Was This Ad Published by Franz Kafka in a Zionist Newspaper?

A discovery by an archivist at the National Library sheds new light on Kafka’s connection with the Zionist movement.

A photograph from the famous “Prater” amusement park in Vienna. From left to right: Franz Kafka, Albert Ehrenstein, Otto Pick, Leisa Waltsch, photographed in 1913. The photograph is taken from the Albert Ehrenstein Archive at the National Library.

In the fall of 1911, Karl Hermann proposed to his brother-in-law, Franz Kafka, that he join him in managing the asbestos factory he had recently established. The offer of extra income appealed to Kafka, who worked in the “Governmental Company for Insuring Workers from Accidents”; even though he regarded his duties in the factory as an additional bureaucratic nuisance to a life already rife with bureaucracy. This fact caused many of Kafka’s biographers to minimize his contribution to the factory’s success and to state that the author took advantage of any opportunity to avoid his professional responsibilities as a lawyer.

An advertisement discovered by Dr. Stefan Litt, an archivist at the National Library of Israel, sheds new light on Kafka’s work in the factory and on the surprising connection between the asbestos factory and the Zionist movement.


Insurance, Asbestos and Zionism at the Vienna Congresses

Two years after joining his brother-in-law in managing the asbestos factory, Kafka’s life had reached a new low point. Battling insomnia, preoccupied with fears stemming from his recent engagement to Felice Bauer, and grappling with a persistent case of writers’ block; Kafka left his fiancé in Berlin and boarded a train.

His destination, along with his travel companion, author Otto Pick, was Vienna.

It was September of 1913.

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer, a photograph from 1917. Source: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images.

Kafka wanted to kill two birds with one stone in Vienna. Firstly, he had to participate in the Second International Congress for Rescue Services and Accident Prevention as part of his governmental work. Secondly, he was hoping to take part in the Zionist Congress which had begun a week earlier.

Kafka and Pick arrived in Vienna several days before the beginning of the insurance congress. They spent their first day in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire visiting their friend, the influential expressionist author and poet, Albert Ehrenstein. Even if he would have preferred to spend his first hours in the city alone and in complete anonymity, Kafka knew that he had to visit Ehrenstein – who was the first critic to read his literary works.

After spending several days of leisure in the city, Kafka took part in the debates of the 11th Zionist Congress. Almost ten thousand participants from across the Jewish world attended the Congress. If Kafka had previously considered Zionism a vague and elusive expression of Jewish nationalism, he now encountered the Zionist movement as an orderly and active force, even if not one that he perceived to be particularly positive.

Until Dr. Stefan Litt’s discovery, the only information we possessed about Kafka’s activities at the Zionist Congress was the little Kafka himself recorded in a letter to his fiancé on September 13th of that year.

Kafka’s testimony from the Congress shows an attitude which is, to say the least, not complimentary: “Endless shouting”, petty disagreements and a description of the typical Zionist activist as a person with “a small round head and frozen cheeks”. The author was singularly unimpressed by what he saw.

However, it seems that Kafka’s contribution to the Congress did not end there. During an incidental perusal through a special issue of the “Die Welt” Zionist newspaper published in honor of the Zionist Congress in Vienna, Dr. Litt discovered a notice which drew his attention: an advertisement for the asbestos factory owned by “Hermann & Co.” – the same factory established by Kafka’s borther-in-law Karl Hermann, and for which Kafka himself worked from 1911 onward. As no one in Kafka’s family had any real connection with the Zionist movement, and in light of the fact that Kafka participated in the meetings of the Congress to which this special edition of the newspaper was dedicated, it is a reasonable assumption that he himself purchased and ran the advertisement in the well-known Zionist newspaper

The advertisement for Karl Hermann and Franz Kafka’s asbestos factory, which appeared in the Zionist newspaper “Die Welt”


Supporter or Opponent? Kafka’s Attitude to the Zionist Movement

During the decades since Kafka’s death from tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, many scholars have attempted to provide a conclusive answer to the question of Kafka’s Zionism: What did he think about the Zionist movement at different points in his life? Did he support it? Did he oppose it? We know that in 1917, the same year his illness was diagnosed, he began to study Hebrew. In the period prior to his death he even expressed his desire to visit the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel – a dream which his severe illness prevented him from realizing. And still, we do not claim to provide unequivocal answers, and it is possible that no such answers exist.

The advertisement discovered in such an important Zionist newspaper, a newspaper established by non-other than Theodore Herzl himself, teaches us that just like many others before and after him – one of the great modernist authors of the twentieth century was not loathe to combine his personal curiosity about the Zionist movement with his professional occupation.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Stefan Litt, from the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel. 


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I Bet You Didn’t Know Captain America was a Golem!

The very public Jewish roots of Captain America, the first superhero to punch Hitler in the face!

“Captain America was me, and I was Captain America.  I saw him as part of me, and he always will be.  In the fight scenes, when Cap used to take on seven men at once, and five bodies would fly around the room while he punched two in the jaw — that’s how I remember the street fights from my childhood.”

 – Jack Kirby

Once upon a time, in the city of New York, two young mentches created a comic book the world had never seen before. It was March 1941 and Captain America was giving Hitler a proper right hook, right in the kisser!

Captain America was probably the first truly political superhero, taking a stance against Hitler and Nazism. The Jewish background of his creators, Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurzberg) and Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon), directly influenced the character and the original plot of the Nazi-punching hero.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, 1940’s, AP

They were both second generation Americans, their parents having come from Europe and brought with them the traditions and folklore of the Jewish communities who left their homes behind; seeking out a new life and new opportunities in America. It’s very likely that their families imagined that in this new country, they would not have to deal with the persecution and antisemitism that plagued Jewish people in Europe for centuries.

But antisemitism was all too common in America of the 1930s. After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, groups like the German-American Bund (Amerikadeutscher Bund), an American group made up exclusively of German immigrants and German-Americans, worked to promote a favorable view of Germany, Hitler, and Nazism. They were, of course, outspokenly antisemitic.

The German-American Bund at a gathering in New York’s Madison Square Garden, February 20, 1939

“Jewish kids then were raised with a belief in moral values.  In the movies, good always triumphed over evil.  Underneath all of the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil.”

– Jack Kirby 

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, and the war broke out, the United States kept its isolationist strategy as long as it could. It was at this time that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, already successful animation and cartoon writers and artists, began to develop a character; a character who would be a savior for the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis and would fight against the Nazi war machine, aiming to conquer Europe and the world.

Captain America #1 was published eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which ushered in American participation in the war on the side of the Allies. By then, Captain America was a Nazi-fighting veteran.

The patriotic concept of Captain America is clear from the name and the colors of the American flag that make up his costume. And in many ways, Kirby and Simon intended for the hero to be All-American and unifying in the face of an enemy that was dangerous to the world at large. However, the Jewish signifiers crept in, some intentional and some very likely unconscious.

Captain America’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a well-known Jewish enclave from the late 19th-century and well into the 1940s and 1950s. When Steve Rogers attempts to get drafted into the US Army in order to go fight the Nazis in Europe, he is rejected time and again for health reasons. But Doctor Reinstein (an analogue for Albert Einstein, already a cultural icon of the time) taps Rogers for a special project in which he injects the frail patriot with “Super-Serum” that gives him health, strength, and agility; making Rogers the pinnacle of human ability and a super-soldier able to fight the Nazis practically single handed.

Captain America #1, March 1941. (Marvel Entertainment)

“Those are the things I learned from my parents and from the Bible.  It’s part of my Jewish heritage.”

– Jack Kirby

The analogy between Captain America and the Golem from Prague is clear when you look at the parallels. The Golem itself can be read as a precursor of superhero stories, a creature created for the protection of a community in peril. Like the Golem of the 16th-century, the frail Steve Rogers is the raw material needed in order to create a hero that will drive the persecutors of Jews away in fear.

In the 20th-century they were Hitler and the Nazis. The Golem is animated by the letters אמת spelling out the word “Truth” in Hebrew. The letter emblazoned on Captain America’s mask is “A” obviously for America, but the Hebrew letter א is analogous to the English letter A. Captain America’s weapon of choice is the shield, bringing to mind the Shield of David, that is, the Magen David. The modern interpretations of the Golem contain a star on his chest, just like Captain America.

The Golem, 1915 and Captain America, 1941

For more information about the Jewish roots of Captain America:

“Up, Up, And Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” by Simcha Weinstein, Leviathan Press, 2006

The quotes from Jack Kirby are from “Secret Identities: Jewish Comic-Book Creators” by Michael Weiss, http://bit.ly/2wmqYKA, 1995


Irene Harand: One Woman’s Answer to Hitler

​One of the most despicable books in human history ever published is Mein Kampf. This is the story of Sein Kampf (His Struggle, An Answer to Hitler), and the woman who wrote it.

Portrait of Irene Harand beside the German title of "His Struggle"

In 1935, an obscure book was published in Austria titled Sein Kampf (His Struggle, an Answer to Hitler). The author, Irene Harand, went through Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) and tore to shreds the book’s antisemitic claims, allegations, and ideology which swept through Germany and Austria from the time of its first publication in 1925.

Harand’s book, translated into English in 1937, is full of refutations of the antisemitic libels which Hitler used liberally in Mein Kampf. Harand rips into “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”:

The text of the Protocols from beginning to end is nothing but a mess of lies and forgeries.

Any reflective individual who reads the Protocols will see at first glance that they are criminal fantasies of the worst order, and that the Jews have had no possible connection with them. The Nazis cannot Produce one iota of evidence that they are authentic. (pg. 175.)

Page 175 from “His Struggle”

Harand also attacks the idea that Jews are without a culture of their own and infiltrate societies for the sake of their own self-preservation:

Hitler maintains that the Jews never possessed a culture of their own, but always borrowed their intellectual substance from other peoples.


These Hitlerian comments on cowardice, lack of idealism and self-sacrifice in the Jews are totally devoid of any truth. (pg. 118.)

Page 118 from “His Struggle”

Harand, a Catholic Austrian, had no qualms about bringing to the forefront the ways that Christianity itself drove antisemitic ideas – ideas that became entrenched outside of religion and into social bias regarding Jewish people. She deconstructed these ideas throughout her book Sein Kampf in clear and easy language, giving examples, and exposing the fabrications of stereotypes and lies.

Between 1933 and the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, Irene Harand worked tirelessly and endlessly against the antisemitic incitement that swept through Austria after Hitler’s rise to power. She became a thorn in the side of the Austrian Nazi party for her activism and efforts to denounce Nazism and antisemitism.

Part of Irene Harand’s activism included a lecture circuit that took her all over Europe. During the Anschluss she happened to be in England. It was then that she decided against returning to Austria and ultimately immigrated to the United States where she used her connections to provide visas for over 100 Austrian Jews, helping them escape from the hands of the Nazis.

In 1968 Yad Vashem recognized Irene Harand as Righteous Among the Nations.

This article was written with the help Dr. Stefan Litt of the Archives Department of the National Library.

You Will Never Believe Who Turned Down the Author of “The Three Musketeers”

When Rachel Félix met her childhood idol, the famous writer Alexandre Dumas, she could not contain her excitement. It didn't last.

William Etty, Portrait of Rachel Felix, c. 1840

In 1832, at just 11 years old, the young Rachel Félix, a Jewish girl from Switzerland, left her home for Paris. There, she enrolled in one of France’s most prestigious schools for the performing arts, she also acquired broad literary knowledge. Despite her great love of the classics, her favorite writer of all time was the contemporary, best-selling author of The Count of Montecristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père.

Alexandre Dumas père, in a photograph from the 1850s (photo by Félix Nadar)

It took Rachel a little over a decade to become the most famous stage actress of the day for her roles in the classic tragedies of Racine and Corneille. By the 1840s, she had become the most celebrated actress in Paris, the European theater capital of the time. While vacationing in Madrid, she happened to meet the idol of her youth, and at the end of their brief encounter Dumas invited her to join him for lunch at the seashore. Excited at the opportunity to dine in the company of the famous author, she also accepted Dumas’s proposal to continue to correspond with him after her return to Paris.

The great dramatic actress quickly became disillusioned. Her reply to Dumas reveals the great miscalculation on both of their parts regarding the intentions of their mutual correspondence: whereas Rachel was certain that the much admired author was interested in an intellectual exchange, his intentions were clearly amorous in nature.

Deeply offended, Rachel was determined to beat him at his own game, and penned a response laced with equal measures of dry sarcasm, wonder and sincere regret. Using the words “fraudulent interpretation” in the letter she sent him on 17 July 1848, she expressed her bewilderment at how such a pleasant afternoon spent in each other’s company could have led Dumas to draw conclusions, “so far from my own thoughts.” She asked to immediately end their epistolary exchange, “which has wounded me deeply.” She also wanted to make it clear to him that while she had indeed been very honored to conduct a correspondence with someone whom she viewed as the greatest living author of the day, she now regretted the direction Dumas had chosen to take things.

As the letter progresses, we see Rachel’s anger rise along with her feeling that an affront to her honor had been committed, which becomes apparent in the small grammatical errors, and especially in the multiple underlines she includes for emphasis. Toward the end of the letter, Rachel launches her final salvo: “I knew that with stupid folk one must consider one’s every word, but one need not be so careful with intelligent, intellectual people.”

Rachel’s letter to Dumas, 17 July 1848, from the Rachel Félix Archive at the National Library of Israel. Rachel’s underlines are evident throughout the entire last part of the letter

Dumas’s response did not take long, since in a second letter also written in Rachel’s hand and now found among the National Library of Israel’s treasures, she disdainfully quotes from a telegram Dumas sent her: “Madame, If you truly desire it, we shall leave things at that. This will always be a part of the path we have traveled together, with utmost regard, your friend, Dumas.”

The temptation was too great for Rachel, and she added a short retort of her own. She asked to apologize, sarcastically, of course, for having apparently misread Dumas’s intentions, and now scolded him, in light of the flirtatious letter he had sent before. “If you have jotted down these lines from your inkstand by mistake, in the midst of your endless duties – I am indeed honored to receive them,” she concluded. Then, she erased a number of lines she had written and sent off her undated, indignant response to Dumas, without bothering to compose a new one.

Rachel’s second and final letter to Dumas, undated. From the Rachel Félix Archive at the National Library of Israel


Our story could easily end here. In fact, the missing pieces might even add an element of mystery to the entire affair.  And yet, in the Library’s collection there is one more letter that was sent by Rachel, this one to her sister Sara. The letter is undated, leaving it for us to decide when it might have been written and sent.

What’s in it?

Stated simply, Rachel asks that her sister inform Dumas that she cannot meet him on Sunday and would, therefore, be happy if he would choose another day during the week.

When was it sent?

Based on the two letters described above, the meeting referred to in this third letter would have to have been written after Rachel and Dumas’s initial encounter in Madrid, which was the event that triggered the exchange of letters that had so deeply offended Rachel.  In other words, we don’t precisely know.

Did Rachel eventually respond to Dumas’s advances? Did they ever make up and become friends?

In all likelihood, we will never know the answers to these questions either. Melodrama, mystery, lovers’ quarrels and reconciliation, were, no doubt, all integral parts of daily life in nineteenth-century France.