Space Left Behind: Ilan Ramon’s Diary Has Arrived

He was the kind of guy everyone wants to be. Ilan Ramon's story began in Be'er Sheva in Israel's Negev desert and came to an end somewhere beyond our planet. But before he became the first Israeli astronaut, he was just Ilan – a husband, father, son, and brother. Miraculously, the diary he kept aboard Space Shuttle Columbia survived. This diary, containing his personal feelings as well as descriptions of the historic event he was a part of, somehow landed relatively intact in Texas. It later underwent complex restoration processes and recently received a warm welcome at its new home – the National Library of Israel, where it is on extended loan.

Ilan Ramon and a page from his diary which somehow survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

Ground Control: “And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last…”

Commander Rick Husband: “Roger buh…”

That utterance by mission commander Rick Husband was the last communication sent to Ground Control in Houston, Texas from the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was on its way back to Earth on February 1, 2003.

On board the Columbia, which would disintegrate as soon as it reentered the atmosphere, was one Israeli. Almost against his will, Ilan Ramon – the first Israeli astronaut – became a national symbol in his lifetime.

Columbia Makeshift Memorial הכניסה למרכז גונסון ב 1 בפברואר 2003 לאחר שהתברר אסון הקולומביה צילום נאסא
The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on February 1st, 2023, after the magnitude of the Columbia disaster became clear. Photo: NASA

As the son of Holocaust survivors Tonya and Eliezer Wolferman, Ilan Ramon dreamt big when he was growing up. But “being an astronaut” was not one of those dreams. “In Israel, when you tell someone, ‘You’re an astronaut,’ it means that they aren’t…  connected [to reality], so it’s almost a joke,” he explained in one of his last interviews with American media before the Columbia took off. Still, when he accepted his assignment, he was “over the moon” with excitement.

It wasn’t the first time that Ramon was chosen to lead and carry out a mission that had never been done before. He was an outstanding, determined pilot who enlisted in the Israeli Air Force and twice returned to service after an injury. In 1980, he was sent to the U.S. as part of a small elite team tasked with learning to fly the new F-16 aircraft that Israel was about to receive. A year later, he was the youngest pilot in the squadron that flew those aircraft to Iraq to bomb a nuclear reactor being built there by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Along with the space shuttle, an Israeli national symbol was also lost on that fateful day in February 2003. Ilan Ramon served as an example of what we can become. For his family – his wife Rona, his children, his father, and his brother – it was a completely different loss. They lost their loving partner, their father, their son and brother – a serious man with a captivating smile, a sense of humor, an almost childlike enthusiasm, and hopeless optimism. They lost the individual he was, aside from all the incredible things he achieved. “At home, you don’t think of him as if he’s Israel’s first astronaut. He’s that too, but he’s my father. Do I worry about him a bit? No, not really,” Assaf Ramon said during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 filmed before Ilan launched into space, though it was only broadcast many years later.

The Ramon family at home, screen capture courtesy of Israel’s Channel 13 (formerly Channel 10)

Ramon enlisted in the mission with all his heart and soul. He was well aware of the significance of what he was doing, and he took it seriously. But he was also able see the lighter side of things, and would often laugh and joke with his family.

Everything we know about Ramon’s journey to space consists of these two extremes: the national, and the personal. Among the things he brought with him onto the shuttle were items that carried with them all the weight of Jewish history: a tiny Torah scroll that had come all the way from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a copy of a Petr Ginz painting from the Terezin Ghetto (Moon Landscape), the last letter written by captured Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, wine for Kiddush, and more. He also took with him a letter from his son Assaf (who warned his father only to open it once he had taken off) and a notebook he planned on using to record his personal experience.

יומן אילן רמון 2
One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel
Earth Seen From The Moon
Moon Landscape, the Petr Ginz painting created in the Terezin Ghetto. Ramon carried a copy with him onto the Columbia.

The notebook probably had at least one page written before lift-off, but the rest of the pages were filled in the days that followed. He wrote in a short, purposeful manner, interspersing his words with fragments of thoughts, feelings, conversations, and descriptions of routine actions that became extraordinary, not only because of the place where they were carried out.

An excerpt from the diary reads:

“Launch. No, I couldn’t believe it. Until the moment the engine(s) were ignited, I still doubted it. In the last few days of our isolation in the Cape, since the fateful discussion [on] Sunday afternoon – in those days we all already felt that [this was] real, and yet – we didn’t believe it.”

אילן רמון מרחף במעבורת החלל קולומביה צולם על ידי צוות קולומביה, נאסא
Ilan Ramon, gliding through Space Shuttle Columbia, photo: NASA

In what follows, along with other documentation from the Colombia mission, this duality can be seen again and again. It ranges from the personal to the public, from the routine to the historic. He described how he brushed his teeth and how he performed scientific experiments; he wrote to his family about how much he missed them but also mentioned, almost as an aside, conversations with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, performing Jewish rituals such as Kiddush before the entire world, and strong friendships with the other crew members.

“Travel diary, day six. Today was perhaps the first day that I truly felt like I was really ‘living’ in space! I’ve turned into a man who lives and works in space. Like in the movies. We get up in the morning with some light levitation and we roll into the ‘family room’. Brush my teeth, wash my face, and then go to work. A little coffee. Some snacks on the way, off to the lab…a press conference with the Prime Minister, and then immediately back to work, observing the ozone layer.”

Diary excerpt
יומן אילן רמון 3
One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

On the one hand, he was a representative of the Jewish state. All eyes were on him, and he had something to say to the entire world:

“From our perspective here in space, we look at you and see a world without borders, full of peace and splendor. Our hearts carry a prayer that all humanity as one can imagine the world as it appears to us, without borders, and can strive to live together in peace.”

From a conversation with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

On the other hand, Ramon was a loving family man who missed his loved ones:

“Even though everything here is amazing, I can’t wait any longer until I see you all. A big hug to you and kisses to the kids.”

From an email Ramon sent his family the day before the scheduled landing

But he never saw them again. They waited for him at the base, excitedly watching the clock counting down the minutes till landing, and then with increasing anxiety, watching it reach zero and then switch to displaying the time elapsed since the Columbia was scheduled to land. It wasn’t long before the news channels started broadcasting the image of the space shuttle’s wreckage burning in the Texas sky. Debris from the shuttle and the astronauts’ bodies were scattered over a vast area in Texas and Louisiana. The diary, a personal and national treasure, should have disintegrated along with the shuttle and its crew, but a few weeks after the disaster, to the surprise of the search party, someone found the remains of the diary on a muddy patch of land in Texas.

צילום היומן כפי שנמצא בשדה צילום נאסא
The remains of the diary, found in Texas, photo: NASA

How is it possible that it survived? It withstood the explosion, and then a journey of several kilometers till it hit the earth. No one knows for sure, but leading researchers in the field believe that due to the light weight of the pages, the diary didn’t fall directly to the ground but probably glided slowly downwards, carried on wind currents that eventually allowed for a soft landing. Most of the damage to its pages probably only happened after it reached the ground, resulting from the humid conditions in the marshy area where it landed.

Once it was found, the diary was transferred to the Israel Museum for restoration and preservation. The wetness caused the pages to stick together and blurred the words that were written inside, turning them into shapeless ink blots. It was almost illegible, and restoring it was a complex undertaking that included the use of the most advanced technological means, with the assistance of the Israel Police’s forensics department.

Whatsapp Image 2024 03 06 At 13.34.51
Yiftach and Tal Ramon with their father’s diary, when it was still at the Israel Museum, photo: National Library of Israel

One of the pages that was recovered was apparently written while Ramon was still on the ground, before lift-off. The restoration team identified letter patterns between the ink spots that had spread across the page. To do so, they used some of Ramon’s other handwriting samples. When they tried to connect the letters and the spaces between them into a meaningful, understandable text, they discovered the words of the Jewish Kiddush prayer recited on Friday night. Ramon had made advance preparations to consecrate the wine during the time designated as “Shabbat” onboard the shuttle (which itself was an interesting question because the Jewish sabbath is from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, but he had traveled somewhere without sunset), and he had made sure to write the exact wording of the prayer in advance so that he wouldn’t forget a single word.

For twenty years the diary was kept in the Israel Museum, but it was recently moved to its new home in the National Library of Israel, where it will be on extended loan.

“If only every item we received was at the level of preservation which this diary was at when it reached us from the Israel Museum,” said Marcela Szekely, head of the Library’s Conservation and Restoration Department.

יומן אילן רמון 1
One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

After the initial intake phase, during which both sides of all pages of the diary were photographed, the diary entered the Library’s rare items storeroom. The storeroom, which serves as a highly guarded vault, is bulletproof and is under strict environmental control. The humidity and temperature are continuously monitored and adjusted to preserve the materials stored inside it.

“Later, after the diary goes through additional conservation processes at the Library, we will consider presenting it to the general public as part of the Library’s permanent exhibition,” Skezely says. “In the meantime, it is being kept in good company here. It ‘lives’ in the same room as the writings of Newton and Maimonides.”

The Library also preserves other items linked to Ilan Ramon as well as the diary of another astronaut.

In 1977, Ramon, then a 23-year-old pilot, wrote a letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, asking him: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz, answered, and this correspondence in its entirety is preserved in the National Library.

In 1985, Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish American astronaut, went into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Like Ilan Ramon, he also wrote a diary documenting his journey in space, and he had also taken with him Jewish symbols such as a small Torah scroll. In March 2023, Hoffmann visited the National Library and handed over that diary, along with several other items that are now preserved in a collection that bears his name.

יומן גף הופמן
An Astronaut’s Diary, by Jeffrey Hoffman. A copy can be found at the National Library of Israel.

The transfer of Ilan Ramon’s diary – which carries both national and personal significance – was accompanied by his sons, Tal and Yiftach.

Their father’s tragic death was not the last tragedy the family would suffer. Assaf, Ilan’s firstborn, was killed in an operational accident six years after the Columbia disaster. Rona, Ilan’s widow who turned Ilan and Assaf’s legacy into a tremendous social and educational enterprise, died of cancer in 2018.

Today, Tal, Yiftach, and Noa are the ones left carrying the flag of this amazing family that, despite all the tragedies it has known, has always continued to look ahead with its head held high.

Whatsapp Image 2024 05 22 At 10.40.181
Tal and Yiftach Ramon remove the diary from its case upon arrival at the National Library of Israel, photo: National Library of Israel

No words we write will ever be stronger or more accurate than their own:

“My name is Yiftach Ramon, and I have come here to say that my family and I insist that our name not become a symbol of tragedy or mourning. I have come here to say that people can take their grief and their mourning and turn it into action to create a better future.”

From Yiftach’s speech at the annual conference of the Israeli American Council, IAC

We at the National Library of Israel are incredibly moved to have this treasure in our collections. We are grateful for the privilege of preserving this diary, along with the spirit that created it, for future generations.

Declaring Independence With 150 Lira in Your Pocket

In May of 1948, designer Otte Wallish was given his “mission impossible”: Get everything ready for a Declaration of Independence ceremony. You have 24 hours. Also: Were there nude images hiding behind Theodor Herzl’s portrait?

independence hall

Declaration of Independence ceremony on May 14, 1948. Photo: Rudi Weissenstein

At 11:00 AM on the morning of May 13, 1948, one day before Israel declared statehood, Otte Wallish was given a very sensitive assignment. The official graphic artist of the Hebrew Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-State Israel) was summoned to an urgent meeting at the Tel Aviv Museum – at the time, the only museum in the first Hebrew city. He had been summoned by Ze’ev Sherf, who had only recently been appointed “Temporary Secretary of the People’s Administration”. During the hasty meeting, which lasted no more than a few minutes, Sherf assigned Otte Wallish his task: “Get the large hall of the museum ready within 24 hours. That’s where the ceremony for the Declaration of Independence will take place.” Before Wallish could even ask for details, Sherf disappeared from the room to in a rush to attend to the other pressing items on his agenda that day.

Otte Wallish at work. Source: Wallish family

Wallish was given a budget of 150 lira.

Ben-Gurion’s plan was for the ceremony to be held under a heavy veil of secrecy.

Wallish approached this urgent task with every ounce of energy he had left after having spent several sleepless nights designing the first series of stamps to be used by the state-in-the-making. As the battles of the War of Independence were underway in neighboring Jaffa, Wallish ran around the streets of Tel Aviv to purchase a wooden desk, cloth to cover up the walls that were covered in nude images behind the stage upon which the nation’s leaders would be sitting in a few short hours, and a carpet to lend the hall a more dignified ambiance. The chairs to be placed on the stage were confiscated from local cafes. The meager budget wasn’t enough to cover flags, and it wasn’t possible to get a picture of the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl from any of the stores. He therefore borrowed both of these items from the Keren Hayesod (the United Israel Appeal). However, the flags needed to be washed, so Wallish took them to a nearby laundromat and ordered “lightning-fast washing.”

Some of the expenses that were paid for the Declaration of Statehood ceremony, from the Ari Wallish Collection

The nude statue at the entrance to the museum was covered in white cloth, and even though the War of Independence was still in its initial stages, Wallish decided to cover all the window curtains in the hall with black, as a precaution to avoid damage from possible aerial bombardments launched against Tel Aviv. It was a case of “who knows what will happen?” And as if all that wasn’t enough, Wallish was called back to Sherf’s office to receive another assignment: to prepare – without delay – a parchment upon which the Declaration of Independence itself would be written.

Wallish hurried off to the Beit HaMehandes (“engineer’s house”) at the end of Dizengoff Street. He asked to see examples of various parchments, but since he wasn’t permitted to reveal why he needed this strange request fulfilled, the clerk helping him got the feeling that this fellow was just a bit “off.” Wallish bought the parchment and brought it back to his office to test it for durability, to make sure it would last for generations to come.

The end of the Declaration of Independence, designed and prepared by Otte Walish

As soon as his dizzying spree of purchasing/borrowing/confiscating was complete, this graphic artist turned interior designer was free to prepare the hall for the historic occasion. And so, at 11:00 AM the following day, exactly 24 hours after he was assigned his task and only five hours before the declaration was signed and the State of Israel came into being, the hall was finally ready for the attendees. This was all described in a pictorial article by Pinchas Yourman in the Davar newspaper five years later, in 1953. The Hebrew article can be found online in the National Library’s Historical Press Collection.

The official invitation given to Otte Wallish to attend the Declaration of Independence ceremony. Ari Wallish Collection.

That same Pinchas Yourman described the declaration itself in his book The First 32 Minutes, as follows:

“It is unbelievable – but it is a fact; the most important and decisive ceremony ever held in Israel – the historic ceremony for the Declaration of Statehood in the Tel Aviv Museum – lasted only 32 minutes; it included one short speech; was conducted with exemplary order, and was praised afterward by its participants with the best of compliments, ranging from “great and impressive” to “once in a lifetime, moving and felt in the depths of the soul.”

Despite the cloud of secrecy cast over the location of the ceremony, the large gathering inside the Tel Aviv Museum – which had previously served as the private home of the late mayor Meir Dizengoff – guaranteed that a large crowd would show up outside the entrance hall in the hope of catching a glimpse of the most important ceremony in the country’s history. One particularly amusing story told by historian Mordechai Naor in his book The Friday that Changed Destiny concerned a guest who almost didn’t get in. The guest was Pinchas Rosen, then chairman of the small and now forgotten “New Aliyah” political party. Since Rosen had forgotten his official invitation to the ceremony at home, the guard stationed at the entrance to the museum refused to allow him to enter. None of his begging and pleading helped. He remained stuck outside until Ze’ev Sherf intervened, and Rosen, who would soon become Justice Minister of the State of Israel, was finally allowed to enter the ceremony and sign the declaration. The truth is that there was no shortage of offended parties and people with all manner of grievances trying to use all their contacts to gain entry to the prestigious event.

Ultimately, only 350 people were allowed through the doors of the museum at 16 Rothschild Blvd. The newspaper reporters didn’t even reveal where it was being held. The entire event was broadcast on the Kol Israel (“Voice of Israel”) radio station, as its inaugural broadcast.

A Broadcast From the Meeting of the Jewish National Council” – This laconic announcement informing the public of a radio broadcast on Kol Yisrael at 4 pm was published in every morning paper on May 14, 1948. This particular item is taken from HaTzofe.

Pinchas Yourman offered the following description:

“After a light banging of the (walnut-colored) gavel on the desk, everyone stood up and sang HaTikvah. In a voice that was later described in the newspapers as “trembling,” David Ben-Gurion began by uttering 15 words that have been stamped by the seal of history: “I will read for you the founding Declaration of the State of Israel, which has been approved in the first reading by the Jewish National Council.”

Upon hearing the name of the State of Israel being called out explicitly, the crowd burst into thunderous applause. One of the men sitting on the stage, Rabbi Y. L. Fishman, didn’t take part in the spontaneous applause. He burst into tears.

The haste with which the Declaration of Statehood ceremony was organized, and the amount of improvisation required in order for it to take place within such a short time didn’t manage to detract anything from the importance of the event. Ultimately, the ceremony was every bit as moving as it was brief, and it also symbolized a new beginning in many ways, for example, with new institutions (the radio station, for one) being established which would continue to accompany the new state for many years to follow.

Long live the State of Israel!

Freedom Under Siege: The Last Seder in Kfar Etzion

How can one celebrate the festival of freedom, with the clear knowledge that your life or liberty will be taken from you in just a few days? The Seder night of 1948 was one of the last nights of freedom for those in besieged Gush Etzion, but this fact did not prevent the isolated group of men from creating the most celebratory atmosphere possible under the circumstances.


The Nebi Daniel convoy, the last convoy to leave the besieged Gush Eztion, and the agenda for the last Seder. Image courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

On the 14th of Nissan (April 23), the eve of Passover 1948, the defenders of Gush Etzion knew that their fate was sealed – and that if they stayed where they were, they would die. They were surrounded by Arab villages which served as bases for the Arab Legion, a Jordanian military force that outmatched them by orders of magnitude. Efforts to reinforce the settlement bloc had failed, and a plane meant to land there on Passover eve was forced to turn back due to thick fog.

Most of the women and children had been sent just to Jerusalem, just north of Gush Etzion, several months earlier. The last few women had left more recently. The men remaining there had all the reasons in the world to become mired in despair: their personal situation was hopeless, they missed their wives and children (some of whom, having been born in Jerusalem, they had yet to meet) and were worried about them. After all, Jerusalem was also under blockade and anything but a safe place.

Family in Kfar Etzion, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Photo courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

Shlomo Garnak ob”m shared the mixed feelings they felt with his wife:

“We’re planning here for the Passover holiday. But I lack the sense of a holiday eve. When they put together a plan for guard shifts on the Seder night, I said I don’t care if I guard from 6 in the evening or 8 or 10. If you and the children are not here – celebrations are far from my mind. And still we must overcome and not let despair and bitterness control us. We especially must not arouse grief and sadness during the holiday.”

They were a wonderful mixture of the diversity of Jews present in the Land of Israel at that time – Holocaust survivors who’d just arrived to the Promised Land, Israeli sabras who consciously chose to take part in establishing new communities in one of the most dangerous locations in the country, and volunteers who came to support their efforts.

The quiet before the storm: the trees planted in Kfar Etzion, before the war began. Picture courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

This home, which they’d just started building but a few years before, turned into a military camp before their very eyes: holes formed by shells adorned the walls of the white houses, cow dairies were turned into weapons storage facilities, and playgrounds became fortified positions.

Endless debates accompanied the decision to stay in the bloc, which lay outside the territory assigned to the Jewish State in the UN partition plan. They fought not to save themselves, as the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc (Kfar Etzion, Revadim, Masu’ot Yitzhak, and Ein Tzurim) were at this point clearly beyond rescue, but rather to give hope to besieged Jerusalem, by keeping the Arab Legion busy to the south, and preventing if from invading the Jewish neighborhoods of the Holy City.

It was in this atmosphere that the holiday arrived.

Agenda for the last Seder night. Courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

Between standing guard and caring for the wounded, the men found the time to decorate the collective dining room in Kfar Etzion. Spring-themed landscape pictures were hung and flower pots spread out throughout the room, adorned by verses from the Song of Songs – “the vineyard has flowered, the nascent fruit has opened,” “the buds have been seen in the land.” The courtyard, neglected since the beginning of the siege, was cleaned up and organized. The customs of Passover eve were adhered to in full, despite the void left behind by the children who had left.

“This morning we held a siyum masechet [celebratory ceremony for completing the learning of a Talmudic tractate], in which the “first born” took part [the ceremony allowing them to eat rather than adhere to the traditional fast for first born on Passover eve]. I also participated, in the name of our eldest son. There were cakes and drinks. The happy news encouraged us and excited us until we went out to dance. And now everyone is rushing to finish the last meal of chametz [leavened bread and grain food, forbidden on Passover].”

(Letter from Akiva Galdenauer ob”m to his wife in Jerusalem)

“I just finished bedikat chametz [ceremonial check for chametz to ensure none is present for the holiday]. Yair my son was not with me, and there was no-one to hold the candle. In these days, I miss you most. But the encouraging news of our victory in Haifa [most of the city of Haifa fell to Jewish forces a few days before] sweetens the suffering of detachment. Perhaps we are close to victory. True, we have no illusions that the war will end quickly. But the recognition that our strength is with us to acquire our state with God’s help, immunizes us in these grim and dark days.”

(Letter of Shmuel Arazi ob”m)

As evening came, a holiday prayer was conducted at Neveh Ovadyah – an impressive stone house, less than two years old, which served as the central beit midrash or house of religious learning in Gush Etzion, after which everyone gathered for the Passover Seder – the religious kibbutz members together with the Nebi Daniel Convoy drivers and members who remained there.

Neveh Ovadyah, the building serving as the religious and communal center of Kfar Etzion, where holiday prayers took place. Picture courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

The traditional Haggadah, which now took on a new and contemporary significance, was peppered with newly written Zionist texts.

“Every so often, a [Kfar Etzion] member got up and read from the works of our time, things related to the project we are defending. The whole group joyously sang passages which have become popular during Eztion Passovers.”

From the diary of Yaakov Edelstein, Kfar Etzion member

Between the song Vehi She’amda [a song about how enemies seek to eliminate the Jews in every generation] and the tune Betzeit Yisra’el Mimitzrayim, [“When Israel Left Egypt”] passages from the poems by Yitzhak Lamdan (Mitzpeh Beyehudah) and Uri Tzvi Grinberg (Hayakar Mikol Yakar) were read aloud. When they came to the verse “And I pass over by you, and I see you trodden down in your blood, and I say to you in your blood, Live!” they read passages from Shalom Karniel’s article – “In Your Blood, Live.”

Tzvi Lifshitz, one of the participants in the Seder, described the scene:

“there was some excitement when the door opened and everyone got up and excitedly called out ‘Pour Your fury on the nations who have not known You’– all the humanistic hesitations which accompanied the reading of these verses in previous years were now rejected. The blood of our dear friends, who fell in defense of the Gush and in the War of Liberation throughout the country, demanded revenge.”

Later, when they reached the song “Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem,” most of the members got up in a wild dance. But some remained to sit with a bowed head round the table – they could not dance as they remembered their friends and the members of the convoys who had come to save them, who did not get to sit with them now around the Seder table.

The relative quiet which enabled this Passover celebration did not last. The attacks on Gush Etzion renewed already during the holiday, with one of the fiercest battles taking place ten days after the Seder was held. On the 4th of the month of Iyyar, the day before Israeli independence was declared, the last of the defenders surrendered. Some were massacred by Arab forces, and the others were taken into captivity in Jordan.

The Knesset would later mark the day Gush Etzion fell as the Memorial Day for all the fallen of Israel’s various wars and conflicts.

“…I do not know of a more glorious, tragic and heroic struggle in all the valiant battles of the Israel Defense Forces than that of Gush Etzion…Their sacrifice, more than any other war effort, saved Jerusalem… The Gush Etzion campaign is the great and terrible epic of the Jewish war… If a Hebrew Jerusalem exists… the gratitude of Jewish history goes first and foremost to the fighters of Gush Etzion.”

 From a speech by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, 1949

From Ben Shemen to the Concentration Camp and Back: The Story of a Family Photo

One photograph. That’s what Sarah Kagan left behind at the concentration camp in Klooga. But sometimes one picture is all you need to have closure on a painful chapter in a family's history.

715 537 Blog1

The Linkovsky family in Kovno (Kaunas). The photo was found among the ruins of the Klooga concentration camp and is now held at Yad Vashem

Family. Young men and women who share DNA or marital ties, and three little children, all of them smiling for a photographer, frozen in one moment in time and in a single place: Kovno, 1939. Just a few months before the whole world turned upside down. Ostensibly, this is a perfectly ordinary family picture, one of millions kept in the Yad Vashem photographic collections, each commemorating entire worlds which once were and are no more. But behind this specific picture is a broader story, written in part on the picture itself.

Writing on the back of the picture. Photo kept at Yad Vashem

On the other side of the photograph is a brief message written in Yiddish, in Hebrew script:

“A gift for the entire family, from your brother and the granddaughter,




May 18, 1939

Ben Shemen”

How did a picture reach the distant concentration camp in Estonia from a Zionist youth village in the Land of Israel? Who were Avraham and Daliah Linkovsky and what was their connection to the people in the photograph?

To see the big picture, we have to go back a bit.

In the 1920s, a terrible tragedy befell the Linkovsky family living in Kovno: they lost both their parents. The father’s death certificate can be found at Yad Vashem, but the mother apparently also died before the war. The older brothers each went their own way, even if earlier than expected. But the two younger brothers – Avraham and Pesha – were sent to the Jewish orphanage in the city. This fact, which must have seemed particularly tragic at the time, ended up saving their lives.

Children at the Kovno orphanage. From the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive, IL-BSYV-001-13-0102-02

The Kovno Jewish orphanage, or the Kinderhaus as it was known then, was founded and run by the German-Jewish educator Siegfried Lehman. Lehman came to Kovno at the request of Max Soloveichik – the Jewish Affairs Minister for the Lithuanian government. Lehman was an inspiring figure who dreamt of equal, collective education. He eventually became an enthusiastic Zionist, though he didn’t start out that way, and made Aliyah in 1926 to found what would become the Youth Village of Ben Shemen – an educational institution which served as a home for the children who grew up there.

Dr. Siegfried Lehman. Photo: Ben Shemen Archive, IL-BSYV-001-13-0102-01

He didn’t come alone. With him came the first class of students for this new youth village – the children of the Kovno Kinderhaus. Later, two more groups of children came from Kovno, mixing in with native-born “Sabra” children as well as kids who were later rescued from Europe and brought to Mandatory Palestine by the Youth Aliyah organization.

Avraham Linkovsky’s Aliyah certificate. Photo courtesy of the Ben Shemen Archive

One of the first groups to arrive included the orphans Avraham and Pasha Linkovsky. Avraham was sixteen years old, Pasha fourteen. Pictures from Ben Shemen show them with their friends and teachers who became their family. But they never entirely forgot their old family in Lithuania, and kept in contact via correspondence. Upon completing their studies, Avraham married Sarah (of the Warful family) and they stayed in the country to work at the youth village. They had a daughter, whom they named Daliah.

In the spring of 1939, the young family travelled to visit their relatives in Lithuania. Avraham and Sarah took Daliah to meet their uncles and aunts in distant Kovno, people she would see only once in her life, when she was too small to remember. As a reminder of their trip before heading back, they all took a picture together. A fence passed behind them, behind which was a river or fields. A European landscape. What were they thinking when posing for this picture? Did they think this might be their last meeting?

Picture kept at Yad Vashem

The picture apparently belonged to Avraham, and he took it back with him to the Land of Israel, where he developed the photo and sent it as a gift to his brother back in Kovno, as a souvenir. Did he keep a copy for himself? We don’t know.

Meanwhile, the war broke out. Avraham would never hear from his brother or sisters again, murdered in the Holocaust that engulfed European Jewry. For many years, the family left in the Land of Israel didn’t even know the exact details of when and where they died.

But the picture, the souvenir sent from the Land of Israel to Europe before it went up in flames, survived, and it tells us the story of the family that was lost.

In 1944, the Russians liberated Estonia from the Germans. Among other sites, they reached the remains of the Klooga concentration camp. This camp was established in 1943 as one of the work camps meant to exploit the area’s natural resources. Prisoners were mostly sent from the ghettos of Vilna (Vilnius) and Kovno.

But when the Russians finally came to “liberate” the camp, there wasn’t much to free. A few days before the arrival of the Red Army, as they heard the approaching Russian guns echoing in the distance, the German camp commanders understood that this was the end of the line for them. Together with local collaborators, they murdered all the prisoners, tying them to tree branches to entirely burn the bodies and erase any trace of the horrors that took place there. But perhaps due to haste or the weather, the fire didn’t spread to all the bodies, most of which remained intact.

The Russians found piles of corpses, still warm, a strong scent of burnt flesh, as well as piles of documents and photographs. Within this inferno and the horror covered in ash, pages and fragments of documents remained which would tell, silently, the story of those who perished there.

Among them was this photo, with the writing which clearly tied it to people who were still alive at the time. Those people being family members waiting in the Land of Israel and hearing of the worst from afar. Aside from this picture, other hints were found: Eliyahu Linkovsky’s death certificate (dated to many years before the war, a testament to the early orphanhood of the brothers) as well as the marriage certificate of Avraham’s sister, also named Sarah, and Yehudah Kagan. Sarah Kagan’s name was found on the prisoners’ roster, no. 856.

The connection between the siblings was apparently cut off in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. From this point on, we can only guess, based on the stories of other survivors from that area, what Sarah went through. The crowding in the ghetto. The hunger. The death. The fear. The orders from the Germans to quickly pack their things: how to choose what to take from home, knowing how unlikely it was they’d return? The nightmarish trip to the concentration camps, the confiscation of everything she brought once she came to the German offices. The certificates. And the pictures.

They came with her, in her pockets or under her underclothes, but they didn’t stay with her.

They were left behind, to tell others a little more of what was and is no more.

Avraham, who was able to raise a model family in the Land of Israel, was never able to see the picture again or hear this story. The Russians eventually passed along the archival material of what is now known as the “Klooga Collection” at Yad Vashem, but only after he passed away.

Among the thousands of documents and pictures, the picture would probably have remained in the shadows, an anonymous item in the Yad Vashem collection. But one scholar, Orit Adorian, did not rest until she succeeded, together with the veteran staff members who run the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive, in giving the family closure.

The items appearing in the article are preserved at the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive and are made available thanks to the collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Special thanks to Orit Adorian for sharing her part in the story and helping us prepare the article.