The Jewish Lawyer Who Drafted the Constitution of the Weimar Republic

Hugo Preuss is still considered to be the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic today.

Weimar constitution

From the National Library of Israel collections.

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Hugo Preuss
Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

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Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives – though it seems to have anticipated the future since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945 with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this position for 15 years since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament. He also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’ resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text despite the fact that most of it was his brainchild, as the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

B3 Weimarer Verfassung1--780X1015
The title page of the printed constitution that was distributed to male and female pupils upon finishing their school education. From the National Library collection.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.


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Rare Documents from Belgrade Tell Tragic Tale of Lives Taken Too Soon

The documents from the Historical Archives of Belgrade tell the story of Isak Darsa, a young boy murdered in the Sajmiste concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis.


Application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade

Tracing the lives of average Jewish citizens who perished during the horrors of the Holocaust can be extremely difficult- especially if there were few to no survivors in their immediate family. The Historical Archives of Belgrade holds several documents that have helped retrace a part of the story of Isak Darsa, a young man with a bright future ahead of him, that was cut short by the Nazis.

Benjamin Darsa, Isak’s father, was registered for the first time as a citizen of the Belgrade municipality in 1924.  Benjamin’s certificate of permanent residence can be found in the Citizens’ Cards Register within a collection marked Administration of the City of Belgrade. The certificate reveals that Benjamin was born in 1896 to parents Isak and Gintil Elic in Zemun, which at that time was considered a seperate city but today forms part of Belgrade.

Certificate of permanent residence of Benjamin Darsa, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrad.

Benjamin worked as a clerk in a French-Serbian bank and on November 18, 1923, he married Estera-Stela nee Kalef of Belgrade at the old Synagogue Bet Israel. The young couple lived together in a leased house in the center of Belgrade.

Isak himself was born to the couple on May 29, 1926, and the next year, the little family moved into their own home on Prince Evgenie Street (modern-day Braca Baruh Street) in Dorcol, a Belgrade district where Jews formed a majority of the population. Technical documentation belonging to the city of Belgrade has preserved the floor plans of the Darsa family house and show that the architect who designed and built their home was Franja Urban, who would later become famous for his work in designing the new Belgrade Synagogue, also known as Sukkat Shalom Synagoue, in 1929.

Floor plans of the Darsa family house, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Isak Darsa attended a local elementary school in the neighborhood. A glance at his school register shows that his grades were nothing more than average as he was marked with a three on a scale of five in all of his school subjects.

In 1938/39, after finishing four grades of elementary school, Isak Darsa continued his education in the First Male Gymnasium. While he may have proven himself to be average in elementary school, he did not manage to keep to that standard in secondary school as his grades in the Gymnasium were even poorer. Isak barely managed to pass his final exams. While it is unclear if it was due to his poor grades or due to the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, at the age of 13, Isak did not return to the Gymnasium for the next school year.

Isak Darsa’s grade report from the First Male Gymnasium, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

While school may not have been the right place for him, Isak Darsa did manage to leave us another clue as to what he accomplished in pre-war Belgrade. In February 1941, three months before the war broke out in Yugoslavia, Isak began working with a merchant’s apprentice in a fashion store named Benvenisti and Pinkas on Kolarceva Street in the city center. At that time, sixteen-year-old Isak put in a request with the Merchants’ Association to be issued an occupation license. He submitted his photograph along with his application to the association as a part of his request for a license.

Isak Darsa’s application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Unfortunately, the Darsa family met the same fate as most Jewish families living in Belgrade during the Holocaust. Benjamin, Stela and young Isak were murdered by the Nazis.  Isak’s aunt and Stela’s sister, Regina Kalef Eskenazi, who survived the war, reported the deaths of all three Darsas in 1945. Stela and Isak met their end in the Sajmiste concentration camp in 1941 and Benjamin was shot at the Tasmajdan killing site in October 1941. Regina also submitted their war damage claim describing their destroyed and confiscated furniture, clothes, and jewelry.

The Darsa Family in Yad Vashem’s records.

Benjamin, Stela and Isak Darsa have since been registered in Yad Vashem’s victims’ database.

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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