The Jewish Heroes and Heroines of Victory Day

These Jewish soldiers took part in the liberation of Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany

During the Soviet era, the 9th of May – Victory Day – became the main national holiday of the U.S.S.R., celebrating the great motherland’s victorious triumph in the war against Nazi Germany. It is still celebrated today in Russia and other countries, while in Israel, many immigrants from the nations of the former Soviet Union also mark the holiday with various parades and events (many other countries, including the U.S. and U.K., celebrate a variation of the holiday, VE Day – Victory in Europe Day – on the 8th of May).

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel has revealed rare images of Jewish heroes and heroines of the Red Army during World War II. The images were found thanks to a special documentation project being conducted by the Central Archives, in collaboration with the Eva Jewish Charity Organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which provides homecare services and various social and cultural activities for the elderly. In the course of the project, family photo albums are scanned and supplementary documentation is also collected.

Many Jews took part in the war effort against Germany and the Axis nations during World War II, and around 250,000 lost their lives as a result. Their story has been somewhat overlooked because of the dominance of the Holocaust in Jewish collective memory of the war period. Even the “Heroism” ethos of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) emphasizes the role of the Jewish rebels in the ghettos and the Jewish partisans. The contributions of the many Jews who took part in the war itself are often forgotten.

In these family photo albums, the place of Jewish soldiers in the Red Army is emphasized. Sometimes the fallen family member is a father of the album’s owner, and sometimes it is a long-lost aunt.


The Photographs

Israel Danilovich Stackelberg was severely wounded in battle in 1942. In the first photo he appears alongside the nurse who saved his life. In the second photo, he is seen with the soldiers of his company, holding a machine gun, and in the third he is wearing a medal. Captain Stackelberg fell on the frontlines in 1944 at Leningrad. His son Leonid brought the photographs to Daria Zacharova, who scanned them for the project.




The family of Gregory Meller brought forward the photograph below, in which he is seen adorned with medals. On the other side of the photograph, Meller wrote: “Me, right after the Battle of Stalingrad, December 1943”.

Many women also filled combat roles in the former Soviet Union, among them many Jewish women. One of these was Sofia Zacharovna Golovinskaya (1909-2005). During the siege of Leningrad, Sofia was drafted into a military fire-fighting unit, in which she served for more than a year, until the siege was lifted. After the siege she received training to join a bomb-removal squad in the engineering corps, and worked to locate and disarm mines that had been placed in strategic locations throughout the city during the siege, to be used in case the Germans were able to force their way into the city. Afterwards, in May 1944, she joined the local air defense regiment. Sofia disarmed 750 mines, and was awarded a citation and five medals for her contributions. Sofia made aliyah and arrived in Israel in 1994.

מימין: גולובינסקאיה סופיה זכרובנה
On the right: Sofia Zacharovna Golovinskaya

Mayor Smuelovich Kalibko was drafted into the army, despite being short-sighted. He took part in the conquest of Berlin in May, 1945. In the picture below he is seen with a friend, on Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm monument.

משמאל: מאיור (מארק) סמואילוביץ קאליבקו
On the left: Mayor Smuelovich Kalibko


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A Tango in Auschwitz

"I'm still young, I want to live"; even in their darkest hour, the prisoners of the Nazi camps wrote songs of hope


In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill arrived at the Hotel Marseilles in New York, a gathering point for Jewish refugees who had arrived in the United States after World War II. He brought with him heavy recording equipment and placed it in the hotel lobby. Why would an American Jew of Polish descent who worked for a living installing linoleum, carpets and wallpaper haul heavy recording machinery and set it up in the hotel lobby? The purpose was to record the refugees singing songs they remembered from their homelands; folk songs their parents sang; holiday songs from synagogue; songs from school and youth movements; and also – the songs they sang in the concentration and extermination camps, in the ghettos and in the hiding places, where they had spent the long years of war.

The songs that Stonehill recorded were stored in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research dedicated to the documentation and preservation of a rich, pre-WWII Yiddish culture. The recordings eventually made their way to the National Sound Archive at the National Library of Israel. Among them are two songs that share a number of similarities. They provide a glimpse of moments of both despair and hope, conveyed through popular music of the 20th century’s first half.

The name of the first song essentially reveals the whole picture: Tango in Auschwitz. It is, indeed, quite a concise description. The song was written in Polish by a 12-year-old Polish girl named Irka Janowski. Unfortunately, we do not know much about her other than her name and age. We do know she was not Jewish and that she perished in one of the Auschwitz camps. The song she wrote was set to a well-known pre-war tango tune and had become popular among the prisoners of the camps in the extermination complex; many remembered it later as they were being recorded by Ben Stonehill’s equipment.


Janowski’s song and biography remind us of a facet that is usually neglected in the recollection of Auschwitz. The complex comprised several extermination camps and many labor camps, and among the prisoners were many non-Jews. Tens of thousands of Poles, Romanis and people of color, as well as French and Russian war prisoners were murdered at Auschwitz. Janowski’s lyrics (translated into Yiddish by survivors) speak of the Auschwitz prisoners, but, surprisingly, do not focus on Jews:

The black man soon takes up his mandolin,
and will soon start to strum his little tune here,
and the Englishman and Frenchman sing a melody,
so a trio will arise out of this sadness.

And also the Pole soon takes up his whistle
and he will emote to the world –
The song will light up the hearts
who are longing for the freedom they miss. 

The song’s chorus ignites hope in the hearts of the listeners:

Our slave tango – under the whip of the beater,
Our slave tango in the Auschwitz camp…

Oh, freedom and liberty call!

Tango in Auschwitz was not the only tango heard in the camps. Perhaps the musical genre, which grew extremely popular in Europe in the early 20th century, served as a reminder of pre-war life – a spark of hope that the war would eventually end, and life would return to normal. And so, in Stonehill’s collections another song was found, sharing many similarities with Janowski’s song, most notably – it, too, was a tango.

This song was probably written in Auschwitz, though its writer is unknown. This time the song was written in Yiddish, not Polish. The song’s name is “Oh I Used to Have a Father” (Oy gehat hob ikh eynmol eyn tatn) and it tells the story of an orphaned child whose parents were murdered in the notorious extermination camp. The soft, comforting melody of the tango rhythm soothes the pain of loss and lessens the sting of the harsh words that describe life in the camp. The end of the song, much like Tango in Auschwitz, maintains an optimistic note: The narrator declares that he is still young and therefore chooses life and will continue to live in spite of everything.


There are many similarities between these two recordings, which represent rare documentation of the extermination camp songs that gave the prisoners a bit of hope. Both songs were most likely written by young children. They both describe the harsh reality of life in the camp, yet they express true hope that the nightmare will soon end. They are the only two songs in the collection that explicitly mention the name ‘Auschwitz’. In both cases, pain and hope are accompanied by the tango rhythm, its origin far from the land of Poland. For those listening, the songs symbolize the hope that one day, everything might return to normal.


This article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Gila Flam, a scholar of music in the Holocaust and the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel.


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The Roots of the Passover Blood Libel

When did the libel of Jews using Christian blood on Passover make its first appearance?

The Church’s position toward the Jews in medieval times is well known and documented: the presence of the deniers of the Christian Gospel was to be tolerated, their skills and abilities utilized, damage to their bodies or property avoided and their degrading and humiliating status preserved. But if this was the case, how then was the blood of thousands of Jews still spilled across Europe throughout both the Middle Ages and the modern era?

In the year 1150, the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth, who resided at Norwich Cathedral Priory, began collecting documents and testimonies for a book. According to the chronicle he compiled, a boy named William from the English town of Norwich, an apprentice leatherworker, was persuaded to leave his home with the promise of work. He stayed for a few days at the home of a wealthy Jew. On orders of the homeowner, one of the leading bankers in the city, William was kidnapped, subjected to “all the tortures of Christ,” and finally murdered, the text claims. Then, the Jews carried his body to the nearby forest, where a crown of thorns was placed on his head, a rope was wound tightly around his neck and a gag placed in his mouth. He was left hanging from a tree for many days until his body was discovered. Thomas argued that because the murder was an exact imitation of Christ’s passion, 12-year-old William should be recognized as a saint. And so he was.

A depiction of the crucifixion of William of Norwich according to “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” Holy Trinity Church, Luddon, England

Thomas’ book, completed twenty years after the alleged event, which became known as “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” was published and distributed in England after which it was copied and sent to France and the rest of the continent. Assisting Thomas in his research was a converted Jew by the name of Theobald of Cambridge, who supposedly provided Thomas with insider knowledge of the secret activities of the Jews. Theobald told Thomas that every year a Jewish council would meet to select a country where a Christian child would be murdered around Easter, in the belief that this would hasten the coming of the Messiah. In 1144, the year of William’s death, England was chosen.  Thanks to this false testimony, Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative received something akin to a seal of approval and the blood libel about the ritual murder of Christian children perpetrated by the Jews became firmly rooted in the collective European psyche.

With the spread of the blood libel in medieval Europe, a pattern emerged: Every time the body of a Christian child was discovered, suspicion would fall on the local Jews. Generally, these accusations tended to surface during the week before Easter, as the Jews were celebrating Passover, and sometimes also around the festival of Purim. The British historian Cecil Roth linked this to the Jewish custom of “hanging” an effigy symbolizing Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Roth argued that this custom was interpreted by Christian observers to be a reenactment of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Other historians have explained the timing of the episodes by linking them to the thawing winter snows – dead bodies that had been hidden all winter would be uncovered and discovered around the beginning of spring time. Either way, the connection between Passover and the blood libel about the use of the blood of Christian children to make matzo can be traced back to the story of William of Norwich, even if it does not appear in Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative in its full form.

The “success” of the blood libel forced Jewish leaders throughout the ages to come up with ways to combat the phenomenon. One in particular that comes to mind is the precaution suggested by Rabbi David, one of the arbiters of the Shulchan Aruch, who argued that drinking red wine on Passover should be avoided “because of the libelous claims of our many transgressions.”

The 16th century legend of the first Jewish superhero developed from this blood libel – the Golem of Prague, conjured by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, to protect the Jews of the city from the yearly blood libel and mayhem that came with it.

The Golem and the Maharal, by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

The official position of the Church has generally been opposed to blood libels, and most popes objected to these false accusations. The majority of the blood libels were private initiatives, but they were often backed by local authorities. The last blood libel to receive the official backing of a European government emerged during “the Beilis affair”, an episode that began with the discovery of the body of a murdered 12-year-old, Andrei Yushchinsky, in a cave outside Kiev in April, 1911.

After a hasty investigation, the Kiev police arrested the manager of a brick factory located near the cave where Yushchinsky’s body was discovered. Although the evidence against Beilis was shaky and the boy’s real killers were found not long after Beilis’ arrest, the authorities refused to release him. Only at the end of October 1913 – after more than three years during which Beilis languished in the Tsar’s prison – did a jury acquit him of the charges.  In response, Jewish publishers in Warsaw rushed to publish The Album of the Beilis Trial.

The murdered boy Andrei Yushchinsky and the “cave” where his body was discovered, from  The Album of the Beilis Trial

Even in Nazi Germany – where blood libel allegations were once again raised in newspapers and children’s books – this poisonous accusation never materialized in an actual trial. The persecution of the Jews and their systematic murder in the Holocaust was explained in racial-biological terms.

“Haven’t you heard about the ritual murders of the Jews?” from the Nazi children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom (Der Giftpilz)

The blood libel about the Jews’ use of Christian blood for matzo on Passover has not completely disappeared and echoes of it are heard from time to time (today mainly in Arab countries), and will probably continue to reverberate for many more years to come. However, we can take some comfort from Gerd Mentgen’s assessment in his article on the subject, that, “in our time, only the most incorrigible antisemites believe in the fictitious truths of the blood libel.”


Further reading:

E.M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Gerd Mentgen, “The Origins of the Blood Libel”, Zion, The Historical Society of Israel, 1994, p. 343-349 (Hebrew).


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The Exceptional Lilli Henoch: The Sad Story of a Champion Athlete

Lilli Henoch won championships and set new world records, but her accomplishments weren't enough to save her from the bullets of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen soldiers


From the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Lilli Henoch was an exceptional athlete. She was not only an outstanding sprinter, but also a long jumper. She not only set a shot put world record, she set another in the discus throw. Not only did she compete in individual fields of athletics, she was also a leader of women’s teams in both handball and hockey. Lilli Henoch was a ten-time German champion in various fields of athletics, a holder of world records – but she was also Jewish.

Lilli Henoch’s story may have a familiar ring to it. Some may recall the figure of Gretel Bergmann, a high jump champion, whom the Nazis banned from taking part in the1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Many know the story of Béla Guttmann, a legendary soccer player and coach, who survived the concentration camps. Lilli Henoch’s story is even more tragic.

Henoch was born in 1899 in the city of Königsberg, East Prussia (now the Russian city of Kaliningrad), the second child in a middle-class Jewish family. From time to time, the family would host their friendly neighbor, Albert Einstein. From a young age, Lilli loved to jump and run, but life wasn’t all fun and games. Her father, Leo, passed away when she was only 13 years old. Several years later, the family moved to Berlin, and Lilli’s mother remarried. Lilli quickly joined the Berliner Sport-Club (BSC) and engaged in athletics, at a time when the field was considered “masculine” and inappropriate for women.

Lilli Henoch takes part in a race; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

There, at the famous sports club laden with history and trophies, began the glorious career of one of the best and most versatile athletes in German history. For example, in 1924 alone, Henoch became the German national champion in four different fields: the shot put, the discus throw, the long jump, and the 4×100 meters relay. During this period, she set two discus throw world records, another world record in the shot put, and was part of the running team that achieved a world record in the 4×100 meter relay race in 1926. There are those who claim that her achievements, as well as the achievements of other German female athletes, were what encouraged the International Olympic Committee to approve women’s participation in athletics for the first time in the 1928 Olympics.

Lilli Henoch as a shot putter; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

However, as if often the case in any new field of sport, by the time the Olympics took place in Amsterdam, other athletes had already bypassed her achievements, and Henoch did not take part. Nevertheless, Lilli Henoch continued to be a prominent figure in her Berliner Sport-Club. She was captain of the handball team (a sport that was actually regarded as “proper” for women at the time), and was considered one of the best-known athletes in Berlin. Lilli was so well-respected at the Berliner Sport-Club, that on January 18th, 1933, she was elected chairwoman of the women’s athletic section.

From the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

However, just like a multitude of brilliant scientists, famous artists, educators, and others – her achievements didn’t stop the Nazi government from banning her from athletic activity from the moment they came into power in 1933 – less than two weeks after Henoch was appointed to her prestigious position. She was forced to look for a new professional home. She then joined the Jüdischer Turn-und Sportclub (JTSC), an organization affiliated with non-Zionist, assimilated Jews. She played for the club’s handball team in the Jewish leagues of the 1930s, and won two championships. She also became a gymnastics teacher at a Jewish school in the city.

Lilli Henoch playing handball; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Years later, Lilli’s sister Susie said Henoch received an offer to move to the Netherlands and work there as a coach. Henoch refused, although it was already apparent that staying in Germany was dangerous. She preferred to stay in Berlin with her mother, who was widowed for the second time. In 1942, the mother and daughter were deported from Berlin and sent by train to Riga, in Latvia. There is contradictory information regarding what exactly happened next. However, what we do know for certain is that Lilli and her mother Rose were executed by Einsatzgruppen death squads and buried – with many others – in a mass grave in the woods near the Latvian city.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of one German scholar, Martin-Heinz Ehlert, the name of Lilli Henoch has been commemorated across Berlin. Several sports venues are named after her: a school gymnastics hall, a soccer field not far from the Jewish Museum, and a small street.

So why is Lilli Henoch’s name not so familiar here in Israel? Why is so little written about her in Hebrew? Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Henoch was not a Zionist, and did not join a well-known Jewish and Zionist club, like Berlin’s highly successful Bar Kochba club. For Henoch, sport was not a political cause, but a passion, a pleasure, and a haven for her competitive nature. Lilli Henoch simply wished to jump and run.


Thanks to Ronen Dorfan for his assistance in writing this article.


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