The Jews Who Treated the Hindenburg Survivors

The little-known story of two immigrant professionals who acted quickly after the Nazi airship disaster

The Hindenburg disaster, May 6, 1937 (Public Domain / Gus Pasquarella)

The pride of Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg — officially designated LZ-129 Hindenburg — was the biggest commercial airship ever built, and, at the time, the most technologically advanced. It was 803.8 feet (ca. 245 meters) in length and 135.1 feet (ca. 41 meters) in diameter. It was more than three times larger than a Boeing 747, and four times the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Four engines powered the Hindenburg and it could reach cruising speeds of 76 mph (ca. 122 km/h) with a maximum speed of 84 mph (135 km/h).

The Hindenburg featured 72 passenger beds in heated cabins, a silk-wallpapered dining room, lounge, writing room, bar, smoking room, and promenades with windows that could be opened in-flight. Special precautions were taken to ensure that the smoking room was safe, including a double-door airlock to keep hydrogen from entering.

The Hindenburg was named for former German Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934). It took its first flight in March 1936, and flew 63 times, primarily from Germany to North and South America.

The recently launched Hindenburg over the Zeppelinfield in Nuremberg, Germany (Public Domain / Bulgarian Archives State Agency). Click image to enlarge

The Hindenburg was already under construction when the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933. The Third Reich saw the Zeppelin as a symbol of German strength, as the Hindenburg was partly owned by the government and partly owned by the Zeppelin Company, its creators. Giant swastikas were painted on its tail fins. The German minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, ordered the Hindenburg to embark on a propaganda mission early on, before the ship’s endurance tests had even been completed. For four days, it flew around Germany, blasting patriotic songs and dropping pro-Hitler leaflets.

After opening its 1937 season, by completing a single round-trip passage to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in late March, the Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt, Germany on the evening of May 3. It was the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States that were scheduled for its second year of commercial service. American Airlines had contracted with the operators of the Hindenburg to shuttle the passengers from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Newark, New Jersey for connections to airplane flights.

Except for strong headwinds that slowed its progress, the Atlantic crossing of the Hindenburg was otherwise uneventful, until the airship attempted an early-evening landing at Lakehurst three days later on May 6. Although carrying only half of its full capacity of passengers for the accident flight, the return flight, which never happened, had been fully booked. Many of the passengers with tickets to Germany were planning to attend the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London the following week.

The Hindenburg’s first landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1936 (Public Domain / Wide World Photos/Minneapolis Sunday Tribune). Click image to enlarge

The airship was hours behind schedule when it passed over Boston on the morning of May 6, and its landing at Lakehurst was expected to be further delayed because of afternoon thunderstorms. Advised of the poor weather conditions at Lakehurst, Captain Max Pruss charted a course over Manhattan Island, causing a public spectacle as people rushed out into the street to catch sight of the airship.

After passing over the field at 4:00 p.m., Captain Pruss took passengers on a tour over the seaside of New Jersey while waiting for the weather to clear. After finally being notified at 6:22 p.m. that the storms had passed, Pruss directed the airship back to Lakehurst to make its landing almost half a day late.

At 7:25 p.m., the Hindenburg caught fire and exploded during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, filling the sky with smoke and fire. On board were 97 people (36 passengers and 61 crewmen). There were 36 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen), as well as one ground crewman, a civilian linesman.

The massive airship’s tail with its Nazi symbol fell to the ground, while its nose, hundreds of feet long, rose into the air like a breaching whale. It turned to ashes in less than a minute. Some passengers and crewmembers jumped dozens of feet to safety while others burned. Despite the sheer ferocity of the colossal fire, 62 of the crew members and passengers survived, but most of them were severely burned.

The majority of the victims were burnt to death, while others died jumping from the airship at an excessive height, or as a consequence of either smoke inhalation or falling debris. Immediate survivors were taken with broken bones and burns to the small, 40-bed, Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood, New Jersey, eight miles (13 kilometers) away, which was overwhelmed by the number of patients.

A passenger of the Hindenburg sheds his burning clothing as he is helped away from the wreckage of the airship (Public Domain / Acme News Photos)

Treating the Hindenburg patients, regardless of Nazi party affiliation or religion, was prominent Lakewood physician, Adolph Towbin, M.D. (1888-1966), a Jewish immigrant from Kaments-Podolski, Ukraine. Dr. Towbin arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15 in 1903, and had graduated from Fordham University Medical School in 1916. After an internship at Flushing Hospital in New York, he was drafted into the army and assigned to Lakewood, New Jersey in 1918 as WWI soldiers were being treated at the Laurel in the Pines Hotel, following poison gas injuries. He liked Lakewood so much, he decided to stay and open up his medical practice after the war.

Dr. Adolph Towbin, prominent Jewish physician who treated the survivors (Courtesy: Phil Goldfarb)

The treatment at the time for burns, malaria, herpes, and smallpox, was picric acid, as it was an astringent and antiseptic. With the number of patients being treated, the hospital quickly ran out of picric acid, gauze, bandages, and other medical supplies. Dr. Towbin immediately called his best friend and relative by marriage, pharmacist Max Gitow, R.Ph. (1894-1973), the owner of Lakewood Pharmacy, to bring him all that he had in stock.

Max Gitow, RPh, Jewish owner of the nearby Lakewood Pharmacy, who provided critical supplies to treat the injured (Courtesy: Phil Goldfarb)

Gitow, (whose original name was Moishe Gitovich), was another Jewish immigrant, from Mogilev, Belarus, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1904. He had graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1913 at the age of 18, and his father, who was also a pharmacist in Belarus and later in Ukraine, had purchased Lakewood Pharmacy in April 1914. He personally brought over the needed supplies to the hospital 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away and stayed to see if he could be of assistance. It was these two Jewish professional men whose quick actions helped save the lives of numerous German (several of whom were Nazis) and non-German Hindenburg passengers.

At the time, the Hindenburg was supposed to be ushering in a new age of airship travel, but the crash instead brought the age to an abrupt end, making way for the era of passenger airplanes. The crash was the first massive technological disaster caught on film, and the scene became embedded in the public’s consciousness.

The actual site of the Hindenburg crash is marked with a chain-outlined pad and bronze plaque where the airship’s gondola landed. It was dedicated on May 6, 1987, the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Hangar No. 1, which still stands, is where the airship was to be housed after landing. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1968.


Special thanks to David Richmand, M.D., of Plainfield, New Jersey, the maternal grandson of Dr. Adolph Towbin, who provided input for this article. Max Gitow, R.Ph., was the maternal grandfather of the author.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 edition of the Tulsa Jewish Review. 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.


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Revealed: Photos of Macedonian Jews Who Perished in the Holocaust

A collection of photographs received by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People documents the lives of thousands of residents of the town of Bitola, who were sent to Treblinka in 1943

Macedonian Jews who were murdered during the war: Hanna Nachmias and her daughter Boina

It has been seventy-seven years since disaster struck one of the world’s last Ladino-speaking Jewish communities. The National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) have revealed a unique collection which serves to commemorate the members of this historic community. The collection includes photographs and written information relating to thousands of residents of the town of Bitola (still known to many Jews by its former name, Monastir), which during the war was home to 810 Jewish families (3,351 people). The Sephardic-Jewish community was a vibrant one, and in the interwar period, the Zionist movement played a key role in its cultural and political life. Many members of the community aspired to reach the Land of Israel.

Issik Mushon and Lanna Issik Casarula

The Jews of Macedonia comprise one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. The first Jewish settlers arrived in Macedonia in the 3rd and 4th centuries. At the time, the Jews settled in the cities of Skopje, Stobi, Bitola, Strumica, and others. However, most of that glorious community, which at its height included approximately 8,000 people, was annihilated in the Holocaust. During the war, Macedonia was annexed as a province of Bulgaria, a state that cooperated with the Nazis. In March 1943, Bulgarian policemen and soldiers conducted raids all over Macedonia, rounding up Jews and sending them to the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, where 7,144 of them were murdered. The only surviving Jews were several dozen young men who, shortly before deportation, fled to the mountains and joined the partisans who fought the Bulgarian army.

David Buchur Hasson
Sara Avram Hasson

Bulgarian government officials were the ones who prepared the tidy photo albums, ahead of the rounding up of the Jews pictured in them and their later transport to Treblinka. On the back side of each photo, information was jotted down, such as family ties, occupations, professions, residential addresses, and more. Somehow, the photographs found their way to Israel after the war. The pictures and personal information, written in Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian, gave faces and names to the victims. They were preserved in the Eventov Collection, founded by The Association of Immigrants from the Former Yugoslavia. Today, the albums are stored in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP). Among the many family names documented, are the names Elbuchar, Aroesti, Ashkenazi, Bachar, Versano, Chazan, Cohen, Moreno, Kalderon, Kimchi, Russo, and more.

Moiz Yaacov Ovadia
Raphael Russo

According to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, the director of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, this is important and exciting documentation of a Jewish community with almost no survivors left. “The photographs were recently scanned and were uploaded to the website of the Descendants of Macedonian Jewry in Israel, managed by Yael Unna. All personal information was translated into Hebrew by Chaim Pekovic from the archives team. We are pleased to help preserve and provide access to the memory of a glorious, Zionist Jewish community with so few survivors.”

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An 18th-Century Washing Machine

In the National Library of Israel's Edelstein Collection, we discovered evidence of one of the world's first modern washing machines, dating back to the 18th century


“Question: How can we bleach laundry under the following conditions?” This is how the first page of our pamphlet begins, in which we will discuss… laundry. The question is quickly followed by a list of sixteen conditions, which must have sounded farfetched to readers of the period – the mid-18th century.

  • No laundry soap
  • No boiling water
  • No special heating, and occasionally no wood nor fire
  • No boilers
  • No drainpipes
  • No water jugs nor laundry tools
  • Minimal preparation
  • No washerwoman
  • No noticing that you’re even doing laundry
  • No human contact
  • No tearing, nor dirt nor damage to the laundry
  • No more than 120 square centimeters of space required for laundering
  • No getting the entire area wet
  • No getting a cold in the winter nor suffering from heat in the summer
  • No repeated soaking of clothes in soap
  • And finally, laundry dries within approximately fifteen minutes

So how could this wonder be achieved? Was it really possible to wash laundry without standing knee-deep in a river, while scrubbing clothes on a metal washboard? French readers who received this pamphlet must have had endless questions… “To do all this, you must use the newly invented washing machine, and here is its description,” the pamphlet continued.

The more up-to-date readers of the time may have heard of an English patent for a similar device issued in the late 17th century. Or perhaps they came across an illustration of an early washing machine, published in 1752 in “The Gentleman’s Magazine“. But it’s more likely that they had never heard of such a thing, taking into account the world of the 18th century, which was experiencing only the first hints of globalization. Most readers were probably surprised to hear about this newfangled invention, and perhaps even dismissed the claims as nonsensical fabrications.

Illustration of a washing machine from the January 1752 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine. “Of reducing the Starch Duty”, the title read, next to the rather offensive (by today’s standards) name given to the invention – the “Yorkshire Maiden”

Our pamphlet was printed in French in Strasbourg in 1767. As mentioned on the cover, it was in fact translated from German. The pamphlet’s title promised, “A description of the machine invented in England and perfected in Germany, for washing laundry – with greater convenience and at lower cost than you have been used to.” In Germany that same year, the original English washing machine received an upgrade thanks to a man named Jacob Christian Schäffer.

Jacob Christian Schäffer, 1718-1790

Schäffer was a theologian, inventor, and scientist. He researched the plants, birds, fungi, and insects found in the vicinity of his city – Regensburg. His research was extensive and covered many fields of knowledge, and he also drew wonderful illustrations of the animals and plants he researched. The aforementioned washing machine wasn’t his only invention. He also experimented with color pigments and optics, created lenses and invented paper-making methods.

An illustration by Schäffer for one of his books

From Germany, the washing machine pamphlet made its way to Strasbourg – the capital of the Alsace region, which throughout history has changed hands many times between Germany and France. And there, as described in the beginning of the pamphlet, a “clever mechanic” managed to construct the machine successfully. The pamphlet goes on to describe the various machine parts. As we see in the accompanying illustration, the device consisted of a large container into which the clothes were thrown, as well as a rod, which was inserted into it and which generated the spinning motion that we are familiar with in modern washing machines. The pamphlet also contained technical instructions, essentially providing an answer to the booklet’s opening question.

As with any self-respecting pamphlet, the text concluded by detailing the various advantages of using the machine, including: saving wood, soap, and time, as well as maintaining the health of those doing the laundry. In summary, Schäffer wrote, “I think my work here is done. What I have stated here proves that we can rightfully describe the new invention as a convenient, efficient, and lucrative machine in every way.”

The illustration of Schäffer’s improved washing machine

The next development was the invention of the “drum,” in which clothes were inserted and rotated with a handle. It took another hundred years for the next significant improvement: the use of a steam engine that could rotate the device without any human assistance whatsoever.

In the early twentieth century, the electric washing machine came into existence.

If you’ve read this far, you probably want to know how this French translation of a German text about an improvement on an English invention found its way to Israel’s National Library. We won’t leave you hanging: the copy found in the National Library is a small, green book which includes essays about different washing machines, with a particular focus on those operated by steam. The book is part of the Edelstein Collection, a large collection of books donated to the National Library of Israel by the Jewish-American chemist, Sydney M. Edelstein and named after him. Edelstein studied the history of fabrics and their dyes, and is especially famous for his contribution to the research of archaeological textile in Israel. His collection of books is the foundation of the National Library’s scientific collection. We invite you to visit this collection and have a look at this fascinating book.


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Can You Sell Judaism Like You Sell Toothpaste? The Uproar Over Advertising Jewish life

How Gary Wexler's ads dealing with the Jewish world took risks and used controversial content to reach non-involved Jews

From the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

Can the story of a modern Jewish era be captured in advertising campaigns?  A generation later I realize that is exactly what we had accomplished. These campaigns are a creative and powerful window into the issues and actions of Jewish life at the time. They tell a story about our community in a medium, a creative one, in a way it has never been revealed before.

The storytelling began in 1988. It was two years before the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey in the United States revealed the 52% intermarriage rate that began to change everything— the way the organized Jewish community saw itself and focused its efforts. But we, a team of young Jewish advertising creative professionals, didn’t need the outcome of the survey to tell us what we already knew. Several of the young creative people in this group were married to non-Jews, themselves.

I was a creative director in ad agencies having won awards for work on clients such as Apple and Coca Cola. I was also active in the Jewish world. And this was the first time I had ever been asked to use my professional skills on behalf of the community. Jewish organizations, of course, expected us to be safe, not rocking any boats. But as young Jews and also as creative professionals, we knew we needed to take risks. Or the work would be dismissed and unnoticed by its intended audience—Jews who were not engaged in Jewish life. When people would ask me during this time what I did professionally, I would simply answer, “I find Jews.”

I never imagined the campaigns would one day become an archive at the National Library of Israel, a body of work that would live on in perpetuity for the Jewish people.


Clearing out my garage

Eighteen months ago, I was clearing out my garage to make room for the 1950s Lionel Electric trains that my father had set up for me, to now set them up for my grandchildren. I thought that alone would be my big emotional moment.

But while cleaning, I noticed the dusty portfolios of the ad campaigns I had created over the years. They were taking up a huge amount of room on the shelves.  I scratched my head, “Why am I saving them? For my kids to throw out after I’m dead? When my grandchildren discover that I wrote Coke jingles to help people rot their teeth, is this the legacy I want to leave them?”


Trash. Trash. Bingo.

I haven’t worked in advertising for a long time and I knew I would not be needing these portfolios to find another ad job (Besides, nobody in the ad biz hires people in their late sixties). And I certainly didn’t need to bring them to class and encourage my Millennial students in the Masters Program at the USC (University of Southern California) Annenberg School of Communication, to believe that this professor was living in the communication profession of the past.

So I opened up the portfolio of the Apple computer campaigns. Trash. The portfolio of Coca Cola campaigns. Trash. The Intel campaigns. Bank of America, United Airlines. Trash, Trash, Trash.

Then I opened the portfolios of campaigns I created for the Jewish world, between the years of 1988- 2008. I hadn’t looked at it in over ten years. A twenty year era of Jewish life poured out in front of me. Campaign after campaign added another piece of a story of how the Jewish world functioned and engaged Jewish populations in its causes during this time.  I realized I was looking at something historic: campaigns about peace signings, terrorism, spousal abuse (the first time the community publicly admitted it, causing a controversial uproar), Jewish men dying of AIDS, religious and political tensions in Israel and how the Diaspora was lining up on different sides, the blossoming of the foundation world, the centrality of Jerusalem, the murder of Rabin, fundraising efforts, Jewish day schools and every other need and issue of the times.


Never before a collection like this

I contacted my good friend, Naomi Schacter, the director of external relations and partnerships at the Israel National Library. She asked me to send photos. The Library responded within two days writing, “In fact this is very interesting to us,” and asked that I bring the portfolios to Jerusalem.  There were forty pounds of ads I had laminated over the years for preservation, which is how people in those years presented their work in order to be hired.  I didn’t let El Al take the portfolio out of my hands.  In June, I met, portfolio in hand, with the Library, specifically with Matan Barzilai, head of the archives department and Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the curator of the Judaica collection.  Person after person came into the room until there were about ten people from assorted departments.  I explained that in a time when digital and online communication is replacing traditional advertising and newspapers, a volume of creative print advertising work such as this will not again be produced in the Jewish world. The Library enthusiastically accepted the portfolio as an ephemera archive. They told me, “We have never before owned a collection like this.”  They then told me this archive will be among the works of people such as Gershom Scholem and Naomi Shemer. I had no idea what “ephemera” even meant, and I’m not sure I yet do.


“Marketing is too commercial for the Jewish world”

In the mid-1980s when I began this venture, it was a struggle to bring my marketing and advertising creative expertise, along with an intimate knowledge of Jewish life, into the organized Jewish community. At the time, almost no nonprofits believed in marketing. I was admonished by several prominent Jewish lay leaders telling me, “Marketing is too commercial for the Jewish and nonprofit world. It is crass. It demeans what we do.” But I was unrelenting in my persistence, and eventually broke down the resistance, establishing Passion Marketing and growing it to twenty-five professionals. Passion Marketing, the company I eventually created became the go to place for Jewish organizations in America, Canada and Israel, creating over one-hundred campaigns for Jewish and Israeli causes, while also delivering marketing, communication and creative training to thousands of professionals and lay people.


Breaking down the resistance

The first crack in the wall of resistance appeared in 1988 with CAJE (Conference on the Advancement of Jewish Education) held in Jerusalem and attended by hundreds of Jewish educational leaders, donors and professionals from North America and Israel. At the time, I was serving on the board of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. I had been constantly advocating for marketing and advertising as the way to recruit students and build a donor population for Jewish schools. Finally, I was asked to make a presentation on the marketing of Jewish education at CAJE.


Pulling together five creative Jews

I threw myself into the opportunity. I was creative director for an ad agency where there were thirty-five people in the Creative Department. Among them were five Jews, Sharon Rich, Moira Schwartz, Rick Rosenberg, Colin Shubitz and Aram (today Ephraim) Tabackman. I pulled them all together one night after work and explained I would be going to Jerusalem to make an ad presentation aimed at Jews just like them——non-involved in Jewish life (except for Aram)—-trying to convince them to send their kids to some form of Jewish education. I told them I would write the strategic creative brief but really wanted to see what ads they would create to target people like themselves. They enthusiastically agreed.  However, the first and last ads in the campaign I created myself, in order to set the tone for the kind of creative depth I wanted them to reach for and touch in the target audiences.

The ads Gary Wexler created to set the tone of controversy and depth for the campaign, the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

The ads spark an uproar, a controversy, and an embrace

Sessions at the CAJE conference had on the average thirty people. I walked into the room for my presentation and there were hundreds, sitting, standing in the hallways, crowding into the doorways. I realized at that moment people knew it was time for a new approach and believed that marketing may be the answer.  I showed the work on a big screen. The room erupted. There were people who loved the bold truths, the resonance and what was currently happening in the Jewish world. And there were those who were incredibly offended and shocked, denying the realities of the day and wanting to cling onto the Jewish world as they believed it should be.


My biggest battle

It was exactly the reaction I was hoping and prepared for. It led to the real conversation I wanted to have in that room. Advertising in the Jewish world, I believed, needed to the bold and shocking. If we spoke to our audiences only with the safe things we wanted to say, that made us feel good, our audience would not listen. We’d be talking to ourselves and the audience we so badly needed would not be paying attention. We had to be honest about the realities we were facing and show the target market of uninvolved Jews that we understood who they were. For twenty years, this conversation regarding many issues, convincing Jewish organizations and particularly lay people to take risks when promoting Jewish life, remained my biggest battle.

The uproar: Additional ads created by the team of Sharon Rich, Moira Schwartz, Rick Rosenberg, Colin Shubitz and Aram (Ephraim) Tabackman; the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

Front page story in Jerusalem Post

I had no idea that a Jerusalem Post reporter had been present and the next day the entire campaign would be the lead article in the Jerusalem Post with the headline, “Can you sell Judaism like toothpaste?”  It was picked up by the Jewish press in the US and Canada. And my twenty year advertising journey into Jewish life began.


The Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

Tell us what you think

Over the next few months, the Library will feature several of the campaigns. I will tell their stories, the reactions to them and whether they actually achieved their goals. One of the most startling discoveries I made when reviewing the collection is that many of the same issues that became the subject of several campaigns years ago, are still the issues today. The delivery system of communication through technology may have changed, but many of our issues as Jewish people have not. I and the Library will be extraordinarily interested in your reactions to how we promote Jewish life today and whether our issues will ever change. Advertising, as a medium, belongs to everyone. And everyone has an opinion. Tell us yours.  I don’t think any of you will be shy.



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