The Heroine Who Rescued Jewish Girls from Lebanon and Syria

The riots of the "Farhud" in Iraq convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for Jews living in Arab countries in the 1940s

Girls from Damascus on a worker's farm ("Meshek HaPoalot") in the Land of Israel, early 1944, from the book 'On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria' by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)

She was a revolutionary, a passionate Zionist and among the founders of the Jewish defense organization Hashomer. She was also one of only two women in the group. It’s difficult to think of a Zionist humanitarian project in which Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi wasn’t involved during the establishment of the Jewish and democratic state her generation had always dreamed of.

Of all her various activities, her top priority was immigration to the Land of Israel. Ben-Zvi was especially concerned with the immigration of young women, as well as their training. These young women needed to acquire the skills that would benefit the Zionist project. While most people of her generation perhaps preferred to wait for a later opportunity, or perhaps were not at all concerned with the matter, Ben-Zvi saw great importance in bringing Jews of Arab origin to the ‘state in-the-making’, as soon as possible. When she identified a window of opportunity to realize this great dream, she immediately pursued it.

It was the events of the Farhud – the horrific massacre in Baghdad on June 1st, 1941, in which 179 members of the Jewish community were murdered – that convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for the Jews of the Arab world. Since access to Baghdad was practically inaccessible, “an idea had come up; to​bring young women from the neighboring Arab countries – Lebanon and Syria.”

The mass grave of the victims of the Baghdad Farhud, from the book Iraq, edited by Haim Saadoun (Hebrew)

Ben-Zvi met with Henrietta Szold, the coordinator of the Youth Aliyah organization, spoke with children who emigrated from Syria on their own and promised to bring as many young women as possible to Mandatory Palestine and train them in agriculture. Szold provided her with fifty immigration certificates (issued by the British) for the mission. There was concern that if she were to gather too many young women, the British would deny them entry into Israel.

From Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi headed out to Beirut. She relied on connections she had formed with Beirut community leaders during their visit to Mandatory Palestine and promptly met with Joseph Farhi. Many were opposed to the journey, arguing that “in Jewish homes in these countries girls are not allowed to leave the house,” and concluded that she would not be able to persuade the families to let the young women leave.

Despite the help she received from activists of HeChalutz, the Zionist underground organization, the task of swaying the families indeed turned out to be quite challenging: In many families, the father had immigrated to Latin America and mothers “looked forward to joining the head of the family overseas with their children, and, for the time being, were apprehensive about separating from the girls selected for Aliyah [Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel].”

“The mothers hear that I am looking for girls ages 13 and 14 and are already concerned about their future because at 16 or 17 years old they marry their daughters off. I reassure them, explaining that the girls will be accepted to the settlement project, where they will not be held back from getting married, raising families and bringing their relatives from Beirut to Israel.”

That was exactly the answer the worried families wanted to hear.

Jewish youths engage in group exercise, Damascus, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

From the moment she arrived in Damascus, Ben-Zvi was struck by the vibrant Zionist activity in the Syrian capital, which easily overshadowed the relatively dormant Beirut underground organization. She was impressed by the Jewish youth’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel, even at the price of bitter arguments with their parents.

The eagerness and urgency expressed by the Youth Aliyah representative alarmed the activists who accompanied her: They demanded that Ben-Zvi refrain from speaking Hebrew even inside the Jewish ghetto. Only at the home of the community leader was she allowed to speak freely. She spoke to the dignitaries in Hebrew and French and was pleased to see that “the idea of ​​bringing students to be trained on educational farms was willingly accepted.” After receiving unanimous approval, she scheduled a meeting for the next day with the high school students.

“On my very first visit we informed the older high school girls of the idea of bringing young women to the Land of Israel for training and study. When the girls were asked if they would like to immigrate, they all raised their hands enthusiastically. In the more advanced grades, most high school students were girls,  while there were few young men. I learned that the boys had to work to support their parents. The few young men in class immediately demanded an explanation: ‘Why? Why could only girls immigrate? What would be the fate of the boys?’ I tried to offer comfort: ‘Their time will come, too.’ During the long recess I felt that the news was spreading from one class to the next. As I walked through the yard, I was stared at, hundreds and hundreds of children were drawn to me, calling out, ‘Palestine, Palestine, Eretz Yisrael!'”

After sorting out the immigration process in Damascus, Ben-Zvi moved on to Aleppo, arriving in November, 1943. She was shocked to see the location of the girls’ school – it was adjacent to a Syrian brothel frequented by soldiers around the clock. She heatedly told the school principal, “the whole neighborhood is a symbol of diasporic dispossession.”

Parents in the audience at a performance by members of a Zionist youth movement, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

Just like in Beirut, Ben-Zvi was desperate to meet with the community members, who barely spoke Hebrew. And again, like in Beirut, she blamed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for failing to send support for the few dedicated teachers of the community.

“On Friday morning, a sense of bustling preparation for Shabbat was in the Aleppo air. The Jews in the streets drew my attention with the words: ‘Erev Shabbat! ‘Erev Shabbat‘[the eve of the Jewish Sabbath]! And in the school classrooms, in every grade, it was heard everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ Those who mumbled in French, those who spoke Arabic, they all called out, everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ My heart, too, was filled with the spirit of Shabbat. And isn’t Shabbat as virtuous as the Torah itself? Is it not Shabbat that has kept the flame burning from ages past to this day? It is the eve of Shabbat even now, yet my time is so short! I must gather the candidates who registered at the Alliance, Jamiliya, and Bahsita schools today, on the eve of Shabbat. And I have already scheduled a parents’ meeting after the Shabbat meal.”

Ben-Zvi described the great pressure she was under to accept as many girls as possible: “And the list keeps getting longer; the girls are crying and their mothers are crying, and just like that – they have all turned 14 years old; including one who is almost 18 years old and another who is not even 12 years old.”

In despair, Ben-Zvi decided that “the age will be determined solely according to birth certificates” and girls of the appropriate age were chosen according to a clear criterion: “If they are fit for agricultural training and theoretical studies.” In order to not leave out any suitable candidates, Ben-Zvi herself conducted interviews with each potential candidate.

Ben-Zvi encouraged the boys and adults she met in Aleppo to immigrate to Israel illegally, as she only had enough permits for fifty girls. It was the same message she delivered in Beirut and Damascus. From Aleppo, Ben-Zvi returned to Beirut, where, with Farhi’s support, she gathered the girls from all three cities. Some of the young women were accompanied by Ben-Zvi herself and some by other activists. They were received in Mandatory Palestine at Ayanot, Petach Tikva and Nahalat Yehuda. It wouldn’t be long before many of the young women would become Hebrew teachers and immigration activists themselves. They made the journey back to their communities and helped their families immigrate to Israel.

For the rest of her life, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi would take pride in her projects, especially in the achievements of the young immigrants whom she helped reach the Land of Israel. However, one question remained in her mind: “To me, it does not make sense; how could we have neglected these Jewish communities that are so close to us, until now? Damascus, located just an hour from the Israeli border and Beirut, which is just three hours from Haifa!”

A family in the garden of its home in Aleppo, 1910. From the book Syrian Jewry – Pictures for an Exhibition (Hebrew)


Girls at the Ayanot training farm, a few months after immigrating to Israel. From the book On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)


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Back in the USSR: Recollections of an American College Kid Turned Manuscript Smuggler

50 years later, illicit texts and dissidents remembered

Howard Kaplan poses in front of the Kremlin, summer 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan)

In July 1971 in Moscow, after dinner with my tour group, I hurry along a memorized route in the direction of nearby Red Square. Kids are taught to inform in Komsomol, the political youth organization in the Soviet Union, so better not to ask directions.

I tap lightly on an apartment door. I hear noise within and someone approaches the entrance and speaks through the solid wood in Hebrew, “Erev tov.” “Good evening.”

I am startled that he would speak Hebrew to an unexpected knock. Code? Then the voice speaks in Russian.

“I don’t speak Russian.”


I am an American, on my way back to Los Angeles after spending my junior year at the Hebrew University, with this slight detour. I have to wait as he unbolts three locks. Lev Navrozov throws open the door to a huge and elegantly decorated apartment. Elegant crystal fills a tall cabinet. His wife appears, a half-tied apron dragging from her waist. She motions me to sit and she speaks vociferously to her husband.

Lev Navrozov. (Photo: Unknown family member, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

“My wife would be pleased if you would have supper with us but she is worried since the meat is not kosher.”

I’m stunned at his English, look at her and grin. “It’s O.K.”

She vanishes into the kitchen. I explain that his friend, Professor  Mikhail Zand, a recent émigré and Professor of Oriental Languages, spent an evening in my dorm room writing his official letter of arrival to Prime Minister Golda Meir and taught me how to find this apartment. Zand had introduced Navrozov to the Jewish Resistance Movement, a natural ebb from the ‘democratic’ movement of which they were a part. I unburden myself of the Hebrew primers and histories I’m hauling, completely unavailable in the USSR.

“Thank you,” he says. “You must understand Soviet mentality to realize how important these are to us. Everything here fluctuates, dependent on the caprice of the government. There is a thirst for textbooks. In the USSR, where so much energy is expended on propaganda, books take on an exaggerated significance. They transcend their words to become symbols, nurture strength, foster the will to struggle.”

Soon his wife delivers a full course meal. I am too stuffed from the group Chicken Kiev to eat much. Sensing my embarrassment, she returns with a bowl of raspberries on crushed ice. This opulence stuns me and then he explains. Around the globe, people translate from their acquired language into their mother tongue. Navrozov is the preeminent translator of books and articles in the Soviet Union from Russian into English, has tackled Dostoevsky, Herzen and hundreds of technical articles. Soviets cannot buy books from London. Stalin created the Referent Faculty of the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages to produce a generation of experts in Western languages and culture. Forty-six years later, I created a character in The Spy’s Gamble with Navrozov’s bona fides.

Tourists waiting in line to visit Lenin’s Tomb, 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

For the following week, I continue on my tour which takes me to Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In the evenings, I meet with Jewish dissidents in their homes. Saturday, I head through Red Square. The guys are waiting for me outside and guide me back to a basement which I see in the daylight is an artist’s studio. I had been here a week earlier to meet the leaders of the Soviet Jewish movement and discuss the transfer of a manuscript on microfilm that I would carry to London.

I jokingly ask, “Why aren’t you in synagogue?”

Navrozov translates and they all laugh. He says, “We have the address of KGB central headquarters if you would like it. Why settle for the synagogue, it’s merely a branch office.” Informants.

I have a present I’ve saved, a slate, the kind children write on then pull up the plastic to erase it. They go bananas.

Navrozov says, “During a year we probably use tons of paper to talk.”

They provide a list of those in desperate straits. They give money when they can. An artist hands me ten Chagall-like lithographs, ink on parchment. They place the lithographs between tourist posters of the Soviet Union, rolled the posters and lithographs together and slipped them into a tube. I give the artist my address. I’ll mail them to him when he gets out. All unpublished writings and art are considered property of the state and must remain behind.

I take a fresh 35mm Kodak film canister from my bag. London instructed that I can secret the microfilm in it, then throw it in my camera case with a slew of exposed and unopened rolls. In my room I had carefully opened the box with a knife and pried off the end of the yellow canister. I remove the film, sever a long length of lead, insert the roll of microfilm and tape the lead to protrude several inches from the canister the way new film appears. I try to snap the round end back but can’t.

“I engineer,” someone says and grabs it from me.

Another speaks in Russian and they all laugh. “He asked what he knows about engineering. He has not worked in two years.”

Unnamed Soviet dissidents with whom Kaplan met (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

I love these guys. Somebody gets it on and we glue the top of the small rectangular yellow box closed.

That manuscript was My Father Killed Mikhoels by the dissident writer, Vladimir Gusarov. Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was assassinated in Minsk in 1948 on orders of Josef Stalin who had been pursuing an increasingly anti-Semitic policy.

Before very long, Gusarov’s work found its way to the National Library of Israel.

This article has been published as part of 
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Torah, Raki and Yogurt: Shavuot on the Aegean Sea

A nostalgic celebration with the Jews of Saloniki

Jewish dancers and musicians in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Albert Nissim). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

“Saloniki’s Jews… eagerly awaited the arrival of the Shavuot holiday… They especially loved and cherished it as the holiday of spring, of the verdant fields, of the flowers and of the ripe fruits, and anyone who got to enjoy the greenery and the fruits where they grew in the fields outside the city, in the forests, in the gardens and in the meadow – it is sublime…”

Jewish fruit vendors in Saloniki showing off citrus and seeds, early 20th century (Publisher: David M. Assaël). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The excitement in the Aegean air was palpable as Shavuot – the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah and the ancient wheat harvest – drew near. The community’s homemakers would get wide pots ready for preparing the traditional sutlach, a dairy, sugary rice pudding dusted with cinnamon; as well as special vessels for fresh yogurt and soft cheeses prepared just for the holiday.

Knowing the season, the itinerant tinsmith would appear, announcing his arrival and his purpose: “Istañador para istañar!” Collecting dented pots and returning them “like new” a few days later, he would bless the ladies and their rice pudding, too: ¡Para sutlachiko bueno!” – “May your sutlach be good!”

Three generations of Jewish women in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: H. Grimaud). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Of course the festive meal was not just sutlach, yogurt and cheese.

There were the injaminados – colorful hardboiled eggs – and pastil ­– cheese cake that came in all shapes and sizes with its two main ingredients, cheese and eggs, seemingly the only thing any of them actually had in common.

And to drink?

Raki, of course! Though not just any raki. The kind that can only be procured from the humble home of Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel, rich in taste and full of good luck for the holiday and season to come.

With pots clanging and the smells of sutlach and raki wafting, festive clothes certainly had to be prepared for the holy day as well. A folk adage prohibited wearing white suits and dresses prior to Shavuot, but now they could finally be readied as the holiday and summer neared.

Upper class Salonikan Jews in fine traditional dress, early 20th century (Publisher: Hananel Naar). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Then, the sun set and the time finally came.

Some went to synagogue, likely struggling to focus on the prayers in anticipation of what they knew awaited them at home.

With the fruits of the housewives’ labor (and Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel’s raki) heartily enjoyed, as the festive meal wound down and dessert was served, the Book of Ruth was read in Hebrew and Ladino, its words sung to traditional melodies. Then some would go back to synagogue for “Nochada de sevo” – traditional all night Torah study – where men and children would sit on cushioned sofas, trying not to nod off as they waited for a boost of refreshment  from the finjan.

Saloniki’s Italian synagogue was first built in 1423; the synagogue pictured here was rebuilt in 1896 following a fire. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

While study, prayer and song celebrating the giving of the Torah in Hebrew and Ladino may have provided spiritual sustenance to complement the physical nourishment of the sutlach and pastil, for many, the highlight of Shavuot largely took place outside the city walls.

Bustling street corner in Saloniki, early 20th century (Editeurs: M.S.R). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The streets became packed by the thousands – young and old – picnic baskets and mats on which to sit in hand, bouquets of flowers coloring the landscape, excited chatter filling the air as they set out: some towards the Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes, others towards the Five Oaks or the Sheikh’s Spring, while youth groups and the more intrepid ventured as far as the surrounding mountains and villages.

The Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes outside Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Imp. B&G). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection


More festive holiday food would be eaten under the fruit trees. Young and old would sing songs – some traditional and some recently introduced Zionist tunes. Albert Molcho would entertain the crowd, “speaking” English, Russian and Hebrew, without actually knowing any of them. Laughter filled the air – the joy of festival, family and the impending summer.

Then as the sun began to set, children – sun-kissed and tired – would roll up into their parents’ arms and everyone would slowly make their way home, savoring every last moment of Shavuot in Saloniki.

The White Tower of Saloniki today

For much of the past millennium, the majority of the population of Saloniki – now Greece’s second largest city more commonly known as Thessaloniki – was Jewish. Most of the account above came from the personal recollections of David Benvenisti, published in “Saloniki /Ir V’Em B’Yisrael“, as well as from an article which appeared in the weekly “Hed Ha-Mizrach” on the eve of Shavuot in 1946, three years after the city’s Jews were sent to the death camps. Though dedicated to “Sarah and Leah, victims of the evil one”, the article was much less lamentation than it was a poetic celebration of Shavuot in Saloniki, reflecting perhaps the core essence of a holiday centered around the transcendent and binding power of words to preserve communal memory and tradition.

This article has been published as part of 
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Water vs. Corona? Don’t Try This at Home!

Curing diseases, restoring organs, revitalizing the body and even resurrecting the dead! Rare caricatures from 19th-century England prove that strange folk remedies have been with us for a while…

A common theme: A patient sits naked in the bath, receiving a shower of hot or cold water, "The Sure Water Cure", the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Has anyone tried to sell you an anti-coronavirus machine recently? We suggest you pause for a moment before you hit that “Buy Now!” button…This isn’t the first time that our society has been inundated with promises of miracle cures of one type or another. Perhaps you’ve heard of something known as “Hydropathy”? Well, a series of lithograph postcards preserved in the National Library of Israel’s Sidney M. Edelstein Collection, which were printed in the satirical book, The Sure Water Cure, (Messrs Fores, London, 1843) tells us of a series of weird and cruel attempts at healing, alongside a thriving and criminal water-treatment industry. Perhaps the logic used here was something along the lines of, “If these methods don’t kill you, congratulations – no silly virus will stand a chance…”

Nowadays, we’re familiar with modern water-based therapies and their great contribution to the field of orthopedics, the development of motor skills, as well as emotional development. This modern method of treatment is known as ‘hydrotherapy’. In the past, more than a century ago, water medicine was referred to as ‘hydropathy’ or ‘water cure’. This school of thought gained momentum and became extremely popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It even spawned an entire field of alternative medical literature.

Doctors estimated that water might have healing properties that could be harnessed, for example, by manipulating water temperature or water pressure, or transferring water through an assortment of odd contraptions. In general, their observation was correct: water can indeed be used effectively in certain situations for healing purposes. For example, water treatments were found to be successful in reducing fevers and high blood pressure, and scientists hurriedly assumed that they had found the new miracle cure. It wasn’t long before charlatans caught wind of the startling revelation, and “holy” and “miraculous” solutions to various ailments began appearing by the dozen.

Among promises made to anyone willing to listen, were the far-fetched assurances that various methods of water treatment were capable of rejuvenating one’s youth and restoring missing limbs. There were even claims that special, secret treatments could bring a person back from the dead. The postcard here displays a real advertisement, with the head of a water pump shaped as a cross, alluding to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The advertisement declares:

The Sure Water Cure – Amputations restored the dead revived and age hydropathicalized into youth.”

The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the late 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see amputees and elderly people standing in line for ridiculous, unreasonable treatments. Gradually, and in order to increase revenue, the practitioners promised that water therapy could cure mental and spiritual illnesses, such as insomnia, suicidal tendencies, manic-depressive disorders, as well as severe physical illnesses such as paralysis or arthritis. Toward the end of the 19th-century, the phenomenon was so popular and widespread, that a series of medical caricatures were printed in England, warning the public of the false “miracle cure” and poking fun at the trend.

Hydropathy was based on external and internal water treatments. One of the treatments the public was warned about came to be known as “The Mummy State”. The below illustration shows a patient lying in his bed (probably suffering from the flu, a fever, or some other malaise), tightly wrapped up in blankets like a mummy, as a machine pumps generous quantities of water into his body through a tube.

“…those who thus expect to be cured, will suck in any thing, any quantity, and at any price!” – The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

The process is described on the back of the caricature, in words that serve as biting criticism of a gullible public:

“The Mummy State

The patient […] is tightly enveloped in blankets to perspire, if he lives long enough he is usually made a Mummy of or cured, the chances are equal. The hands being confined. Water is given plentifully through a tube, obviously those who thus expect to be cured, will suck in any thing, any quantity, and at any price!”

Or in other words: When in a panic, you’ll buy whatever you’re told works.

Many of the caricatures show a patient sitting naked in a bathtub receiving a shower of hot or cold water (depending on the treatment) in the hopes of curing some mental illness. The skeptics continued to cast doubt, and instead of recommending the treatment to the public – suggested it be used on members of the British Parliament. The back of the postcard reads: “…a Douche is in preparation expressly adapted for the use of M.Ps. as it will be found extremely efficacious in clearing the intellectual depository and in supplying the said vacuum!”

“…extremely efficacious in clearing the intellectual depository…” – The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

The mentally-ill population suffered in particular from these aquatic “miracle cures,” which were especially prevalent in London’s horrific 19th-century psychiatric institutions. In order to extract the disease from one’s head, treatment methods sometimes included plunging the patient’s head into a bucket of water, while he or she was held upside down, using ropes and pulleys. The torturous method, which harkens back to medieval times, proved itself ineffective in treating diseases of the mind. However, over the years, various intelligence agencies have controversially used similar methods, involving the simulation of a sensation of drowning, while attempting to extract secrets from people who weren’t interested in disclosing them.

Dunking the head of the patient in water: not so useful in treating mental illness; similar methods would be used in interrogations, The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Water therapy treatments were a hit more than a century ago. At the beginning of the 20th century and with the establishment of modern medicine, the cruel treatments were abandoned. But if anything can be learned from the past, it’s that people will always take advantage of humankind’s desire for health, and sell all kinds of tricks, instruments, and concoctions, which will “guarantee” quick cures or a miracle. So the next time you hear about an anti-corona device or an all-curing wonder-bath which fits in your own living room, don’t be quick to order that special delivery – go to a doctor. Stay safe.


Many thanks to Chaya Meier Herr of  the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine for her assistance in preparing this article.


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