Maria Sibylla Merian: The Scientist and Painter Who Refuted Aristotle’s Theory

Merian was a scientist, researcher and naturalist who documented the world of insects, followed their lifespans, and revealed the truth of how insects come to be in the world.

Picture of Maria Syblla Merian from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), is best known today for her paintings of nature. In truth, she was an important German scientist and researcher of nature. Her works dealt with zoology and botany, and her beautiful paintings, which brought her observations to life, actually served as a method of documenting her research.

Maria was born to a well-known family of map printers and publishers in Frankfurt, Germany, then a center of art and the silk trade. Her father died when she was very young and Maria was raised by her mother and her mother’s second husband, a Flemish painter named Yakov Marl. Marl, who specialized in still life paintings of tulips, recognized Maria’s talent and nurtured it from an early age. He was the one who initially endowed in her the love of painting flowers. Maria studied drawing, engraving, painting in color, and the art of print from an early age – she made her first copper print at the age of eleven.

Maria collected, observed, and captured the birth and life cycle of insects through her painting. She discovered and recorded how they transformed from egg to larva, from larva to cocoon and, finally, to adult insects. Until her research came to light, her contemporaries and those who had taught them believed that insects were spontaneously created from garbage,  since they were usually found near it. Maria’s discovery was part of a worldwide revolution in the disciplines of biology and zoology and laid the foundations for an expansive catalog of insect species. What had begun as Maria Sibylla Merian’s childhood hobby became her life’s work.

When she was eighteen, Maria married her stepfather’s pupil and moved with him to Nuremberg. Her husband, a gifted painter himself, was fascinated by Maria’s work – he supported it and published her collective works. They had two daughters together: Dorothea-Maria and Johanna-Helena. Maria taught both of them to draw and write from an early age. Following the death of her stepfather, she went to visit her mother and decided not to return to Nuremberg. At the age of 34, raising two daughters alone, she moved to Holland to live among the Labadist Protestant community. Her mother joined her and they lived there for several years among artists and scientists who all devoted themselves to a rigorous lifestyle of hard work. Maria worked there as a printer but she had little time to paint.

From Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

In 1695, she decided to leave the religious community and move with her daughters to Amsterdam, a city full of life, art and commerce. She was the sole breadwinner of the family, working as a painter, merchant, and publisher. She continued to be renowned for her paintings. Later, her daughters worked with her as well. The stories, people and souvenirs that reached Amsterdam from the overseas Dutch colonies began to arouse Maria’s curiosity and nourish her imagination. Her heart ached to travel far from Amsterdam – to explore not only the world of insects and plants near her but to wander far away and discover the world.

The fruit of the pomegranate tree and the butterflies that feed on it. From Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.


So, in 1699, she embarked upon the journey of a lifetime- an excursion to Suriname in northeastern South America. She was 52 years old at the time and was joined by her youngest daughter, Dorothea, now 21 years old.

African slaves had been brought to the Dutch colony of Suriname and were forced to grow cocoa, coffee, sugar cane, and cotton. Maria arrived there with crates filled with paints and canvas. Her intention was to explore the natural life of the place and record it with paint.

Maria’s attitude toward the locals was different from that of the other Dutch and foreigners arriving in the colony. She was horrified by the cruelty imposed upon the slaves and interested in the local indigenous people, wanting to learn as much as possible about the untamed nature they called home. She followed the slaves and natives to the hiding places they had found in the forests. There, she grew to intimately know the animals, plants, and insects of the place. The women showed her the local plants and told her about their uses. One plant, for example, could be used in certain doses to expedite labor, but in high doses, it caused miscarriage and even death.

Maria had not come to tame nature like the colonists, nor did she want to portray tamed nature in her paintings. Her paintings of Suriname captures nature in all its savagery – birds eating insects, giant spiders eating birds. Maria had become far estranged from the still life paintings of beautiful flowers on which she was raised. After two years of uninterrupted work in Suriname, Merian fell ill with malaria and was forced to return to Holland. She returned with drawings and illustrations, samples of insects and a maid. Yes, although Marian was in many ways a revolutionary woman, she was also part of a culture of exploitation and human-trafficking.

Ants and tarantulas on the branch of a guava tree, from Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Painter: Maria Sibylla Merian. The image is from the website of the Getty Institute

Her works from Suriname were compiled into a book entitled, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Published in 1705, it is considered to be her most important work. It contained 60 pages of illustrations, the result of her research and painting. The illustrations were painted by hand and were full of life and beauty.


Maria Sibylla Merian and her angel-messengers helping her sort insects. Pictured on the cover of her book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Upon her return to Amsterdam, Maria earned a living painting and selling the insects she had brought with her from Suriname. In 1715 Marianne suffered a stroke and had to be nursed by her daughter, Dorothea. She died in 1717.

Maria Sibylla Merian was exceptional among the women of the 17th century. She is one of the few women that succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling of her time and, in the process, earned a place of honor in the pages of science, art and human history.

Thanks to Chaya Meir Har of the Edelstein Collection for her help in composing this article.


When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust

What was revealed when Western forces finally captured one of the major Nazi concentration camps? A rare document discovered at the National Library of Israel holds the answers.

The watchtower at the Buchenwald memorial site. Photo: The German Federal Archives.

Content warning – contains graphic descriptions of the realities of the Holocaust

The cars drove down a beautiful country road, lined with blossoming fruit trees, as the warm spring weather heralded a new beginning. The war was nearing its end. Little more than 130 miles away, the Nazis were making their futile last stand in Berlin as the Allies slowly closed in. In a few days, Hitler would be dead.

The vehicles soon made their way up into a wooded, hilly area. Within a few minutes, the short drive from the local airfield came to an end as the trees cleared, and the cars pulled up at the gates of Buchenwald.

Tom Driberg emerged from one of the vehicles along with nine other members of the British Parliament – an official delegation, sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to examine the worst of the newly liberated concentration camps which had been captured by Western forces.

Driberg was many things, but he was hardly a senior member of this group. Quite the contrary, in fact. The official head of the delegation, which was made up of representatives from all political parties, was Earl James Richard Stanhope of the House of Lords. Thomas Edward Neil Driberg was a communist member of the Labour Party, a devout Catholic, and in April 1945,  a 39-year-old backbencher in the House of Commons.

He was also an openly gay man during a time when his lifestyle made him a criminal in the United Kingdom. He would befriend the likes of Aleister Crowley, Mick Jagger and Allen Ginsberg and later in life would be suspected as a possible Soviet spy. Driberg’s larger-than-life persona and tendency to go against the grain would make him famous, but it is often forgotten that he played a small but important role in this particular moment in history.

Tom Driberg
Tom Driberg, the author of the British parliamentary report on Buchenwald. A devout Catholic, a communist and an openly gay man during a time when homosexuality was outlawed. His larger-than-life persona would make him famous but it is often forgotten he played a role in this moment in history.

It was Driberg’s skill as a journalist, his former profession, which gained him his place in the delegation to Buchenwald. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had specifically requested that Churchill include a journalist or two in the group, and so it fell to Tom Driberg to write up the delegation’s official report.

A rare copy of that same report has now been discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

The cover of the British parliamentary report, on Buchenwald discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel
The cover of the British parliamentary report on Buchenwald, discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel


General Dwight D. Eisenhower
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, asked Winston Churchill to send a delegation of British parliamentarians to Buchenwald.

The delegation strode through the gates, above which hung a sign in German: “Recht oder unrecht-mein Vaterland” (My country right or wrong) was the ominous welcoming message. It was April 21st, 1945. Buchenwald had been liberated by the U.S. Army ten days earlier. This was the first time the West was able to directly access the Nazi camps. “Our objective was to ‘find out the truth,’ while the evidence was still fresh,” Driberg wrote in the report.

The barracks and huts of Buchenwald were now visible. “It is badly laid out, on sloping uneven ground.” Driberg wrote of the camp, “The walls and paths are ill kept; at the time of our visit they were covered with dust, which blew about in the wind, and in wet weather the camp must be deep in mud.”

Buchenwald barracks
The barracks at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Colorful slogans were being painted on the sides of the buildings, greeting the liberating soldiers in different languages. A life-size effigy of Hitler hung from a gibbet, adorned with the words “Hitler must die that Germany may live” in German. Many of the former prisoners were still here. The report notes that a “certain number” had already left, but thousands were still too weak to travel.

Driberg described the attempts of the delegation members to communicate with the former prisoners. While two of the members spoke German, there  were plenty of English speakers among the inmates – “Many were unable to speak: they lay in a semi-coma, or following us with their eyes. Others spoke freely, displaying sores and severe scars and bruises which could have been caused by kicks and blows. They lay on the floor on and under quilts… in a state of extreme emaciation.”

Buchenwald was not an official death camp, but death was no stranger here – “a policy of steady starvation and inhuman brutality” had been carried out at the facility. The basic daily ration consisted of “a bowl of watery soup and a chunk of dry bread.” The report cites figures that state that, by April 1945, 51,572 people had died or were killed at Buchenwald, or were removed and immediately killed at one of the subsidiary extermination camps.

Slave laboreres in the Buchenwald concentration camp
Slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Eli Wiesel can be seen in the second row, seventh from left. Photo by Private H. Miller, US Army.

The grim scenes and somber mood stood in contrast to a sense of relief and even happiness that was also present among some of the survivors following their liberation: “One half-naked skeleton, tottering painfully along the passage as though on stilts, drew himself up when he saw our party, smiled, and saluted.” Though treatment was now being given to the victims of the horrors, for many it came too late; 35 people died at Buchenwald on the day before the delegation’s visit.

The worst cases of maltreatment were being treated in one of the few huts that did not have a dirt floor. When the Nazis still ran the camp, this building housed the only women living on the compound. They were brought to Buchenwald from other camps and “induced by threats and promises of better treatment, to become prostitutes, but were subsequently killed.” This had once been the camp brothel, “to which the higher-grade prisoners – those employed in various supervisory jobs, with extra rations and other privileges – were allowed to resort for twenty minutes at a time.”

Driberg described seeing a laboratory “with a large number of glass jars containing preserved specimens of human organs.” He mentioned “experiments in sterilization” performed on Jews, noting that two members of the delegation had seen the unmistakable scars on one of the victims. He and his colleagues were told of “articles made of human skin,” collected by Frau Koch, the wife of the German camp commander. One such item which Driberg saw with his own eyes “clearly formed part of a lampshade.”

The report mentions several of the inmates by name, including 19-year-old Joseph Berman, who had been through several Nazi camps. In one he lost a forefinger when an annoyed Nazi guard pushed his hand into a machine. Driberg would later help the Latvian-born Berman immigrate to Britain and find work. In the coming years he would provide testimony of Nazi crimes in the Baltic States. The delegation also met 14-year-old Abraham Kirchenblatt of Radom, Poland who “impressed members of our party as an intelligent and reliable witness; he stated that he had seen his 18-year-old brother shot and his parents taken away, he believed for cremation: he never saw them again.”

A liberated Russian survivor identifies a Nazi guard, who had participated in the beating of prisoners at Buchenwald.
A liberated Russian survivor identifies a Nazi guard, who had participated in the beating of prisoners at Buchenwald.

Indeed, death was the fate which awaited those of the prisoners who were deemed “useless” or who proved too stubborn to manage. “Hanging appears to have been the regular method of killing,” wrote Driberg. There was one gibbet in the yard, “near a pile of white ashes,” while another was found in the mortuary basement, where the delegation members were also shown a heavy blood-stained club used for knocking out “any who died too slowly.” From the basement, the bodies were transferred to a crematorium on the ground floor using an electric lift.

Buchenwald crematorium
The Buchenwald crematorium. Photo by Pfc. W. Chichersky, US Army

Outside the crematorium, the delegation members were shown carts filled with bodies of prisoners who had died of hunger or disease. These corpses were still waiting for burial. General Eisenhower had personally ordered that the German inhabitants of the nearby areas provide for the individual burial of each body “with their own hands.” Indeed, groups of German civilians were being brought in daily “to see what had been done in their name and in their midst.”

Several different inmates told the delegation that conditions were far worse in other camps, particularly those in Eastern Europe, with Auschwitz (liberated by the Soviets less than three months earlier) being described as the worst of all.

“Such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended.” Driberg wrote in the report’s closing remarks, “The memory of what we saw at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.”



Amy Simon, a cataloguer in the National Library’s Foreign Languages Department, contributed to this article.

The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

Take a glimpse at the coded letters that expose a complex operation to smuggle Jewish women who were in danger out of Italy.

Image from the Livorno Hagadah


The following sentences appeared in a letter sent by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno of Livorno in 1858. Can you guess what the letter is referring to?

“Yesterday, three packages left the city… one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel. Off they went, on their way to a good peaceful life without harm. And may heaven have mercy on this merchandise.”

Let us explain.

A collection of letters donated to the National Library of Israel tells the story of secretive events that took place in Livorno in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters were written by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno (1800-1863) of Livorno, in response to letters from Moise Uzzielli of Florence which are not in out possession. The correspondence between the two men discusses the smuggling of women and their children out of Italy via the port of Livorno to various destinations along the Mediterranean coast.

The port of Livorno (Painting: Bernardino Poccetti). Click on the image to enlarge.

On the eve of Sukkot in the year 1858, Rabbi Piperno was in Pisa for a brit milah (otherwise known as a bris, a ritual circumcision), when he received an urgent letter from Livorno about a woman in danger in the city of Florence. The letter was from Moise Uzzielli who wrote in Italian and asked Piperno to help smuggle the woman out of Italy. Piperno hastened to reply and explained to Uzzielli that his request would not be easy to carry out, “because she is a woman, and because the matter occurred in our midst, and certainly they will search for her. We will risk ourselves fruitlessly, without achieving her salvation.”

“…write henceforth in the holy tongue and use vague language.” Avraham Piperno writes to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.


Despite his discouraging response, Piperno suggested to wait a few days and see what could be done. He also added an important instruction in his letter of reply – telling Uzzielli that, for reasons of secrecy, he should henceforth write in Hebrew and use vague language when describing the matter.

In the following correspondence, Piperno reported on the progress of the smuggling process and the technical challenges involved, giving us a rare peek into this curious historical phenomenon of smuggling Jewish women through the port of Livorno. His writings detail the existence of an entire community network  that set travel arrangements and maintained contact with various Jewish communities along the shores of the Mediterranean, that served as cities of refuge for fleeing women.

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The event described in the document began on September 22, 1858, and was concluded over a month later on October 28. Piperno encountered many difficulties along the way, some of which we learn about in his letters.

“…to inform him that the package he sent is still here,” Avraham Piperno’s second letter to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.

The smuggling plan was laid out in three phases: hiding the woman in Livorno until the day of the journey; sending her by ship to a Jewish community in one of the cities along the Mediterranean coast; and finally finding her work and a place of residence in that community. Piperno utilized his connections in Livorno and various Jewish communities to execute his plan, but he needed money to finance the operation. He asked Uzzielli to urgently transfer the necessary funds to him. In one of the letters, Piperno explains why he could not finance the matter locally. He writes: “Here I cannot take even a pence for such a thing, because they do not wish to give anything, even for our own packages.”

“…and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel,” the third letter of Abraham Piperno to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.

In keeping with his need for secrecy, Piperno refers to the escaping woman as a “package”, a very common word in a bustling port town like Livorno. We can also infer from his words that Livorno already has too many “packages” to handle. In order to clarify the state of affairs in Livorno to Uzzielli, Piperno informs him that he is already caring for a recent arrival from Rome, waiting to be smuggled out. The woman was traveling with her children and was also pregnant with another. Piperno describes the condition of the runaway in his secret code: “one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel.” We can, therefore, infer that the “packages” and “barrels” reached Livorno from many places and that Livorno served as a central smuggling depot for Italian Jews.

There was a brief debate about whether to send the woman to the Jewish community of Tunis or to that of Marseilles. The decision was ultimately made to send her to Marseilles “and to connect her with a single man who will attempt to accomodate her, ether in his home or in another home.” A ship would transport the woman to Marseilles. For this purpose, she would need to carry forged documents (a “transit pass” in the words of the letter). Placing a secret passenger on a ship was a very dangerous step in this process, and it was undertaken with the knowledge of the ship’s owner. In his fourth letter, Piperno reports, “Yesterday I spoke with the owner of the ship to hasten the delivery. He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after.” We do not know whether the owner of the ship was a Jew who cooperated out of sympathy for his people, or whether his loyalty had been purchased by Piperno. In any event, these documents give us a better understanding of the complexity of the matter and the large number of external factors involved in the smuggling process.

“He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after” the fourth letter. Click on the image to enlarge.

After all the hardships and challenges Piperno faced in his efforts to help this particular woman, his last letter details her successful escape to safety. The echo of his sigh of relief can still be heard in his cheerful words: “Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination… and blessed be the Lord, who blessed us with such a great mitzvah, and may he bless all those who joined in this mitzvah with life and good tidings.”

“Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination” the last letter of Abraham Piperno to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.


Early evidence of a broader phenomenon

The phenomenon revealed here raises the question as to why the women were smuggled out of Italy, and if the phenomenon was unique to the period of the mid-19th century. A partial answer can be obtained from the London-Montefiore 467 manuscript, which includes copies of letters from the Jewish community of Livorno. Here we can see an excerpt of a letter sent to the community of Alexandria (around 1739-40), requesting help for a woman and her children who were whisked out of Italy for fear that their father would force them to convert:

“Our sources are speaking of a difficult and melancholy woman… She and her two sons spoke of her husband who entered into a spirit of folly and took his two sons with him in deceit and led them into the midst of the gentiles, subverting their honor without benefit, and they were almost lost… And because of the great miracle and effort of the leaders of the community… they were returned to us and he also returned with them, but there is no faith in his words…” The community acted quickly to send the children away for fear that the converters would try again.

Another letter sent to the community of Aleppo in 1754 deals with a girl who was pressured to “subvert her honor”- to convert to Christianity or to have sexual intercourse – or both. Subsequently, she was smuggled away in haste.

“She is a good girl as is her name… And she sits within the walls of her house with her mother…and the gentiles have laid their eyes on her on her to suvert her honor…She must be rushed out of this land.”

In both cases, we have no evidence as to whether the women’s trip was of a secret nature. These writings do however offer clues as to the circumstances that may have led to an urgent departure, as well as the existence of a network capable of providing immediate transport and maintening contact with various Jewish communities. Therefore, these other incidents may also be related to the smuggling of women out of Italy from the port of Livorno in the mid-19th century.


The Man Who Developed Krav Maga to Defend Against Anti-Semitic Attacks

Imre Lichtenfeld developed Krav Maga as a method of defensive street fighting against anti-Semitic attacks in the city formerly known as Pressburg.

Krav Maga

Pressburg is the historical name of Bratislava, today the capital of Slovakia, a place with a rich Jewish history that was interrupted about 70 years ago. The city is unique in its location, sharing borders with two other countries – Hungary and Austria- which also used to have large Jewish populations. The famous Pressburg yeshiva no longer exists in the city but if you stroll through Jerusalem today, you may come across a yeshiva there named after the original one in Pressburg. You are also sure to see at least one street named in honor of the more famous residents of Pressburg, including the Chatam Sofer, a leading rabbi of European Jewry in the early 19th century, and Imre Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga.

1925 Pressburg Jewish Ghetto The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Pressburg Jewish Ghetto in 1925. Image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

There is still a Jewish presence maintained in Bratislava in modern times, despite the fact that the large and very impressive synagogue was destroyed due to the construction of a new bridge in the 1960s under communist rule. A tram line was also built through the former Jewish cemetery though several tombs were preserved, including that of Moshe Schreiber, otherwise known as the Chatam Sofer. Jews from all over the world who flock to Bratislava to visit his grave get off the tram at the stop named “Chatam Sofer.”

Chatam Sofer tram stop in Bratislava. Image croutesy of Dominika Sedlakova.
Chatam Sofer tram stop in Bratislava. Image courtesy of Dominika Sedlakova.

The memorial for the Chatam Sofer, the last remaining synagogue in the city and the Museum of Jewish Culture can be visited for free during the European Days of Jewish Culture festival, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of September. There is a temporary exhibition in the Museum dedicated to Imre Lichtenfeld or Imre Sde´Or, a founder of the Israeli self-defense art of Krav Maga, who spent an important and defining part of his life in Bratislava. Krav Maga has today become a popular sport but was originally taught for self-defense and survival in the streets of the Pressburg Jewish quarter.

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Imre Lichtenfeld was born in Budapest in 1910 but spent his childhood in Bratislava. It was in the late 1930s, in reaction to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish riots in Bratislava, that he came up with the idea to transform street fighting into a proper style of self-defense. In May of 1940, following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the splitting up of the nation, Imre managed to escape the country and the hands of the Nazis on a steamboat called Pentcho headed for the Land of Israel. This river-boat was not built to be used on the open sea but those on board did not have any other option. The Pentcho shipwrecked on the Greek Dodecanese Islands and Imri, along with several other survivors, were saved by the British. Imre ended up in Egypt which was under British control. After serving time in the Free Czech Legion, he was released and he was finally able to travel to the Land of Israel where he began training members of Haganah and the police force in 1944.

Jewish street in Bratislava The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A Jewish street in Bratislava. Image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

With the foundation of the State of Israel, Imre trained soldiers as the Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga in physical fitness, knife fighting, street fighting, and swimming. He served in the military for twenty years, always refining his methodologies for hand-to-hand combat. It was after his retirement that he developed the style of fighting for civilian use as well, and Krav Maga gained global popularity. Imre Lichtenfeld died in 1998 at the age of 88.

Imre Lichtenfeld exhibit
Poster for the Imre Lichtenfeld exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava. Image courtesy of Dominika Sedlakova.

If you find yourself visiting Bratislava nowadays, you may have to look a little closer to find the Jewish presence but it certainly is alive and thriving. There are theological classes available and a renewal of Yiddish culture and music is also apparent, with bands reviving old Jewish songs from before the World War II era. While Jews no longer represent twelve percent of the population as they used to, a visit to the city will allow you to experience a still vibrant and lively Jewish culture.

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 in cooperation with Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies.