His Sugar Cube Vaccine Beat Polio. Then He Took a Shot at Middle East Peace

Albert Sabin may be less famous than Jonas Salk, but he probably shouldn't be

"A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf." (Photo: Albert B. Sabin, 1962. From the Boston Public Library collection)

Jonas Salk is rightfully credited with developing the first safe and effective polio vaccine, yet his inoculation was not the one that ultimately brought about the near total eradication of the terrible infectious disease known as “poliomyelitis” or “infantile paralysis”.

Signed photo of Jonas Salk, which the famous researcher donated to the National Library in 1958. From the National Library of Israel archives


Superseding Jonas

Salk’s vaccine, administered by injection, was first approved and widely distributed in the United States in 1955.

Around the same time, another Jewish medical researcher named Albert Sabin was busy developing a different type of polio vaccine – one which could be administered orally and provide significant benefits over Salk’s, including cheaper production costs and longer-lasting immunity from polio without the need for “boosters”.

An oral vaccine, as opposed to an injected one, also meant that it would be much easier and more practical to use for massive inoculation drives, especially in poorer countries and regions where sterile syringes were not readily available.

Sabin’s vaccine used a weakened “live” polio virus, as opposed to the “dead” virus used by Salk. This made it theoretically more risky, yet with the benefits far outweighing the risks, the Sabin vaccine largely replaced the Salk vaccine worldwide from the early 1960s.

A child receives an injection of the polio vaccine, ca. 1960. From the Eddie Hirschbein Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Salk’s vaccine has remained in use and was certainly a critical breakthrough in terms of dramatically reducing the debilitating infectious disease’s prevalence, yet for most of the second half of the 20th century, the oral vaccine developed by Sabin is what facilitated the nearly complete global eradication of polio.

Neither of the men ever attempted to patent their discoveries, seeing it as their privilege and purpose in life to help save millions of people from polio and other ailments.

On the day his vaccine was declared safe and effective for use, Salk was asked who owned the patent. He famously retorted, “Well, the people, I would say… There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Sabin once quipped, “A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf.”


From immigrant to global hero

Born in Bialystock in 1906, Albert Sabin moved with his family to the United States in 1921, fleeing the poverty and violent anti-Semitism of their native Poland. Shortly after receiving his medical degree ten years later, Sabin became specifically interested in studying polio.

Portrait of Albert B. Sabin. Published in The Sentinel, 31 March 1966. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His research into polio and other ailments continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s. As a high-ranking officer in the US Army Medical Corps during World War II, Sabin traveled the globe studying viral diseases, even developing vaccines for some, including dengue fever and encephalitis.

After the war, he settled back into civilian life and his research on polio. Determined to better understand the polio virus, Sabin and his colleagues performed autopsies on everyone who died of poliomyelitis within a 400 mile (650 km) radius of his home in Cincinnati. Sabin and his team discovered that the poliovirus was found in the intestinal tract – meaning that an oral vaccine could theoretically be developed for it.

Ultimately one was.


Cold War trials

As the Salk vaccine had already been widely administered in the United States by the time Sabin’s was ready for trial, he had to test it somewhere else.

Like Salk, Sabin first tested his vaccine on himself, though he would need a much larger scale to prove the vaccine’s efficacy.

For that, he reached out to a most unlikely partner: the Soviet Union, then in the midst of a bitter Cold War with the United States. Nonetheless, the dream of eradicating polio trumped geopolitical tensions.

Massive trials on children in the Soviet Union (as well as other locations around the world including Cincinnati) proved the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. The fact that it could be administered via sugar cube made it even more appealing.

Sabin and his successful vaccine were feted across the globe, as it became clear that the seemingly unlikely American-Soviet collaboration had helped bring the eradication of polio nearer than ever. He received a prestigious medal from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Ultimately, the vaccines developed by Salk and Sabin led to the almost inconceivable decrease in global wild poliovirus cases from millions annually in the 1940s and 1950s to well under a thousand by the dawn of the new millennium.


Conflict and collaboration

The Soviet Union trials were a vividly clear reflection of Sabin’s long-held belief in promoting international collaboration and reducing human conflict.

At a public event in Chicago in 1966, he encouraged President Johnson to listen to the Midrashic teaching that “mighty are those who can convert an enemy into a friend,” warning that “competitive military confrontation” would only lead nations “to annihilate themselves”, and that “if we do not learn cooperation on an international scale in the next 25 years we will not survive.”

Following the Six Day War in 1967, Sabin chaired an organization called American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (APPME), which soon boasted thousands of members from hundreds of campuses across the country. APPME promoted the idea that regional peace was possible and must be pursued, and called for direct negotiations between the concerned parties.

Israeli soldiers patrol along the Jordanian border, 1967. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1968, Sabin led an APPME fact-finding mission to the region, meeting with leading political and intellectual figures in Jordan and Egypt primarily “to determine whether there has been sufficient change in attitude toward the existence of a viable Jewish state in the Middle East to provide meaningful approaches to a durable peace that would benefit the Arab people as much or more than it would the Jews in Israel.”

For its commendable task, the delegation concluded their trip disillusioned, coming to the “terrifyingly sad conclusion” that there had been no sufficient change and consequently there were no new “meaningful approaches” to the durable peace they sought. There had been no “agonizing re-appraisal” of the situation following Israel’s “astonishing victory” in 1967, which, they concluded, had “achieved… a reprieve from the immediate and greatest threat to its survival, but no prospects for peace…”

They even gave their final report a depressing title: “The Arabs Need and Want Peace, But – Impressions and Conclusions of the Mission of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East to Jordan and the United Arab Republic, June 24 to July 5, 1968”.

Of course being an expert in infectious disease does not necessarily make one qualified to solve the Middle East conflict, but the mission’s conclusions do seem especially prescient in hindsight, as the War of Attrition raged and the Yom Kippur War would rock the region once again just a few years later.

Two years after the APPME report, Sabin publicly warned a different American delegation that Egyptian and Jordanian acceptance of the US-proposed Rogers Peace Plan was a disingenuous “tactical move in order to restore the pre-1967 borders and leave Israel vulnerable again.”


Beyond infectious disease

Besides armed conflict, Sabin recognized other pertinent issues facing mankind, including global poverty.

He often looked to Israel as a model for the world – a country he saw as being built from nothing by people willing to sacrifice of themselves for the common good.

Sabin was often honored by organizations for his contribution towards the eradication of polio. He frequently spoke at fundraisers for Israeli and Jewish causes.

Sabin receiving an award from Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, presented by a 10 year-old girl “representing a generation freed from the fear of polio.” Published in the B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩⁩, 15 December 1972. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In 1962, the “Dr. Albert B. Sabin Children’s Woodland” was named in his honor in the United States Freedom Forest outside of Jerusalem.

He became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’s preeminent scientific research center, in 1970.

Albert B. Sabin, president of the Weizmann Institute, welcoming former US Vice President Hubert Humphrey to Israel, 1970 (Photo: IPPA Staff). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzer Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Sabin’s tenure at Weizmann concluded about a year prematurely, though, when he stepped down at the end of 1972 following open heart surgery. After moving back to the United States, he continued to lecture, pursue his own research and areas of personal interest.

Though his most well-known accomplishment was helping to all but eradicate polio, Sabin’s words and actions showed a commitment to bettering humanity that far transcended the field of infectious disease.

Later in life he became particularly interested in solar energy, and shortly before he passed away in 1993, the trailblazing scientist advised that, “The earliest possible development of a suitable technology for replacing… fossil fuels by inexhaustible, clean solar energy is of the greatest importance for the whole world.”


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Less Famous Scholem? Meet Gershom’s Brother, Werner

The renowned Kabbalah scholar's brother chose a very different path, at one point leading the German Communist Party

Gershom Scholem, who was born in Berlin in 1897, had three older brothers. The closest in age, and his closest friend of the three, was Werner, born in 1895.

Gershom Scholem (first from left) with his three brothers, dressed up in “Oriental” garb. According to Scholem’s handwritten description on the back of the photo, it was taken at the wedding of their “Zionist uncle”, Theobald Scholem. From the National Library of Israel archives

Quite a bit has been written about Werner, who eventually became the head of the German Communist Party and was murdered by the Nazis in Buchenwald in 1940. I once heard Prof. Mirjam Zadoff, the author of “Werner Scholem: a German Life”, say that “there was a time when Werner was the famous Scholem”!

In fact there is even a documentary film about him.

Werner Scholem giving a speech at “Anti-War Day” in Potsdam, Germany, 1925. From the private archive of his daughter, Renee Goddard, London

In 1911 or 1912 Werner joined the German Zionist youth movement “Jung Juda”, and convinced his younger brother Gershom (then Gerhardt) to do the same. The brothers’ Zionism was not to the liking of their semi-assimilated book-publisher father Arthur, and from then on the conflicts with the domineering patriarch continued to grow, culminating with the boys’ activism against the First World War.

Through his involvement in Jung Juda, Gershom became a Zionist activist and began his deep involvement in Jewish studies in general, and in Kabbalah in particular. In 1923 he emigrated to Palestine to become the head of the Judaica Department of the Jewish National Library (now the National Library of Israel), then headed by Professor Hugo Bergmann.

Werner’s trajectory was quite different. Within a year of Jung Juda he decided that Zionism was not for him and joined the youth movement of the Social Democrats. From there he moved further and further left politically. In 1917 he married a young working class political activist named Emmy, who was not Jewish, and the couple had two daughters.

The weddings of the Scholem brothers (“Betty’s children”) appearing in the Scholem family Bible. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1924 Werner was elected to the Reichstag as a representative of the Communist Party. There, as well as in the right wing press, he suffered from many base anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually anti-Semitism made its way into the party as well, as Stalin consolidated his leadership over international Communism. Scholem and his (mostly Jewish) comrades were accused of being Trotskyites and “ultra-leftists” and were expelled from the Party.

In the following years, Scholem actually did work with Trotsky, but eventually left politics and became a lawyer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they well remembered the young Jewish former Communist leader and Werner was immediately arrested, and ultimately murdered in 1940.

Emmy and their two daughters managed to escape to England. In 2012 I was privileged to meet the younger daughter, Renee Goddard, while at a conference in London marking thirty years since the passing of Gershom Scholem. During the seven years of Werner’s incarceration, his family made great efforts to have him freed, but to no avail.

In light of Werner’s personal history, I was quite surprised to discover that in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a copy of Prof. Solomon Schechter’s German book on Hasidism, Die Chassidim: Eine Studie Ueber Juedische Mystik (Berlin 1904), with Werner’s signature!

Werner had apparently purchased the book at the famous Berlin Jewish bookstore of Moritz Poppelauer (1824-1888), a well-known antique collector and publisher, who also authored an introduction to the Talmud. The bookshop, which continued to be operated by the family until the Nazis came to power, was not far from the Scholem home and Gershom purchased books there, as well.

When did Werner purchase this small volume on Hasidism? At what stage of his Jewish and/or political development?

Unfortunately, all we know for sure is that by 1923, Gershom already owned the book, as it appears on the inventory he prepared of his library in preparation for his move to the Land of Israel.

But when did Werner gift him the book and why?

Was it early on, in order to bring his younger brother closer to Judaism? Or perhaps at a later stage when Werner became a communist? At that point he may have decided that the volume was no longer meaningful for him, but that for his brother, the young scholar of Jewish mysticism, it would be important. Alas, to this question as well we have no answer.

As with Gershom Scholem, so too with Werner – sometimes the hidden is greater than the revealed. Sadly, today no one remains for us to ask. All that we have is their books, those they wrote or acquired, as a silent testimony to their fascinating lives.

Lost Letter on Zionism from ‘Father of the Chinese Nation’ Surfaces

Century-old message from Dr. Sun Yat-sen found at the National Library of Israel now online

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of pre-Communist era China: "All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation…"

On April 24, 1920, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the pre-Communist era leader venerated until today as the father of the Chinese nation, expressed his strong support for Zionism, calling it “one of the greatest movements of the present time.”

The words were written in a letter sent to N.E.B. Ezra, an influential writer and publisher, and founder of the Shanghai Zionist Association.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, 1911

Dr. Sun Yat-sen served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China, established in 1912 following the fall of the last imperial dynasty, prior to the Chinese Civil War and Communist Revolution. While his support of Zionism is well-documented and the letter’s text was previously known, the original signed copy has only now been rediscovered, over a century after it was written.

According to Prof. Gao Bei, an expert on Shanghai’s 20th century Jewish community, “It is very exciting that this original letter from Sun Yat-sen to N.E.B. Ezra has been unearthed. It is one of the seminal documents that illuminates the Chinese Nationalist government’s early support for the Zionist cause.”

It appears here online for the first time.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen expresses his support for Zionism in a letter sent to N.E.B. Ezra, 24 April 1920. From the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Full text of the letter:

29 Rue Moliere,

24 April.1920.

Mr. N. E. B. Ezra,



Dear Mr. Ezra:

I have read you [sic] letter and the copy of “Israel’s Messenger” with much interest, and wish to assure you of my sympathy for this movement – which is one of the greatest movements of the present time. All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserve [sic] an honorable place in the family of nations.

                                     I am,

                                              Yours very truly,

                                                                 [Sun Yat-sen]


History revealed

The letter has surfaced as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in its archival collections, including personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of the 20th century’s most prominent figures. The initiative is part of the National Library’s current renewal, which includes the 2022 opening of its new landmark campus adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem.

Simulated image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

Recently reviewed internal National Library documentation indicates that the letter has been in its collections since at least 1938, but was never included in the public catalogue available to external scholars until now.

How exactly the letter got to the Library remains a mystery, though according to NLI archivist Rachel Misrati, “N.E.B. Ezra passed away in 1936. The fact that the letter arrived in 1938 at latest indicates that – like many Zionist figures of the period – Ezra himself may have bequeathed it to the Library, or perhaps someone came across it after his death and sent it to us after determining that the National Library was its rightful home.”

Photo of N.E.B. Ezra published in The Jewish Tribune, 21 December 1917. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in Lahore (modern-day Pakistan), Ezra was a Jewish scholar, writer, publisher and activist who lived most of his life in Shanghai. In addition to founding the Shanghai Zionist Association, he edited its mouthpiece, Israel’s Messenger, for decades. Though far removed from the main centers of Jewish life and Zionist activity, Ezra made his voice heard by distributing his newspaper globally, and submitting for publication letters and articles on a range of topics including the Jews of China, Zionism, Kabbalah and current events.


Warm relations

Dr. Sun Yat-sen and other members of the Chinese leadership had warm relations with local and international Jewish communities and figures, many of them cultivated during years of exile prior to the ultimate fall of the Qing dynasty. Just one example was Sun’s colorful personal bodyguard and senior adviser, Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, a Polish-born Jew and an ardent Zionist.

Nonetheless, Sun was certainly not the first or only prominent Chinese figure at the time to publicly support the Zionist movement, with such support stemming from both ideological and practical considerations.

Both Dr. Sun Yat-sen (seated) and Chiang Kai-shek expressed their support for Zionism

In her book Shanghai Sanctuary, Prof. Gao explains that already in 1918, Chen Lu, the Chinese government in Beijing’s vice minister of foreign affairs, wrote a letter to Shanghai Zionist Association chairman Elly S. Kadoorie expressing “personal sympathy” for the movement and that following the Balfour Declaration, “the Chinese government had adopted the same attitude toward the Zionist aspirations as the British…”

After Sun’s death, N.E.B. Ezra and another representative of the Shanghai Zionist Association attended his state burial at the invitation of the Chinese government, further demonstrating that the connection was more than just a personal one.

The state burial of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, 1929

Why English?

It may seem somewhat surprising that Sun’s letter to Ezra – sent from one Shanghai resident to another – would be written in English.

Yet, according to Prof. Gao, Sun and many other Chinese Nationalist officials during that period were educated in English and were known to employ it as their language of communication, such that even “much of their official correspondence with each other [was] in English.”

It was also certainly in Ezra’s interest that the letter be written in English, so that he could publicize it internationally, which he did, including publication of the letter’s contents in Israel’s Messenger.

Fortunately, the language of the letter also now enables a broad global audience to read it in the original, more than a century after it was written.


Many thanks to Prof. Gao Bei and Rachel Misrati for their expertise and assistance.

Was One of Catholic Spain’s Prominent Religious Scholars Secretly Jewish?

New research suggests that Alfonso de Zamora may have remained true to his faith

"Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets..." (Source images: The Polyglot Bible, 1514, National Library of Israel & Alfonso de Zamora's translation of Mikhlol, 1527, National Library of France)

For centuries Catholic historians opposed admitting that a prized converso (a Jew who had converted to Christianity) may have actually maintained Jewish identity and practice in secret, regardless of whether he was forcibly dragged to the baptismal font or promised a high post in the Church hierarchy as reward for his heresy.

There were certainly Jews who willingly converted to Christianity, even rabbis such as Solomon HaLevi of Burgos who not only became a respectable Bishop, but an ardent promoter of discriminatory laws against Jews.

Solomon HaLevi of Burgos, later known as Pablo de Santa Maria, converted to Christianity and then persecuted Jews

However, most Jews who remained in Spain, referred to as “Crypto-Jews”, continued to covertly practice their religion in some form and pass it on to their children. Generations later, the descendants of these conversos continued to flee Spain and Portugal to other lands where they sought to live as free Jews.


The Yeshiva-educated refugee Catholic scholar

One of the Spanish “New Christians” most cherished by the Catholic authorities was Alfonso de Zamora (1474–1545/6). A graduate of the famous Campanton Yeshiva in Zamora, he first escaped to Portugal in 1492, but for unknown reasons returned to Spain around 1497 as a converso.

In a few years we find him in Salamanca as a teacher and a scribe until 1512 when he was transferred to the University of Alcala de Henares. His involvement in the editing of the first Polyglot Bible, his books, scribal and teaching positions raised his esteem and importance at the dawn of the Renaissance.

The first page of Alfonso de Zamora’s multilingual dictionary in the Polyglot Bible, 1514. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge

Throughout that almost 40-year period, he was employed by the highest Catholic prelates, the archbishops of Spain, right under the watchful eye of the Inquisition.

Indubitably he was famous.

Top clerics patronized him, hired him to copy Hebrew books, the grammar books of Rabbi David Kimhi (also known as “Radaq”), books about the Bible, including various commentaries, and so on. But as a “blemished” Christian, Alfonso was cheated in court when he tried to claim his rightful wages from the “upstanding” publisher.

Alfonso de Zamora’s signature (bottom right), on a translation of Radaq’s Mikhlol. From the Bibliothèque nationale de France; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

Alfonso could never become head of his department or immune from being summoned to the Inquisition. All he could do was release his fury in innumerable annotations on the margins of his copied books and in his “diary”, preserved at the Leiden University Library.


Textual hints and imagined students

Over the course of fifteen years, at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (now part of the National Library of Israel), I examined about 70 manuscripts written or edited by Alfonso de Zamora.

During these intense years I could not but conclude that the man’s notes, essays, poems, criticisms, bible commentary, historical records, books, and teaching curriculum reflected a tormented, resentful, bitter and penitent Crypto-Jew.

Alfonso de Zamora’s translation of the Book of Isaiah, the manuscript that sparked the author’s decades-long interest in researching the scholar. From the Historical Library of the Marquess of Valdecilla, Madrid, Spain; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

He wrote almost exclusively in Hebrew.

His poems called out for God’s help to heal his emotional and physical pain, to release him from cursed Spain, to punish the greedy and immoral Spanish society from the king to the Church clerics, the businessmen, and the farmers all the way down to the babies.

He attacked the Popes and the judges and mocked King Carlos V and his administration. He supported, at least in words, the revolt of the comuneros against the nobles and the king, and he attacked judges who had converted to Christianity and abused their powers to discriminate against conversos.

In his commentaries, Alfonso emphasized the ethical superiority of the patriarchs, matriarchs, and kings of the Jews over those of the Christians. He insisted that conversos hold on to hope that God redeem them and bring them back to Zion.

Redemption from the “Trouble,” i.e., the Expulsion, would come only when conversos kept God’s Laws – the Torah – as much as they could.

Illustration of an Inquisition proceeding appearing in the book Die Geheimnisse der Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

His advice to the conversos facing the Inquisitors was to stand tall and show knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, for their tormentors were ignorant and inferior. When accused of keeping Jewish customs like avoiding non-kosher foods, he advised to explain them away as stemming from health concerns rather than from religious practices. He encouraged them to continue keeping the Sabbath, to light Sabbath candles, to relinquish debts on the seventh year, and even to keep the counting of the Omer.

Lying to and confusing the Inquisitors was paramount to staying alive.

Alfonso’s Shema was different than the traditional text of this core Jewish prayer. He commanded himself and/or imaginary Jewish students:

“Hear, People of Israel … Know that YHWH who is our God, is YHWH the only One!”


Christian in name

His view of Christianity was clear and unapologetic. He emphatically stated that he did not believe in Christianity nor in the anti-Christ. Christians were those who worshiped mute idols, who would perish before YHWH’s magnificence on the Day of Judgment. Christian dogmas were to kill people. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was flesh-centered, lacking spiritual values. Christians indulged in gluttony; they were fat and boorish; he wished for their dwellings on earth to be destroyed.

At the same time, Alfonso’s public life exemplified pure devotion to his new faith.

Title page of the Polyglot Bible featuring the coat of arms of Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, who funded the project, 1514. From the National Library of Israel collections

He wore a cross and the manuscripts he produced for patrons were adorned with crosses at the top of the pages. One of his major jobs was to find “evidence” within the Hebrew Bible, that portended Jesus’s life and mission, especially in the Books of Isaiah and Daniel. He distorted the texts and took them out of context.

His Christian commentaries and compositions lacked clarity, consistency and logic. Sensing this discrepancy and detachment, he often excused his questionably-founded renderings by describing them as “the spiritual meaning” or as an “alternative.”

Handwritten excerpts from the Book of Daniel appearing in Alfonso de Zamora’s notebook. From the Leiden University Library; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

To survive his complicated life situation, he subconsciously developed a defense mechanism: Even though Alfonso de Zamora lived a respectable and successful life, he lived in a make-believe, dangerously fragile world.

In Hebrew, he wrote:

“It is better [to gain] freedom [through] resistance than [to live in] peaceful slavery.”

For Alfonso, life in Spain was tantamount to slavery and prison.

In another text, he declared, “We shall not tolerate the abominations [perpetrated on] the holy seed. We shall die before that!” He imagined himself taking up arms to fight back. Through personal notes and comments jotted in the margins of his manuscripts, his frustration is palpable, as are his resolve and hopes, despite knowing that they may forever remained unfulfilled.



Alfonso excused his stay in Spain by comparing himself to Joseph and Daniel, who remained in their respective lands in order to benefit the world by teaching the beauty of Jewish wisdom to the Gentile power structure.

He saw himself not only as a good, honest, and a faithful Jew, but as a man of noble ancestry, as he cited B. Kiddushin 71b: שתיקותיה דבבל היינו יחוסא, “When people keep silent in Babylonia it means a high pedigree.” He described this adage as “A parable for the wise.”

Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets which were lodged deep in his heart.

“Blessed is the One who gives strength to the weary and increases the might of the helpless. Blessed is YHWH forever, Amen and Amen!” The closing words of a 1527 Alfonso de Zamora manuscript. From the National Library of France; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Alfonso de Zamora recognized that in spite of his furtive life, he was a sinner. But he honestly believed that God would forgive him, as he turned to the divine attribute of compassion, saying: “Shaddai will forgive all my iniquities.”

With such belief, he could survive to his dying day.


The author has studied Alfonso de Zamora for two decades. Her comprehensive portrayal of Alfonso de Zamora’s evidence as a Crypto-Jew has just been published in Iberia Judaica XII (2021): 15-45. She has also recently published an historical novel based on de Zamora’s writings entitled Dagger in the Heart, which imagines the adventures of his children to leave Spain, the whereabout of his diary, and the murder of Archbishop Cisneros of Spain. Her complete study of Alfonso de Zamora’s writings is forthcoming.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.