Under the Watchful Eye of “Big Brother”

Relations between the Communist Parties in Israel and East Germany

In contrast to the growing formal and informal ties that began to develop between Israel and the Federal German Republic already in the 1950s beginning with the reparations agreement, no ties developed between the eastern part of Germany and the Jewish state. Apparently, the disconnect did not stem from one side only: alongside East Germany’s obvious fear from contact with Israel, which in all likelihood would have led to demands for reparations (which, indeed, were submitted by the Israeli government, but remained unanswered), the Israeli leadership knew that any contact with the Communist German state would cause problems in the relationship with the Federal Republic. The West German government was at the time adhering to the Hallstein Doctrine, which prohibited official ties with East Germany and with any entities that recognized this country.

Copy of letter sent by MaKI to its sister party in East Germany, 1960

Despite the lack of connection between the two countries until 1990, ties were conducted between the ruling Socialist-Communist Party in East Germany, and the Communist Party in Israel (MaKI), and continued after MaKI split in June 1965 and one stream formed “The New Communist List” (RAKAH). In the party’s archives at the National Library, a number of letters were recently discovered that attest to ties between the parties, which viewed one another as comrades in the anti-imperialist struggle. The letters received from the leadership of the ruling East German government were written in German. Most of the letters from East Germany in the correspondence files bear the signature of party leader and East Germany head of state Walter Ulbricht.

The letters, from the 1960s and 70s, discuss the various topics: Most are greetings for party occasions marking independence celebrations for East Germany, and long abstracts about Soviet policy in the context of the Communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

These letters were written formulaically in a manner characteristic of the Communist Party, lauding the Soviet ideological position and condemning the deeds of the imperialist West. The very fact that Walter Ulbricht’s signature appears on most of the letters shows the importance he attributed to these announcements to the communists in Israel. It should be noted that this was the most heated period of the Cold War, when the world was at the brink of a nuclear war between the super powers. At this time, the division of Germany was also completed, with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Communist leadership in East Berlin understandably was using every means to close itself off from the capitalist enemy.

Reply letter of Walter Ulbricht to the MaKI Central Committee, in which he agreed to the Israeli party’s request that East Germany receive “progressive” students, and in which he asked what subjects the Israeli students were hoping to study in East Germany.

Other matters discussed in the correspondence between the two parties were the verification of personal data regarding communists who moved from Israel to East Germany or vice-versa, a request for a supply of ideological textbooks from East Germany to Israel, and even the request for a printing press for the publication of newspapers in the Arabic language.

In April 1960, members of the Israeli party contacted its German sister party regarding the possibility of sending five “progressive” students” to East Germany for study. As secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Walter Ulbricht responded favorably to this request and agreed to accept five students to universities and colleges in his country, on condition that their mastery of the German language was satisfactory. He added that this move should not be publicized at the time, since it did not suit the current political situation. The correspondence files contain several additional letters that relate to this, but it is not entirely clear whether the project was ultimately implemented. Of course, hosting Israeli students in any case in East Germany, and particularly in 1960, was an unconventional move. The fact that Ulbricht gave his personal approval, regarding a matter that under normal circumstances would not have reached the desk of the head of state, shows the importance that functionaries attributed to this move. And yet, the correspondence files of the Israel Communist Party (MaKI) show that party clerks during the same period also contacted other countries in the Communist bloc. It is likely that in these cases, matters developed with greater ease, since the State of Israel conducted official diplomatic ties with all of the Eastern European countries until the Six-Day War, with the exception of the German Democratic Republic.

Shakespeare’s Signature

​Shakespeare's Signature at the National Library

The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)

​In a riveting article published in Haaretz on 16.11.2012, Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken reports that the National Library may be in possession of the original signature of none other than William Shakespeare. Said signature is found on the cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569). Dr. Ben-Zaken examined the specimen closely after hearing about the book from Hava Nowerstern, the librarian in charge of the National Library’s Edelstein Collection of history, philosophy and sociology of science.  Ben Zaken’s interest in the book derives from his research on the connection between magic and science during the Renaissance, a subject in which Cornelius Agrippa is a central figure.

Ben-Zaken ties together the image of the sorcerer-scientist who intervenes in natural processes in order to obtain a systematic description of phenomena and that of Shakespeare, actor turned playwright who “wrote plays in the forms of experiments… conducted by one who, just like Agrippa’s sorcerer, mixes the practical with the theoretical… .”


The cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569)


Ben-Zaken takes the reader on a tour of the intellectual milieu that Shakespeare became part of when he came to London from the country. As turns out the Agrippa’s Vanitie was a primary text among the intellectuals of the time. Not only is its influence manifest in works by several of them, such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash, but the book and its author are mentioned by name. Moreover, Ben-Zaken reminds us that Agrippa’s book, and his intellectual philosophy, played a foundational role in the works of Francis Bacon, the principal advocate of experimentation as a means to investigate reality. Bacon compared conducting experiments to a theatrical performance in front of an audience. The experiment, like the dramatic event, is in need of the affirmation of an audience. Ben-Zaken describes the unfolding of an intellectual revolution involving a blending of the practical and the philosophical.  Cornelius Agrippa’s book played an important role in this revolution and Shakespeare embodied several of its central principles in his activities as an actor and playwright who broke with convention and experimented with various points of view.

Experts have concluded that the signature on the cover of the National Library of Israel’s copy of Cornelius Agrippa’s book is comparable to other signatures attributed to Shakespeare. Such signatures exist on several documents, among them a deed of ownership on his house and his will and testament. However, the existence of his signature on a book by Cornelius Agrippa amounts to confirmation of a physical, tangible connection between Shakespeare and the intellectual zeitgeist that influenced his writing. Avner Ben-Zaken points to several instances where the explicit presence of Agrippa’s Vanities can be identified in Shakespeare’s plays: As You like It, the Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and particularly the Tempest. Furthermore, signs of Cornelius Agrippa’s ideas regarding the four humors of man abound in Shakespeare’s plays, among them Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, and Richard III.



The discovery of Shakespeare’s signature in the National Library’s collections rekindles our interest in why it is we find the signatures of famous individuals so fascinating. The signature of a well-known person or historical figure furnishes us with a sense of closeness, almost intimacy, with that person. Autographs are coveted by collectors and the National Library features the immense Chevadron Collection of such treasures. An autograph is a historical artifact, even when uninformative and out of context. When one appears on a book, as in the present case, it is a voice from the past saying: “Shakespeare held this book, this very book, in his hands.” Moreover, on a book so strongly associated with Shakespeare’s work, his autograph bears physical testimony to that book’s importance to the acclaimed bard. The excitement at discovering an autograph is similar to that of an archeological discovery. One knows with certainty, when walking in the galleries of the Coliseum or among the pillars of the Parthenon, that he is walking in the footsteps of history and the written word. In one respect, an autograph is even more authentic: the movement of a hand, the ink, the slight tremor, the slanted script, the use of space, the very place where Shakespeare rested his hand, the pages he traced with his fingers, the ink he blew upon to dry.

All the alleged Shakespearean autographs are controversial. The argument is rooted in disagreements over the figure of Shakespeare, who we know precious little about despite his artistic prowess. Ben-Zaken ties the roots of the argument about Shakespeare’s origins to his not being a certified product of a university. Moreover, Ben-Zaken avers that the iconoclasm that characterizes Shakespeare’s work was also fodder for those who doubted his authorship. In this context, any autograph of Shakespeare’s supports the belief that he did indeed mix in the intellectual circles of his time and that his oeuvre emerged from this world. The autograph on Agrippa’s Vanities is a significant and exciting addition to those who espouse this view. The book came to the National Library from Sidney Edelstein (Hebrew Wikipedia entry), who probably purchased it from William Stoddard, an early 20th century Shakespearean scholar.  Edelstein placed his collection in the custody of the National Library and thus, brought Shakespeare to Jerusalem.