In Color: Photos of Libyan Jews Brought to Life

These historical photographs documenting Jewish communities in Libya now appear more life-like than ever.

לוב שחור לבן וצבעים

Written by Pedahzur Benatia

As a child, I remember my parents showing me photographs that they brought with them when they immigrated from Libya to Israel in 1949. The photos gave me a direct window into the life of our family. Some of these were family portraits taken in photography studios, while others showed scenes from our hometown. I remember one photograph of the magnificent local synagogue in particular.

Years later, I began to deal with Libyan Jewish heritage professionally. Today, I am in charge of the Or Shalom Center in Bat Yam, an organization which serves to preserve the heritage of Libyan Jews. Over time, many photos have been added to Or Shalom’s ever-growing archive, but color photos were unheard of. We acquired countless photographs depicting bustling markets, streets and enchanting alleyways, incredible buildings and synagogues. There were images documenting Zionist celebrations and Jewish ceremonies featuring members of the community dressed in their finest garments. When I looked at these pictures it was as though the people in the photographs were shouting up at me: “Make no mistake, habibi, life back then was full of color and beauty! Why don’t you do something about it and show this to the world!”

Every time I looked at the black and white pictures, I found myself wondering about small details like the color of the wall in a synagogue, or the shade of the silk shawl that a particular woman wore, or even the color-tone and texture of a teacher’s suit in a school photo. I wanted to be as immersed as possible in the piece of history I held in my hand.

About three years ago, while perusing the internet for information on Libyan Jews, I came across the work of an artist named Arik Danino. It featured digitally colored photographs of David Ben Gurion declaring the foundation of the State of Israel and IDF soldiers at the Western Wall.

I wasted no time in messaging him, “Hey Arik, I saw the beautiful pictures you posted, and I could not help but feel envious. I have been dreaming about such a project for years. But, I had not known it was possible until I came across your pictures. Could you possibly give some of our photographs the same treatment?” And, the rest is history.


Members of the Society of Young Zionists of Tripoli
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Jews of Libya
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Jews of Libya


The first challenge we encountered in the project was how to communicate the vast knowledge that had been accumulated at Or Shalom to a professional who was unfamiliar with the community


לוב שחור לבן וצבעים

לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Students in a drill lesson


We began by looking at photographs of clothing, in particular the lively zdad which was worn by women. We spoke to elderly members of the community about the coloring of the walls in the synagogue, the curtains in the hall, and the paving in the courtyard of the “Hatikva” school.


A zdad garment


Arik immersed himself in the work – asking questions, coloring, corresponding with us, making corrections here and there – soon enough, we saw wonderful results.

Arik sent me picture after picture, each one more beautiful than the last. A total of twelve photographs were carefully selected from our archive. These were the photographs that were meticulously colored and used in the first edition of a calendar that we now publish every year.


Libyan Jewish women


With the fantastic outcome from the initial project, our appetite only grew. The following year, we continued the project with the artist Raphael Ben Zikri who was able to produce another wonderful calendar. Nowadays, whenever we receive a new, striking photograph that catches our eye, we make sure to pass it along for a special color treatment that brings the scene to life.


The Pietro Verri Girls’ School in Libya
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
The streets of Tripoli
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
The streets of Tripoli
Celebrating Israel’s first Independence Day in Libya


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Documenting the Lost Jewish Communities of Bavaria

Theodor Harburger’s photographs of synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects are all that remain of the rural Jewish communities of Bavaria after the Holocaust.


File record from Theodor Harburger's collection of photographs for a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) from Munich, Germany, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

By the end of the 19th-century, many of the smaller Jewish communities in rural Germany had begun to shrink. Many young people were leaving home for the big cities or for America in search of higher education and employment. Several smaller Jewish communities were completely dismantled, their synagogues abandoned, and objects of religious, cultural and artistic value were lost or sold off.

In the Bavaria region, the Jewish communities, fearing their cultural heritage may be lost to time, took initiative and established an association for the documentation of Jewish art and culture. They brought an art historian named Theodor Harburger on board to begin documenting the unique culture that existed in the rural Jewish Bavarian communities at the time. Harburger took on the project gladly and set his own goal of providing his Jewish contemporaries an awareness of their own heritage and local culture.

Pappenheim synagogue
A synagogue in Pappenheim, Germany that was built in 1811. This photograph by Theodor Harburger on 6.12.1926, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Between 1926 and 1932, Theodor Harbuger photographed and documented Jewish ritual objects and synagogues dating as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. Harburger was acutely aware of the importance of his work and took the assignment very seriously, working in an organized manner, documenting every step of the way, preserving for the future those items which characterized Jewish life.

Over the course of six years in the field, Harburger managed to take over 800 photographs in 213 communities in Bavaria. In addition to thoroughly cataloging each subject by including the name and material of the item, its measurements, and the name of the artist, he also included handwritten notes for each place he visited.

menorah card
File record card from Theodor Harburger’s photography project featuring a Menorah from Munich, Germany. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects all underwent the intensive documentation process set up by Harburger to ensure he was preserving the community in the best way possible. While he did not photograph every object he came across, he highlighted the most interesting items and took notes on others that were not to be included in the images.

Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:


Harburger set about his work with the hope that his intensive study of the rich and vast history of Jewish communities of Bavaria might bring about a renewal of modern Jewish life in the area and that perhaps even the local Christian communities could benefit from the rich cultural heritage the Jews had to offer. Little did he know that, just a few years after completing his work, those Jewish communities would be no more.

Bechhofen Synagogue
The interior of a 17th-century wooden synagogue in Bechhofen, Bavaria. Photograph by Theodor Harburger, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

With the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, Harburger immigrated to the Land of Israel with more than 1,000 glass negatives and hundreds of pages of drawings. That was all that remained of his six-year project when the reality he so painstakingly documented disappeared just five years later, in November 1938, during the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The sites he had photographed were destroyed and many of the objects he documented were stolen while others were vandalized or destroyed.

Kleinbardorf cemetary
A Jewish cemetery in Kleinbardorf, Germany as photographed by Theodore Harburger. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Harburger’s photographs, many of which were unique, bear witness to all that was there before the Holocaust, to the communities that once thrived and contributed to Bavaria’s rich cultural tapestry. Not much is known about his activities in Germany or in Israel following this project but his work has had a lasting impact. Approximately twenty percent of the items he photographed have since been rehoused in museums around the world. It was his work that provided accurate geographical and technical information to those institutions.

A set of bechers, cups used to make the ceremonial blessings on wine, in Munich, Germany, photographed by Theodor Harburger on 14.10.1927, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Theodor Harburger died on October 15, 1949. In 1957, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) acquired his collection of glass negatives, slides, contact photos, notes and booklets from his widow, Meta Harburger. Hundreds of photographs from Harburger collection were published in a three-volume catalog, edited by Bernhard Purin, following an exhibition in Fuerth, Germany. The photographs are being used today in various studies in the field of provenance research.

harburger publication
Publication of Theodor Harburger’s works, 1998, by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in the city of Fürth in Germany

Thanks to Hadassah Assouline from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) for her help in writing this article. Parts of this article first appeared in an issue of Segula Magazine in December 2010.

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.

How Lenin’s Great-Grandfather, a Convert, Informed on the Jews

“I had already recognized their stupidity thirty years ago” - Secret police files reveal how the Russian leader's ancestor betrayed his brethren.

Lenin and his great-grandfather's letter

Lenin and his great-grandfather's letter.

By Hadassah Assouline


The letter below was sent to Tsar Nicholas I on January 5, 1845 by Moshe Itzkovich Blank, a Jewish convert from Zhitomir who had taken the name Dmitry Ivanovich Blank after his conversion (converts were not permitted to change their family name). Written in Yiddish, the letter along with a Russian translation, reached the head of the “Third Section”—which functioned as a secret police—at the Tsar’s private office. It remained unknown to researchers until the 1990s when the Russian translation appeared in newspapers in Russia.

The letter aroused great interest due to the identity of the writer’s great-grandson—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—who was none other than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. However, the real significance of this letter lies not in the relationship of its author to Lenin, but in the information it reveals about the world of many Russian Jews who had converted to Christianity over the course of the nineteenth century.

Vladimir Illyich Lenin, great-grandson of Moshe Blank. The father of the communist revolution apparently was not aware of his Jewish roots. Photo: LOC

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of the archives in former Soviet Union countries, a wealth of evidence was discovered about the conversion of Jews. The material was located in the files of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches and in the files of various police institutions, including the Third Section, where an additional category of converts was uncovered. It seems that among the converts were informants who informed on members of their community because of personal disputes, as well as others who quarreled with their communities or community leaders as a result of informing on another community member. Their appearance in the police files was usually related to the information the informants provided and the follow-up investigation.


The Quarrels that Bred an Informer

We know of at least two episodes in which Moshe Blank, the author of the letter presented here, quarreled with a fellow townsman and members of the community of Starokostiantyniv (Alt Konstantin) in Volhynia province. In 1809, after a string of earlier disagreements, the Jewish community accused him of setting fire to the town. A trial acquitted Blank but he left the community and moved to Zhitomir, also in Volhynia province, from where he continued his retaliation against members of his former community in a letter of complaint which he sent to Tsar Alexander I. This letter, which predates the one below, never reached the Tsar but remained with the local authorities in Zhitomir.

Blank also became embroiled in disputes with the local Jews of Zhitomir and following legal proceedings he lost most of his vast property, including a local brick factory. The episode stretched from 1838 to 1844, and immediately after it Moshe Blank converted, changing his name to Dmitry Ivanovich.

Unlike other letters from informants in the Third Section files, Blank’s does not inform on a particular person or on members or leaders of a particular community, but on the Jews of Russia in general, and his missive had consequences for Russian Jewry for years to come.


The Letter’s Contents: The Jews “are not worthy of the grace bestowed upon them by the Emperor”

To our Lord the Emperor, His Merciful Excellency, Father of us all, May God grant him Life, Peace, Blessings and Fortune at Every Turn for His Longevity, Nikolai Pavelovich.

Our Lord Emperor, His Mercy rewards many favors to the Jews [Note: This is the tsar who conscripted young Jewish boys into twenty years of army service!] with his royal decrees that Jews must educate their children in government schools. It is clear to people of intelligent that in his mercy the Emperor wishes for the Jews to be educated and to dress as decent people.

The boors among the Jews do not understand this benevolence. They call these munificent decrees edicts. They are not worthy of the goodness the Emperor bestows upon them. I am now close to ninety and I was baptized in the Christian faith on the first of January 1845, and I attend church and see how every day the prayer is recited for the welfare of his Excellency the Emperor, for the welfare of the heir to the throne and for the welfare of his family. And this is right, because it is written in the Talmud “Oh pray for the welfare of the Kingdom” etc. And the Jews, even on the Day of Atonement, when they sit in the synagogue for the entire day … they do not say even one prayer for the welfare of the kingdom, despite that the prayer for the welfare of the Emperor His Excellency himself, not his family, is found in the prayer book, though the Jews never recite this prayer. It is there for the sake of appearances only … I had already recognized their stupidity thirty years ago, and distanced myself from them. And I placed my two sons in [government] schools, and twenty years ago I sent them to Petersburg to the university and there they completed their medical studies and were baptized. One, a military physician, died in Petersburg from cholera, and the other [Lenin’s grandfather] serves the Emperor in the city of Perm. I could not be baptized as long as my wife was alive, and after her death I was baptized so that I might end my life in the true faith. I know that not a few Jews would like to sway the Jews from their silly ways … but they must remain silent because there are some that hope to gain from their parents’ inheritance and there are some who fear their wives.  

… For the Jews receive many benefits from Christians both in terms of religion and in life. First, if the Christian will not buy the non-kosher meat [from the Jews] they will have to throw the meat away; and if the Christian will not buy the leavened bread on Passover, they will have to forfeit it. And second, the Christian serves the Jews on the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement by lighting the lamps in the synagogue and he [the Jew] profits from the Christian. The Jew should not despise the Christian, it is only that the Jew waits his entire life for the coming of the Messiah and a few times a day says in his prayers “I believe in the coming of the Messiah,” etc., and asks daily to be liberated from [Russian] citizenship and to be free. 

My Lord the Emperor, His Excellency, it is my wish that the Jews will be pressed so that they will not be permitted to benefit from Christians as I have written and that their prayers which they pray about the Messiah be erased so that they will no longer be remembered anywhere. First, because they cannot be educated while they look forward to happiness [the coming of the Messiah]. And second, it is outrageous that they have sworn to be true citizens at the same time as they are praying for “liberation.” They must also be ordered not to travel to the rabbis and the rabbis must be forbidden to travel to them, because the rabbis sway them from the right path. And may they be instructed to pray for the welfare of the Emperor, [for the welfare] of the heir to the throne and [for the welfare of] his family. And if this is true in the eyes of the Emperor, certainly the Jews will be educated and will thank him greatly for the good things he wishes to do for them.   

Dmitry Ivanovich Blank

January 5, 1845

סבא רבה של לנין
The letter, click to enlarge.


Response to the Letter: Edicts

Two days after the head of the Third Section read the letter, he presented Tsar Nicholas I with a report about the letter of the “convert from among the Jews.” In the report, the head of the department noted all of Blank’s accusations against the Jews and he suggested adopting a series of measures in the spirit of Blank’s letter.


ניקוליי הראשון
Nicholas I, the Tsar to whom Blank wrote, was also called the “Iron Tsar” for his belief in the absolutist regime. His lust for power was to a great extent turned toward the Jews through the “Jewish Reforms”—hundreds of harsh edicts, the cruelest of which was the Cantonist edict.

At the end of the report is a note by the governor of Zhitomir who wrote/had this to say about Blank: “A convert from the Jews, whose character suggests he is a troublemaker with a tendency to snitch, and who is not at all well-behaved.” Yet this negative characterization did not prevent further contact between the Russian authorities and Blank. In August 1846, Blank wrote another document, again in Yiddish, “about various methods of converting the Jews.” This document was sent to the Ministry of the Interior, which passed it on, by order of the Tsar, to the “Committee for Jewish Affairs.” In addition to his earlier recommendations, Blank suggested to forbid gatherings of Hasidim, whom he called “known zealots.”

Based on this document, on December 4, 1846, the committee concluded that conversion of the Jews was not on the agenda but their reluctance to recite the prayer for the welfare of the Tsar was intolerable. The committee noted that information on this failure was received from other sources, and therefore ordered—through the Ministry of the Interior—to monitor the attitude of the Jews to this prayer and punish those who did not recite it.

Over the course of a decade, central and local committees continued their activities throughout Russia regarding the prayer for the tsar and his family. It was only in May 1855 that the text of the prayer was agreed upon and approved by the tsar. Blank’s other proposals were submitted to the rabbinical committee but yielded no practical results. Indeed, “your ruiners and destroyers will come from amongst you.”


This article originally appeared in Hebrew in issue #16 of Segula – The Jewish History Magazine.


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Hate in Nazi Germany as Photographed from the Back of a Motorcycle

In 1935, a photojournalist was sent by a Jewish news agency to document the growing anti-Semitism under the rule of Nazi Germany.

Reading articles and announcements at stand of the Nazi newspaper, "Der Stürmer."

In January of 1936, a photo album arrived at the National and University Library. The album was sent to Jerusalem by the head office of the Jewish News Agency in Amsterdam. It was not a large album and contained just twenty-two photographs. Each image in the album documented a sign that was hung in condemnation of the Jews, a public declaration of anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in Germany, providing a simple snapshot of life under Nazi rule as documented in the autumn of 1935.


A map of Nazi Germany. The red line indicated the route taken by the Dutch photographer on his motorcycle.

The photographer’s name did not appear in the album and seemingly was not preserved through the upheavals of history.  The photographer, a Dutchman who rode his motorcycle from the county of Bentheim on the Dutch-German border, through Hamburg, all the way to Berlin, covering a distance of 500 kilometers, was sent by two Jewish journalists from Holland named Hans Reichmann and Alfred Wiener.

The pair established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam in 1929 with one goal in mind: to document the true nature of Nazi Germany as it was revealed and to make evident the Nazi treatment of the Jews to the world. The staff of the Jewish Central Information Office hoped that disseminating the pictures would rally public opinion and remove any doubts regarding the nature of the racist regime that had successfully come to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.

“Jews are unwanted guests”

But it seems that they failed at their mission. The photos were indeed publicized throughout the world with a copy of the album successfully reaching even the far off Land of Israel, but the hoped-for resonance was not achieved and the world paid no mind. It was surely a naïve hope on the part of Reichmann and Wiener that these images would have their intended effect.

Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:


“Contact with Jews = exclusion from the village community”

In 1939 Reichmann and Wiener were forced to halt their activities, and consequently, they emigrated from Amsterdam to London. It was there that Alfred Wiener donated his collections to an institution that later became the Wiener Library, now one of the most important documentation centers in the world for the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Another copy of the album now resides at the Wiener Library, testifying to the courageous attempt of a group of brave German Jews to alert the world and arouse public opinion against the crimes of the Nazis three years before the outbreak of the war.

“The road to Palestine does not cross through here!”

Homegrown German Anti-Semitism

When delving deeper into the background of the seemingly simple photographs showing roadside signs and other posters from the entrances to small and large localities alike, we learned that the photographer did not document official Nazi policy. What becomes apparent from the photographs is that the residents of Germany themselves prepared the signs and placed them in their own environments as a way of expressing their personal sentiments towards the Jewish minority.

“Jews: Immigrate to your land – in our land, we already know who you are.”

“We do not want to see Jews, Jews are the source of our trouble, they feed off of our bodies.”

“Jews are not wanted here.”

“The local community wants no contact with Jews.”

Recommendations for where the Jews should go instead were also posted:

“The road to Palestine does not pass through here.”

“Jews: Immigrate to your land – in our land, we already know you.”


Sign at the entrance of a town to discourage Jews from entering.


Sign at the entrance of a town to discourage Jews from entering.

Not one such sign was required by law. All of them were posted as an expression of authentic local and national sentiment – stated clearly in block letters without any reservation or apology. These signs which espoused a genuine hatred of Jews, the perspective that the Jew is a foreigner from another land, and complete rejection of the Jews, gave a clear indication as to the dark future ahead.

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