The Boy Who Sent Martin Buber a Birthday Gift, and Was Later Murdered in Auschwitz

A letter and drawings sent by the young Wolfgang Steinitz to Martin Buber in honor of his sixtieth birthday reveal the rare talent and sensitivity of its creator whose life was cut short.

Martin Buber in the “He-Atid” bookstore in Jerusalem, 1946

While searching for documentary material about my family in the National Library’s archives in Jerusalem, the title “Letter by Wolfgang Steinitz to the Philosopher Prof. Martin Buber” came up.

The Wolfgang Steinitz in our family was an anthropologist, linguist and well known communist in Germany. I imagined that it was entirely possible that he had corresponded with Buber. Curious to know what the linguist and the famous Zionist philosopher had in common, I asked the archivist to see the letter. About an hour later the file from the Martin Buber archive with the letter was delivered to me.

I opened the envelope, which was missing the sender’s address, and pulled out an undated letter obviously written in a child’s handwriting, and again without the address of the sender. Attached to the letter were three pages containing drawings.


Following is my translation of the letter:

Very Distinguished Professor Buber!

After receiving your book Erzählungen von Engeln, Geistern und Dämonen (Tales of Angels Spirits & Demons) as a prize in the spring of last year, I tried to illustrate the contents. I am sending you the attached drawings along with wishes for your 60th birthday. So that you can appreciate them, I wish to note that I will celebrate my bar mitzvah on Shabbat (and will be reading from the Torah portion known as) Mishpatim.

With heartfelt wishes,

Wolfgang Steinitz

The letter’s content did not fit with the Wolfgang Steinitz from our family, who was twenty-seven years younger than Buber and would no longer have been a boy on Buber’s sixtieth birthday on February 8, 1938. What’s more, knowing our family history, it was not likely that our Wolfgang would have celebrated his bar mitzvah. And yet, I hoped that perhaps I had come across an unknown family mystery. I sent a picture of the boy’s letter to Wolfgang’s daughter in Berlin, with whom I am in contact, and asked her whether her father drew as a child and whether he had had a bar mitzvah. She answered in the negative to both questions.

I also searched for the book the boy had referred to in his letter to Buber. The entire book is devoted to stories of Hasidic rabbis, towns and courts, and is written in an archaic and not easy-to-read style.

As I followed various avenues of inquiry, my daughter asked me: “Have you tried searching in Yad Vashem?”


I hadn’t even considered Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial)… but I immediately wrote them and not long after received the chilling reply.

Piecing together the information from Yad Vashem, the boy’s bar mitzvah Torah portion and the date of Buber’s sixtieth birthday, I concluded that the writer of the letter was a boy from the city of Gera, near Leipzig, who sent Buber the drawings when he was thirteen years old. He was murdered in Auschwitz when he was all of nineteen.

I wrote about my findings to the Yad Vashem Art Museum and asked whether they were interested in the drawings and perhaps had additional drawings by this boy in their collection. I did not receive a response. I was left with the story which I reveal here for the first time.

I believe that the drawings that have been preserved in the archive for almost eighty years should be published in some way, both for the skill of the illustrations and the possibility that exposing them may lead to other works coming to light by this gifted young man whose life was tragically short.

Thanks to the Martin Buber Estate for permission to publish these items.

Thanks to Dr. Stefan Litt from the Archives Department of National Library of Israel.


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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.

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“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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Caught in the Rain? This Yiddish Umbrella Service Is Precisely What You Need!

Meet the first Jewish start-up for umbrella rentals!


As a Jewish history buff, I spend a lot of time on JPress (the Historical Jewish Press website), and every day I stumble upon another pearl.

A few days ago, I found in the December 31, 1916 issue of the New York Yiddish newspaper Die Wahrheit, what seemed like one of the craziest start-ups I had ever come across in my life: the National Umbrella Service Inc. Not only did the service look innovative, the advertisement was also pretty creative.




Let’s begin with the comic strip at the top. A Jew leaves his house in the morning (you can see that he’s Jewish, right?) holding a weather report that says “Rain Today,” while outside the sun is shining! “Hah. Another prophet!” says the Jews to himself holding up his umbrella. In the next frame, the smiling sun beats down on the fellow, who says: “Good God! How can I get rid of this umbrella!”



In the next picture, it’s pouring outside, and the forlorn Jew says, “I left my umbrella at home!” And in the last illustration, he cries, “Gevalt! Someone stole my umbrella!”

So, how did this start-up work? For those Yiddish-challenged readers among us, the ad says that: across Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn over 1000 umbrella rental stations have been opened. All one had to do was pay the two dollar per year subscription fee and you could borrow, return, fix or exchange a broken umbrella on the spot at no extra cost!

What a concept! This surely promised an end to shmutzicke umbrellas! (The proper Yiddish word for umbrella, by the way is shirem.) While we’re at it, here’s a funny little Yiddish curse: Zol er aropshlingen a shirem un s’zol zikh im efenen in boykh! – “May he swallow an umbrella and have it open up in his belly!”

So what became of this revolutionary idea? To find out, I consulted the American historical newspaper website Chronicling America, where I found more ads for the National Umbrella Service, such as this rather dry one (for such a wet business, and without even a bit of Jewish humor) in the New York Tribune from December 14, 1916.



The fact that the ads ran for just two weeks—from mid-December until the beginning of January—is more than enough proof that the business never really took off. Indeed, the “Business Troubles” section of the June 14, 1917 issue of The Sun, includes an item about the National Umbrella Service filing for bankruptcy.

But why did this umbrella business collapse? Did others succeed where it failed? If a bike-sharing service can make it, why not an umbrella-sharing one? It seems that the people of China don’t read the Yiddish press, and perhaps that’s why a recent venture of theirs failed in similar fashion: In 2017, the Chinese entrepreneur Zhou Shu Ping from the city of Shenzhen launched an umbrella sharing service in Shenzhen and 11 other cities, but within a few months almost all of the project’s 300,000 umbrellas had been stolen.



Another, more modest, umbrella-sharing service called UMBRACITY, is operating for the time being in Vancouver, Canada, with dozens of smart umbrella rental stations scattered in stores across the city. How does it work? There’s an app: push a button on your smartphone and the umbrella is yours.



There are more—in the city of Aarhus in Denmark, the DripDrop service has over 25 umbrella stations throughout the city. The rather unimaginative slogan is: “Happiness is having an umbrella when it rains”



And there are some somewhat less sophisticated services like this one which opened up a few days ago in the Pasir Ris neighborhood in Singapore, dedicated to the memory of Grandma Sylvia.


In any case, whether you’re renting or you’ve decided to buy, we urge you to always have an umbrella at hand during this rainy season. As they say: Men antloyft fun regn, bagegnt men hogl! – “Run away from rain and you get hail!”





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