Robinson Crusoe in the Languages of the Jews

How the classic English novel spread throughout the Jewish world and its many languages

In late April of 1719, the English author Daniel Defoe published the story of the wonderful tales of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe was a young Englishman who ran away from home at the age of 18. He spent a few years on merchant ships in the New World, was taken captive at sea and became a slave of the North African Moors. After escaping captivity, he settled in Brazil and bought an orchard where he, a freed slave, hired African slaves who were forcibly brought to the New World. From Brazil he decided to embark on a trade expedition that ended in a shipwreck on a deserted island.

At first, he spent his days building a shelter to protect from predators and natives whom he believed inhabited the island. When the awaited deliverance failed to arrive, he began establishing a new one-man civilization. Crusoe lived on the island for 28 years before returning to England, his homeland, along with a friend he met on the island. He made a promise to never disobey his father again and to refrain from dangerous adventures at sea, but this vow was not kept for long.  Though the novel’s plot was a figment of Defoe’s imagination, the author’s name did not appear on the cover of the book’s first editions and Crusoe’s memoirs were depicted as authentic.

The first edition of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719, held at the British Library

1,000 copies of the original April 1719 edition of Robinson Crusoe were printed. The May edition consisted of another 1,000, and an additional 1,000 copies were printed in June of that year. The same year, the novel was translated into French, German and Dutch. By the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew readers – or more accurately readers of the Hebrew letter – living in Thessaloniki, Warsaw and Tunisia, could choose from approximately ten different translations of the tales of Robinson Crusoe. However, most Jewish readers would have their first encounter with the character through a later adaptation of the novel, which appeared in Germany in the 18th century; This German adaption was created in the year 1779/1780 by the teacher and author of children’s books, Joachim Heinrich Campe.

As previously noted, in the first year Robinson Crusoe was published, the name of the author did not appear on the book which was initially presented as a record of the true adventures of an English sailor who survived for 28 years on a deserted island. Campe created a new structure for Defoe’s realistic novel – a didactic book delivering a universal moral in the form of a father telling his children a story. When the time came and Campe’s book was adapted into various other languages, most Jewish translators omitted its dialogue-like style but kept the educational tone, which they preferred to the religious Christian tone of the original novel.

The first “Jewish” translation of the work remained in the realm of European language. This edition was in fact a Hebrew transliteration of German (German in Hebrew letters), published in 1784/1785. A single copy is kept at the British Library. Aside from various omissions, the transliteration remains largely faithful to the Campe adaptation.

The second version, also in German transliterated into Hebrew characters, was published in Frankfurt in 1813. A copy of the transliteration is kept at the National Library of Israel and can be accessed via the following link. It is called The Story of Rabanizn (מעשה ראבאניזן).

German in Hebrew characters: The Story of Rabanizn by Daniel Defoe, unknown translator, 1813

Why translate into German instead of into Hebrew or Yiddish? One theory is that the translation was meant to bring readers closer to German culture; another is that it was motivated by commercial concerns. Either way, the most popular version of Defoe’s bestseller among European Jewish readers was not written in German at all…

The first translation into a Jewish language is the one attributed to the maskil Yosef Vitlin, who translated Campe’s adaptation into Yiddish. It is probably the most successful Jewish adaptation of the novel in the 19th century and we have much evidence of its great popularity. Campe’s didactic tone is preserved but the dialogue between a father reading to his children and the children answering was omitted. The book’s title translates into ‘Robinson: The history of Alter Leb: a true and wonderful story for entertainment and education.’ It can be viewed here.

The first Yiddish adaptation/translation: Yosef Vitlin’s “Alter Leb”, 1820s

The work’s name indicates just how far apart the English Crusoe and the Yiddish Alter Leb were. Alter Leb is Robinson Crusoe’s alter ego, and he is the hero of Vitlin’s translated novel. A rich Jewish merchant from Lemberg, Alter starts out as a drunk transgressor. As the story unfolds, the translator takes several opportunities to teach readers about the basics of sailing – how to use an anchor and what a lighthouse is – while also offering lectures on Jewish law.

Alter Leb isn’t the only character with Jewish characteristics; his companion, named Friday in the original novel, is called ‘Shabbos’ (Sabbath) here. Shabbos teaches Alter how to quickly light a fire and Alter teaches Shabbos about monotheism, the Torah and the Sabbath customs. Seeing as Alter Leb’s prayers are answered time and again throughout the novel, it’s hard to say which of the two benefited more from their companionship. The story concludes with a good Jewish ending – Torah study, proper spouses for Alter and Shabbos, and lives lived happily ever after with plenty of cute children all around. Amen!

Robinzon der yingere (“The Young Robinson”), translated by David Zamośź, 1824

From Yiddish, we move on to Hebrew. The first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe was written in 1823/1824 by the Galician maskil David Zamośź, though we will not elaborate on it here. This translation is also loyal to Campe’s adaptation, and it is the only version that keeps the structure of the father speaking with his children.

The beginning of the first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe by David Zamośź, 1824

The reason we won’t go into detail is simple: The second translation is considered far more influential and includes some fascinating additions to the Hebrew language. This translation was titled Kour Onni (“The Furnace of Affliction”), written by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch and first published in Vilnius in 1862. Rumsch was a teacher at a government boys’ school and later became the principal of a private girls’ school. Translating the book into Hebrew was not a simple task. For example, Rumsch decided to leave the names of people and places in Yiddish transcript (ראבינזאן, לאנדאן, בראזיליען), while providing Hebrew alternatives for many of the tools used by Robinson. Rumsch even coined Hebrew terms for the words ‘telescope’ (קנה הָרֳאי) and ‘compass'(מַרְאֶה-פְּאַת-הצפון), though these were not generally accepted into the Hebrew canon.

Kour Onni, the second Hebrew translation by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch, 1872

In the introduction to Rumsch’s translation, he discounts the previous complete Hebrew translation. It is unclear if he blames David Zamośź for the poor job or if he attributed the flaws he saw in the translation to the state of the Hebrew language at the time, though it is clear he felt it was his role to make things right. Particularly unnerving for him was Zamośź’s use of Mishnaic Hebrew. Rumsch and others in his generation preferred Biblical Hebrew. Rumsch’s translation coined the modern Hebrew term for “breakfast”, or more literally “morning meal” (ארוחת בוקר), which is a combination of two biblical words replacing the Mishnaic פת שחרית which can be literally translated as “dawn’s bread/morsel”.

We mentioned that this was a particularly influential translation and now it’s time to prove it: One famous reader was Eliezer Perlman, who would soon change his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, commonly known as the “reviver of the Hebrew language”.   Perlman came across the book in the possession of his teacher, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, and wrote as follows:

And gradually and quickly he began to tell me, little by little, that there are books written beautifully and poetically in the holy language, and one time as I sat before him to study a ‘Gemara page’, and no one was home, he pulled out a small book from under his seat and opened it and told me to read before him. It was the book Kour Onni, a Hebrew translation of the story of Robinson Crusa. Before I could read two pages there was a knock on the door. And the head of the yeshiva grabbed the book from my hand and hid it back under his seat, and together we returned to discuss the issue in the Gemara before us.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda working on his great dictionary, the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yael Baruch shared a similar, though naturally different, story about her grandparents in Tunisia.

In the 1930s and 1940s in Tunisia, children and adults would visit the home of Rabbi Rahamim Baruch and his wife Simcha on Sabbath mornings to hear the honorable Rabbi read from a different book each time. Two novels were at the forefront on those mornings: The Count of Monte Cristo and Robinson Crusoe. The translations were in Judeo-Arabic, the language of North African Jews. In the National Library catalog, we found the translation from which Rabbi Baruch used to read to the neighborhood children. The title of the translation was Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi translated by Hai Sitruk. It is a condensed version of the novel, and in it, too, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of his adventures.

Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi, translated into Judeo-Arabic by Hai Sitruk, (apparently) during the first decade of the 20th century

In a bibliography written in 1939 by the Jewish Tunisian author Daniel Hagège, we find a few crumbs of information on the English novel’s Judeo-Arabic translator. Like Yitzchak Rumsch, Hai Sitruk worked as a school principal at a large boys’ school in Tunisia, which was later used as the Agudat Zion (Zionist Society) building. His work, including Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi (The Stories of Robinson Crusoe) was first printed at a publishing house owned by the Vazan family in Tunisia. From the 1930s on it was printed at the Makhluf Najar publishing house in the town of Susah. This wasn’t Sitruk’s only translation of world literature; he was also a proofreader, journalist, and the translator of Alexander the Great, The Mysteries of Paris, and more.

The decision to translate Robinson Crusoe into the language of the North African Jews is somewhat surprising. Most of the Judeo-Arabic translations of world literature were of French origin, not English. French literature was often translated into yet another Jewish language – the language of the Spanish exiles.

Two Ladino translations of Robinson Crusoe were written at the end of the 19th century; the first translation was created in 1881 and published in Thessaloniki. The translation was printed as the third and final part of a book called Bracha Ha’meshulushet. It was printed again in the year 1900. The editor of the second version was Elijah Levi. The translation ends with Robinson Crusoe in his second year on the deserted island.

El isolado en la isla (“The Isolate on the Island”), a Ladino translation by Elijah Levi, 1881

In 1897 the second Ladino translation of Robinson Crusoe was published in Jerusalem. The translator, Ben-Zion Taragan, was a Hebrew teacher; this is noticeable in the way his translation is influenced by Hebrew syntax. Here and there we find a Turkish word thrown into his 150-page-long translation. This translation covers most of the original novel’s story.

In the beginning of Taragan’s Ladino translation, which we were able to loosely translate into Hebrew with the help of Ilil Baum, Robinson Crusoe addresses the readers in an attempt to lure them to read on:

Many of you, my dear readers, have surely heard my name, and many of you had the privilege of seeing me in my goat leather clothes with my loyal dog, cat and parrot at my side, and will surly take great pleasure in hearing my story. And now I am here before you to tell you my story, and I truly hope you learn many good things from it.

It may be that this introduction, which is different than the beginning of the original novel and that of Campe’s adaptation, is an original adaptation by the translator. The translation ends with three educational pieces on ethics, the last of which is directed at young girls.

The second Ladino translation, La ermoza istoria Robinson o la miseria. This is a late edition published in Constantinople in 1924, translated by Ben-Zion Taragan

For both the Ladino and Judeo-Arabic languages, the first half of the 20th century was the golden age of popular literature intended for adults and teens. The Robinson Crusoe translations are one example of that. The golden age which began at the turn of the 20th century ended with the outbreak of WWII. The Holocaust was terribly destructive to Yiddish and Ladino culture. Most of the world’s Ladino speakers were murdered when the Jewish communities of Thessaloniki and other Ladino centers in the Balkan were nearly completely wiped out. The fate of the Yiddish language was all too similar.

Following the waves of immigration to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish State, Judeo-Arabic has gradually faded away and is rarely used today. We may not see new translations of the work into these three languages which continue to struggle in the early 21st century. On the other hand, it is likely that in Israel the classic book will continue to be translated and updated so long as the local language, Hebrew, continues to evolve. A translation into an additional local language, Arabic, was published in 1835 by an anonymous translator in Europe. As for the second most widely-spoken language in today’s Jewish world, readers can simply choose to make their acquaintance with Robinson and Friday, in the original English.

Many thanks to Iris Idelson-Shein, Anabel Esperanza, Ilil Baum, Marta Katarzak, Tamir Karkason, David Guedj, Yael Baruch, Idan Perez and Ofek Kehila for their cooperation in writing this article.



Alpert, Michael. “The Ladino Novel”, European Judaism 43, no. 2 (2010)

Backscheider, R. Paula.  Daniel Defoe: His Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989

Baroukh, Nehama. 2010. “’A Language That Was Torn from its Biblical Slumber’: Changes and Shifts in Written Hebrew (1880–1980) as Reflected in Translation of Books for Children.” [In Hebrew.] PhD diss., Tel Aviv University

Garrett, Leah. “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe.” Comparative Literature 54, no. 3, (2002).

Idelson-Shein, Iris. Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2014), 151-178

Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1850-1950, Wayne State University Press, 2014

Saraf, Michal. “Daniel Hagege and His Essay on the History of Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1862-1939” (in Hebrew), Pe’amim 30 (1987): 41-59.

Shavit, Zohar. “Literary Interference between German and Jewish-Hebrew Children’s Literature during the Enlightenment: The Case of Campe,” Poetics Today (Children’s Literature) 13, no. 1 (1992).

Wolpe, Rebecca.  “Judaizing Robinson Crusoe: Maskilic Translations of Robinson Crusoe,” Jewish Culture and History (2012)


If you liked this article, try these:

Latkes, Chanukah Donuts and the Head of Holofernes

The Letter of Apostasy: Maimonides as a Refugee

The Return of the Lost Siddur of the Jews of Catalonia

Carl Ehrenstein: Expressionist Writer, Cultural Critic and Literary Agent

Rare items from the Carl Ehrenstein Archive

From the Carl Ehrenstein Archive, The National Library of Israel

Generally, the name Ehrenstein brings a twinkle to the eye of experts in German Expressionist Literature. For the most part, anyone who hears the name assumes it refers to Albert Ehrenstein, one of the most prominent poets of the avant-garde movement, whose poems are still being published to this day and have recently even been translated into Hebrew (in the anthology “Weltende : eine Anthologie von expressionistischer Lyrik ins Hebräische übersetzt”, translated and edited by Asher Reich, HaKibbutz Hameuchad, 2013).
Very few remember that Albert had siblings: Otto (who died during World War I), Fritz (killed in the Holocaust), Carl and a sister, Freida. Every one of them stood in the shadow of their famous brother, who was the only one of them to receive an academic education. An interesting symbiosis developed between Carl and Albert, since Carl also had literary aspirations. Albert supported Carl for as long as he was part of the makings of modern German literature.
It can must be assumed that without Carl, we would know much less about Albert: after Albert died in 1950, Carl saw to it to collect the various parts of his personal archive and sent them to the National Library in Jerusalem in 1956.

Carl Ehrenstein was born in Vienna in 1892. After graduating from high school, he received training in a college of economics in his home town. He then worked in a number of insurance companies and banks, and even spent a few months in London in 1911. Little did he know then that  in the future he would live in London and the surrounding area for many years.  Concurrently, inspired by his brother Albert, Carl tried his hand at literature. With Albert as his agent, Carl’s first work, Klagen eines Knaben (The Complaints of a Youth), was published as part of a series of young and modern literature by Kurt Wolf’s famous publishing house in Leipzig. Over 80 Expressionist works were published in that series, including one of the first works by Franz Kafka. During World War I, Ehrenstein feigned insanity to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungrian army. He spent time in a convalescent house in Switzerland. It is possible that there was an element of truth to his charade, as Carl suffered from a few nervous breakdowns over the course of his life.

During most of the 20’s of the 20th century Carl lived in Berlin and worked, for the most part, as a cultural critic for a local Communist newspaper (Die Welt am Abend). In the framework of his work for the newspaper he visited theatres, exhibitions, movie theatres and even sporting events, and wrote many reviews that appeared in the newspaper.  In many cases, Ehrenstein kept the invitation, program, ticket, manuscript of the review and its final printed version in his personal archives. At the same time, Ehrenstein began to translate texts from English to German, mostly popular literature. He tried to find German publishers interested in publishing translations of English literature into German. In January of 1928, Carl Ehrenstein travelled to London, with letters of recommendation from German publishers, in order to find new English books to translate into German. The visit, which was planned to last two months,, was extended indefinitely, and Ehrenstein never saw continental Europe again.

In England, Ehrenstein began to work for a number of English publishers,mostly for Putnam. He read numerous books in German and wrote reviews which often determined whether the book would be translated into English or not. In 1933 he came across a book by the German author Hans Fallada. Fallada’s work greatly excited Ehrenstein.  In the following years, until 1938, Carl Ehrenstein repeatedly wrote positive reviews of Fallada’s books and even corresponded with the author. This was, possibly, Carl Ehrenstein’s greatest achievement: introducing Fallada’s works to the English speaking public. There are indications that Ehrenstein even knew about the attempt to extract Hans Fallada and his family from Nazi Germany – an attempt that failed, as Fallada changed his mind at the last minute.



Portrait of Hans Fallada


In England, Ehrenstein began to write poetry in English. However, he did not make an effort to publish the poems. Their quality possibly justifies Ehrenstein’s reluctance; his works are not generally considered to be the best of his era.His personal archive, however, (which includes portions of the estates of his sister, Freida, and his friend Thomas Schramek) is important because it includes a wealth of correspondences with publishers and writers from the 20s and 30s of the previous century as well as the cultural criticism and reviews that he wrote. All of these elements come together to create a colorful picture of culture and international relationships in the era before World War II.





100 Years of Ford and the Jews – From Antisemitism to Zionism

Henry Ford was one of the most notorious American antisemites of the 20th century. His grandson, however, was an ardent Zionist. A collection of rare photos from Henry II's little-known visit to Israel appears here for the first time.

Henry Ford II (center, looking towards the camera) examines one of his models at the Ford plant in Northern Israel, February 1972. Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1919, Henry Ford bought a small local newspaper operating at a loss.

In the coming years, The Dearborn Independent would liberally cite and elaborate upon “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, blaming the international Jewish conspiracy for war, poverty, Bolshevism and even “Jewish Jazz-Moron Music”. The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem – a sort of “greatest hits” of antisemitic articles published in the paper – was released soon thereafter as a four-volume set, distributed in Ford dealerships across the United States and translated into German.  Interestingly, the American edition does not mention Ford’s name, while it appears prominently on the best-selling German one.

Less than a half-century after The Dearborn Independent shut down following a libel suit, Henry Ford II was in the State of Israel visiting a Ford plant in the Galilee. If the elder Henry Ford’s antisemitism is legendary, his grandson’s Zionism and support of Jewish causes is certainly less well-known.

Click on the photos to enlarge

Henry Ford II is shown around the Ford plant in Northern Israel, February 1972. Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In September 1945, just a few weeks after his 28th birthday and the official surrender of the Japanese, Ford II became the dynamic new president of the automotive giant. Known as “Hank the Deuce”, the young executive led the company for the last two years of his grandfather’s life and then for the decades that followed.

Shortly after Israeli independence, Hank the Deuce oversaw a trade deal that would see a major shipment of automotive parts to help alleviate the young state’s transportation crisis.

The next year, Hank the Deuce personally presented Israel’s first president with a Ford Lincoln Cosmopolitan. Reportedly the only other recipient of that specific model was U.S. President Harry Truman. A $50,000 contribution from Hank the Deuce in 1950 made him the top donor to the United Jewish Appeal’s first ever Christian Committee Campaign for Israel.

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Around the time of the Six Day War in 1967, Hank the Deuce nonchalantly gave his good friend, the Jewish businessman and philanthropist Max Fisher, a warm personal note with a $100,000 check inside for the Israeli Emergency Fund.

Shortly thereafter, Hank the Deuce fulfilled his promise to have a Ford assembly plant in Israel and maintain business dealings with the Jewish State, refusing to give in to boycott threats despite extensive and lucrative interests across the Arab world. The Arab boycott took effect and cars began rolling out of the plant in Nazareth, at which point Hank the Deuce reportedly said, “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.”

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

He later elaborated on the decision, “It was just pragmatic business procedure… I don’t mind saying I was influenced in part by the fact that the company still suffers from a resentment against the antisemitism of the distant past. We want to overcome that. But the main thing is that here we had a dealer who wanted to open up an agency to sell our products – hell, let him do it.”

The first Ford Escorts – with tires, batteries and paint “Made in Israel” – came off the Nazareth production line in the spring of 1968. A newspaper article reported the initial output: three vehicles per day, with plans to expand to eight!

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In October 1971, a festive celebration marked the plant’s 15,000th Escort.  The next year, the plant began assembling a new four-door model, the Escort 1300, and Hank the Deuce came for a visit. A collection of rare photos of that visit from the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the National Library of Israel’s Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, are presented here for the first time.

As exports to Africa grew in the 1970s, Ford Transits, trucks, and buses were also assembled in Nazareth.

In 1975, amid reports that Ford would finally cave into the boycott pressure, he said, “We are going to continue doing business in Israel, and if we can do business in an Arab country, all the better. So we can do business on both sides… I assume that no one would seriously wish us, in a kind of reverse-boycott fashion, to abstain from doing business in Arab countries simply because of our dealings with Israel.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The prime minister of Israel at the time of Henry Ford II’s historic 1972 visit to Israel was the Russian-born American-raised labor Zionist Golda Meir and the Ford plant in Nazareth was located just a short distance from Har Megiddo – known as “Armageddon” in English – the site of the Final Battle described in the Book of Revelation.

Some fifty years earlier, a Dearborn Independent article entitled “Will Jewish Zionism Bring Armageddon?”, had decried the “overwhelmingly predominant Bolshevik element” in the modern Zionist movement, the fact that the “Jewish government of Palestine is very much like that of Russia—mostly foreign”, and the misguided “Christian friends of the Jews” who supported the Zionist project. Interestingly, while The Dearborn Independent was unequivocally antisemitic, it also seems to contain a sort of perverse, couched respect for Zionism – at the least in its religious, messianic form; though certainly not the secular, socialist variety that largely characterized the Zionist movement at the time.

Henry Ford the grandfather once said, “Of all the follies the elder generation falls victim to this is the most foolish, namely, the constant criticism of the younger element who will not be and cannot be like ourselves because we and they are different tribes produced of different elements in the great spirit of Time.”

Bill Ford, current executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford’s great-grandson, visited Israel in 2019 to inaugurate the new Ford Research Center in Tel Aviv.


If you liked this article, try these:

Begin and Sadat Unscripted: Photos Reveal the Personal Connection Between the Two Leaders

Gandhi’s 1939 Rosh Hashanah Greeting to the Jewish People

When the Head of Iran’s Nuclear Program Turned to the Israelis for Help

The Two Pages That Survived the Nazi Book Burnings

In May of 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, organized the burning of thousands of books in Berlin. Two scorched pages survived the burning and made their way to the National Library in Jerusalem.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The May 1933 book burning in Berlin is remembered by many as one of the key events of the early days of Nazi Germany. It is tempting to view the symbolic moment as foretelling of what was to follow during 12 years of Nazi rule; its significance amplified by Heinrich Heine’s famous quote, proclaimed more than 100 years earlier.


A brief report on the burning of Jewish books in Berlin, The Palestine Post, May 1933

Though the book burning at the Opernplatz was not an isolated event, it is likely that a person with a heightened sense of historical awareness would have recognized its symbolism and significance. Such a person was indeed present at the book burning – a publisher by the name of Rubin Mass.

The name may ring a bell for those of you who are familiar with Hebrew books, as the publishing house established by Mass still exists today in Israel, its books still appearing on the shelves of bookstores across the country. Rubin Mass Publishers and Booksellers is one of the oldest publishing houses still operating in Israel, founded by Mass in Berlin back in 1927. In his shop in Germany, customers could find Hebrew newspapers, books and practically any item printed in Hebrew and published in Israel, Poland, the United States and elsewhere.

After arriving in Mandatory Palestine in 1933, Mass became well-known for other reasons; he was among the first Jews to settle in Talbiya, a Jerusalem neighborhood then mostly populated by Arabs. His son, Daniel Mass, was the commander of the famous “Convoy of 35” (Lamed He) and was killed in the notorious battle on the road to Gush Etzion during Israel’s War of Independence. Following his loss, Rubin Mass served as the chairman of Yad LaBanim (Israel’s commemoration organization for fallen soldiers) and was particularly active in commemorating those who died in battle.

A newspaper ad for books on Hebrew and Arabic grammar. both published by Rubin Mass. The Palestine Post, August 1942

It is therefore no surprise that a man who had earned his living since the age of 21 by dealing in books would truly comprehend the significance of the unbearable event. That is precisely why Mass made a point of going to watch the massive burning which was publicized in advance through the Nazi party’s various propaganda platforms. When the flames that lit up the skies of Berlin died out, Mass approached the charred remains of the 20,000 books that had been thrown into the bonfire; he retrieved two half-burnt leaves of paper from the pile, a total of four pages, from a book written in German – historic remnants, literally snatched from the fire.1

Two charred pages retrieved from the Nazi book burning, Berlin, 1933. The National Library of Israel collections

As mentioned above, Mass made Aliyah later in 1933. It seems he understood the status of Jews in Germany would soon greatly deteriorate, and that the Nazis would not be satisfied with the annihilation of books. When he moved to Israel, Mass deposited the pages for safekeeping at the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel). Rubin Mass indeed possessed a heightened sense of historical awareness. The pages were kept in an envelope, on which Abraham Yaari, then the director of the Library archives, wrote: “Delivered by Mr. Rubin Mass, who pulled them from the fire with his own hands”.

The envelope containing the burnt pages with Abraham Yaari’s handwriting

As the years went by, the pages remained in the archives. The Library only began to keep a record of its archives around the same time as their arrival. Thus, the pages ended up in a collection with the curious title, ‘Miscellaneous Items’, along with various writings and items that did not quite fit in with the Library’s existing collections. To this day, the scorched pages remain somewhat of a mystery. Over the years, the Library’s top experts and researchers have attempted to decipher which book the pages belonged to and so far a final conclusion remains elusive. It appears that the book was dedicated to psychoanalysis or sexual education – subjects that were considered “Jewish” by the Nazis and worthy of being cast into the fire. Still, we do not have an exact identification of the book that was destroyed over 86 years ago in central Berlin. Perhaps you, our readers, might have a clue?


Update: We have received many suggestions regarding the book’s identity. It is highly likely that this was a copy of Sexualpathologie, written by the Jewish German physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld was a world pioneer in sexual research and among the first to advocate for LGBT rights. He founded the Institute of Sexology in Berlin, which was the source of the majority of books burned by the Nazis on the infamous night of the 10th of May, 1933. Please comment below and offer your thoughts.


If you liked this article, try these:

The Jewish Books That Were Plundered by the Nazis

How Capt. Isaac Benkowitz Saved a World of Jewish Books

The Book that Survived Kristallnacht and Made it to the Land of Israel