Feeling Israel: Helen Keller in the Holy Land

"I can't see you, but I feel you, and I know that you are happy, because you are in your homeland, which is being rebuilt."

Helen Keller carrying an infant, the village for the blind at Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

The name of Helen Keller is known today throughout the world for her personal struggle as a blind and deaf woman. She became a social activist, promoting awareness and working to integrate people with disabilities into society. In the early 1950s, she even visited the young State of Israel as part of a tour on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Helen Keller’s visit in Israel in May 1952 wasn’t only for the purpose of meeting politicians in the Knesset or Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in his home. Keller toured the country and met members of her community in Israel. “I can’t see you, but I feel you,” she conveyed through a hug to the children of Kibbutz Degania, who gathered around her car. “I know that you are happy, because you are in your homeland, which is being rebuilt.”

Helen Keller (left) in a meeting with Labor Minister Golda Meir, photo: David Eldan, GPO

While visiting Jerusalem, Keller was impressed by the work being done at the Brandeis Center, where she received explanations regarding new methods of teaching the blind. She also visited the Hadassah nursing school. Keller was so impressed that she stated: “Israel is more advanced than the United States in its efforts to ease the suffering of the unfortunate.”

At the city’s Jewish Institute for the Blind (Beit Hinuch Le’Ivrim) a touching moment was documented, when Helen Keller walked through the door. “At the entrance to the house, the students of the institute handed her dozens of letters written in Braille, and Ms. Keller received their welcome as she hugged and kissed the students excitedly.” At the party held in her honor, Helen Keller couldn’t hide her exhilaration: “The dedicated care and work done to help the blind and deaf in this country, encourage me greatly, in my work for these people.”

Helen Keller’s car arrives at Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

A particularly interesting meeting took place at Kfar Uriel, which was actually founded as an experimental project, with the goal of integrating blind immigrants into various workplaces in nearby Gedera. Helen Keller visited the workshop in the village where, among other things, immigrants from Yemen and their families also worked, and was extremely impressed by what she encountered. She enjoyed meeting and talking with the blind Yemeni immigrants and encouraged them. At the local kindergarten, children greeted her with traditional songs. A Maariv reporter described the touching scene in Hebrew: “The deaf woman’s hands move in rhythm with the melody and you almost believe that she can hear. She places her hand on a toddler’s throat and ‘listens’ to the song. The child does not panic. A toddler hands her a bunch of daisies, receives a kiss from the elderly lady, and shyly blushes.”

Helen Keller visits Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

Another important stop on Keller’s tour was the city of Netanya, where she made a special visit to what is today known as the Central Library for Blind and Reading Impaired People. After welcoming all those present, Keller turned to the books, running her fingers over the Braille script. She browsed through a work written by Stefan Zweig and when she felt the author’s name, she remarked, “A pity he ended his life so tragically.”

An interesting interaction occurred during Keller’s chat with the mayor of Netanya, Oved Ben Ami. Keller urged the mayor to employ the blind in industrial factories, to make use of their talent and precision: “In the United States there are 257 professions in which the blind are employed!”

Helen Keller receiving flowers from a little girl at Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

Helen Keller summarized her fifteen-day visit to the Holy Land with inspiring and hopeful words addressed to Israel’s citizens: “I leave Israel greatly impressed by everything that is being done here. The flourishing cities, villages, and kibbutzim that are being built, the industrial factories and the happy, healthy faces of the children and youth – they all fill my heart with faith in Israel’s prospects for future development.”


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Book Diplomacy: Curt Wormann and the International Librarians

How the former director of the National Library of Israel played a key role in the "book diplomacy" of the 1950s and 60s...

Curt Wormann, former director of the Jewish National and University Library, is seen in the back row of this group photo (2nd from the right), along with directors of national libraries from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, among others. November, 1961, the Curt Wormann Archives at the National Library of Israel.

In November of 1961, at the peak of the Cold War, librarians from all over the world came to New York to take their seats in the United Nations Plenary Hall. It was as if the international body’s diplomats had been supplanted by an assortment of bookish types from the four corners of the Earth. Among those gathered was Curt Wormann, the longtime director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. His archives allow an insight into the role played by a handful of leading international Librarians in the cultural politics of the 1950s and 1960s. But they also reveal another story: the internationalization and professionalization of Israeli librarianship against the backdrop of Cold War politics.

Essays and Studies in Librarianship: Presented to Curt David Wormann on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, edited by M. Nadav, J. Rothschild, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1975

But why did Curt Wormann and his colleagues from around the world travel to the United Nations in 1961? Among the hundreds of folders which can be found in the Wormann archives, there is one that contains documents and letters relating to the event at UN Headquarters in 1961. Let’s take a closer look at one of these letters, a typewritten carbon copy: At first glance, the document seems like a polite everyday exchange between colleagues: On December 19th, 1961, Curt Wormann wrote a letter to his colleague Josef Stummvoll, the director of the United Nations Library in New York.

As Wormann was formulating his letter, a year of heightened tensions between East and West  was coming to a close: The Berlin Wall was erected in August, and by October, American and Soviet tanks sat facing each other in the center of the divided city. Not far away from the place that would later become the borderline dividing East and West, in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, a young Curt Wormann had begun his career as a librarian in the 1920s. By 1926, he was already director of the district library. Born into a German-Jewish Family in 1900, Curt Wormann devoted his professional life to the development of public libraries and higher education during the years of the Weimar Republic. But when the Nazis came to power, he was forced into retirement, losing his position as a result of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”. Shortly after, he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, together with his wife, the physician Dr. Carola Gottheil, and worked as a librarian at the Shaar Zion Public Library in Tel Aviv. Although his career had been violently interrupted by the Nazi regime, he soon gained a reputation within German-Jewish intellectual and cultural circles. In 1947, he was appointed director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem (today’s National Library of Israel). In this position, he would not only play a major role in gathering Jewish cultural treasures in Israel as part of “The Politics of Restitution”, he would also travel the world as Israel’s leading book diplomat.

Wormann’s letter to Dr. Josef Stummvoll, director of the UN Library, written on December 19th, 1961; the Curt Wormann Archive at the National Library of Israel, click to enlarge

In December 1961, Curt Wormann had just returned to his office in Jerusalem from New York, where he had taken part in an international librarians’ symposium on the occasion of the opening of the newly constructed United Nations Library building. With his letter to the UN Library director Josef Stummvoll, Wormann wanted to express his gratitude and appreciation “for the hospitality I enjoyed during my stay in New York as a guest of the United Nations” and “the possibility of taking part in the Symposium”. Indeed, thirty leading librarians from all over the world had been invited personally by the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to attend the Librarians’ Symposium dealing with librarianship and the UN Library’s role in international relations. When Curt Wormann received the invitation in Jerusalem, he immediately and happily accepted, replying with a telegram. Tragically, a few weeks before the library’s opening ceremony, Secretary-General Hammarskjöld, in office since 1953, died in a plane crash in Africa. The international librarians were deeply saddened, but decided to proceed as planned. They dedicated the new building to Dag Hammarskjöld, who had closely followed the construction of the new library building and who was also known as an ardent book collector. Thus, Curt Wormann addressed his letter of December 19th to Dr. Josef Stummvoll, the director of the “Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations”.

Curt Wormann (center) enjoying a meeting with international colleagues, November, 1961; the Curt Wormann Archive at the National Library of Israel

The UN Library’s new building fulfilled all the requirements of a modern library, and was financed by the Ford Foundation. Thus, both the building and the symposium reflect the globalization of librarianship after World War II within the framework of international cultural politics under American auspices. Knowledge, information, education, and thus libraries, as key infrastructure, were understood to represent a competitive advantage during the Cold War. Curt Wormann’s correspondence with Josef Stummvoll and other international colleagues, mainly from Europe and the United States, allow deep insight into their thought processes and roles as agents in the international cultural politics of the early Cold War era. In his letter to Josef Stummvoll, Curt Wormann described the New York UN Symposium as a “demonstration of world librarianship and a really important event in the development of international cooperation in our profession”. Indeed, this “world librarianship” – to use Wormann’s accurate description – was a network of leading international librarians who contributed to the internationalization and professionalization of librarianship through organizations like the United Nations or UNESCO. Founded in 1945, UNESCO defined its goal as – “contributing to the preservation of peace and security by promoting cooperation between peoples in education, science and culture […]”. Thus, Curt Wormann and his colleagues from the Jewish National and University Library and the Hebrew University perceived the membership of the young state of Israel in UNESCO since 1949 as a means of diplomacy in both external and internal politics. This included establishing and maintaining communication with other countries through UNESCO, developing librarianship in Israel through international cooperation, and defending the JNUL’s interests, mainly concerning the book collections which remained on Mount Scopus (an Israeli controlled enclave which was surrounded by Jordanian territory until the Six Day War of 1967).

However, UNESCO’s stated aim of overcoming cultural boundaries revealed its limitations during preparations for yet another important meeting of librarians, in 1958. As part of the UNESCO program, an international symposium on the role of national libraries was to take place in Vienna, where Josef Stummvoll served as director of the Austrian National Library (before his appointment as director of the UN Library). However, the UNESCO symposium in Vienna in 1958 was intended exclusively for librarians from European countries. Israel was excluded for geographical reasons and this made Curt Wormann’s participation impossible. However, Josef Stummvoll insisted on Wormann’s participation in a letter written to Luther Evans, the director-general of UNESCO, who also knew Wormann personally. In his letter, Stummvoll did not only describe Curt Wormann’s expertise in questions of librarianship, but he also underlined the truly European background of the German émigré who had started his career as the head of the public library in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stummvoll’s intervention was a success and the UNESCO officials were convinced: Wormann was invited to the conference as an external expert. His conference report, National Libraries in our Time, which was published in Libri, the scholarly journal edited by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), contributed much to Wormann’s international reputation.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations in 2010, image credit: Gryffindor

While the meeting of European librarians in Vienna strengthened the ties between Curt Wormann and Josef Stummvoll, their first contact goes back to the early 1950s. As director of the Austrian National Library, Stummvoll was in contact with the JNUL and responsible for issues of cultural restitution, on which he collaborated mainly with Shlomo Shunami from the JNUL. Last but not least, Josef Stummvoll of Vienna and Berlin-born Curt Wormann shared the same mother tongue. Thus, Wormann could have easily written his grateful letter in German, as he had done with previous letters to Stummvoll. This time, Worman chose to write in English, thus expressing the international character of the United Nations Librarians’ Symposium, as well as that of their own professional and friendly relationship.

Indeed, while the history of librarianship in Mandatory Palestine and Israel is often presented as a history of knowledge transfer by German speaking émigrés, the archives of Curt Wormann depict him as one of the agents of the internationalization, professionalization, and institutionalization of Israeli librarianship during the first twenty years of statehood. In 1968, Wormann’s term as director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem came to an end, a role in which he had served as an agent of “cultural internationalism” (see the work of Akira Iriye). Even afterwards, he continued to be involved in international librarian associations and to further the cause of Israeli librarianship. He died in 1991. His personal archives are preserved in the library to which he dedicated his life’s work, waiting to be explored.

This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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WEIZAC and GOLEM: The Start-Up Nation’s Earliest Computers

Today, almost all of us carry a smartphone and own a PC or laptop at home, but the earliest computing devices couldn't exactly fit in your pocket…

WEIZAC in action in the 1950s

The fact that you’re probably reading this article on your laptop, or even more likely – on your smartphone device – seems so trivial, that most of us don’t even stop to consider how wonderful this is. Generation Z was born into a reality in which texts are read from a screen, and if you want to turn a page – all you have to do is “swipe”. They’re hardly aware of the fact that until recently, in order to “browse”, you actually had to lick the tip of your finger with your tongue, and physically turn the page!

Even for earlier generations, it often seems that touchscreen computers and smartphones have been with us all along, despite the fact that Apple only launched its first iPhone in 2007.

Although computers have existed in human history for a comparatively short time, they have already changed our whole way of thinking, as well as our day-to-day routines.

Surprisingly (or not), one of the world’s pioneering devices in the field of electronic computing was made here in Israel: the “WEIZAC” – the first electronic computer in Israel and one of the first computers in the world! WEIZAC was an acronym for “Weizmann Automatic Computer.”

The WEIZAC started operating in 1955, a mere 7 years after the State of Israel declared its independence, and paved the way for the technological and entrepreneurial culture that Israel is known for to this day.

The man behind WEIZAC was Professor Chaim Leib Pekeris, a pioneer of computer science in Israel, and an Israel Prize laureate in physics, who was born nearly 112 years ago, on June 15th, 1908. Pekeris was a mathematician, a geophysicist, and the founder of the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He passed away on February 24th, 1993.

For six years, WEIZAC was the only operational computer in Israel. A quick search of the National Library of Israel’s JPress-Historical Jewish Press website, reveals newspaper headlines from the period, which informed the public of the activation of a powerful “electronic brain”. It turns out that the State of Israel was already a “start-up nation”, as early as the 1950s! WEIZAC was one of the earliest large-scale stored-program electronic computers in the world, following on the heels of the IAS device built earlier at Princeton University. It was used, among other things, to study global changes in tide, as well as earthquake behavior and numerical analysis. Although WEIZAC was the size of a wall closet, it was more advanced than its older brother from Princeton, with four times the memory, as one of the newspapers proclaimed. It seems that even then, Israelis were good at taking existing inventions and improving on them.


“‘Electronic Brain’ Activated at Weizmann Institute – ‘Memory’ is four times as powerful as that of the brain at Princeton University”Hatzofe, October 24th, 1955


WEIZAC, the first electronic computer in Israel, built at the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science (from Wikipedia)


Later on, as is usually the case with technological evolution, the WEIZAC was superseded by GOLEM, a new series of computers (we swear we didn’t make that up) which continued to serve the research needs of the Weizmann Institute and other Israeli research institutes. In 2006, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) declared WEIZAC “a milestone in the history of electrical engineering and computing”, and awarded the “WEIZAC Medal” to the team who built it.


“Preparations in Rehovot for the Presentation of ‘Golem B'”, Maariv, December 30th, 1963


Chaim Pekeris won quite a few awards and received recognition for his work and contribution to science in Israel and around the world. Among other things, he was awarded the Weizmann Prize for Exact Sciences in 1958, and in 1965, he won the Rothschild Award. In 1974, Columbia University awarded him the Vetlesen Prize and in 1980, he won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the same year, he was also awarded the Israel Prize for Physics. A search of his name on the National Library website allows us a glimpse into the wider circles of Pekeris’ life: his prominence in the scientific community on the one hand, and his involvement and relationships with intellectuals from varied fields (S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem…) on the other.


Chaim Pekeris (in the middle) with author S.Y. Agnon, at a ceremony granting Agnon honorary membership on behalf of the Weizmann Institute of Science


The State of Israel can be proud of its position at the forefront of global technological innovation. Thanks to this legacy which stretches back decades and is based on the contributions and work of people like Chaim Pekeris and many others, our country has come to be known across the world as a start-up nation.


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How Israel Overcame the Polio Epidemic of the 1950s

How Israel Overcame the Polio Epidemic of the 1950s

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk announced the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug in the battle against polio, but he would soon meet resistance…

Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

In 1921, during a family vacation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began developing alarming medical symptoms. At first, the 39-year-old attorney began suffering from debilitating back pains. After that, he experienced nausea and uncontrollable tremors, as well as a burning fever. He was bedridden for weeks. From day to day, he felt he was gradually losing the ability to move his feet. The doctor called to the scene provided a diagnosis that would accompany Roosevelt for the rest of his life: a severe case of polio, a disease that ravaged the entire East Coast of the United States during that fatal summer.

Although the future President of the United States was perhaps the most famous victim of polio in history, this disease had been plaguing humanity for thousands of years. First identified in 1789, it wasn’t until the twentieth century – when repeated polio outbreaks claimed thousands of victims – that a Jewish-American physician named Jonas Salk managed to develop the first-ever vaccine for the devastating virus.

Salk’s Vaccine Is Revealed

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk published a radio-advertisement announcing the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug, which he hoped could soon be developed into an effective vaccine for polio.

But after publishing his results, Salk’s work was met with derision and ridicule. His idea of injecting the “killed” polio virus (as opposed to simply weakened strains) into the bodies of children and adults initially seemed too bold – it was believed to be impossible to implement. Many doctors and researchers were quick to declare that the tailor’s son from Manhattan was nothing but an over-enthusiastic young scientist at best, a charlatan and crook at worst.

Salk chose to ignore the criticism. He felt that he couldn’t convey the significance of the vaccine using the conventional method – publishing his results in academic papers in order to convince the scientific community of the validity of his theories. Instead, Salk worked six days a week, 16 hours a day, to put his theories into practice. As he neared the breakthrough he’d hoped for, he searched for funding for the clinical trials that would prove his daring theory.


Dr. Jonas Edward Salk working to find a polio vaccine, photo from the 1950s

Although two of his employees in the lab resigned in protest at the “feverish and unreasonable pace” of the experiments, Salk was intent on beginning tests on human patients as quickly as possible. By the end of 1953, more than 7,000 children had received the vaccine. The experiment was beyond successful. After another two million children were vaccinated in one of the largest clinical trials in history, Salk was given permission to inform the American public that he had found a way to overcome the horrible disease. He added that he and his lab were giving up all patent rights – the vaccine they had been working on for years would remain in the public domain.

This was just the news the young state of Israel was waiting for.


The Israeli Vaccine

The news regarding the polio vaccine soon reached Israel and caused much excitement among its concerned citizens. In the summer of 1950, there was a severe outbreak of polio in Israel. Over one thousand children were hospitalized. Many suffered from paralysis, which was one of the most frightening symptoms of the disease. Parents ordered their children to stay at home, summer-camps were shut down, and the Ministry of Health forbade children under the age of ten (the most at-risk age group) from entering various recreational venues and places of business.




Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

At first, the Israeli government tried to buy the vaccine directly from the US, but public outcry prevented it. Many parents claimed it made no sense for the US government to sell vaccines to foreign countries when not all American children had been vaccinated. Therefore, Dr. Natan Goldblum was appointed to produce the vaccine locally in Israel, based on Salk’s methodology. Together with Prof. Tamar Gottlieb, the two doctors recruited a team and set up their laboratory in Jaffa.



Working to produce the polio vaccine in the Yaffa Goldblum lab, November 1956, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

One year later, the vaccine was ready, and by January 1957, the mass-scale vaccination of Israel’s population was underway.

Mass-scale vaccination underway in Israel, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

More often than not, when invited on honorary visits abroad, Dr. Salk declined. But when he was invited to Israel in 1959 for an official visit, he agreed and explained that the reason for his consent was his deep affection for the people and state of Israel. The doctor added that “what is being done in Israel is both profound and exalted. And I think the Israelis understand this, because they are the ones carrying out a revolution in the lives of the Jewish people.” In Israel, the good doctor was greeted with the respect and honor worthy of heads of state. He met with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, from whom he received a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

David Ben-Gurion presenting Dr. Jonas Salk with a certificate of appreciation, Jerusalem, 1959, photo: Fritz Cohen


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