What Made This Top Russian Jewish Author Descend into Madness?

Lev Levanda spent decades advocating for Jewish assimilation into Russian culture. It all changed after pogroms shook the empire...

Lev Levanda, seen here in the 1860s, was a leading promoter of "russification", yet ultimately concluded that his life's work was "without purpose". Photo from the National Library of Israel's Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection

In 1888, Lev Levanda, one of Russia’s most renowned Jewish writers, died in an insane asylum outside of St. Petersburg. He was 53 years old. In the decades before the pogroms of 1881-82, he, along with many others, had called for “russification” as a solution to the “Jewish Question”. Russification meant that Jews should speak Russian, study in Russian schools, join its cultural life; in other words, love Russia. All that came to a crashing end with the pogroms of 1881-82, and the subsequent antisemitic legislation known as the May Laws.

Levanda’s life is significant in our own day for a variety of reasons. Through Levanda we can learn a great deal about Russian Jewry of the 1880s. He was a central figure in a brilliant generation of maskilim, Jewish intellectuals of the 1860s, who were the first Jews to enter Russian culture in large numbers. He was one of the fathers of Russian-Jewish literature (creative writing and journalism by and about Jews in the Russian language). However, in the 1880s, after the pogroms, he began to write differently, expressing the anger of a cultural insider who had been rejected by his adoptive parents. Levanda’s choices help us piece together a history of Jewish discourse about Russia, Russian literature, and Jewish culture in the key decade after the pogroms of 1881-82.

Illustration of Jews being harassed during a pogrom in Kiev, while police look on. Published in the February 4, 1882 edition of The Penny Illustrated Paper (Public domain)

In his day, Levanda was widely known thanks to his literary output. Among his major novels are Seething Times (Goriachee vremia), The Grocery Affair (Delo bakaleinykh tovarov), Sketches of the Past (Ocherki proshlogo), The Big Fraud (Bol’shoi Remiz), The Magnate’s Anger and Mercy (Gnev i milost’ Magnata), and Avraam Iezofovich (1887). In 1860, he was one of the original founders of Rassvet, the first Jewish newspaper published in the Russian language, and he was also a consistent contributor to Voskhod, the long-standing Russian-Jewish newspaper established in 1879. Besides Jewish newspapers, Levanda also contributed to Vilenskii Vestnik (The Messenger of Vilna), a paper later known for its antisemitic bent.

Levanda’s initial reaction to the pogroms was fury.  However, once the initial shock of the pogroms passed, Levanda reexamined his ideas and found them wanting. He began to express new views in the Russian-language press, using the pseudonym “W”, though it is unclear why he needed a pseudonym at all given that many knew the author’s true identity, and the censors ripped apart some of his articles in any case.

Himself a Russian-language author, Levanda had often used sarcasm, irony, and skaz narrative (use of a voice other than the author himself), just as Russian authors did. But now, in the 1880s, he used these tools not to affirm his affiliation with the Russian literary tradition, but to mock it. Instead of showing confidence in the attainment of the great nineteenth-century value of progress – the triumph of reason over superstition, prejudice, and oppression – Levanda put his doubts into print. In fact, his writings from this period reflect a mind racked with pain.

Portrait of Lev Levanda printed in Vilna, ca. early 1860s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The titles of his articles in the 1880s give an indication of his mood. “Flying Thoughts of One Unable to Grasp It” (“Letuchie mysli nedoumevaiushchego”), “Modest Conversations about Last Year’s Snow” (“Skromnye besedy o proshlogodnem snege”),  “On the Subject of How a Mountain Gave Birth to a Mouse” (“O tom, kak gora rodila mysh”), and “Convoluted Speeches” (“Bezsviazye rechi”).

He was especially agonized by the nefarious role of Russian literature in the persecution of Jews. Formerly his moral lodestar, Russian literature was now a tool of his enemies. It had been used to betray its ideals of universalism and ethical idealism. Simultaneously, Levanda turned his bile on the community of writers who projected optimism. He recoiled at their frivolous attitude toward serious issues, referring to their attitude as concern with ”last year’s snow”.

Focusing on a famous line from Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Prophet”, in which the great Russian author refers to “burning the hearts of people with the word,” Levanda condemned Jewish journalists, despite being one. By mocking a poem that for Russians of his generation represented a sacred promise to help the underprivileged, Levanda committed blasphemy.  By criticizing Pushkin and Russian society, Levanda indicated that the promise of social-progress (as projected in the Pushkin poem) was a lie. The poem reflected Levanda’s rage at Russian literature. Pushkin, who previously represented everything good, had also turned upside-down.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin by Pyotr Sokolov, 1836 (Public domain)

Levanda continued his assault on Russian literature by reinterpreting Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous poem, “Who Lives Well in Russia?” For Levanda’s generation, Nekrasov represented the idea of moral progress. Levanda purposefully distorted the poem, thereby reversing Nekrasov’s reputation and possibly disowning the entire Russian literary tradition. In an article from June 1881, he quotes Nekrasov’s poem, adding his own subjective commentary in parentheses at the end of each line:

You are poor (in bread)
You are rich (in drunken stupor)
You are powerful (in appetite)
You are powerless (in will)
Mother Russia!

Levanda pummeled other sacred cows, such as the Jewish youth on which he had placed so much trust to help enact social change. However in 1885 he depicted a different group, one that betrays traditions and family honor for the sake of material success:

“The wild flow of the present day, having washed away the stable, proper, and comfortable home of earlier days, left in their place a huge, full, joyless, and thin swamp, in which creatures with human form, one uglier than the next, dawdle, flounder, rise from the water, cling, press against one another, push, and strangle each other, so that each holds himself somehow on the smelly surface, although at the price of the others’ destruction.”

Levanda also expressed disappointment in Russian officials, another category of people in which he had placed his faith. From his previous beliefs in the good nature of Russian officials, to the promise of Jewish youth, the value of Jewish journalism and, above all, Pushkin and Russian literature, when it became clear that his former ideals were empty of promise, Levanda disowned them.

He also began to seek new ideological solutions to the problems of his day. For a brief moment he became enamored with Zionism, or more precisely, Hibbat Tsiyyon and its goal of developing a Jewish home in the Land of Israel. In 1884, his article, “The Essence of the So-Called ‘Palestine’ Movement (A Letter to the Publishers),” appeared in the volume, Palestine: a Collection of Articles and Information about the Jewish Settlements in the Holy Land, edited by Vasily Berman and Akim Flekser.[1]

The clothing of these late 19th century Zionist pioneers in Rehovot reflects Russian influence. Part of the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Levanda hailed the successes of the fledgling movement that no one had expected would survive. The Zionists, he wrote, had forged a new path, started something practical by settling in the Land of Israel. Levanda raved about a change in psychology, underscoring the difference between generations. Earlier, he wrote, Jewish intellectuals (including himself) sought solutions in theory; they wondered, how to solve the “Jewish Question”? Their answer depended not only on ideas, but also on the ruling powers. Since these theories had brought few results, the new generation turned to praxis.

Levanda explained:

“Has the solution to the Jewish question progressed from the time of Haman to our present day? […] The thing is this, through bitter experience, I have become convinced that theory, useless theory, will not drive the Jewish Question out of the vicious circle where it got stuck at the very beginning of its appearance. Our national instinct whispers to us: ‘Try to introduce practical action, basing it not on words, but actions from which one may expect results.’”

Nonetheless, Levanda only tenuously attached himself to the movement, and certainly did not assume a leadership role. In fact, before long, Levanda cut his ties with Hibbat Tsiyyon, rejecting its ideology and focusing on Russia, and the more general cultural achievements of Jewish diasporas.

“In its essence Jewish national identity composes an exceptional phenomenon in history so much so that, despite logic and the most convincing theories, a definite territory is perhaps more harmful than useful. Jewish national identity strengthened itself and became crystalized precisely at the time when the Jewish people’s land had been taken away.”

Although Levanda seemed to advocate something like “diasporism,” the view that the Jews have developed more effectively outside of the Land of Israel than in it – he did not focus on this idea for long.

During the mid-1880s, the seeds of his nervous illness were growing. As a child, the folklore scholar Mortkhe Rivesman saw Levanda in Vilna and wrote about him:

“The patriotism of L. O. Levanda and many other Jewish ‘russofiles’ declined significantly. One should presume that the break in his sermonizing about ‘assimilation’ with the Russian people who had become the anchor of autocracy shook his entire spiritual world. He even became a Proto-Zionist and died from a painful spiritual ailment at age 53.”

Simon Dubnov describes meeting Levanda in 1886:

“Finding myself in Vilna, I considered it my duty to visit L. O. Levanda who was ill. I was warned about the writer’s strangeness; during the last years he had locked himself in and avoided meeting people, but I wanted to see the author … the bard of enlightenment and russification who had turned into a Proto-Zionist before my very eyes.

The conversation was lifeless until I mentioned his articles, The Fates of Jews in Congress Poland, that had been published in Voskhod. […] Here my partner became animate and bragged with a child’s exclamation. ‘Of course I was called upon to write such things because I know Polish literature well.’ And then again a strange coldness wafted from the twisted figure of this man who was far from old (he was only 52) with his obviously disturbed soul. With a mournful feeling I left this living symbol of the extinguished torch of ‘enlightenment,’ and a bit more than a year later, I read in Voskhod about Levanda’s death in a psychiatric hospital near Petersburg.”

Observers give us a good perspective, but the emotions that Levanda felt may be perceived from his own expression. He doubted, worried, and suffered. One can grasp his emotional condition by examining his response to the suggestion to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a writer. In this exchange of letters (we only have Levanda’s letter to Alfred Landau, the editor of Voskhod, and the Hebrew poet Yehuda Leib Gordon), we perceive Levanda’s emotional loneliness as well as his refusal to consider his literary work as an achievement or service to the Jewish people.

Landau believed that Levanda had improved the lives of thousands of Jews who had learned Russian from reading him, and wanted to recognize Levanda’s career.

On June 16, 1885, Levanda replied to Landau, refusing any honors:

“I do not want it [a celebration] because it is not the time for anniversaries, because I am not in the mood for celebrations now, because if I don’t care to recognize the fact that the Jewish public has been reading me for 25 years, they shouldn’t cheer that I’ve been writing for them for 25 years, but, alas, without purpose. I know more than anyone else about it, and therefore I do not acknowledge any services rendered on my part and did not correct anything through my writing. It’s sad, but true, and the truth is more valuable to me than holy incense, especially one undeserved.”

Levanda wanted the anniversary to pass without notice, as it seemed inauthentic to him. Incidentally, Levanda detested Landau personally which probably also contributed to the former’s hostility. Levanda’s assertion that he wrote “alas, without purpose” is somewhat difficult to understand logically. Jews, the vast majority of whom were Yiddish speakers, had in fact rushed to learn Russian. By saying that his 25 years of writing had no purpose, his point was to imply that integration into Russian culture ultimately had no purpose. This claim was obviously influenced by the pogroms, which, as far as he was concerned, had invalidated his decades of literary activity.

Lev Levanda’s disappointment alone could explain his insanity, but other factors clearly contributed, as well: his inescapable emotional reaction to the pogroms, potential feelings of guilt, resistance to physical integration with Russians, and his apparently ultimately fruitless soul-searching. These multiple and overlapping factors illuminate his degenerative emotional condition.

Following the bloody pogroms and enactment of the so-called May Laws, antisemitic legislation that impeded the movement, business, and education of Jews in Russia,  Levanda saw his dream and life’s work shatter before his very eyes.  Russian Jews, led by Levanda and others, had been living in an illusion all the while.

His emotional journey and descent into madness ultimately reflected the dilemmas, disillusionment and despondency of at least one entire generation of Russian Jews.

A version of this article was originally published in Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. It appears here 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.

Antisemitic Nationalists Killed Germany’s Jewish FM. His Mom Forgave Them

Walther Rathenau, one of Germany's wealthiest and most powerful men, was gunned down by radicals in 1922 and mourned by millions. A moving and timeless letter from his mother was read at the murderer's trial.

After her son's murder, Mathilde Rathenau championed forgiveness and reconciliation within German society, and worked to ensure that his legacy would be remembered (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L40010/102-00093 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In the first days of summer 1922, Germany’s only ever Jewish foreign minister was murdered. Millions mourned him and his mother soon found it in her heart to forgive the murderer, an antisemitic, nationalist radical.

The social and political atmosphere in the Weimar Republic of the early 1920s was both fragile and explosive as republicans, monarchists, socialists, communists, anarchists and other groups worked to implement their respective agendas… sometimes through the auspices of the still novel democratic process, sometimes by force.

Electioneering in Berlin, 1919 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-033-15 / Gebrüder Haeckel / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Antisemitism often went hand-in-hand with political movements and ideologies, particularly those of the more nationalist persuasion. One such group, the Organization Consul (OC), was an avowedly nationalist and antisemitic organization, which aimed to destabilize Weimar democracy in order to establish a military dictatorship. Assassination was the OC’s method of choice and Walther Rathenau, the wealthy, powerful and Jewish foreign minister was perhaps the most obvious target in the Republic.

Walther Rathenau. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Months before the murder, there were explicit news reports that he was being targeted. According to Count Harry Kessler’s biography of the slain leader, just the day before Rathenau’s murder, the chief of police had warned him “that if he persisted in driving to his office from his residence on the outskirts of Berlin in a slow open car, no police in the world could guarantee his safety.”

Yet Rathenau did not heed the chief’s warning and around 10:45 in the morning on June 24, 1922, a Mercedes edged up next to his on the city’s Koenigsallee Road.  Rathenau was shot with a submachine gun, virtually at point blank range. A grenade was tossed into his car for good measure.

A young nurse named Helene Kaiser, who bravely attended to the slain foreign minister immediately following the attack, later recalled that “Rathenau, who was bleeding hard, was still alive and looked up at me. But he seemed to be already unconscious.”

He died shortly after.

Within hours, millions of Germans were mourning Rathenau, even if many disagreed with his politics or philosophy. The trade unions declared a general holiday early the following week. Massive marches took place across the country. A million marched in Berlin, hundreds of thousands in numerous other cities. His body was laid in state in the Reichstag, as the German leadership, alongside domestic and international dignitaries mourned his murder.

Rathenau lying in state in the Reichstag, June 27, 1922 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z1117-502 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The level and type of national mourning was unprecedented in German history and widely compared to the aftermath of Abraham’s Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the American Civil War.

Rathenau was memorialized in various ways, though his official memory was all but erased upon the Nazis’ rise to power a decade after the assassination, when the murderers were celebrated as national heroes in his place.

Unveiling a memorial plaque at the site of the murder, June 1929 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-07961 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, even in the direct aftermath of the attack, two of the three direct assailants escaped justice, as one was killed in a shootout with police and another took his own life rather than be captured. The third perpetrator, Ernst Werner Techow, who had driven the attack car, was later sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

At the trial, the defense read aloud a letter written by Rathenau’s mother to Techow’s. One contemporary writer beautifully described how Mathilde Rathenau’s words, “revealed the bleeding, agonized yet forgiving Jewish heart to a touched world”:

“In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand. You, of all women, the most pitiable. Say to your son that in the name and spirit of him who was murdered, I forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge he makes a full and frank confession of his guilt, and before a heavenly one repent. Had he known my son, the noblest man earth bore, he had rather turned the weapon on himself than on him. May these words give peace to your soul.”


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 Jews were in shock…” – A Nazi View of Kristallnacht

Reports and books written by senior members of the Nazi regime deposited in the National Library of Israel reveal chilling texts describing "The Night of Broken Glass" from the Nazi perspective...

The Frankfurt Borneplatz Synagogue in flames on Kristallnacht

On November 7, 1938, a young Jew carrying a pistol entered the German embassy in Paris. There, at 9:30 a.m., he shot German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, gravely wounding him. He said it was in revenge for the suffering the Nazis had inflicted on his family.

The shooter, Herschel Grynszpan, was only 17 years old. His family lived in Germany, but they were Polish citizens. Herschel had been sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Paris, but he kept in touch with his parents, brother and sister. After the Nazi regime expelled the family along with thousands of other Jews who were citizens of Poland, they found themselves without food, clothing or money in the no-man’s land that was the German-Polish border region.

Herschel Grynszpan
Ernst vom Rath

Adolf Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels were told of the assassination within half an hour of the incident. They realized that this event represented a valuable opportunity. Adolf Eichmann, then head of the Jewish Department of the SS in Austria, had already identified the most effective way of ridding Germany of its Jews while keeping their money and assets in the country. In his view, antisemitic laws were not enough to achieve the goal because many Jews were willing to tolerate them and to remain in Germany. Only a severe and extreme act of state-organized terrorism could cause them to flee while they were still able.

As propaganda minister, Goebbels was the right man to handle the fallout of the assassination incident in Paris. However, that morning he was hurrying to the train to Munich, as the Nazi movement’s memorial day celebrations were to take place two day later, on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch.

In his absence, Goebbels appointed Wolfgang Diewerge, an expert on antisemitic propaganda and a great believer in Jewish conspiracies, to run the campaign. Diewerge had extensive experience in the field of propaganda. In 1936, he led the propaganda campaign against the young Jew David Frankfurter, who had assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, the founder of the Nazi movement’s Swiss branch. Diewerge wrote two books about Frankfurter, published in 1936 and 1937 (Frankfurter would eventually make his way to Mandatory Palestine. He passed away in 1982 in Ramat-Gan, Israel, at the age of 73).

Ein Jude hat geschossen (“A Jew Fired”), Wolfgang Dierwerge’s 1937 pamphlet about the assassination perpetrated by David Frankfurter, the National Library of Israel collections

Goebbels expected Diewerge to market the story of the assassination of Vom Rath as a global Jewish conspiracy with the aim of undermining the peace between Germany and France, in which Grynszpan was only a pawn, Diewerge was called to serve as the Ministry of Propaganda’s media spokesperson and to ensure prominent newspaper headlines to that effect. Moreover, Goebbels wanted Diewerge to make sure that the media reported that if the injured Vom Rath should die, the German people would seek harsh retaliation. This paved the way for Goebbels to stir the flames and “suggest” a pogrom without calling for one explicitly.

Wolfgang Diewerge

On the night of that bitter day, November 7, the German News Agency (DNB) sent Diewerge’s detailed instructions to the German media. Among other things, news outlets were instructed not to criticize the authorities in France, and they were even advised to use Diewerge’s pamphlets as an effective source of propaganda.

Vom Rath died two days after the shooting. Within hours of his death, on the night of November 9, 1938, pogroms broke out, targeting the Jews of Germany and Austria, and continuing into the next day, November 10. Allegedly, these were spontaneous riots by the masses in response to the assassination, but in fact, the violence was a result of the well-oiled Nazi propaganda system, which inflamed the masses, inciting and encouraging the brutal riots.

The Nazis called the event “Kristallnacht”—a phrase that describes the shattered glass windows of thousands of Jewish shops and synagogues, but completely ignores the murder of 400 Jews (according to one estimate), and the 30,000 Jewish men who were captured and sent to concentration camps. More Jews were murdered or committed suicide in the days that followed.

Diewerge’s robust propaganda activity, however, did not end with his incitement of the crowds in the lead up to Kristallnacht. This was just the beginning. He became an “expert” on Grynszpan and the effects of Vom Rath’s assassination. A year after the event, Diewerge published a new book, Anschlag gegen den frieden: ein gelbbuch über Grünspan und seine helfershelfer (“The War Against Peace: A Yellow Book on Grynszpan and His Accomplices”). Diewerge enlisted the help of foreign representatives of the Nazi movement and the Gestapo in preparing the book, which was intended to emphasize the connection between Vom Rath’s assassination and world Jewry’s supposed desire to incite war. The book was translated into French by the German Foreign Office and disseminated in France with the aim of balancing public opinion in the face of the many anti-Nazi publications that were being issued by Jewish organizations.

Diewerge’s book Aschlag gegen den frieden: ein gelbbuch uber Grünspan und sein helfershelfer, the National Library of Israel collections

Diewerge’s book contains chapters on Jewish life in Germany, Jewish reactions to the assassination, and Kristallnacht. Much of the book is devoted to preparations for Grynszpan’s trial (which ultimately did not take place), the French legal system, as well as German claims of a Jewish conspiracy. Diewerge attempted to highlight the connection of world Jewry to the assassination, even writing of the price that, in his view, should have been extracted in retribution.

The National Library of Israel possesses several copies of the book. One of them is stamped with the seal of the SS-Verfügungstruppe, the military arm of the Nazi movement, which later became the Waffen-SS. In addition to the seal, there is a dedication to SS officer Gustav Adolf Pogalschnigg from Christmas, 1940.

Diewerge’s book, featuring the Nazi seal and a dedication to an SS officer, the National Library of Israel collections

The book itself has been uploaded to Wiki Commons and is accessible here.

Another fascinating glimpse into the events of Kristallnacht from a Nazi perspective, comes from the archive of the well-known Nazi hunter Tuvia Friedman (1922–2011). Friedman, who survived the Holocaust, joined the Polish police in 1945, where he served as a detective tasked with locating, capturing and interrogating Nazis. Later on he continued his work in Vienna, where he was instrumental in the arrest of many war criminals, and along the way, collected a great deal of archival material that helped in the location and prosecution of others.

Tuvia Friedman, 1950

One of the documents that Friedman donated to the National Library of Israel is a Stimmungsberichte, a report written in Vienna on November 10, 1938—that is, during or immediately after the events of Kristallnacht. The Gestapo and the SD composed these fairly objective reports, which described the feelings of the people and the atmosphere in the streets around events or government decisions, with the goal of allowing the Nazi authorities a realistic view of the actual situation on the ground. Herman Goering, one of the leaders of the Nazi regime, did not care for this approach and as early as 1936 ordered the Gestapo to stop writing them. Nevertheless, throughout World War II, the SD continued to research and publish reports on public sentiment.

The Stimmungsberichte in the Library’s collection describes what happened in Vienna on Kristallnacht. In the report, the district SD officer writes that the Jews were removed from their homes, with some also arrested. The goods of the Jewish-owned shops were collected. The Jews were in complete shock and did not even try to assert their rights. It is likely they were also angry with Grynszpan for what he had done. Members of the Nazi movement took part in the riots but did not wear Nazi uniforms or symbols to cover up the fact that they were indeed behind it. Surprisingly, most of the population opposed the riots against the Jews, and some raised their voices against the pogrom. The condemnation did not stem from the Viennese citizens’ love for the Jews, but from fear of violence and anarchy, and from respect for the law. According to the author of the report, the Viennese were softhearted and not fond of surprises of this kind. The officer also noted some conclusions from Kristallnacht—that more advance preparations should have been made, and that better propaganda could have improved the Viennese people’s willingness to participate in the riots against the Jews.

Detail of the Stimmungberichte written on Kristallnacht, the National Library of Israel collections

Grynszpan himself was imprisoned in France. With the outbreak of the war, he was transferred to the south of France, and was even given the opportunity to flee from the approaching German forces. He insisted, however, on remaining in French custody until in July 1940 he was transferred to the Gestapo by the Vichy regime.

Grynszpan was not executed. Hitler and Goebbels wanted to use the card that had fallen into their laps, planning a show trial for Grynszpan that would prove to the world the destructive intentions of world Jewry. Diewerge and a Nazi jurist named Friedrich Grimm were in charge of the preparations and propaganda for the trial. After many delays, the proceedings were postponed indefinitely in May 1942. Despite rumors to the contrary, Herschel Grynszpan was apparently murdered in the summer or fall of 1942.

Grynszpan regretted that his actions had led to the murder of hundreds as well as mass destruction of property on Kristallnacht. And yet, some consider him responsible for the rescue of some 80,000 Jews who, because of these events, realized that they were no longer safe in Germany and made heroic efforts to flee, while they still could.

The Bar Mitzvah Gift That Survived the Holocaust

A special dedication in a copy of the book "Mesilat Yasharim" sparked some fascinating detective work tracing the history of the Austrian Jewish community during the Holocaust, and the story of a young man and his family who were murdered by the Nazis...

In March 1938, the German army entered Vienna and the Jews of Austria realized that it was time to leave, and the sooner the better. The annexation of Austria to the Reich, the Anschluss, and the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws brought with them violence, looting and humiliation for Austria’s Jewish citizens.

Vienna before the Holocaust, photo: Yad Vashem

One of the sources of pride for the Jews of Vienna before the Holocaust was the large community library. The initial core of its collections arrived as early as 1814 with the donation of 133 volumes straight from the printing press. With the entry of the Nazis into Vienna, the library contained tens of thousands of books, including 21 incunabula (books produced during the first few years of the printing era) and 645 manuscripts, and was considered one of the most important Jewish libraries in Europe.

It was no wonder that the Nazis were happy to get their hands on it. They closed the library in July 1938 and moved it to Berlin a year later. Other Jewish libraries in Austria were also looted. Some belonged to Jewish organizations and others were private collections. When the Jews of Austria were deported to Eastern Europe, their property was taken to collection depots, including countless books.

In 1941, Austrian Jews were forced to don yellow badges. Soon Jews were being sent to Eastern Europe by transport. Most of Austria’s Jews managed to leave in time, but about 65,000 were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Jews in Vienna wearing yellow badges, photo: Yad Vashem

After the war, the community’s books gradually surfaced in various locations across Europe. Part of the Vienna community library had been hidden from the Nazis in the city’s Jewish cemetery. Another part, originally sent to Berlin, was eventually found in Czechoslovakia where it had been moved to escape the bombing raids targeting Germany.

Hundreds of thousands of books stolen throughout Europe by the Nazis were brought to Austria during the war and discovered at Tanzenberg Castle by the British army. Most were returned to the countries from which they were stolen but some remained in Austria. It was only thanks to the tireless work of the National Library of Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs that some 80,000 of the Vienna community’s books eventually made their way to the National Library in Jerusalem.

The National Library affixed a special label to these books attesting to their past.

The Hebrew text of the label reads: “A gift of from the Vienna Jewish community, in memory of the victims of the Holocaust

I recently came across one of these books. A copy of the work known as Mesilat Yasharim, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), a classic text on Jewish ethics.

The cover page features a handwritten Hebrew dedication that was unfortunately hidden under a sticker. I turned to the Library’s conservation and restoration lab and with great professionalism and care they were able to remove the sticker and reveal the fascinating story of the book’s original owner.

The dedication reads:

To the nice persistent and [God-fearing] young man [may his candle shine] David Dov in celebration of his Bar Mitzvah, a gift from the family of S. Schonfeld, Vienna, Thursday, [on the eve of the Holy Sabbath], Parashat [Ki] Tissa, 5696 [1936]

The hand-written dedication

David Dov’s last name did not appear, but the information in the dedication indicated that the Bar Mitzvah boy lived in Vienna. By calculating backwards from the Bar Mitzvah date, I realized that he was born in March, 1923. The next step was to locate him using Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. The database is based on information gathered over the decades at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, through pages of testimony filled out by family members and friends of the victims.

With the help of the database, I discovered that David Dov’s last name was Neuwirth and that he and his parents and two sisters were murdered in Minsk in 1942. I found more information in the Austrian Victims of the Holocaust database on the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) website. David Dov and his family left Vienna on September 14, 1942. Four days later they arrived in Minsk. The train continued to the Maly Trostenets estate not far away. When they finally got off, the Jews of Vienna were marched to the killing pits in the forest and shot to death.

The witness who filled out the testimony page was Ilse Deutsch, David Dov’s sister. It turned out that his older sister had managed to escape from Austria in time. According to the information on Ilse on the genealogy website Geni.com, she passed away in 2018 but was survived by her four children in London.

The testimony page filled out by Ilse Deutsch, David Dov’s sister, Yad Vashem

With some help from my own family in London, I was able to get in touch with some of the family members. Devorah, one of Ilse’s granddaughters who lives in Israel, shared a wealth of information about the family. She explained that her grandmother left Vienna with one of her mother’s sisters. They were in Germany during Kristallnacht but managed to reach England before the outbreak of World War II. There she worked as a kindergarten teacher, got married and raised a family. One of the Neuwirth family’s neighbors in Vienna kept some family photos and a Kiddush cup that David Dov received as a gift for his Bar Mitzvah. These items are in the hands of the family today.

This amazing story made its way within hours from Jerusalem to London to New York and back. Rabbi Shabtai Schonfeld’s granddaughter made contact and added even more information. It was Rabbi Schonfeld who gave the Mesilat Yesharim book to David Dov in 1936. The Schonfeld and Neuwirth families were good friends in Vienna. David Dov was the same age as Rabbi Schonfeld’s son who later became a well-known rabbi in Queens, New York.

The Schonfeld family left Vienna on their own immediately after the Anschluss. Before leaving the country, all Jews were required to fill out an immigration questionnaire that included family details, names, ages, occupations, immigration destination and vocational training. The Neuwirth family’s forms are in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. This is where a large part of the archives of the Vienna community is preserved today.

The immigration questionnaire, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Why then did the Neuwirth family fail to leave Austria in time?

Devorah provided the answer. David Dov was ill with polio. The family sought to immigrate to the U.S., but this depended on passing a medical examination. The U.S. Embassy in Austria apparently did not allow David Dov to immigrate and his family remained in Vienna. David Dov’s father, Rabbi Simcha Shmuel Neuwirth was a community rabbi and principal of a Jewish school in Vienna. He decided not to abandon his congregation and so most of the family died as martyrs al Kiddush Hashem.

The monument in Maly Trostenets, commemorating Austrian  victims of the Holocaust

The family story was preserved by David Dov’s sister Ilse in London, and now with the help of the Mesilat Yesharim book, it is being told and preserved by the National Library of Israel as well.