Photographed Together: Begin’s Father and Sharon’s Grandfather

Long before the State of Israel, the two men worked together at a Jewish bank and Jewish self-defense organization in Brest-Litovsk

A 1906 photograph released by the National Library of Israel presents rare visual evidence of the connection between Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon that existed even before the two future Israeli prime ministers were born. It is known that the Begin and Sharon (formerly Sheinerman) families both hailed from Brest-Litovsk, in modern-day Belarus. Sharon’s grandmother was even the midwife at Menachem Begin’s birth.

Yet this photo, which belonged to Sharon’s father, Shmuel Sheinerman, provides perhaps the only extant visual evidence of the historic connection.

Affixed to a piece of cardboard, the photo shows directors and staff of the Loan and Savings Bank in Brest-Litovsk. The bank was founded in 1905 to serve Jews, who suffered discrimination and persecution at that time.

Staff of the Loan and Savings Bank, Brest-Litovsk, 1906. Sitting on the far right is Ariel Sharon’s grandfather, Mordechai Sheinerman, and next to him is Menachem Begin’s father, Ze’ev Dov Begin.

The same year the bank was established, as pogroms against Jews took place across Eastern Europe, the two also worked together as part of the local Jewish defense organization. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 had led to a national awakening among many Jews in the Russian Empire, including efforts to better organize self-defense organizations like the one in which Sheinerman and Begin took active roles.

Seventy-six years later, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon served together as Israeli prime minister and minister of defense, respectively.

Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, 1978. From the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

More than one million photos documenting Jewish and Israeli life since the mid-19th century are available online through the National Library of Israel.

This Jewish War Hero Protested the Nazis… Then Helped Defeat Them

A decorated German soldier in World War I, Richard Stern opposed Nazism from within. After fleeing, he joined the US Army at age 43, and soon became a hero there, as well...

Colorized photo of Richard Stern as a German soldier in World War I (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)

What do we view as heroism?  We acknowledge those who win medals for amazing actions done in the military, honoring them for performing in an admirable way during battle.  We see those people as heroic because they act with bravery despite the life threatening circumstances of war.

Often, however, we do not look the same way at protestors. Perhaps we disagree with the issues they stand for.  Perhaps, if there are many other protestors or if we ourselves are even protesting along with them, it becomes hard to see the act as heroic or exceptional.

Yet, a protest can most certainly also be an heroic act.

This photo is of Richard Stern standing in the doorway of his store in Cologne, German on April 1, 1933:

A Nazi SA soldier is standing next to him.  Stern was protesting the boycott of Jewish businesses initiated by the German government of Hitler and the Nazi party, who had taken power just two months earlier.  This was Hitler’s first official action against the German Jews.

Stern turned out to be the only Jewish protestor against the Nazis in Cologne on April 1, 1933.  Today, the photo is featured in at least five different museums in Germany.

On January 31, 1933 the Stern family along with all the Jews in Cologne, had seen a shocking number of Nazi flags hanging from stores and houses all over the city.  It was a celebration of Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power.

On February 17, Hitler ordered all local police headquarters to create working relationships with the Nazi party’s paramilitary SA and SS units, helping to set the stage for the Nazis’ official suppression of German Jews.  A detailed plan was put together for the boycott of all Jewish businesses to take place on April 1, 1933.  SA soldiers were ordered to stand in front of Jewish stores to warn German citizens not to enter them.

In addition, the Nazis began to take control of all of the news organizations.  They wanted newspapers to support the actions against the Jews, so their planning instructions stated, “if newspapers do not do this or do too little, they must immediately be removed from every house where Germans live.”

Most of the Jewish community knew the boycott was coming.

Richard Stern told his family and friends, “I cannot be silent.”

He was a strong supporter of the Weimar Republic’s civil rights and was an active member of the Social Democratic Party.  Stern believed that other Jews would join him in protesting.  However, the bulk of Jewish leaders in Cologne believed that finding a way to cooperate with the Nazi government would ultimately protect German Jewry.  They were afraid to take an open stand against the oppression of Jewish people, so Richard Stern found that he was the city’s sole protestor.

Stern felt that protesting as a war veteran would be the most effective action, and so he donned the Iron Cross he was awarded in World War I.

He had been drafted in June of 1917, a point in the war when most Germans knew they would lose. Nonetheless, Stern acted bravely enough to be awarded the Iron Cross in August of 1918, very close to the end of the conflict.

Following announcement of the 1933 boycott, Stern wrote a pamphlet condemning the Nazis for their actions against the Jewish people despite the dedication of Jewish soldiers like him during World War I. The pamphlet declared that “We see this action against German Judaism as an insult to the memory of 12,000 German combat soldiers of the Jewish faith killed in action,” and he signed it “Combat Veteran Richard Stern.”

The pamphlet Stern printed and handed out (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)

Stern handed the pamphlets out to everyone passing by his store.  Look at Stern’s face in the photo.  He is smiling, displaying his feeling of being a true soldier, while the SA “soldier” standing next to him was an impostor.  When the Nazis took power, typical SA soldiers were young, never having truly served in the German army, and certainly not in any fields of combat comparable to those in which Stern and others like him had fought.

Richard Stern even gave the pamphlet to the SA soldier standing next to him.  This was particularly brave as there was a Nazi newspaper station right next to his store.  An hour later he was arrested and taken to police headquarters.  While he was sitting there, he felt nervous.  A police officer who, like many others had joined the Nazi party because of Hitler’s orders, approached Stern because he knew him.

He asked, “What are you doing here?”

“They arrested me,” Richard Stern answered.

“You better get out of here.”

The policeman saw Richard Stern as a friend because he was also a German war veteran and sneaked him out the back door.

As the Nazi actions against German Jews got worse through the 1930s, there were times when Richard Stern felt fear for himself, his sister and her son.  He became determined to get the three of them out of Germany and to safety in the United States.  Yet before he managed to get out, he continued to help his fellow Jews.  When Germany took over Austria in March of 1938, a chunk of Austrian Jews began to flee to try and escape the Nazis.  A number came to Cologne and Stern harbored them and tried to help them escape to Belgium.

After Kristallnacht, in the fall of 1938, he connected to family in New York and finally succeeded in immigrating there in May of 1939.

Once the United States entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Richard Stern, then 43 years old, volunteered for the American army so that he could fight against the Nazis.  He was accepted in October of 1942 and began training with the engineering battalion to which he was assigned. Stern refused an honorable discharge due to his advanced age, and by the end of October 1943, his battalion was involved in difficult battles in Italy.  Before he deployed he donated his German war medals (including one he received from Hitler himself, who had not realized that Stern was Jewish) to the national scrap drive in support of the war effort. Then, in early January of 1944, he became a hero in the American army for saving his company, which had been surrounded by German machine gunners at the top of Italy’s Mount Porchia.

He reportedly persuaded the Germans to surrender “if they wished some day to return to the Fatherland.”  Stern was promoted and awarded a Silver Star. His valor was reported in newspapers around the world and he was even played by a famous actor on the radio.

Feature on Richard Stern published in The American Jewish World on June 2, 1944; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

What do we view as Richard Stern’s heroism?

His actions in World War I and World War II, each for a different side, fit how people usually judge a hero, yet was his protest against the Nazis and standing up for civil rights any less exceptional?

Richard Stern did not succeed in causing any significant change in Germany through his moral and principled stand.  He certainly had moments of fear and doubt, yet the feelings of failure he felt following the protest caused him to be even more determined to find a way to continue opposing the Nazis and Hitler.

Heroism is not just a particular action.  It is also devotion to proper morality.  Richard Stern teaches us that.


W. Jack Romberg is the author of the book A Doorway to Heroism: A Decorated German-Jewish Soldier Who Became an American Hero, which tells the story of his great-uncle, Richard Stern.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

For the Sake of Love: The Jewish Women Left Behind

We never heard these stories. Forgotten stories of Jewish women who lived in Egypt and chose to remain there with the Muslim men that they loved, even though their families had immigrated to Israel. It’s time we shared these stories.

A Jewish wedding in Ayala Deckel’s family, held in the Great Synagogue in Alexandria

She boarded the ship along with the rest of her family. Everyone was excited about the voyage that would eventually bring them to Israel, the journey that would begin the great change in their lives. Yet, her heart was heavy. She didn’t really want to leave Egypt. A few minutes later, she muttered casually, “I forgot my bag by the ship, I’ll be right back.” That was the last they saw of her. She left the ship behind and returned to her lover in Egypt, choosing to stay there with him.

We never heard these stories during our childhood nor later on. The stories, like the women concealed in them, were left behind. Jewish women who lived in 20th century Egypt and who chose to remain there, though their entire families had immigrated to Israel. Women who chose to marry outside of the Jewish faith, who in most cases were expelled from home and family, left alone in a Muslim country. It’s time to tell their stories.

One of them was my aunt, Rachel. I only became aware of her existence a year ago.

Aunt Rachel, family photo

My grandfather had a large, warm and noisy family. They were five brothers and one sister. Their pictures always stood on the bookcase in my grandparents’ home. It turned out that someone was missing from the photos. Rachel wasn’t in any of them.

Rachel had fallen in love with a young Muslim man and married him when the family was still living in Egypt. Her father, my great-grandfather, did not approve of the marriage and banished her from the family home. He also demanded that everyone sever ties with her. But one sister refused to comply and kept in touch with Rachel despite her controversial marriage. Her name was Susan, I called her Tante Zuza. She would visit Rachel’s home frequently and even developed a close relationship with her son. Until it came time to immigrate to Israel.

Egypt in the early 20th century had been a cosmopolitan country to which many Jews from the Mediterranean basin had immigrated because of its economic and business potential. The essayist and author Jacqueline Kahanoff describes her childhood in Egypt at the beginning of the previous century thus, “In my youth it was only natural for me that Cairo’s residents understood one another even though they spoke different languages and had names that disclosed their different origins – Muslim, Arab, Christian, Syrian, Greek, Armenian, Italian. . .”

The Jewish community developed within this diverse climate; a traditional community with unique characteristics that set it apart from the others around it. At the same time, it was a community rooted in the local culture. Jews, Christians and Muslims had strong mutual ties of business and friendship. Marriage ties existed as well.

Jewish wedding of Ayala Deckel’s family in the Great Synagogue in Alexandria

The turning point in the life of the Jewish community came precisely with the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1948, the war between Israel and Egypt reached the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, with a series of explosions and acts of sabotage in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter. The streets were no longer safe and the Jewish community was affected directly, its members began to emigrate from Egypt to Europe, the United States and Israel.

The writings of contemporary rabbis on the issue of conversion suggests that intermarriage was a common phenomenon. They were preoccupied with it and with the dilemma of whether or not to convert a spouse who marries a member of the Jewish community.

In one of his halakhic rulings, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote that in his opinion it was worth converting a Christian woman who marries a Jew even if she does not keep the commandments, arguing that if she was not converted, the couple would be likely to seek comfort among the Christian community. Rabbi Yosef believed that in the interest of keeping members in the community, it was better to convert the Christian spouse than to lose the entire family.

In another case, Rabbi Aharon Mendel HaCohen told of a young woman who wanted a young Muslim man to convert so that they could marry. The rabbis of the community agreed and married the two in a religious Jewish ceremony. However, two days after the conversion, the new convert decided to return to Islam, and took his Jewish wife with him. Since then, Rabbi Mendel HaCohen wrote that he was no longer willing to convert Muslim partners.

The famous actress and singer Leila Murad is another interesting example. She was born Lilian to a devout religious Jewish family. Her father came from Iraq and her mother from Poland. Lilian, who began singing when she was fourteen, was called the “Cinderella of Egyptian cinema.” In 1947, she married and converted to Islam. Her family, who immigrated to Israel, rarely spoke of her, perhaps one reason she is not more known in Israel.

Another was Soad Zaki, a famous singer and actress in Egypt who also married a Muslim. They eventually divorced, and he moved to the United States while she immigrated to Israel. Later, the couple renewed their relationship and he came to live with her in Israel. After both had passed way, they were buried alongside each other here.

Ayala Deckel’s recently published Hebrew book, Habaytah Haloch VeChazor (“Back and Again”)

Returning to my family—in the 1950s, when it was no longer possible to remain in Egypt, my aunt, Tante Zuza, finally left Cairo and her sister Rachel. For many years, they lived in enemy countries and all communication between them ceased. During the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, they were on opposite sides of the border. While fierce battles were waged between Egypt and Israel, each worried for her family and country, but also for the sister on the other side. During those years, neither one tried to contact the other nor did they speak openly about the other. Both kept the other sister’s existence a secret. In the Israel of those years, it was disgraceful to say that you had a sister who had converted to Islam, a sister who was on the side of the enemy. In Egypt, it was extremely dangerous to say that you were from a Jewish family. Each sister lived her life. The secret remained buried in their hearts and was never spoken aloud.

After the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978, Tante Zuza, who lives in Israel, managed to contact her older sister Rachel in Egypt. My cousins ​​who witnessed the first conversation between them said that Tante Zuza sat for half an hour crying and hugging the phone receiver as if it were a human body. I imagine Rachel did the same on the other end of the line, in Egypt.

The discovery of this story shook my world. It was during the COVID pandemic, the whole country was in lockdown, and I found myself sitting at home trying to imagine what had happened back then and what was happening right now with my Muslim relatives in Egypt. I couldn’t stop thinking about how one event completely changed the fate of our family on both sides of the border.

I started researching, asking and gathering every sliver of information and very quickly, I discovered that this story was not unique to my family. Many more women had found themselves in similar situations. Women whose stories had been silenced, women whose voices have not been heard in Israeli society to this day.

Though I tried every way possible to find them, I wasn’t able to contact my Muslim family in Egypt. Instead of meeting them, I sat down and wrote. I let my thoughts travel and in my mind began to weave together the gaps that had emerged among the historical facts. This is how my [Hebrew] book Habaytah Haloch VeChazor (“Back and Again”) came into being. It tells the story of a journey between the present and the past, between secrets and facts. It is a book that strives to give voice to silenced stories and provide a meaningful platform for the women who chose to remain behind.

A Look at Jewish Artisans and Crafts in Morocco

The story behind the professions of Moroccan Jews, including a look at some unique photographs documenting Jewish artisans in Morocco in 1953

Brass engraver in Morocco. All the photographs in this article are from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

What professional crafts did the Jews of Morocco practice? Perhaps you were expecting a clear-cut answer, but we found the issue to be rather complex and dynamic. And, for this very reason, we shall now proceed to share the whole story with our faithful readers (as we like to do), as well as some unique photographs that shed some extra light on the subject. These images have a story of their own, but more on that later.

For centuries, Jews in Morocco made a living from crafts that the Muslim majority society engaged in as well. The terms of the Pact of Umar as well as the laws of Sharia did not impose severe restrictions on non-Muslim occupations, though only Muslims were allowed to work in the fields of government and public office. This was intended to prevent a situation where non-Muslims would hold more important government positions and have greater economic power and influence than Muslims. In other words, despite the fairly common claim among Israelis of Moroccan descent, it’s statistically impossible that everyone’s Jewish-Moroccan grandfather served an adviser to the king.

A Jewish shoemaker in Morocco

Despite the tolerant legal infrastructure, the Muslim majority population did eventually impose restrictions on non-Muslims through the guild system as a way to lessen competition in the craft professions. Not having much choice, the Jews flocked to the trades that were open to them.

According to Sharia law, Muslims are forbidden from working with silver and gold, as the labor results in a greater profit than the true value of the metals, making the profession immoral. The exclusion of Muslims from metalwork enabled Jews to integrate into the industries of goldsmithing and production of gold thread.

Being a professional craftsperson was considered a respected occupation among the middle and lower classes. Prof. Eli Bashan, who researched this subject, wrote – “Even sages and rabbis, who did not want to be paid for their Torah teachings, worked as professional artisans, and this was considered a virtuous act; These included mainly goldsmiths but also other skilled workers such as builders and barbers. Those who were chosen for communal leadership roles came from the ranks of the artisans.”

While most of the professional artisans concentrated on a single area of expertise, we found a number of photographs showing Moroccan Jewish women working in two professions. In the image below, the women of the Casablanca Jewish community (apparently) are shown working as both seamstresses and childcare providers. This was decades before 2020, when working from home became an unexpected reality of life.

Women of the Casablanca (apparently) Jewish community sewing while taking care of children
A Jewish artisan making leather pouches, apparently for storing glass and ceramic ware

The field of commerce was also open to Jews in Morocco and ranged from local to regional to international trade. The Jewish elite class consisted mainly of rich merchants who lived in major port cities – key players in the trade between Morocco and the West.

All this began to change in 1912 with the establishment of the French Protectorate in most parts of Morocco and the Spanish Protectorate in a small area in the north of the country. While the French occupation brought with it the winds of change and progress, this did not necessarily improve conditions for the Jews. It had nothing to do with persecution or discrimination, quite the opposite. The liberal economic policies pursued by France threatened the source of livelihood for many local artisans in the colonial period, at a time when most Jews practiced minor crafts such as leatherworking, goldsmithing, food preparation and various services.

Local consumers were now able to buy significantly cheaper imported goods, reducing the need for local artisans. Some of the country’s traditional professions actually collapsed due to the tough competition from abroad. Others only managed to survive because they sold their goods and services mainly to the Arab population, and not to Europeans who flooded Morocco following the occupation. One can assume that this is the reason why, from the colonial period, the proportion of Jewish merchants rose to 50 percent of Moroccan Jews, while that of artisans dropped to 38 percent.

Historians of the period have grappled with the question of which artisans managed to maintain their source of livelihood despite the fierce competition from the West. The fate of one particularly dominant area is quite clear: when the Jews left Morocco following the establishment of the State of Israel, the local goldsmithing industry practically disappeared, and Moroccan immigrants and Morocco’s Arab population repeatedly claimed this to be the case.  Even today, visitors to Morocco say that local goldsmithing has been unable to recoup its former success from when the Jews worked in the field, despite various attempts at its revival.

A Jewish coppersmith

A great way to learn about the crafts of Moroccan Jews is to explore photographs from the period. One of the most important collections in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (at the National Library of Israel) is the JCA Archive (Jewish Colonization Association), founded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The JCA was established in the late 19th century in order to help solve the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe, with most of its efforts centered on re-settlement in Argentina. However, during the 20th century, the organization became a philanthropic foundation supporting various projects throughout the Jewish world. Among other activities, in the early 1950s, the organization supported Jewish artisans and farmers in Morocco. Many photographs documenting artisans are preserved in its collections. The photographs in this article show Jewish artisans from 1953, probably from Casablanca, engaged in traditional crafts such as copper engraving, shoemaking, sewing and leatherworking.

Help us identify this artisan’s profession. Write us in the comments section!


Further Reading:

Shai Srougo, “The Social History of Fez Jews in the Gold-Thread Craft between the Middle Ages and the French Colonialist Period (16th-20th centuries)”. Middle Eastern Studies. 54 (6) (2018): 901-916.

Shai Srougo, “The Artisan Dynamics in the Age of Colonialism: The Social History of Moroccan Jewish Goldsmiths in the Inter War Period”. European Review of History. 21 (5) (2014): 671-690.

אליעזר בשן, אומנים יהודים במרוקו במאות הי”ח-י”ט על־פי תיאורי נוסעים ומקורות יהודיים. בתוך: יהדות צפון אפריקה במאות י”ט-כ’. עורך: מיכאל אביטבול (מכון בן-צבי, תש”ם).

ירון צור, היהודים בתקופה הקולוניאלית. בתוך: קהילות ישראל במזרח במאות התשע-עשרה והעשרים: מרוקו (מכון בן-צבי, תשס”ד).