Street posters from the 1960s to 1980s advertising “Silvester” New Year’s Eve parties that featured popular entertainers. The National Library of Israel collections
Celebrating the Gregorian calendar new year has always been a topic of controversy in the Jewish state. The Jewish calendar, after all, predates Pope Gregory XIII’s calculation by some four millennia, and the region functioned for centuries under the Ottoman Empire’s rumi calendar.
Nonetheless, the Gregorian calendar was adopted for civil use with the British conquest of the Ottoman Empire, on March 1, 1917, and the beginning of the year reset to January 1 in 1918.
In the first decade of the British Mandate, the local Orthodox Christian population marked the new year according to the Julian calendar in mid-January, Muslims celebrated the new year in summer, and the Jewish population honored Rosh Hashana in early fall.
British Army soldiers stationed in the region had their big blow-outs at Christmas (see “Biscuits, bully beef and beer”), but by the mid-1920s, with British officialdom firmly in place, New Year’s Eve celebrations were organized. In 1927, several wives of British bureaucrats based in Jerusalem are recorded as having held a dinner party followed by a ball on New Year’s Eve.
The Jewish population of pre-state Israel in the 1930s didn’t celebrate the Gregorian New Year, and instead embraced Hanukkah as its winter celebration.
Advertisements for New Year’s Eve celebrations, even if they were held at the Jewish-owned Mugrabi Theater in Tel Aviv, were targeted to English and Arabic speakers. The Jewish population announced its mid-December Hanukkah balls in Hebrew.
The Emotional Reunion With Hannah Senesh’s Notebook
In the 1950s, Katherine Senesh donated four pages containing poems handwritten by her paratrooper daughter to the National Library. Now, with the deposit of the full Hannah Senesh Collection, these pages will be reunited with the notebook from which they originally came
Hannah Senesh, with the first poem in her notebook in the background, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen
In the early 1950s, Katherine Senesh, the mother of the famous paratrooper and poet Hannah Senesh (often spelled Szenes), entrusted a number of documents from her daughter’s estate to the National Library of Israel. Among these were some of her letters: a few she sent to her mother while attending the agricultural school in Nahalal, a letter she sent to her brother while she was with the partisans in the Balkans, and a letter she sent to her friend. There was also a collection of typed poems she had written in Hungarian, as well as four handwritten poems in Hebrew.
The four handwritten poems can be viewed on the National Library website, here. All were written during 1941 in various places linked to Senesh’s life in pre-state Israel: Nahalal, Kibbutz Sdot Yam, of which she was a founding member, and Ginosar. With their donation to the National Library, they joined the Schwadron Collection, which collects portraits and autograph samples of many personalities.
The upper corners of the handwritten pages are numbered, and the pages look as though they have been torn from a notebook, which they were. Now, we can finally tell the complete story of these pages.
Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life, and she herself began writing at a very young age. She wrote first in her mother tongue, Hungarian. After arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she began to learn Hebrew and very quickly mastered writing in that language as well. She wrote constantly and kept a diary for years. As is well known, she wrote her poems in secret, with all of them being published posthumously.
Just before embarking on the parachute mission from which she did not return, Senesh copied her poems neatly into a notebook with numbered pages. She titled the notebook Lelo Safa (“Without Language”) though most of the poems were in Hebrew, and signed it with her underground codename, Hagar. She gave this notebook to her close friend and classmate at the Nahalal Agricultural School for Girls, Miriam Yitzhak. On the first page, she added a dedication: “To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.”
When Katherine Senesh arrived in Israel and began collecting poems and letters for the commemoration of her daughter, she asked Miriam, who had kept the treasured notebook, to send her some poems in Hannah’s handwriting. In a letter Katherine wrote to Abraham Schwadron, she mentioned Miriam’s qualms about tearing pages from the notebook: “This time I am sending the poems I promised, the ones that Hannah’s friend, after much hesitation, was willing to tear from the notebook.” This was how the pages reached the archives of the National Library of Israel. Now, decades later, the torn pages have finally been reunited with the complete notebook.
After Miriam Yitzhak’s death, the notebook passed into the possession of Eitan Senesh, Hannah’s nephew, who for years managed, cataloged and maintained the Hannah Senesh collection. In November 2020, when the family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library, Eitan confessed that he asked himself many times what had happened to those missing pages – numbered 7, 8, 11 and 12 in Hannah’s handwriting. Eitan did not know that his grandmother, Katherine, had already handed them over to the National Library seventy years earlier, into Abraham Schwadron’s trustworthy hands. Now, the lost pages are finally reunited with the original notebook, from where they were torn. Along with the notebook, dozens of other items from Senesh’s estate were deposited with the Library, among them her typewriter, camera, certificates, documents from Hungary, letters and photographs.
With this donation, the National Library’s Archives Department now faces a professional dilemma, whether to physically reattach the torn pages to Hannah Senesh’s original notebook, or leave them as separate items in the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection. Matan Barzilai, who heads the Archives Department, hesitated but finally made an unconventional decision: “Although there is no doubt that the pages were torn [from the notebook], and that it is our job to reflect the work as it was originally, in this case I am inclined to leave things as they are. Hannah Senesh’s story did not end in 1944. The archive also reflects the commemoration process and the creation of the legacy surrounding her figure. Katherine’s frank deliberation, her communications with Schwadron and the tearing of the poems [from the notebook], for example—all offer an authentic glimpse of the culture of remembrance in the first years of the state, of Katherine’s involvement in her daughter’s commemoration, and the attitude of librarians in those days regarding the preservation of the original work. Therefore, despite the dilemma, I think we will keep the pages out of the notebook, and leave them were they have been for the past seventy years.”
The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen
Annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival Going Online
The sixth annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival will take place online from the 15th to the 25th of November, 2020
Two parallel online festivals will be held November 15-25: one for international audiences and one for audiences in Israel, both of them featuring award-winning documentary films, Q&A sessions, and an array of special events.
The international festival will highlight some of the best Israeli documentary films from years past, including, among others:
The Docu.Text Film Festival is produced in collaboration with the Docaviv Film Festival. International Docu.Text is part of “Gesher L’Europa”, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.
All events are free of charge and open to the local and global public, Zoom registration required.
All film screenings are available for streaming by purchase only.
Based on the user IP address, viewers will only have access to films from the Israeli festival or the international festival.
Two days into the talks, the Israelis realized they needed a representative from the southern front. Its commander, Yigal Allon, had refused to go. Allon’s protégé, Rabin, also strongly preferred to stay in Israel, where the fighting continued.
Both men had served with distinction as part of the Palmach, the elite fighting force which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had recently disbanded, its troops integrated into the newly formed Israel Defense Army (now more commonly referred to as the “Israel Defense Forces” or “IDF”).
Palmach fighters had prided themselves in a particular ideology that was in many ways antithetical to the “textbook” conduct of a professional military. In the Palmach, chains of command were blurred, the pageantry of military life nonexistent.
Even after ranks were introduced to the IDF in the summer of 1948, Rabin and others wore them sparingly. The concept of a dress uniform was foreign, unnecessary and disdained.
Despite his reservations, the young Rabin was sent to join the small Israeli delegation at the luxurious Hotel des Roses.
With the exception, perhaps, of Allon himself, Rabin was certainly the most qualified man to represent the interests of the southern front at the talks, possessing an intimate and battle-worn familiarity with the terrain.
Perhaps most importantly – from Allon’s perspective – Rabin would faithfully promote the strategic interests the two felt most critically needed to be represented and defended in such discussions, especially as they strongly disagreed with many of the opinions held by the others already in Rhodes.
As the front’s deputy commander and chief operations officer, Rabin was quickly stepping out of Allon’s shadow.
In Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, Itamar Rabinovich explains that around the time of the talks in Rhodes, Rabin “began to be seen on his own as a first-class military planner, the officer who meticulously mapped out the major operations in the south and then supervised their implementation.”
After years of dreaming of a return to the agricultural life for which he’d trained as a teenager, Rabin’s trajectory as a career soldier had now become quite clear. Still a few years shy of 30, he had already achieved one of the highest ranks in the IDF (even though he preferred not to wear it on his sleeve), and was now preparing for his first appearance on the international diplomatic scene.
Never having needed one, he had no dress uniform for the occasion, though, fortunately, one was procured for him.
Recently, another Israeli military official had needed formal attire for a meeting with King Abdullah of Transjordan. For that occasion, a soldier had been dispatched to a Tel Aviv thrift store where he purchased a used World War II American dress uniform, which – now all but threadbare – would be worn by Rabin to meet the Egyptians and United Nations mediators in Rhodes.
A necktie would also be necessary. This, too, Rabin had never worn, nor did he know how to tie (or untie) one.
Walter Eytan, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and head of its delegation to Rhodes had a spare British-knit khaki tie which he gave to the young officer. Though different stories about the necktie were told over the years, it seems that a number of people, including Eytan, fellow Palmach fighter Yeruham Cohen, and even Rabin’s driver, all tried to teach him the proper way to tie a tie.
Rabin was quite dexterous and had once intended to study hydraulic engineering, yet he famously had trouble mastering the necktie at the Hotel des Roses.
Ultimately, the story goes, his driver graciously tied it for him, leaving it loose so that it just had to be tightened in order to show up to meetings and dinner looking presentable.
“I was terrified of the prospect that the knot might come undone,” the future prime minister later recalled in his memoirs.
Despite the assistance, no one had explained how to properly loosen or remove a necktie, and when he went to the hotel’s barber and was asked to take the tie off, Rabin struggled mightily, eventually forcefully yanking it over his head.
Top Egyptian negotiator Colonel Seif a-Din, with whom Rabin had become friendly, witnessed the event with astonishment. The prime minister would later muse that the distinguished Arab officer probably thought at the time: “What kind of savages am I dealing with here?”
Following initial coldness and Egyptian refusal to speak directly with the Israelis or even sit in the same room as them, the two sides would not only come to engage with one another in the context of the official negotiations and the barbershop, but would also socialize between meetings, often playing billiards, a game Rabin first learned (and reportedly mastered) at the Hotel des Roses.
Before boarding the UN charter flight to Rhodes, Rabin had been instructed by his mentor Yigal Allon to accept nothing less than a full peace and to not allow Egypt to retain the territory which would become known as the Gaza Strip.
In his first international diplomatic role, the man who would serve as ambassador to the United States before becoming prime minister reportedly said nothing in any of the official meetings between the sides, though certainly not because he didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation.
In fact, he served as an active and critical adviser behind the scenes, so important in that capacity that when he asked to leave the island after becoming disillusioned with the direction of the negotiations, General Yigal Yadin refused to let him go.
A number of factors likely contributed to Rabin’s mute presence at the official meetings.
In his comprehensive Hebrew-language biography of the Israeli leader, historian Yossi Goldstein proposes a few reasons, including Rabin’s introverted character, his poor English at the time, his respect for the more senior members of the delegation and – perhaps most significantly, according to Goldstein – the disagreements he had with his colleagues.
He himself recalled being “hardly enraptured by the charms of diplomatic ‘give and take'” at the time.
Nonetheless, according to Rabinovich, who served as Rabin’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator to Syria in the 1990s:
“This first experience in diplomacy and negotiations had a lasting effect on Rabin. The lesson he drew from the Rhodes negotiations was that it would be wrong for Israel to negotiate with a group of Arab states because the radical parties would force their line on the others. He would always try to negotiate with one Arab party at a time.”
As the agreement with the Egyptians was being finalized, it became clear that while some of Rabin’s suggestions made their way into the document, especially with regard to the demarcation of armistice lines, neither of Allon’s two primary objectives had been achieved.
Disagreeing with the prime minister and other senior members of Israel’s leadership, Rabin concurred with Allon in his prescient belief that without securing these demands, war would simply break out again in the not-too-distant future.
Prior to the signing, Yitzhak Rabin boarded a flight home, unwilling to be a part of something he viewed as strategically perilous for the future of Israel and eager to help Allon secure control of the Negev.
Continued border tension and four more wars would take place between Israel and Egypt before a comprehension peace treaty was finally reached 30 years later.
Many thanks to Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich for generously contributing his time and expertise.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.