In Vivid Color: Century-Old Postcards Depict the Lives of Jewish Immigrants to America

Bartending cantors, strange outdated customs and Yiddish jokes - These fascinating postcards from the National Library of Israel's collections offer a rare glimpse into the lives of freshly arrived Jewish immigrants to the United States.

.

The turn of the 20th century came at the height of a massive wave of Jewish immigration to the United States from eastern Europe.  It is estimated that around three million Jews landed on America’s shores in the period stretching from 1880 to 1924. They came fleeing the pogroms and anti-semitism which had become rampant in their homelands, seeking a new life in a new world.

These new Jewish immigrants brought many of their customs and traditions with them, but the encounter with an American culture on the rise created a unique and rich blend which came to define the new community. Some of the most enlightening remnants of this period in Jewish-American history are the popular holiday greeting cards  which friends and relatives would send each other to mark Jewish festivals.

The National Library of Israel has a large collection of postcards of this type, featuring a range of colorful images with a certain Jewish flair or twist. A selection of them appears below. Some of these cards are based on photographs, while others were drawn by hand, but all of them depict scenes from the day-to-day lives of the new Jewish arrivals in America. Most were intended for use as greeting cards for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

Have a look at these postcards from the National Library of Israel’s collections and the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and get a glimpse of Jewish-American life as it was a century ago.

A Jewish immigrant family arrives on Ellis Island, with New York's turn-of-the-century skyline in the background. Unknown artist. The National Library Ephemera Collection.
A Jewish immigrant family arrives on Ellis Island, with New York’s turn-of-the-century skyline in the background. Unknown artist. The National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

​This postcard from 1909 features a drawing by Jacob Keller depicting Jewish immigration to America. On the right (east) is a group of traditionally dressed Jews carrying their meager possessions while the symbol of czarist Russia hovers above. The richly dressed, smiling Jews of the west welcome their eastern brethren as does the Statue of Liberty. Overhead, a bald eagle carries a ribbon with a Hebrew quote from Psalms 17:8 - “and shelter us in the shadow of Your wings”. Printed by the Hebrew Publishing Co. The National Library Ephemera Collection.
​This postcard from 1909 features a drawing by Jacob Keller depicting Jewish immigration to America. On the right (east) is a group of traditionally dressed Jews carrying their meager possessions while the symbol of czarist Russia hovers above. The richly dressed, smiling Jews of the west welcome their eastern brethren as does the Statue of Liberty. Overhead, a bald eagle carries a ribbon with a Hebrew quote from Psalms 17:8 – “and shelter us in the shadow of Your wings”. Printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

A Jewish couple blesses their children as Shabbat begins. Unknown artist, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
A Jewish couple bless their children as Shabbat begins. Unknown artist and publisher, the National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

A Jewish family prepares to eat Shabbat dinner, this is perhaps the most common theme featured in postcards of this type. Unknown artist, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
A Jewish family prepares to eat Shabbat dinner. This is perhaps the most common theme featured in postcards of this type. Unknown artist and publisher, the National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

A Jewish family singing Zemirot (Jewish hymns) for Shabbat. By artist Jacob Keller, circa 1910, the Hebrew Publishing Company.
A Jewish family singing Zemirot (Jewish hymns) for Shabbat. By artist Jacob Keller, circa 1910, the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

A child stands and asks "Mah Nishtanah?" during his family's Passover Seder. This image was drawn by Freidrich Kaskeline and produced by the Williamsburg Art Company, circa 1920-1930.
A child stands and asks “Mah Nishtanah?” during his family’s Passover Seder. This image was drawn by Freidrich Kaskeline and produced by the Williamsburg Art Company, circa 1920-1930, the National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

A family heading to Synagogue - the Yiddish caption reads "Going to Shul". Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company circa 1920, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
A family heading to synagogue – the Yiddish caption reads “Entering Shul”. Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company circa 1920, the National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

.
Men discussing the issues of the day after synagogue services. This postcard was intended as a companion to the previous one. The Yiddish caption reads” (Coming) from shul”. Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company circa 1920, the National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

.
A cantor reads from a book in synagogue, unknown artist and publisher, the National Library Ephemera Collection.

 

This postcard depicts the Simchat Torah holiday custom of "Kol HaNearim" (all the boys), in which the young boys of the congregation are called to gather under a large talit as Genesis 48:16 is recited - a verse from Jacob's blessing to Ephraim and Manashe. By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, the Hebrew Publishing Company, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
This postcard depicts the Simchat Torah holiday custom of “Kol HaNearim” (all the boys), in which the young boys of the congregation are called to gather under a large talit as Genesis 48:16 is recited – a verse from Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim and Manashe. By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

.
Jewish families greet each other outside the synagogue. Some wear clothes typical of poor eastern European immigrants, while others are dressed as wealthy Americans. Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company during the first quarter of the 20th century, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

A Jewish man recites the "Shema Israel" prayer before going to bed. By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
A Jewish man recites the “Shema Israel” prayer before going to bed. By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Some of the postcards showcase situations which are perhaps not traditionally associated with Jewish life…

.
The Yiddish caption here reads: “Throughout the year he works as a bartender in a Coney Island saloon. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur he is a cantor in a synagogue.” A similar theme was explored in the classic 1927 film “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

A man bursts into his home carrying a winning lottery ticket as his family members stare at him in joy and disbelief - The ticket reads 75 Thousand in Yiddish. "God has blessed you now - a joy!" Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company around the turn of the 20th century, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection.
A man bursts into his home carrying a winning lottery ticket as his family members stare at him in joy and disbelief – the ticket reads “75 Toyzend” in Yiddish. “Das groyse gevins!” – Big winnings! Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company around the turn of the 20th century, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

Some of the customs of the Old Country have been nearly completely forgotten, but the Yom Kippur ritual of flagellation was still common enough during the early 1900s to feature in this postcard. Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company during the first quarter of the 20th century, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
Some of the customs of the Old Country have been nearly completely forgotten, but the Yom Kippur ritual of flagellation was still common enough during the early 1900s to feature in this postcard. Printed by the Williamsburg Art Company during the first quarter of the 20th century, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Several of these postcards feature whimsical examples of Yiddish humor.

.
The Yiddish text here reads – “He: But if I were rich, you would have loved me, wouldn’t you have? Her: Loved you? I don’t know about that, but I certainly would have cooperated.” By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

Oy vey! Two pounds of fat have disappeared from the kitchen! The lady of the house blames the servant girl, who in turn replies - "It was the cat!" To solve this crime, the cat is put on the scales, which reveal the animal weighs exactly two pounds. "So the fat is in there," says the lady "the question now is -where is the cat?" By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the National Library Ephemera Collection.
Oy vey! Two pounds of fat have disappeared from the kitchen! The lady of the house blames the servant girl, who replies – “It was the cat!” To solve this crime, the cat is put on the scales, which reveal the animal weighs exactly two pounds. “So the fat is in there,” the lady exclaims, “the question now is – where is the cat?” By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company,the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

 

The Yiddish text here reads - "A disabled man with only one leg meets a blind man on the with only one eye. 'How is it going?' asks the blind man, 'As you see' replies the man with one leg." By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection.
The Yiddish text here reads – “A disabled man with only one leg meets a blind man on the street with only one eye. ‘How’s it going?’ asks the blind man, ‘As you see!’ the disabled man replies.” By artist Jacob Keller circa 1910, printed by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The National Library’s “Time Travel” project is dedicated to collecting and scanning Israeli and Jewish ephemera and making them accessible to the general public, you can browse through the collection here.

Ariel Viterbo of the National Library’s Archives Department assisted in the preparation of this article.




The Jewish Lawyer Who Drafted the Constitution of the Weimar Republic

Hugo Preuss is still considered to be the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic today.

Weimar constitution

From the National Library of Israel collections.


The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Hugo Preuss
Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:

Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives – though it seems to have anticipated the future since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945 with the founding of the new German state.

Preuss
Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this position for 15 years since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament. He also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’ resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text despite the fact that most of it was his brainchild, as the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

B3 Weimarer Verfassung1--780X1015
The title page of the printed constitution that was distributed to male and female pupils upon finishing their school education. From the National Library collection.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.

 

If you liked this article, try these:

“Now I think that Kafka himself is saying to me: ‘You have done enough’”

Rare Items: A Glimpse into the Lives of Max Nordau and His Only Daughter, Maxa

The Jewish Soldiers of the Kaiser’s Army

 



 

Who Is the Israeli Who Won 10 Olympic Medals?

During the Holocaust, she escaped the Nazis using forged documents. Only a decade later she was known around the world as one of the greatest Olympic gymnasts of all time. Discover the amazing story of Ágnes Keleti.

אגנס קלטי

The entire State of Israel may have racked up just one Olympic gold medal in its short history, but Ágnes Keleti, a resident of the Israeli city of Herzliya, is the proud owner of no less than ten Olympic medals – five of them gold.

Keleti was born on January 9, 1921 in Budapest to a well-to-do Jewish family. At the tender age of 4, Keleti began taking “swimming lessons” thanks to her father, who enjoyed tossing her into the lake during family vacations. She was also enrolled in gymnastics at a young age. Despite showing obvious physical talent, Ágnes did not begin to take the sport seriously until age sixteen. Instead, she spent most of her time practicing and playing the cello.

Unlike many other athletes, whose distinct competitive drive pushes them to compete at an international level, Keleti says it was not necessarily her hunger to win medals that motivated her.

“The medals were nice, but I didn’t play sports solely for the accolades. I enjoyed the day-to-day routine and the opportunity to see the world. The Communist regime in Hungary was very tough and not at all to my liking. At the time, most people could not even leave Hungary. I decided to excel in sports in order to see the world. I was fortunate enough to visit places that most people didn’t even dare dream of,” she said in an interview several years ago.

Ágnes Keleti, from the Maccabiah Archive
From the Maccabiah Archive

Keleti survived the Holocaust by using a false identity. During the war years, she adopted the name “Yuhasz Piroshka” and assumed the identity of a village maid. Later, she worked in an ammunition factory. Her mother and sister were also saved, thanks to the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was later recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the same luck did not extend to the rest of her family. Her father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.

When the war ended, Keleti returned to gymnastics. In 1946, she won the title of ‘Hungarian National Champion,’ which she held until she fled the country in 1956. Her meteoric rise to world fame came at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. At the age of 31, Keleti won four medals: a gold medal in floor exercise, a silver medal in the all-around team competition, a bronze in the uneven bars and a bronze in the portable apparatus team event.

אגנס קלטי (משמאל) עם אורי זמרי, ברוך בק, ואלינור רוזוולט 23.2.1962, צילום: לע"מ
Ágnes Keleti (left) with Uri Zimri, Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch Beck – February 23rd, 1962, photo: GPO

In 1956, she competed in the Melbourne Olympics, this time at the age of 35 (twice the age of most of her competitors). She won six medals in Melbourne: three gold medals in individual events (floor, uneven bars and balance beam), another gold in the portable apparatus team event and two silver medals in both the individual and team all-around events.

By the end of her career, Keleti had won ten Olympic medals overall, placing her seventh in terms of all-time medal winners in Olympic history. For comparison, the legendary Carl Lewis also has ten medals to his name, while Mark Spitz has eleven medals in total. In fact, Ágnes Keleti holds more medals than other familiar sports legends like Nadia Comăneci and Usain Bolt. Yet what is perhaps most impressive about Keleti’s medal run is that she won nine out of her ten Olympic medals after reaching the age of 30.

Escape from Hungary and Immigration to Israel

While Keleti was halfway across the world competing in the Melbourne Olympics, a national rebellion was brutally put down by the Soviet regime in her native Hungary. When the revolt broke out, Keleti made the difficult decision not to return to the country for which she was competing. Together with other Hungarian athletes, she appealed to the Australian government for asylum. Their request was granted.

In fact, Keleti had already begun plotting her escape from Hungary prior to her departure for the Melbourne Olympics: “I had had enough of this bloody regime. One day I was swimming in the national team’s heated pool and a young man offered to drive me home. I agreed, but after a while I noticed that we weren’t heading in the direction of my house. He took me to the communist party headquarters and, there, they tried to convince me to spy on my teammates. In that very moment, I realized that I must escape” she told an interviewer.

Although she was an international Olympic star, Keleti was unsuccessful at finding acceptable work in Australia. One day, she received a telegram from Professor Gifstein, her physical education teacher from the Jewish gymnasium in Budapest. In the telegram, he told her that he had decided to immigrate to Israel.

עיתון "דבר" 25.8.1957
“Introducing: Ágnes Keleti” Davar, August 25th, 1957

 

Gifstein invited her to come to Israel to continue her training while adding a warning: “There is nothing here. Bring equipment with you.” Keleti decided to accept his invitation nonetheless and arrived in Israel in 1957, just in time to participate in the Fifth Maccabiah Games.

From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection
From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection

The press in Israel was very excited by Keleti’s arrival in the country. Because of her success at the previous Olympics, she became one of the biggest stars of the Fifth Maccabiah. The stands were packed as Ágnes Keleti took to the floor, this time in her new home of Israel.

If you liked this article, try these:

How Anti-Semitism Robbed the Jewish Miss Europe of Her Crown

The Man Who Developed Krav Maga to Defend Against Anti-Semitic Attacks

That Time Seinfeld the (Almost) Unknown Comedian Did a Gig for the Maccabiah

Rare Documents from Belgrade Tell Tragic Tale of Lives Taken Too Soon

The documents from the Historical Archives of Belgrade tell the story of Isak Darsa, a young boy murdered in the Sajmiste concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis.

Darsa

Application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade

Tracing the lives of average Jewish citizens who perished during the horrors of the Holocaust can be extremely difficult- especially if there were few to no survivors in their immediate family. The Historical Archives of Belgrade holds several documents that have helped retrace a part of the story of Isak Darsa, a young man with a bright future ahead of him, that was cut short by the Nazis.

Benjamin Darsa, Isak’s father, was registered for the first time as a citizen of the Belgrade municipality in 1924.  Benjamin’s certificate of permanent residence can be found in the Citizens’ Cards Register within a collection marked Administration of the City of Belgrade. The certificate reveals that Benjamin was born in 1896 to parents Isak and Gintil Elic in Zemun, which at that time was considered a seperate city but today forms part of Belgrade.

Certificate-of-permanent-residence-of-Benjamin-Darsa-Historical-Archives-of-Belgrad
Certificate of permanent residence of Benjamin Darsa, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrad.

Benjamin worked as a clerk in a French-Serbian bank and on November 18, 1923, he married Estera-Stela nee Kalef of Belgrade at the old Synagogue Bet Israel. The young couple lived together in a leased house in the center of Belgrade.

Isak himself was born to the couple on May 29, 1926, and the next year, the little family moved into their own home on Prince Evgenie Street (modern-day Braca Baruh Street) in Dorcol, a Belgrade district where Jews formed a majority of the population. Technical documentation belonging to the city of Belgrade has preserved the floor plans of the Darsa family house and show that the architect who designed and built their home was Franja Urban, who would later become famous for his work in designing the new Belgrade Synagogue, also known as Sukkat Shalom Synagoue, in 1929.

darsa
Floor plans of the Darsa family house, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Isak Darsa attended a local elementary school in the neighborhood. A glance at his school register shows that his grades were nothing more than average as he was marked with a three on a scale of five in all of his school subjects.

In 1938/39, after finishing four grades of elementary school, Isak Darsa continued his education in the First Male Gymnasium. While he may have proven himself to be average in elementary school, he did not manage to keep to that standard in secondary school as his grades in the Gymnasium were even poorer. Isak barely managed to pass his final exams. While it is unclear if it was due to his poor grades or due to the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, at the age of 13, Isak did not return to the Gymnasium for the next school year.

darsa
Isak Darsa’s grade report from the First Male Gymnasium, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

While school may not have been the right place for him, Isak Darsa did manage to leave us another clue as to what he accomplished in pre-war Belgrade. In February 1941, three months before the war broke out in Yugoslavia, Isak began working with a merchant’s apprentice in a fashion store named Benvenisti and Pinkas on Kolarceva Street in the city center. At that time, sixteen-year-old Isak put in a request with the Merchants’ Association to be issued an occupation license. He submitted his photograph along with his application to the association as a part of his request for a license.

Darsa
Isak Darsa’s application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Unfortunately, the Darsa family met the same fate as most Jewish families living in Belgrade during the Holocaust. Benjamin, Stela and young Isak were murdered by the Nazis.  Isak’s aunt and Stela’s sister, Regina Kalef Eskenazi, who survived the war, reported the deaths of all three Darsas in 1945. Stela and Isak met their end in the Sajmiste concentration camp in 1941 and Benjamin was shot at the Tasmajdan killing site in October 1941. Regina also submitted their war damage claim describing their destroyed and confiscated furniture, clothes, and jewelry.

darsa
The Darsa Family in Yad Vashem’s records.

Benjamin, Stela and Isak Darsa have since been registered in Yad Vashem’s victims’ database.