The Kabbalistic Ceremony That Helped to Identify the Fallen Soldiers

When the thirty-five fallen soldiers of a legendary military convoy were brought for burial at Mt. Herzl, following Israel's War of Independence, only twenty-three could be identified with certainty. To resolve the problem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin performed a little-known Kabbalistic ritual.


The funeral of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, 1948. Photo: Historical Archives of Gush Etzion

Twice, the funeral procession descended from the village to the lower slopes of the hill above the wadi, to where a mass grave had been dug in the young pine forest. Those carrying the stretchers with the dead, soldiers, members of the settlement, and relatives walked silently down the sloping path. A heartbreaking sight was a mother walking silently behind a stretcher, her hand supporting the head of her only son, which protruded slightly from under the cover draped over the stretcher—as if her son were alive and his mother’s caress would soothe him (“Yoman Kfar Etzion” [Hebrew], January 18th, 1948).

On the night between the 15th and 16th of January, 1948, thirty-five members of a convoy, commanded by Danny Mass, set out on a mission to deliver supplies to besieged Gush Etzion (the “Etzion Bloc”, in English), a cluster of settlements in the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem. Before dawn the unit was discovered and surrounded by thousands of Arab fighters.  All thirty-five members of the convoy were killed in a battle that lasted the entire day. They have come to be known in Hebrew as the Lamed-Heh (ל”ה), after the two letters which together indicate the number thirty-five.

A Hebrew obituary notice for the fallen "35 Heroes of the Nation"
A Hebrew obituary notice for the fallen “35 Heroes of the Nation”

Twelve Graves Remained Unidentified

Two days later, the bodies were discovered by Hamish Dugan, chief of the British police in Hebron. He intended to bring them to burial in Kfar Etzion, but before he could so, Arabs residents of the nearby village of Surif mutilated the bodies beyond recognition. This led, later, to the problem of identifying the dead.

The funeral of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, 1948. Photo: Historical Archives of Gush Etzion
The funeral of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, 1948. Photo: Historical Archives of Gush Etzion


The funeral of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, 1948. Photo: Historical Archives of Gush Etzion
The funeral of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, 1948. Photo: Historical Archives of Gush Etzion

A few months after the end of the War of Independence, in late 1949, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Shlomo Goren, initiated a mission to bring the bodies of Gush Etzion’s fallen defenders, including the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, for reburial at the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl.

The burial site of the Thirty-Five on Mt. Herzl

The bodies had been identified for the temporary burial in Kfar Etzion with great effort, but after the fall of Gush Etzion, the burial details were lost including the information of who was buried where. As a result, when the bodies were brought for permanent burial at Mount Herzl it was necessary to re-identify the bodies, and only twenty-three of them could be determined with certainty. Twelve graves remained unidentified. The families of these twelve fallen soldiers approached Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who suggested they contact Rabbi Aryeh Levin and ask him to perform a Kabbalistic ceremony known as Goral HaGra [“The Lottery of the Vilna Gaon”] in order to identify the bodies.

The Verses that Miraculously Provided Answers

Rabbi Aryeh Levin was known for his kindness. He was called the “Rabbi of the Prisoners” for his habit of writing letters to prisoners and visiting them every Sabbath to visit them in their jail cells to lift their spirits during the British Mandate period. He was particularly known for his visits to the imprisoned members of the underground movements and those headed for the gallows. He also regularly visited the Hansen Leper Hospital in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood to offer encouragement and comfort to the residents. He himself participated in the funeral arrangements and identification of the bodies before the burial of the fallen of Kfar Etzion in 1948.

Goral HaGra, a ritual attributed to the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman), is conducted by randomly opening a bible and linking the verses on the page to the matter at hand. The purpose of the ceremony is to find answers to a question of great importance. If there is no hint in the verse, one skips to the next verse that begins with the last letter of the previous verse.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Photo: the Eddie Hirschbein Collection at the National Library of Israel
Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Photo: the Eddie Hirschbein Collection at the National Library of Israel

At first, Rabbi Levin refused to perform the mystical ritual, but after being convinced that it would help the bereaved families gain a measure of closure—he acquiesced. The Rabbi was given both a list of the fallen whose burial places were unknown and a sketch of the unidentified graves (there was no need to dig up graves or desecrate the existing burial sites). He went over the sketch, one grave at a time, and tried to affix a verse to each.

The bible printed in Amsterdam in 1701 used by Rabbi Aryeh Levin for the ceremony. Photo from the book Ish Tzadik Haya by Simcha Raz

According to the book by Simcha Raz, Ish Tzadik Haya (“There was a Righteous Man” [Hebrew]), the Rabbi’s work was miraculously swift. At first, a few general verses appeared that contained hints of the letters Lamed-Heh followed by eleven verses in rapid succession that hinted at the names of the dead according to the order of their burial in the sketch. Some of the verses even contained the specific name of the deceased. In others, there was a clear hint. No verse was found for the body of the twelfth fallen soldier, Jacob Kotik z”l, but at this point there was no need, since the identification of the other eleven left no doubt as to where he was buried.

A record of the Goral HaGra ritual performed for the twelve graves at the burial site of the Thirty-Five on Mount Herzl. From the book Ish Tzadik Haya.

Twelve Candles Illuminated the Eastern Wall

Journalist Yitzhak Dish described the ceremony:

“It was Thursday, night time. They went upstairs to the yeshiva located in the attic of the small, modest house of Rabbi Aryeh, in the Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood (a small neighborhood near the Mahane Yehuda market). In the darkened hall, twelve candles were lit, which illuminated the eastern wall next to which was the Torah Ark. Those present included: Rabbi Aryeh along with his son-in-law and son. Two of the parents of the deceased were also in attendance: Mr. Reuven Mass and Mr. Yitzhak Dov HaCohen Persitz. They began with the recitation of Psalms.

A sacred silence prevailed. The burning candles added to the sense of awe. They opened the Bible randomly without looking for a particular page. After each opening, they leafed through it again, seven times, and repeated the act seven times and decided that the findings would determine to whom each grave belonged before marking the tombstone. And this is the rule that was followed: the last verse on the page must include the name or a hint of the name of one of those whose identity is being sought.”


The article published in Herut on May 21st, 1965. Click on the picture to read the article [Hebrew].

Sometimes it’s best to let the departed be. Through the generations, various rabbis have voiced reservations about this custom, which is supposedly aided by magical means. Despite the progress of science, to this day none of the members of the families of the twelve have asked for the bodies to be identified using more advanced methods such as DNA markers, and the fallen of the Convoy the Thirty-Five remain buried based on the identification determined by the Goral HaGra.

Rabbi Levin lived for years on Mount Gerizim Street in the Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem. After his death, this street as well as streets in other cities in Israel were named after him. In July 2005, the Israel Coins and Medals Corporation issued a commemorative medal and a stamp bearing his portrait was also published.



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A Personal Diary from the Łódź Ghetto, Kept in the Margins of a Prayer Book

"3/12/1941 - My heart is burning and my body is freezing. My head is hurting beyond all reason. Why? Is all justice forsaken?"


3/12/1941 – “On the 26th of October, about 10,000 people were deported from Piatricawa Street. Around 100 Jews were reported killed, but there is talk of more. On the second day of Adar, my parents fled to Słomniki with just one coat between them. Their situation is very bad. My heart is burning and my body is freezing. My head is hurting beyond all reason. Why? Is all justice forsaken?”

As the years go by, we look back with increasingly greater difficulty to fully grasp what transpired in the ghettos of Europe. As fewer survivors live among us, first-hand, written accounts have become all the more crucial.

A prime example of this is the personal diary kept by Menachem Oppenheim in the Łódź Ghetto. Following the war, it was found among the ruins of the Ghetto. The book was donated to the National Library in the 1950s. What makes the diary truly unique is that it was written in the margins of a siddur, a Jewish prayer book. Menachem Oppenheim lived in the Ghetto from the winter of 1941 to the summer of 1944. He wrote dozens of entries in Hebrew and Yiddish on the pages of the prayer book. He utilized the margins of the pages and the space between the printed verses and paragraphs, exploiting any blank area on the pages of the prayer book. As far as we know, Oppenheim perished in Auschwitz like most Jews who managed to survive in the Łódź Ghetto until its liquidation by the Nazis at the end of August 1944.


3/8/1942 – “Two years have passed since the Jews were incarcerated in the ghetto. A loaf of bread costs sixty marks… Once again, deportation notices have been sent.”


From his diary, we learn that Menachem Oppenheim was 33 years old when he was imprisoned in the Ghetto. He was a religious Zionist, married with children. His wife and two daughters managed to escape the Ghetto just before it was locked down. Menachem worked in a carpentry shop and, at one point, was even imprisoned in the Ghetto jail.

3/10/1942 – “The deportation continues. I saw an old man and woman, who looked to be about 80 years old, pulling a handcart to the train station for their deportation… They will be dead before they reach the next stop… They are deporting people to the grave…”

The great importance of Oppenheim’s diary entries lies in his daily documentation of life in the Ghetto: working conditions, police activities, food distribution, labor, hunger, diseases, and Menachem Oppenheim’s reflections on the effect of Ghetto life on himself and his friends, which were somewhere between hope and despair, between illusion and disappointment. The diary also contains a specific record of religious life in the Ghetto and tells of how the Jews attempted to observe the holidays, what they ate on Passover, and how they prayed to God while dwelling in the hellish surroundings they found themselves in.


4/9/1942 – “Passover 5702.  In the Ghetto there is great hunger. Only rye matzah, watery soup, and beetroot… Because of the nagging hunger, many people ate bread and so did I. The Passover Seder was prepared with only matzah and black coffee… This is my third Passover without my family. And in Passover 1942 I ate chametz for the first time…”


Oppenheim was a gifted literary talent. His writing is beautiful and eloquent. He was probably a person with a broad education and a cultural outlook. As noted, Menachem Oppenheim evidently perished at Auschwitz. The fate of his wife and two daughters is unknown. His diary resurfaced in the 1950s in a Jerusalem bookstore. The Sephardic Derech Ha-Hayim prayer book came to the attention of biblical scholar, Professor Mordechai Zer Kavod (Ehrenkranz), who translated the personal diary within the prayer book from Yiddish before donating it to the National Library.

3/19/1942 – “After an eight week hiatus, I received 2 kilograms of wild carrots and 1 kilogram of carrots on the family register.”

Menachem Oppenheim’s diary is one item from a very large collection of manuscripts that were donated to the National Library in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II.

View Menachem Oppenheim’s entire personal diary



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How Capt. Isaac Benkowitz Saved a World of Jewish Books

A rare look into two volumes that contain hints of a cultural world that was and is no more...


In the city of Offenbach, near Frankfurt am Main, inside a five-story building, Captain Isaac Benkowitz stood among hundreds of boxes of books, wondering what to do. His unit’s mission, part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) responsible for the preservation of cultural property under the Allied Military Government, was to return all the identifiable books in the Offenbach warehouse looted by the Nazis to the countries they belonged to.

The Nazis stole millions of books during the Holocaust. Nearly two million volumes had found their way from Eastern and Western Europe to the Institute for the Research of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. Founded by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi regime’s chief ideologue, this institute was just a small part of his grandiose plan to establish a network of research institutes for Nazi studies under the umbrella of an Academic Institute for Nazi Studies (Hohe Schule der NSDAP), for which he had received Hitler’s personal blessing. However, Hitler asked that Rosenberg begin with the establishment of a library and wait until after the war to establish the institute. Nevertheless, the institute in Frankfurt began to operate during the war and its library became the largest “Jewish Library” in Europe.

אנשי צוותי העבודה של רוזנברג ממיינים ספרים שנגנבו
Members of Rosenberg’s staff sorting through stolen books

Because Frankfurt was under bombardment, the institute sent most of the books to the town of Hungen, where American forces found them at the end of the war. In order to deal with these books and the many others that continued to surface in various storerooms and cellars, all the books were sent to the warehouse in Offenbach.

It was Benkowitz’s predecessor, another Jewish officer by the name of Seymour Pomrenze, who established the Offenbach Archival Depot (as it was known). A huge and daunting task lay ahead of him but within a short while he had the whole process of sorting and organizing the books up and running. In a matter of months, he was able to return roughly a million and a half books. Pomrenze was fortunate not to have to sort through all of them, as a large portion of the books, mainly from The Netherlands and France, were still in the crates from their original libraries. All he had to do was examine the crates and arrange for their return.

מימין: סימור פומרנץ; משמאל: אייזיק בנקוביץ
Left: Isaac Benkowitz, right: Seymour Pomrenze

Benkowitz, on the other hand, who had been Pomrenze’s assistant and right hand until the latter’s departure, knew that he would have to deal with hundreds of thousands of other books from all across Europe, each from a different place.

The majority of the books were from Jewish libraries and institutions, and some had stamps to that effect.

Benkowitz entered the huge sorting room, picked up a volume of the Talmud and saw the ex-libris of a communal rabbi from Lodz. He saw a book of Yiddish poetry that had recently been the property of a school library in Vilna. In a Jewish philosophy book in German, he found the stamp of a Jewish community library in Berlin.

Years later, Benkowitz would write in his memoirs:

There was something sad and mournful about these volumes … as if they were whispering a tale of yearning and hope since obliterated … I would find myself straightening out these books and arranging them in the boxes with a personal sense of tenderness as if they had belonged to someone dear to me, someone recently deceased

Benkowitz did not know then whether these books would actually be returned to the countries they had been stolen from. Was it possible that Germany would receive the books of the Jews they had murdered? That Soviet Ukraine would be given the prayer books from the now empty synagogues in Kiev?

Until he received a formal decision, Benkowitz was tasked with the work of sorting. Such a vast number of books required a professional and skilled staff. He had a team. The army had placed under his supervision German workers who were assigned a variety of jobs after the war. But these Germans weren’t librarians, most had no foreign language skills and did not know how to sort books. While a large portion of the books contained stamps bearing the owners’ names, the Germans weren’t able to read the names in Yiddish, Polish or any of the other languages.

עובדים גרמנים ממיינים ספרים במחסן באופנבך
Workers sorting books in the warehouse in Offenbach


אורזים את הספרים למשלוח חזרה לארצות מוצאם
Books being packaged to be sent to their countries of origin

Benkowitz had an idea. He and his team collected stamps that were found repeatedly in a variety of books in the storeroom. He photographed the stamps and pasted them into a large catalogue organized by country. There were countries with hundreds of stamps of institutions and single owners, and countries with smaller representation. The wording, shape or color of the stamps of some of the institutions had changed over the years, and Benkowitz made sure that all the variations appeared on the same page in the volume.

The German workers thus did not have to read the writing. They just had to identify the form of the stamp and the letters. In this way, hundreds of thousands of books were sorted into crates according to country. Benkowitz prepared two volumes containing thousands of stamps. The first volume contained stamps from Austria, France, Germany, The Netherlands and other countries in Western Europe. The second contained stamps from countries in Eastern Europe such as Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine as well as a detailed list of libraries in a number of cities.

שני כרכי הקטלוגים מתוך ארכיון הספרייה הלאומית


שני כרכי הקטלוגים מתוך ארכיון הספרייה הלאומית
The two stamp catalogs from the Offenbach warehouse, the National Library collections

The books were sorted with the help of these catalogs, but they were not necessarily returned to their countries of origin. In the years after the war, additional books were discovered. A large portion of these books eventually reached the National Library in Jerusalem through the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization, which took over responsibility for the Offenbach warehouse from the US Army. That is the reason that today we find books in the National Library bearing the stamp of the JCR and of the original library from where the books were stolen by the Nazis.

For example, here is a Midrash Rabbah book which can be identified as part of the collection of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, named after Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun. Warehouse workers who were incapable of reading the Hebrew letters could make use of the stamps collected in the Offenbach catalog. The book also contains JCR stamps.

מימין: חותמת בית עקד ספרים על שם שטראשון בקטלוג החותמות; משמאל: חותמת הספרייה
Right: the stamp of the Strashun Library in the Midrash Rabbah book, left: the same stamp as it appears in the Offenbach catalog.

Here is another example, featuring a book from the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, alongside the stamp used to identify the book’s origin. This stamp appears in the list of German stamps in the Offenbach catalog.

חותמת ספריית הסמינר היהודי בברסלאו
Right: the stamp of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, left: the same stamp as it appears in the Offenbach catalog.

Like his predecessor, Benkowitz did not remain long in his post in the Offenbach warehouse, but during his time there he was able to sort through the identifiable books. There was no longer a need for the volumes with the stamps and he took them back with him to the United States. Shortly after, he decided to donate them to the National Library in Jerusalem and since May 1947 they have been kept in the Library’s archives. Copies of the volumes can be also found in the archive of Seymour Pomrenze, the first director of the Offenbach warehouse. His archive is preserved by the American Jewish Historical Society in New York and there are some who posit that it was actually Pomrenze who came up with the idea for the catalogs. Of course, it is possible that Pomrenze and Benkowitz came up with the idea together.

Today, seventy years later, these heavy tomes from the warehouse of looted books in Offenbach serve as a kind of obituary list. Not a list of names of those murdered in the Holocaust, whose final resting places remain unknown, but an eternal memorial of the Jewish schools, yeshivas, and community centers across Europe. Institutions in which the sounds of learning and of memorization were silenced by the Holocaust. The memory of these institutions is commemorated among the pages of these volumes and now online as well, following the digitization of these two books by experts at the National Library.

Volume I

Volume II


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Double-Crossed by Eichmann: New Lists from the Kasztner Train Revealed

Rudolf Israel Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann directly to transport nearly 1,700 Jews from Hungary to Switzerland.

רכבת קסטנר

Kasztner train passengers, travelling from Budapest, via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to Switzerland, August or December 1944

When the atrocities of the Holocaust began to unfold, many attempts were made by both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and individuals to influence and bribe powerful officials in the hopes of sparing as many human lives from the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, the efforts of one man bore fruit and, while the number of those rescued was small in comparison to the number of Jews in danger, those who were included were spared the gruesome deaths that claimed so many others.

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner was a Jewish Hungarian journalist and lawyer who helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest that worked to smuggle Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary in the hopes of escaping the Nazis. With the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, the Committee refocused its efforts to negotiations with the Nazis – in the hopes of exchanging human lives for military supplies and trucks. This effort came to be known as “Blood for Goods.”

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner

In the summer of 1944, as a part of his efforts, Kasztner met repeatedly with Adolf Eichmann who was charged with deporting Hungary’s Jews. In late June, Kasztner succeeded in convincing Eichmann to spare the lives of some 1,700 Jews. Kasztner, along with a committee of other prominent Jews, drew up the list of those to be included in a transport that would leave Hungary for the safety of the neutral state of Switzerland.

On June 30, 1944, 1,684 Jews boarded a transport that was dubbed “Noah’s Ark.” The group was largely Hungarian and consisted mostly of Jews of prominence – those with money and influence – and close acquaintances of Rudolf Kasztner, including his family, friends and many people from his hometown of Cluj (Transylvania). This fact eventually brought tremendous backlash on Kasztner following the war.


רכבת קסטנר
A page from the list of the 318 who boarded the transport to Switzerland. Image courtesy of the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Unsurprisingly, Eichmann did not stay true to his word and instead of arriving in Switzerland, the transport stopped at Bergen-Belsen where the passengers were detained. A month later, following a new round of intensive negotiations, a new list containing the names of 318 people from among the original passengers was issued and those fortunate enough to be included boarded a new transport for Switzerland in late August 1944. It was only on December 7, 1944, that the remaining 1,354 passengers were released from Bergen-Belsen and sent to their original destination.

These never before published lists of the two transports which departed from Bergen-Belsen were given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People by Rabbi David Moses Rosen. Rabbi Rosen served as the Chief Rabbi of Romania during the Communist period. A copy of the lists was kept by the Bucharest office of the Romanian branch of the World Jewish Congress, along with additional important documentation of Romanian and Transylvanian Jewry from the Holocaust period. A significant portion of the branch’s archive was eventually passed on by Rabbi Rosen to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where it was recently reregistered by Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who is in charge of the Romania collection in the archives. Among other things, this collection includes important evidence regarding the survivors of the camps in Transnistria, in Northern Transylvania and the Iași pogrom.


רכבת קסטנר
This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

In contrast to lists published in the past which revealed the early stages of this process and the original transport, these lists reveal the names of those who arrived at their intended destination and even include the Swiss addresses of the passengers’ new homes. Included on these lists are the names of Kasztner’s family members and the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty.

These lists not only attest to the tremendous efforts made by Jewish communities and organizations to rescue their brethren, they are also critical in properly understanding the full unfolding of these events, shedding new light on the plight of the Jewish community of Hungary which saw over 400,000 perish in the Holocaust.

רכבת קסטנר
This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the names of the Kasztner family members. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Following the war, Kasztner immigrated to the Land of Israel. In 1953, his negotiations with the Nazis in general and Eichmann, in particular, made headlines when a journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald published a pamphlet accusing Kasztner of being a Nazi collaborator, stating that he negotiated for his own personal benefit and contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Kasztner sued Gruenwald for libel, an act that eventually transformed these accusations into an indictment. The presiding judge determined that Kasztner had in fact contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry by selecting his friends, family, and acquaintances as those who would be spared from horrors of the gas chambers.

This decision was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in January of 1958, however, before the new decision could be announced, Kasztner was assassinated near his home in Tel Aviv on the night of March 4, 1957. He died of his wounds twelve days later.

The lists from the Kasztner Train have been digitized and can be viewed online here.  


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