Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

Why did the famous writer decide to study Hebrew? And what did he document in the Hebrew notebook he kept?

1917 was a fateful year in the life of Franz Kafka. In that year, the same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Kafka began teaching himself Hebrew. When his friend Max Brod heard about this, he was stunned. How was it possible that for over six months his close friend had been studying Hebrew without telling him—a Zionist activist planning on immigrating to Palestine? The discovery led to a broad correspondence in Hebrew, in which the Czech-Jewish writer and lawyer sought to practice his Hebrew with a more qualified speaker than himself.

If at first Brod viewed his friend’s decision mainly as an attempt to entertain himself intellectually, the more Kafka deepened his study of the language, the more his interest in Zionism and in his Jewish roots grew. In addition to his desire to read the Bible in the original language, he was becoming more interested in the Socialist stream of Zionism. He followed a number of Zionist journals in German and made sure to keep up on the news of the Second Aliyah (Jewish immigration wave) to the Land of Israel.

We find evidence of this in one of Kafka’s eight Hebrew notebooks, which were recently received at the Library as part of the estate of Max Brod, at the end of a long legal process (which you can read about here). Besides the list of Hebrew vocabulary words and their German translations, in the “Blue Notebook,” Kafka documented the teacher’s strike in Mandatory Palestine in November 1922. This record enables us to date the notebook—two years before his death from tuberculosis in Klosterneuburg, Austria. At that time, Kafka’s Hebrew teacher, a young woman named Puah Ben Tovim, from the Hebrew Yishuv in the Land of Israel, had arrived in Prague with the aim of studying medicine. Even when Kafka’s health began to fail, he continued pursuing his Hebrew studies.

The Blue Notebook, the National Library collections.

Kafka wrote (in Hebrew!) to his teacher Puah:

…from the heavy and deep sighs that arise from the economic pressure that Zionism and the workers of the Land of Israel are under. The teachers took nine measures and eight of these measures were taken by the teachers of Jerusalem. There is no end to the threats of strike or protests and deafening reminders [?] flying from all around. There is the impression that the teachers have fallen into the worst situation of all the workers in the Yishuv and they are the only ones who are suffering and deprived of wages. The question of teacher salaries has become the central and burning issue. As if here begins and ends the entire episode of suffering and difficult struggle of this helpless period.

Kafka documents the teachers' strike in Mandatory Palestine in November 1922, the National Library collections
Kafka documents the teachers’ strike in Mandatory Palestine in November 1922, the National Library collections

The turning point came in the last year of his life, 1924, when he told his beloved, Dora Diamant, about his plans for the future: to settle in the Land of Israel and open a restaurant that would serve the Zionist pioneers. The plan was amazingly simple—Dora would be responsible for cooking the food, and he would serve as the restaurant’s waiter and manager. The plan he concocted probably sounded to Dora like another of the many stories he liked to tell his friends. However, it might have contained more than just a wish: A year earlier, Kafka corresponded with his friend from his university days, the philosopher and educator Samuel Hugo Bergmann and his wife Elsa, about the possibility that Kafka might accompany Elsa on her journey back to Mandatory Palestine.

In fact, though Bergmann had given his consent, he tried to evade his promise to Kafka with various excuses, all fairly reasonable: he told his wife that he preferred that Kafka wait a while longer in Europe. That the house was too small, he would have to sleep in the children’s room, and mainly, that Kafka was too sick for the arduous journey and difficult conditions he would encounter in the Land of Israel.

In the end, his precarious medical condition put an end to any possibility of his traveling. When it became clear that tickets for the ship he had planned to sail on with Elsa were sold out, he told her not to pay too much attention to his plan to accompany her because it was nothing more than the fantasy of an ill man. He did not, however, rule out the possibility that he would visit them when his health improved.

Kafka spent more than seven years studying Hebrew. His plan to open a restaurant in Palestine was probably nothing more than a pipedream, but his desire to see the developing Hebrew community with his own eyes and to speak the language of the local pioneers remained unchanged until his death.

He never made the journey because he died on June 3rd, 1924 in the sanitarium in Klosterneuburg. The Czech-Jewish writer was laid to rest in Prague, where he lived most of his life and where he wrote most of the works that have granted him eternal fame.

You can now browse through Franz Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” on the National Library of Israel website, here.


See more items from the Kafka archives:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

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

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

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

The documents include Kafka's manuscripts of the uncompleted story "Wedding Preparations in the Country", a notebook for learning Hebrew, hundreds of personal letters, sketches, and more


Nearly a century after the premature death of Franz Kafka from tuberculosis and more than a half-century since the death of his confidant, Max Brod, the decades-long saga of their literary estate is now coming to an end.

Hundreds of letters, manuscripts, journals, notebooks, sketches and more – handwritten by Brod and Kafka – have been transferred to the National Library of Israel, following orders by Israeli and Swiss courts to open vaults in Zurich, which had stored the materials for decades. These materials, part of Max Brod’s literary estate, have now been returned to Israel and have arrived at the National Library in Jerusalem, in accordance with Brod’s wishes.

The documents from the Swiss vault include: three different draft versions of Kafka’s story “Wedding Preparations in the Country”, a notebook in which he practiced Hebrew, hundreds of personal letters to Brod and other friends, sketches and drawings, travel journals, thoughts he wrote to himself and more.

In essence, this marks the end of a legal saga that began 12 years ago and involved high-level proceedings in three countries: Israel, Germany and Switzerland.

View these selected items from the Kafka archive:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Brod, an accomplished writer and composer, was a confidant of Franz Kafka and is primarily responsible for Kafka’s success as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, having published many of his works after the author’s death in 1924.  The Kafka papers are considered to be an integral part of the Max Brod Archive, and the larger collection of materials relating to the ‘Prague Circle’, of which Brod and Kafka were members. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of personal archives of leading Israeli and Jewish writers, intellectuals and public figures, including most of the other members of the group, whose writings indicate the hope that their papers would ultimately be preserved at the National Library in Jerusalem.

View the opening of one of the safes containing Kafka’s manuscripts:

The Max Brod literary estate and Kafka papers are now being reviewed and catalogued by National Library experts, and will then be digitized and made freely accessible for users around the globe.

“For more than a decade, the National Library of Israel has worked tirelessly to bring the literary estate of the prolific writer, composer, and playwright Max Brod and his closest friend Franz Kafka to the National Library, in accordance with Brod’s wishes. After seeing materials including Kafka’s Hebrew notebook and letters about Zionism and Judaism, it is now clearer than ever that the National Library in Jerusalem is the rightful home for the Brod and Kafka papers,” said David Blumberg, Chairman of the National Library of Israel Board of Directors.

He added, “The National Library of Israel plays a central role in opening universal access to the cultural treasures of the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, including hundreds of special collections and archives, with the Brod and Kafka papers now among them. These materials will soon be digitized and made available online, allowing current and future scholars and fans of Brod and Kafka around the globe to freely access them.”


View these selected items from the Kafka archive:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

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.