A Rare Glimpse of Jewish Schools in Hungary after the Holocaust

Jewish schools after the destruction: View rare photos smuggled into Israel from post-war Hungary

The community of Holocaust survivors in Hungary after WWII numbered about 150,000 Jews. Many tried to leave the communist-controlled country for the Land of Israel and the Americas, but the gates closed in 1949, and Zionist activity was banned. At the same time, many others tried to rehabilitate the glorious Jewish culture that had existed in Hungary until the Holocaust. Special emphasis was placed on education since, remarkably, maintaining Jewish educational frameworks in the communist state was still possible. Many other Jews joined the new regime, and even held senior positions in it.

The National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People has now revealed hundreds of photographs documenting Jewish education in Hungary in the decade after the Holocaust.

The photographs were smuggled into Israel through what would later be called “Nativ—The Liaison Bureau”, which acted on behalf of the State of Israel to strengthen the Zionist and Jewish connection among Jews beyond the Iron Curtain. Some of the photographs were even officially submitted to Israel’s diplomatic representatives in Budapest.

The photographs show the variety of religious streams that characterized Hungarian Jewry even after the Holocaust. They document classroom learning, alongside holiday activities and group photos. From them, one can learn about the strong connection to the Land of Israel among the Holocaust survivors and about Jewish and Zionist education in Hungary.

Some of the younger children in the photographs were born after World War II to parents who survived the Holocaust in Budapest, or who had returned from forced labor. Other children—the older ones—were themselves Holocaust survivors.

Despite the fact that the communist regime imposed severe restrictions on Jewish education, in the decade after the Holocaust, Jewish educational frameworks of various streams, including Hasidic yeshivas, continued to function. However, some of the Talmud Torah schools were actually general Jewish schools and did not resemble ultra-Orthodox institutions elsewhere.

The “Hungarian uprising” against the communist regime broke out in 1956 and was quelled by a Soviet invasion. After the uprising, which had been marked by anti-Semitic nationalist tendencies, and especially after the Soviet crackdown, many Jews emigrated from Hungary.

At the same time, the authorities further restricted national life in the country, while relations with Israel saw a downturn, before they were severed completely in 1967. The photographs provide a rare glimpse of the Jewish schools in Hungary after the Holocaust, just before the final lowering of the Iron Curtain.

Most of the photographs preserved at the National Library are from 1955 and have been made accessible with the support of the Leslie and Vera Keller Foundation for Enhancement of the Jewish Heritage.

The Jewish Model from Tunisia

A rabbi, a moneychanger and a goldsmith meet in a German photography studio in the early 20th century. No, this is not the opening line of a joke. It is the beginning of a mystery, since all three characters are in fact the same person

It all started in 1903 when a German photographer named Rudolf Franz Lehnert arrived in Tunisia. Besides being a gifted photographer, Lehnert was also a bit of an adventurer. After crossing the entire continent of Europe on foot, he arrived in Tunisia, where he chanced to meet another European photographer named Ernest Heinrich Landrock. The two became enamored with Tunisia and the charm of North Africa and decided to set up a photography studio together called Lehnert & Landrock.

Lehnert crisscrossed the deserts, capturing with his camera the landscapes, sights and people, especially the women, of North Africa. The printed photographs in various techniques made their way from North Africa to places around the world. And the world, it seems, fell under the exotic charm of Tunisia. Later, because of World War II, the two moved to Egypt and documented it as well, before eventually returning to their beloved Tunisia.

Lehnert (left) and Landrock (right)

This article focuses on a number of these postcards which have ended up in the collections of the National Library of Israel.

While documenting the sights of Tunisia, Lehnert also encountered local Jews, whose different dress and unusual customs must have fascinated him and his clientele. He immortalized Tunisian Jewry with his camera, particularly the community’s customs and its women. However, a closer look reveals that one endearing Jew starred in many of the photos, becoming a sort of “in-house model” for the studio.

In a postcard from 1904 featuring the title “Rabbi,” we see the man photographed for the first time in the guise of a rabbi carefully studying the page of a book (possibly a Talmud):

Click to view in the National Library catalog

The next year, the studio produced another postcard, also titled “Rabbi.”

Click to view in the National Library catalog

Here he is again, this time wrapped in a tallit and tefillin reciting the morning prayers in a postcard labeled “Rabbi praying.”

Click to view in the National Library catalog

Another postcard from 1905 adds a twist to the plot: the “rabbi” has suddenly become a Tunisian moneychanger.

Click to view in the National Library catalog

And here again as the familiar figure of the old rabbi.  This time he looks straight at the camera.

Click to view in the National Library catalog

Perhaps our rabbi /moneychanger is in fact a goldsmith?

So who is the mysterious Jewish model in all these photographs, whom the two European photographers obviously found so appealing?

After this article was originally published in Hebrew, one of our Facebook followers, Victor Cohen, told us that this mysterious man is none other than Rabbi Yehuda Zeitoun from the city of Monastir in Tunisia. Cohen, a great-grandson of Rabbi Zeitoun, says that among his many occupations, the rabbi was also a goldsmith, merchant, mohel and a reciter of liturgical poetry. If so, it turns out, the various photographs simply document the rabbi’s varied pursuits. Cohen notes that Rabbi Zeitoun’s son, Rabbi Hai ben Yehuda Zeitoun, was the chief rabbi of the city of Sfax and was even awarded a medal for his work from the ruler of Tunisia.

In any case, the face of this accomplished multi-talented person became a representation of the figure of the North African Jew across large parts of the world.

Resurrecting One of the World’s Oldest Jewish Communities

After decades in ruins, Nikos Stavroulakis set out to revitalize Jewish life on the Greek island of Crete

Composite image of paintings by Nikos Stavroulakis appearing in front of a photograph he took of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue ruins in Hania, Crete, prior to the restoration efforts he led (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

Jews first arrived in Crete from Egypt some 2,300 years ago, perhaps as part of Egyptian military campaigns. A century or two later, they came from the Land of Israel during the Maccabean Revolt.

At the time, Hellenized, Greek-speaking Jews were establishing communities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, considered to be some of the oldest known Jewish diaspora communities.

Their descendants came to be known as “Romaniote Jews,” over time developing a distinct culture including liturgical traditions and songs, and speaking “Yevanic”, a Judeo-Greek dialect infused with Hebrew loanwords and written in Hebrew script.

A manuscript of Romaniote piyyutim (liturgical poems), 1853. From the National Library of Israel collection

Romaniote synagogues even have a distinct interior layout that differs from Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues.

Through ancient inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and other written and archaeological sources, we can trace some of the history of Cretan Jewry, which thrived under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman control, before being nearly extinguished under German occupation in 1944.

Today, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania is practically the only remaining testament on the island to the rich Cretan Jewish heritage, which spanned two millennia.


Ancient sources

Jewish communities on Crete are first referenced in 4th century BCE epitaph inscriptions from Kassanoi and Kissamos where, in the city of Kissamos, a “Sophia of Gortyna, an elder and leader of the synagogue” attests to the leading role of women in diaspora communities.

A community in Gortyna is described in the First Book of Maccabees (15:23) dating to around 142 BCE, when Gortyna was the most prosperous city in Crete. Although only fragmentary inscriptions remain in Crete, inscriptions dating to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE from an ancient synagogue on the island of Delos honor two citizens of the Cretan cities of Heraklion and Knossos, providing evidence of the existence of a Jewish community on the island during that period, as well.

Greek receipt for payment of Jewish tax, 30 August 110 CE (Archaeological Museum of Kraków / Public domain). Click image to enlarge

By the time of the Roman conquest of Crete in the 1st century BCE, Jewish communities were thriving in most of the major cities, including Gortyna, Kissamos, Hania, Rethymnon, Knossos and Sitia.

According to the renowned Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the larger Greek islands, including Crete, were “full of Jewish settlements” (Legatione ad Gaium, 282).

Jewish communities in Crete are also referenced in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles (2:11) as having been present at Pentecost (Shavuot) in Jerusalem, as well as in the Epistle of Paul to Titus (1-9:16) in which Paul describes the “Jewish Christians” in Crete. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE, Roman rule continued in the eastern part of the empire, later termed the Byzantine Empire, where its citizens continued to view themselves as “Romans”, a term that would eventually be associated with the Greek-speaking Jews, the Romaniotes.

Mosaic floor of a Romaniote synagogue in Aegina, ca. 300 CE (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

At the time, Crete was one of the 64 provinces of the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople. Jews are not explicitly mentioned in extant historical accounts from the short-lived “Emirate of Crete” (825-961 CE), established following the Andalusian Arab conquest of the island, but they certainly remained.

During the late Byzantine period (961-1204 CE), historical sources indicate that Jewish communities were not permitted to live within the island’s walled cities, but were instead required to live outside the walls as close as possible to the main city gates which offered protection in times of danger.


Into and outside the Ghetto

In 1204, after the sacking of Constantinople as part of the 4th Crusade, which led to the temporary dissolution of the Byzantine Empire, Crete became a Venetian colony called the “Kingdom of Kandia” with Heraklion (Kandia) as the island’s capital. According to Venetian accounts, Crete’s Jewish population grew significantly in the 14th and 15th centuries due to the influx of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following the exodus of 1391, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and again after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. It seems that these and other immigrant families were absorbed into the indigenous Romaniote communities through the adoption of the local language, culture and religious customs, along with intermarriage.

Map of Crete during the Venetian period, 1571. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the 16th century, the three main Cretan cities, Heraklion (Kandia), Rethymnon (Retimo) and Hania (La Canea) were flourishing under Venetian rule, their populations steadily growing and the economy thriving due to trade and shipping.

At this time, Cretan Jews maintained already-established communities in the three major cities, though they were required to live in segregated ghettos or quarters called “Zudecca“, where they worked as grocers, artisans, tanners, butchers, money lenders and traders of silk, metals, dyes and leather. They were also active in intellectual pursuits including philosophy and theology and many individuals travelled widely, especially to places like Padua and Mantova in Italy, where they trained as doctors, lawyers and rabbis.

The Jewish ghetto of Hania as it appears on a 17th century Venetian map (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana – Venezia / Public domain)

Alongside these urban communities were rural Jewish settlements, which produced kosher cheeses, wines, grains and citrons for both export and local use. By the end of the 16th century, there were approximately 1600 Jews in Crete who worshipped in up to nine synagogues around the island. At that time, Heraklion was the largest community with four synagogues. Hania had two: Beth Shalom (Sephardic) and Etz Hayyim (Romaniote), both of them located in the historic Jewish neighborhood of Evraiki.

The period of Ottoman rule in Crete (1669-1898), particularly in later years, brought economic hardship to the island’s general population, and as a result the Jewish communities in Heraklion and Rethymnon diminished.

Ottoman cannonball found in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue wall (Photo: Anastasios Skikos)

Many wealthy Jewish families moved to Hania, the new Ottoman capital of the island, and farther afield to Venice and elsewhere in Italy and to other Mediterranean port cities like Gibraltar, Istanbul and Salonika. Yet, Ottoman authority was also favorable to Crete’s Jewish communities, which were afforded some degree of religious autonomy, just like their Christian Orthodox neighbors, under the Ottoman millet system.

In towns like Hania, the former ghettos were opened and Jews were allowed to settle in neighbouring quarters where they were permitted to buy and legally inherit property for the first time.

This in particular may be what enticed Sephardic immigrants from North Africa and Izmir to the city at the time. However, by the 19th century, sporadic violent revolts against Ottoman rule in Crete led many Jews to emigrate elsewhere.

It is estimated that in 1817, there were 150 Jewish families divided between Heraklion and Hania; in 1858, there were 907 Jews on the island; by 1881, there were only 647 Jews in Crete, with the majority residing in Hania.


German occupation

The German occupation of Greece began in April 1941 and lasted until 1945. Following the failed Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940, Germany assisted its Italian and Bulgarian allies in their expansionist aspirations and invaded the country.

Crete itself was invaded by the Germans in May 1941 through a major airborne campaign, and the three main cities of Hania, Rethymnon and Heraklion were badly bombed. The Germans were met by fierce resistance from the local population and by the Allied forces, but they eventually prevailed and established their occupation regime in June 1941.

British troops in Crete prior to the German victory, 1940 (The Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

From this time onwards, most of Crete’s Jews, numbering only about 350 members, were residing in Hania where they increasingly faced restrictions imposed upon their daily lives. Some individuals managed to escape Crete for Athens during the occupation. Some survived there in hiding, while others were eventually arrested and sent to the extermination camps.

It was not until 1944 that the Hania community was to be deported to Auschwitz.

On May 20th of that year, the Cretan Jewish community was arrested and taken to a local prison for two weeks before being transported to Heraklion, where they boarded a German steamship, the Tánaïs, together with Italian prisoners of war and Cretan resistance fighters. The ship was to sail to Athens and the Jewish prisoners were then to be transported by train to the death camps in Poland. Due to the ongoing naval war in the Mediterranean, however, the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine not long after departing Heraklion and it sank with all of its prisoners in the early hours of June 9, 1944.

A British V-Class submarine, like the type that torpedoed the Tánaïs (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

Once the community had been deported, Hania’s Jewish neighbourhood was ransacked by the Nazis who also stripped the Etz Hayyim Synagogue – the island’s last remaining Jewish house of prayer – of its religious artifacts, books and the centuries-old community archive.

Etz Hayyim stood abandoned from then until the 1990s, when Hania resident Nikos Stavroulakis (an artist, art historian and founding director of the Jewish Museum of Greece) decided to rebuild and revive the synagogue.


Reviving Etz Hayyim and the Cretan Jewish tradition

Almost 50 years after the end of WWII, the fortunes of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue were to change thanks to Nikos, who managed to garner significant interest and funding to fully restore the synagogue in just a few short years.

Heading the work under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE), Nikos secured support from leading European Jewish philanthropists – including the Rothschilds and the Lauders – as well as numerous other foundations, agencies and individuals.

A drawing of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue by Nikos Stavroulakis (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

On October 10, 1999 the synagogue was officially rededicated by Rabbis Jacob Arar and Isaak Mizan of Athens, and Rabbi Yacob Dayan of Salonika. Approximately 350 people attended, with members of the various Greek Jewish communities, representatives from the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Hania, along with local and international dignitaries, including the German ambassador to Greece.


Etz Hayyim today

Since 2010, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue has been operated by a non-profit organization in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE). The organization is registered as a charity in Greece and – because Etz Hayyim does not receive any public funding – it raises funds for the maintenance and preservation of the synagogue and for the various religious and cultural events held there.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue interior (Photo: Manousos Daskalogiannis). Click image to enlarge

Today, Etz Hayyim is both an active place of worship where a small multinational and multi-faith group called the “Havurah” share communal experiences, as well as a vibrant community and cultural center that hosts exhibitions, lectures, readings, films and concerts.

Its small team of dedicated staff undertake ongoing research into the history of the Cretan Jewish community, while engaging both local and international school groups and teachers as part of the synagogue’s ongoing educational outreach program. The synagogue welcomes Jews of all different backgrounds and non-Jewish visitors, who can take a guided tour of the synagogue and learn about Cretan Jewish history and traditions, or attend regular Kabbalat Shabbat and High Holiday services.

Nikos Stavroulakis with Rabbi Gabriel Negrin from Athens (© Etz Hayyim Synagogue)

Two decades after its rededication, Etz Hayyim has once again become a fixture in the religious and socio-cultural life of Hania as a place of prayer, study, recollection and reconciliation.


Remembering Nikos

Nikos Stavroulakis, founding director of the new Etz Hayyim Synagogue and legendary figure in Greek Jewish life, passed away in 2017. The Etz Hayyim staff is currently cataloguing Nikos’ private collection of artifacts, books, documents and other items. The Nikos Stavroulakis Collection will eventually be made available to researchers and the general public.

If you have any materials (photos, letters, documents, etc.) relating to Nikos or his work, please email the Etz Hayyim staff: [email protected].


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.

This Hebrew School Teacher Was the First World Weightlifting Champ

Strongman, educator, culture critic, civil society leader, journalist, publisher and historian. Edward Lawrence Levy was all of these and more.

E. Lawrence Levy, ca. mid-1890s (From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection)

Responsible for schlepping the holy vessels through the Biblical desert, the ancient Levites were some of the original Jewish strongmen, yet for most of Jewish history feats of strength were not necessarily the forte of the “People of the Book”.

Then came “Muscular Judaism”.

In the late 19th century, as many sought to redefine what it meant to be a Jew in the modern world, efforts were made to discard the traditionally “meek” Jew who spent his time solely on intellectual pursuits.

Leading Zionist thinker Max Nordau coined the term “Muscular Judaism”. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

One of the men at the vanguard of “Muscular Judaism” was himself a Levy, Edward Lawrence Levy to be more precise: Hebrew school master, the world’s first international weightlifting champion and a veritable “strongman” in a dizzying range of pursuits from opera to gymnastics to Jewish education, journalism and even the brewing industry…

Levy’s boyhood remains shrouded in mystery. Remarking that his “school days were not of the kind that make history, autobiographical or otherwise”, Levy intentionally begins his memoirs as he is “launched on the world” at the beginning of his professional life.

From a few details in his rare autobiography and comprehensive research published by David M. Fahey in E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, we know that Levy was born in London and that his father died when he was six.

Destined by his head master – a surrogate father of sorts – to become either a rabbi or an educator, it became clear to young Edward that he was more suited to the latter. Already at 16 he became first master at a boarding school responsible for teaching Hebrew and Religion, Classics, French and other subjects.

Levy later recalled:

“There were boys in the Academy as old as I was, but, thanks to my being prematurely and precociously whiskered, bearded and moustached, nobody, except the Headmaster, knew it.”

Just a few years prior, his own Hebrew and Talmud teacher had told him:

“Edward, you were born old; you never were a boy.”

And so it was that the whiskered man-child “launched on the world”.

He moved to Birmingham a couple of years later and for six decades would more than dabble in countless spheres of public life.

Educator. Culture critic. Hob-nobber. Civil society leader. Philanthropist. Publisher. Historian. Strongman.

Shortly after arriving he joined the staff of the Birmingham Hebrew School. While there, he would, among other things, found the city’s first Jewish Amateur Dramatic Club in 1872, followed by the Alliance Literary and Debating Society, “somewhat avant-garde in admitting ladies,” as well as having both Jewish and non-Jewish members.

Birmingham Hebrew Congregation (Photo: Tony Hisgett / CC BY 2.0)

While remaining active in the Jewish community, in 1875 he went on to establish and run the “Birmingham Jewish Collegiate School”. When non-Jewish students enrolled, he renamed it the less parochial “Denbigh Lodge Collegiate School,” proud not only of the academic level, but also of its “glorious mixture of the best Jewish lads with similar Christian school fellows…”

Levy at age 24, around the time he opened his own school. From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection

Besides running a school, teaching, attending and critiquing theater performances, writing, and founding and serving as an active member in numerous other organizations, Levy’s interest in gymnastics and physical fitness grew as the “strongman boom” peaked and he approached his fortieth birthday in 1891.

That year, Levy won the first ever British Amateur Weightlifting Championship.

London’s Café Monico, site of the first British Amateur Weightlifting Championship and the first World Weightlifting Competition, both won by Levy in 1891 (Public domain)

He was all of five feet four and half inches (1.64 m.) tall and weighed 156 pounds (70.8 kg) “in costume”. Most of the competitive lifters of the time weighed over 200 pounds. Some were twice his weight.

Levy’s was an “unheroic mould” in his own words. A contemporary newspaper account described the champion as “… a very short man… presenting a bald head with a heavily-bearded gold spectacled face.”

Muscular Judaism.

The victory, however, did not come without a price. As the competition was on Shabbat, his participation cost him his post as synagogue choir master. Levy pontificated:

“When the recording angel puts a black mark against my name for having ridden on the Sabbath, I hope he will put down as well the distinction I brought to muscular Judaism.”

Just two months later, he won the first World Weightlifting Competition, beating out strongmen from Germany, Austria, Italy and elsewhere and officially becoming the first ever international weightlifting champion. He later recalled, “There is one great feature of the two championships I won which I cannot refrain from referring to, and that is the great joy I felt as a Jew at winning these events.”

Levy with his 1891 British Amateur Championship trophy. From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection

From 1891 to 1894 he would go on to set no less than 14 world records.

Though some inaccurate reports would later give Levy a gold medal in shotput at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, in reality he represented Great Britain there as a judge and a journalist, not as a participant.

“I regard the trip to Athens and participation in the Olympic Games of 1896, as one of the biggest events of my life. It was glorious from every point of view.”

Olympic Stadium, Athens, 1896 (Public domain)

Levy would lecture on those first modern Games for years to come (among many other topics from nihilism to Talmudic thought and Jewish humor).

When the King of Greece visited London in 1905, Levy was invited to greet him. Three years later he was an organizer of the gymnastics portion of the 1908 Olympics held in the city.

Already approaching 60 by then, Levy generally didn’t see a need nor have a desire to slow down.

He remained a member of the Birmingham Athletic Club for a total of 50 years, serving as chairman for 30 of them.

He was a long-time drama critic and sports writer. He also worked in various capacities in the local brewing trade, for decades somehow singlehandedly writing and publishing the industry’s Licensed Trade News, a weekly newspaper.

With his physical strength naturally diminished with age, Levy dedicated his later years largely to scholarship, lecturing and working on about eight books after his 60th birthday. Largely based on his first-hand experiences in the Jewish community, numerous political and social clubs and the local theater scene, these books provide a fascinating glimpse into late-Victorian and early 20th century England.

Levy at age 72. From E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932, part of the National Library of Israel collection

Looking back on his life and accomplishments shortly before he passed away, Levy the strongman mused:

“I have no money, never had and never shall have any. But, happily, what I have seen, what I have achieved, much of my happiness in life, has been obtained, thanks to – ‘Dumbbells, twopence a pound.’ Our worldly happiness, the success we attain is fortunately not dependent upon pounds, shillings and pence.”

Select Sources and Related Reading:

Birmingham Jewry by Zoe Josephs

E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851-1932: Sport, Culture, and Assimilation in Nineteenth-Century Britain Together with “The Autobiography of an Athlete” edited by David M. Fahey

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.