to be a suitable place of refuge. Now they had only one troublesome problem: how would they manage to quickly attain the necessary visas to enter the US?

That very evening, a delegation of American congress members who were visiting Bombay came to the nightclub where the Jamal sisters were scheduled to appear. Their enthusiasm for the belly dancing performance was boundless. The next morning, the coveted entry visas were in their hands.

The vibrant artistic scene in New York’s Latin quarter welcomed the Jamal sisters with open arms. The refreshing feel the pair brought with them from the east integrated well into various trends which were extremely popular in 1950s America. Their collaboration with the musician Eddie ‘the Sheik’ Kochak and his band contributed to their success.

Regrettably, it is not clear what caused the sisters, now simply known as Lyn and Liz, to turn their backs on their successful career. Was it the girls’ Jewish mother who put pressure on them to marry quickly and leave the entertainment business?

The sisters soon settled down with new husbands, one after the other, not long after arriving in America. The men they chose to share their lives with, both respectable businessmen, were apparently not so enamored by their careers as dancers in nightclubs.

Within a short time, the Jamal sisters’ schedule of performances dwindled. The passion for dance and music, which still burned in them, was expressed in teaching belly dancing in various frameworks. During the 1960s and 70s the pair – especially Liz – were considered the most professional teachers in the field in the west.

Lyn died in Long Island in 1992. Liz outlived her by many years and passed away in 2016. She had re-married a man named David Marks, a Holocaust survivor who came to Israel a year before the establishment of the Jewish State aboard the illegal immigration boat “Moledet.” He later moved to America, where he became a successful furniture manufacturer.

The photo albums, mementos and stories from his wife Liz’s glory days always fascinated David. As one who had personally experienced the tumultuos fortunes of Jewish life in the twentieth century, he believed that his wife’s story should also be part of the multi-colored mosaic that documents the story of the Jewish people, and in April 2017, he donated her archive to the National Library. Liz, or Bertha Alpert, to give her true name, will now dance for eternity in the archives of the National Library, and the story of the Jamal Sisters, will live on.

When all that Remains is a Crust of Bread

Meet Jelena Kon, the woman who broke down cultural barriers to feed and care for the poor and orphaned children of Novi Sad.

“In 1932, 11,920 kilograms of bread was distributed to the poor people of Novi Sad… Every morning, parents brought children ages 1-6 years to the kindergarten and came to pick them up in the evening. The children had three meals here, were medically treated and learned good manners, order and hygiene…”  – From the “Crust of Bread” Report (1933)

Ilona “Jelena” Kon was born on September 1, 1882 in Eisenstadt, Austria to Hermine nee Schlesinger and David Spitzer who was a grape dealer and vineyard owner. Jelena had two brothers, Géza (George), and Igo Johann. In 1904, following her marriage, Jelena moved to Novi Sad to join her husband, Gyula-Julije “Jules” Kon, who was a reputable trader, politician and an active member of Novi Sad’s Jewish community.

Jelena Kon, from “Kora hleba i dečije obdanište u Novom Sadu” [Crust of Bread and Children’s Kindergarten in Novi Sad,] Novi Sad, December 1, 1933.

Jelena quickly became well known in Novi Sad through her interest in charitable work and her love of the arts and culture. During the severe economic crisis of the 1920s, Jelena founded the charitable organization called Kora Hleba, or, in English, Crust of Bread.

In that period, it was common for each ethnic community to have its own humanitarian organization to specifically help the impoverished members of that particular ethnic group. Jelena’s organization was determined to be different. Jelena Kon’s altruistic and noble goal was to improve the health, well-being and education levels of local children regardless of their religious denomination or ethnic background. Despite the fact that its activities were for the benefit of the entire community, Crust of Bread was considered to be a Jewish organization due to its predominantly Jewish membership.

Crust of Bread took care of orphans and poor children. After a while, the organization grew into a kindergarten with a sector for infants and a medical clinic to provide basic care. For years the organization functioned out of several different locations before a purposely designed building was completed in 1933.

Crust of Bread Building, Novi Sad. Photo Credit: Olga Ungar

As part of her fundraising activities for this grand project, Kon organized a number of cultural events, some of them featuring the best known musicians of the time including Bronislaw Huberman, Paul Hindemith, and Arthur Rubinstein.

The Crust of Bread center was officially opened on July 9, 1933, under the patronage of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia.  The Queen’s emissaries, Ministers for Public Health and Education, and representatives of the local government attended the opening ceremony.  The building, designed by architect Đorđe Tabaković, was one of the most prominent examples of modernist architecture in the city. The entrance was decorated with a massive sculpture of a mother holding a child created by Jewish sculptor Michael Kara. The building accommodated a day care center for children, including a kindergarten, medical offices, and a soup kitchen with the capacity to feed one hundred orphans and children from poor neighborhoods.

Mother and Child, Statue by Jewish sculptor Michael Kara, on the Building of Crust of Bread, 1933. Photo Credit: Olga Ungar

The center stopped its activities at the beginning of World War II. Jelena, the woman who had dedicated herself to helping the poor and needy, was arrested, tortured, and murdered during the Novi Sad Raid of January 1942, when 1,200 Jews, Serbs and Roma were murdered and thrown into the frozen Danube by the Hungarian police.

Following the war, the Crust of Bread building was nationalized and served as a children’s hospital and in 1963, it was transformed into a municipal preschool institution and has served as a public kindergarten ever since.

The Monument to the Victims of the Raid in Novi Sad. By Pokrajac – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

There is no memorial plaque on the building to commemorate Kon’s humanitarian work. Even the original panel carrying the name of the charitable society was removed by the Communist authorities after World War II. The last attempt to rehabilitate the memory of Kon was made by her brother George Spitzer in 1955, in an emotional letter sent to the city mayor and the representatives of the Jewish community of Novi Sad.

Letter Sent by George Spitzer in 1955 to the Leadership of Novi Sad, The Jewish Community of Novi Sad.

“I want to suggest to you that the city of Novi Sad do something toward creating some memorial for Mr. and Mrs. Kohn,” wrote Spitzer.  “My brother- in-law and my sister, with their own money, created a place where children could be taken care of during the day while their parents worked. They took care of all children, regardless of their race or religion…

As their bodies were thrown in the Danube River, there is not even a grave to mark their resting place and I think it is very sad that these two wonderful people, who did so much for others during their lifetime, should not have some permanent memorial.”

George described one of his visits to Novi Sad to see his sister at Christmas time. “I remember that the post office turned over to the Kohns the letters which poor children had written to Santa Claus and my sister and brother-in-law personally visited the homes of the writers of these letters and brought, not only what was asked for, but other items of food, clothing and toys as well.”

“They died as heroes,” concluded George. “The Serbian people should not allow their memory to die.”

Spitzer pleaded with the mayor and the Jewish community to commemorate his sister and ensure her memory would never be forgotten, but sadly, his request remained unanswered. Kon and her work for the benefit of the entire community have since been largely forgotten and removed from the city’s historical consciousness. Only the Raid Victims Memorial by the Danube River commemorating innocent victims of this brutal event bears her name and preserves the memory of Ilona (Jelena) Kon.

Memorial plaque at the Raid Victim’s Memorial listing Jelena Kon’s name (line 6).

The Jewish Community of Novi Sad

The Jewish Community of Novi Sad was established in 1749 as an official administrative and religious organization of Jews in the town. During its peak years between the two world wars, the community had 4,000 members, which constituted 10% of the total city’s population. The community centered around the Neolog Synagogue designed by the famous Hungarian-Jewish architect Lipót Baumhorn (1860-1932). Completed in 1909, the synagogue was part of a larger architectural compound, which included the Jewish communal building, the Jewish school, and the ritual bath.  In 1935 this complex was expanded with the Jevrejski kulturni dom (the Jewish Cultural Center). The building housed the majority of Jewish organizations and clubs, a kosher restaurant, a lecture auditorium, a sport hall, a preschool, and the regional bureau of the National Zionist Organization.

Synagogue in Novi Sad. Photo by Ivan Čerešnješ, from the Center for Jewish Art Collection at the National Library.

Novi Sad communal life was intensive and diversified between the two world wars. The Zionist Association was active in the city from 1919 and held the majority in the Jewish Community Board. The Jewish Political Party was established in 1927 and had representatives in the city council. The appearance of the Jews as a national group in the city council not only helped to provide a better understanding of the unique position of the Jews in the society, but also strengthened the sense of Jewish identity and belonging to both Jewish community and to their city.

After the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, Novi Sad was annexed to Hungary. On January 21-23, 1942, during a raid (Razzia) around 800 Jews were marched to the Danube river, where they were murdered and thrown into the frozen river. During that year, all male Jews between the ages of 18 and 45 were gathered into labor battalions and sent to the Ukrainian front, where they perished. The last phase of the extermination of the Jews of Novi Sad occurred in April 1944, when about 1,600 people were deported to Auschwitz. From the pre-war Jewish population of Novi Sad of 4,350, only around 1000 survived the Holocaust.  After the establishment of the State of Israel, some 700 Jews left the city.

The Palestine Post, Sunday, February 27, 1944

Today, the Jewish community has about 650 members. The main goals of the community are to preserve and develop Jewish identity, culture, and tradition of its members and to fight assimilation. To achieve that, the community organizes activities in the field of education, culture, religion, heritage, as well as humanitarian and social work. Within the community, there are various social services, such as a soup kitchen and home for elderly members, cultural and social life including a choir, folklore dance group, art club, klezmer band, children and youth clubs, women’s section, Hebrew language courses, while members also have access to valuable books and documents from the library and the archives.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

Jewish History From Bamiyan to Brooklyn

The journey of Jewish languages was the topic of a fascinating lecture held at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on June 11th.

Naomi Schacter speaking at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

In June of 2018, Dr. Yoel Finkleman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, presented fascinating insights about the twists and turns of the Jewish language as it evolved with the wanderings of the Jewish people, in honor of the opening of a new National Library of Israel exhibit at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan, New York.

Throughout history, the Jewish community has been carried by, among other things, distinctive Jewish languages, explained Dr, Finkelman. Over the centuries, Jews have created new languages, combining Hebrew with the dialects of their home countries and developing distinctive localized languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino. In other cases, their language was largely comprised of the local vernacular written in Hebrew characters, such as Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.

Dr. Yoel Finkleman speaking at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, Manhattan

Even when Jews were fully comfortable in the local vernacular, they often had a unique vocabulary that would pepper their speech with uniquely Jewish terms and expressions, such as the Yeshivish dialect of today’s Orthodox young men.

The National Library of Israel recently acquired 250 manuscripts from Bamiyan in Northern Afghanistan, from a collection known as the Afghan Genizah. These manuscripts are written in Arabic, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, exhibiting the diversity of Jewish language. From medieval Afghani receipt books to contemporary comic books, unique Jewish languages are a central building block of Jewish culture.

The exhibit, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” at the JCC Manhattan.

The exhibition, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” developed in partnership with the JCC Manhattan, presents highlights from the Library’s vast collections, which contain manuscripts, books, posters, maps, music, photographs and more. The Library treasures reflect and reveal Jewish life across continents and centuries, and highlight the diverse history and cultures of Israel and its region.

In honor of Israel’s 70th year of independence, the exhibit also includes wonderful examples of the official Independence Day posters produced in celebration throughout the decades.

Independence Day posters from the exhibit, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” at the JCC Manhattan.

The event was attended by over 70 people. Ruth and Sandy Gottesman, leading partners in the Library renewal, participated in the event, along with other colleagues, friends and donors from the area.

Invitation to NLI event at the JCC

Also in attendance was Dr. Jacqueline Heller, who sponsored the exhibit in memory of her parents, Joseph Heller and Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, whose commitment to Jewish life, culture, and history extends from New York to Israel.