It was not uncommon for pre-war American Jewish newspapers to feature grisly stories of persecution alongside offers of sunshine and pleasure (Composite image: The aftermath of Kristallnacht, 10 November 1938 / Colorized ad from The Sentinel, 9 January 1939; from the NLI Digital Collection)
“The General Post Office of Vienna was in uproar. Important and less important officials were running to and fro; there was an air of mystery and consternation about the place. For something unusual had happened; among the big parcels sent by post was discovered a huge packet addressed to ‘The Fuehrer and Chancellor, Herr Adolf Hitler.’ The parcel was crudely wrapped up; the handwriting was big and almost childish. Surely there was something wrong about it. Was it a bomb, sent by some Jew who wished to avenge his own and his people’s suffering on the Fuehrer? The matter had to be investigated.
And so the packet was opened and in it was found the dead little body of an infant a few days old, tenderly wrapped in a white shawl to which there was pinned a letter in the same big childish handwriting. The letter was also addressed to ‘The Fuehrer and Chancellor of Germany, Herr Adolf Hitler’ and read as follows:
I, Elisabeth Sultzer, Viennese, aged 32, am sending you herewith my firstborn infant which I have strangled with my own hands as a present to you for your treatment of myself and my family. Signed Elisabeth Sultzer.”
While trying to escape Austria, Sultzer’s husband had been murdered by the Nazis before her eyes, depriving her unborn child of a father and depriving Elisabeth of her sanity.
The grisly scene was reported by prominent London-based Jewish journalist William Zukerman. It was published in newspapers across the United States alongside ads for Caribbean party cruises, luxury hotels in Miami Beach and resort vacations in Hot Springs.
Tragically absurd in hindsight, this was certainly not uncommon in the pre-war American Jewish press.
Kristallnacht had taken place two months prior.
At the end of the month in which Zukerman’s piece was published, Hitler publicly declared:
“Today I will be once more a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”
Zukerman would later share fellow reporter Henry Shapiro’s poetically chilling account following the liberation of Babi-Yar, outside of Kiev, where the Nazis and their collaborators had committed one of the Holocaust’s largest massacres, murdering nearly 35,000 Jews in just two days and more than 100,000 people total over two years:
“I stood by the pit and stirred the sand which covered the mass. Only a little stirring uncovered strands of bloodstained human skulls and other bones, children’s shoes. And then I stirred the memories of men who could testify of the mass murder that took place there.”
A Russian-born immigrant to the United States, Zukerman spent years reporting on European current events from London, refusing to shy away from exposing uncomfortable truths about what was being done to the Jews, as well as the widespread indifference to those truths.
Beginning in the 1930s, he tried to draw readers’ attentions away from the lure of sun-splashed vacations and new household appliances to the unspeakable crimes being perpetrated against European Jewry, employing powerful and heartbreaking vignettes to do so.
A dead infant sent via post to Hitler.
A dozen middle-aged Jews beaten to death at the gates of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp; those who survived missing eyes. Mutilated. Unconscious.
Dr. Freilach, the last Jew left in the Sudeten town of Hohenstadt. Everyone else had fled following the Munich Agreement, which gave the Nazis control over Hohenstadt, where his family had lived for generations. Too old to start a new life elsewhere, he had decided to stay, looking after the synagogue, now his own personal house of prayer. The Nazis forced the elderly man to burn it to the ground with his own hands. Dr. Freilach went home and killed himself before his Nazi tormenters could.
“It is these particular tragedies, the pain and humiliation of the individual Jewish man, woman and child which matter most in the present holocaust,” Zukerman wrote to his international readership in January 1939.
“Jewry as a whole will certainly outlive Hitler and Nazism, but thousands of individual Jews are being done to death in circumstances which would shame the beasts of the jungle. It is about these that we must shout loudest.”
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.
Natan Sharansky’s First Seder
The Haggadah's words were felt as KGB agents surrounded them. Later he would "celebrate" Passover in the Gulag
Natan and Avital Sharansky upon their arrival in Israel, 12 February 1986 (Photo: Israel Simionsky). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
I was born into a completely assimilated Jewish family.
Nothing Jewish, except the anti-Semitism. No traditions, no holidays, no language.
At 24, I joined the Zionist movement. We struggled to free the Jews of the Soviet Union. As part of my Zionist activities, I began to learn Hebrew in secret, in an underground ulpan.
I celebrated the first Passover Seder of my life with my fiancé at the time, Avital (then Natasha), in Moscow. Three Hebrew teachers brought all of their students together for one big Seder in a Moscow apartment.
As we didn’t know Hebrew well enough to read from the Haggadah, the teachers gave each of us a short part to memorize. We didn’t understand many of the words, expressions or sentences, yet one line in particular we didn’t just understand… we felt:
“…ela sh’bkhol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’khaloteinu” – “in each generation, they stand against us to destroy us…”
It was enough to simply look out the window and see the KGB agents surrounding the apartment to know that we ourselves were continuing the Exodus from Egypt.
And when we said, “L’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”, we believed and knew that just like the Israelites in Egypt, we too would live lives of freedom.
Before that freedom came, Avital and I would be separated from one another for twelve years.
For nine of them, I was in the Gulag.
When I celebrated the Seder in solitary confinement, I needed to decide what would be matzah, what would be maror and what would be wine, when all I had in solitary were three slices of bread, three cups of warm water and a bit of salt.
I decided that the maror was salt, the wine was warm water, and the matzah was dry bread.
Recalling the lines I had learned for my first Seder, I felt that our struggle continued. It strengthened my spirit.
“B’Shana zo anu avadim l’shana ha’baa bnei horin, ha’shana anu kan uv’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim” – “This year we are slaves, next year free men; this year we are here, and next year in Jerusalem.”
The Natan Sharansky Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created 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.
His Sugar Cube Vaccine Beat Polio. Then He Took a Shot at Middle East Peace
Albert Sabin may be less famous than Jonas Salk, but he probably shouldn't be
"A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf." (Photo: Albert B. Sabin, 1962. From the Boston Public Library collection)
Jonas Salk is rightfully credited with developing the first safe and effective polio vaccine, yet his inoculation was not the one that ultimately brought about the near total eradication of the terrible infectious disease known as “poliomyelitis” or “infantile paralysis”.
Salk’s vaccine, administered by injection, was first approved and widely distributed in the United States in 1955.
Around the same time, another Jewish medical researcher named Albert Sabin was busy developing a different type of polio vaccine – one which could be administered orally and provide significant benefits over Salk’s, including cheaper production costs and longer-lasting immunity from polio without the need for “boosters”.
An oral vaccine, as opposed to an injected one, also meant that it would be much easier and more practical to use for massive inoculation drives, especially in poorer countries and regions where sterile syringes were not readily available.
Sabin’s vaccine used a weakened “live” polio virus, as opposed to the “dead” virus used by Salk. This made it theoretically more risky, yet with the benefits far outweighing the risks, the Sabin vaccine largely replaced the Salk vaccine worldwide from the early 1960s.
Salk’s vaccine has remained in use and was certainly a critical breakthrough in terms of dramatically reducing the debilitating infectious disease’s prevalence, yet for most of the second half of the 20th century, the oral vaccine developed by Sabin is what facilitated the nearly complete global eradication of polio.
Neither of the men ever attempted to patent their discoveries, seeing it as their privilege and purpose in life to help save millions of people from polio and other ailments.
On the day his vaccine was declared safe and effective for use, Salk was asked who owned the patent. He famously retorted, “Well, the people, I would say… There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Sabin once quipped, “A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might be used to reduce suffering rests on the shelf.”
From immigrant to global hero
Born in Bialystock in 1906, Albert Sabin moved with his family to the United States in 1921, fleeing the poverty and violent anti-Semitism of their native Poland. Shortly after receiving his medical degree ten years later, Sabin became specifically interested in studying polio.
His research into polio and other ailments continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s. As a high-ranking officer in the US Army Medical Corps during World War II, Sabin traveled the globe studying viral diseases, even developing vaccines for some, including dengue fever and encephalitis.
After the war, he settled back into civilian life and his research on polio. Determined to better understand the polio virus, Sabin and his colleagues performed autopsies on everyone who died of poliomyelitis within a 400 mile (650 km) radius of his home in Cincinnati. Sabin and his team discovered that the poliovirus was found in the intestinal tract – meaning that an oral vaccine could theoretically be developed for it.
Ultimately one was.
Cold War trials
As the Salk vaccine had already been widely administered in the United States by the time Sabin’s was ready for trial, he had to test it somewhere else.
Like Salk, Sabin first tested his vaccine on himself, though he would need a much larger scale to prove the vaccine’s efficacy.
For that, he reached out to a most unlikely partner: the Soviet Union, then in the midst of a bitter Cold War with the United States. Nonetheless, the dream of eradicating polio trumped geopolitical tensions.
Massive trials on children in the Soviet Union (as well as other locations around the world including Cincinnati) proved the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. The fact that it could be administered via sugar cube made it even more appealing.
Sabin and his successful vaccine were feted across the globe, as it became clear that the seemingly unlikely American-Soviet collaboration had helped bring the eradication of polio nearer than ever. He received a prestigious medal from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
Ultimately, the vaccines developed by Salk and Sabin led to the almost inconceivable decrease in global wild poliovirus cases from millions annually in the 1940s and 1950s to well under a thousand by the dawn of the new millennium.
Conflict and collaboration
The Soviet Union trials were a vividly clear reflection of Sabin’s long-held belief in promoting international collaboration and reducing human conflict.
At a public event in Chicago in 1966, he encouraged President Johnson to listen to the Midrashic teaching that “mighty are those who can convert an enemy into a friend,” warning that “competitive military confrontation” would only lead nations “to annihilate themselves”, and that “if we do not learn cooperation on an international scale in the next 25 years we will not survive.”
Following the Six Day War in 1967, Sabin chaired an organization called American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (APPME), which soon boasted thousands of members from hundreds of campuses across the country. APPME promoted the idea that regional peace was possible and must be pursued, and called for direct negotiations between the concerned parties.
In 1968, Sabin led an APPME fact-finding mission to the region, meeting with leading political and intellectual figures in Jordan and Egypt primarily “to determine whether there has been sufficient change in attitude toward the existence of a viable Jewish state in the Middle East to provide meaningful approaches to a durable peace that would benefit the Arab people as much or more than it would the Jews in Israel.”
For its commendable task, the delegation concluded their trip disillusioned, coming to the “terrifyingly sad conclusion” that there had been no sufficient change and consequently there were no new “meaningful approaches” to the durable peace they sought. There had been no “agonizing re-appraisal” of the situation following Israel’s “astonishing victory” in 1967, which, they concluded, had “achieved… a reprieve from the immediate and greatest threat to its survival, but no prospects for peace…”
They even gave their final report a depressing title: “The Arabs Need and Want Peace, But – Impressions and Conclusions of the Mission of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East to Jordan and the United Arab Republic, June 24 to July 5, 1968”.
Of course being an expert in infectious disease does not necessarily make one qualified to solve the Middle East conflict, but the mission’s conclusions do seem especially prescient in hindsight, as the War of Attrition raged and the Yom Kippur War would rock the region once again just a few years later.
Two years after the APPME report, Sabin publicly warned a different American delegation that Egyptian and Jordanian acceptance of the US-proposed Rogers Peace Plan was a disingenuous “tactical move in order to restore the pre-1967 borders and leave Israel vulnerable again.”
Beyond infectious disease
Besides armed conflict, Sabin recognized other pertinent issues facing mankind, including global poverty.
He often looked to Israel as a model for the world – a country he saw as being built from nothing by people willing to sacrifice of themselves for the common good.
Sabin’s tenure at Weizmann concluded about a year prematurely, though, when he stepped down at the end of 1972 following open heart surgery. After moving back to the United States, he continued to lecture, pursue his own research and areas of personal interest.
Though his most well-known accomplishment was helping to all but eradicate polio, Sabin’s words and actions showed a commitment to bettering humanity that far transcended the field of infectious disease.
Later in life he became particularly interested in solar energy, and shortly before he passed away in 1993, the trailblazing scientist advised that, “The earliest possible development of a suitable technology for replacing… fossil fuels by inexhaustible, clean solar energy is of the greatest importance for the whole world.”
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.
A Brief Blinken Family History: From Pereiaslav to DC and Back
US secretary of state's immigrant ancestor was a trailblazing Yiddishist, as well as a carpenter and masseuse
Der Kibitzer, a Yiddish publication dedicated to "Fun, Humor and Satire", was one of a number of periodicals that published Meir Blinken's work in the early 20th century (Image: Caricature published in Der Kibbitzer on July 29, 1909, from the National Library of Israel Digital Collection; Photos of Meir and Antony Blinken / Public Domain)
In 2014, Antony (Tony) Blinken guided the American response to civil unrest in Ukraine, yet the U.S. secretary of state’s roots connecting him to the region run much deeper.
The Blinkens of Ukraine
Tony Blinken’s great-grandfather, Meir Blinken, was born in 1879 in Pereiaslav, the birthplace of the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, not far from Kyiv. During his childhood, Meir had a Jewish education at the Talmud-Torah, a religious elementary school.
In the late 1890s, Meir studied at the Kyivan Commercial College, which was built as part of a joint educational project undertaken by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. The college’s main sponsor was the Kyivan millionaire and philanthropist Lev Brodsky.
In Kyiv, Meir Blinken became a master cabinetmaker, carpenter, and even massage therapist.
His son, Moritz (1900–1986), Tony’s grandfather, who would become a prominent American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kyiv.
If Ukraine would like to present a souvenir to the next U.S. secretary of state, it could be the recently discovered archival documents about his ancestors: civil registration records from the book of the Rabbinate of Pereiaslav and Kyiv for Meir and Moritz, as well as the Blinken family page from the document collection of the 1897 Kyiv census.
Crossing the Atlantic
When Meir was 25 years old, he and his young family moved to the U.S., a tiny drop in the flood of 105,000 Jews who arrived in America in 1904.
There he opened a private massage office on East Broadway.
This district was filled with the bustling life and Yiddish culture of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side had the highest concentration of Jews on the planet: 300,000 Jews occupying one square mile.
Dr. Mordechai Yushkovsky, academic director of the International Yiddish Center at the World Jewish Congress, told the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that Meir Blinken mostly wrote short satirical sketches for the Yiddish satirical journal Der Kibetzer, for example, a feuilleton about a writer who swamps all Yiddish-language newspapers in America with his texts, whenever a new publication appears.
Blinken portrayed the real world of Jewish immigrants: the poverty and lack of food, unhygienic conditions, religious superstitions, the lack of education, a lack of understanding of the new country, and the desire to find one’s place in it.
Incidentally, the editorial offices of Der Kibitzer were located 400 meters from today’s Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where in the building dating to that period you can see the reconstructed world of Jewish immigrants with all the accompanying difficulties of life in this New York City “ghetto”.
In 1908, Meir Blinken published his book Weiber (Women), a poem in prose, in London. In this work, as well as in his short stories, the young writer – one of the first Yiddish writers to raise the subject of women’s sexuality – writes about marital infidelity, abortion, and sexual desire.
In 1965, the literary critic Dovid Shub noted that Meir Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex.
The ancestral home’s fate
Meir always signed his name as Blinkin, but his descendants changed one letter, and the name became Blinken. Even on the headstone of the prematurely deceased 36-year-old writer (d. 1915), his children wrote his name as Blinken.
In the opinion of Professor Wolf Moskovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading Israeli Slavist and member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, Blinken’s Jewish surname means that the founder of the family arrived in Kyiv gubernia from the village of Blinki, which was then in Nevel County, Vitebsk gubernia (today’s Belarus).
In Ukraine, there is no settlement with such a name.
It is interesting to note that Nevel is legendary among Hasidim, who belong to the Chabad movement. In the nineteenth century, the town of Nevel and the surrounding district were a stronghold of Hasidic learning.
In 1927, the communist government seized Nevel raion from Belarus and ceded it to Russia. Thus, today the village of Blinki is located on the territory of the Russian Federation, even though it is only two kilometers from the border with Belarus.
Between the censuses of 2001 and 2010, the population of the village of Blinki decreased from twelve to ten inhabitants. The irony is that if the incoming U.S. state of secretary decides to visit the village from whose name his surname is derived, he will probably find his ancestral home completely deserted.
—A version of this article was originally published by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.