The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Franz Kafka likely never imagined the incredible value or near “sacred” aura which are today attributed to each of his handwritten works


פתיחת הכספת הראשונה

In the novel The Castle—Kafka’s final work—is an almost comic scene, in which the protagonist, the surveyor K., arrives at the home of the village mayor. The mayor tells K. about an official letter he had received a long time ago from the castle administrator, according to which he must hire a surveyor. The mayor wants to show the document to K. and asks his wife, Mitzi, to find it in the cupboard where all the files, documents and other written materials are stored, in complete disarray. In her search, Mitzi empties all of the contents of the cupboard onto the floor, but she cannot find the specific document. The mayor tells K. that at the beginning of his term he used to save all the paperwork and adds that there is more material in the shed outside. At the end of the scene, Mitzi and two of K.’s assistants try to put all the files back into the cupboard, but to do this they must lay the cupboard on the floor. Only when they sit on the cupboard’s doors are they able to finally close it. This absurd passage illustrates Kafka’s clear understanding of what the negligent care of written material can lead to. It is doubtful that at the time of writing he was imagining the fate of his personal archive after his death, but it is hard to not think of this scene in the novel when dealing with the restoration of Franz Kafka’s personal archive.

Even with all the dissimilarities between the works of different writers, there tends to be a remarkable resemblance in the items that comprise their private archives. Personal documents, manuscripts, correspondence—these are the components that can be spotted in almost every private archive that is administered and donated without the involvement of a third party. The situation is completely different as regards the archive of Franz Kafka for a number of reasons. First, for the last eight years of his life, Kafka moved numerous times, between Prague and a number of sanitariums in Bohemia, Italy, Austria and Berlin, where he lived for a few months with his partner Dora Diamant. One can assume that during this period, he left some of his manuscripts, notebooks and the letters he received with his parents, his sister Ottilie and with Dora Diamant in Berlin. It is known that some of the manuscripts that remained in Dora’s home were confiscated by the Nazis after their rise to power and have never been found. Furthermore, there is the testimony of Max Brod, who wrote in a letter to Martin Buber in January 1927: “Are you aware that in his final year, he [Kafka] asked his girlfriend [Dora Diamant] to throw twenty thick notebooks into the fire? He lay in bed and watched the manuscripts burn.”

Kafka apparently did not attach much significance to his personal archive. The burning of his notebooks testifies to this, as do the two “wills” he left Brod, in which he asked him to burn all the materials (manuscripts and letters) discovered after his death. Any thought of his personal papers’ importance was foreign to him. One can assume that he did not foresee either the monetary value or near “sacred” aura attributed to each handwritten item today.

Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library's Archives Department examines items from the Kafka estate.
Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library’s Archives Department examines items from the Kafka estate.

Immediately after Kafka’s death on June 3rd, 1924, Max Brod took the first steps to save his friend’s precious legacy. He sent an initial report about Kafka’s estate in early July 1924—about one month after Kafka’s death—to Samuel Hugo Bergmann, who was the director of the National Library in Jerusalem. In it, Brod wrote: “I have just now received Kafka’s literary estate for review. Three novels and many other things not yet published are waiting for someone to prepare them for printing. Unfortunately, no one can do this but me! In addition, a large amount of disorganized papers must be examined (you will be interested to know that among them are many notebooks for practicing Hebrew). It seems to me that in terms of literary value, the estate outweighs anything Kafka published in his lifetime.”

Shortly thereafter, on July 17th, 1924, Brod published an article about his late friend’s literary estate in the well-known journal Die Weltbühne, in which he gave the following details: “In his apartment I found ten quarto format notebooks—but only the covers; the contents had been completely destroyed. Moreover (according to a trustworthy source), he burned a number of notebooks with records. Only a bundle of pages (approximately 100 aphorisms on religious issues), a draft of autobiographical content, which will remain unpublished for now and another pile of disorganized papers, which I am currently sorting through, were found in the apartment. My hope is that among the papers, I will discover complete or near complete stories. Beyond that, I was given a novella about animals and another sketchbook.” Regarding Kafka’s three novels, Brod wrote: “The works that were saved in time from the author’s wrath are the most valuable part of the estate and are stored in safe places. These are three novels. The Stoker, a story that has already been published, is the first chapter of a novel whose plot is set in America, and of which the final chapter also exists, so apparently not too many significant parts are missing. This novel is with the deceased’s girlfriend. Two others—The Castle and The Trial, which is a vibrant and fascinating book  (representing the peak of Kafka’s art)—I saved four years ago (and one year ago), something which truly comforts me today.” At the end of the article, Brod notes that he intends to publish Kafka’s works, but not yet his letters.



Research conducted over the last decades has made clear that Kafka’s manuscripts were indeed scattered among his various friends: some with Brod, several notebooks and the manuscript of the novel Amerika with Milena Jesenská, and The Metamorphosis, the manuscript of Letter to His Father, and additional notebooks with his parents. As mentioned, other materials were kept with Dora Diamant, various letters sent by Kafka were with their recipients: Felice Bauer (to whom he was twice engaged), Milena Jesenská, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, Samuel Hugo Bergmann, Oskar Baum and others. But what happened to all of the letters Kafka received from his friends and acquaintances? The only ones left were those sent by Max Brod, which Brod apparently saved along with the rest of Kafka’s estate, but what of the others? Did he or one of his acquaintances destroy them? Did Max Brod himself do it, thus fulfilling Kafka’s request regarding at least part of his archive? If so, why? Hopefully, more research will shed light on this issue.

Shortly after Kafka’s death, Max Brod prepared the three manuscripts for print, even though all were incomplete and would not have stood up to their author’s critical eye. The Trial was published first, in 1925 by Die Schmiede, a small avant-garde printing press in Berlin. The Castle followed in 1926, and Amerika in 1927, both released by the renowned publisher Kurt Wolff. Most of the works Kafka had published in his lifetime were put out by Wolff. The three books were given a lukewarm reception at first, and Brod pleaded with those well-known figures who knew Kafka to write in praise of the novels. For example, he approached Martin Buber who had been among the first to recognize the high literary potential of Kafka’s writing. Recognition of Kafka’s literary greatness had not yet reached the level of international admiration that emerged in the decades after World War II.

Already in 1931, Max Brod was negotiating with various publishers about the possibility of releasing all of Kafka’s writings in a book series, but without much success, at first. In 1934, Salman Schocken bought all the rights to Kafka’s works from the author’s parents. The next year, the first volume of Kafka’s complete works was put out by Schocken Press in Germany, and the rest were published in Czechoslovakia and the United States. All of his important works, his diaries and letters—everything Kafka had never wanted to see the light of day, were included in these six volumes, with Max Brod as the editor of the series. In 1937, Brod added the first biography of Kafka, thereby initiating an almost endless stream of studies about the author’s life and works. An essential part of Kafka’s fame as a writer of genius is based on this series and Brod’s biography.



When Brod immigrated to Palestine in March 1939, he brought with him most of Kafka’s archive. In the years before, Brod gathered in one place all of the manuscripts, notebooks and letters that had been scattered among Kafka’s acquaintances. World War II, which was threatening even Palestine and Tel Aviv, caused Brod to consider alternatives to storing Kafka’s writings in his own house. At first, he approached the Hebrew University in the hope that they would agree to keep the treasure in the National and University Library on Mount Scopus, but its director at the time, Gotthold Weil, refused, because he was then preoccupied with how to preserve the Library’s own collections in those worrisome days, and was not free to deal with private inquiries. (Ironically, had Weill agreed, the legal debates of the last several years around the ownership of Max Brod’s archive, which included writings by Kafka, might have been avoided). Shortly after Brod’s approach, the Library changed its mind and agreed to his request, but in the meantime, he had found another solution in the private library of Salman Schocken in Jerusalem.

In the 1950s, many of Kafka’s manuscripts were moved to a bank in Zurich. Following an appeal by Kafka’s heirs—the children of his sister who survived the Holocaust—Max Brod was forced to hand over most of the materials to them in 1962, and thus they found their way to England. This is the reason why the largest collection of Kafka manuscripts in the world today is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, in a country Kafka never visited and whose language he never mastered. For years researchers have essentially ignored this fact in the turbulent discussions over the question: Who does Kafka belong to? To Israel or Germany? It seems a third option provides the answer. The only large manuscript to remain with Max Brod was for the novel The Trial, and a few other short stories, among them, Wedding Preparations in the Country, and Description of a Struggle, a number of notepads and dozens of letters. As long as Brod was alive, he never sold even a single one of these precious items. In the 1940s and 50s he allegedly gave them as a gift to his secretary Esther Hoffe, but did not finalize the legal process of the transfer.

This is not the place to recount the story of Esther Hoffe’s strange management of Max Brod’s estate following his death in December 1968. It will suffice to mention that beginning in 1971, important items from Brod’s archive were sold, including short texts and some of Kafka’s letters to various recipients. What started with the (justified) return of the manuscripts to Kafka’s heirs, continued with Hoffe’s activities in the 1970s and 80s, and led, in fact, to the scattering of Kafka’s archive across various institutions and private collections around the world. The manuscript of The Trial was sold at a public auction and eventually arrived at the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Description of a Struggle was sold to a private collector. Occasionally, Kafka’s letters to Brod would appear at auction. The absurd asking prices (close to 100,000 Euro for one letter), make it nearly impossible to purchase them for public collections.

Following the December 2016 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that Max Brod’s archive, including Kafka’s writings, be handed over to the National Library, materials that had been stored for years in safety deposit boxes in banks in Tel Aviv were brought to the Library.  Among the materials in Max Brod’s estate were several items of Kafka’s: postcards to family members and acquaintances, two written messages for Max Brod, a few pages with lists, and also an unfinished and untitled short autobiographical sketch, from 1909, that begins with the sentence: “Among the students who studied with me I was dumb, but not the dumbest.” This appears to be the autobiographical text Brod mentioned in his article on the Kafka estate.

Postcards exchanged between Franz Kafka and Max Brod
Postcards exchanged between Franz Kafka and Max Brod

On July 15th, 2019, the last step in the process of transferring Brod’s archive to the National Library was completed. For decades, additional materials, perhaps the most precious ones in Brod’s entire archive, were hidden in a Swiss bank. Among Brod’s important letters and diaries were dozens of letters from Kafka, two manuscripts and even travel diaries from 1911 written when the two friends (Brod and Kafka) traveled together to Paris. When the Library’s representatives arrived at the destination on the appointed day, the safes were opened and inside were all the items they knew existed but had never seen in their original form. Their physical condition was excellent. The manuscript for Wedding Preparations in the Country (in three versions) and Letter to His Father aroused great excitement.

Manuscripts of Wedding Preparations in the Country
Manuscripts of Wedding Preparations in the Country

A quick look at two additional Kafka notebooks they had been aware of revealed that one contained mainly small sketches and doodles by the writer, who enjoyed drawing occasionally. The other notebook proved once again Kafka’s fascination with the Hebrew language which he had begun studying in 1917, around the same time he became ill with tuberculosis. This notebook includes exercises in Hebrew, lists of vocabulary words and even entire paragraphs related to historical events, such as the teachers’ strike in Palestine in November 1922. It is possible that the excerpt reflects one of the lessons given to him by Puah Menczel, a young woman from Mandatory Palestine who was then living in Prague and who taught Kafka Hebrew. These items and others were transferred to the National Library where they will be catalogued, restored (if necessary) and scanned, so that, nearly a hundred years after Kafka’s death, they will be made conveniently available to the public on the internet.

A Kafka sketch
A Kafka sketch

Today, Kafka’s archive is not gathered in one place alone, but rather scattered among three main collections: the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the German Literature Archive in Marbach and the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which holds most of the personal archives of the “Prague Circle.” Almost no material remains in Prague, the city of Kafka’s birth, a strange situation, but one that stems from historical reasons. Perhaps this dispersal across three countries, two of which Kafka never visited, is actually befitting an author of universal status.


See more items from the Kafka archives:

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

Kafka’s Rare Manuscripts: From the Vault in Switzerland to the Library in Jerusalem

The Jewish Child Soldiers Who Rebuilt Their Lives in Riga

An elaborately decorated Pinkas now kept at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People tells the story of the Talmud Torah of Riga which sought to return former child soldiers - and their children - to their Jewish roots.

In 1827, the Imperial Russian Army began drafting Jewish citizens into its ranks. When Nicholas I set up the draft laws for the Jewish community, they had some significant differences than the laws applied to the rest of his subjects.

The new draft laws forced Jews to contribute more cantonists (children taken into special state schools to be trained for military service) than the general population, creating a disproportionate number of Jewish conscripts. Instead of applying the age requirements already in place for recruitment that called for the draft of 18 year-olds, the law for Jews allowed for children aged 12 to 25 to be drafted into the military.

The leaders of the Jewish community were tasked with choosing who would be sent to fulfill the conscription quotas. They were also charged with maintaining the financial and social stability of the community. This meant that the community leadership would select those people who were deemed to be the least useful to the community at large for the draft. This included the unskilled, the unmarried, the poor and the young. Those who would not or could not actively contribute to society on a significant level were included on conscription lists. There were also those leaders who chose to send the less fortunate – meaning, those could not afford to bribe their way out – for the draft rather than include their own children on the lists.

As soon as a child was drafted into a cantonist school, their family and community had no choice but to consider him dead, for all practical purposes. Cut off from their homes and loved ones, these youngsters were taken into custody of the state where they were encouraged to forget their religious upbringing, abandon their traditions and convert to Christianity, revealing the not so secret goal of the Czar to utilize the conscription laws as a way to encourage assimilation amongst the most vulnerable parts of the Jewish community.

After completing 25 years of mandated service, many cantonists signed on for additional service and became career military men, while those who chose to take their leave were granted full citizenship rights including the freedom of movement – a freedom that was usually only granted to Jews under special circumstances.

For these soldiers, freedom came with more problems than solutions. With families they didn’t know and no home to return to, the cantonists were left with little choice but to build a new life from scratch in a territory that was now open to them thanks to their newly earned freedom of movement.

A visit to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People to speak with Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia gave me new insight into the difficulties faced by these Jewish children turned soldiers who managed to make it out of their service alive and maintain their connection to their roots.

riga talmud torah
Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia examines the Pinkas of the Talmud Torah of Riga, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

A Pinkas (Jewish community ledger) now preserved in the CAHJP tells the story of one such group of soldiers who, in 1865, settled in Riga and joined the local Jewish community. The unique and ornately decorated Pinkas was brought to Israel in the 1970s through Lishkat HakesherNativ, an organization that helped connect people in the Soviet Union with Zionism and the State of Israel and assisted people who sought to immigrate to Israel.

The cover of the Pinkas from the Talmud Torah of Riga. The text reads, "This Pinkas belongs to the Talmud Torah of the Soldiers of Riga."
The cover of the Pinkas from the Talmud Torah of Riga. The text reads, “This Pinkas belongs to the Talmud Torah of the Soldiers of Riga.”

The cantonists who arrived in Riga, which was still part of the Russian Empire at the time, found that they had a united goal: to rediscover and recommit to their Jewish heritage. These soldiers were a rare breed- not only had they made it out of the military alive, but they had also successfully maintained their religious connection and their desire to rediscover their Jewish roots. The soldiers established the Talmud Torah of Riga, an educational institute focused on Jewish study.

talmud torah riga
Opening page of the Talmud Torah Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The Pinkas opens with a beautifully written introduction reflecting the tenets of the institution, the importance of Torah study in the lives of the Jewish people and the responsibility that falls on Jews as a nation to ensure all Jewish children are educated in the ways of the Torah with a special emphasis on those who lack a proper teacher. The Pinkas includes a letter from a local rabbi giving his full support to the Talmud Torah and their important and worthy works and then goes on to list 23 points of action in regards to the practical operations and the rules of the organization.

talmud torah riga
The mission statement of the Talmud Torah of Riga includes the importance of educating Jewish children in the ways of the Torah. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The Talmud Torah took upon itself to hire two teachers who were provided with room and board and were charged with educating participants. Students were divided into two different classes: one dedicated to those who were just starting on their Torah journey and would begin study with the Alef-Bet, the Hebrew alphabet, and one for those who were more advanced and could move forward to bible study and the study of Jewish law.

talmud torah riga
The tenants of the Talmud Torah as outlines in the Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Membership in the Talmud Torah was approved for any “army orphan,” which essentially referred to any boy born to a cantonist father who was killed during his service. The Talmud Torah also accepted children whose fathers could not care for them or provide them with a proper Jewish education. Admission into the institution was determined by three Gabaim, the people in charge of the day to day logistics of managing the organization.

The hand-drawn layout for the potential synagogue to be built by the Talmud Torah of Riga as included in the Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge the image.

Years went by and the Talmud Torah continued to serve as an institute of learning but also grew to become a full-fledged synagogue with a surrounding community. The Pinkas begins to discuss the purchase of a plot of land on which to build a new home for the synagogue. As it grew, the Talmud Torah joined forces with other organizations that provided poor children with food and clothing.

The Hanhala (administration) of the Talmud Torah was changed every few years through an election process described in the Pinkas. For every new administration that took charge, a new elaborately decorated page was added to the book to honor the incoming leadership. Interestingly, many of the pages contain similar elements though they were not necessarily created by the same artist. Several of the pages include large, fierce-looking birds, a symbol of the Russian Empire, reflecting the original purpose and members of the Talmud Torah.

In 1937, a page was prepared and designed in dedication to the latest administration but it was never completed. The records in the Pinkas drop off suddenly during the years of the Nazi occupation. While we do not know the specific story of what happened to the participants of the Talmud Torah during the Holocaust, we do know that the majority of the Jewish community in Latvia was murdered in the war. The Pinkas managed to survive the war and a new page was later added in 1959.

Incompleted page from 1937. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

When I think back to that five-year-old boy who was taken from his family for a life in a military school before joining the ranks, I can only hope that his future held a community and an adoptive family like the one built by the soldiers who settled in Riga. Their dedication to their heritage and their desire to continue to grow and experience life as Jews, despite the efforts of the authorities to strip them of their families, religion, and identities, is astounding. While the Talmud Torah of Riga may no longer be active, the history of the organization and the strength and dedication of those who worked to build it lives on in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

Special thanks to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia and Dr. Gil Weissblei for their assistance in writing this article. 

A Moment Before Desolation: Rare Photographs of Polish Jewry

How did rare photographs of Polish Jews end up in a French soldier’s photo album?


Private photo albums often contain surprising revelations. The captions scrawled between the pictures may reveal new information, while the perspective of the amateur photographer tends to be more spontaneous and original than that of a journalist or even an artist. One particular amateur photo album that was brought to the National Library several years ago is especially unique.

What could possibly be so special about a photo album created by a World War I veteran during a summer trip to Poland? And, what is the connection between this album and the millions of items preserved in the archives and storerooms of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem?

On July 30th, 1933, a delegation of members of the French Union of World War I Veterans embarked upon a tour of the cities of Poland. Though the beautiful midsummer weather and opportunity for relaxation and travel were certainly part of the attraction, the trip was organized as an official visit, including a string of military ceremonies. The hosts from the Polish army, went out of their way to roll out the red carpet for their French guests. Polish economic and political independence was fragile at the time, and local military officers wished to strengthen their alliance with the French Republic. The French also had an interest in maintaining close relations with this important Eastern European state.

One of the members of the delegation had come equipped with a camera. Amateur photography was already very popular in the 1930s. Cameras of the day were easy to operate and relatively inexpensive. Using his 6X6 camera, he documented the journey. At the end of the trip, he developed the film and placed the pictures in a thick-covered album with black cardboard pages. He then added captions in beautifully handwritten French. The photographer found plenty to capture along the way. The French delegation were bade farewell from the city of Strasbourg with a full, impressive military ceremony. Rousing speeches were made on the ornate podium. Ranks of aging legionnaires bedecked in their shiny medals stood at attention – and the delegation was sent merrily on its way, crossing the border into Germany before passing through Austria on their way to Poland.



As mentioned earlier, the year was 1933, and the ascent of the Nazi party still astonished the French. At the border crossing in Strasbourg, members of the delegation were photographed under a sign which, between two swastikas, bore the slogan: “German people! Fight with Adolf Hitler for a free Germany!”


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And here, finally, Warsaw! The delegation began its tour of Poland in the capital. Amazingly, one of the tourist sites they were brought to was Nalewki Street, the “Jewish Quarter,” as the soldier-photographer described it. Apparently, the Polish tour guides saw this street and its poor Jewish residents as a kind of ‘exotic attraction’, a vibrant society of foreigners, with their strange clothes and traditions.






The fourteen photographs depicting street scenes in Jewish Warsaw are not only surprising, but also unique. They provide us an unexpected perspective through the eyes of a stranger who is caught up in one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe.

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Less than a decade later, this hub of Jewish activity would be wiped from the face of the earth. Particularly interesting are the signs (in Yiddish and Polish) of businessmen and craftsmen caught in the lens of the French camera- the paper and stationery shop, street-porters, Mr. Goldman’s glazier shop, the wine shop, and the bustling streets!






The French war veterans were received with ceremonies, flowers, and enthusiastic crowds in Poznan, Zakopane, and Gorlice.


And again, in Krakow, we see a fascinating collection of pictures of Polish Jews. The anonymous French photographer dedicated three pages to photographs of Jews walking the very streets where, just a few years later, the ghetto would be erected to imprison the Jewish population before sending them to the extermination camps.




The album ends with an excited letter, written to the French delegates in their native language. The letter is dated August 5th, toward the end of the delegation’s journey. The letter was composed as a greeting to the French guests by a young Polish girl. On behalf of her friends, Maria, Helena and Zofia, she wished the French military veterans who had travelled through her town a pleasant trip  and concluded the letter with the statement, “Long live the alliance between France and Poland!”

Six years later, France would abandon Poland in the face of the Nazi invasion. The Jewish streets in Krakow and Warsaw were erased from existence. And the album, which found its way to the National Library, remains a valuable record of a once-bustling Jewish community.


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The Brazilian-Israeli Who Was Sent to the Front, Captured, and Returned in a Syrian Uniform

The story of the prisoner of war, Julio Friedman, whose picture was identified by his family as part of the National Library’s 'Naming the Soldiers' project


“This is a picture that we, the family, didn’t know about,” says Clarinia, the sister of Julio Friedman, who appears in the center of the picture. When we told her about the National Library’s ‘Naming the Soldiers’ project in honor of Israel’s 71st Independence Day, we could hear the excitement in her voice. Her voice would break more than once throughout the course of our conversation as she relived those distant, unpleasant days.

Clarinia begins the story in 1970. This was the year she (then married with a child and a second on the way) immigrated to Israel with her brother, Julio. Julio first worked picking bananas (“he was a big, strong man”) while he learned Hebrew in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language school for new immigrants (olim). After he was able to save up a bit of money, he bought a Volkswagen van and used it to drive around a troupe of flamenco dancers he had met. He also found work as a technician at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

Julio, Clarinia, and many others who emigrated from Brazil to Israel found it difficult to master the new language of Hebrew. This fact would prove to play a crucial role when Julio joined the IDF.

After two and a half years in Israel, Julio, who was 26 when he immigrated to Israel, was called up to serve a shortened military service that was compulsory for olim – six months of service. He would not, however, even have the opportunity to complete the three-month basic training. Less than two and a half months after his enlistment, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Julio was dispatched to the northern front – the embattled Golan Heights.


Private Julio Friedman
Private Julio Friedman


On the second day of the war, Clarinia felt something was wrong. The day before, she and her friends were baffled by a siren going off on Yom Kippur and what the illogical sentences crackling out of the radio meant. It was not until Golda Meir herself broadcast a dramatic announcement over the airwaves that the members of the Brazilian immigrant community in Herzliya understood that something serious had occurred. Thanks to a neighbor who decoded the Hebrew message by translating it into her mother tongue, Romanian (“Portuguese and Romanian are both Latin languages, so we managed to understand a little”), the members of the small community of Brazilian-Israelis understood that a war had broken out over the High Holiday.

Only several hours after getting her bad feeling, uniformed soldiers knocked on Clarinia’s door. They explained that since Julio had left basic training a few days prior, they thought it was best to return a package that Clarinia had previously sent to her brother. The soldiers did not know to which base Julio had been dispatched. They had only come to return the package out of courtesy. At that very moment, no one in the IDF knew that Julio had already been captured by Syrian forces, and was apparently being taken by his captors to the Syrian capital. Over the next two weeks, he would undergo a series of interrogations and mistreatment. Afterwards, he and other Israeli prisoners of war would be held in the Al-Mezzeh prison, overlooking Damascus

Through a family friend, Clarinia and her husband discovered that Julio’s most likely last known location – or, more precisely, the location of an Israeli soldier of Brazilian origin – was in a bunker in the north of the country. Their attempt to track down the last person to see Julio alive led them to a soldier who was healing from an ear injury at a base in Acre. This was all the information that Clarinia and her husband had to go on. They did not know the name of the soldier or what he looked like. The couple traveled to the base in search of information and answers.

When they arrived, Clarinia and her husband received confirmation that a soldier who was recovering from an ear injury and had been in a bunker in the north was indeed assigned to the base. But, he had received a weekend pass and had already left the base.  The couple spoke with the base commander, but he did not know the name of the soldier in question. The commander only knew that he was of Indian origin and lived in Lod.

Clarinia and her husband tracked down the soldier at the cinema in Lod, and he was able to confirm that the missing Brazilian soldier who was with him and two other soldiers in the bunker was indeed Julio. He explained that the situation in the bunker had been dire. Except for Julio, all of the soldiers in the bunker had been wounded. Supplies were running dangerously low, so Julio volunteered to venture out of the safety of the bunker in search of water. “We heard words in Arabic and we did not know what happened after that,” the soldier explained to Clarinia and her husband. It was only after his return from captivity that Julio told his sister that he thought that the Syrian soldiers he heard were speaking in Hebrew, which led him to approach them for help.

“We informed Julio’s direct superior of what we had learned. Three or four IDF commanders showed up with maps in their hands, to tell us what they thought had happened.” Then, Clarinia repeated a sentence that is burned painfully in her mind to this day, a sentence uttered by one of the commanders. “Do not think too much about it. In the first few days of a war, you do not take prisoners.”

The war that had broken out on October 6, 1973 was officially ended with a ceasefire on October 24. Although the ceasefire had officially gone into effect, Israelis and Syrians would continue to exchange fire along the border into 1974. It was in February, 1974, that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was able to obtain the full list of Israeli prisoners from the Syrian government. On the night the list was released to the public, another military delegation knocked on Clarinia’s door. “This time, it was a sweet young female soldier who informed us that Julio was on the list of prisoners. Until that moment, we still did not know what had happened to him.” It was only then that Clarinia phoned her mother, who had stayed behind in Brazil, to inform her of her brother’s situation. This was the first time that she had told their mother that anything was wrong.

Kissinger’s list paved the way for the Red Cross to become involved in the conflict, and a connection between the prisoners in Syria and their home country was established. “That’s how we saw him for the first time, in a photo sent by the Red Cross. He very thin, but alive.”


Julio Friedman and other prisoners return from Syrian captivity. June 6, 1974. From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Julio Friedman and other prisoners return from Syrian captivity. June 6, 1974. From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


The return of the prisoners, which was planned for May, was postponed to June 6, 1974. David Avaky spent the eight months of captivity as Julio’s cellmate. In the conversation we held with David, he told us about the moment the prisoners realized that they were returning to Israel. “We had one jailer who treated us very well…He spoke with us on a human level…One day he came in to visit a wounded soldier and asked him to collect all his personal effects and come with him. We were used to the Syrians taking us away for short periods of time. But, having the soldier take his things with him was something new. Half an hour later, he returned and spoke with us about the history of the region, about Israel and Syria. He told us that all the wounded were being returned to Israel and that he was going on holiday. ‘Inshallah, we will not meet again when I return.’ Indeed, a week later, we returned to Israel. In the days following his visit, we felt the relationship begin to change. But, the biggest change was the day before we were released. They brought us sports clothes and took us out to exercise. Representatives of the Red Cross were there, and they informed any prisoners who were still in the dark about our planned return home. We remained skeptical the entire trip south to the border.”


Julio Friedman, together with other Israelis held in captivity, are hosted by the Jewish community in Switzerland. 1976 (Julio is standing in the back, on the left side of the picture, sporting an impressive mustache)
Julio Friedman, together with other Israelis held in captivity, are hosted by the Jewish community in Switzerland. 1976 (Julio is standing in the back, on the left side of the picture, sporting an impressive mustache)

Clarinia remembered the day that the prisoners returned to Israel. At the welcoming ceremony, the IDF placed the families behind a barrier. In front of the barrier was a platform for Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who were supposed to meet the prisoners first. “As soon as the blue plane with the Red Cross touched down on the tarmac, there was no barrier that could hold us back.”

Among the last of the prisoners to disembark the plane was Julio. He could not walk. When Clarinia finally saw Julio’s smiling face, she saw that he was missing his two front teeth. This was the first sign of the horrors that he had endured. “Were you wounded in the leg?” asked his worried sister. Her brother explained that he was not, but that he had been given shoes three sizes too small. And why was he the only soldier dressed in Syrian army uniform? “I did not believe it. I refused to take off my prison uniform until my feet stood on Israeli soil.”

Julio talked with his sister about his captivity for three days and nights. It was during this release of emotions that he revealed to Clarinia the atrocities he had endured in Syria. After the three days, he never spoke of his captivity again. Julio died in 2008 after a long struggle with cancer, a disease that the IDF later recognized as a result of Julio’s coping with his time in captivity. His two children knew almost nothing of this period of his life. It was only at their father’s shiva that Clarinia told them the story that Julio had revealed during the first three days after his return.

At the end of our conversation with Clarinia, we asked about the man he was. Who was the man who had experienced these terrible things at the hands of his captors? Who was the man who had told her everything over three days and never spoke of it again? He later married, adopted two children, and raised a family. Did his captivity change his character? Clarinia says no. Julio was an easy-going character. He allowed troubles to pass by him, all the while remaining stable and unchanging. “That’s the only way he got through it,” she said, adding that there was one thing Julio was not able to overcome, “Only the noise of keys, that was the only noise that bothered him.”

Julio’s wife, Bella Friedman, identified the picture of her husband returning from captivity in a post that we published. The couple, who first met in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, met again in Israel in 1974. In February 1975 they married. Bella was also the one who recommended we speak to Clarinia and David Avaki.

•Julio and Bella Friedman
Julio and Bella Friedman


We would like to thank Bella, Clarinia, and David for sharing Julio’s story with us, as well as their own memories, and especially for opening their hearts to us.


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