Who Is the Israeli Who Won 10 Olympic Medals?

During the Holocaust, she escaped the Nazis using forged documents. Only a decade later she was known around the world as one of the greatest Olympic gymnasts of all time. Discover the amazing story of Ágnes Keleti.

אגנס קלטי

The entire State of Israel may have racked up just one Olympic gold medal in its short history, but Ágnes Keleti, a resident of the Israeli city of Herzliya, is the proud owner of no less than ten Olympic medals – five of them gold.

Keleti was born on January 9, 1921 in Budapest to a well-to-do Jewish family. At the tender age of 4, Keleti began taking “swimming lessons” thanks to her father, who enjoyed tossing her into the lake during family vacations. She was also enrolled in gymnastics at a young age. Despite showing obvious physical talent, Ágnes did not begin to take the sport seriously until age sixteen. Instead, she spent most of her time practicing and playing the cello.

Unlike many other athletes, whose distinct competitive drive pushes them to compete at an international level, Keleti says it was not necessarily her hunger to win medals that motivated her.

“The medals were nice, but I didn’t play sports solely for the accolades. I enjoyed the day-to-day routine and the opportunity to see the world. The Communist regime in Hungary was very tough and not at all to my liking. At the time, most people could not even leave Hungary. I decided to excel in sports in order to see the world. I was fortunate enough to visit places that most people didn’t even dare dream of,” she said in an interview several years ago.

Ágnes Keleti, from the Maccabiah Archive
From the Maccabiah Archive

Keleti survived the Holocaust by using a false identity. During the war years, she adopted the name “Yuhasz Piroshka” and assumed the identity of a village maid. Later, she worked in an ammunition factory. Her mother and sister were also saved, thanks to the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was later recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the same luck did not extend to the rest of her family. Her father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.

When the war ended, Keleti returned to gymnastics. In 1946, she won the title of ‘Hungarian National Champion,’ which she held until she fled the country in 1956. Her meteoric rise to world fame came at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. At the age of 31, Keleti won four medals: a gold medal in floor exercise, a silver medal in the all-around team competition, a bronze in the uneven bars and a bronze in the portable apparatus team event.

אגנס קלטי (משמאל) עם אורי זמרי, ברוך בק, ואלינור רוזוולט 23.2.1962, צילום: לע"מ
Ágnes Keleti (left) with Uri Zimri, Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch Beck – February 23rd, 1962, photo: GPO

In 1956, she competed in the Melbourne Olympics, this time at the age of 35 (twice the age of most of her competitors). She won six medals in Melbourne: three gold medals in individual events (floor, uneven bars and balance beam), another gold in the portable apparatus team event and two silver medals in both the individual and team all-around events.

By the end of her career, Keleti had won ten Olympic medals overall, placing her seventh in terms of all-time medal winners in Olympic history. For comparison, the legendary Carl Lewis also has ten medals to his name, while Mark Spitz has eleven medals in total. In fact, Ágnes Keleti holds more medals than other familiar sports legends like Nadia Comăneci and Usain Bolt. Yet what is perhaps most impressive about Keleti’s medal run is that she won nine out of her ten Olympic medals after reaching the age of 30.

Escape from Hungary and Immigration to Israel

While Keleti was halfway across the world competing in the Melbourne Olympics, a national rebellion was brutally put down by the Soviet regime in her native Hungary. When the revolt broke out, Keleti made the difficult decision not to return to the country for which she was competing. Together with other Hungarian athletes, she appealed to the Australian government for asylum. Their request was granted.

In fact, Keleti had already begun plotting her escape from Hungary prior to her departure for the Melbourne Olympics: “I had had enough of this bloody regime. One day I was swimming in the national team’s heated pool and a young man offered to drive me home. I agreed, but after a while I noticed that we weren’t heading in the direction of my house. He took me to the communist party headquarters and, there, they tried to convince me to spy on my teammates. In that very moment, I realized that I must escape” she told an interviewer.

Although she was an international Olympic star, Keleti was unsuccessful at finding acceptable work in Australia. One day, she received a telegram from Professor Gifstein, her physical education teacher from the Jewish gymnasium in Budapest. In the telegram, he told her that he had decided to immigrate to Israel.

עיתון "דבר" 25.8.1957
“Introducing: Ágnes Keleti” Davar, August 25th, 1957


Gifstein invited her to come to Israel to continue her training while adding a warning: “There is nothing here. Bring equipment with you.” Keleti decided to accept his invitation nonetheless and arrived in Israel in 1957, just in time to participate in the Fifth Maccabiah Games.

From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection
From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection

The press in Israel was very excited by Keleti’s arrival in the country. Because of her success at the previous Olympics, she became one of the biggest stars of the Fifth Maccabiah. The stands were packed as Ágnes Keleti took to the floor, this time in her new home of Israel.

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In Color: Photos of Libyan Jews Brought to Life

These historical photographs documenting Jewish communities in Libya now appear more life-like than ever.

לוב שחור לבן וצבעים

Written by Pedahzur Benatia

As a child, I remember my parents showing me photographs that they brought with them when they immigrated from Libya to Israel in 1949. The photos gave me a direct window into the life of our family. Some of these were family portraits taken in photography studios, while others showed scenes from our hometown. I remember one photograph of the magnificent local synagogue in particular.

Years later, I began to deal with Libyan Jewish heritage professionally. Today, I am in charge of the Or Shalom Center in Bat Yam, an organization which serves to preserve the heritage of Libyan Jews. Over time, many photos have been added to Or Shalom’s ever-growing archive, but color photos were unheard of. We acquired countless photographs depicting bustling markets, streets and enchanting alleyways, incredible buildings and synagogues. There were images documenting Zionist celebrations and Jewish ceremonies featuring members of the community dressed in their finest garments. When I looked at these pictures it was as though the people in the photographs were shouting up at me: “Make no mistake, habibi, life back then was full of color and beauty! Why don’t you do something about it and show this to the world!”

Every time I looked at the black and white pictures, I found myself wondering about small details like the color of the wall in a synagogue, or the shade of the silk shawl that a particular woman wore, or even the color-tone and texture of a teacher’s suit in a school photo. I wanted to be as immersed as possible in the piece of history I held in my hand.

About three years ago, while perusing the internet for information on Libyan Jews, I came across the work of an artist named Arik Danino. It featured digitally colored photographs of David Ben Gurion declaring the foundation of the State of Israel and IDF soldiers at the Western Wall.

I wasted no time in messaging him, “Hey Arik, I saw the beautiful pictures you posted, and I could not help but feel envious. I have been dreaming about such a project for years. But, I had not known it was possible until I came across your pictures. Could you possibly give some of our photographs the same treatment?” And, the rest is history.


Members of the Society of Young Zionists of Tripoli
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Jews of Libya
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Jews of Libya


The first challenge we encountered in the project was how to communicate the vast knowledge that had been accumulated at Or Shalom to a professional who was unfamiliar with the community


לוב שחור לבן וצבעים

לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Students in a drill lesson


We began by looking at photographs of clothing, in particular the lively zdad which was worn by women. We spoke to elderly members of the community about the coloring of the walls in the synagogue, the curtains in the hall, and the paving in the courtyard of the “Hatikva” school.


A zdad garment


Arik immersed himself in the work – asking questions, coloring, corresponding with us, making corrections here and there – soon enough, we saw wonderful results.

Arik sent me picture after picture, each one more beautiful than the last. A total of twelve photographs were carefully selected from our archive. These were the photographs that were meticulously colored and used in the first edition of a calendar that we now publish every year.


Libyan Jewish women


With the fantastic outcome from the initial project, our appetite only grew. The following year, we continued the project with the artist Raphael Ben Zikri who was able to produce another wonderful calendar. Nowadays, whenever we receive a new, striking photograph that catches our eye, we make sure to pass it along for a special color treatment that brings the scene to life.


The Pietro Verri Girls’ School in Libya
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
The streets of Tripoli
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
The streets of Tripoli
Celebrating Israel’s first Independence Day in Libya


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The Boy Who Sent Martin Buber a Birthday Gift, and Was Later Murdered in Auschwitz

A letter and drawings sent by the young Wolfgang Steinitz to Martin Buber in honor of his sixtieth birthday reveal the rare talent and sensitivity of its creator whose life was cut short.

Martin Buber in the “He-Atid” bookstore in Jerusalem, 1946

While searching for documentary material about my family in the National Library’s archives in Jerusalem, the title “Letter by Wolfgang Steinitz to the Philosopher Prof. Martin Buber” came up.

The Wolfgang Steinitz in our family was an anthropologist, linguist and well known communist in Germany. I imagined that it was entirely possible that he had corresponded with Buber. Curious to know what the linguist and the famous Zionist philosopher had in common, I asked the archivist to see the letter. About an hour later the file from the Martin Buber archive with the letter was delivered to me.

I opened the envelope, which was missing the sender’s address, and pulled out an undated letter obviously written in a child’s handwriting, and again without the address of the sender. Attached to the letter were three pages containing drawings.


Following is my translation of the letter:

Very Distinguished Professor Buber!

After receiving your book Erzählungen von Engeln, Geistern und Dämonen (Tales of Angels Spirits & Demons) as a prize in the spring of last year, I tried to illustrate the contents. I am sending you the attached drawings along with wishes for your 60th birthday. So that you can appreciate them, I wish to note that I will celebrate my bar mitzvah on Shabbat (and will be reading from the Torah portion known as) Mishpatim.

With heartfelt wishes,

Wolfgang Steinitz

The letter’s content did not fit with the Wolfgang Steinitz from our family, who was twenty-seven years younger than Buber and would no longer have been a boy on Buber’s sixtieth birthday on February 8, 1938. What’s more, knowing our family history, it was not likely that our Wolfgang would have celebrated his bar mitzvah. And yet, I hoped that perhaps I had come across an unknown family mystery. I sent a picture of the boy’s letter to Wolfgang’s daughter in Berlin, with whom I am in contact, and asked her whether her father drew as a child and whether he had had a bar mitzvah. She answered in the negative to both questions.

I also searched for the book the boy had referred to in his letter to Buber. The entire book is devoted to stories of Hasidic rabbis, towns and courts, and is written in an archaic and not easy-to-read style.

As I followed various avenues of inquiry, my daughter asked me: “Have you tried searching in Yad Vashem?”


I hadn’t even considered Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial)… but I immediately wrote them and not long after received the chilling reply.

Piecing together the information from Yad Vashem, the boy’s bar mitzvah Torah portion and the date of Buber’s sixtieth birthday, I concluded that the writer of the letter was a boy from the city of Gera, near Leipzig, who sent Buber the drawings when he was thirteen years old. He was murdered in Auschwitz when he was all of nineteen.

I wrote about my findings to the Yad Vashem Art Museum and asked whether they were interested in the drawings and perhaps had additional drawings by this boy in their collection. I did not receive a response. I was left with the story which I reveal here for the first time.

I believe that the drawings that have been preserved in the archive for almost eighty years should be published in some way, both for the skill of the illustrations and the possibility that exposing them may lead to other works coming to light by this gifted young man whose life was tragically short.

Thanks to the Martin Buber Estate for permission to publish these items.

Thanks to Dr. Stefan Litt from the Archives Department of National Library of Israel.


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Documenting the Lost Jewish Communities of Bavaria

Theodor Harburger’s photographs of synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects are all that remain of the rural Jewish communities of Bavaria after the Holocaust.


File record from Theodor Harburger's collection of photographs for a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) from Munich, Germany, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

By the end of the 19th-century, many of the smaller Jewish communities in rural Germany had begun to shrink. Many young people were leaving home for the big cities or for America in search of higher education and employment. Several smaller Jewish communities were completely dismantled, their synagogues abandoned, and objects of religious, cultural and artistic value were lost or sold off.

In the Bavaria region, the Jewish communities, fearing their cultural heritage may be lost to time, took initiative and established an association for the documentation of Jewish art and culture. They brought an art historian named Theodor Harburger on board to begin documenting the unique culture that existed in the rural Jewish Bavarian communities at the time. Harburger took on the project gladly and set his own goal of providing his Jewish contemporaries an awareness of their own heritage and local culture.

Pappenheim synagogue
A synagogue in Pappenheim, Germany that was built in 1811. This photograph by Theodor Harburger on 6.12.1926, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Between 1926 and 1932, Theodor Harbuger photographed and documented Jewish ritual objects and synagogues dating as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. Harburger was acutely aware of the importance of his work and took the assignment very seriously, working in an organized manner, documenting every step of the way, preserving for the future those items which characterized Jewish life.

Over the course of six years in the field, Harburger managed to take over 800 photographs in 213 communities in Bavaria. In addition to thoroughly cataloging each subject by including the name and material of the item, its measurements, and the name of the artist, he also included handwritten notes for each place he visited.

menorah card
File record card from Theodor Harburger’s photography project featuring a Menorah from Munich, Germany. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects all underwent the intensive documentation process set up by Harburger to ensure he was preserving the community in the best way possible. While he did not photograph every object he came across, he highlighted the most interesting items and took notes on others that were not to be included in the images.

Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:


Harburger set about his work with the hope that his intensive study of the rich and vast history of Jewish communities of Bavaria might bring about a renewal of modern Jewish life in the area and that perhaps even the local Christian communities could benefit from the rich cultural heritage the Jews had to offer. Little did he know that, just a few years after completing his work, those Jewish communities would be no more.

Bechhofen Synagogue
The interior of a 17th-century wooden synagogue in Bechhofen, Bavaria. Photograph by Theodor Harburger, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

With the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, Harburger immigrated to the Land of Israel with more than 1,000 glass negatives and hundreds of pages of drawings. That was all that remained of his six-year project when the reality he so painstakingly documented disappeared just five years later, in November 1938, during the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The sites he had photographed were destroyed and many of the objects he documented were stolen while others were vandalized or destroyed.

Kleinbardorf cemetary
A Jewish cemetery in Kleinbardorf, Germany as photographed by Theodore Harburger. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Harburger’s photographs, many of which were unique, bear witness to all that was there before the Holocaust, to the communities that once thrived and contributed to Bavaria’s rich cultural tapestry. Not much is known about his activities in Germany or in Israel following this project but his work has had a lasting impact. Approximately twenty percent of the items he photographed have since been rehoused in museums around the world. It was his work that provided accurate geographical and technical information to those institutions.

A set of bechers, cups used to make the ceremonial blessings on wine, in Munich, Germany, photographed by Theodor Harburger on 14.10.1927, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Theodor Harburger died on October 15, 1949. In 1957, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) acquired his collection of glass negatives, slides, contact photos, notes and booklets from his widow, Meta Harburger. Hundreds of photographs from Harburger collection were published in a three-volume catalog, edited by Bernhard Purin, following an exhibition in Fuerth, Germany. The photographs are being used today in various studies in the field of provenance research.

harburger publication
Publication of Theodor Harburger’s works, 1998, by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in the city of Fürth in Germany

Thanks to Hadassah Assouline from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) for her help in writing this article. Parts of this article first appeared in an issue of Segula Magazine in December 2010.

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.