A New School Year for the Children of Europe

In honor of the "Back to School" season, we bring you several stories about children from across Europe on their first day of school.

Hillel Kempler on his first day of school, 1932. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Starting school for the first time is a rite of passage – a child moving on to the next stage in life begin his or her studies in a formal setting, leaving the comforts of home behind for the great big world that lies beyond.

Germany: A Cone of Sweets for the Sweet New Pupil

In Germany, there is a custom that dates back to the early 18th century, where parents, grandparents or godparents would present a young child starting school for the first time with a Schultüte, a large paper cone filled with sweets, as a way to alleviate some the anxieties that come with new beginnings.

While over the years the contents of the cones have shifted to more practical gifts such as crayons and pencils, the tradition has held strong for both Jewish and non-Jewish children in Germany. These cones create a sweet memory on the first day of school, sending the child off into the big world of a new school with a smile and a happy heart.

Hillel Kempler remembers his first day of school as a seven-year-old lad in Berlin in 1932 fondly thanks to this tradition. “I was enrolled in elementary school in Gipsstrasse in 1932,” said Kempler.  “Of course I received a cone of sweets for this event, as it was customary in Berlin back then. Both Jewish and non-Jewish kids received it.”

“I do not know how many children in my class were Jewish,” Kempler explained. “That did not interest me at the time. Before I came to school, I could already read. I have always loved reading. I read anything that came to my hands. And when I went out on the street, I read the signs at the shops. Maybe it was thanks to my brothers and sisters, who always gave me newspapers and journals. I was in Berlin for only half a year, and I still read German well today, which is amazing.”

Hillel’s sister Miriam on her first day of school in 1929. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Hillel also remembers his sister’s first day of school in 1929 – a day that was, of course, marked with a cone of sweets. “Miriam came to school two years before me. She was more of a frightened child, always hanging on the apron of her mom, as they say. Everything was an adventure for me, everything was a difficulty for her.”

Czechoslovakia: Counting, Grammar, and Friendships  

Eva Duskova remembers her first day in school fondly. After being walked to school by her father, she found herself hungry to learn – at least when she remembered to listen to the teachers instead of creating trouble with her best friend, Anita during class.

“I remember my first day of school,” said Eva. “I went to the first grade with my girlfriend Anita Frankova, nee Fisherova. We had known each other since the age of four because our parents were friends… In fact, back then we insisted on sitting next to each other in school. And in the end, we did. Of course, right the next day we were separated for misbehaving. We were simply talking to each other. What the teacher was saying wasn’t as interesting. But I very much looked forward to school, I was hungry for knowledge.

Eva Duskova’s first day of school in 1937. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The first day Anita and I were accompanied by our fathers. I know that the gentlemen in the back behind the desks stood beside each other, and I think that they were quite amused. I think that our fathers took it as this personal prerogative. Whether there were mothers too, that I don’t remember. Very early on I went to school unaccompanied, because it was a short way off, without any sort of danger along the way.

I very much loved going to school. Summer holidays always took too long for me, I couldn’t wait until I could go to school again. I liked studying, in elementary school I had, I think, liked everything. Perhaps less counting and more grammar. And I had a hard time coping with drawing. And in high school, I loved all the humanities, while the natural sciences remained somewhat foreign to me. Though I must say that even so they interested me and I liked studying them.”

Latvia: Connecting with the Hebrew Language

Mera Shulman describes her time in a Jewish school in Riga as a beautiful time in her life where she learned to love learning – despite losing nearly all of her classmates in the Holocaust.

“I went to school when I was seven. I started from the second form at Jewish Hebrew school. At that time, it was common to skip the first grade, if you were well prepared. I studied perfectly well. Everything was interesting for me, I cannot name my favorite subject, I liked them all, except history. In history, I also had an excellent mark, but it was the most laborious one.

Pupils of the 1st form at the Hebrew school. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

She loved her teachers and appreciated them for their specific specialties and what knowledge they could impart.

“Our teacher Korz was very talented for music. Under his guidance, we played a Haydn symphony using pipes and penny whistles. He did his best to invent something unusual for each holiday. In the second form, we put on a very interesting performance, ‘Alphabet.’ I was the shortest, and he gave me [the Hebrew letter] Yud because it was the smallest one. But at the same time, it was explained to me that the words Jew and Israel began with that very letter. [Yud is the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, in its written form it is only a small line. In Hebrew both Yehudi (Jew) and Israel start with Yud.] I was very proud to get that remarkable letter.”

Later in life, after surviving the war, Mira could still remember her teachers with great fondness.

Not only did Mira not experience any anti-Semitism in school, she couldn’t even imagine such hatred ever infiltrating the walls of her classrooms.

“Certainly, at this sort of school, there were no anti-Semitic manifestations (and it had no possibility to exist there). By the way, the teacher of the Latvian language, Madame Frei (a Latvian) used to say that she liked Jewish children very much and preferred to work with them.”

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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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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How European Jews Spent Their Summers Before the Holocaust

From lake houses to spa days, Jews from all over Europe took full advantage of their summer vacations, building memories that would last a lifetime.

In 2000, Centropa set out on a mission to interview and collect stories and photographs from elderly Jews living in Europe. Interviewers spent up to twenty hours with each respondent, asking them to paint a picture of the world they grew up in and the world they rebuilt for their families following the Holocaust.

Many of the interviewees shared beautiful memories of how their families would spend their summers, vacationing in different countries, eating specific foods and spending time together, building these memories that lasted a lifetime.


Lakeside Adventures: Germany, 1927

Rosa Rosenstein and her siblings spent their summer in Bad Buckow.

“Here you can see me with my siblings,” said Rosa. “As you know, Berlin has wonderful lakes. On Wednesday we always went out in paddleboats, and we also went canoeing. I couldn’t swim, but we went rowing. I started learning swimming three times but gave up after the third time. When I tried for the first time, the swimming instructor held me on a fishing-rod and I had to do the movements. The second time, I got a board and I had to push that board ahead of me. In the end, the instructor said, ‘And now without the board.’ That I didn’t do. I was a coward. I was afraid, I do admit, but such is life.

Rosa Rosenstein and her siblings in Bad Buckow, 1927. Photo courtesy of Centropa

During the summer my parents rented a summer apartment. When we were still small, we spent our first summer vacation in Fichtenau by a lakeside. We took beds and dishes with us. My father came to join us on weekends. He was working while we spent the time with our mother. Mother cooked, and we – just like at home – ate noodle soup.”


Days on the Danube: Hungary, 1930

Piroska Hamos shared, “This picture was taken somewhere on the banks of the Danube, but where exactly, I don’t know. Maybe on Szentendre Island, because we went there many times. We often got together with my cousins. They also lived in Matyasfold, the two houses were close by, 5 minutes apart.

My cousins were friends with my husband – relatives, and friends as well. I liked them very much, they were intelligent, well-educated, well-read people. They graduated from secondary school. Back then, it was a big thing if someone graduated from secondary school. They were not married yet, at that time. They were even angry with my husband because he was the first one in the boat group, who got married.

Rowing on the Danube, 1927. Photo courtesy of Centropa

They owned a boat together, and they rented a space for the boat at the first boathouse, next to the Ujpesti Osszekoto bridge. The owner of the boathouse was called Magashazi. As soon as the weather started to be good, they went to lacquer it (the boat) and put it in order. When I joined their group, then I also went along to tidy up the boat and every weekend, we went rowing on the Danube, in two boats.”


Foraging as a Family: Czech Republic, 1932

Chava Pressburger said, “During longer holidays and summer vacation we would always go outside of Prague with our parents. At Christmas and Easter, we would go skiing in the mountains, while summer vacation we spent in the countryside, where our parents rented a bungalow. One place was named Radosovice. It was close to Prague, and our father would come to visit us on the weekends. We were there alone with our mother and the maid. We would go swimming, for walks, picking mushrooms in the forest and so on.”

Chava Pressburger and her family, 1932. Photo courtesy of Centropa


Spa Day with Grandma: Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Pre-1941

Matilda Cerge spoke about spending her vacation at the Vrnjacka Spa.

“I was my grandmother Matilda’s favorite. She practically raised me. I went everywhere with her. She even took me with her to the spas. Twice a year she went to the spas, like Vrnjacka Spa, and she took me with her.

Once, when I was five years old, I went with my grandmother to the spa. Grandmother was very worried that her granddaughter shouldn’t go hungry. We were in a hotel and we had normal meals there. But, it wasn’t enough for her. So she went to the farmers’ market early in the morning to buy kajmak, the wonderful fresh cream that they make there and fresh lepinja, flat rustic bread. She went to buy these things to ensure that her granddaughter didn’t lose one gram.

Matilda Cerge on vacation at the Vrnjacka Spa. Photo courtesy of Centropa

While she was at the market I was locked in the hotel room, so that I wouldn’t go anywhere. While I sat there in the room, bored, waiting for grandmother, I sat by the mirror and started to twist a brush into my hair. When grandmother came she couldn’t untangle the brush and in the end, she had to cut my hair. Her granddaughter, her beauty, instead of having lovely curls, was deformed, with one side longer than the other side. She only cut the one side, the other side she left as it was.”


Sand, Sun and Scouts: Romania, 1936

Arnold Leinweber described his childhood summers spent in camp.

“This photograph was taken in Bugaz [currently Zatoka in Ukraine], in a boy scouts camp in 1936. The tuberculosis sanitarium is visible in the background. At 16, my school sent me to the seaside [by the Black Sea]. I was sent there three times. The third time, the reason was the good job I had done as head of my group at school. This was what led the director of the camp, Dr. Dumitrescu, to summon us there.

I saw the place where the Dniester River flows into the sea [today part of Ukraine]. The water there was clearer than a spring’s, and the beach was very wide, with sand dunes in which the foot would sink. When we had to return to the camp at noon, after having frolicked for hours, we couldn’t walk, but we had to run like crazy to reach the ground because the sand was too hot to walk on. Another nice thing about that place was that there were some very small mollusks in the sea, which died once they were thrown on the shore.

Arnold Leinweber in Boy Scouts Camp, 1936. Photo courtesy of Centropa

In the evening, we would walk on the shore and find phosphorescent lights – the sea was full of shiny little stars. My boy scout’s hat had a sort of lyre-shaped lily on it. I would put these small crawfish on it, and my hat would glow in the dark. I enjoyed scouting very much.

We slept in tents. The tent was partly buried in the sand so that the wind wouldn’t blow it away and the tide wouldn’t drag it to the sea. Some ropes tied it to stakes. There were pretty tall weeds growing there, and we used them to make the base of our tent. We put the tent sheet over it, we stuffed the pillows with weeds, and this was our bedroom. I stayed with the other two heads of groups in a tent of three. Others stayed in tents of six, eight or ten.”


Countryside Bliss: Czech Republic, 1937

Toman Brod said, “We used to spend our summer holidays at the summer house in Libverda. In the summer we used to go to a summer house. If I remember correctly, in the beginning, it was only around Prague, when I was a small child we used to for example go to Revnice. The first bigger holiday event was Doksy, Mach Lake, then for a few years it was Libverda, that’s near Liberec, where we went for about three years, but because it was in the border region, where it wasn’t all that pleasant to be in the 1930s, we spent our last summer vacation, in 1938, at Mala Skala near Turnov.

Toman Brod with his brother, Hanus, on summer vacation, 1937. Photo courtesy of Centropa

We would always go there for two months, the two of us, our mother, the cook, and the nanny. Our father had work, so he wasn’t there regularly, he would come when he had the time, and then would again leave for Prague. Besides us there were also other families there, some three, four would always be there. They were Jews. Some of them were our relatives; some were more distant relatives with whom my mother was in closer contact than with her own. They were women that played bridge with her, and who had children, so we spent our summer vacation with them, we knew them from childhood. We spent beautiful, calm, secure times together.”


This article appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.


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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