The Doctor Who Treated Herzl in Exchange for an Autograph

Meet the doctor who helped Herzl get to the podium in time to open the Fourth Zionist Congress in London

On our wall at home hangs a framed facsimile of a letter and a signed photograph of Theodor Herzl. It’s a treasured heirloom, copies of which are held by various members of my wife’s family. The inscription on the photograph dated September 1900 translates as:

“A pleasant reminder from the rapidly healing London patient. Theodore Herzl”

“A pleasant reminder from the rapidly healing London patient.” Photo courtesy of the family of Leopold Liebster.

London was the setting for the fourth Zionist Congress. This was the first time that the gathering had been held outside of Basel, Switzerland. The suggestion to take it to London was not one that Herzl had at first been enthusiastic about but he changed his mind for two reasons: Firstly, with the recent arrival of many Jews in London due to pogroms in Romania, Herzl saw in the plight of these immigrants an opportunity to highlight the need for a Jewish homeland, since the solution of charity from anti-Zionist Jews was clearly not working. Secondly, he felt that the movement had outgrown Basel and identified that the message of Zionism could be broadcast widely through reports published by the British press across her current and former colonies.

As Herzl announced in his opening remarks to the congress:

“England, great England, free England, England that looks across the seven seas, will understand us and our aspirations. From here the Zionist idea will fly ever higher; of this we may be sure.”

Theodor Herzl, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

More than this strategic objective, Herzl, it would appear, was something of an Anglophile, or at least, he knew how to flatter his hosts. In an article published in Die Welt in early June of that year, he enthusiastically welcomed support for holding the congress in London expressed by the Jewish Chronicle, hitherto ambivalent about the Zionist cause. In response to the newspaper’s suggestion that British Jews will benefit from the congress coming to London, he wrote:

“We shall go even further and express our belief that the non-English Jews will have far more to gain from this encounter because they will absorb good English manners, the honesty of all the discussions, and the advantages of a mature, advanced culture. They will keep all these as precious memories.”

I wonder if he would say the same today…

Nonetheless, there was every chance that the English audience might never have heard Herzl speak because, when he arrived in London on August 7, 1900, he was suffering from a high fever and spent the initial days of his visit confined to his bed at the Langham Hotel.

In the days prior to the congress, Herzl called for a physician, but he was particular about who he would allow to treat him. The doctor had to be Viennese trained and be a Zionist. It’s doubtful that you could count the number of people in London who fit those criteria on one hand, but somehow, a doctor named Leopold Liebster was found in London’s East End where the country’s largest population of Jews lived.

Dr. Leopold Liebster. Photo courtesy of the Liebster family.

Under Dr. Liebster’s care, Herzl recovered sufficiently to extract himself from his sick-bed to attend a rally of the English Zionist Federation on August 11th. Herzl was greeted by thousands of enthusiastic supporters eagerly anticipating their leader. He also managed to attend a garden party in Regent’s Park on the 12th, and the opening of the congress the following day.

Herzl’s popularity amongst London’s Jews dated back to a visit some four years earlier when he came as a guest of the Maccabeans, a friendly society of Zionists, whose support for Herzl’s goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was significant for the movement’s growth in popularity across the world.

Theodor Herzl in transit. The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

The Congress of 1900 was a great success in terms of its impact on the British media. The mainstream press was universally sympathetic to the cause. Perhaps most importantly, Herzl’s hope of gaining the favor of the British Parliament was achieved with most members expressing their support for the Zionist goal.

Following his treatment, Herzl offered to pay Dr. Liebster’s fee but the physician would hear nothing of it.

The letter sent to Dr. Liebster from Theodor Herzl. Photo courtesy of the family of Leopold Liebster.

The letter that followed, sent on the 19th of August from the Langham Hotel reads:

Dear Dr. Liebster,

When I attempted to send you payment for your medical treatment, our friend Reich told me that you were offended and that (as payment) you were only prepared to receive my picture.  Obviously I remain in your debt but nevertheless have no option other than to do as you request.

It will be my great pleasure in September to send you my picture from Vienna.

Warm thanks for your devoted care.

Ziongrussen (Zionist greetings).


Theodor Herzl

And so, in September 1900, the picture was duly received.

Herzl’s final resting place in the cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, 1993. Photo by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Herzl’s health continued to trouble him, and in early 1904 he was diagnosed with a heart condition. He died later that year from sclerosis of the heart at the age of 44. In 1949 his remains were disinterred and reburied on a hill in West Jerusalem that was, at the same time, renamed Mount Herzl. Also known as Har HaZikaron (the Mount of Remembrance), in 1951 the site was established as a cemetery for Israel’s leaders and fallen soldiers.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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Kafka’s Scathing 47-Page Letter to His Father

"I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly word, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything that was wanted of me"


Dearest Father, 

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you.


It was with these words that 35-year-old Czech-Jewish writer Franz Kafka opened a letter to his father, Herman Kafka, in November of 1919. For most of his life, Kafka attempted to step out of his father’s shadow. He refused to enter the family business, a haberdashery in Prague. Instead, he opted to pursue an education in law. In his last few years, Kafka rarely visited his parents’ home as he tried to build a new life for himself as a lawyer working for a government-run insurance company, eventually developing into a rarely–published writer.


This momentum was interrupted after another devastating intervention by his father – an intervention that led to the cancellation of his son’s engagement to Julie Wohryzek. Kafka could no longer contain his anger and lashed out at his father, cataloguing a series of incidents of abuse against his children and articulating the pain he himself experienced as a result.


Throughout the letter, the figure of Herman Kafka is revealed as a strict and cruel father. While he worked hard all his life to support his family, Herman’s harsh, all-knowing character prevented any possibility of empathy from his children. This was reinforced by his tendency to constantly suppress his children’s wishes and dismiss all opinions not his own as the product of a defective mind. At one point, Kafka points out that his father spat venomous criticism at the whole world (and first and foremost at his eldest son) until he was the only one remaining on the “side of right.”


Franz Kafka as a child
Franz Kafka as a child


“I was a timid child.” Kafka wrote to his father, “For all that, I am sure I was also obstinate, as children are. I am sure that Mother spoiled me too, but I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly word, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything that was wanted of me”.


One incident from his childhood, spent in the shadow of Herman, transcended all others. The young Franz Kafka was “whimpering for water”, admittedly with the partial intention of annoying his parents and amusing himself. His angry father then proceeded to uproot him from his bed and lock him out on the balcony in the freezing Czech winter. This traumatic experience made it clear to the child that, at any moment, he could be taken from his comfortable surroundings and thrown into a cruel, lawless world. This was the embodiment of the Kafkaesque moment, the key element that is repeated again and again in his fictional writing – from Josef K.’s encounter with the law to Gregor Samsa’s sudden realization upon waking that he has turned into a “monstrous vermin” in his bed.


Herman Kafka
Herman Kafka

Between these various accusations, Kafka also chose to illuminate his father’s positive character traits, qualities that gave him hope for a better relationship in the future. He fondly recalls the time when Herman visited him when he was recovering from a serious illness- how he approached softly and peered into his room, quietly waving hello so as not to disturb his son’s rest. He told his father that moments like this could make one “weep for happiness, and one weeps again now, writing it down.” The letter gradually reveals itself for what it truly is – a desperate attempt by a disgruntled but loving son to gain the approval of his father.


When Kafka finished writing the letter, he gave it to his mother. After reading its contents, she decided that it was better if her husband never saw it and returned it to her son. He did not attempt to send it again. The 47-page letter never reached its destination. A typewritten copy found its way to Kafka’s good friend, Max Brod who noted that Kafka had typed it himself. The last page, however, was handwritten in Kafka’s own script. Unfortunately, we cannot conclusively determine whether this is the same copy Kafka passed on to his mother, or if it is a different draft. Another version of the letter, entirely in Kafka’s handwriting, is kept in the German Literature Archive in Marbach.


The Letter to His Father stands as Kafka’s only autobiographical text completed in his lifetime and, although the memories within its pages were chosen to serve the belligerent spirit in which it was written, this is the text that provides the sharpest image of the childhood of the great modernist writer. There is often a sharp distinction drawn between Kafka’s literary writing, with its strange allegories and parables, and his personal writing, which consists of letters, diaries and notebooks full of introspective reflection. The Letter to His Father proves difficult for researchers of Kafka to place conclusively in either of these categories.


You can view Kafka’s letter to his father on the National Library of Israel website, here.


See more items from the Kafka Collection:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

Why did the famous writer decide to study Hebrew? And what did he document in the Hebrew notebook he kept?

1917 was a fateful year in the life of Franz Kafka. In that year, the same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Kafka began teaching himself Hebrew. When his friend Max Brod heard about this, he was stunned. How was it possible that for over six months his close friend had been studying Hebrew without telling him—a Zionist activist planning on immigrating to Palestine? The discovery led to a broad correspondence in Hebrew, in which the Czech-Jewish writer and lawyer sought to practice his Hebrew with a more qualified speaker than himself.

If at first Brod viewed his friend’s decision mainly as an attempt to entertain himself intellectually, the more Kafka deepened his study of the language, the more his interest in Zionism and in his Jewish roots grew. In addition to his desire to read the Bible in the original language, he was becoming more interested in the Socialist stream of Zionism. He followed a number of Zionist journals in German and made sure to keep up on the news of the Second Aliyah (Jewish immigration wave) to the Land of Israel.

We find evidence of this in one of Kafka’s eight Hebrew notebooks, which were recently received at the Library as part of the estate of Max Brod, at the end of a long legal process (which you can read about here). Besides the list of Hebrew vocabulary words and their German translations, in the “Blue Notebook,” Kafka documented the teacher’s strike in Mandatory Palestine in November 1922. This record enables us to date the notebook—two years before his death from tuberculosis in Klosterneuburg, Austria. At that time, Kafka’s Hebrew teacher, a young woman named Puah Ben Tovim, from the Hebrew Yishuv in the Land of Israel, had arrived in Prague with the aim of studying medicine. Even when Kafka’s health began to fail, he continued pursuing his Hebrew studies.

The Blue Notebook, the National Library collections.

Kafka wrote (in Hebrew!) to his teacher Puah:

…from the heavy and deep sighs that arise from the economic pressure that Zionism and the workers of the Land of Israel are under. The teachers took nine measures and eight of these measures were taken by the teachers of Jerusalem. There is no end to the threats of strike or protests and deafening reminders [?] flying from all around. There is the impression that the teachers have fallen into the worst situation of all the workers in the Yishuv and they are the only ones who are suffering and deprived of wages. The question of teacher salaries has become the central and burning issue. As if here begins and ends the entire episode of suffering and difficult struggle of this helpless period.

Kafka documents the teachers' strike in Mandatory Palestine in November 1922, the National Library collections
Kafka documents the teachers’ strike in Mandatory Palestine in November 1922, the National Library collections

The turning point came in the last year of his life, 1924, when he told his beloved, Dora Diamant, about his plans for the future: to settle in the Land of Israel and open a restaurant that would serve the Zionist pioneers. The plan was amazingly simple—Dora would be responsible for cooking the food, and he would serve as the restaurant’s waiter and manager. The plan he concocted probably sounded to Dora like another of the many stories he liked to tell his friends. However, it might have contained more than just a wish: A year earlier, Kafka corresponded with his friend from his university days, the philosopher and educator Samuel Hugo Bergmann and his wife Elsa, about the possibility that Kafka might accompany Elsa on her journey back to Mandatory Palestine.

In fact, though Bergmann had given his consent, he tried to evade his promise to Kafka with various excuses, all fairly reasonable: he told his wife that he preferred that Kafka wait a while longer in Europe. That the house was too small, he would have to sleep in the children’s room, and mainly, that Kafka was too sick for the arduous journey and difficult conditions he would encounter in the Land of Israel.

In the end, his precarious medical condition put an end to any possibility of his traveling. When it became clear that tickets for the ship he had planned to sail on with Elsa were sold out, he told her not to pay too much attention to his plan to accompany her because it was nothing more than the fantasy of an ill man. He did not, however, rule out the possibility that he would visit them when his health improved.

Kafka spent more than seven years studying Hebrew. His plan to open a restaurant in Palestine was probably nothing more than a pipedream, but his desire to see the developing Hebrew community with his own eyes and to speak the language of the local pioneers remained unchanged until his death.

He never made the journey because he died on June 3rd, 1924 in the sanitarium in Klosterneuburg. The Czech-Jewish writer was laid to rest in Prague, where he lived most of his life and where he wrote most of the works that have granted him eternal fame.

You can now browse through Franz Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” on the National Library of Israel website, here.


See more items from the Kafka archives:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Kafka’s Rare Manuscripts: From the Vault in Switzerland to the Library in Jerusalem

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

In his first year at university, Kafka discovered a talent for drawing

His parents’ dream was shattered. Franz, the daydreaming youth, would not be taking over the management of his father’s emporium. After much deliberation, the parents came up with the only possible solution: whether he liked it or not, the young man would attend university and learn a profession.

Franz’s parents preferred a profession that was both respectable and lucrative. He himself imagined a future that would allow his innovative spirit to make a mark. Hermann, the patriarch of the Kafka family, and in his son’s eyes – its undisputed tyrant, could have easily dictated Franz’s course of study. After all, the eighteen-year-old was financially dependent on an allowance. Only a sensitivity to that which was normal and acceptable in Prague society prevented him from interfering.

Three weeks sufficed for the young man to determine that he would not find what he was looking for in the chemistry department. He enrolled in law studies at the University of Prague—a field he at first reviled, but one that promised many employment opportunities that he found attractive – primarily because they allowed him the option of delaying a decision on his professional future for a few years.

As was to be expected, Kafka the student refused to devote himself entirely to the study of “Roman Law” (this was how he referred to his studies), and he enrolled in courses in the fields of art, architecture and philosophy. At this early stage, he did not yet see himself as a writer. From among his two greatest loves—the visual arts and literature—it seemed as if the first might win out. He discovered, to his surprise, a not insignificant talent for drawing, and he began filling the margins of his notebooks with doodles.

Reiner Stach, author of a monumental, three-volume biography of Kafka, suggests that the student’s first sketches represent an initial, yet major step in the crystallization of his future literary creativity. In his first years at university, Franz the art lover was enchanted by the “Japanese” works of Emil Orlik —an Austrian Jewish artist who had studied in Japan.

Emil Ulrich, Japanese girl standing beneath a willow tree, 1901
Emil Orlik, Japanese girl standing beneath a willow tree, 1901

The singular brushstroke with which Orlik captured both landscapes and people, and the “flatness” of the minimalist paintings captivated the young man who discovered profoundness behind their seemingly simple appearance. The choice of using simple aesthetic forms, the future writer might have said to himself, can carry within it tremendous creative energy.

Among the files of Franz Kafka’s estate is a black notebook that Kafka filled with sketches. At the end of the notebook there is a fragmentary piece of writing entitled The Journey—I Know Not. The fragment begins with the words: “So she sleeps, I do not wake her.” His friend Max Brod noted on a separate page attached to the notebook that the fragment was apparently composed in the 1920s (Kafka died in 1924), because the Hebrew word sna’it (squirrel) appears on it – and we know that Kafka began to study Hebrew in 1917.

The Journey—I Know Not, including Kafa's Hebrew squirrel
The Journey—I Know Not, including Kafa’s Hebrew squirrel
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Why did Kafka abandon drawing and choose literature instead? It is possible that the answer to this is hinted at in something he said to his friend Gustav Janouch, quoted in the book Conversations with Kafka (Derek Verschoyle Limited, 1953): “I should so like to be able to draw. As a matter of fact, I am always trying to. But nothing comes of it. My drawings are purely personal picture writing, whose meaning even I cannot discover after a time.”


Kafka’s Drawings:


For further reading:

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Early Years, trans. Shelly Frisch, Princeton University Press, 2017

Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, trans. Goronwy Rees, Derek Verschoyle Limited, 1953


See more items from the Kafka archives:

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Kafka’s Rare Manuscripts: From the Vault in Switzerland to the Library in Jerusalem