Celebrating in the Shadow of WWII: “Jewish Photos” from September 1939

For two and a half years, the weekly magazine "Yiddishe Bilder" aimed to become a Jewish version of Life magazine. The fall of 1939 was marked by both the Jewish holiday season and the guns of war…


The skies of Europe filled with gathering clouds in the summer and fall of 1939. As the autumn breeze carried the sound of marching spiked boots around sections of the continent, in the Latvian capital of Riga, the Jewish community was preparing for the holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, while peering worriedly across the border. The peculiar combination of festivity and fear of that which lay ahead, is still discernible on the pages of one of the prominent Jewish weekly magazines published in Riga at the time, Yiddishe Bilder.

Yiddishe Bilder (“Jewish Photos”) was only published for a little over two years; its first issue was printed in late May of 1937 and the last issue, as we shall see below, reached the newsstands on September 27th, 1939. The weekly publication, a sort of local, Jewish version of Life magazine, was an unusual phenomenon in Latvia, which was under the authoritarian rule of Karlis Ulmanis at the time, who had come to power following a 1934 coup. The Ulmanis regime was hostile toward Jews and prohibited the publication of Jewish newspapers, except for one daily outlet called Haynt. However, two publishers named Brahms and Pollack were granted a government concession to publish an illustrated weekly magazine – the Yiddishe Bilder.




Befitting such a magazine, as readers browse through its pages, their attention is drawn to the large, striking photos that appear almost on every page. The content was intentionally apolitical, providing a platform for all views of the local Jewish population. It was published in Yiddish, though the captions of the photos were usually printed in three or four languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and German.


Yiddishe Bilder was widely circulated and in addition to Latvian communities, it reached shops in Poland, Estonia, Britain, France, the United States, Sweden, Holland and many other countries. Its copies were distributed all over the Jewish world, including the Land of Israel, and a large portion of the pictures published in it were taken specifically for the magazine’s use. Thus, the front page of Yiddishe Bilder‘s very first issue featured a photograph of members of the Jewish community in India. In another issue, one of the magazine’s reporters interviewed the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

Yiddishe Bilder‘s first issue’s cover photo featured the Jewish community of Kochi, India.


A photo of the magazine’s reporter with the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini

In addition to covering Jewish communities and world politics, the magazine put its spotlight on the world of entertainment and its big stars. The reporters enjoyed digging up the supposedly Jewish roots of various world leaders and famous actors (some of these stories had little basis in fact). A double-page spread was even dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, on the pretext that the silent film star was of Jewish origin.

A segment from the article about Charlie Chaplin


“Did you know that the blonde Mae West is also one of the Children of Israel?”

The magazine included interviews, items about Jewish celebrities, serial novels, a small sports section, jokes, riddles, crossword puzzles and even a children’s section. A significant portion was dedicated to Zionist activity; comprehensive articles discussing the Zionist Congresses of the period and many pictures of life in Israel were featured in the magazine’s issues.

The weekly comic strip, Der Shlimazel, was published in the magazine’s humor section


From the sports column


The magazine covered the demonstrations held throughout Mandatory Palestine opposing The White Paper of 1939


Photos of life in Tel Aviv


A riddle printed in the magazine – can you guess who is pictured in the photo? If so, send us your answers!

In 1938, the magazine gradually began to cover more dramatic events from around the world, which had clear repercussions on the lives of Jews: The Anschluss with Austria, Kristallnacht and the dedication of Polish Jews to the local military were recounted by the magazine. In its first issue of 1939, a new column was included introducing different possible destinations for emigration (this issue discussed British Guiana). Later that year, an additional column designed for English learning was printed in the weekly magazine.

A report on the Munich Conference, titled: ‘The Tragedy of Czechoslovakia – a Jewish Tragedy’

The fact that the fate of the magazine and its readers is known to us today does not dispel the drama that unfolds as one leafs through the final issues. As the weeks went by, more and more pages were devoted to images of guns and cannons. The coming of the fall marked the beginning of preparations for the Jewish High Holy Days. The Rosh HaShanah issue, published on the eve of the Jewish New Year of 5699, featured a cover photo of a soldier carrying barbed wire used for fortifications. The caption below the picture read “The World Welcomes the New Year!”. The issue included items on the holiday customs alongside stories on current events: how the Zohar predicted the war’s outbreak and pictures of world leaders with the caption, “War and Peace Is in Their Hands.”



Photos of the customs of the month of Elul and Rosh HaShanah were accompanied by the caption “True Days of Awe”.

Fear continued to surface in the Yom Kippur issue published ten days later. The first few pages include a Yom Kippur folk tale, followed by large photographs of the raging war in Poland. Special reports reviewed the endangered Polish synagogues. One page displayed photos of the lives of Jewish communities in the country. The issue also covered the possible ways of reaching the Land of Israel – by boat, bus or car.





A passage from the double-page spread on the lives of Jewish communities in Poland


Synagogues “under fire”

New routes to Israel

The last issue, published on the eve of Sukkot, September 27th, 1939, reflects the anxiety and hope which were intertwined during those Days of Awe. The issue’s cover photo is of a woman assembling the Skakh (roof or covering) of her Sukkah, her smile bright and her eyes beaming. Reading the fine print, we learn that the photo was taken in Nahalat Yitzchak, a neighborhood in east Tel Aviv. At that time, Nahalat Yitzchak (established by Jewish immigrants from Lithuania) belonged to no municipal jurisdiction; the magazine even referred to it as a “kibbutz”.



The back cover of the issue shows a different world entirely – soldiers wearing helmets, standing by cannons and machine guns – the title reads ‘This Is the Face of the War’. The atmosphere in this despondent picture is completely disparate, the faces of those in it hidden. In between, reports from the past week at the battlefront were printed (the issue was published as the Germans completed the invasion of Poland); the following page describes the dangers of mustard gas and the memoirs of a soldier who served in the French army in WWI. Later we see photographs from around the world of preparations for war and of British military forces on alert in Mandatory Palestine. Another article discusses past Jewish wars, including some that occurred in the time of the Bible.



And yet, Sukkot was approaching, and the issue also displayed pictures of the holiday spirit. An illustrated article was featured about women serving in the British police service in the Land of Israel. Also to be found were a serial novel, holiday songs, crossword puzzles and, of course, the children’s section.


Another reminder of the great loss which lay ahead for these communities was emphasized in a double-page spread dedicated to Jewish life in Vilnius; the synagogue and Holy Ark, community leaders and staff members of YIVO, the authority established to regulate Yiddish spelling and transliteration.

YIVO executives – the organization worked to develop standards for the Yiddish language

Yiddishe Bilder was more fortunate than other Jewish newspapers during the early days of WWII – the editorial staff was given the opportunity to say goodbye to the magazine’s readers who were loyal to it for roughly two and a half years. A short, framed message was printed at the end of the issue, in which the magazine’s publishers and editors described how “the flames of the war have consumed the largest Jewish community in Europe.” The magazine’s largest audience lived in Poland, and most of the stories the magazines reported over the years had come from there. The publication had developed a network of reporters and photographers in Poland who produced the content which the magazine depended on. In light of the events, the editors announced they were forced to cease publishing the weekly magazine. However, they promised, it would be but a temporary break. When better days arrived and peace was brought to the world, the Yiddishe Bilder, too, would return, to “maintain Jewish interests and cultivate courage and self-awareness among Jews.”



“Dear friends, this is not goodbye, but farewell, we shall meet again.” These words conclude the last issue of the illustrated weekly magazine read by so many Jews across so many communities. Though peace did eventually come, the Jewish communities of eastern Europe would never recover from the tragedy that had befallen them. The Yiddishe Bilder was never published again, yet its issues have been here since, a standing memory of a thriving culture and its day-to-day life.


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The Jewish Gangster Who Founded a Gambling Desert Paradise

Benny “Bugsy” Siegel hoped to transform the little-known town of Las Vegas into the gambling capital of the world

The city of Las Vegas was founded in May, 1905. It was not a typical American city; for the first forty years of its existence, Las Vegas was a sparsely populated town located in the dusty, desert state of Nevada, some eighty miles from Death Valley. The first generation of residents never imagined the tourist paradise their city would eventually become.

If the Second World War had wreaked total destruction upon large swaths of Europe and Asia, in the United States, the war had actually given the Depression Era economy a much needed boost. In its wake came a period of unprecedented prosperity. The American century began with an enormous economic boom and the middle class was at last able enjoy the good life that until then had been the preserve of America’s wealthiest citizens. Among other things, this included some of the more suspect activities like gambling, prostitution, and the consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Most of the illegal gambling institutions were in the hands of the National Crime Syndicate — a loosely-connected umbrella organization which covered much of the American underworld. It was controlled by “Lucky” Luciano, an Italian immigrant, and Meyer Lansky, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Gambling joints and casinos were situated in two main locations: Miami and Cuba. The new technology of air flight had made America smaller and the fact that Nevada was the only state in the union where gambling was legal made it a bright spot on the investment map of the criminal world.

One of the most notorious personalities of this underworld was Benny “Bugsy” Siegel, who had paid his first visit to Nevada in 1941, in the hope of finding an ideal location that he could turn into the legal gambling capital of America. Bugsy came up empty-handed after his first scouting mission. While he recognized Las Vegas’ potential, the owners of the city’s first casino refused the Jewish gangster’s offer to buy out their shares. Eventually Bugsy found the right seller and managed to purchase a small gambling hotel downtown using a combination of cold hard cash and a few well-placed threats. Meyer Lansky did not share his long-time partner’s optimism regarding the future of the desert town, but he decided to support his friend and invest, while bringing along several other figures from the crime world.

From the start of his work on the project, Bugsy’s ostentatiousness knew no bounds: he hired the best interior designers money could buy and equipped the hotel with the most expensive furnishings available. He himself undertook the design of the deluxe suites. Above all, Bugsy invested in the casino and the bar, which he believed would provide the primary income of the new Flamingo Hotel.

 Police mug shots of the gangster Benny “Bugsy” Siegel

Within the first month of opening, Lansky’s misgivings proved correct. Las Vegas did indeed grow over the years and moved away from its image as a sleepy desert town, but it did not have the power to draw continuous streams of tourists beyond the Christmas holiday season – the date set for the grand opening. The Flamingo Hotel closed within a month. The hotel and Siegel’s angry investors incurred heavy losses. The gangster refused to give up and in order to get back in the game he borrowed additional funds from banks and outside investors, doubling the usual investment for a Las Vegas hotel at the time, which stood at around one million dollars. The main funding once gain came from members of the Jewish underworld. This time, along with the money, came a warning: The “Flamingo” had better make good on the investment and turn a handsome profit for the investors, or else…

Bugsy brushed off the threats and invested the cash in additional renovations, but still, the casino business in Las Vegas would not take off. At first, Bugsy thought it was just a slow period that would eventually pass, but as the losses continued to pile up he could not ignore the hard truth – his business was simply not working.

His partners (who also suspected Bugsy of having sabotaged a drug deal) were convinced: either their friend was swindling them, or he had lost his business touch. Whatever the reason, Las Vegas was becoming more and more of a burden.

On June 20th, 1947, the violence that had accompanied Bugsy Siegel’s whole life finally caught up with him. During a vacation in Las Vegas, Siegel was shot in the head at point blank range, dying instantly. Photographs of his body were published across the United States and afterward around the world. In the weeks and months following his assassination, news stories appeared about the Jewish gangster who had made the little-known city of Las Vegas the capital of his crime empire.  While he may have failed in his mission, in his death he contributed to the city’s reputation for decadence and corruption, a reputation which would transform Las Vegas into Sin City within a few years.

During the Cuban revolution of 1959, the casinos owned by Lansky and his fellow gangsters were nationalized by the new regime. Their other businesses in Miami were also damaged as a result. Only at this point did the Jewish mafia boss turn his attention to Las Vegas, the city that had been so dear to his late friend.


Meyer Lansky, worried by the Cuban takeover of his businesses and the continued harassment of the police, turned his sights on Las Vegas

This story has an Israeli angle. It is known that Lansky contributed money to the Jewish yishuv during the War of Independence. But besides that, in the 1970s he even asked to be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return in an attempt to escape a federal investigation against him back in the United States. He visited Israel on a number of occasions and during his stays identified Eilat as a potential gambling paradise – another desert town located far away from the country’s bustling central region.



Meir Lansky visits the Western Wall, in an attempt to persuade the immigration authorities that he was simply a Jew yearning from his homeland (from the book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob)

The Israeli government rejected his request, fearing that his presence would attract the attention of other American criminals. Did Eilat miss out on an opportunity to become the Las Vegas of the Middle East? We will likely never know. Lansky, of course, had another spin on this story. In an interview with the journalist Dan Raviv, the old gangster said that all he wanted in his retirement years was to live in Israel “just like any other Jew.”

 Meyer Lansky during an interview with the Israeli journalist Dan Raviv (from the book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob)

How a 500 Year-Old Torah Scroll Was Saved from the Nazi Conquest of Rhodes

The scroll was hidden away from the German occupiers in an unlikely location…

The Torah scroll pictured above was originally inscribed in Spain in either the 14th or 15th century, but that was just the beginning…

At some point, it arrived at the famous Kahal Shalom synagogue on the island of Rhodes, which is today the oldest active synagogue in Greece. It was likely brought there by Jewish exiles from Spain or their descendants and may very well have been stored in the synagogue since its founding in 1593.

The Book of Exodus, from the Rhodes Torah scroll. The National Library collections

The first evidence of a Sephardic-Jewish presence on Rhodes dates to the Ottoman period, which began with the conquest of the island in 1522.

For hundreds of years, the members of Rhodes’ Jewish community would read from this scroll at services held at Kahal Shalom. The community thrived and by the 1920s, a quarter of the town of Rhodes’ population was Jewish.  It all came to an end with the Nazi conquest and the deportation of the island’s Jews to Auschwitz in July of 1944.

Just a few days before the deportation, members of the community were able to smuggle the scroll out of the synagogue and place it in the custody of the Mufti of Rhodes, Sheikh Suleyman Kasiloglou. The mufti is said to have hidden the Torah under the pulpit of the Murad Reis Mosque, where the Nazis would never think to look.

1,673 Jews were sent from Rhodes to Auschwitz where they were put to death. Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul-General on the island, was able to save around 50 members of the community by stating that they were Turkish citizens. This was only true for a dozen or so. Regarding the rest, Ülkümen fabricated a lie claiming that spouses of Turkish citizens were citizens themselves. His heroic intervention saved their lives.

The Rhodes Torah Mantle, the Natonal Library collections

Following the conclusion of World War II, the Torah scroll was returned to the community’s few surviving members, in the presence of soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.

In June of 1999, the scroll was deposited at the National Library of Israel by Jacqueline Benatar and her sister Miriam Pimienta-Benatar, to serve as a memorial to the martyrs of Rhodes, their parents among them. The donation was carried out at the suggestion of the President of the Rhodes Jewish community, Mr. Moise Soriano.

The women of the Benatar family depositing the Torah scroll at the National Library of Israel

You can find the Rhodes Torah scroll today at the National Library of Israel.


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The Letter of Apostasy: Maimonides as a Refugee

A glimpse of the Letter of Apostasy ("Iggeret HaShmad") sent by Maimonides as a message to Jews who were forced to convert to Islam and now wished to return to Judaism

The letter reveals the greatness of Maimonides as a rabbinic decisor (posek) who relied on his life experience as a war refugee to benefit his rejected people

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s (Maimonides) life experience taught him from a young age that he and his contemporaries were living in an era of destruction in Jewish history. When the great Jewish philosopher was in his early twenties, the Almohad (“the unifiers”) movement came to power in Muslim Spain. The radical Islamic movement’s main goal was to forcibly spread their extreme version of Islam. To this end, they worked to shatter the communal life that had developed in the areas they conquered. “The Golden Age” of Jewish life in Spain had come to an end.
The Almohads conquered North Africa and Andalusia, attempted to eliminate any “foreign influence” on what they saw as “True Islam”, and forced non-Muslims to choose between Islam and death. In many cases, non-Muslims were not given the choice to convert and were executed immediately.

דיוקנו המפורסם של הרמב"ם, אשר צויר לראשונה שנים רבות לאחר מותו. לפריט בקטלוג לחצו
The renowned portrait of Maimonides was originally painted years after his death. To view this item in the National Library catalog, click here

As the conquerors progressed, Maimonides’ family fled to Morocco and the Maghreb, presumably in 1159. It is unclear why they chose to immigrate precisely to the stronghold of the Almohads, especially at a time when the Jewish communities were being annihilated under the orders of the movement’s leader, Abd al-Mu’min. One theory is that the family’s anonymity in Morocco made it easier to hide their Jewish background.

The flag of the Almohad dynasty

By this period, Maimonides was already engaged in the heated halachic debate on the question of forced conversion among Jews of the Maghreb and Andalusia. Jews who managed to escape the Almohad terror after being forced to convert to Islam, turned to different decisors with the question: What were they to do now?

A famous, widespread halachic decision stated that Jews who were persecuted were to refuse to convert to Islam even if it cost them their lives; this was because the practice of Islam was considered idolatry. The rabbi who published the decision (his identity is unclear) added that Jews who were forced to convert to Islam were not only unable to return to Judaism in freedom, they were condemned to death. When Maimonides heard of this decision, he felt it was his duty to reply. He wrote the Letter of Apostasy and sent it to the persecuted Jews of the Maghreb.

Maimonides’ Letter of Apostasy

From the very beginning of the letter, it is apparent that Maimonides could not contain the rage he felt towards the hasty rabbi who had declared that forced converts to Islam were to be expelled from the Jewish people. He stated that anyone who publishes such a severe decision is like an empty vessel that “should not speak at length”. After reading the rabbi’s decision in full, Maimonides stated that this man was not “clear-headed”.

A manuscript of the Letter of Apostasy held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. To view this item in the National Library catalog, click here.

After completely annulling the rabbi’s authority, Maimonides utilized his profound knowledge of Jewish wisdom and gathered several sources from the Midrash and Aggadah. He wished to show that throughout history, the people of Israel sinned time after time and committed idolatry, yet the Lord forgave them each time they professed repentance. Maimonides further wrote that there were numerous incidents in which even great sages of Israel were forced to pretend and commit sins, while they secretly continued to practice the laws of the Torah.

“If these well-known Heretics were generously rewarded for the little good that they did, is it conceivable that God will not reward the Jews, who despite the exigencies of the forced conversion performed commandments secretly? Can it be that He does not discriminate between one who performs a commandment and one who does not, between one who serves God and one who does not?”. In this, Maimonides concluded that not only were the Jews of the Maghreb who converted to Islam not to be expelled from the Jewish people, but they had become a link in the chain of persecuted Jews throughout the generations.

A nineteenth century copy of the Letter of Apostasy, Frankfurt University. To find this item in the National Library catalog, click here.

Maimonides did not stop there; he tried to lessen the sense of guilt and rejection caused by saying the Islamic Shahada – the proclamation declaring “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. He clarified to the Anusim (forced converts) that in saying this they were not betraying the God of Israel, as these words were meaningless to those Jews who were forced to utter them. At the end of the letter, Maimonides advised the forced converts to immigrate to regions in which they could return to the embrace of their people and live as Jews leading lives of Torah and mitzvot.

Maimonides’s grave in Tiberias. The Photohouse Collection, 1952. Photograph: Rudi Weissenstein

Though Maimonides’ years of wandering came to an end upon his arrival to Egypt in the year 1166, the immigrant and Almohad war refugee never forgot the years of wandering and religious persecution that were the fate of his family and people. To the end of his days he would address himself in his writings as the “Sephardic one” or the “Andalusi one”.

הדפסה משנת 1850 ב"ברעסלויא". תוכלו להוריד את הספר בחינם באתר Hebrew Books
An 1850 Breslau print of the Letter of Apostasy


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