‘You never knew when there was going to be a pogrom’

Why my grandfather left Europe

Victims of the Khorkov Pogrom, 1919. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When I was six years old, I listened with fascination as my oldest brother interviewed our maternal grandfather, Isidore Weisner. As the youngest in the family, I sat cross-legged beneath the kitchen table, the only place in our cramped kitchen where I could find a spot.

“Grandpa, why did you leave Europe?” my brother asked.

“The pogroms, the pogroms were terrible, and you never knew when there was going to be a pogrom. I didn’t want to live that way, so I left.”

Grandpa died when I was 11, and in the half century since then, the questions I would have liked to ask him have multiplied exponentially. By studying life in Galicia, particularly for young men at the turn of the 20th century, I have begun to better understand the reasons why my  grandfather, like so many others, left his family and the country of his birth.

My grandfather was born in 1889 to Abraham Wiesner and Rose Fleisig. They lived in Kulikow (now Kulykiv, Ukraine), which was just north of Lemberg, Galicia’s provincial capital. Abraham worked as a grain merchant, a common occupation for Galician Jews. At that time, roughly 35% of Kulikow’s inhabitants were Jewish. My grandfather was the youngest of a large family. All his siblings later perished with their spouses and children in the Holocaust, except for one nephew.

Isidore Weisner’s mother Rose in Kulikow, 1926. Inscribed on the back of the photo in German: “A memento from your mother.” (Courtesy: Sharon Taylor)

But long before the cataclysm, in December of 1908, my 18-year-old grandfather left his home and made the long journey to Rotterdam, where he boarded a ship bound for Ellis Island. On the ship, with his funds dwindling, he befriended a well-to-do family who paid him to look after their young children. He spent the 12-day crossing teaching the children to play chess, a skill that has been passed down in my family through generations. He arrived in New York on January 5, 1909, where immigration officials recorded his name as Asryel Wiesner. Sometime after his arrival, eager to sound more American, he changed his first name to Isidore and the spelling of his surname to Weisner.

While most Jews left Galicia in the late 19th and early 20th century to seek better economic opportunities, my grandfather’s decision to emigrate was motivated by anti-Jewish violence. During his childhood, anti-Semitism was on the rise across the crownland. In the spring of 1898, when my grandfather was nine, The Standard of London reported “bread riots” in Lemberg which were quickly crushed. Although hunger was the motive there, the riots spread west and began to target Jews. Just 81 miles (130 kilometers) away in Przemysl, rioters entered the Jewish section of the city, ransacking Jewish homes and shops.  Despite Austrian military intervention, the attacks in Przemysl became so violent that on May 29, The Observer of London reported that “the entire Jewish population has fled.”

Jews and uniformed officials in Przemysl, ca. 1900. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Throughout the spring and early summer of that year, anti-Jewish riots continued, mostly in western Galicia. Jewish homes were looted and then set on fire. Christians placed crucifixes, candles, and figurines of saints in their windows in an attempt to save their homes. The military was called to control the violence, but the rioting didn’t subside until the end of June when the equivalent of martial law was proclaimed in several of the most affected districts.

Unlike the pogroms of 1898, most Galician pogroms were local events that were never reported in English-language newspapers. In his book Shtetl Memoirs, author Joachim Schoenfeld gives several accounts of how more localized violence was a daily threat underlying Jewish life in Galicia around the turn of the century. In his hometown of Sniatyn (present-day Snyatyn, Ukraine), Jewish boys rarely ventured from the Jewish parts of town, and Jewish wagon drivers moved their merchandise in groups to avoid becoming targets of violence.

Victims of the Bialystock pogrom, 1905. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

An unfavorable bargain in the market square or too much to drink at a wedding could easily turn into a pogrom, with peasants marching through the Jewish streets of the town yelling “Kill the Jews!” Jews were beaten, windows were broken, and shops were looted. Often, it was all over before authorities could arrive. According to Schoenfeld, the Jews of Sniatyn would spend the following days replacing windows and nursing bruises and broken bones, but it wasn’t long before the same peasants were back in the market square doing business with Jewish merchants as if nothing had happened.

A woman surveys her destroyed and ransacked home following the Kishinev Pogrom, 1903.  While the Kishinev Pogrom elicited outcry from around the world, pogroms were a common occurrence throughout Eastern Europe, often garnering little attention outside of the immediately impacted community. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It’s likely that this type of violence occurred in Kulikow, particularly around the time of the contentious election of 1907, which saw the National Democratic Party, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric, winning a number of seats in the Imperial Council in Vienna (the Reichsrat).

My grandfather began his journey to America the very next year. I will never know the details of the pogrom that caused him to leave Galicia, but if I could go back in time to that long-ago interview, that would be one of the first questions I would ask.


A variation of this article first appeared as part of “Leaving Galicia – Poverty, Pogroms, and Draft Evasion” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly research journal of Gesher Galicia. It has been published 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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“The Caine Mutiny”, “The Juggler”, Hemingway – Michael Blankfort and Me

Howard Kaplan looks back on his special relationship with his mentor – legendary Hollywood screenwriter and author, Michael Blankfort

Howard Kaplan (left) and Michael Blankfort (right) during the 1970s

Tuesday night, July 13, 1982. Michael Blankfort died today. Twelve highly acclaimed novels; one biography, theatrical plays; a horde of movies, collaboration on the film version of The Caine Mutiny, adapting the film The Juggler from his novel of the same name, the first Hollywood picture shot in Israel starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor, 1953.  I met Michael in 1973. I had returned from Israel clutching a 300 page manuscript about my travels and arrest in the Soviet Union. I had heard the name Michael Blankfort as a board member when I attended the Brandeis Camp Institute.

The Juggler, 1953

I looked up his number in the phone book. In a rush of nervousness: I was interrogated by the KGB for four days, I had been among the first to meet with the Hebrew teachers in Moscow, told him I’d written a book about my experience and asked if he had time to read it.

“No,” came his response. Then he said, “But I’ll read it anyway.”

That was Michael, he never turned anyone away. The following day I met him in his office. He was 65 and I was 23. For the next nine years we had lunch together about every ten days.

I walked through his world in Beverly Hills that morning in 1982, stood outside the Writers and Artists Building, subsidized by a patron of the arts. It once housed Billy Wilder, Ray Bradbury and Jack Nicholson. An old manual Royal typewriter sat on his desk beneath a cork wall crowded with the pictures and clippings. His row of pipes and classical tapes rested to the right of the paper-strewn desk. Books spilled from the shelves and there was always the volume (or more likely the two) that he was reading at the time, there on the narrow cot against the wall behind his chair.

Though earlier he had shunned art as bourgeois, in the 50s he and his friends started to buy contemporary works they liked and rarely paid more than $100 a painting. Michael’s de Kooning, Montauk Highway, is now on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His hundreds of other works were all bequeathed to LACMA and I was there at the preview reception in March 1982. I did not appreciate how unique and fabulous my young life was.

Montauk Highway, Willem de Kooning, 1958

Michael lent his precise eye and understanding to everything I wrote. I would leave each of my manuscripts with him, then wait nervously. When he finally called, there were no wasted words. Either there would be praise or he would say quietly, “I’ve read your material. You better come over.” When that happened, I knew as I grabbed a notebook and pen that I would be out of trouble before the long lunch was over — he would exhaust himself repairing my work during the time he should have been resting from his own.

Always lunch. Unlike many people who listed their office numbers and held their homes sacrosanct, Michael did the opposite. The day I looked him up in the phone book, I found only his home number. He thought he wouldn’t be disturbed as much with his office unlisted. It didn’t work. The phone rang constantly and with a humanity I came to be in awe of, he made time for everyone. There was a different name scribbled in pen every day at 12:45 in his little appointment book. In addition to me, there was an entire stable of young writers he helped.

An elegant, dashing man, with a moustache and a full head of wavy gray hair, Michael was always ebullient and full of humor. He had a breadth of spirit: there was nothing small or petty about him, something I only partially achieve as I’m inclined to dream of revenge though I don’t pursue it. And perhaps most of all, he was a lover — of people, and especially of women. The eyes of the maître d’ at the Swiss Café lit up when he came through the door; he always had a few moments to smile that huge smile of his and talk to her.

He transformed Mrs. Kramer, a little old lady who owned a tobacco shop near his office, into a young, beautiful woman with all his attention and the way he flirted with her. He went to see her every day, and if he didn’t need anything, he’d buy a candy bar or some gum. But most importantly was Dorothy — Dossy — his wife, partner, companion. He discussed everything with her and made no major moves without her counsel.

Once he took me to see The Juggler (Columbia Pictures 1953), screened as part of a Film Festival at UCLA. He was in a wonderful mood, bear-hugging friends as he always did though a little nervous; he had not seen the movie in over twenty years. I watched Kirk Douglas, as a German juggler, the toast of Berlin who believes he won’t be touched by the Nazis, a concentration camp survivor running through the streets of Haifa, unable at first to accept either his new homeland or what had happened to him.

Afterwards Michael told me that he had been set to direct the picture but the McCarthy hunters had taken his passport. The only part of the movie he saw filmed was the scene of a hora danced around a fire shot in a Hollywood backlot.

Michael’s fiction is a remarkably eclectic yet cohesive body of work. The Brave and the Blind (1940) about the Spanish Civil War which Hemingway panned in a national review and then apologized years later to Michael saying it was a great novel and he had been worried it would eclipse the coming For Whom The Bells Toll. The Strong Hand (1956) about the dead hand that holds back change when an Orthodox rabbi falls in love with a woman whose husband has been killed over the Pacific but not declared legally dead; I Didn’t Know I Would Live So Long (1973) about an out of fashion painter who leaves his marriage and then returns; Take the A Train (1978) about a Jewish boy who befriends a charismatic black con man from who he learns honor.

The day before the accident, Michael came to my Third Annual 30th Birthday Party. In the nine years we had known each other, it was the first time he visited my home. Two years before he had forgotten my (first) 30th birthday party (the second was never held) and called the following morning. He had remembered as he went to bed, and upset, had lain awake much of the night. He wanted to apologize and asked if I would forgive him.

He had finished his new novel on Saturday, the day before the party, and was rereading it. On Monday, he took it home with him as he did each night, stood near the bottom of his steep driveway, the manuscript in one hand, the garage door clicker in the other, pushed the button, lost his balance and toppled backwards. All six feet of him. Unable to break the fall, his head crashed into the cement. Neighbors across the street immediately called the paramedics, then ran to the house to get Dorothy. Though bleeding, Michael was still alert. They exchanged a few words and she kissed him on the lips, twice. He went into surgery, then into a coma and never regained consciousness. The world lost a treasure.


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The Stories Behind the Voyage of the Exodus

These video testimonies from the Toldot Yisrael Collection offer a behind the scenes look at the story of the famous ship

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

For a certain generation, the story of the Exodus, the ship that carried 4,500 Jewish refugees from post-war Europe to Mandatory Palestine, encapsulates the essence of Israel’s creation – a journey, an exodus – from the hellish depths of the Holocaust to the exhilarating heights of independence and nationhood.

Indeed, there are many who first became aware of the story of the modern State of Israel thanks to “Exodus” – the 1960 Hollywood hit film, though the movie is only very loosely based on the history of the actual ship.

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Toldot Yisrael project, which is hosted on the National Library of Israel’s various platforms, was able to gather several video interviews which tell the true story of the voyage of the Exodus, as well as provide a rare glimpse into events which transpired behind the scenes.

When Monica Levin finally saw the film starring Paul Newman, her father – Louis “Shorty” Levin – shocked his daughter by telling her, “I want you to know that that ship belonged to me…”

Levin had owned the ship back when it was known as the “President Warfield”.

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The organization that eventually purchased the ship from “Shorty” Levin was known as HaMossad LeAliyah Bet (“The Institution for Immigration B”). This was a branch of the Jewish underground Haganah organization, devoted to facilitating clandestine, illegal, Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

To mask its activities, the underground group made use of front organizations which it could hide behind. When it came to buying the President Warfield, things were run through a straw company answering to the very non-Jewish sounding name: “The Chinese American Industrial Corporation”. The only Jew on the company board was a Haganah operative who had a habit for popping up just about everywhere, the future mayor of Jerusalem – Teddy Kollek…

Monica Levin relates the full story below:


“Mr. Lopez, I have an envelope for you. Do you have an envelope for me?”

These were trying times. A third of world Jewry had just been annihilated in Europe, and the men and women of the various Zionist organizations had no intention of being deterred by bureaucratic or even legal obstacles getting in the way of what was seen as a matter of pure survival.

Before ships could be arranged to carry Jewish Holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine, those ships had to have their papers in order. David Macarov was one of those tasked with speaking to diplomatic consuls in New York, who could provide the flag papers necessary to embark on the rescue voyages. Unsurprisingly, Macarov often had to grease a few palms. A typical sentence of his became:

“Mr. Lopez, I have an envelope for you. Do you have an envelope for me?”

In a surprising twist, David Macarov also revealed how the voyage of the Exodus was tied to the price of bananas on the international market…


A ship to Oklahoma?

Sam Schulman was one of the few who boarded the President Warfield at its home port in Baltimore, on its way to collect refugees from France. Even in a friendly American port, there was a need for discretion and secrecy.

When Schulman reached the pier, he approached the men manning the ship at the docks…

“I says – ‘This the ship that’s goin’ to Palestine?’ They said, ‘No, no, no, we’re goin’ to Oklahoma.’ In my mind [I’m thinking]  – “Oklahoma is landlocked…”

Schulman went on to describe the fateful voyage of the Exodus in detail, including just how the ship was converted to hold so many refugees, as well as the dramatic altercations with the British Royal Navy…


You can find hundreds of interviews with the men and women of Israel’s founding generation here, and you can learn more about the Toldot Yisrael project here.

Thanks to Aryeh Halivni, director of Toldot Yisrael, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.


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Graffiti in Budapest: The Mystery of Renée Nadler

A young girl, her soccer star brother, tragedy and the unknown

In June 2018, I started a project called “Budapest Téglái” (“The Bricks of Budapest”) to document old graffiti on the walls of Hungary’s capital. People used to write their names, sometimes dates and even short stories on the buildings in which they lived, worked or even just passed by, often offering enough information to identify them and begin exploring their stories. These prewar works of graffiti left written on the walls of Budapest are my favorite signs from the past to discover.

In the early 1900s, Budapest’s Place de Berlin – now known as Nyugati tér – was home to numerous Jewish businesses (Publisher: Divald Karoly György Monostory; from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

One of my favorite spots to find old graffiti is the Anker Palace (Anker-palota in Hungarian), a huge building located in Terézváros, the 6th district of Budapest. The Anker Palace was designed by the architect Ignác Alpár and built in 1908. Many Jews bought or rented flats in this huge building located in the center of the city. Of the people who lived there before the war, the most famous was probably Léopold Szondi, the psychiatrist who developed the Szondi test and fate analysis.

Budapest’s Anker Palace today (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)


Looking down into the Anker Palace (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

When I see this old graffiti, I always wonder about who the people were who wrote it and what happened to them. During my last visit to the Anker Palace, I found graffiti left by a girl called Renée Nadler who used to live there.

Renee Nadler’s “graffiti” on the Anker Palace in Budapest (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

I did some research using various databases and I managed to find some information about her. Like many of the Anker’s inhabitants, the Nadlers were Jews. Her father, Izsák, made and sold suitcases and passed away in 1935. Her Mother, Roza Acht, was the daughter of Lazar Acht, a tailor from Lemberg (today Lviv in Ukraine) who settled in Budapest in 1902. Renée had 6 siblings: Gizella, Emma, Rozalia, Henrik, Illés and Bertalan.

I found a picture of Renée in an old Hungarian magazine called Szinházi Élet from 1932 where she sent her greetings from the town of Héviz to her friends in Pest:

Renee Nadler sending greetings to her friends (Image from Szinházi Élet magazine, available online through the Hungarian National Library, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Renée had a brother called Henrik. His nickname was “Pubi” and he was a famous football (soccer) player on the MTK football club, with whom he became a 7-time Hungarian champion. The MTK used to be considered to be a “Jewish football club” since most of its founding members and players were Jews. The team still exists.

Soccer star Henrik Nadler during his playing days

Tragically, Henrik was murdered in May 1944 either as a forced laborer in Austria or at the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was not the only MTK football player to be murdered; József Braun, Antal Vágó and Imre Taussig were also victims of the Holocaust.

Renée was very interested in football and she was a supporter of MTK where her brother played. The Sporthirlap newspaper, which specialized in sport, reported on how Henrik, Henrik’s wife and Renée had some passionate debates about the performances of certain football players while riding the 38 line tram in June 1933.

Henrik’s murder was not the only tragedy to strike the Nadler family. Renée lost a second brother, Illés Nadler, who was also murdered during the Holocaust. Renée’s sister, Gizella, wrote to all leading Hungarian newspapers in 1945 in order to find more information about Henrik and Illés’ fates.

Unfortunately, I could not find much information about the fate of Renée. It seems that she probably survived the Holocaust and married a man named Árpád Weisz. Her husband was a leather trader and he changed his name to “Varga”. They apparently left Hungary and settled in Israel or the United States.

It is incredible to see how simple graffiti written by a little girl in the 1920s helps us explore the past and honor the memory of people who where murdered and suffered during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this old graffiti is endangered, with much of it disappearing when the buildings are renovated. I do my best to document it while we can, posting the results of my research on the Budapest téglái (in Hungarian) or Buildings Tell Tales (in English) Facebook pages.


Anyone with information about Renée or the rest of the Nadler family is invited to email: buildingstelltales@gmail.com.

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.


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