Menachem Begin Swears Allegiance to the Jewish State

For four years, Menachem Begin was a man underground, in the fullest sense of the word—a commander of an underground force and a wanted man, hiding from the British. After Israel’s declaration of independence, Begin came out of hiding with a historic speech that transformed him into a national political figure.


Menachem Begin speaking at a Herut Party event. Photo: Beno Rothenberg, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

The events of the 5th of Iyar (May 14th) 1948, the day on which the State of Israel declared its independence, are well known: the reading of the Declaration of Independence by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, the signing ceremony, and the thousands who danced in the streets, are an integral part of Israeli collective memory. But what happened on the next day, the first full day of the new state’s independence, while perhaps overshadowed by the outbreak of the War of Independence, was of no less historical consequence.

Citizens of the Hebrew Homeland, Soldiers of Israel, Hebrew Youth, Sisters and Brothers in Zion!

After many years of underground warfare, years of persecution and moral and physical suffering, the rebels against the oppressors stand before you, with a blessing of thanks on their lips and a prayer in their hearts. The blessing is the age-old blessing with which our fathers and our forefathers have always greeted Holy Days. It was with this blessing that they used to taste any fruit for the first time in the season. Today is truly a holiday, a Holy Day, and a new fruit is visible before our very eyes…

We therefore can say with full heart and soul on this first day of our liberation from the British occupier: Blessed is He who has sustained us and enabled us to have reached this time.

Begin’s speech, delivered on May 15th, 1948. Note the rhetoric and the repetition of the messages. The first break concludes with the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Since February 1944, and the publication of his first proclamation as commander of the Irgun (the right-wing Jewish paramilitary organization whose policy was based on the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky), Menachem Begin had been underground, in every sense of the word. Not only was he in command of an underground movement (since December 1943), but he was also forced to hide from the British after calling for an all-out war on British Mandate rule. Begin remained in hiding up until the first full day of Israel’s independence. Then, on the evening of Saturday, May 15th, Begin gave a special speech on an underground radio station. With this speech, he not only emerged from the underground, but dismantled it altogether. Well, except for the Jerusalem faction, but that’s another story… This step was of immense importance given the political situation, with the outbreak of the War of Independence and the demonstrated lack of cooperation, if not outright hostility, that prevailed among the Irgun, the Lehi, the Haganah, and the Palmach – the various Jewish military organizations.

Begin’s hideout in Petach Tikva, one of the many safe houses he used during his period in hiding. From the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archive of Petach Tikva, available via the Israel Archives Network of the National Library of Israel and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage

With the end of the mandate that expired on May 15th, 1948, the days leading up to the British withdrawal from the Land of Israel were full of uncertainty. Even the date of the declaration of the state was in doubt, since the United States had sent a clear message calling for a ceasefire as well as talks on the nature of the future governing of the region. Inside the territories of the designated state, doubt was also cast on the strength of Jewish military power in the face of the Arab states’ threats of invasion and the already burgeoning war in other parts of the country. The need for a single, regular, and orderly army that would be subject to the new interim government was obvious, but first, the situation with the underground paramilitary forces of the Irgun and the Lehi had to be resolved. Unfortunately, relations between the commanders of these underground groups and the leaders of the mainstream Jewish political organizations were problematic, and the years-long intense hatred between the different factions had infiltrated into the ranks. All of which raised concerns about the ability to establish a functioning army in such a short time and under so much pressure, even though the military infrastructure in the form the Haganah, which was strongly associated with the ruling elite of that period, was at the ready.

Begin in Paris, apparently in December 1948. From right to left: Ben Zion Shmuel Chomski, Menachem Begin (seated in the middle), and Eli Ferstein, a commander in the Irgun. Photo courtesy of the Ben Zvi Institute, available via the Israel Archives Network of the National Library of Israel and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage

Begin began the speech on the underground’s Kol Haherut radio as the commander of the Irgun, but ended it as the leader of the opposition, at least temporarily. As befitting the moment and in light of the war, he chose the path of the common good of the people—he backed the government, called for unity, and swore allegiance to the state.

Knowing the move might weaken him politically, but understanding the magnitude of the hour, and in view of the real threat to the newly established state, Begin chose to do what was in its best interest. However, he also felt it was his duty to acknowledge the work of the underground movement: “It took generations of wandering from one land of slaughter to another country of pogroms . . . the toil of generations of pioneers and builders, the uprising of rebels, the crushers of enemies, people sent to the gallows, and wanderers over deserts and across seas—for us to reach where we are today.”

Justice prevails in the State of Israel, according to Begin. From Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948

Begin, known even back then for his dramatic speaking style, began with a pathos-filled description of the state of affairs in the newly founded State of Israel. In the second part of the speech, he spoke of the brains and the brawn that would be required to win. In the third part of the speech, he outlined the foundations of Israel’s future foreign policy, including absorption of widespread immigration. Begin did not sidestep the difficulties but confidently sketched the new state’s ability to address them. The next part of the speech was devoted to the justice to which the state should aspire.

And within our Homeland, justice shall be the supreme ruler, the ruler over all rulers. There must be no tyranny. The Ministers and officials must be the servants of the nation and not their masters. There must be no exploitation. There must be no man within our country—be he citizen or foreigner—compelled to go hungry, to want for a roof over his head or to lack elementary education. ‘Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt’—this supreme rule must continually light our way in our relations with the strangers within our gates. ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue’ will be the guiding principle in our relations amongst ourselves.

Declaring the dismantling of the underground. From Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948

After laying the foundation, Begin came to the real purpose of his speech—dismantling the Irgun inside the borders of the new state (with the exception of Jerusalem). Begin announced the acceptance of one state and one army under the authority of the Hebrew law—the concept of the rule of law, as befitting a democracy.

It is for these goals and principles, and in the framework of democracy, that the Herut Movement will struggle, arising out of the underground and fashioned by the fighting family, a movement made up of all circles, all exiles, all streams around the flag of the Irgun. The Irgun Zvai Leumi is leaving the underground inside the boundaries of the Hebrew independent state. We went underground, we arose in the underground, under a rule of oppression in order to strike at oppression and to overthrow it. And right well have we struck. Now, for the time being, we have a Hebrew rule in part of our homeland. And as in this part there will be Hebrew Law—and that is the only rightful law in this country—there is no need for a Hebrew underground. 

The reward for the willingness to head into battle, in Begin’s eyes, was the existence of an upright and secure Jewish state, where Jewish children could grow up in an independent country of their own, as in the days of yore. He concluded his speech with a personal prayer, seen below.

The prayer concluding Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948, and at the bottom of the page—is that a shopping list?

God, Lord of Israel, protect your soldiers. Grant blessing to their sword that is renewing the covenant that was made between your chosen people and your chosen land. Arise O Lion of Judea for our people, for our land. On to battle. Forward to victory.


Begin delivering a speech, in the 1960s. Photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

Two weeks after the declaration of independence, Begin announced that he had signed an unofficial agreement with Ben-Gurion, and referred to the Israel Defense Forces as “the united forces.” The IDF was established on May 31st, 1948, and on June 1st, 1948, Begin signed an agreement with Yisrael Galili, a representative of the provisional government, which began the disbanding of the Irgun and its integration into the IDF. The agreement stipulated that the Irgun’s operations would cease to operate “as a military brigade in the State of Israel and in the territory of the Government of Israel.” As mentioned, the Irgun preserved its independent status in the blockaded city of Jerusalem because it was not part of the State of Israel at the time and the agreement referred only to state territory.

Begin’s historic speech dismantling the underground and calling for loyalty to the state and its army, was an important step, albeit a preliminary and mainly declarative one. Begin of course meant every word of his speech, but the actual implementation was much more difficult and complicated. Begin’s speech marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life as a political leader, who, eventually, after twenty-nine years in the opposition, would became the first Likud Prime Minister.

The speech was not only broadcast on the Irgun’s Kol Haherut radio, but was also disseminated in print, in a small pamphlet distributed to the fighters. A copy of “The Speech of the Supreme Commander of the Irgun to the People in Zion” is preserved at the National Library of Israel. While it is unclear how this particular copy entered the collection, it was apparently a very personal one: at the end is a handwritten list of items that includes a lamp, coat, shirt, books, and papers. We do not know its purpose, but perhaps the writer was hoping to buy these items or pack them away, maybe to furnish a new apartment, after finally leaving the underground, and coming out of hiding.

Isaac Newton’s Map of the Apocalypse

Isaac Newton, who possessed one of the greatest scientific minds in human history, had some fascinating views on the End of Days. His vision even linked the apocalypse to the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

So then the mystery of this restitution of all things is to be found in all the Prophets: which makes me wonder with great admiration that so few Christians of our age can find it there. For they understand not that ye final return of ye Jews captivity & their conquering the nations (of ye four Monarchies) & setting up a peaceable righteous & flourishing Kingdom at ye day of judgment is this mystery. 

—Isaac Newton, Of ye Day of Judgment & World to Come

How does one bridge the gap between science and faith? In 1795, the English poet and artist William Blake created one of his most iconic paintings. Its subject was the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727), one of the greatest scientists in all of history. Blake defined Newton as one of the fathers of rational thought. However, make no mistake, the painting was not complimentary of its subject. Blake painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean, immersed in measurements and calculations and ignoring the world around him.

The modern image of Newton is perhaps not so far from Blake’s somewhat mocking representation. After all, the first image that generally comes to mind when one mentions the name “Newton”, is that of a rationalist scientist so preoccupied with his theoretical musings that it took an apple dropping on to his head to bluntly remind him that there was indeed a real, tangible world to be contended with. In the popular imagination, Newton’s apple was responsible for sparking his mission to formulate the universe’s physical laws.

Despite this stigma, it seems that few, including Blake, were familiar with Newton’s mystical and esoteric writings. The collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda purchased these manuscripts in 1936, which were deposited, along with the rest of his collection, at the National Library of Israel in 1969. Many of the writings are digitally accessible through the Library’s website, and reveal a completely different side of Newton’s world.

Isaac Newton by William Blake (1795)

In Jewish tradition, the End of Days is not generally a common topic of discussion or study. Indeed, the Day of Judgment is mentioned only briefly in some of the apocryphal books (ancient texts that were not included in the Bible), although over the course of Jewish history, the issue did occasionally surface during darker periods, which brought with them episodes of messianic revival. Nevertheless, the belief in the destruction of the existing world and the creation of a new one in its stead does not occupy a central place within Judaism. On the contrary, Jews are commanded to preserve the existing world. In Christianity, on the other hand, the apocalyptic vision in the New Testament describes the End of Days with chilling accuracy. The Book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John), the last book of the New Testament, describes the exact geographic location where the final and decisive war in history, known as Armageddon, will take place. Apologies for the spoiler.

Newton believed in the unequivocal, divine origin of the Bible. He devoted his time not only to clarifying the laws of nature, but also to searching for the essence behind them. The scientific motivation to comprehend the world and explain it was also what pushed him to seek understanding of reality’s more esoteric secrets, as well as any religious meaning that lay behind them.

One of Newton’s main pursuits in this respect was calculating the exact time and location of the end of the world. Among the seemingly vague chapters of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Newton sought accurate prophecies for the future of the world and the redemption of the human souls living in it. It is important to understand that at the time Newton formulated his great scientific theories, modern science had not yet completely abandoned the esoteric and religious sources from which it had developed.

Already in his early theological writings, Newton invested much interpretive energy in deciphering John’s apocalyptic revelation. Among other things, he hoped to discover the exact location where the events that would lead to the End of Days would begin. Not satisfied with theoretical research and written interpretation, the scientist even attached a map that indicates precisely the area expected to be the focus of the Day of Judgment to one of his essays on the subject. We will come back to this map, created some 300 years ago, and the many notes scribbled in its margins, which hold an abundance of multidisciplinary information.

Newton’s map of the apocalypse. Click for a closer look. View the full manuscript here.

John’s Revelation tells of the sounding of seven trumpets, each of which heralds a different apocalyptic event. Because Newton did not believe that the end of the world would come in his lifetime, he did not define the location of the seventh and final trumpet sounding. What he did mark on the map were the events leading up to the End of Days; that is, the sounding of the fifth and sixth trumpets (Revelation 9). Newton understood the fifth trumpet to be the rise of Arab Islam. And the sixth – the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which Newton believed was sent by God to punish sinful Christians and finally destroy the remnants of the corrupt Roman Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire.

And where, according to Newton, do the end time events take place? Why, right here, in our own cozy little neighborhood known as the Middle East, where else? With great precision, Newton identified four provinces: Asia (the city of Konya, in modern day Turkey), Syria (the city of Damascus), Mosul (in Iraq), and Meyafarikîn (today the city of Silvan, also in modern Turkey). To each he assigned one of the four angels of the apocalypse liberated from the Euphrates River during the sixth trumpet event (Revelation 9: 14). According to John’s vision, the departure of the four angels of the apocalypse to sow destruction and devastation throughout the world precedes the coming of the mysterious beast—mentioned in the book as one of the initiators of doomsday—and symbolizes the final battle.

Given the starting point of the angels of the apocalypse according to Newton, one area stands out for its absence from his map. This is Mount Megiddo, which in the Greek translation became Armageddon, later taking root in Christian tradition as the name for the Judgment Day event itself. Megiddo is mentioned in the Bible several times, often in the context of an important battle (remember the story of Yael and Sisera? That happened nearby), but only in Christianity is it incorporated into the vision of the end of days. According to Revelation, the final battle between the forces of evil, led by the beast, and the forces of good commanded by God, will take place at Mount Megiddo. In this battle, the wicked will be defeated, after which the kingdom of heaven will reign over the earth.

Newton provides a historical example for the connection between the forces of evil and divine providence. In a note scribbled on the map’s margins, Newton discusses two military leaders of the forces of evil: one is Saladin (1138–1193), who expelled the last of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, and the other is Genghis Khan (1162–1227), whose Mongol hordes appeared from the East, and sowed destruction and devastation across much of the world. Newton perceived the rise of the two conquerors as the intervention of divine providence.

The first page of Newton’s essay to which he added the Judgment Day map. Click here for a closer look.

Newton’s manuscripts preserved at the National Library of Israel offer an intriguing glimpse into aspects not widely known about this venerated scientist, notably his interest in alchemy and his systematic attempt to recreate the divine prophecy that had been lost since biblical times; that is, to understand the prophecies handed down by the Hebrew prophets. Albert Einstein made the case for the significance of these documents clearly in a letter to his friend, the collector and Middle East expert Abraham Shalom Yahuda, in 1940. Einstein elucidated for Yahuda the importance of collecting and making Newton’s theological and alchemical writings available for study, emphasizing that these writings open an unprecedented window into the man’s work. Einstein wrote:

While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.

From the theological records preserved in the Library, it is clear that like a number of 17th-century Protestant commentators, Newton also believed that the end of the world was encrypted in the text of the Bible. The thousands of carefully hand-written pages are evidence of the devotion of one of human history’s greatest minds to the solving of this riddle. As hinted in the quotation which appears at the beginning of this article, the return of the Jews to Zion was a central part of the Newtonian vision.


Browse through Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts, preserved at the National Library of Israel, here.


A Vanishing World: What Will Become of the Yung Yiddish Museum?

The “Yung Yiddish" museum, tucked away inside a massive bus station, is something in between a library and an underground club. Its collections have survived two world wars in Europe. Whether they can survive the disparaging attitude in Israel remains to be seen.


The Yung Yiddish museum in the Tel Aviv New Central Bus Station. Photo: Amit Naor

“May your journey be as smooth as ice!” I imagined the fellow I bumped into on my way to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv shout after me. With a tilt of the head and one eye closed, the huge station, with its eclectic mix of stores, hawkers, passers-by and a general ramshackle atmosphere, could perhaps pass for a bustling Polish shtetl from the early twentieth century. That kind of chilly greeting is exactly what one would expect to hear in such a shtetl, if one had bumped into a young fellow rushing to the market to sell his eggs.

With this thought in mind, I entered the bus station’s hulking edifice. I was there to visit a place known as “Yung Yiddish”, hidden somewhere on the fifth floor, in the abandoned artists’ complex. The institution styles itself as “A Lively Yiddish Museum”. The reason for my visit was the impending threat to its future, with plans being prepared for clearing out the entire building. While working on this article we were informed that, for the time being, the bus station structure had been saved from demolition, but the pressure to evacuate the tenants was still on. The media attention surrounding the building’s fate and the threat of eviction has led the association’s directors and the museum to consider relocating in any case.

Mendy Cahan, founder of the Yung Yiddish Association and the living spirit behind the museum, arrives a little late to our meeting. He pours me some Turkish coffee and tells me about this somewhat unconventional location for a museum-cum-archive-cum-Yiddish club. “We feel comfortable in the central station. Sure, there are some problems related to whether it’s going to shut down or not, but we would not have been able to function anywhere else. We have financial constraints and our work is based entirely on volunteering.”

Cahan with a theater costume and posters at the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

Beyond material concerns, do you feel that your presence at the central bus station has any added meaning?

Being in the central bus station also gives us a cultural context. We, after all, represent a culture in distress, like many other of the central bus station’s tenants [the station is home to dozens of businesses run by immigrants living in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods – Ed.]. We also love the polyphonic surroundings. It’s a bit like the West End in London or Second Avenue. This is a port. There is a lot of traffic and immigrants here. And yet, it’s in the middle of Tel Aviv. Yiddish is also like that: something central and huge that has somehow been left crumpled on the sidelines.

Do you like being here?

Definitely. I love this place. We can reach all kinds of audiences this way. Although there are people who are less likely to come here because of the fact that it’s here, on the other hand a lot of young people come by, eclectic, special types who wouldn’t have found us anywhere else.

Will you be sad to leave?

There’s not really anywhere to go.  No one’s waiting to receive us. Our location is also important in terms of the ability to bring books from all over the country. This is a collection project that has expanded beyond its dimensions and become a cultural and research center.

Any thoughts about what will happen when everything has to be vacated? Where will you go?

There are plenty of thoughts. Thoughts and worries. Right now, there is no direction because we have nothing. We have no money. We can barely even afford this place. I can’t imagine what it would mean to move to Rothschild Boulevard and calculate how much the property tax will cost us there. On the other hand, all the talk about the possibility of vacating the station in recent weeks has made me realize that we are sustaining a very, very big project. We have grown over time and stretched out into different directions. We do events, collect books and also try to catalog and sort, as well as do projects and exhibitions. There are a lot of things to do and we constantly feel a little behind and unable to keep up. Because we’re always busy, it’s difficult for us to stop for a moment and find solutions. We may need outside help from the establishment for that.

And there’s no support? How about the Tel Aviv Municipality or the Ministry of Culture?

There’s nothing. The municipality only sends bills. We are a volunteer non-profit, no one receives a salary; there isn’t even a paid manager. Even taking care of the bureaucracy required for that kind of funding is difficult; even filling out a form and knowing which office to contact, and sending the form in on time—that’s already complicated for us.

The central space of the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor


The Wide World of Yiddish

Cahan came to Israel in 1980 and began studying at the Hebrew University. He studied philosophy, literature and other subjects in the humanities, until he decided to join the university’s Yiddish department. “Then the wide world of Yiddish opened up to me, in all its breadth and depth. I discovered how special this language is; how alive and connected it is to European cultures and also thriving in its own right. On the other hand, I thought to myself, here we are in the State of Israel and there is not even a whiff of this anywhere in the public space. I saw that there were no Yiddish books in stores, so I decided to collect them myself. I took up the responsibility.”

He started the book collection on his own, in the early 1990s. “At first it was in my house. I remember sitting in the sealed-off room [a protective measure meant to protect from potential chemical missile attacks during the first Gulf War – Ed.] with all the Yiddish materials around me. Then we moved to another place in Jerusalem, and slowly the collection grew. I collected fragments of dreams and memories.”

When you started, were you only thinking of collecting books, or were you already planning for a wider collection?

I collected everything. Anything that was in Yiddish. A book, a newspaper, anything printed. I also realized from the beginning that I wanted other people to be excited about it. I realized that I was collecting books, but that I also wanted to construct a huge tower made out of them – so that others would notice them. So very quickly, I took part in the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Tens of thousands of books inside a relatively small space. Photo: Amit Naor

Did you set any guidelines for this collection process?

The only guideline was to be open to everything. I thought to myself: There’s the Bund, there’s Beit Sholem Aleichem, there’s the Kultur Lige, there’s YIVO [all of these are Yiddish cultural institutions – A.N.] There are all of these islands with their own traditions; each organization has its own respective emphasis and specialization. Then it happens, for example, that in one place they don’t want to store Hasidic melodies, and in another place they aren’t interested in housing something else. But we live in a postmodern, eclectic world, so I wanted to collect everything. And we don’t just collect, we also broadcast the collection outwards. From the first moment, I wanted people to take books, to come and talk to each other. The idea was to connect everyone.

Cahan is a native of Antwerp, Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. “Antwerp is an interesting Jewish city. The pre-war local Jewish community hardly survived the Holocaust. The Jewish population after World War II was composed of many Holocaust survivors who came from Poland and Moldavia. There are about 20,000 Jewish residents with 30 different synagogues. That’s why the Jewish community in Antwerp speaks Yiddish.”

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card in Yiddish. Photo courtesy of the Yung Yiddish Association

And you never felt any tension between European culture and Yiddish culture? Was Yiddish culture perhaps looked down upon?

I read Sartre and Camus in the original language. But studying in the Yiddish Department, I understood the depth of Yiddish and its culture. Even having learned French and German culture, I came to the realization that my culture is something else. It’s both European and something else. I dived into the history of Yiddish, into its power, its multifaceted dimensions.

And yet, in Israel this culture is almost forgotten.

Here, the vacuum surrounding Yiddish called on me to act. There’s a saying in Yiddish, “B’makom she’eyn ish, iz hering oykh a fish” (“Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.” – A.N.). Yiddish is still significant; people still speak this language. It’s not dead.

Have you felt a change in the attitude toward Yiddish in recent years?

Yes, young people are showing more interest. The creative space of the language has grown. The audience is expanding. There’s more research. It’s considered less exotic. You also see it in the visitors. There are 18-year-old boys who come here to visit or volunteer. There was even a class of fourth graders, ten-year-olds, who came to hear about Yiddish for half an hour. Besides that, there are more Hebrew translations of Yiddish literature. New works as well, not just the classics. And there’s poetry and klezmer bands. Interest in Yiddish is still alive in many forms.

How many Yiddish speakers are there in Israel?

The numbers vary. Some say that there are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers here. There are about a million in the world. But even those who remain silent in Yiddish are important to me, and there are many of those. People aged 40, 50, and 60 come for tours of the museum. I talk with them a little, sing a little, say a couple of phrases in Yiddish, and suddenly they’re surprised to find out how much they understand. These people interest me as well. You know, Kafka gave only one lecture in his lifetime—a lecture on Yiddish. He said, “You’ll be surprised how much more Yiddish you understand than you think you do.” And he was right.

The jacket cover of a record by comedian Shimon Dzigan. Who else is on the cover? Photo: Amit Naor


A Creative Study House

So what exactly is the Yung Yiddish museum? Until further notice, it’s here, on the fifth floor of the New Central Bus Station. You’re welcome to visit. After you enter through the glass doors, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a kind of library-warehouse-pub-theater. Long rows of high shelves, filled to bursting with books, pamphlets and newspapers. There are other items as well. Posters of Yiddish cabaret performances, dresses and other costumes from the Yiddish theater, as well as a corner filled with records, CDs and sheet music. You can find memorial books here too, as Yiddish is the language of the destroyed communities of Eastern European Jewry, along with entertainment magazines, translations of literary masterpieces, science books and pamphlets of Hasidic tales that continue to be published in Yiddish in Israel. In another section are manuscripts by writers and artists. Somewhere among the shelves is a collection of thousands of jokes in Yiddish copied out in long hand—an item that no Yiddish collection would be complete without, naturally. There’s even a board game in Yiddish stashed somewhere in a closet if you feel like playing.

What do you do here besides collect books?

We hold cultural events here. We have sing-alongs, launch parties, holiday celebrations, exhibitions. We did a rave, cabarets, klezmer music performances, Hasidic melody performances, everything. The place is open. We don’t have money, so this is how we get by, by hosting all kinds of events. Besides that, there are a lot of groups that come to the central station for all sorts of reasons, and then the tours pass by here as well. Each visit, I reveal a little about Yiddish culture, the written culture, things that will soon be forgotten.

Books in the Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

“This place is a theater, a tavern, a synagogue, a study house, a yeshiva,” explains Eli Benedict, who serves as the association’s director—on a volunteer basis, of course. “When I first came here, as a young volunteer, it was a community place, a place of shared creativity and this has vanished. It is reminiscent of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, a glorious library that attracted people from all corners—secular, religious—they all met there. This is a study house for creation.”

And you continue to collect books. How do they get to you?

In most cases, people who want to bring books call us. We hardly look for them on our own anymore. Sometimes places refer people to us, the Yiddish department or a community center or libraries, where people are told “we don’t deal with books like this, go to Yung Yiddish.” Very high quality things come here. There are also collections, manuscripts and archives of intellectuals who want their archives preserved here and not elsewhere.

“Sometimes people call because they saw books on the sidewalk,” Benedict adds. “After you see that a couple of times, you feel as if our culture is going up in smoke. To go outside on Holocaust Memorial Day and see a mountain of Yiddish books dumped somewhere, to see the stamps in the books and realize that these books were saved from Hitler only to be thrown out on a curb in Israel. It leaves an impression on your soul. The Nazis burned books, the gentiles have always burned our books. And here in the Jewish state, books are tossed like so many pebbles in the street. Why did we build a state if not to preserve our culture?”

The entire system is run by the volunteers. Cahan estimates that there are currently dozens, of all ages: high schoolers, soldiers, retirees, all are welcome. “The volunteers did a phenomenal cataloging job here and it’s not done yet. I squeeze every last drop out of them. We have volunteers who got their first taste of Yiddish here and have gone on to study and research it.”

A Yiddish board game called Kfitzat Haderekh (a Kabbalistic concept with connotations of a miraculous leap to a distant location). Photo: Amit Naor

“Our volunteers collect books from all over the country,” says Benedict. “We once managed to stuff 700 books into a Toyota Corolla. We made 12 trips in private cars to transfer books, then we switched to trucks.”

“All the interviews and conversations I’ve had recently made me realize that the museum needs to be institutionalized,” says Cahan. “There also needs to be professional staff here who know what an archive is, and what a library is. Yes, we have good intuitions, but we’ve already grown above and beyond.”

What is your vision for this place?

“Something big, something international. It has to be institutionalized. But it can’t be too tidy,” laughs Cahan. “I want to keep the eclecticism and the ability to do things for free.”

And should it be in Tel Aviv?

“If they give us a place in the periphery, then we’ll go there,” says CEO Benedict. “We will of course also be happy to receive support from the Ministry of Culture. We see the preservation as a national goal. In time, we believe people will understand this collection better, and will give it more respect.”

“We may have to leave for a less central location,” Cahan admits with a smile. “But we want a permanent place. Just so we don’t have to leave town again.”

Before Liberation: Mourning the Holocaust in 1945

As the camps still operated in Europe, a call from Jerusalem to remember the victims and help the survivors was heeded across the globe...

Nearly two months before these men and thousands like them were liberated from the camps, the global Jewish community united to mourn the fate of European Jewry and organize efforts to help the survivors (Photo: George Mallinder / National Archives and Records Administration via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Public domain)

In March 1945, the Allied victory was all but palpable, though carnage still raged across Europe. Auschwitz had been liberated at the end of January, yet almost all other major Nazi death camps were still operational.

Germany was desperate and knew defeat was on its way. The Wehrmacht began enlisting 15- and 16-year old boys. The same month saw the last major German offensive of the war, which soon ended in failure. Hitler paid his last visit to the front, promising that “new weapons” were on their way. They never came.

In his last public appearance before going into hiding and later killing himself, the despot awarded medals to members of the Hitler youth.

Shortly after the appearance, Winston Churchill made a brief yet powerfully symbolic crossing of the Rhine.

Winston Churchill steps ashore onto the east bank of the River Rhine, 25 March 1945 (Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

Yet across the Jewish world, the all-but-incalculable toll of the Holocaust was increasingly calculated. Understood. Internalized.

One-third of all Jews in the world had been massacred.

On March 5, a gathering took place at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, deemed “the greatest Jewish synod to be held in the Holy City in modern times” by The Palestine Post, which reported that:

“… all the rabbis in Palestine assembled in conclave, from town and settlement, Sephardi religious leaders in their flowing oriental robes, side by side with Hassidic rabbis, among them the heads of the famous Sadagora dynasty, and rabbis from Europe who had found shelter here from Nazi persecution…”

Sitting on the ground and unable to hold back their tears, the esteemed and diverse group of rabbinical leaders recited prayers and read from the Book of Lamentations. They chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish and blew the shofar seven times – a rare, dramatic act in Jewish tradition – before walking together to pray at the Western Wall.

Months prior to the gathering, well before the Red Army reached Auschwitz, Rabbi Hizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky drafted a proposal, which he sent to leading figures in the Land of Israel, including prominent rabbinical organizations and the Jewish Agency. Mishkovsky himself was a leader of Polish Jewry who had come to the Land of Israel at the turn of the 20th century, yet remained in close contact with the communities of Poland and Lithuania, often traveling back and forth before the war. He was also a leader of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee, founded in 1942 with the goal of working to save European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Mishkovsky’s proposal recommended organizing a gathering of rabbis to focus on working to salvage what was left of European Jewry, while also grieving for its destruction by means of a seven-day mourning period and a permanent annual day of mourning and fasting.

Perhaps the most influential recipient of Mishkovsky’s proposal was Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the Land of Israel, who soon thereafter hosted some fifty leading rabbis in his Jerusalem home to further discuss these recommendations.

Letter dated 24 Tevet (9 January 1945) inviting Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski to a meeting at Rabbi Herzog’s home to discuss “establishing a fast day and days of… lamentations over millions of our brothers…” From the Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski Archive, National Library of Israel

The group declared that the Jews of Mandatory Palestine must open their homes to the survivors and that special efforts must be made to locate and save Jewish children hidden away in monasteries across Europe, ensuring that they come to the Land of Israel as soon as possible and, no less important, that they receive traditional Jewish education. Moreover, they declared that a national “Yahrzeit” (memorial day) for the millions of victims must be proclaimed.

This meeting laid the foundation for the March 5th assembly at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. It was then that Chief Rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, and the others present, called for a week of mourning throughout the Land of Israel, and “wherever these words reach,” to begin on March 8th and culminate with a fast day on March 14. They requested that during the week of mourning the public refrain from activities of leisure and entertainment, and that on the fast day itself, Jewish businesses and transportation would stop, as people dedicated time in synagogue and at home to mourn the victims.

Paralleling the famous words of biblical prophecy, the rabbis’ declaration “went forth from Zion” and – quite remarkably – Jewish communities across the globe adopted it, as did the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, religious and secular alike.

The act of Jewish solidarity was all but unprecedented in the annals of modern history, driven by rabbis who by today’s standards would be considered Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox, yet also being decisively adopted by the secular Zionist establishment and non-Orthodox movements globally.

From the capital of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Community Council of Moscow publicly expressed its observance of the week of mourning and the fast day, going so far as to also notify remaining Jewish communities and organizations across Europe about the initiative. The move in Moscow was hailed as historic and encouraging by Jews outside of communist controlled Eastern Europe.

Headline published in The Sentinel on March 22, 1945; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click the image to read the complete article

The Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella group bridging the three major Jewish movements in the United States, called for all of the country’s Jews to join in the communal mourning.

Survivors in Romania and Greece joined the international initiative.

Many communities throughout the British Empire – from Canada to South Africa to Australia – ignored the objections of their own chief rabbi, Joseph Hertz, one of few major contemporary Jewish leaders to oppose the initiative, and decided to mark the week of mourning with their coreligionists worldwide.

Even Jewish soldiers in the British Army stationed in Tripoli made plans to fast and observe the week of mourning by voluntarily confining themselves to their barracks, while in Mandatory Palestine, Jewish sailors in the Royal Navy attended a memorial service to mark the day.

The British High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan himself, Lord Gort, personally received the declaration from the chief rabbis, who also sent it via telegram to Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, imploring them to not only remember the victims but also to allow the survivors to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945 (National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain)

While the “Big Three” were busy overseeing the ongoing war efforts across Europe and in the Pacific, Lord Gort was receptive to the declaration, letting the rabbis know that he would send it along to London. He also ordered that Jewish officials throughout Mandatory Palestine would be released from their duties on the fast day.

In fact, commemoration of the fast day in British Mandatory Palestine was quite extensive, including a stoppage of work and traffic, and a complete “internal curfew” from 9am to 11am.

Jewish police officers and schoolchildren donated money on the day to a rescue fund for Holocaust survivors.

The flags at the Jewish Agency building and the Polish consulate were flown at half-mast.

Even the major cities largely observed the somber day, as reported in The Palestine Post:

“A quiet self-discipline prevailed all through Jewish Palestine yesterday, the day of fast and voluntary curfew which ended the week of mourning for European Jewry… Jewish residential sections of Jerusalem and Haifa were deserted, and even children kept indoors… The usually crowded and bustling streets of Tel Aviv were hushed and in the evening shop windows were dark…”

There had been previous calls for international days of Jewish solidarity and fasting, including a declaration by Rabbis Herzog and Uziel, not long after the outbreak of the war. Yet nothing before (nor probably since) seemed to compare to the response elicited by the March 1945 initiative – which transcended virtually all boundaries and distinctions within the global Jewish community.

Perhaps the pain at the time was so raw and so real that Jews around the world – regardless of nationality or level of religious observance – were simply waiting for some sort of call to collective bereavement.

Some two months before the last camp was liberated, and six decades before the United Nations designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that call came from Zion.

Many thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Katz, leading scholar of the Israeli Rabbinate, for his assistance and expertise.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.