The Hope or the Glory? Herman Wouk Writes About the State of Israel

The award-winning Jewish-American author lived a secular life in his early years and claimed that one of the greatest influences on his life and work was the US Navy. What made him spend years writing a pair of thick novels telling the story of people whose culture was far removed from the one he grew up on, and for whom he had quite a bit of criticism to offer?


Herman Wouk visits Israel, 1972. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

“Don’t begin in 1948. This story is a hundred years old.”

When Herman Wouk, the award-winning Jewish American author, sat down to write a historical novel centered around the history of the young Jewish state, he consulted with his Israeli friends, who had personally experienced the events he wanted to write about. Some were leading Israeli military and political figures, others were unknowns whom the world would come to recognize and who he’d randomly mentioned now and then, including one young fellow by the name of Ilan Ramon. People were generally pessimistic about the book’s chances of success. They felt the story was too complex; it wasn’t simply a war story, but rather something no one else in the world could truly understand; the time frame was too broad because it was impossible to understand anything that happened here without going into way more history than can fit into one book.

But that didn’t bother Herman Wouk. He had already won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that all his friends and acquaintances in the US Army warned him not to write (The Caine Mutiny, 1952), and he had managed to get a 2,000-page historical saga about World War II onto the bestseller lists. Besides, unlike most Jewish-American writers of that generation, he felt he was a Jew first of all, before anything else. He was also an ardent Zionist. In fact, by the time he wrote his books about Israel in the early 1990s, Wouk’s views on Zionism were already considered quite naïve and even somewhat childish in Israel itself.

He simply wanted to tell this story. A story of hope and glory.

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Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, speaking with D. Ben-Gurion after a festive performance at Habima on Monday” – Davar, May 15, 1955, the Historical Jewish Press collection at the National Library of Israel

Herman Wouk was born during World War I to a traditional Jewish family that immigrated from Russia to the Bronx, NY. As a young man, he was a typical American for all intents and purposes, far removed from any national or religious awareness. But then, his mother’s father, Mendel Leib Levine, fled Russia and joined the New York Wouks. He made his young grandson study Gemara with him and became one of the two most influential factors in Wouk’s life (the other being the US Navy).

Herman Wouk was an incredibly talented young man. As a 16-year-old, he got accepted to Columbia University, where he edited the university’s comedy magazine Jester and wrote several plays that were performed by students. He received his first degree before he was even 20 years old. When he graduated, he worked as a radio host, while simultaneously writing a play – The Man in the Trench Coat – which was not a resounding success.

And then came World War II.

Wouk enlisted in the navy and left the Jewish community of New York behind. He served as an officer aboard a minesweeper in the Atlantic Ocean, saw close friends wounded and killed, and spent long days sailing on the high seas, reflecting and writing.

When the ship docked at a port for repairs, he met Betty Brown. The young officer made quite an impression on the beautiful redhead who ran the office at the port, and she in turn captured his heart. Since Brown was a Protestant (albeit not a particularly devout one) and he was Jewish, it seemed likely to be a short-lived war romance. He returned to sea, with a photo of Betty as a keepsake, and she stayed on dry land, dreaming of the handsome officer she could not marry. While he was off fighting the Japanese and writing his second book between shifts on board the ship, she began to study Judaism. When she managed to contact him, she let him know that she was interested in converting.

The newspapers in Israel were often occupied with gossip about the famous author’s wife. The headline of this article reads: “Betty Became Sarah-Batya; The wife of author Herman Wouk, currently in Israel, is a convert” – Maariv, July 18, 1962, the Historical Jewish Press collection at the National Library of Israel

Upon his release from the navy in 1945, they got married, despite his father’s reservations. The future looked bright. Betty Wouk supported her husband’s literary career. They spent long evenings together with him reading her the latest chapters he had written, and she would offer comments and corrections. She sometimes erased whole sections that had taken him weeks to write, “but she was always, always right,” Wouk used to say.

Despite the efforts, and even though the book he had written aboard the minesweeper (City Boy)was praised by critics, his first two books didn’t sell well. While he was writing The Caine Mutiny, his loving wife warned him that this was it – if this book wasn’t a success, he’d need to find himself a new job. He had a family to feed, after all.

Luckily, The Caine Mutiny was a smash hit. It was selected for prestigious book clubs, earned its author the Pulitzer Prize, was translated into many languages, made into a Broadway play and even became a Hollywood movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

Herman Wouk was now a household name, and his status and livelihood as a respected writer was guaranteed. In the following years, he wrote various books, many of which focused on the identity complexes of the Jewish elite in the United States. These books met with varying degrees of success. Throughout this time, Judaism occupied an increasing share of his thoughts.

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Left to right: Hebrew editions of City Boy (1963) and Youngblood Hawke (1967), both were published years after the English originals. Herman Wouk’s books often dealt with American Jewry, alongside other topics.

In 1971, after many years spent working and researching, The Winds of War, the first book in a sprawling epic about World War II, was published. “It was a prologue to what I really wanted to write about,” he said once in an interview, although this was seemingly the longest prologue in the history of literature, with over a thousand pages telling the tale of the Henry family, who are swept up in the storm that was the Second World War.

War and Remembrance, the second part of the epic, was published seven years later.  The book is dedicated to his and Betty’s eldest son, who had drowned in a swimming pool before he had turned five years old: 

“In memory of Abraham Isaac Wouk. He will destroy death forever.” 

Wouk continued doing what he did best: telling the story of the deadliest conflict in human history through the eyes of ordinary people, thereby turning the war into something personal, and making that personal experience into something universal. But in this book, he also presented the reader with the complexity of his personal worldview: He was an American patriot to the depths of his soul, a modern liberal, a man of the world, and also, perhaps more than anything else, a Jew.

The Winds of War and War and Remembrance have been translated into many languages, made into a television series that won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and are Wouk’s most important literary legacy. In America, the books immediately garnered praise, lectures at the Library of Congress have been dedicated to them; and people like Henry Kissinger, Robert Caro, and William Safire have written about the great influence the books have had on their lives.

War and Remembrance, the television miniseries that won Emmy Awards and Golden Globes

In the meantime, Wouk’s friendships in the State of Israel, which grew before his eyes, continued to develop. He visited Israel, bought an apartment in Jerusalem, and even received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University. When his son decided to immigrate to Israel and enlist in the IDF, Wouk started to learn Hebrew.

The National Library of Israel has preserved his correspondence with the famous Israeli author S.Y. Agnon. The letters aren’t very long or complex, since Wouk chose to write to Agnon in Hebrew – in the large handwriting of someone who has just learned to write, using short sentences containing a few spelling errors, unsurprisingly.

In one letter, he told his friend Agnon that he would be visiting Israel for three weeks, that he would be staying at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and wanted to meet up with him. In a later letter, he thanked Agnon for meeting him and sent his condolences for a death in the immediate family.

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I only wanted to inform you in my broken Hebrew…” – Herman Wouk writes to S.Y. Agnon, asking if the Israeli author would be available to see him during an upcoming visit to Israel. From the S.Y. Agnon Archive at the National Library of Israel

As an American observer from the sidelines, he was extremely moved by the State of Israel. Though such excitement was shared by many of Israel’s own citizens, for them it would typically, and naturally, fade over time.

Wouk decided to write a large-scale historical novel about the revival of the Zionist idea and the establishment of the State of Israel. In The Hope and The Glory – the two books that together created his Israeli epic, he saw a direct continuation of War and Remembrance, which ends with a story about a passionate Zionist who plans to illegally immigrate to Israel to help establish its naval forces.

Wouk’s dedication of The Glory, which was published in 1994, reads as follows:

 To the Israelis

Valorous in War

Generous in Peace

Above All to Those Who Fell

To Save the Land

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Herman Wouk in the 1970s. Photo from the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Those who tried to warn him that the book wouldn’t do well proved to be partially correct. Although it wasn’t a colossal failure, Israeli history it seems – with all its complexity and social nuances – was of less interest to the American public. The book also failed to capture the hearts of Israelis.

Was it the somewhat naïve, overzealous point of view (though the books also contain some criticisms) that the common Israeli reader – who over time had adopted a slightly more cynical view of the Zionist project – couldn’t relate to? Or was it that Wouk had failed to fully capture the true essence of Israeli society and thus the story felt a bit artificial and foreign?

Either way, this was the Israel that Wouk saw on his visits. Full of grandeur, courageous people who could also be arrogant and heartless, a land for whom the bells of history toll on its streets daily. A land that has enabled the revival of the Jewish People after the Holocaust

The dedication of the Hebrew version ends as follows:

“As for all the dangers and problems that I keep up to date with, in the weekend issues of Yedioth Ahronoth, the Jewish saga that has been unfolding for three thousand years is mostly dangers and problems. And yet, here we are – you, Hebrew readers on the front line, and me, the old chronicler and your adoring fan.”

A Pilot and a President: Remembering Ezer Weizman

June 15 marked a century since the birth of the former Israeli President and Air Force chief


Ezer Weizman as a colonel in the Israeli Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ezer Weizman was a legendary Israeli figure who reached heights in the military (commander of the Israeli Air Force), government (Defense Minister) and state (President), with stories abounding of his patriotism, foresight and force of personality.

Several people who worked closely with Weizman praised him for something else: his heart.

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Ezer Weizman after being elected as Israel’s seventh President, 1993. Photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Moshe Shahar, Weizman’s driver for the latter’s year-plus as Science Minister and seven years as President, calls him “one of the most special people I ever met.”

When, as President, Weizman visited Israelis recovering from Palestinian terrorist attacks and made shiva visits to families of those murdered, he refused to ride there in the armored vehicles his security staff preferred.

“I won’t travel in such a car while Israelis are being blown up on buses,” Shahar remembered Weizman telling him. Shahar said he instead drove Weizman in a standard presidential vehicle.

“He wanted to be like everyone else,” Shahar said.

Arye Shomer, the chief of staff of Weizman’s presidential office, pointed to a tragic national disaster that occurred during his term, when two Sikorski choppers collided in the Galilee panhandle on February 4, 1997, killing 73 Israel Defense Forces soldiers aboard.

Weizman was determined to make shiva visits to families of all 73 victims — and did just that. Shomer, who worked for Weizman for three decades, called that commitment “a true expression of participating in the families’ mourning.”

“He wanted them to know how much he understands them, feels for them,” Shomer said.

Weizman could identify with the families’ grief, having suffered the deaths of his son Shaul and daughter-in-law Rachel in a car accident in 1991.

Weizman with his family during his time in the Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weizman passed away in 2005 at age 80. June 15 marked a century since his birth and is an opportunity to recall the public figure and the man.

He was one of Israel’s most powerful and interesting personalities: a high achiever and confident, but secure enough in his own skin not to crave adulation.

From the start, Weizman’s heredity stood out. He was the nephew of pre-state Zionist leader and Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann. (The Weizmans were the first family to spawn two heads of state, the second being the current President, Yitzhak Herzog, and his father, Chaim.) Ezer Weizman’s widow, Reuma, who in August will turn 99, is the sister of Rachel Dayan, who married future Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

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Ezer Weizman during his time in the Israeli Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weizman made his greatest impact on the Israeli Air Force as one of its founders, rising to become IAF commander from 1958 to 1966. He commanded the Ramat David Air Force Base in the Jezreel Valley, which later was named for him.

Many credit Weizman with laying the groundwork for Israel’s lightning-quick destruction of most of the Egyptian Air Force while its planes were still on the ground in the opening hours of the Six-Day War.

“Weizman will always be identified with the Israeli Air Force from its inception through its astonishing victory in the Six-Day War and its contribution to current times, having supremacy in the skies,” said Tel Aviv resident Jeffrey Weiss, who co-authored a 2022 book on the nascent IAF.

Weizman pictured in the Spitfire he flew during Israel’s War of Independence. Photo: the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Shomer said Weizman explained to him that he shifted to flying while serving in Africa in the mid-1940s with Great Britain’s Royal Air Force. As a truck driver in the RAF, Weizman nearly was killed by a bomb dropped from a RAF plane.

“That’s when I decided to become a pilot,” Shomer said Weizman told him.

In later years, Weizman regularly got together with other IAF commanders. It was inconceivable for a gathering to take place if Weizman — who’d nicknamed himself “The Duke” early on as a pilot — couldn’t make it, Shomer said.

During the War of Independence, Weizman was one of only two native Israeli pilots in the 101st Squadron, Israel’s only fighter squadron then, and “was beloved by the men who flew with him,” nearly all of them Americans, Canadians, South Africans and Britons, said Weiss.

Weizman with his family during his time in the Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weiss related Reuma Weizman’s telling him that she first met her future husband when he was driving a car bearing a 101st Squadron logo — a car another pilot had stolen in a prank typical for the group.

“He was a fun-loving guy, rowdy,” Weiss said.

But Weizman was all-business in matters of security and diplomacy. He became a key figure in the negotiations leading to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. He was Defense Minister then, and as a speaker of Arabic he developed a strong bond with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

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President Ezer Weizman with Anwar Sadat’s niece and nephew during their visit to Israel on the 16th anniversary of the late Egyptian President’s historic address to the Knesset, 1993. Photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

By that point, Weizman was in the midst of a two-decade stint in Knesset and served as a minister in governments of the right and then the left as his political leanings evolved. (Accepting financial gifts late in his political career came to light years later and led Weizman to resign as president.)

Arriving at Beit Hanasi (“The President’s House”), the Weizmans strove to hire people of diverse backgrounds to reflect Israel’s multiethnic population, and did so “for meaningful jobs,” said Ziona Rosental, who worked there for 37 years.

“They were a special couple,” she said.

President Ezer Weizman in the cockpit of an Israeli Air Force helicopter, 1993. Photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In an interview for this article, Shomer related several stories about Weizman’s empathy as President, like helping to arrange for dental work for a gardener at Beit Hanasi and dedicating scores of Torah scrolls to the memories of fallen soldiers.

One story was less consequential but revelatory. It involved the Weizmans’ state visit to London in 1997. He was seated at a state dinner next to the Queen Mother, whose daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was the evening’s hostess.

Something about the discomfort of the Queen Mother, age 96, registered with Weizman. He summoned a waiter and asked that another chair be brought over for her.

The request was carried out. Several people clapped.

Said Shomer: “He was very human.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].

The Riddle of the Baal Shem Tov

No one knows when or where he was born, but on the festival of Shavuot we mark the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, one of the most influential figures in the Jewish world of the past few centuries. Was "The Besht" a real person or just a Hasidic legend? How has this enigmatic figure influenced generations of followers? How did he foresee his own death? Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of our Judaica Collection, offers insight on the life of this fascinating person.

The Baal Shem Tov, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to legend, when the Baal Shem Tov was just starting out, he arrived in a Jewish town. Early in the morning, he stood with his cart, met a Jew on his way to the synagogue, started talking to him, and told him a story. The Jew enjoyed the story and stayed to hear another one. In the meantime, more Jews passed by, saw what was happening, listened to the story being told, and they too stayed to hear yet another story. This kept happening until all the Jews of the town stood there listening to the Baal Shem Tov and his stories.

The stern Rabbi of the town was very strict about praying on time. The Rabbi arrived at the synagogue waiting for a minyan (a quorum of ten required for prayers), but no one showed up. He waited for half an hour, then an hour, until he realized there would be no minyan that day. Annoyed, the Rabbi prayed on his own and then went to find out why no one else in the town had shown up to pray that day.

That’s when the Rabbi understood that a Jewish traveler was standing in the center of the town and telling stories, keeping everyone from arriving on time to pray. The Rabbi instructed his assistant to go bring that man to him so he could be punished for stopping the prayers from happening that morning. A few minutes later, the Baal Shem Tov went to see the Rabbi, who asked him why he had stopped everyone from coming to pray. The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Honorable Rabbi, I truly deserve to be punished for preventing the public from praying, but before you punish me, let me tell you a story.”

And so, the Baal Shem Tov told the town’s Rabbi story after story, until that Rabbi took it upon himself to be among the Baal Shem Tov’s greatest disciples. The Hasidim say that this Rabbi was called Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, known for being a great student of the Baal Shem Tov and one of the first great Hasidim.

The Hasidic movement’s extraordinary story-telling abilities contributed quite a bit to the confusion surrounding the enigmatic and wonderous character of its founder, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer – the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”) – who has kept generations of historians and researchers occupied. Simon Dubnow, a pioneer in the critical study of Hasidism, wrote the following in the opening section of his book The History of Hasidism:

“Out of the fog, the historical image of the creator of Hasidism emerges and becomes visible to us…a thick mask, woven into the imagination of his contemporaries and later generations, hides the true image of the Baal Shem Tov from our eyes until it almost seems to us as if this person never existed, but was rather a metaphor, a fictitious name for whatever may have caused a religious movement to shake the world of Judaism.”

Dubnow himself never doubted the Baal Shem Tov’s existence, but a lack of factual information overshadowed Hasidic research for decades. To this day we can’t say with certainty where or when he was born. We don’t know anything about his parents or his teachers. His entire childhood is shrouded in mystery. Eliezer Steinman wrote that it was “as if a loyal hand had gone to the trouble of obscuring his footprints.”

It was only when he began his public activity, in the 1730s, that he began to be revealed little by little, but by then he was already appearing in the full extent of his stature. By this point he was meeting with Kabbalists, and had students, admirers, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, thinkers and simple folk clustered around him. He was particularly known as the “Baal Shem,” a healer and miracle worker.

Dubnow, Gershom Scholem, and many scholars of Hasidism assessed with certainty that the Baal Shem Tov was not merely a legend – after all, his students mentioned him and taught Torah in his name, we have the siddur (prayer book) that he used, and we know exactly where he is buried. Still, several other scholars did began raising doubts about whether this person had ever truly existed. Isn’t it possible that different legends about different figures merged to tell one story? Is it possible that a person whose whole life was one of miracles and wonders truly walked this earth? Maybe there truly was such a person, but his students created a legend surrounding him after his death.

Professor Moshe Rosman is a skilled professional historian, who also benefited from a bit of luck. At the beginning of his academic career, he decided to focus not on the theology of the Baal Shem Tov, but on his life. He tried to avoid writing an intellectual biography about the man and instead rummaged through archives that offer an understanding of what Jewish life in that period may have looked like.

Rosman made a very important discovery at the beginning of his career, in the 1990s.  The 1740-1760 tax records of the town of Medzhybizh in Ukraine – the town where the Baal Shem Tov lived – which are kept in the Czartoryski Library in Krakow, contain references to a “Kabbalist” or “Baal Shem, Doctor” who lived in a house owned by the Jewish community and was exempt from paying taxes.

Appearing alongside this “Baal Shem” in the tax records are many familiar figures from the book In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov. All of this indicates that not only did the Baal Shem Tov exist, but that he was already known as the Baal Shem Tov, a healer, “doctor”, and even a “Kabbalist” in his lifetime. The tax records also show that the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t necessarily an anti-establishment figure – as later generations tended to portray him – but rather someone whose community recognized his uniqueness and showed its appreciation by providing him with a home, and a tax exemption from the authorities.

As of 1760, the Baal Shem Tov no longer appeared on any tax records, indicating that he likely passed around this time.

The Baal Shem Tov continues to serve as an enigmatic, wonderous, legendary figure. To this day, there are differences of opinion about when he was born, but there is a consensus that he died during the festival of Shavuot in the year 1760. But just as the life of the Baal Shem Tov was full of riddles and legends, so is everything surrounding his passing.

In a story that appears in In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov’s death seems to be controlled by the Baal Shem Tov himself. He knows the timing, he feels the struggle, and to him, death is simply a transition from one type of existence to another:

“First, the Baal Shem Tov gave his students a sign: when both clocks in his house stopped, it would mean that he had passed on from this earth.

And then, when the Baal Shem Tov returned from the bathroom and washed his hands, the large clock stopped. And the people and students surrounding him tried to hide it from him so that he wouldn’t see that it had stopped.

The Baal Shem Tov said to them: ‘I know the clock has stopped, and I am not worried, for I know with certainty that when I leave through this door, I will immediately enter another.’

The Hasidic tale continues:

The Baal Shem Tov sat on a bed and asked for his students to stand around it. He shared Torah lessons with them. The Baal Shem Tov said that there was a pillar used to ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden, which exists in every world. And that pillar exists in every person at all times.

Slowly, his voice grew weaker until his students could no longer understand the words and letters coming out of his mouth. He told them to cover him with a sheet, and he began to tremble and shake, just as he used to do when praying.

Then, he rested a bit and his body relaxed, and they all saw that the smaller clock had stopped as well.

Rabbi Leib Kessler, who was there, later testified that he had seen the Baal Shem Tov’s soul depart his body as a pale-blue colored flame.”

In the Hebrew song Kol Mi She’At (“Everything You Are”) which he wrote as a farewell to his mother Naomi Shemer, Ariel Horowitz describes clock hands moving like a pair of scissors, counting time backward.  The hands on the clock are like a pair of scissorsClose to touching the thread of your lifeAnd it’s impossible to catch in a glimpseEverything you are Horiwitz’s song doesn’t describe a big clock and a small clock, but rather clock hands moving like scissors, cutting through time and cutting off the thread of life.

Perhaps it was like the Baal Shem Tov himself said: “The pillar on which you ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden…exists in every person at all times,” and it is impossible to grasp the enigma of a person – “everything you are” – in a glimpse. 

For the Hasidim, the fact that the Baal Shem Tov died during Shavuot symbolizes more than anything his status and how his soul was deeply connected to the giving of the Torah. The Baal Shem Tov’s image is interwoven with that of other Jewish leaders who were also deeply connected to Shavuot, including Moses, who received the Torah, and King David, from whose descendants the Messiah is to come and who also died on Shavuot, according to Jewish tradition. The Baal Shem Tov’s passing on Shavuot symbolizes that he was a link in the long chain spreading the teachings of the Torah outward and thus bringing redemption closer.

The Lost History of the Jews of Corfu

In memory of an ancient community snuffed out by the Holocaust.

The Corfu Jewish cemetery, photo: the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On March 22, 1946, the Sephardic Jewish newspaper Hed HaMizrach (“Echo of the East”) published a pained Hebrew letter written by Haim Mizrachi (1901-1969), a resident of the island of Corfu and a Revisionist Zionist activist, parts of whose personal archive are kept at the National Library of Israel. The Jerusalem weekly didn’t make the letter a front-page affair, instead tucking it in between pages 9 and 10 of a 12-page publication, but the content remains difficult to stomach.

The beginning of the Hed HaMizrach article. March 22, 1946. Click here for the full article.

In the text he wrote and published, Mizrachi mourned his community’s destruction in the Holocaust. He told of how on June 9, 1944, the Nazis, with the aid of Greek police officers, arrested most of the Jews on the island of Corfu and sent them to the Birkenau death camp. Of some 1,700 Jews on the island, only 200 survived – 80 of them managing to escape the Nazis altogether and 120 surviving the camps. The rest were murdered.

Mizrachi issued a desperate plea for aid to help for the remnant of Corfu Jewry – the orphans, widows, sick, and unemployed. They needed clothes, blankets, funds and assistance in rebuilding the one remaining synagogue, which was left “half-demolished.”

Mizrachi added that of the 200 surviving Jews, 30 had already made Aliyah to the Land of Israel and many more intended to follow “for they do not see any hope of rearranging their lives in the exile”. Thus did an ancient Jewish community, which had survived for over 700 years, come to an end. The story of the Corfu Jewish community, especially its final years, is not widely known to the public, and deserves elaboration.

The island of Corfu rests in the eastern Mediterranean, near the western shores of Greece and Albania, and not far from southern Italy, occupying a militarily and economically strategic point. As such, it has been conquered many times: by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Venetians, the Kings of Sicily, the Ottoman Empire, and the armies of Napoleon. In 1815, it was occupied by Britain, which handed it over to the Kingdom of Greece in 1864.

Jews are known to have been present in Corfu since the Middle Ages. The famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions visiting the island in the 12th century and encountering a Jew named Yosef, who worked as a dyer of fabrics. Two major communities lived on the island – one composed of Romaniote Jews and the other of Italian Jews.

In a letter published in the Berlin-based Hebrew weekly HaMagid on September 24, 1891, a Corfu Jew named Halevi said the following of his community:

 “…the Jews of Corfu separated here into two communities regarding matters of worshipping God. The first, the smaller of the two, includes the descendants of the first exiles from the time of the exile of the First Temple, and it has a synagogue built according to tradition in the first year of the Christian calendar, and the second community includes the children of the exiles of Spain and Neapol (Naples – N.G.), and it has three synagogues and its prayer is according to the Sephardic rite. The two communities conduct themselves according to special committees, which occasionally meet when needed in matters regarding the public.”

The community of Corfu is mentioned in rabbinic literature, and some of its pinkasim (community ledgers), piyutim (liturgical hymns) and songs have survived. In the 19th century, a Jewish printing press operated in Corfu owned by the Nachmoli family, which printed religious books.

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Sefer Arvit and Hagaddah. Joseph Nachmoli Publishing, Corfu, 1876, the Rare Books Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Jews of Corfu dealt primarily in trade, and some of them became prominent in trading in etrogim (citrons) grown on the island, which were considered particularly aesthetic and beautiful and therefore appropriate for the holiday of Sukkot. The Jewish traders tended to acquire the etrogim from Christian farmers and then export them throughout the Jewish world. During the 19th century, a religious debate raged across Jewish communities worldwide regarding the kosher status of these etrogim, and some communities preferred to acquire etrogim from other sources, instead.

In 1864, after Corfu was handed over to Greece, local Jews were emancipated and received civil rights. They lived in relative freedom and comfort, and made great efforts to be on good terms with the majority Christian population. Nevertheless, from time to time they did suffer from both overt and covert expressions of antisemitism.

A particularly serious incident happened in 1891, when a blood libel was spread against the local Jews. The story began shortly after Passover, when a young Jewish girl named Rubina Sardas, the daughter of a tailor, went missing and was eventually found dead in a sack. A report that her father was seen with other Jews while carrying the bloody sack in the middle of the night caused a firestorm.

A rumor spread among local Christians that the girl was actually a Christian orphan named Maria Desylla, who worked for the Sardas household, and that the Jews murdered her as part of their religious rituals. Although the legal investigation produced no damning evidence against the Jews, not all the Christians were appeased and some began to attack Jewish homes and businesses. The local police made little effort to stop the rioters, and even helped to spread the rumors that the murder victim was Christian.

On May 12, 1891, the Warsaw-based Hebrew daily HaTzfira reported that

 “from the day of April 14 until today the Jews of Corfu sit imprisoned in their homes as if in jail, for their windows are also closed, and none go outside out of great fear. They are forced to purchase their vital provisions early in the morning from cruel merchants who demand triple the price. Poverty has greatly increased among these miserable souls. From the day of April 23, all the houses of prayer are sealed shut. When one of the Jews died, they could not bring him to a grave but sixty hours later, and twenty soldiers went beside the bed to guard it. Commerce has ceased. The common folk’s hatred of the downtrodden has greatly increased, and the soldiers born of the city help the masses incite evil against the Jews.”

22 Jews were killed in the pogroms.

Eight days later, HaTzfira reported that in response to these events, Austria, France, and England sent warships to the area to protect their citizens. In addition, representatives of France, the Ottoman Empire, and other countries were instructed to protest the Greek government’s failure to rein in the riots, with the German central bank even warning Greece that continued unrest could harm the value of its currency.

In the end, the authorities in Athens sent military units to Corfu, driving away the rioters with gunfire. The Greek government stressed that

“the Jews have since then shared one constitution and one law with all the residents of the country. The government is very saddened by the incidents, but its heart is confident that its actions will prove to all nations that the good of all its servants under its wing is close to its heart” (HaTzfira, May 21, 1891).

The events took the Jewish world by storm. On May 21, 1891, HaMagid published an editorial full of harsh words for the Greek residents of Corfu, who made a fortune selling etrogim to the Jewish world while libeling and murdering the local Jews. The article claimed that the Jews’ main problem was their lack of any defensive force:

“And our hands are powerless to save them from their oppressors by force, for our hands do not pull back the bowstrings of heroes and we have no ships and no war stratagems to avenge the spilled blood of our brothers, for Israel is weak among the nations and its power is but in the mouth.”

Following the blood libel events, which Corfu Jews called “the evil decree,” about half of the Jews residing there left the island. Most of these were the wealthier sort, with many of them immigrating to Italy or Egypt. The Jews remaining in Corfu were mostly poor.

In the years following the “evil decree,” the lives of Corfu Jews were mostly peaceful. They loved life on the picturesque island, and author Albert Cohen, a native of Corfu, described it in longing terms in some of his works. Nata Osmo Gattegno (1923-2019), another Corfu native who survived the Holocaust, attested in her Hebrew autobiographical work From Corfu to Birkenau and Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Aked, 1999), that the community rabbi and the local Greek bishop had mutual respect for one another, with the bishop being invited to the synagogue on Jewish holidays as a guest of honor. However, when the dates of Passover and Easter fell in close proximity, tension between the two sides increased. In the week before Easter, the Greek Christians would shutter their windows, before later opening them and tossing ceramic vessels out into the street while crying out “On the heads of the Jews! On the heads of the Jews!”

On March 22, 1914, the Jerusalem daily Moriah reported on Greek rioters who smashed up the Corfu Jewish cemetery.

On April 21, 1930, Haim Mizrachi published a report in the Jerusalem daily Do’ar HaYom on another blood libel against the Jews of Corfu. Mizrachi told of how on Monday, April 7, 1930, a great panic arose in the Jewish neighborhood. The Jewish merchants who set out to sell their wares suddenly returned to their homes in fear. Local Christians had threatened to murder them in revenge for the alleged Jewish abduction of a Christian child, whose blood the Jews supposedly sought to use in a Passover ritual.

Community leaders responded by quickly appealing to the authorities to intervene. The situation became even more tense the next day, and some Jews were beaten by their Christian neighbors. The police and the Greek bishop, who Mizrachi called a “friend of the Jews,” intervened, and overnight guards and detectives were sent to protect the Jewish neighborhood. The police published a special pamphlet to calm the mob, explaining that an anonymous individual had tried to kidnap the child to sexually assault him.

Unfortunately, not all the Greek residents believed this statement and some continued with their attacks. Mizrachi claimed that the Jewish community attempted to conceal the incident so that it would not become widely known and damage Greece’s international reputation. He noted that the local educated public and press in Corfu strongly condemned the blood libels, which did not do credit to Greece.

Opening of a Hebrew report on the blood libel. Do’ar HaYom, April 21, 1930. Click here for the full article.

During the 1930s, despite expressions of nationalism and antisemitism in Greece, Jewish life in Corfu went on as normal. The community had a rabbi, synagogues, a Hevra Kadisha burial society, charity associations, mikvah ritual baths, and even an elementary school with a modern curriculum which included the study of the Greek language.

In April 1933, Haim Mizrachi was given permission to use the matza-baking floor in the community building to set up a night school for young members of the community so that they could study Judaism and Hebrew. The community leadership demanded that Mizrachi, a Zionist activist, ensure that the children were studying both Jewish and Greek history, stressing that Jews living in Greece needed to be both law-abiding Greek citizens as well as “good Jews”.

מכתב הקמת בית ספר לילה ללימוד עברית בקורפו כתבה חיים מזרחי
Approval by the Corfu Jewish community for Haim Mizrachi to establish a night school to study Judaism and Hebrew. April 21, 1933. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

The community also contained social organizations, one of which was the “Phoenix” association of Corfu Jews, founded in 1931.

הזמנה לנשף כתבה חיים מזרחי
Invitation to the Jewish “Phoenix” association’s ball on February 4, 1935. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

There was also Zionist activity, of course. A number of Zionist organizations operated on the island from the beginning of the 20th century. Haim Mizrachi himself worked on organizing Revisionist Zionist activity. As a youth in 1913, Mizrachi organized a Zionist youth group called Tikvat Zion (Zion’s Hope), which operated for a few years before disbanding. In 1924, he established another movement named Theodor Herzl, which he later merged with the Revisionist Betar movement. He kept in regular contact with the global Betar movement, and had close ties to his colleagues in Saloniki and the Land of Israel. He died in Corfu in 1969.

תמונה חיים מזרחי
Haim Mizrachi. Photo courtesy of Guy Raz and the Eretz Israel Museum’s Israel Photography House
המכתב של ז'בוטינסקי כתבה חיים מזרחי
Letter from the Revisionist Zionist leadership, headed by Jabotinsky, to the Revisionist branches in Europe. June 25, 1934. This copy was sent to the Betar branch in Corfu. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

The community of Corfu was wiped out in the Holocaust. In the letter published in Hed HaMizrach, mentioned at the start of this article, Haim Mizrachi described his community’s last moments: In April 1941, fascist Italy conquered Corfu, but the Italians made no distinction between Jew and Gentile and took no special steps against the former.

Things took a turn for the worse in October 1943, when the Italians left and the Nazi Wehrmacht took over. SS units under the command of Jurgen Stroop – who had previously served in Poland, ruthlessly putting down the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion – ordered the Jews to be registered in a special book and present themselves before a town official three times a week. The Jews were also burdened with a heavy tax to serve the Germans’ needs.

Wehrmacht soldiers entering Corfu, Spring 1944. Photo: German Federal Archive.

In May 1944, a delegation from the Gestapo arrived in Corfu, tasked with planning the deportation of the Jews to the death camp in Birkenau. On June 9, 1944, all Jews were concentrated in the city square, and the Nazi soldiers, with the aid of Greek policemen, herded them into the local fortress at gunpoint. At the same time, pamphlets were published on the island declaring that “Corfu has been liberated from the Jewish monster” and demanding those hiding Jews or Jewish property to immediately surrender them or be executed. Consequently, another 100 Jews hiding among their Christian neighbors were handed over to the Nazis.

Nata Osmo Gattegno attested that at the same time, Greek Christians invaded the Jewish neighborhood and looted it. The Jews were deported from Corfu in boats to the Haidari concentration camp near Athens, and from there they were very quickly sent on trains to the Birkenau death camp. Most were murdered there. Of some 1,700 Jews living in Corfu at the time of the Nazi occupation, only 200 survived.

After the Holocaust, the Greek government ordered the governor of Corfu in 1946 to return all property to the Jewish community and residents without delay, including public buildings used by the community and private property such as homes and stores (HaMashkif, January 17, 1946). But much of the property was in ruins. On the eve of the Holocaust, there were four synagogues. After the war, only one was left standing, and that barely. It was later restored by local authorities together with Jewish organizations.

Corfu Syn
The sole surviving synagogue on Corfu. Photo: Dan Lundberg

The ancient cemetery was also seriously damaged. Haim Mizrachi told of how after the war, the Greeks destroyed the cemetery’s fence, desecrated the graves, and turned it into a “place of trash and an abandoned field,” as he put it. In 1960, media outlets in Israel and around the world reported that the Jewish community in Corfu sold the cemetery land to the local authorities, which demolished it.

The Central Council of Greek Jewry denied this (Herut, January 1, 1961), explaining that in 1939, under pressure from local authorities, the community management had to give up a third of the cemetery plot for the sake of a children’s home and a hospital. The site was badly damaged during the war, most of the gravestones were destroyed, and one could only barely discern that this was indeed a cemetery.

After the war, the authorities expropriated the territory, began to level it, and even tossed bones into the sea. The community asked the authorities to stop their work, and in the end both sides reached an agreement to fence off a small part of the original cemetery and leave it alone.

Corfu Gader
Corfu Jewish cemetery. Photo: Nikodem Nijaki

In an article published in April 1978 in BaMa’arachah magazine, author David Benvenisti reported on his visit to the community of Corfu. He wrote that the old cemetery was being destroyed, the building once used for the Jewish school now stood desolate, and the few Jewish children living on the island were receiving no Jewish education. As of the 2020s, just a few dozen Jews live there; the desolate synagogue is now more a tourist attraction than anything else, and it is mostly active on weekends and holidays.

The community now uses a new location for its cemetery in place of the old one. In it one can find a memorial plaque commemorating those murdered in the Holocaust.

The Corfu Jews who made Aliyah established a monument in the cemetery of the Israeli city of Holon, which is dedicated to the memory of their brethren murdered in the Holocaust. Every year, on the 8th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, they conduct a ceremony in memory of the ancient Corfu Jewish community, which was wiped out.

Corfu Holon
Monument in memory of Corfu’s murdered Jews, Holon Cemetery. Photo: David Shai

The Haim Mizrachi Collection at the National Library of Israel has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel. Dr. Nimrod Gaatone is the director of the Samis Project, and is responsible for handling the Haim Mizrachi Collection.

Thanks to Dr. Shay Eshel and Meytal Solomon for their help with the Greek.