They Jailed Him for Insulting Hitler on an Unopened Envelope

Convicted in Poland for insulting the head of a friendly nation, Jewish hero Nahum Halberstadt was freed on Christmas Day

A Jewish man in Warsaw, 1931 (Chr. De Caters / The Israel Museum). From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection [997003490760405171]; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“While Hitler and his clique rule Germany no decent man should have dealings in German goods.”

When Warsaw merchant and chemist Nahum Halberstadt scribbled these words on an envelope and returned to sender, he never thought they would get him incarcerated. Yet, more than two years after the unopened enveloped was sent, a Polish court sentenced Halberstadt to prison time.

His offense? Transgressing a provision of the Polish criminal code that forbade insulting heads of friendly foreign governments.

In Halberstadt’s own words:

“I had no intention of insulting Hitler. I was annoyed by the insistence and audacity of Germans who offered me German electrical bulbs for sale to Jews in Poland, especially when Jews were so maltreated in Germany. I didn’t even open their letters , as I wasn’t interested in their contents. But, moved by the terrible crimes against Jews in Germany, I wanted to tell the Germans not to pester me with their affairs, so I wrote on an envelope, ‘While Hitler and his clique rule Germany, no decent man should have dealings in German goods.’ What happened after that I didn’t know, until summoned by the police.”

Apparently what had happened was that German postal authorities intercepted the envelope with Halberstadt’s message on it and brought it to the attention of the Foreign Ministry, which in turn raised the issue with the then-friendly Polish regime.

Polish Foreign Minister Josef Beck sits with Hermann Göring in a carriage, July 1935 (Lothar Schaack / German Federal Archive / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The case in itself, and certainly the verdict, were decried by the local Jewish community.

One contemporary news report described the scene as follows:

“Packed with eager spectators, the courtroom was in a turmoil when the verdict was handed down.”

The story in fact traveled well beyond the borders of Poland and Germany.

An editorial in The New York Times entitled “Poland Defends Hitler” emphasized the absurdity and injustice of the affair, lauding Halberstadt’s words as “a manly and natural outburst on the part of a Jew living so close to Naziland.”

An opinion piece in the B’nai Brith Messenger declared:

“This Jewish merchant now occupies a place among the Jewish heroes of our day, and his martyrdom should serve not to discourage, but rather to encourage rebellion against bigotry. For if we yield we merely encourage the proscribing of our human rights to protest against persecution.”

Taking into consideration extenuating circumstances, including Halberstadt’s advanced age, the fact that he had no previous criminal record and was “acting under provocation,” the court meted out a reduced term of eight months in jail, far less than the maximum possible sentence of three years.

Poland itself was no stranger to antisemitism. Calls for boycotts against Jewish businesses and physical attacks on Jews were common throughout the 1920s and 1930s, often perpetrated by student groups and other bigoted factions. This was especially true during the Christmas season, when efforts would be stepped up against Jewish shop owners.

Jewish shops in Warsaw, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nonetheless, it was during this period in the end of 1935, that a general Christmas amnesty freed Nahum Halberstadt from jail along with some 30,000 other Polish prisoners, many of them leaders of violently antisemitic Polish nationalist groups. In fact, the very same Christian holiday season in which Halberstadt became free once more saw rabid antisemitic attacks throughout Poland, including massive boycotting of Jewish-owned shops and violent attacks on Jews.

Headline appearing in the January 2, 1936 edition of The Sentinel. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

German forces entered Warsaw nearly four years to the day after Nahum Halberstadt was convicted of insulting the head of a friendly foreign government.

An estimated five million Polish civilians – at least three million of them Jews – were killed between 1939 and 1945.

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 Letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to His Wife Constanze

The intimate letter, written in 1790, a year before Mozart's death, offers a glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of the legendary composer

It wasn’t easy being a late 18th-century celebrity superstar…

Despite his copious amounts of talent and fame, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in constant pursuit of financial resources, which could help him fund the costly lifestyle he had grown accustomed to. During the later years of his tragically short life, he traveled to numerous locations across central Europe, performing concerts in the hopes of receiving generous payments, as well as further invitations to still more performances and events.

In September 1790, only a year before his early death, Mozart traveled from Vienna to Frankfurt am Main at his own expense to a most special event he could not afford to miss: the coronation of the new German Emperor Leopold II. After arriving in the city, he wrote a letter to his wife Constanze describing his journey, which took him ‘only’ six days. Frankfurt and its suburbs were fairly crowded: “We are happy that we were able to get a room”, he wrote in his letter.

The letter by Mozart to his wife, signed – Ewig dein Mzt (“Forever yours, Mzt [Mozart]”) September 28th, 1790. The National Library of Israel collections. Click on the image to enlarge.

The letter provides insight into Mozart’s impressions of the trip, which passed through a number of cities on the way. These include the composer’s delight at his comfortable carriage (“I’d love to give it a kiss”), the wonderful food in Regensburg – “we had a splendid lunch, godlike table music, an English waiter and a fantastic Moselle wine”, as well as the coffee in Wurzburg. He was less impressed, however, with Nuremberg – “an ugly city” – and he was convinced that the inn-keeper in Aschaffenburg had cheated him.

In contrast to these details concerning his lavish lifestyle, Mozart did not write much about the actual purpose of his travel, which was the concert he gave on the occasion of the coronation. He did not refer to the event, nor to the program (the famous “Coronation Concerto”). He simply wrote: “I am determined to do my work in the best possible way”, before finishing his letter with financial matters. If not for Mozart’s signature at the bottom, it would completely lack any indication that it was written by one of history’s greatest composers.

Girls’ Day: Celebrating Girl Power During Hanukkah!

This is the story of a holiday that originated in the Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East and its revival here in Israel

For more than a decade, Eid al-Banat—Girls’ Day, also known as Rosh Hodesh L’Banot—has been observed across Israel, in a variety of settings and usually in large gatherings. The holiday is celebrated on the seventh night of Hanukkah, which falls on the eve of the first of the Hebrew month of Tevet. For this reason, the festival is customarily linked to the crowning of Queen Esther which, according to tradition, took place on the first of Tevet. But Girls’ Day is actually associated with not one, but several different Jewish heroines, including Esther, Judith and Hannah, who each saved their people from danger. (Queen Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia; Judith, who slew Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s general; and Hannah, daughter of Mattathias, who encouraged her brothers to rebel against the Greeks, sparking the Maccabean Revolt.)

Celebrating Girls’ Day in Israel. Photos courtesy of Esther Dagan Kaniel

Although the holiday’s origins are commonly (and perhaps retroactively) attributed to the Bible and the Jewish Apocrypha, the modern observance of Girls’ Day was preserved in the communities of North Africa and the Middle East: Tunisia and Libya, Djerba and Morocco, Algeria and Turkey and Salonika (Thessaloniki). The number of communities that celebrate the festival attests to the rich and varied traditions that surround its observance. At first, the holiday’s traditions were something of a secret, shared only by women of the observant communities, but soon enough the celebrations caught on and women and their families began marking the occasion openly and publicly.

Writer and storyteller Esther Dagan Kaniel shared with us her childhood memories of Girls’ Day celebrations in Tunisia, which she remembers by its French name la fête des filles:

According to lore, the exiled priests from the First and Second Temples came to the island of Djerba, bringing their ancient traditions with them, among them the celebration of Eid al-Banat. This is what is beautiful about Tunisian Jewry’s traditions; traditions like the Girls’ Day rituals didn’t develop in the Diaspora, but date back to the time of the Temple.

On Girls’ Day, mother would recount the heroism of Judith, who saved the people of Israel, and Yael and Queen Esther, who was crowned queen on this day. It was no different from other holidays, for mother associated each holiday with a different character. For example, she said that the person who fasted on the Fast of Esther was able to “taste” some of what Esther experienced.

When I long for Tunisia, I long for the Land of Israel. For me, it is the longing for our synagogue, for our community. When I came to Israel, I wanted to be a sabra. At some point, I realized that I had an advantage—the two worlds live within me in perfect harmony.

In an article by scholar Yael Levine, we learn of how each North African Jewish community celebrated female empowerment: in Tunisia, Jewish girls would exchange gifts and food and refrain from work on this day. In Libya, the young girls would visit each other and throw a joyous party. On the island of Djerba in Tunisia, unmarried women also celebrated the holiday, which was thought to bring good luck for a successful match. In addition, a special celebration was held for couples engaged to be married: In the afternoon, the bride-to-be’s family would bring the groom’s family a tray of sweets, and in the evening, the groom would reciprocate by bringing gifts such as perfume and jewelry to his bride’s home. Later, his relatives would join and the two families would conclude the evening with a shared festive meal. It was also customary in Tunisia to celebrate joint bat mitzvah parties on Girls’ Day. Some would even feast on meals of milk and dairy products, presumably to commemorate the heroism of the biblical heroine Yael, who slew the Canaanite general Sisra after sedating him with milk.

Storyteller Shoshana Krebsy told us about the holiday’s significance in Morocco. According to her, Girls’ Day celebrations on the first of Tevet were less common in Moroccan communities for the simple reason that a similar celebration was held on the first day of each and every month of the Hebrew calendar. According to Shoshana: “In patriarchal societies and families, women needed to be able to express their feelings, and female circles formed as support groups for women, and especially for young brides. Thinking about this ceremony, it’s really a kind of contract among women—a sisterhood.”

On the first of the new month, the women would to meet in the hamam (bath-house). There, they would ask forgiveness in unconventional ways:

Either the midwife or the healer would lead a ceremony in which two friends who have quarreled must recreate the argument right there in the hamam. Then the arbitrator, the same midwife or healer, decides who of the two needs to apologize. The reason for the ceremony is that the beginning of a new month is considered a kind of “little Yom Kippur”, on which Moroccan women celebrate their own holiday and create support groups. Women would plan the monthly agenda and assign tasks—who is responsible each day for helping the new mothers who have given birth, who brings refreshments, and who visits the families in mourning, among other things.  The forgiveness ceremony is meant to resolve tensions so that the community of women can help each other.

The holiday is bigger than you think: on the first of every month, the ladies would meet at the home of the wise woman where they would learn the secret of a special dish, such as couscous made from medicinal plants and beef bone marrow. Part of the ceremony was the initiation of young brides. The ceremony included songs of desire—bawdy, salacious compositions dedicated to love and sexuality. Whoever didn’t share her troubles wasn’t invited to the next gathering…

The descriptions above indicate that Girls’ Day is a celebration of mutual support and peacemaking. The historical record corroborates this: songs documented in the Thessaloniki community preserved to this day also share the theme of celebrating peace and reconciliation. The girls would sing in Ladino: “Peace, peace, on the life of [= I swear on] the Father’s locks [the Christian-Orthodox priest who refrains from cutting his hair], may we not quarrel until [next]Hanukkah!”


Thanks to Yael Baruch, Heli Tabibi Barkat, Yael Levine, Esther Kaniel Dagan and Shoshana Krebsi for their help in preparing  this article.

Our Exodus from Egypt

“When we left Egypt we could only take one suitcase and twenty Egyptian lira. That was all,” my grandmother said. “It was forbidden to take more than that, and we were very worried how we would manage in a new land without anything.”

Grandfather Yitzhak and Grandmother Tony, shortly before their exodus from Egypt. Alexandria, 1953.

My grandfather was the first to leave. He had been deported, handcuffed, on a ship sailing for Italy. Both my grandparents were members of a Zionist underground that operated in Egypt. They taught children to speak Hebrew, organized activities that encouraged Zionist thinking among the youth and even wrote a Zionist newsletter, which they distributed among members of the movement.

Until one day, secret lists containing the names of all the members of the underground group fell into the wrong hands, and soon enough they found themselves in an Egyptian prison. Anyone who had foreign citizenship, like my grandfather, was expelled. Others remained behind bars for a long time. But there was one name on the list that the Egyptian police could not find. One member of the underground that remained at large – Tony. Tony was the missing member of the underground. My grandfather said that even when they tried to force him to reveal Tony’s hiding place, he didn’t tell. The Egyptians were looking for a man. They did not know that Tony was actually a woman. Tony is my grandmother.

Grandmother Tony

This article is based on an article that originally appeared in Hebrew on “The Readeress”

She took her money and went to a jeweler. She asked him to make her a heavy gold bracelet. You couldn’t take money, but you could take what was on your person. And so, with the gold bracelet on her wrist, she left Egypt and began her journey to Israel and the reunion with my grandfather. She has the bracelet to this day—silent testimony to her life’s journey and to what was she left behind.

In 2014, new legislation was passed in the Knesset marking November 30 as the day commemorating the exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. The date was deliberately chosen, for it immediately follows the famous date of November 29, on which the UN voted to establish a Jewish state. Some might say it stands in its shadow. This was the moment that the stability of the Jewish communities in the various Arab countries began to falter. With the official declaration of an independent State of Israel now on the horizon, the Arab states changed their viewpoint regarding the Jews living among them. In an instant, these Jews had their world turned upside-down, and the communities began to collapse one after another, some at all once, others more slowly, over an extended period.

The vast majority of the Arab world’s Jews were forced to leave the countries of their birth, where their ancestors had lived for generations. This process, which began around the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, continued into the 1950s and 1960s, and communities with a history of hundreds and thousands of years ceased to exist.

What took place in Aleppo, Syria, immediately after the UN adopted the Partition Plan is just one example. As Hakham Tawil, the chief rabbi of the Aleppo community, described it: “The proclamation of the partition was on Friday. On Sunday . . . they [the Arabs] declared the whole city closed and went on strike. The Jews decided to remain in their homes . . . in the afternoon many gathered near the synagogue and began shouting ‘Falistin biladna v’yahud kalbana’ (‘Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs’), while the army remained silent. In the afternoon, the mob attacked the synagogue, destroying it with the army’s help . . . within half an hour everything was burned to the ground. They removed 40 Torah scrolls and used kerosene and oil to set them on fire. . .” Even in Egypt in 1948 the streets burned. Bombs exploded in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo, many Jews were arrested, synagogues were vandalized.

The Great Synagogue in Alexandria had been a bustling community center, even running its own school. Rabbi Ventura taught there. “If I met him today,” my grandmother told to me, “I would thank him. Thanks to him, we came to Israel.” He taught in Alexandria for eleven years until he was expelled for his Zionist activities. During those years, he ignited the spirit of the community’s younger members, including my grandparents, and awakened in them the dream of coming to Israel.

A family wedding in the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria

“He was different from the other teachers,” she said. “He excited us young people, he talked to us about Zionism, about Israel, without fear. And he not only spoke, he also acted. His way was by setting a personal example.”

Rabbi Moshe Ventura was born in Izmir in 1892 and served as a rabbi in Baghdad and Beirut. In 1937, he was called to be the chief rabbi of Alexandria. He educated generations of students at the Jewish high school he founded, including Eli Cohen, who would become famous for his service with Israel’s Mossad. He instituted a national Zionist consciousness among the Jewish community. In his view, the Jewish national revival, Zionism, was an integral part of the overall national awakening of the peoples of the Middle East, and consequently he frequently spoke publicly about the need for cooperation between the various Semitic peoples and in particular between “the Children of Israel and the Children of Ishmael.” In 1948, he was expelled from Egypt because of his Zionist activities.

As a child, I had mixed feelings about my family’s story. On the one hand, my grandparents were heroes. They were members of the underground in Egypt and did everything they could to reach Israel. On the other hand, they were Mizrahim (lit. “easterners”) and being a Mizrahi Jew was always some kind of uncomfortable, middle of the road existence. Sometimes when I would ask my grandfather about Egypt he would say “How long must I be judged by where my grandfather was born?” For him, he was an Israeli, a Zionist, an enthusiastic kibbutznik. He had left Egypt behind. His goal had always been the Land of Israel.

They worked hard to erase every trace of this Mizrahi identity, never speaking Arabic, only Hebrew. I had no idea how much Arabic they knew; it never dawned on me that it was the language they grew up with. Only the occasional French passed their lips.

Now, I look back to that time, for the stories in the shadows. The ones hidden by the strong glare of the sun. I look at this picture of the synagogue in Alexandria, within whose walls so many family memories were inscribed. I was never there. But I imagine my grandmother Tony standing on those steps in a white dress and reciting the Ten Commandments at her Bat Mitzvah and my late grandmother Suzy marching down them in her bridesmaid dress. Both of them in their festive dresses smiling at me, with smiles of childhood from a different world. A world that was and is no more. With only the stories left to preserve its existence. I try to collect all the hidden treasures from these stories before they disappear into the abyss.


I recently published my Hebrew book, Habaytah Haloch VeChazor (“Back and Again”), a historical novel that moves between the Egypt of those days and today’s Israel. It features a journey that sheds light on events that took place within Alexandria’s Jewish community during that time, as well as an attempt to go back and discover those treasures hidden in the shadows.