Kirk Douglas: Star of David and Hollywood

He starred in the first Hollywood feature filmed in Israel, but the legendary actor's connection to the Jewish state and people certainly didn't start or stop there...

Kirk Douglas in Jerusalem, 1999 (Stylized photo based on one published in the ⁨⁨February 1, 2002 edition of The Australian Jewish News⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

Like many Jews of his generation, Kirk Douglas had changed his name to avoid revealing that he was born Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor Jewish immigrants who lived in Amsterdam, New York.  Even before that, he adopted the Americanized surname of his uncle Avram Demsky and preferred Isadore over Issur.

A photo of Kirk Douglas as a young man with his mother, appearing in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son.

Douglas always was acutely aware that he was Jewish. His childhood temple offered to subsidize his education at a Yeshiva so he could become a rabbi, but he had fallen in love with acting and declined the offer.  Though he had a bar mitzvah and celebrated Jewish holidays in his home, he did not share the piety of his parents.  The anti-Semitism he encountered in his hometown, however, never let him forget his Jewish origins.  As he recalled in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son:

“After school each day, I’d have to walk about twelve blocks to Hebrew school.  I had to run the gauntlet, because every other street had a gang, and they would always be waiting to catch the Jew boy.”

He could not escape this prejudice when he attended St. Lawrence University, a Liberal Arts college located in an isolated rural area of northern New York. Though athletic and handsome, he was not rushed by the fraternities whose national charters banned pledging Jews. Instead, Douglas left his imprint on the campus as an actor, champion wrestler, and the first non-fraternity member and Jew to be elected student president in 1938.  The alumni protested over a “Jew boy president of the student body” and threatened to stop donating to the school.

A photo of Douglas on the wrestling team at St. Lawrence University, appearing in The Ragman’s Son.
A photo of Kirk Douglas, “Jew boy president of the student body” at St. Lawrence University, appearing in The Ragman’s Son.

Douglas served in the navy during World War Two.  He married his first of two gentile wives in 1943 (the second converted when they renewed their vows in 2004) in a ceremony conducted by a navy chaplain.  A rabbi agreed to officiate at a subsequent wedding in return for the couple promising to raise their children as Jews.

Douglas subsequently admitted that he never intended to honor this pledge.

He landed his first leading role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946, though he would not be cast as a Jewish character for another seven years. Privately during this period, his attachment to Judaism expressed itself by fasting on Yom Kippur out of a sense of solidarity towards the Jews of the past and the present.

This connection was reinforced when Douglas played Holocaust survivor Hans Mueller in Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler, the first Hollywood motion picture to be filmed in Israel.

Douglas receiving a gift to present to Moshe Sharett, prior to filming “The Juggler” in Israel. From ⁨⁨the October 3, 1952 edition of The B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
This double-spread feature on the filming of “The Juggler” was published in the newspaper Davar on October 31, 1952; a part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

At the registration center for new immigrants, Hans, a former juggler and clown, hallucinates that his deceased wife and children are peering at him from a window.  Chafing from confinement, he escapes from the facility and beats up an Israeli police officer whose check of his identification papers stirs up memories of Nazi interrogations. Roaming the countryside, Hans is befriended by a boy and woman who belong to a kibbutz and invite him to stay there.

When the police track him down, Hans barricades himself in a room, though he eventually surrenders and acknowledges he is sick and needs help.  Throughout the film Hans repeatedly remarks that “home is a place you lose,” but slowly discerns that Israel is a homeland for Jews fleeing oppression.  In real life, Douglas admired Israel for fighting for Jewish statehood in the shadow of the systematic slaughter of European Jewry.

Kirk Douglas in Tel Aviv, 1952. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His next Jewish character, Mickey Marcus, in Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) was based on an American Jewish soldier recruited by the Haganah as a military advisor to Israeli troops during the War of Independence.

David “Mickey” Marcus. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Until he tours Dachau after its liberation, Marcus feels little sympathy for Zionism.  Later, catapulted into the fray in Israel, he trains soldiers and organizes the clandestine route to smuggle arms, food, and medical supplies into besieged Jerusalem. Marcus is eventually killed in a “friendly-fire” incident – an Israeli sentry who does not understand English shoots the American, who does not speak Hebrew and cannot respond to orders to prove he is not an enemy combatant.

“Mickey” Marcus during Israel’s War of Independence, 1948 (Government Press Office / Public domain)

Douglas identified with Marcus who “in helping the Israelis, discovered his Jewishness, came to grips with it, and acknowledged that he was a Jew.”

Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of “Cast a Giant Shadow” (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel
Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of “Cast a Giant Shadow” (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel

The actor returned to the topics of the Holocaust and Israel in films like Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Remembrance of Love (1982).  As Holocaust survivor Joe Rabin in the latter, he travels to a gathering of survivors in Israel searching for his long-lost lover and the baby she was carrying before the two were deported to concentration camps.  Douglas’ indignation over the Shoah and pride in Israel as a Jewish state are evident in many of the books he authored, as well.

In 1991, Douglas nearly died in a collision between his helicopter and a stunt plane. Confined to a hospital bed with spinal injuries, he reevaluated his relationship to Judaism:

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish.”

This quest spurred him to study Torah and have his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He valued the morality promoted by religions in general, “I studied Judaism a lot. I studied religion in general, and I have never imposed my Judaism on my kids.”

Kirk’s son, the actor Michael Douglas, also began to further explore his Jewish roots after the helicopter incident. In subsequent years he became very active in Jewish causes and visited Israel numerous times, including in 2015 to receive the second annual Genesis Prize, known as the “Jewish Nobel”, which “recognizes and celebrates Jewish talent and achievement, honoring individuals for their accomplishments and commitment to Jewish values.”

Kirk Douglas, wearing his original Bar Mitzvah tallis, speaks at his second Bar Mitzvah to his son, Michael Douglas, and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Catherine Zeta-Jones. From the ⁨⁨January 7, 2000 edition of The Australian Jewish News⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In 1996, the elder Douglas suffered a severe stroke.  Intensive speech therapy enabled him to regain his ability to talk.  Rather than letting his halting speech deter him from acting, he appeared in three more feature films and one television movie.  In It Runs in the Family (2003), he plays the patriarch of a Jewish family coping with the aftermath of his stroke. In the film, Douglas quips:

“So what if my stroke left me with a speech impediment? Moses had one, and he did all right.”

Over the years, the actor donated over $100 million to American and Israeli charities, funding hundreds of playgrounds in poor sections of Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, and a theater near the Western Wall.

Eighty-five year-old Kirk Douglas tries out a slide at a playground he donated. Published in the ⁨⁨February 1, 2002 edition of The Australian Jewish News⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Over the course of his career, Kirk Douglas evolved from an actor who originally minimized his Jewish roots into a proud Jew who recovered his ethnic and religious identity by dramatizing it and immersing himself in Judaism and Jewish history.

A version of this article was originally published by the San Diego Jewish World.

Elie Wiesel’s Haunting, Mysterious and Brilliant Master

"Mr. Shushani" reportedly knew the entire Hebrew Bible, Talmud and countless other texts by heart. His Nobel-laureate student never knew his real name.

"A wandering Jew, he felt at home in every culture." (Collage: 'Mr. Shushani' and Elie Wiesel [Credit: Gideon Markowitz, Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at NLI] / Shushani's notebooks at NLI)

“His birthplace was, now Marrakech, now Vilna, then Kishinev, Safed, Calcutta, or Florence.”

Very little is known or agreed upon regarding “Mr. Shushani” (also known as “Monsieur Chouchani”), a mysterious and almost mythically brilliant man who served as the personal, influential teacher to Elie Wiesel, Emmanuel Levinas and other leading 20th century Jewish intellectual figures.

And perhaps – at least according to Wiesel, who penned the quotation above regarding Shushani’s place of birth – that was exactly how the enigmatic figure wanted it.

By all accounts, Shushani had an extraordinary photographic memory, reportedly able to recall and cite the entire Hebrew Bible, Talmud and many other Jewish texts by heart, while also mastering various fields of mathematics, physics, modern philosophy and different languages.

Pages from the notebooks of “Mr. Shushani”. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

According to National Library of Israel archivist David Lang, who has catalogued dozens of Shushani’s recently received notebooks at the Library, the astonishing depth and breath of knowledge is self-evident in those notes, where diverse textual sources are cited without missing a beat despite the fact that he certainly did not have physical access to the sources while he wrote.

These connections also came through in person. In All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel recalled one of many encounters with Shushani:

“[H]e asked us to question him about anything we wanted, the Bible or politics, history or the Midrash, detective stories or the Zohar. He listened to our questions, eyelids drooping, waiting for everyone to finish. And then, like a magician, he gathered it all together to create a mosaic of stunning richness and rigor, harmoniously weaving our questions and his answers together.”

The disheveled, brilliant figure left such an impression on Wiesel that the Nobel laureate dedicated an entire chapter to his teacher in another book, Legends of Our Time, entitled “The Wandering Jew”.

In some ways, Weisel’s descriptions of Shushani makes it all the more surprising that he revered the man:

“Always dirty, hairy, he looked like a hobo turned clown, or a clown playing a hobo… Anyone encountering him in the street without knowing him would step out of his way with distaste. To his own great satisfaction, moreover.”

And yet, over three years in post-War Paris, Wiesel was Shushani’s disciple:

“At his side I learned a great deal about the dangers of language and reason, about the ecstasies of sage and madman, about the mysterious progress of a thought down through the centuries and of a hesitation through a multitude of thoughts. But nothing about the secret which consumed or protected him against a diseased humanity.”

Shushani zealously guarded his identity and few details about his personal life are known today, more than fifty years after his death. Even his name remains a contended mystery. Wiesel concluded it was “Mordecai Rosenbaum,” while most leading scholars today, including philosopher Shalom Rosenberg, also a disciple of Shushani’s, believe that it was “Hillel Perlman”.

Hillel Perlman
Hillel Perlman

Both decidedly less exotic than his self-designated appellation.

Whether he was Mordecai, Hillel or something else, Shushani’s control of language also boggled the minds of those who knew him.

Wiesel poetically recalled:

“He had mastered some thirty ancient and modern languages, including Hindi and Hungarian. His French was pure, his English perfect, and his Yiddish harmonized with the accent of whatever person he was speaking with. The Vedas and the Zohar he could recite by heart. A wandering Jew, he felt at home in every culture.”

A wandering Jew indeed, Shushani traveled across the globe throughout his life, apparently penniless, and – according to Wiesel – without a passport.

“At the end of 1948,” Wiesel recalled, “he left me without saying goodbye… His last lesson was like all the others…”

His departing words:

“Think over my lesson and try to destroy it.”

Then Mr. Shushani disappeared. For years, Wiesel would by chance meet others who had known him, or heard about him and his whereabouts.

Shushani’s travels brought him throughout Europe, the United States, allegedly to North Africa and elsewhere, including Mandatory Palestine and the young State of Israel where for a few months in the late 1950s, he wandered among religious kibbutzim sharing his knowledge and perhaps gaining some too.

Ultimately, Shushani landed in Uruguay. Wiesel heard from others that he was there.

In Legends of Our Times, published the same year that Shushani passed away, Wiesel hauntingly mused:

“Often I am seized by the desire to take the first plane leaving for Uruguay, to see him one last time to confront him with the image I have kept of him. Then too I need him to rouse me again, to suspend me between heaven and earth and so permit me to see what brings them together and what separates them…

That is what makes me tremble each time I think of him in Montevideo, where he awaits me, where he calls to me: I am afraid to plunge once more into his legend which condemns us both, me to doubt, and him to immortality.”

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg was Mr. Shushani’s student at the time of this death, and recently donated 50 of his teacher’s notebooks to the National Library of Israel, where they will be available to the general and scholarly publics for the first time.


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.

The Star Austrian Poet’s Tragic and Forgotten Jewish “Muse”

Only at the gates of Auschwitz did 'vivacious brunette' Hedwig Bernhard let go of the gift she received from Rainer Maria Rilke...

“...a friendship developed in walks along narrow trails through the forest…" Composite image of the Burgbach Waterfall near Bad Rippoldsau, where Bernhard and Rilke first met, and the only known photo of the couple (Sources: Alexander Migl [CC-BY-SA 4.0] / Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany)

An early disciple of Sigmund Freud, Dr. Max Eitingon founded the first psychoanalytic institute and clinic in Berlin. Following his death in 1943, most of Eitingon’s renowned collection of books came to the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) in Jerusalem, where he had fled following the Nazi rise to power.

Dr. Max Eitingon in Jerusalem, ca. 1930s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

One of these books, Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Images), was one of several works in Eitingon’s collection by Rainer Maria Rilke, a major celebrity of his day and one of the 20th century’s most popular poets.

Eitingon’s path crossed with Rilke’s after the poet’s erstwhile lover and lifelong mentor, the Russian-born writer Lou Andreas-Salomé, attended  a gathering of the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1911. She went on to study with Freud, soon began to practice analysis herself, and brought Rilke with her to the following psychoanalytic congress two years later. But Rilke – despite his recurring bouts of depression – rebuffed her entreaties to be analyzed.

Some three decades later, a copy of Das Buch der Bilder was found at the gates of Auschwitz. It had an inscription from Rilke to another woman, who had been a patient of Eitingon’s. The book was picked up by a guard and its postwar discovery caused a stir, yet little attention was paid to the woman’s own tragic story.


A vivacious, melancholy brunette

Hedwig Bernhard, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Berlin, was mentally unstable enough for her parents to engage a companion-cum-minder.

Shortly before her 25th birthday, Hedwig Bernhard and her chaperone checked into the same hotel that Rilke was patronizing to overcome his own chronic depression and writer’s block.

Rilke and Bernhard had both taken to the waters at Bad Rippoldsau in the Black Forest to help assuage their ailments.

Bad Rippoldsau, early 20th century (Public domain)

According to Rilke’s biographer Ralph Freedman, she was “a vivacious brunette with a flush of youth but with a kind of searching introspection and sensibility that anxiously reached out to him.” Her self-introduction as an actress “on holiday from her work with the Luisentheater in Berlin” appears throughout the vast number of works on Rilke. She presents herself as an actress in a 1935 letter sent to Martin Buber, yet there is little to no other evidence of her playing on any professional stage.

These rare archival materials appear online here for the first time:

Letter and newspaper clipping featuring a photo of Bernhard, which she sent to Martin Buber, 1935. From the Martin Buber Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click images to enlarge

The Berlin-born physician Theodor Zondek, whose mother was Bernhard’s “lifelong friend,” would reminisce delicately that Bernhard “studied to be an actress but did not follow this career for various reasons” and “decided after an illness to visit a spa.”


A fateful encounter

According to Rilke’s biography:

“…a friendship developed in walks along narrow trails through the forest… In her diary Bernhard became eloquent about his soft, melodic voice, his small, fragile figure, his high forehead, and especially his eyes, which she compared to ‘two large, clear blue lakes’.”

Rilke scholars have debated whether Bernhard was for him one of numerous “muses,” or no more than a Kurschatten (spa shadow) – an ephemeral liaison so common at the time that it was “recognized as promoting the cure.”

Rilke and Bernhard at Rippoldsau railroad station on July 5, 1913. The photo was taken with her camera. (Courtesy: Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany)

During their last night together, Rilke inscribed two volumes of his poetry to Hedwig, adding new, handwritten poems that progressed in intimacy from “Sie” to “Du“.  On their walks, Bernhard had taken several excellent photos of Rilke. When he saw her off at the railway station, she apparently asked a less adept bystander to take a picture of them together. The resulting blurry photo is one of the only surviving images of Bernhard.


War and waning affection

Rilke wrote to her for several months – even asking her for copies of the photos to give away to others. But his interest waned. In May 1914, with Bernhard not (yet) willing to undergo analysis, Max wrote to his wife Mirra:

die Bernhard is melancholy…  I have to find a way to get [her] moving somehow.”

That August, World War I broke out.

Rilke’s publisher rushed a Kriegsalmanach for 1915 into print and it became an instant bestseller, featuring five new “chants” by Rilke, “invoking the Kriegs-Gott and calling for a banner of jubilant suffering to be raised.”

Depiction of the “Kriegs-Gott” (“God of War”) appearing in the 1915 Kriegsalmanach. From the National Library of Israel collection

Eitingon, an Austrian citizen like Rilke, had volunteered as a medical officer, and Bernhard sent him a copy (“how friendly of her!” he wrote to his wife Mirra). Unfortunately, it was ruined by stains from the holiday fruitcake that she packed in the same parcel.

Believing Rilke’s affection would last, she surprised him at another spa. But he was already involved with the next of his many “muses,” and stopped writing to her.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900. According to Max Eitingon, Rilke “understood the great, boundless lovers among women so well” (Public domain)

Hedwig’s mental state deteriorated and she called on Mirra to inquire about Max, who was away at war.

A letter Bernhard wrote to him still reflected Rilke’s attitude to Freudianism: Max reported indignantly to Mirra that Bernhard asked “whether in my wartime medical activity I had not learned to think differently about [psycho]analysis!” The question touched a sore spot for Eitingon, who had found no scope for analysis while treating battlefield injuries in his field hospital. But Hedwig soon sent “a disguised apology for her question,” which Max gallantly accepted: “of course I know well enough the expressions of ‘resistance’ [to analysis].”

He could but lament Bernhard’s “regrets that now, when she has become ripe for analysis, the doctor is not there.” As all military mail was reviewed by the censors, he added discreetly, “…the hopelessness of her relationship with R— e compounds Miss B’s condition.”

Hedwig regularly visited Mirra Eitingon, who could not but have felt some empathy. Seven years earlier, her own promising career as an actress in Russia and her previous marriage had been derailed by a doomed affair with a famous writer.

Mirra Eitingon as a young woman (Enhanced image / Public domain)

It had plunged her into depression, for which she was referred to Dr. Eitingon. A passionate romance at another Black Forest spa soon developed between Max and Mirra.

Now Max “agreed entirely” with his wife’s intuitive ideas of how to support Bernhard. “Mirrinka,” he lapsed into their common Russian mother tongue, “follow the course of your heart, always tell her when something warm swells up in you while facing her. She is so receptive to it!”

Still, Eitingon could not bring himself to blame Rilke for Bernhard’s plight:

“This wonderful person… understood the great, boundless lovers among women so well… he must be powerless against such great hardship [as Bernhard’s], and must suffer painfully himself.”

A few weeks later, Mirra joined Max at the front as a volunteer nurse.  Whether or not the Eitingons might have helped Bernhard overcome her fixation on Rilke, she never emerged from the obsessive neurosis that Max diagnosed (remotely) as “a cage, of which the iron bars grow inward through the prisoner.”

Mirra Eitingon as a volunteer nurse in the Austro-Hungarian Red Cross during World War I (Enhanced image; original photo courtesy of Prof. Maria Mikhailova, Moscow)

Bernhard ended her diary upon Rilke’s death in 1926, and published some of it in an Austrian newspaper on what would have been his 57th birthday.

In the July 1976 issue of the Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain’s newsletter, her friend’s son, Dr. Zondek, recalled that:

“Hedwig Bernhard was a personality whom it is very difficult to forget… She often told us about these meetings [with Rilke] in her impressive way… She produced a box which contained a large number of letters from Rilke… they were her greatest treasure.”

Nearly a decade after Rilke’s death, in her 1935 letter to Martin Buber, she asks for the famous philosopher’s help promoting her oration classes, especially following the rise of the Nazis to power. At the end of the letter, she mentions that it was Rilke who introduced her to Buber’s work.

Little is know of her “theatrical career” or the rest of her life beyond an August 1936 advertisement in the Berlin-based Jewish paper, Jüdische Kulturbund Monatsblatter:

“Hedwig Bernhard, actress and excellent speaker, gives courses in breathing technique and elocution at her home.”

Before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, Bernhard entrusted to a non-Jewish friend the letters, diary and Rilke’s gift of a silk scarf.

She kept the books Rilke dedicated to her on her person until the threshold of the gas chamber. Together with some of his letters to her, they wound up in the German Literature Archive at Marbach.


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.

A Rare Glimpse of Jewish Schools in Hungary after the Holocaust

Jewish schools after the destruction: View rare photos smuggled into Israel from post-war Hungary

The community of Holocaust survivors in Hungary after WWII numbered about 150,000 Jews. Many tried to leave the communist-controlled country for the Land of Israel and the Americas, but the gates closed in 1949, and Zionist activity was banned. At the same time, many others tried to rehabilitate the glorious Jewish culture that had existed in Hungary until the Holocaust. Special emphasis was placed on education since, remarkably, maintaining Jewish educational frameworks in the communist state was still possible. Many other Jews joined the new regime, and even held senior positions in it.

The National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People has now revealed hundreds of photographs documenting Jewish education in Hungary in the decade after the Holocaust.

The photographs were smuggled into Israel through what would later be called “Nativ—The Liaison Bureau”, which acted on behalf of the State of Israel to strengthen the Zionist and Jewish connection among Jews beyond the Iron Curtain. Some of the photographs were even officially submitted to Israel’s diplomatic representatives in Budapest.

The photographs show the variety of religious streams that characterized Hungarian Jewry even after the Holocaust. They document classroom learning, alongside holiday activities and group photos. From them, one can learn about the strong connection to the Land of Israel among the Holocaust survivors and about Jewish and Zionist education in Hungary.

Some of the younger children in the photographs were born after World War II to parents who survived the Holocaust in Budapest, or who had returned from forced labor. Other children—the older ones—were themselves Holocaust survivors.

Despite the fact that the communist regime imposed severe restrictions on Jewish education, in the decade after the Holocaust, Jewish educational frameworks of various streams, including Hasidic yeshivas, continued to function. However, some of the Talmud Torah schools were actually general Jewish schools and did not resemble ultra-Orthodox institutions elsewhere.

The “Hungarian uprising” against the communist regime broke out in 1956 and was quelled by a Soviet invasion. After the uprising, which had been marked by anti-Semitic nationalist tendencies, and especially after the Soviet crackdown, many Jews emigrated from Hungary.

At the same time, the authorities further restricted national life in the country, while relations with Israel saw a downturn, before they were severed completely in 1967. The photographs provide a rare glimpse of the Jewish schools in Hungary after the Holocaust, just before the final lowering of the Iron Curtain.

Most of the photographs preserved at the National Library are from 1955 and have been made accessible with the support of the Leslie and Vera Keller Foundation for Enhancement of the Jewish Heritage.