A History in Pictures: The Jews of the USSR

In the early 1980s, Ilya Dvorkin came up with the idea of documenting the lives of Jewish communities throughout the vast territories of the Soviet Union


Jewish children at school in Bukhara

Ilya Dvorkin is a man of vision. His white hair and matching beard give him the appearance of precisely the kind of person who dreams big. Ilya Dvorkin’s dream is to document, distribute and memorialize the rich culture of the Jewish diaspora in the former Soviet Union. He has probably done more than anyone to realize this vision. Dvorkin is the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies (previously known as the St. Petersburg Jewish University), where he has been working on his huge project for nearly 40 years.

The history of Jewry in Russia and in the territories of the former Russian Empire stretches back many centuries. According to some theories, Jews have been living in the Caucasus region since the Second Temple period, possibly even earlier. It is only natural that such a lengthy, rich history should consist of a wide range of stories; stories of assimilation and separation, nationalism and cosmopolitism, religious persecution and religious tolerance, subjugation and autonomy, and so forth.

The Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union were never monolithic. For the better part of this history, most Jews did not live in Russia itself, as we know it today. In fact, the only thing connecting the different Jewish communities was the prosaic fact that they were all ruled by the Russian-speaking USSR for roughly 70 years. The communities differed in ethnic origin, language, dress and even in religious and cultural customs. Jews from the shtetls of Poland or Ukraine were different than the Jews of Bukhara, Moscow and the towns of the Caucasus. All were consumed by the USSR.

A synagogue in the town of Slonim. Photo credit: Vladimir Levin, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

It was this vast cultural wealth that Ilya Dvorkin set out to conserve. In 1981, he took up what seemed like a crazy idea – photography expeditions to the Jewish communities of the USSR. Dvorkin himself funded the expeditions. He brought along a photographer and set out to find Jews in different towns under Soviet rule. The expeditions lasted until 1998, through the years of glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In many cases, Ilya and his photographers were only able to find the last remnants of Jewish communities which had almost completely dispersed, only a few years earlier. Dvorkin’s photography project provides unique documentation of these disappeared communities.

Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A cat in the town of Gorodkovka. Photo credit: Yefim Babushkin, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

We may not have time or space to conduct a complete review of the history of Russian Jewry, but we can offer a peek at it. The first Jews to settle in the areas that would eventually come under Soviet sovereignty apparently lived in the ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. Archeological evidence suggests Jews began to settle there as early as the first centuries CE, possibly even earlier. Many centuries later, a large percentage of the Russian Empire’s Jews lived in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. Others came from the republics of central Asia.

Dvorkin’s documentation project reached all of these communities. Community buildings such as synagogues and batei midrash (“Houses of Learning”) that no longer exist were recorded as part of his project, as were ancient Jewish cemeteries. Customs, rituals and cultural traditions that were common among local Jews were also documented. In addition to the many photos taken, interviews with members of the different communities were recorded on video, as were local songs and unique prayers. Dvorkin and his team also documented Jewish daily life in what was then known as Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Some of the community’s public figures were also captured in this documentation. One of these was the Prisoner of Zion, Ida Nudel, who later immigrated to Israel.

Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, The Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel
A synagogue in the town of Tyachiv. Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Ida Nudel in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

The massive project contains valuable documentation of life in the USSR during the 1980s and 1990s – a unique period in Soviet and Russian history. Dvorkin takes special pride in images of “the last European shtetl” – photos from the town of Sharhorod, which is today part of Ukraine. Sharhorod was one of the only towns in the region that was conquered by Romania and not by Nazi Germany, which is why most of its Jews survived. There, Dvorkin’s team recorded a klezmer musician playing one of the local Jewish community’s songs.


A home in Sharhorod. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A celebration in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Chanukah in Leningrad, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

The true gem of the collection is undoubtedly the huge and unique assortment of photos, video recorded interviews, and other recordings and items that came from the Jewish communities of Bukhara. These Jews, who lived in the territory covered by modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, represented one of the oldest Jewish communities in history. The Nevzlin Collection is an exceptional treasure of unique Jewish history.

A Tashkent local. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A school in Bukhara. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A wedding in Samarkand. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Jews in Samarkand. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

This project, which documents the various Jewish communities in Russia and the USSR, would not be accessible without the support of the Leonid Nevzlin Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University. Thanks to the Nevzlin Center, visitors of the National Library website can explore the documentation project which includes approximately 10,000 photos, and counting.


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Crossing the Divide: Walter Grab and the East-German Historical Establishment

The Vienna-born Israeli historian Walter Grab was among the few to venture across the academic Iron Curtain in pursuit of his research...This is the story of his unique relationship with East German scholar Heinrich Scheel

Walter Grab

“Are there any other studies published in East-Germany, with which I am not familiar?” wrote Walter Grab, a Viennese-born Israeli historian, to his East-Berliner colleague Heinrich Scheel in August 1971. “Professors Steiner and Markov did not know of any,” he continued, “but here you are the uppermost authority”. By ‘here’, Grab meant East Germany. When he first entered the field of historical research dedicated to the study of German Jacobins, his colleagues considered him a representative of the West, if not a West-German historian proper. Some addressed him in person as the initiator of West-German scholarship on the German Jacobins. Eventually, this was not too far from the truth, given that Grab published his works exclusively in German, and that up until the early 1960s, his field of expertise hardly existed in West-German academia. Apparently, the field had to be invented or at least reintroduced, if it was not to remain an exclusively East-German scholarly endeavor.

Grab himself could not deny his somewhat soloist positioning within the western context, he even fancied its benefits. “There are no true experts in this field in the Federal Republic”, he wrote to a young German scholar, Helmut Haasis, who sought his aid and collaboration in the late 1960s, as a forerunner in the field. For sure, he considered himself the right man for the task. “Is it not also natural, that I, myself a victim of persecution, [am] the first to stimulate the study on the Jacobins in the Federal Republic?” he later reflected. Grab’s positioning was unordinary indeed: a displaced historian of misplaced histories. One who considered himself, as Dan Diner noted, an exiled Jew in the land of Jews, fully devoted to retrieving the roots of failed attempts to constitute a democratic tradition in Germany during the late 18th and early 19th century, following the tides of revolution.

Heinrich Scheel

Grab first won recognition as a documenter of the influence and impact of the French Revolution in Germany, following the appearance of his book in 1966 on the Northern-German Jacobins (Demokratische Strömungen in Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein zur Zeit der Ersten Französischen Republik). This was an elaboration of his dissertation, completed shortly before (at the age of 46) at the University of Hamburg, supervised by the by then already controversial figure of Fritz Fischer. When he first received his doctorate, East-German research on the effects of the French Revolution in Germany, German Jacobins and demagogues and early German revolutionary literature and theater was rather well established and lead by historians and literary scholars such as Walter Markov, Gerhard Steiner, Karl Obermann, Helmut Bock and Hedwig Vogt. Above all, the study of the German Jacobins was tied to the figure of Scheel, a historian committed to the ruling socialist party in the one-party state, and a long-term member of the East-German academy of sciences in Berlin. In 1962, Scheel published an extensive volume on the South-German Jacobins, and earned his place as an expert in a scarcely populated field. Grab, who, albeit ideological differences, acknowledged the pioneering role played by East-German scholars in the study of early revolutionary democracy, established close contacts with all relevant figures in his field, including Scheel. Given the gloomy reality of Cold-War rivalries, this was not all too common. Repeatedly he insisted to his West-German counterparts that without collaboration with East-German scholars and without an acquaintance with exclusive materials kept in East-German archives, no serious progress in the study of a neglected German democratic tradition could be made.

While cataloging Grab’s personal archive for the National Library in Jerusalem, as part of a collaborative research project conducted by the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Centre and the German Literature Archive in Marbach, I came across revealing footprints of an allegedly East-West exchange enterprise. These footprints, highlighting an entanglement of political constraints, ideological obligations and professional profit, provided for a larger picture of the relationships between the German-speaking, formerly light-communist Israeli historian, and his East-German counterparts, completed by institutional correspondences kept in the historical archives of Tel-Aviv University. Especially interesting in this regard is his correspondence with Scheel. At the time when Grab first appeared on the academic stage, Scheel, only slightly older than him, was much more versed in the study of a shattered German democratic past. However still, Grab managed to utilize the geographical division in their areas of study (Scheel was ‘in charge’ of southern Germany, Grab of the northern parts), along with Scheel’s geo-political and cultural isolation, in order to balance-out the power equation between them and act accordingly.

A letter from Grab to Scheel (German), October 1972, click to enlarge

The partnership between the two set off in 1963. They met in East Berlin, and Scheel offered his Israeli colleague considerable help in negotiating with East-German archives. Later on, Scheel even offered a joint research project, whose results were to appear in an East German academic journal in 1967. This was a huge opportunity for Grab, which never materialized. That very year marked the harshening of East-German policy towards Israel following the Six Day War, and the German historian decided not to risk breaching the party line. Thus from very early on, the political sphere made it very difficult for this partnership to succeed. Nevertheless, Grab, for his own sake, and for the sake of beneficiaries from all sides, sought to make sure that the professional, political and ideological gaps remain somehow manageable. “I will continue my efforts in keeping you updated with regards to new publications in the West”, he wrote to his East-Berliner colleague in October of 1972, “and would appreciate it if you could do the same. […] Inobservance or lack of knowledge of researches on both sides,” he further added with a pinch of discontent, “is only harmful for scientific insight, and creates unnecessary tensions between scientists, who should otherwise be on friendly terms with each other.”

A letter from Grab to Scheel (German), March 1976, click to enlarge

However keen, there was only so much Grab could do to prevent global politics from intervening in their partnership. As ideological disagreements between the two sharpened towards the mid-1970s, the burden grew heavier to carry. Scheel, taking more than a step back, began questioning whether Grab’s works on the German Jacobins were not “imperialistically misused” by West-German institutions of higher learning. Grab replied to this accusation in a letter from March 1976. As a sign of his willingness to overarch political obstacles, he stated that he would not mind publishing his works in the journal of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin (Das Jahrbuch für Geschichte(, and that he was by no means shy of crossing communist thresholds, “But the gates to which are shut, as you may well know, and especially after the Six Day War” he wrote. “My willingness, to also publish in the GDR,” he added, “differs me doubtlessly from those systemkonservierenden West-German historians, who criticize my works in the Frankfurter Rundschau.” The correspondence between the two, which recently arrived in Jerusalem, is very telling in regards to understanding Grab’s unique positioning as an émigré scholar and outsider, with its obvious benefits and less apparent limitations. On the one side, there were no institutional constraints which could hinder him and prevent him from promoting his research in the name of preserving a united front. On the other, perceived as a voice from the outside, Grab apparently had to negotiate his stance and accept the fact of being ideologically ‘marked’ by both sides, in order to be considered a legitimate participant in a highly charged field of historical investigation.


Walter Grab’s archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel


This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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Carl Ehrenstein: Expressionist Writer, Cultural Critic and Literary Agent

Rare items from the Carl Ehrenstein Archive

From the Carl Ehrenstein Archive, The National Library of Israel

Generally, the name Ehrenstein brings a twinkle to the eye of experts in German Expressionist Literature. For the most part, anyone who hears the name assumes it refers to Albert Ehrenstein, one of the most prominent poets of the avant-garde movement, whose poems are still being published to this day and have recently even been translated into Hebrew (in the anthology “Weltende : eine Anthologie von expressionistischer Lyrik ins Hebräische übersetzt”, translated and edited by Asher Reich, HaKibbutz Hameuchad, 2013).
Very few remember that Albert had siblings: Otto (who died during World War I), Fritz (killed in the Holocaust), Carl and a sister, Freida. Every one of them stood in the shadow of their famous brother, who was the only one of them to receive an academic education. An interesting symbiosis developed between Carl and Albert, since Carl also had literary aspirations. Albert supported Carl for as long as he was part of the makings of modern German literature.
It can must be assumed that without Carl, we would know much less about Albert: after Albert died in 1950, Carl saw to it to collect the various parts of his personal archive and sent them to the National Library in Jerusalem in 1956.

Carl Ehrenstein was born in Vienna in 1892. After graduating from high school, he received training in a college of economics in his home town. He then worked in a number of insurance companies and banks, and even spent a few months in London in 1911. Little did he know then that  in the future he would live in London and the surrounding area for many years.  Concurrently, inspired by his brother Albert, Carl tried his hand at literature. With Albert as his agent, Carl’s first work, Klagen eines Knaben (The Complaints of a Youth), was published as part of a series of young and modern literature by Kurt Wolf’s famous publishing house in Leipzig. Over 80 Expressionist works were published in that series, including one of the first works by Franz Kafka. During World War I, Ehrenstein feigned insanity to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungrian army. He spent time in a convalescent house in Switzerland. It is possible that there was an element of truth to his charade, as Carl suffered from a few nervous breakdowns over the course of his life.

During most of the 20’s of the 20th century Carl lived in Berlin and worked, for the most part, as a cultural critic for a local Communist newspaper (Die Welt am Abend). In the framework of his work for the newspaper he visited theatres, exhibitions, movie theatres and even sporting events, and wrote many reviews that appeared in the newspaper.  In many cases, Ehrenstein kept the invitation, program, ticket, manuscript of the review and its final printed version in his personal archives. At the same time, Ehrenstein began to translate texts from English to German, mostly popular literature. He tried to find German publishers interested in publishing translations of English literature into German. In January of 1928, Carl Ehrenstein travelled to London, with letters of recommendation from German publishers, in order to find new English books to translate into German. The visit, which was planned to last two months,, was extended indefinitely, and Ehrenstein never saw continental Europe again.

In England, Ehrenstein began to work for a number of English publishers,mostly for Putnam. He read numerous books in German and wrote reviews which often determined whether the book would be translated into English or not. In 1933 he came across a book by the German author Hans Fallada. Fallada’s work greatly excited Ehrenstein.  In the following years, until 1938, Carl Ehrenstein repeatedly wrote positive reviews of Fallada’s books and even corresponded with the author. This was, possibly, Carl Ehrenstein’s greatest achievement: introducing Fallada’s works to the English speaking public. There are indications that Ehrenstein even knew about the attempt to extract Hans Fallada and his family from Nazi Germany – an attempt that failed, as Fallada changed his mind at the last minute.



Portrait of Hans Fallada


In England, Ehrenstein began to write poetry in English. However, he did not make an effort to publish the poems. Their quality possibly justifies Ehrenstein’s reluctance; his works are not generally considered to be the best of his era.His personal archive, however, (which includes portions of the estates of his sister, Freida, and his friend Thomas Schramek) is important because it includes a wealth of correspondences with publishers and writers from the 20s and 30s of the previous century as well as the cultural criticism and reviews that he wrote. All of these elements come together to create a colorful picture of culture and international relationships in the era before World War II.





100 Years of Ford and the Jews – From Antisemitism to Zionism

Henry Ford was one of the most notorious American antisemites of the 20th century. His grandson, however, was an ardent Zionist. A collection of rare photos from Henry II's little-known visit to Israel appears here for the first time.

Henry Ford II (center, looking towards the camera) examines one of his models at the Ford plant in Northern Israel, February 1972. Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1919, Henry Ford bought a small local newspaper operating at a loss.

In the coming years, The Dearborn Independent would liberally cite and elaborate upon “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, blaming the international Jewish conspiracy for war, poverty, Bolshevism and even “Jewish Jazz-Moron Music”. The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem – a sort of “greatest hits” of antisemitic articles published in the paper – was released soon thereafter as a four-volume set, distributed in Ford dealerships across the United States and translated into German.  Interestingly, the American edition does not mention Ford’s name, while it appears prominently on the best-selling German one.

Less than a half-century after The Dearborn Independent shut down following a libel suit, Henry Ford II was in the State of Israel visiting a Ford plant in the Galilee. If the elder Henry Ford’s antisemitism is legendary, his grandson’s Zionism and support of Jewish causes is certainly less well-known.

Click on the photos to enlarge

Henry Ford II is shown around the Ford plant in Northern Israel, February 1972. Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In September 1945, just a few weeks after his 28th birthday and the official surrender of the Japanese, Ford II became the dynamic new president of the automotive giant. Known as “Hank the Deuce”, the young executive led the company for the last two years of his grandfather’s life and then for the decades that followed.

Shortly after Israeli independence, Hank the Deuce oversaw a trade deal that would see a major shipment of automotive parts to help alleviate the young state’s transportation crisis.

The next year, Hank the Deuce personally presented Israel’s first president with a Ford Lincoln Cosmopolitan. Reportedly the only other recipient of that specific model was U.S. President Harry Truman. A $50,000 contribution from Hank the Deuce in 1950 made him the top donor to the United Jewish Appeal’s first ever Christian Committee Campaign for Israel.

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Around the time of the Six Day War in 1967, Hank the Deuce nonchalantly gave his good friend, the Jewish businessman and philanthropist Max Fisher, a warm personal note with a $100,000 check inside for the Israeli Emergency Fund.

Shortly thereafter, Hank the Deuce fulfilled his promise to have a Ford assembly plant in Israel and maintain business dealings with the Jewish State, refusing to give in to boycott threats despite extensive and lucrative interests across the Arab world. The Arab boycott took effect and cars began rolling out of the plant in Nazareth, at which point Hank the Deuce reportedly said, “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.”

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

He later elaborated on the decision, “It was just pragmatic business procedure… I don’t mind saying I was influenced in part by the fact that the company still suffers from a resentment against the antisemitism of the distant past. We want to overcome that. But the main thing is that here we had a dealer who wanted to open up an agency to sell our products – hell, let him do it.”

The first Ford Escorts – with tires, batteries and paint “Made in Israel” – came off the Nazareth production line in the spring of 1968. A newspaper article reported the initial output: three vehicles per day, with plans to expand to eight!

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In October 1971, a festive celebration marked the plant’s 15,000th Escort.  The next year, the plant began assembling a new four-door model, the Escort 1300, and Hank the Deuce came for a visit. A collection of rare photos of that visit from the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the National Library of Israel’s Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, are presented here for the first time.

As exports to Africa grew in the 1970s, Ford Transits, trucks, and buses were also assembled in Nazareth.

In 1975, amid reports that Ford would finally cave into the boycott pressure, he said, “We are going to continue doing business in Israel, and if we can do business in an Arab country, all the better. So we can do business on both sides… I assume that no one would seriously wish us, in a kind of reverse-boycott fashion, to abstain from doing business in Arab countries simply because of our dealings with Israel.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The prime minister of Israel at the time of Henry Ford II’s historic 1972 visit to Israel was the Russian-born American-raised labor Zionist Golda Meir and the Ford plant in Nazareth was located just a short distance from Har Megiddo – known as “Armageddon” in English – the site of the Final Battle described in the Book of Revelation.

Some fifty years earlier, a Dearborn Independent article entitled “Will Jewish Zionism Bring Armageddon?”, had decried the “overwhelmingly predominant Bolshevik element” in the modern Zionist movement, the fact that the “Jewish government of Palestine is very much like that of Russia—mostly foreign”, and the misguided “Christian friends of the Jews” who supported the Zionist project. Interestingly, while The Dearborn Independent was unequivocally antisemitic, it also seems to contain a sort of perverse, couched respect for Zionism – at the least in its religious, messianic form; though certainly not the secular, socialist variety that largely characterized the Zionist movement at the time.

Henry Ford the grandfather once said, “Of all the follies the elder generation falls victim to this is the most foolish, namely, the constant criticism of the younger element who will not be and cannot be like ourselves because we and they are different tribes produced of different elements in the great spirit of Time.”

Bill Ford, current executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford’s great-grandson, visited Israel in 2019 to inaugurate the new Ford Research Center in Tel Aviv.


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