“Letter Returned to Sender: The Jewish Council No Longer Exists”

59 envelopes attest to the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. "It is important that the world know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans' cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors."

“I have a very important item which I must give to you,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone, “And I ask that you come to collect it personally, as soon as possible.” The name of the man who telephoned the archive department some six months ago is a familiar one in the Library: the engineer Yosef Weichert, son of Michael Weichert whose large, extensive archive has been preserved in the National Library for almost fifty years.

A surprise awaited us when we came to visit him in Tel Aviv: Mr. Weichert gave us an item which for various reasons had not been deposited with the rest of his father’s archive material, and had remained in the family’s possession. With great excitement he handed us an album with a faded cover and said: “The time has come to present you with this historical item. It is important that the world become aware of the story and remember and know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans’ cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors.”

Meticulously arranged in the album were 59 letter envelopes sent between September 1940 and May 1941 to the various branches of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (ZSS) from the central office in Krakow. All the letters sent by the chairman of the organization, Michael Weichert, were returned to him.

The Polish postal service returned them to his office, a while after they were sent, with various handwritten additions on the envelope: “Left the address”; “The Jews were deported” or “The Jewish council no longer exists”.

Without a doubt, the Polish postmen were fully aware of what had befallen the addressees whose letters were returned to the sender. Michael Weichert was horrified by the returned mail, knowing that each envelope bearing a Polish postman’s comment hinted to a community which no longer existed. In his eyes, the envelopes, some of which were also stamped with a Polish stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” were also an expression of the collaboration and unrestrained affinity many Poles felt toward the Nazi’s actions.

On the above envelope: the logo of the “Jewish Social Self-Help Organization”, underneath it, a red stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

Weichert decided to conceal the envelopes in a hiding place, together with other documentation from that time. After the war, he removed the envelopes from their hiding place, so his son who witnessed his actions told us, and added them to his archive. But who was Michael Weichert and what was the organization for which he sent these letters to dozens of communities throughout Poland?

Michael Weichert was born in 1890 in the city of Podhajce, Eastern Galicia. His natural affinity for the world of literature and theatre and his excellence in classical studies mapped this talented young man’s path, and he decided to dedicate his life to Jewish theatre.

After completing his studies, with excellence, in the law faculty of Vienna University, he travelled to Berlin and registered for studies at the Academy of Theatre Arts headed by the well-known director Max Reinhardt. When the First World War came to an end Weichert returned to Poland and settled in Warsaw, where in 1929 he opened a studio for young experimental theater which gradually developed into the “Young Jewish Theatre”. Despite Weichert’s great success as director of the theatre, he needed another job to supplement his meager income, and he worked in his profession as an attorney in the service of various Jewish charitable and social aid institutions.

Dr. Michael Weichert

When the Second World War broke out, Weichert found himself in the eye of the storm – he was the legal consultant of the umbrella organization which unified the Jewish self-help social aid organizations in Poland. His natural leadership abilities led to him being the person who decided to accept the Germans’ offer to continue to operate these organizations. The aid funds sent to the organization from the Joint Distribution Committee in America were the deciding factor in the Germans’ decision to permit the activity to continue, under their tight supervision. In May 1940 Weichert was transferred to Krakow, where he was appointed as chairman of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (in Polish: Zydowska Samopomoc Spoleczna – ZSS).

Weichert was joined by Marek Biberstein, the head of the Krakow Judenrat as co-director of the organization. Many people were disconcerted by the organization’s close connections with the German authorities, and an attempt was even made at the end of the War to accuse Weichert of collaboration with the Nazis. Weichert was deeply hurt by these accusations, and spent many years clearing his name and proving his innocence.

“The Jewish council in Leszno no longer exists”. An envelope returned by the Polish postal service in May 1941.

All of the ZSS’s foreign relations had to be conducted – by order of the authorities – through the German Red Cross, and the organization was under close supervision of the authorities. Even its management was approved directly by the authorities in September 1940. The organization had advisers for each of the four Generalgouvernement districts, as well as representatives on local aid committees. The ZSS distributed food to the Jews of the Generalgouvernement and directed other widespread aid activities – such as operation of centers for agricultural training for the members of the socialist youth movements, aid to Jews in the forced labor camps, and more.

Many towns had branches of the organization which were all subordinate to Weichert’s management. The management of the organization in Krakow, headed by Weichert, coordinated, initiated and supervised the social aid activities in all the towns under its authority, including of various organizations which were effectively subservient to it but were often given full freedom of action. During the three years of its activity, this organization dealt with some half a million people, half of the total number of Jews in the area it was responsible for. Despite the tremendous disparity between the needs of the public and the ability to help them, the self-help organization managed to provide portions of food to the soup kitchens, as well as to send packages of dry food, medicine and clothing to the poor. The Germans ordered the organization to shut down once they began the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’. Its activity ceased on July 29, 1942, and a Jewish self-help office was opened in its stead, which was subordinate to the Gestapo and closely supervised by it.

The many frictions between Weichert and the various Polish underground movements led to him being forced to hide from them and to his life being in two-fold danger –  not only from the fury of those who saw him as a Nazi collaborator, but also due to having been sentenced to death by the Germans themselves, who issued an arrest order against him. Weichert, managed to survive the Holocaust, along with his wife and son. They arrived in Israel in 1958, bringing with them a large and valuable archive of documentation which has unique significance for the history of the Holocaust, as well as, and perhaps primarily in Weichert’s eyes, material which told the story of the Jewish theatre in pre-Holocaust Poland, during the War and in the short-lived period of flourishing after the War.

Comments of the Polish postman who returned the envelopes to the sender. Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

The envelopes of the letters sent back to Weichert from the various branches of the aid organization he managed are important testimony and a painful memory of those difficult days. It was the Polish postmen who informed him about the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. This extraordinary documentation is now preserved in the National Library and is available to researchers and historians who undoubtedly, will continue to study this dark and terrible period of human history.


Natan Sharansky’s Little Book of Psalms that Survived the Soviet Prison

During the darkest period of his eventful life, a small black book gave light to the imprisoned Natan Sharansky, symbolizing his connection with his wife and with the Land of Israel

Natan Sharansky's Book of Psalms

“On January 20th, 1980, my birthday, I was impatiently waiting for a congratulatory telegram from home…The next day I received an unexpected surprise – a real birthday gift! – when the official in charge of storing the prisoners’ belongings brought me a tiny book with a black binding, my Book of Psalms!”

(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Random House New York, 1988)

This is how former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky describes a rare moment of joy which he experienced on the 21st of January, 1980, when his prison officer gave him back his little black Book of Psalms. The book provided Sharansky with renewed hope throughout the long years of his imprisonment. He was never to be separated from this book ever again.

Natan Sharansky with his Book of Psalms

The book accompanied Sharansky during his most difficult years in prison. In his autobiography, Sharansky tells of how the book, given to him by his wife Avital on the eve of his arrest, was confiscated. As a religious book printed outside the Soviet Union, it wasn’t exactly recommended reading material in the Soviet prison system. At one point, when Sharansky was being transferred from one prison to another, the book was temporarily returned to his possession.  The prisoner took advantage of this opportunity and tore out the page which indicated the book had been printed in Israel. When asked about it later, Sharansky described it as a “book of folklore”. It was only thanks to this that the prison authorities finally agreed to return the book to him.

“The Psalm book was the sole material evidence of my mystical tie with Avital. What impelled her to send it to me on the eve of my arrest? And how did it happen that I received it on the day of my father’s death? The reading of the Psalms not only reinforced our bond but also demystified their author. King David now appeared before me not as a fabled hero or as a mystical superman but as a live, indomitable soul – tormented by doubts, rising against evil, and suffering from the thought of his own sins.”

In 2014, Natan Sharansky visited the National Library of Israel. One of his meetings was with the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, Timna Elper.

“I was so excited to meet Sharansky,” she said, “I told him of the impact that the story of his Psalm book, as he described it in his autobiography, had on my life.” Sharansky then pulled the tiny book out of his pocket and showed it to her. It wasn’t in great shape, as could be expected after years in a Soviet prison.

Upon seeing the state of Sharansky’s book, the Library administrators who accompanied the visit offered to restore it.


Natan Sharansky’s Book of Psalms, before and after restoration

The book was given thorough treatment in the Library’s facilities.  The heavily damaged cover was restored, torn pages were mended and and the many eroded page corners were treated using the Conservation and Restoration Department’s unique techniques. Finally, on the 8th of May 2014, the Psalm book was returned to its excited owner.

Sharansky receives his Psalm book after its restoration

Towards the end of his autobiography, Sharansky writes about his very last moments of imprisonment, all those years ago, just before he stepped onto the plane that would take him to freedom:

“Where’s my Psalm book?

“You received everything that was permitted,” answered the intellectual in an unexpectedly rough tone. He signaled to the tails to take me away. I quickly dropped to the snow.

“I won’t move until you give me back my Psalm book.” When nothing happened, I lay down in the snow and started shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!”

The photographers were aghast, and pointed their cameras to the sky.

After a brief consultation the boss gave me the Psalm book. I got up and quickly mounted the ramp.

In a dark world of suffering and injustice, one small black book gave light to the imprisoned Sharanksy. It was a reminder of his Jewish heritage. It was a reminder of his wife, Avital, who gave him the book before his arrest. It was what provided him with the strength to survive those most terrible times.


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Ephraim Moshe Lilien: “The First Zionist Artist”

According to E.M. Lilien, Zionism would be the art of the new Jews through which the new Jews would represent themselves.

Ephraim Moshe Lilien at his desk, 1902. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

In December 1901 the art nouveau artist Ephraim Moshe Lilien joined his compatriots in the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. There, he became part of an art revolution. Lilien, along with the Democratic Faction led by Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann, called on the World Zionist Organization to adopt a program of Hebrew culture and a greater degree of democracy within the organization

At the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901. Theodor Herzl can be seen in the center along with other Zionist who’s who of the day. E.M. Lilien is sitting on the floor on the bottom right. From the National Library’s Photography Collection

One of Lilien’s most famous pieces of art was the Jewish National Fund (קק”ל) emblem and logo which you can see below. The Fifth Zionist Congress’ most memorable accomplishment was the establishment of the Jewish National Fund.

Jewish National Fund postcard, ca. 1901,Warsaw Levanon Company

Lilien’s friendship with Martin Buber enabled his art to become not merely Jewish, or nor be an artist with who worked with Jewish themes, but to be a Zionist artist and thus part of a movement that was not merely political and social, but cultural as well.

The illustration Lilien created for the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901-02. Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilen’s part in the art revolution began he attended the Fifth Zionist Congress. Born in Drohobycz, Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1874. By 1889 Lilien went on to study painting and graphic techniques at the Academy of Arts in Kraków until 1893. It was during that time that Lilien studied under the painter Jan Matejko, considered one of Poland’s greatest historical painters  from 1890 to 1892. Initially his art wasn’t specifically Zionist; at least he didn’t think so. But in 1900 he published his first major art project: He illustrated biblical scenes and Jewish images in the book “Juda, ballads of Börries von Münchhausen”, which is, ironically enough, a Christian retelling of the bible

Dancing in Ancient Israel, an illustration from “Juda”, 1900, reproduced on a postcard published by Charlottenburg

He didn’t shy away from contemporary Jewish issues in his art.  When the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld’s book, “Poems from the Ghetto”, was translated into German, he was commissioned to illustrate it for the German audience. He very seriously and diligently illustrated the suffering of the Jews as they migrated from one form of poverty in Eastern Europe to another in America, where the majority of immigrants became peddlers or sweatshop workers exploited by factory managers.

Eternal Vagabonds, ca. 1903, Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

In 1903 the Russian persecution of the Jews came to a head during the Kishinev Pogroms. The Russian Empire’s oppression of Jews made it clear to Lilien that anti-Semitism had to be fought both politically and culturally and that the victims had to be honored.

“In Honor of the Sanctified Dead of Kishinev”, ca. 1903. Of Maxim Gorkis Zbornik, Berlin. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

It seemed that Lilien decided that art would be the gentle sledgehammer with which Jews would break the chains of the Diaspora. And the art of the new Jew would represent the new Jew. The illustration below shows the tension between the opposing forces of the Jewish world at the time. One line shows religious, traditional Jews moving backwards, whereas the other line shows modern, muscular Jews moving forwards towards the horizon.

Father and Son, ca. 1904. Verlag Zion, Wien. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilien went on several expeditions to the Land of Israel on behalf of the World Zionist Organization. One of these expeditions was with Boris Schatz in 1906, when they established the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the emblem of which is Lilien’s design. Lilien also taught the school’s first class in 1906. Lilien didn’t stay at Bezalel or in the Land of Israel after that first year. He returned to Berlin in 1907, but continued to visit the Land of Israel periodically until 1918.

The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design emblem

Lilien died in Germany in 1925 at the age of 51. A street in Jerusalem is named for him.

E.M. Lilien in his studio in Berlin, ca. 1910. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

Information for the article gathered from The Art and Artists of the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901 and Zionism and the Creation of a New Society.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Gil Weissblei.

All illustrations are by E.M. Lilien.


The German Martin and the Jewish Mordechai: When Buber and Heidegger Met in 1957

Hidden away in the Mordechai "Martin" Buber’s archives is a series of photographs in an envelope, labeled: “unidentified.” Why was the evidence of a friendly meeting between Buber and Martin Heidegger downplayed?

A photograph of the participants in the meeting. Front center: Heidegger and Buber

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, became a controversial figure after WWII. Heidegger was among the most prominent of the many German intellectuals who collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Third Reich, or at least, identified with it and took no position against it. As an original and seminal thinker who placed human experience at the center of his thought and viewed humanity as the supreme cause of everything, Heidegger had a profound influence on Jewish intellectuals of his day, mainly among German Jewry.

Marin Heidegger to the right of Martin Buber, 1957. The Martin Buber Archive in the National Library of Israel

Heidegger was an outstanding student of the German-Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and with the latter’s retirement in 1928, was selected to replace him at the University of Freiburg. His most important book, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), published in 1927, was dedicated with admiration to his teacher Edmund Husserl, even though in effect, the book took a stand against some of Husserl’s foundational assumptions, and some viewed this dedication as a key to understanding the deep and complex relationship between two generations of philosophers.

In 1933, with the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Heidegger warmly welcomed their emergence. Just a few months after Hitler took over the national government, Heidegger officially joined the Nazi Socialist Party, and as a mark of distinction for this step, he was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, a job from which he resigned after just one year of office. During that year, Heidegger took various steps intended to gratify the government, including various racially based attacks on Jewish colleagues.

One of the symbolic acts for which Heidegger was condemned and his reputation blackened as a Nazi collaborator was the directive to revoke the privileges of his elderly teacher, Husserl, as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg, due to his Jewish origins (even though Husserl had converted to Christianity). In the second edition of Being and Time, published in 1941, Heidegger, apparently under pressure from the publishers, removed the dedication to Husserl. Hannah Arendt, who was one of Heidegger’s best known students, and of whose intimate relationship with him much has been written, claimed that with this harsh attack of a student against his teacher, Heidegger hastened Husserl’s end, and even indirectly caused his death. Heidegger’s problematic relationship with Hitler and Nazism was even more clearly manifested by the way in which it percolated into his philosophical thought. His book Introduction to Metaphysics (Einführung in die Metaphysik), published in 1935, for example, included excerpts from a speech he delivered at the University of Freiburg in which he justified the supremacy of Hitler’s rule and the Third Reich.

After WWII, Heidegger was a pariah. The attempts to clear his name, – even by Jewish students such as Hannah Arendt – actually led to a reverse result. His philosophy, like his personality, was considered an abomination among many within and outside of Germany. The connection between him and Martin Buber after the Shoah therefore seems impossible, even for a liberal person such as Buber, who preceded many in his forgiving approach to Germany and the Germans. In Martin Buber’s biography by Maurice Friedman, Friedman quotes Buber’s writings, according to which “Heidegger the man was much more, in my view, than his writings.” Elsewhere, Buber is quoted as saying that all he had to state in condemnation of Heidegger had already been written when it happened, and therefore, there was no point in revisiting past events. However, Buber never related to Heidegger in his writings or public statements. Heidegger, for his part and quite surprisingly, testified in one of his interviews in the West-German media that he knew Buber’s name “from hearsay only,” and never knew him personally. At the same time, there is no doubt that Heidegger was very familiar with Buber’s writings, and even pressured the publisher of the festschrift in honor of his fiftieth birthday to approach Buber and ask him to translate an article for the volume. Buber refused, claiming that his failing health due to age prevented him from accommodating the request.

Buber and Heidegger by the coffee table. Second on the left: Martin Buber, second on the right: Martin Heidegger

Any mutual fear of public friendship and the fog surrounding the personal relations between the two evaporates in this series of photographs, which documents a friendly and warm meeting held in the late spring of 1957. With the picturesque Alps in the background, the two men met for two full days at the castle of Prince Albrecht von Schaumburg-Lippe, during which they discussed the preparation of an international conference on language (“Die Sprache”). The prince who hosted the two philosophers in his castle was the brother-in-law of Clemens Graf von Podewils, 1905-1978, who at the time was director of the Bavarian Academy of the Arts in Munich. Another partner in organizing the historical meeting between the German philosopher and the Jewish philosopher was Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a physicist and philosopher of science in his own right, and the older brother of the president of West Germany elected in 1984. These two facilitators were organizing the conference under the auspices of the Bavarian Academy and wanted to summon Buber and Heidegger to a discussion on its content and goals. The meeting between the two was held, therefore, in a pleasant atmosphere, far from the public eye.

Buber conceded, according to the testimony of one of the participants, that immediately a bold friendship took hold between these two elderly men, who were unafraid of mocking the prejudices against Jews on the one hand, and against the Nazi rector on the other. In the photographs, the two can be seen smiling, and in a few of them, Paula Buber appears, sitting alongside her husband at one of their shared outdoor meals. Ultimately, due to Paula Buber’s sudden death just a few months later, Martin Buber cancelled his participation in the conference, and it was therefore not held as planned.

Martin Buber, 1946

The fascinating discussions between Buber and Heidegger at that historic meeting were recorded with characteristic fastidiousness and precision by von Weizsäcker, who understood the historical significance of this once in a lifetime dialogue. Blame, atonement and forgiveness were some of the topics discussed between the two, a Jewish philosopher of religion and a Christian philosopher who denounced religion, united to a great extent by their interest in the relationship between man and the Divine.

A personal dedication by Heidegger in his book about Hebel:

“To Martin Buber, with honest admiration, Martin Heidegger, Altreuthe, 29th May, 1957”