Ephraim Moshe Lilien: “The First Zionist Artist”

According to E.M. Lilien, Zionism would be the art of the new Jews through which the new Jews would represent themselves.

Ephraim Moshe Lilien at his desk, 1902. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

In December 1901 the art nouveau artist Ephraim Moshe Lilien joined his compatriots in the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. There, he became part of an art revolution. Lilien, along with the Democratic Faction led by Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann, called on the World Zionist Organization to adopt a program of Hebrew culture and a greater degree of democracy within the organization

At the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901. Theodor Herzl can be seen in the center along with other Zionist who’s who of the day. E.M. Lilien is sitting on the floor on the bottom right. From the National Library’s Photography Collection

One of Lilien’s most famous pieces of art was the Jewish National Fund (קק”ל) emblem and logo which you can see below. The Fifth Zionist Congress’ most memorable accomplishment was the establishment of the Jewish National Fund.

Jewish National Fund postcard, ca. 1901,Warsaw Levanon Company

Lilien’s friendship with Martin Buber enabled his art to become not merely Jewish, or nor be an artist with who worked with Jewish themes, but to be a Zionist artist and thus part of a movement that was not merely political and social, but cultural as well.

The illustration Lilien created for the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901-02. Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilen’s part in the art revolution began he attended the Fifth Zionist Congress. Born in Drohobycz, Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1874. By 1889 Lilien went on to study painting and graphic techniques at the Academy of Arts in Kraków until 1893. It was during that time that Lilien studied under the painter Jan Matejko, considered one of Poland’s greatest historical painters  from 1890 to 1892. Initially his art wasn’t specifically Zionist; at least he didn’t think so. But in 1900 he published his first major art project: He illustrated biblical scenes and Jewish images in the book “Juda, ballads of Börries von Münchhausen”, which is, ironically enough, a Christian retelling of the bible

Dancing in Ancient Israel, an illustration from “Juda”, 1900, reproduced on a postcard published by Charlottenburg

He didn’t shy away from contemporary Jewish issues in his art.  When the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld’s book, “Poems from the Ghetto”, was translated into German, he was commissioned to illustrate it for the German audience. He very seriously and diligently illustrated the suffering of the Jews as they migrated from one form of poverty in Eastern Europe to another in America, where the majority of immigrants became peddlers or sweatshop workers exploited by factory managers.

Eternal Vagabonds, ca. 1903, Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

In 1903 the Russian persecution of the Jews came to a head during the Kishinev Pogroms. The Russian Empire’s oppression of Jews made it clear to Lilien that anti-Semitism had to be fought both politically and culturally and that the victims had to be honored.

“In Honor of the Sanctified Dead of Kishinev”, ca. 1903. Of Maxim Gorkis Zbornik, Berlin. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

It seemed that Lilien decided that art would be the gentle sledgehammer with which Jews would break the chains of the Diaspora. And the art of the new Jew would represent the new Jew. The illustration below shows the tension between the opposing forces of the Jewish world at the time. One line shows religious, traditional Jews moving backwards, whereas the other line shows modern, muscular Jews moving forwards towards the horizon.

Father and Son, ca. 1904. Verlag Zion, Wien. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilien went on several expeditions to the Land of Israel on behalf of the World Zionist Organization. One of these expeditions was with Boris Schatz in 1906, when they established the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the emblem of which is Lilien’s design. Lilien also taught the school’s first class in 1906. Lilien didn’t stay at Bezalel or in the Land of Israel after that first year. He returned to Berlin in 1907, but continued to visit the Land of Israel periodically until 1918.

The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design emblem

Lilien died in Germany in 1925 at the age of 51. A street in Jerusalem is named for him.

E.M. Lilien in his studio in Berlin, ca. 1910. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

Information for the article gathered from The Art and Artists of the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901 and Zionism and the Creation of a New Society.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Gil Weissblei.

All illustrations are by E.M. Lilien.


Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past

Organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in partnership with the National Library of Israel (NLI), a stunning exhibition of Islamic manuscripts, including twenty-four from the NLI's own collections, is set to open in New York City.

Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past, opening on February 14, 2018 brings together an exceptional group of rare Islamic manuscripts that testify to the fertile relationship between medieval Islam and the classical world. Covering medicine, philosophy, the exact sciences and poetic retellings of the Alexander Romance in Persian and Turkish, the exhibition includes lavish illustrations of Alexander the Great’s adventures and intricate mathematical, astronomical, and medical diagrams.

Nicomachus, the father of Aristotle, teaching Iskandar while Aristotle looks on, “Khamsa”, Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), India, 17th century. From the collections of The National Library of Israel / Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama

This exhibition provides an engrossing visual record of how, over the course of centuries, scholars, scientists, doctors, artists, and others in the Islamic world transformed ancient Greek material for their own day. Conceived and organized by ISAW in partnership with the National Library of Israel, Romance and Reason is curated by Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Research Associate, ISAW; Samuel Thrope, Selector, National Library of Israel, and Raquel Ukeles, Curator, National Library of Israel. Jennifer Y. Chi is curatorial and design manager for the project.

“This exhibition is an extraordinary opportunity for the Library. Including 24 manuscripts from the NLI’s Islam and Judaica collections, it is the largest exhibition of NLI manuscripts outside Israel, and the largest exhibition of our Islamic manuscripts ever,” said Raquel Ukeles, Curator of the National Library’s Islam and Middle East Collection. “Not only does Romance and Reason give us a chance to showcase some of the finest manuscripts from our Yahuda Collection to an international audience, it also allows us to build and strengthen relationships with leading cultural institutions in New York City and beyond.”


From about 750 CE to the end of the tenth century, Muslim translators, scholars, and commentators rendered a large portion of the extant classical Greek works of literature, science, philosophy, medicine, magic, and astronomy into Arabic. Seeking to learn from and make use of the knowledge the translations contained, these scholars expanded, updated, reimagined, corrected, and otherwise remade the documents to serve contemporary use.

In so doing, they shaped the intellectual contours of the Islamic world up to the dawn of modernity.

Romance and Reason opens a window into this fruitful interaction between Islam and the classical world with two thematic installations: one devoted to Islamic versions of the story of Alexander the Great, the other to scientific and mathematic topics.

Romance and Reason presents some thirty illuminated versions of the Persian accounts of the life of Alexander: the Shahnamah, or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by Abu al-Qasim Firdausi between 977 and 1010 CE, and the Khamsa, or Quintet, by Nizami Ganjavi, dating from the late 12th century CE. With a variety of exquisitely executed illuminations, the manuscripts in the exhibition were created over the course of five centuries. Together, they portray the evolution of Iskandar’s character and identity, showing him as warrior, king, seeker of truth, prophet, and more.

Iskandar and his retinue meeting with a hermit who then opens the gates of the Fortress of Darband by his prayer, “Khamsa”, Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), India, 17th century. From the collections of The National Library of Israel / Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama

The second section of Romance and Reason is devoted to Islamic developments in medicine, mathematics, astrology, and astronomy, with manuscripts that illustrate the ways in which Muslim physicians, mathematicians, and scientists elaborated on their classical predecessors’ discoveries, transforming works of the past into materials of use in their own place and time.

For example, highlights of the exhibition’s especially rich assortment of medical materials include four 12th century manuscripts, all by different artists, illustrating vignettes from the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius’s De materia medica; as well as one of the most important medical works written by an Islamic scholar: The Canon of Medicine, by the physician and philosopher Avicenna (980-1037 CE). Avicenna’s work remained a major medical textbook until the nineteenth century, as important to the Islamic world as Hippocrates was to the Greeks.

Diagram of the Eye, “Revision of The Book of Optics for Those Possessing Sight and Insight by Ibn al-Haytham,” Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (1260–ca. 1320), Ottoman Turkey, 1511, From the collections of the National Library of Israel

The exhibition will run until May 13, 2018 and will be held at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th St., New York, NY.

Into the Depths of Evil: How the Nazis “Recruited” the Talmud for Anti-Semitic Propaganda

It was the Talmud, more than any other book, which the Nazis used as conclusive proof of Jewish inferiority and the racial danger posed by the Jewish people.

The burning of books in Berlin, 1933. Source: Bundesarchiv, Germany

In the previous article, we discussed religiously motivated Christian attacks on the Talmud. As we saw, the Talmud was identified with the refutations and lies the Jews (allegedly) spread against Jesus, and Christianity in general.

The Nazis too did not remain neutral regarding the Talmudic period. They did so with racist motives. The Nazi party took power in 1933 at a time of an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere in Germany due, amongst other reasons, to their defeat in the First World War.

The anti-Semitic publications were not long in coming.

One of the harshest anti-Talmudic publications of this period is a booklet of caricatures published by the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Hammer named “The Jewish Appearance“. The artist Karl Relnik drew 35 clearly anti-Semitic illustrations and connected them all to words from the Talmud. On each picture is a quote from the Talmud, but the editor “forgot” to state the exact source of each quote, making it impossible to check its accuracy. Some of the pictures also have explanatory sentences from the writings of August Rohling (see the previous article) and others.



Der Judenspiegel, Leipzig 1926


One of the prominent figures in Nazi Germany was Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. Many Nazi intellectuals published venomous and detailed attacks on Judaism and its literature in that newspaper, primarily against the Talmud. During his trial in the Nuremburg Trials, Streicher admitted that he had read the Talmud at great depth and considers himself a leading expert in Jewish works, mainly the Talmud.

However, the highest-ranking Nazi to write about the Talmud was undoubtedly Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi movement’s chief ideologist and later the one responsible for the occupied territory in Eastern Europe. Rosenberg claimed self-righteously that, “When we attack the Jews, we are not doing so out of disregard of freedom of thought, as they claim, but to attack a legal viewpoint which completely contradicts that of all countries.”

He claims that the more moral thinking is entrenched in a nation, there is less need for instructions and orders about behavior. The fact that Jews have so many commandments and that Jewish law delves into the most minute details of Jewish life, proves their lack of moral understanding. Therefore, the Jews only adhere to and emphasize control of technical instructions.

In a booklet which he published, Unmoral im Talmud (“Lack of Morality in the Talmud”) in 1920 and again in the 1930’s, Rosenberg quotes a selection of sayings from the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law), which ostensibly attest to the Jewish people’s moral inferiority. He begins with an introduction which describes the significance Jews attach to the Talmud, and says that approximately two thirds of the Jewish people still adhere to it 2000 years later.

Rosenberg contends that the opinions of Jews who are seemingly unaffiliated with the Talmud is also impacted by what is written in the Talmud, as its content is ingrained in the Jewish people. The Jews have double moral standards, and act among themselves with different moral standards than those they display toward gentiles. Rosenberg’s book is divided into six chapters: Jewish dialectics, love and marriage, law and justice, about service, Jesus and non-Jews and the Shulchan Aruch. Each chapter begins with a short explanatory foreword, followed by a list of relevant quotes.


Unmoral im Talmud, München 1933


One of Rosenberg’s senior staff members was Dr. Johann Pohl, who was responsible for the looting of many of the Jewish libraries in Eastern Europe. Pohl studied Catholic theology and wrote two doctorial works, one on the prophet Ezekiel and the other on the Jewish family during the period of the prophets. He visited the Land of Israel and studied Bible and Hebrew at the Hebrew University. He even published articles about the archeology of the Land of Israel. He later became a librarian in the field of Judaism and advanced to the important role of managing the library of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. He wrote articles on the topics of Judaism, Zionism and Talmud, and even an article about the libraries in the Land of Israel in the Germany librarianship journal Zentralblatt fur Bibliothekswesen. Interestingly, in that article he refers to the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) and its collections. He mentions its founder, Dr. Joseph Chasanowich; the library’s director, Dr. Hugo Bergman; and other important figures such as Gershom Scholem and Avraham Schwadron.

Pohl also wrote two books about the Jewish Talmud – a booklet named Die Religion Des Talmud and a longer book named Talmud Geist. In this book, Pohl explains the structure of the Talmud and each Jew’s obligation to fulfill what is written in it, including Jews who do not define themselves as religious. The book is replete with quotations emphasizing the Jewish hatred of gentiles and the belief that Jews are the chosen people. It is interesting to note that the book’s cover picture was from a censored edition of Maimonides’s Hilchot Avodah Zara [Laws of Idolatry].


Talmudgeist, Berlin 1941


Karl Georg Kuhn, one of the foremost experts on Judaism in Nazi Germany, presented a different approach to the Talmud. He studied Protestant theology, Semitic languages and New Testament Studies in the Jewish Theological Seminar and in Tübingen University. He was appointed as a lecturer there years later and taught courses on Talmud, Zionism, the Jewish question and Judaism’s attitude toward Christianity in the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. In contrast with previous attackers of the Talmud, he avoided provocative words of hatred and even wrote critically about those who did. He focused on the Talmud as scientific research. He did not use the writings of Eisenmenger, Rohling and their ilk, but based his writing on more academic and neutral sources.

Kuhn’s attacks on the Talmud were much more complex and scholarly than those of his predecessors. Instead of attacking the books’ content, Kuhn attacked the entire structure of the Talmud. He saw the Talmud as a legal, spiritually empty text, which embodies the entire spirit of Judaism and the Torah as a collection of different narratives. He dated Judaism itself to the period of Ezra the scribe, who he claimed to be the one to link the Torah to the Jewish religion as a Godly work. He directed his in-depth attacks toward rabbinical Judaism and its form of thinking. He published his thoughts on this matter in three long articles in the journal of the Institute for the History of New Germany, Forschungen zur Judenfrage, and later in a booklet which he published in 1939.

The Quote That Never Was

The same quotes repeat themselves over and over again in the various publications. One of the most “condemning” quotes, which appears in articles and books over the past 120 years, is from a non-existent source.

This popular source is “Libbre David 37”. There, according to the common quote, is written that “If a Jew should wish to explain some of the Rabbinic literature, he must only provide a false explanation. One who transgresses this commandment will be put to death. Providing information about our attitude toward the gentile religion would be equivalent to killing all the Jews, for if the gentiles would know what we teach about them, they would kill us.”

There is no source named “Libbre David” in any Talmudic tractate or any other Jewish book.

It could be referring to the Book of Psalms, as “liber” is book in Latin and most of the psalms are attributed to King David, but there is still no text there matching this “quotation”. Psalm 37 tells of the fall of enemies of the Jews, but does not make any mention of keeping the secrets of Judaism and the danger in revealing them. There are those who claimed it to be a spelling mistake and as referring to the book “Divrei David”. It is indeed written in this way in the introduction to Alfred Rosenberg’s book, where he quotes it. There are several books named “Divrei David”. The first published (Lublin, 1671), was the book of Rabbi David Lida. Interestingly, one of Rabbi David Lida’s acquaintances was none other than Eisenmenger (a Christian philosopher we discussed in the previous article), who claimed at the time to be interested in Judaism in order to convert. I went through the entire book and did not find any connection to the quotation under discussion. The theologist and orientalist Hermann Strack wrote that he went through three different books named Divrei David and did not find any mention of the quoted words of hatred. Theodor Fritsch, in his book Beweis-Material gegen Jahwe, and Joseph Bloch, in his book Israel und die Völker , attribute the “Libbre David” to two vague sources.

A search for the words “Libbre David 37” in an online search engine will yield thousands of results from different forums, Neo-Nazi websites and radical religious websites. All provide the same quote, but none of them explain what the book Libbre David is.

Anti-Semitic publications do no have to be accurate.

Many books and articles were written against the Jewish Talmud over the past hundred years. In this article (and the previous article) we only discussed some of the most influential of them. All the books mentioned are found on the shelves of the National Library, not far from the thousands of different editions of the Talmud itself.


The Partisan Poet Rescued from the Woods of Lithuania

The life of Avraham Sutzkever, the foremost Yiddish poet in Israel, spanned almost the entire tumultuous revolution-and-war-filled 20th century.

Avraham Sutzkever

Avraham Sutzkever, the sensitive poet, personally experienced both the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in all their intensity. He was an expert at summarizing emotions, feelings and thoughts and distilling them into short lines of poetry. He did all this in his own language, his mother tongue and that of his ancestors in Lithuania – Yiddish.

By the start of the Second World War, Avraham Sutzkever was already a published and well-known poet, one of the youngest, sharpest and most promising in the developing literary center of Vilna. During the war, Sutzkever walked along the path of suffering with the Jews of Vilna and witnessed the arrests and the executions, the deportations to the ghettos and the massacres at Paneriai. He continued to write throughout the daily struggle for survival, and took part in the ghetto theatre. Most of his time was spent documenting the life of Jews, Jewish culture and the crimes the Nazis committed against them. Sutzkever and his friends collected every note, every book and every scrap of testimony, hiding or smuggling them out of the ghetto. The poet joined the underground movement in the ghetto and wrote about the terrible things he experienced and witnessed: about his mother who was murdered in Paneriai; his baby who was born and murdered in the ghetto hospital.

Am I the last poet left singing in Europe?

Am I making song now for corpses and crows?

I’m drowning in fire, in gunk, in the swamps,

Imprisoned by yellow patched hours as they close.”


(From “Song of a Jewish Poet in 1943”. The Vilna Ghetto. Translated by A.Z. Foreman)

In September 1943, a few short days before the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, when Sutzkever was exhausted and despondent, his wife Freydke persuaded him to escape from the ghetto and join the partisans. Freydke, Sutzkever and his close friend Shmerke Kaczerginski walked a hundred kilometers together with the partisans, skirting non-Jewish villages and the German army, until they reached the Lake Naroch region and joined the partisan camp “Nekoma” [Revenge].

Sutzkever, the partisan poet, holding a sub-machine gun

While he fought with the partisans, the poem “Kol Nidrei” which Sutzkever had written while still in the ghetto reached Russia. The poem related the tale of the aktions of Yom Kippur 5732 [1941], in which almost 4000 Jews from the Vilna Ghetto were taken to Paneriai. The poem was translated into Russian and read out in 1944 in the Central House of Writers in Moscow. It made a huge impression. The audience was astounded by the power of Sutzkever’s words, which revealed the horrors of the Final Solution.

A public appeal to save him led to an official command from the Soviet authorities to bring the partisan poet to Moscow.

The first airplane the Soviets sent to the forests to rescue the poet crashed, and the fragments of its tin wings were made into a suitcase for Sutzkever, in which he stored all his poems and the war testimony he had in his possession. A second airplane sent in March 1944 landed successfully on the frozen lake. It was a two-seater airplane, Sutzkever boarded it and sat in the front seat with his wife Freydka strapped onto his knees while two wounded partisans crammed into the back. He did not forget the suitcase. The airplane managed to take off  and reach the Russian side safely, barely evading German anti-aircraft fire on the way.

Avraham Sutzkever’s tin suitcase

The Sutzkever family reached Moscow that month, where they were welcomed by Stalin’s men. The poet opened the suitcase in their presence and showed them the testimony it contained. An enormous gathering attended by thousands of people was held in Moscow in his honor, where he was received as a national hero.

Sutzkever’s story about the Vilna Ghetto and the Jewish partisans who fought against the Nazis was published in ‘Pravda’, and read by tens of millions of people across the Soviet Union. He received letters from throughout the Soviet Union, and traveled to collect testimonies from survivors of the occupied territories liberated by the Russians. Sutzkever’s story was so well-known and he was so renowned that he was chosen in 1946 by the Russian authorities as the only Jew to appear in the Nuremberg Trials, as a witness from the Soviet delegation. Millions of Jews in the USSR revered him for testifying about the destruction of the Jewish people before the Nazis.

The First Jewish Witness

“At the court in Nuremburg. Quarter to twelve in the afternoon. Wednesday, February 27, 1946:

“The Soviet prosecutor and my investigator spoke to me beforehand about the great responsibility of my testimony in the courtroom. ‘You are the first Jewish witness. You must speak on behalf of millions who were murdered. You must tell the world how German fascism slaughtered your brothers.’

I felt this great responsibility with every cell of my cconsciousness. I did not sleep a wink during the two nights before my appearance. I saw my mother in front of my eyes, running naked through a snowy field – and the hot blood dripping from where the bullet pierced her heart began to flow into my room and encircle me like a ring. (…) I twice refused the marshal’s request to sit down as was customary, and I spoke while standing, as if reciting Kaddish for the dead. I only spoke about Vilna. About what I myself saw and experienced.”

(From “Charuzim Shachorim” [Black Poetry], published in Hebrew in 2015 by Hakibbutz Hameuchad. Translated into English from the Hebrew translation of Benny Mor)

Here is a recorded excerpt from the testimony:

The Last of the Yiddish Poets in Moscow

In Moscow, Sutzkever made the acquaintance of the Yiddish poets and authors he admired, those he had been dreaming of meeting since his days as a young poet in Vilna. The post Second World War period marked the height of their glory, and they were treated affably by the Soviet authorities.

Yiddish authors in Moscow after the Second World War. From right to left: Unknown, Chaim Grade, Aron Kushnirov, David Bergelson, Ben Zion Goldberg, Itzik Feffer, Shmuel Halkin, Peretz Markish. Standing, first on the left: Avraham Sutzkever. (Kushnirov, Bergelson, Fefffer and Markish were murdered on Stalin’s orders)

Sutzkever, unlike the other Jewish poets, felt the ground burning under his feet and understood that the USSR was also no safe place for the Jews.

We can assume that had Sutzkever stayed in Russia, he would have been arrested, interrogated and executed together with Peretz Markish, Itzik Feffer, David Bergelson and many other Jewish authors who were murdered in 1952 on Stalin’s orders.

When he left the Soviet Union, the poet took all his notes and papers with him, including all the testimony he had gathered.

The archive of the Vilna Ghetto, the testimonies he recorded from survivors after the war, the poems and diaries he wrote and the suitcase. He brought them all with him when he immigrated to Israel in 1947. Years later, he deposited them in the National Library for safekeeping.

Avraham Sutzkever continued to write in Israel for many years. The man who feared he would be the last poet in Europe received the Israel Prize and became the foremost Yiddish poet in Israel. He died in 2010.


Sutzkever in his study in Israel. Photograph: Henrik Broder – 1992

Thanks to Dr. Gil Weissblei from the Archives Department of the National Library for helping with the research for this post. The materials and photographs are from the Avraham Sutzkever Archive in the National Library.

If you liked this article, try these:

“Burn them, as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium”

The Bullet Retrieved from a Famous Jewish Playwright in the Krakow Ghetto

A Shattered Childhood: Memories of Kristallnacht