Stolen by the Nazis: A Book’s Rediscovery in Jerusalem

The long journey of a book of Leviticus that was hidden in a Vienna basement during the Nazi era, before eventually making its way to the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Lab…

We recently came across a unique copy of the book Mesilat Yesharim in the collections of the National Library of Israel. The book had been given as a gift to a bar mitzvah boy in 1936. Tragically, the gift’s recipient and his family perished in the Holocaust some years later. The Nazis looted many Jewish libraries in Austria on Kristallnacht and in the period that followed. Among them were the Jewish Community Library in Vienna (the IKG library), and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library (ITLA), private libraries, bookstores, and publishing houses.

Most of the books were sent to Berlin to the huge library of looted books in the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA). Part of this library was destroyed in the bombing of the German capital, other parts were discovered after the war. We do not know the exact route this bar mitzvah book took, but in the 1950s, thanks to the persistent efforts of the National Library, and with the assistance of the Ministry of Religions and the consent of Vienna’s remaining Jewish community, many books, including this one, were brought to the National Library of Israel. A label affixed by the Library informs that the book was donated by the Jews of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

“Donated by the Jewish Community of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust” – a label affixed to books stolen during the Holocaust and later discovered in Vienna

Some weeks later, we discovered another interesting book that had once had a Jewish owner in pre-Holocaust Vienna. According to old Library records from 1956, the book, The Pentateuch: Book of Leviticus – With Onkelos Translation & Commentary by Rashi, was sent to the Library as part of the work of the “Diaspora Treasures” project—an enterprise that brought books from Europe to Israel after the Holocaust.

We couldn’t see any label on the book at first, so it wasn’t clear that this copy had, in fact, been looted by the Nazis.

Pentateuch, Leviticus, 1797/98, inside front cover, with a barely visible label underneath the paper

Suspecting that this was indeed a book that had survived the Holocaust, I brought it to Hagar Millman, a conservator at the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Laboratory. “As soon as the book arrived at the lab, and in light of the possibility that it had survived the Holocaust, I immediately put our special equipment to work to determine what was underneath the inside cover page” Millman says. “It’s hard to describe my excitement when I discovered the label hidden underneath the page. I knew immediately that this was a special item that had undergone a tortuous journey before finally reaching the National Library, and that it must have come with a fascinating story”.

The label is revealed

Before treating the book, a written report on its condition was prepared and the item was also photographed so that we could compare it before and after restoration. The removal of the paper covering the label and all the adhesive residue was an extremely delicate process that took several hours and required special tools—a thin spatula, tweezers and a scalpel, controlled humidity and reversible adhesives.

Hagar Millman revealing the hidden label

On the book’s back cover we found another important label that had also been partially hidden by a white sticker and a fabric binding on the spine (the book had been rebound at some point so that a fabric binding partially covered the label).

The partially hidden label of the Institute of Oriental Studies on the back cover, prior to the restoration work

“Here too, very delicate work was required, until I was able to uncover the entire label, which made it possible to trace the item’s history” says Millman.

The label emerges from under a striped cloth cover, the remains of which are seen on the left
The outside cover of the book with the label of the Institute of Oriental Studies, once covered by a sticker and a later rebinding

The “donation” label of the Vienna Jewish community that had been partially covered shows definitively that the book had been sent to Israel from Austria. But this was only half the story.

During the war, many books were transferred to Austria from the central library of the Advanced School of the NSDAP, established by the main ideologist of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg. The books were looted from all over Europe, not only from the Austrian Jewish community. A signature and stamp on the front pages of the book and the label glued to the back cover and recently revealed in the lab led us to the book’s origins.

According to the frontispiece, the book was printed in Vienna in 1798. The signature at the top of this page belonged to a man named Sheftel Bientz who was probably one of the book’s first owners. On the same page there was also a stamp of the Viennese branch of Agudath Israel. This was an interesting twist, as the secretary of that organization in Vienna was the person who gifted the copy of Mesilat Yesharim to the bar mitzvah boy back in 1936, writing the dedication contained within as well. It is possible that both books passed through his hands.

The book’s frontispiece with the signature at the top of the page and the stamp of the Vienna branch of Agudath Israel

The label on the back of the book reads: Orientalisches Institut – Universität Wien (“Institute of Oriental Studies – University of Vienna”) and below it appears the word Leihgabe, meaning loan, indicating that the book was not originally part of the university library.

How did a book belonging to an ultra-orthodox organization find its way to the University of Vienna?

Kurt Schubert was an Austrian student who opposed the Nazis and their actions, but for obvious reasons he wasn’t able to voice his opinion publicly. Due to his asthma, he had been released from military service and used the war years to pursue academic studies. Schubert enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied under Professor Viktor Christian, an Assyriologist, who was also a member of the SS and among whose research activities was the exhuming of skeletons of Jews for the purpose of racial and hereditary testing.

As part of the effort to spread Nazi ideology among German academics, SS commander Heinrich Himmler founded the Ahnenerbe organization in 1935. University researchers serving in the organization were tasked with discovering the roots of the German people and scientifically proving the superiority of the Aryan race. Ahnenerbe transferred books looted from Jewish and other libraries to Professor Christian and asked him to catalog them in the hope that they would help researchers in their study of the soon-to-be extinct Jewish race. As more books continued to arrive from Austria, Germany, and Poland, Schubert and other students assisted their professor in his work.

In lieu of military service, Schubert was made an air raid warden. While on duty, he discovered a basement in the Jewish Center of Vienna where many books from the community libraries were stored. Arguing that they were a fire hazard, he obtained Professor Christian’s consent to transfer the books to the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna. Thus Schubert saved about 20,000 books and when the war ended he returned them to what remained of Vienna’s Jewish community. These and others books eventually made their way to Israel, accompanied by Schubert himself who was invited to visit the new state.

The Pentateuch we discovered was probably kept in that very basement in Vienna. It was transferred to the University of Vienna, affixed with a university label and used for antisemitic academic research. Thanks to Schubert and the Vienna Jewish community, today it is available for viewing and research at the National Library of Israel.

The Opera That Survived the Ghetto: The Story of “The Kaiser of Atlantis”

Under a perpetual shadow of death, as train after train was sent to Auschwitz, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien, imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, composed a searing opera satirizing the awful reality in Europe. Both were murdered, but a suitcase filled with Ullmann's works survived to tell the story of the human spirit’s triumph over death


Self-portrait of Peter Kien and a photograph of Viktor Ullmann, source: Wikipedia

In 1943, as the Nazi regime presided over its network of concentration and death camps, as Jews were sent to their deaths on train after train, two prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto secretly composed an opera decrying what was happening in Europe. The two were Viktor Ullmann, a rising Austrian composer of Polish-Jewish origin, and Peter Kien, a promising young painter, poet and playwright. Their opera was never performed in this “model” ghetto, which to cover up its sinister purpose, housed a fully operational theater and a full schedule of productions. The opera’s composers and cast were all murdered eventually, but miraculously the libretto and music survived, and in the 1970s the opera was even produced on stage. How did this miracle happen?

Ghetto currency from the Theresienstadt Ghetto, designed by Peter Kien. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Shturman Family Archive. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel, see here as well.

Sent together to Auschwitz

Viktor Ullmann was born on January 1, 1898 in Teschen (Czech Republic), an area that was then part of to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ulllmann’s parents had converted to Christianity before he was born, enabling his father to pursue a military career. When Viktor was 11 years old, the family moved to Vienna, where he continued his studies in music theory and piano. Viktor was discharged from the army in 1918 after a short period of military service during World War I, and went to study law and musical composition. A year later he left for Prague, where he devoted himself to music. He conducted a choir and worked as a rehearsal pianist. This was how he made a living as he wandered across Europe before returning permanently to Prague in 1933. After the Nazi occupation in 1939, he managed to smuggle two of his children to England on the kindertransport, although both died there at a young age. Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt in September 1942 along with his third wife and their young son. He was reunited there with his eldest son who had already arrived. Some of Ullmann’s works from this period have been preserved.

Not long after arriving in the ghetto, Ullmann became one of the central figures in the musical scene that developed in Theresienstadt. He wrote music reviews, organized concerts and wrote musical compositions, 16 of which have been preserved and four that have apparently been lost forever. In the ghetto, Ullmann began to integrate Jewish motifs into his music. Some claim his works show a musical identity that combines all his national identities—Jewish, German and Czech. Ullmann kept his musical works and writings in a suitcase which he gave to the ghetto librarian, Professor Emil Utitz, before his deportation to Auschwitz. Utitz, who survived the war, moved to England, and thus saved Ullmann’s works.

Viktor Ullmann in a drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of

Peter Kien was born in 1919, coincidentally also on January 1. Kien was born to a Jewish family living in Varnsdorf, on the Czech-German border. The family moved to Brno, now in the Czech Republic, in 1929. His artistic talent was noticeable from a young age. At 14, his paintings were already being displayed at exhibitions. Graduating from high school with honors and special recognition for his talent in painting and writing, he immediately began his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1939, he was expelled due to the Nazi racial laws, after which he began teaching art in the Jewish community. He tried to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine but did not receive the coveted certificate due to a heart condition. In 1940, he married Ilse Stransky, who was four years his senior. His attempt to immigrate with his family to the United States and Turkey also failed.

In December 1941, he was deported to Theresienstadt where he was assigned the job of assistant director of the technical drawing department. Unsatisfied with the technical work, Kien risked his life by stealing office stationary which he used for his art. Most of the paintings he left are painted on both sides of the page. He gave his paintings to Helga Wolfstein, a fellow artist with whom he was having an extramarital affair in the ghetto. Helga kept the suitcase containing the approximately 500 paintings and drawings in the ghetto clinic’s department of infectious diseases, where her mother worked. After the war, she took the suitcase back to her hometown of Brno, where it was confiscated by the communist authorities. The works are now in the memorial museum in Terezin.

Kien and Ullmann were deported together on the transport that left Theresienstadt on October 16 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later.


“The Kaiser of Atlantis”: A timeless protest from the depths of the ghetto

In Theresienstadt, Kien and Ullmann wrote an opera called The Kaiser of Atlantis (or The Emperor of Atlantis). Kien wrote the libretto and Ullmann composed the music. The opera has only one act and just four scenes, but every detail is meaningful and the deeper one looks, the more layers of meaning one finds. The words and music were written on the backs of papers containing prisoner lists and prisoner requests, which were apparently stolen at great personal risk from the ghetto offices. The opera begins with all the singers coming on stage with suitcases. The cry “Hallo! Hallo! Achtung! Achtung!” comes over a loudspeaker, evoking the announcements in the camps, everyone is assigned a role and each person then leaves to go and dress accordingly. In this scene one might recognize the erasure of identity that happened in the camps, the arbitrariness of determining people’s fates based solely on their origin, or perhaps the idea that evil exists in every person. We can only assume that this is exactly the message the opera’s creators were aiming for.

The story is set in an imaginary Atlantis, where Emperor Überall (loosely translated – “Emperor Above-All”, a name that recalls the Nazi anthem “Deutschland über alles”) elects to wage a total war—everyone against everyone. The Angel of Death then decides to go on strike because of humanity’s attempt to usurp his job, decreeing that no one will die. The executions ordered by the emperor fail. A soldier and a young woman fight and wound each other almost to the death, but somehow fall in love at the same time. In the end, all the characters ask for death, even the emperor, who explains to Death itself that people cannot live without it.

Portrait of Ilse Stransky, part of a two sided work by Peter Kien. Courtesy of the Museum of Holocaust Art, Yad Vashem

In the face of the unbearable overcrowding, epidemics of dysentery and typhus, hunger and forced labor, the opera’s sarcastic tone and biting criticism of the tyrant—of any tyrant from any period of time and place – flowed forth effortlessly. The opera ends with the Angel of Death agreeing to end his strike. He slays the emperor first, followed by all the other characters, who die while singing that the name of Death must not be taken in vain. Death prevails, but perhaps the people who asked for death and accepted it proudly and with dignity are also the victors. It is heartbreaking to think that none of the opera’s writers or performers survived. If their final wish was to die with dignity, one can only hope that at least this was granted them.


A creative spark remained even in the darkest gloom

Terezin, the small garrison town designed to house about 7,000 people, was the only ghetto in Central Europe and at its peak housed about 59,000 Jews. The Theresienstadt Ghetto became known as a “model ghetto” because the Nazis used it for the purpose of propaganda. A delegation from the Red Cross was brought there to show how good conditions were for the Jews, and to debunk the rumors of mass extermination. In practice, it was a ghetto that the SS ran like a concentration camp. About 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt, 35,440 of them perished there, and another 88,000 were sent on to the death camps.

Ullmann and Kien decided against all odds to stage this opera in the ghetto, or as Ullmann wrote in one of his surviving letters: “No matter what, we did not sit and cry by the river of Babylon, our pursuit of art is as our desire to live.” That was indeed the case. In the overcrowded conditions of the ghetto, surrounded by hunger, death, disease and forced labor, creativity did not cease for a moment. Nothing stopped the creative desire even in the midst of the darkest gloom.

A shoemaker, drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of

Like the story of its creators, the story of the staging of the opera in the ghetto did not end well. Rehearsals began in May 1944, with a limited number of singers and musicians. In August 1944, SS officers present at a rehearsal of the opera announced then and there that it would never be performed. On October 16, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien were sent to Auschwitz. Ullmann was immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is not clear if Kien was sent as well, or whether he died later of an illness.

Yet, sometimes, what seems like the end is not. A copy of the opera, which was never performed in the ghetto, ended up in the hands of British orchestra director Kerry Woodward. At his initiative and encouragement, the opera was staged for the first time in 1975, 31 years after the murder of its creators. Since then it has been performed around the world and continues to warn against tyrants, war and absolute human evil.

The Daring Life and Tragic Death of Tunisia’s Jewish Pop Sensation

Habiba Msika reveled in the pleasures of free love in 1920s Tunis. A rejected paramour ultimately took her life

Habiba Msika, ca. 1920 (Public domain / Colorization and enhancement: MyHeritage)

Tunisian singer and actor Habiba Msika was a legendary figure in Tunis’s 1920s art scene. Msika’s bold nonconformity and tragic fate resonated deeply with her contemporaries, and fascinate me now: I marvel at how she subverted the patriarchy of her time, though violence born of that very misogyny would one day kill her.

The El-Grana marketplace in Tunia, ca. 1900 (Publisher: Lévy & Fils). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in 1899 or 1900 to a family of musicians living in Tunis’s hara (or Jewish quarter), Msika began her musical training at a young age. She was instructed by her aunt, Leila Sfez, who had herself been a diva and cabaret owner. Under Sfez’s tutelage, Msika learned classical Andalusian music (Maalouf) and oud. But it was as a cabaret singer, dancer, and actor that she would become something like the Madonna of her time.

A rebellious soul, Msika crossed boundaries in all that she did: she insisted on playing male roles in her theatrical career (sensing they’d give more range to her talent), and is said to have been the first singer in the country to mix dance and song, a practice that electrified her performances. Despite furious attacks from the conservative press, she sang dozens of songs reveling in the pleasures of free love. The song “Ala Srir Ennoum,” which translates to “In My Bed,” is one of them.

The forthright Msika also aligned herself with the emerging Tunisian nationalist movement. She became the main artistic collaborator of the theater director Mohamed Bourguiba, whose brother Habib Bourguiba would become the first president of independent Tunisia in 1957. With Mohamed Bourguiba, Msika adapted classic European plays into Arabic, and developed original theater productions infused with revolutionary sentiment. In one infamous performance of Les Martyrs de la Liberté, Msika appeared onstage wrapped in a Tunisian flag, crying “Vive la liberté!” The French police stormed the second performance, arrested the cast, and censored the play.

Msika in costume, ca. 1930 (Public domain)

Offstage, Msika’s life was just as dramatic. She was often referred to as “l’aimée de tous”, or “Habibat al-Kul” — a play on her first name that translates to “beloved by all”It’s said that she counted princes of Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia among her lovers. And she presided over a devoted fan club, a group of male admirers called the Asker Ellil (Soldiers of the Night), who sometimes provided her with financial support. Even so, she amassed a personal fortune through her performances, and was able to achieve financial independence.

Tragically, it was from the Asker Ellil that Msika’s murderer emerged. A much older man named Eliyahu Mimouni became obsessed with her and vowed he’d make her his wife. For five years, he tried to woo her with endless gifts, including a villa she refused to set foot in. Finally, after Msika announced that she would marry her long-time partner Raoul Merle, the enraged Mimouni entered her home one night and burned her to death.

She was thirty years old.

This new rendition of “Ala Srir Ennoum” was recently performed in homage to Habiba Msika’s free and defiant spirit:


A version of this article was originally published by Ayin Press, an artist-run publishing platform, production studio, and research collective rooted in Jewish culture and emanating outward. It was part of Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile, a multimedia folio created by Laura Elkeslassy, which takes readers on a musical journey across North Africa to rediscover Judeo-Arab divas from the early twentieth century through the 1960s.

In Ya Ghorbati, singer Laura Elkeslassy musically excavates her family’s history in Morocco, France, and Israel, coming face-to-face with forgotten ancestors and reclaiming a lost family name. Developed in collaboration with music director Ira Khonen Temple, this project weaves together the stories of Judeo-Arab divas from the last century with original recordings and new performances of folk and sacred music. Ya Ghorbati looks across time and space to tell a tale of political upheaval, exile, and displacement—ultimately questioning the supposed binary of Arab and Jew. The project was made possible by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Brooklyn Arts Council; Rise Up; and the New Jewish Culture Fellowship.

An adapted version of the 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.


Further Reading:
Bessis, Sophie. Les valeureuses. Tunis: Éditions Elyzad, 2017.

Silver, Christopher. The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar, History Today, 2018.



When Topol Fled From ‘Fiddler’… Twice

Chaim Topol was originally disgusted by 'Fiddler on the Roof'. Soon after changing his mind, war in Israel took him off the stage...

Israeli poster for the 'Fiddler on the Roof' feature film, starring Chaim Topol. From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

By Zack Rothbart

Chaim Topol recalled that the first time he ever saw Fiddler on the Roof, “I nearly fled from the theatre with my hands to my ears.”

It wasn’t a two-bit off-Broadway version of Fiddler Topol had seen, either. He was in New York not long after the show opened and saw the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, in action. Though Topol remembered feeling that he was “in the presence of a genius” when he saw Mostel’s Tevye on a different occasion, that first show was an “off-day” for Mostel in Topol’s opinion. The veteran American actor had cracked inappropriate jokes off the cuff, turning Anatevka into “the shtetl Madison Avenue style,” according to Topol, who described it in his autobiography as:

“…reek[ing] both of the old golah (diaspora) as represented by the Russian Pale of Settlement, and the new one, as represented by New York: it seemed to reflect some of the worst features of both…”

His overall feeling regarding the show at the time? “Ugh!”

He also didn’t think it would work in Israel where, he assumed, the sensitivities and propensities were more in line with his. It wasn’t until seeing veteran Russian-born Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky in the role of Tevye (known as “Tuvia” in Hebrew) that Topol was moved by the story and reconsidered a previous request he had rejected to take on the role in the Tel Aviv production of Fiddler.

Shmuel Rodensky as Tevye, 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Rodensky’s portrayal was more authentic and less comical, and when the older actor could no longer do all of the weekly shows, Topol – then in his late 20s – assumed the role.

Not long after, Topol was called to audition for the role of Tevye in the London production of the show. He had memorized the songs and much of the choreography for the audition, but his English was very poor.

Israeli ad for the original Fiddler on the Roof album, which Topol used to learn the show’s songs. From the Yossi Alfi Archive at the Israeli Center for the Documentation of the Performing Arts, accessible online as part of a collaborative initiative between The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

“I didn’t speak English and had a vocabulary of about fifty words – most of them swear words; but I managed to get by and I was told at the end of the day that the part was mine,” he later recalled.

After months of practice and private English tutoring, Fiddler on the Roof, starring 31 year-old Chaim Topol as Tevye the Milkman, opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on February 16, 1967.

A man of many faces: Chaim Topol in 1967, the year Fiddler opened in London. From the Chaim Topol Archive, accessible online by courtesy of the family and as part of a collaborative initiative between The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa
Bearded for his role as Yevye in London, this photo was taken of Chaim Topol on a return visit to Israel in late 1967 (Photo: IPPA Staff). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Just about three months into the successful run, tensions began to build in the Middle East and war increasingly seemed imminent. Every night after his performance, Topol would rush to his dressing room to listen to the news.

His contract had specified that he would not work on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, yet there was no “war clause”. After hearing the news that war had in fact finally erupted, Topol nonetheless told the show’s producer that he needed to take leave, and he “fled” to Israel.

Topol of course didn’t know that the war would only last six days. After reporting for duty in Tel Aviv and then finding himself in Jerusalem following its reunification and then in the Golan Heights, he promptly went back to being Tevye at Her Majesty’s Theatre, after only being absent for about a week. Following the war, Topol recalled how Israelis “suddenly began to think of themselves and speak of themselves as Jews,” while Jews abroad took pride in the war’s miraculous results.

Celebratory Israeli Air Force flyover, July 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani / Colorization: MyHeritage). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“Jews who had seen Fiddler once came back to see it a second and third time, and some of the performances in June and July 1967 took on the character of a victory celebration,” he recounted.

A few years later, when preparations were being made to create a film version of Fiddler on the Roof, Chaim Topol was cast as Tevye, beating out legendary stars including Walter Matthau, Danny Kaye, Richard Burton and even Frank Sinatra.

According to the film’s director, Norman Jewison, Topol possessed “that don’t-mess-with-me pride that the Tevye of my imagination had”.

“Chaim Topol was made for this part. Not only is he a fine actor, but there was a strain of dignity. It was the Israeli in him, the pride of being Jewish that really struck me. When he said, ‘Get off my land,’ you could see him stiffen up and stand as tall as he could. There was a strength that epitomized the hope that these people would somehow create a country of their own.”


This article has been published 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.