The Tragedy of Tom Seidmann-Freud: Innovative Jewish Illustrator

A pioneer in the field of Hebrew book illustration during a short but significant period in Berlin after the First World War

Illustration from The Fish’s Journey, written and illustrated by Tom Siedmann-Freud. Published by the Ophir publishing house, Berlin 1924

One day, Ori fell asleep in his bed. He dreamed he was walking along a street:
“Blue and red patched houses bowed before him, doffing their roofs. And lo and behold:  In his hands was a jar, and inside it, a fish!”

So begins Masa HaDag (The Fish’s Journey), the wonderful children’s story written and illustrated by Tom Seidmann-Freud, translated from the German into Hebrew by Hayim Nahman Bialik.

If the name Freud brings to mind images of bearded doctors scribbling in notebooks and patients lying on couches you are thinking in the right direction. Seidmann-Freud was the niece of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and she wrote The Fish’s Journey from her close familiarity with the world of dreams and the subconscious. The hero of the story, Ori, goes on a days-long journey riding on the back of an imaginary fish and reaches a land where everything is good. The journey is rich is Jewish symbolism but also reminiscent of the glorious vision of Herzl in his Altneuland. Tom Seidmann-Freud wrote The Fish’s Journey following the first real tragedy to have struck her young life when her beloved brother Theodor died by drowning.


Tom was born in Austria in 1892 into the assimilated bourgeois Jewish Freud family.  Her given name was Marta Gertrud, but at age fifteen she chose to be called by the name “Tom.” The family wandered from Berlin to London, where Tom studied art. When she returned to Germany, she continued her studies in Munich where she published her first book of poems featuring her own illustrations.

Tom stood out as a promising and talented painter and illustrator. She and her beloved and beautiful sister Lilly would host folkstory-telling and singing evenings for children accompanied by games and slide shows featuring Tom’s illustrations which captivated both the children and the adults.

The Hebrew Alphabet Book

In Munich Seidmann-Freud became friendly with S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, and Zalman Shocken. The meeting led to a revolutionary attempt to create a Hebrew alphabet book with modernist illustrations and text by Agnon.

The partnership was not a success because Agnon had difficulty writing simple texts for children and Freud’s illustrations were too complex.

The project was aborted, but from this experience Seidmann-Freud hit upon a technique that became her favorite – hand coloring on stencil, which had the effect of making her illustrations appear translucent and magical.

An illustration from the aborted Alphabet book project


In 1921 Tom met Yaakov Seidmann, a brilliant young man who in 1920 published a book of excerpts from The Zohar which he himself had translated into German. He and Tom fell deeply in love. They married in Berlin and their only daughter Angela was born the next year.

Berlin in those days, as it does today, boasted a large concentration of artists. Most of the Hebrew publishing industry centered in the neighborhood of Charlottenburg, which was also nicknamed “Charlottengrad” for the large number of Russian immigrants living there. Tom, Yaakov and their daughter Angela lived there too.

Between 1921 and 1923 hundreds of Hebrew books were published in Berlin. There were dozens of publishing houses. Dubnow, Bialik, and Ravnitsky were located in Charlottenburg and all were engaged in substantial publishing activity.

An early version of “Rutz ben Susi” (lit. “Giddyup Horsie”), from Sefer HaDevarim (The Book of Things) by Hayim Nahman Bialik. Illustration; Tom Seidmann-Freud

Bialik dreamt of establishing a publishing company specializing in children’s books, where the illustrations would be the main feature. He chose Yaakov Seidmann and Tom Seidmann-Freud as his partners in the endeavor.

The Ophir publishing company was established in July 1922. Seidmann invested a lot of money into it. The agreement between Bialik and Seidmann was that Bialik would be in charge of content and Tom Seidmann-Freud would be in charge of the artistic side of things, a position that was new to the Hebrew publishing world.

“He and his wife are decent, young people and wholeheartedly dedicated to the endeavor,” Bialik wrote when work on the publishing house began and before his relationship with the couple soured.

Tom Seidmann-Freud drew the illustrations and chose the texts, Bialik translated them into Hebrew and wrote songs inspired by the illustrations.  The partnership produced four books in total, which would later be recognized as among the great books of Hebrew literature.

And Ori awoke and it was all a dream…

Those were turbulent times and economic collapse soon followed. Berlin became too costly to be able to earn a decent living or to publish books, and the Jewish immigrants left along with the artists and writers. Bialik was among the first to go. He immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1924. With his departure, the Ophir publishing house collapsed.

Yaakov Seidmann was mired in debt and asked for Bialik’s help. He wrote him anguished letters about his dire situation and about how he and his wife “never made even a single penny of profit from ‘Ophir’. The couple did not let their families know of their difficulties and tried to deal with it on their own. Yaakov Seidmann sold all of his possessions and was also forced to sell his personal library, but he still could not get out of debt.

Illustration: Tom Seidmann-Freud

On June 1st, 1929, Tom Seidmann-Freud was sitting with friends when she was suddenly summoned to return home. She went with her seven-year-old daughter Angela to their house in Charlottenburg, where she found her beloved husband hanging from the ceiling with a rope around his neck.

The delicate, sensitive illustrator never recovered from her husband’s death. She fell into depression and stopped eating. She was hospitalized, but no one from her family and friends, not even her uncle Sigmund Freud who came to visit and to care for her was able to lift her spirits. After a few months, she died of anorexia at the age of thirty-eight.

Illustration from Sefer HaDevarim (The Book of Things), Tom Seidmann-Freud

Special thanks to Dr. Gil Weissblei from the National Library of Israel Archives Department for his help writing this article.

Are the British Descended from the Ten Lost Tribes?

The draft of an article by an important Romanian Zionist leader sheds light on an intriguing organization established in Great Britain in the early 20th century.

פסיפס של שנים-עשר השבטים, בית הכנסת עץ יוסף בגבעת מרדכי, ירושלים

An interesting discovery was recently made in the National Library’s archives. A draft of an article written by Adolf Stern, in which the prominent Zionist Romanian leader criticized a new organization – the British-Israel World Federation.


Adolf Stern (1848-1931)


And the first page of the draft of his article written in the later years of his life


Disputes, divisions and larger groups splitting into smaller groups are familiar phenomena in the Jewish world. However, in his article, Stern wanted to discuss a different grave threat which could be an impediment to many Jews. Despite its ostensibly innocent name, Stern warns at the beginning of his article that “This is a Christian organization from Great Britain and the United States, in other words, from the Anglo-Saxon world, which, by means of Biblical-historical, ethnographical, archeological and linguistic proofs, establishes the presumption that the British (English) are direct descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.”

Where did such a peculiar idea come from and how did Stern intend to fight it?


Kings of England as Heirs to King David

The belief among the Christian nations that the early European peoples and the British tribes are direct descendants of the ten lost tribes dates back to at least the 16th century. Its principles were used, among other things, as a basis for England’s departure from the Catholic church in the Vatican. The followers of the cult were called the British Israelites.


The symbol of the British Israelites


The book “Israel in Britain” by the English Colonel John Garnier who attempted to bring proofs of the “Israelitish origin” of the “British race”. Published in 1890.


But it was not only the Christians who took an interest in the lost tribes. In 1644, the Rabbi of Amsterdam, Menashe Ben Israel, son of Portuguese Jews in Holland, believed that the natives of South America are descendants of the lost tribes. Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel, who was full of Jewish messianic aspirations, reached these conclusions following his meeting with an apostate Jew from Spain named Aharon Levi (Antonio de Montezinos) who had returned from the rain forests in the Cordillera mountains in the Quito region of Ecuador, where he claimed to have met one of the lost tribes. Some four years later Rabbi Ben Israel published his book “Mikveh Yisrael” in which he presented Aharon Levi’s story as a foreword under the title “What Befell Aharon Levi the Spaniard”.


Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel


His work was translated into English in 1652, published under the name “The Hope of Israel” and eventually presented to the Parliament and State Council in England. Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel intended on the one hand to improve the standing of the Jews in England by indicating a shared origin, and on the other hand to hasten the process of redemption through the ingathering of the exiles. However, Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel’s intentions were taken out of context and the book appears to have given a new impetus and further justification to British imperialism under a different banner. Unification instead of conquest. If the British Isles had previously been the border which the ten tribes reached through conquest, from here on the population of the American continent will be a form of re-unification of the tribes who had dispersed over hundreds of years.


The first page of the foreword “What Befell Aharon Levi the Spaniard” which was published circa 1648. It should be noted that the author, Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel mentioned the Cordillera Mountains in the context of “Western India”, even though the new continent was referred to by the name “America” by Martin Waldseemüller, a geography professor, as early as 1507.


The last page of the foreword “What Befell Aharon Levi the Spaniard” and the first page of “Mikveh Yisrael”


As years passed, due to disputes and diverse genealogical ideas of the different groups of followers of the “British Israelites” cult, the need to institutionalize the idea arose. Therefore, in 1919 the British Israel World Federation was established, which continued the tradition that some of the European nations, and especially the British, are the true Israelites, based on God’s promise to Jacob “And God said to him, I am the Almighty God, be fruitful and multiply and a community of nations will stem from you and kings will descend from your loins” (Genesis, 35:11).

Before revealing the great falsehood at the crux of the Federation, Stern describes the principles of the Anglo-American collaboration: “The kings of England are the heirs of King David, and therefore, the British empire is destined to rule over the redeemed Jerusalem. The fifteen thousand Jews in the world are not the children of (the kingdom) of Israel, but Jews, descendants of (the kingdom) of Judah.”

The British Israel World Federation differentiates between the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. They claim that both those exiled from the Kingdom of Israel to Assyria and the majority of those exiled from the kingdom of Judah to Babylonia, did not return to their birthplace, but made their way to Europe separately, some hundred and thirty years apart. Only a small number of the exiles of the kingdom of Judah returned to their homeland from the Babylonian Exile, where they contributed to the building of the Second Temple. They are the forefathers of the Jewish people. In contrast, the tribes of Israel who are also known as Isaac’s Sons, wandered to Europe and became the Saxon tribes. Here is the linguistic entomological proof of such:

Issac’s Son > Sacs-son > Saxon

The Federation claims that the tribe of Benjamin separated from the tribe of Judah following the destruction of the Second Temple and reached the shores of the British Isles as Normans several hundred years after the Saxons. In this manner, with the unification of the tribe of Dan with the tribe of Isaac’s Sons (the Saxons), the united settlement (Britain) became the true People of Israel through whom the Biblical prophecy was fulfilled “Because I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply your descendants like the stars of the Heavens and the sand on the seashore and your descendants shall inherit the gates of their enemies” (Genesis 22:17).

In justification of the origin of the Kings of England, it is related that the daughter of Zedekia son of Josiah, her father’s legal heir, reached England where she managed to revive the royal house of the dynasty of King David. The nation these kings arose is in the British nation, who expanded over the years to a large confederation of nations who eventually declared the constitution of the empire in the royal conference of 1926. According to this constitution, any nation can unite with the empire while maintaining its independence.

In his article, Stern also discusses the Federation’s attitude to the Land of Israel and to the role of the British in Palestine. While the Balfour Declaration aspired to establish a national homeland and the writer of the Mandate even aimed for Jewish self-rule, the Federation saw itself as the exclusive heir to this territory. Neither the descendants of Ishmael – the Arabs, nor the Jews have any right to the land.

“The religious center of the (Children of) Israel is still in Jerusalem, which is not geographically located in Palestine, but in the British Isles…Zion remains the site of the throne of David and is still in the great city of King David, it is not currently in Palestine, but in the British Isles together with David’s tribe”, thus Stern quoted words written by William Pascoe Goard, the vice president of the Federation, in the National Message and Banner newspaper in October 1929.


In the photograph: William Pascoe Goard (1863-1937)


Stern quotes another article from the same newspaper in November 1929 on the identity of the Jews and the Arabs. Regarding the question of who is a Jew, the writer of the article, David Gilbert, explains: “First of all, all the British are not Jews… the eleven tribes did not return, as described by Ezra and Nehemia. The facial features of a Jew are not Israelite facial features, as the children of the tribe of Judah married idol worshippers, and their features are more Syrian than Israelite. Therefore, the British Children of Israel, descendants of Israel, do not have such facial features.” The same newspaper journalist asks the rhetorical question: “What are we, the British, looking for in Palestine?” and responds “More than we received a mandate from the League of Nations, we received it from a Higher Power! On December 11, 1917, Lord Allenby was stationed on Mount Zion and spoke before the military forces, which most likely included representatives of the Israelite tribes. One thousand two hundred years ago, three crosses were seen reflected in the sky, and the king stood in the center. In Jerusalem, the blue Crusader flag divided Jerusalem, the symbol of the largest empire the world has ever known. We have things to look for in Jerusalem.”

If so, Stern asks himself, what is the implication of the Federation for Zionism? Indeed, on the one hand it is an advantage, and on the other hand, a danger. The advantage is expressed by the liberation of Jerusalem from Turkish rule, and the danger is posed by the Federation’s desire to claim the authority of a mandate. However, Stern casts a doubt on the success of this religious utopia whereby Palestine belongs to the King of England and to the British Empire, and hoped for opposition to the mandate from the British parties. Many people have taken an interest in the Jewish people – Stern writes – from Oliver Cromwell to Lord Balfour. The Federation’s objective is not the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, but building Jewish identity and culture alongside the local residents without increasing the number of Jews in Israel, and thereby takes the Balfour Declaration out of its context.


Lord Balfour and the declaration with his signature

In Color: Amazing Photos of Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land From 1900

The then-revolutionary photochrom method gave the world its first color pictures — based on the imagination of the employee working the printing plates.

An Ashkenazi Jew in a rainbow-colored striped gown, center

The National Library’s photo collections include several albums of pictures produced at the end of the 19th century using the process known as photochrom. What was this method and why do the photos resemble oil paintings more than the black-and-white originals?

The first color photo was taken in 1880 by Thomas Sutton, a student of the mathematician and inventor James Clerk Maxwell. It was a picture of a scarf.

The Western Wall at the end of the 19th century. Men and women are seen leaning on the wall.
Rachel’s Tomb.

Even though the technique for making color photos was developed within decades of the invention of photography, it would take more than 100 years for color photography to relegate black and white to the art world. The mass shift towards color happened in the 1970s. Until then, color photography involved expensive techniques used almost exclusively by professional photographers. In its first few decades, it was considered unreliable.

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Twenty years after the creation of the first photographic image, a Swiss printer named Orell Fussli developed photochrom. Unlike color photography that captures the object’s original colors, the photochrom technique involved coloring black-and-white photos. Fussli’s innovation was to use lithography, a printing method that had been around for centuries.

Within a few years, photochrom became widespread. Its main advantage was its low cost and relative ease of producing multiple copies that could be sold.

In 1888 the company Fussli worked for opened a subsidiary called Photochrom Zurich. From its inception to the 1920s the company used its patent to dominate the global market for color photos. Zurich was the place to go to for anyone wishing to splash color in a photograph.

The entrance plaza at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem.
The Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock.
The Jordan River.

The Swiss company’s monopoly led to an interesting twist. In the absence of specific instructions, company employees had no way of reconstructing the original colors in a black-and-white photo. So they simply had to rely on their imagination.

This brings us to those two albums in the National Library in Jerusalem.

The first album, produced in 1900, is a collection of photos from a pilgrimage by a group of Austrians to the Holy Land. But it wasn’t the tourist-pilgrims who took the photos. At that time there were several professional photographers in Ottoman Palestine. The pictures were taken by the professionals, and the coloring was done by Photochrom Zurich.

The pilgrims, like other clients who were interested in photos from the Holy Land, selected their favorite pictures, apparently of places they had visited on their tour.

An Ashkenazi Jew in a rainbow-colored striped gown, center.
The Lions’ Gate, Jerusalem.
A woman from Bethlehem.
Muslim worshipers. The picture was apparently taken at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Therefore it is no surprise that most of the photos in the first album show key locations in Jerusalem and nearby areas. The only other location shown in the photographs is the coastal town of Jaffa. In that photo, Jaffa longshoremen are seen rowing the boat of renowned tour guide Rolla Floyd.

Tour guide Rolla Floyd shows tourists around the Jaffa harbor

In this album, the entrance plaza to the Al-Aqsa Mosque was adorned with wonderful colors, while Jaffa Gate, the Lions’ Gate and the Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock also recieved the photochrom treatment. It’s possible that the way these photos were colored reflects the conceptions the Swiss employees had of the land’s inhabitants. In all the photos they are shown wearing heavy garments with loud color combinations.

An Arab tailor.
The Dome of the Rock (from the second album).

We know very little about the history of the second album, which was produced earlier. We do know that on every cardboard page there is a stamp of ownership belonging to a Swiss evangelical school. It’s possible that the owners actually visited the Holy Land, but it is also possible that they simply purchased the album from another source.

The 36 photochrom prints in this album show landscapes in Ottoman Palestine and Syria. Several photos in the first album are found in the second one as well, and in some cases the photos show the same scenes at a slightly different moment.

In any case, this album illustrates several examples of the artistic freedom of the Swiss company’s employees. One example is a photo of an Ashkenazi Jew in a rainbow-colored striped gown – most likely not faithful to the original.

And this article cannot end without mentioning the beautiful photo of the Western Wall from the end of the 19th century. Men and women are seen leaning on the wall attired in a vivid array of black, white, red, green and brown.

The American Politician Who Would Not Remain Silent in the Face of the Holocaust

How Henry Morgenthau went from mild-mannered cabinet secretary to being one of the greatest advocates for Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust?

Official portrait of Henry Morgenthau, Jr., 1930s, Collection of the National Library

Despite his many virtues, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in short supply of the virtue of religious tolerance. During a meeting with Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., he told the Jewish politician that the United States was a Protestant country and therefore, as President he would never openly petition for either the Catholic or the Jewish minority. He explained that in his choice of Morgenthau for the position of secretary of the treasury – a key cabinet post in the period of the Great Depression and World War II – he was looking for the best man for the job. However, his aides claimed, even when he was still alive, that he had asked them to find him “the most talented Jew for the position.”

Nevertheless, the Secretary of the Treasury still considered the President a very close friend. Roosevelt’s relationship with Morgenthau however, was no different than the relationships he had with his other subordinates – the President specialized in provoking a basic insecurity among those who worked under him. Due to his independent wealth, Morgenthau would have had no problem buying a fancy home for his family to live in while he was working in Washington, DC, but instead, he moved his family from one rented apartment to another because. “I never felt that my work could wait until morning,” Morgenthau remarked years after Roosevelt’s death. This fear made the Secretary of the Treasury (along with most of the President’s advisors), into a submissive employee who did his best to not provoke the President’s ire.

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This all changed with a phone call to Morgenthau’s office toward the end of 1943. That fateful day, the Secretary of the Treasury picked up the phone in his office and was surprised to hear a familiar voice – it was none other than the Rabbi and close friend who had officiated at Morgenthau’s own wedding. The agitated Rabbi pressured Morgenthau to tell him everything he might know about what was happening in occupied Europe. The baffled Secretary of the Treasury asked his friend to explain the meaning of his request.  Over many minutes, the Rabbi related in great detail the long list of atrocities the Nazis were perpetrating against the Jews, the emptying of the ghettos, the trains to the East and the concentration camps. “Henry, do you know that lampshades are being manufactured out of the skin of the slaughtered Jews?” his friend asked. Reeling from all he had heard, Morgenthau asked to end the conversation before he fainted.

The more he learned and heard from the many reports coming from survivors who had managed to escape the inferno,  the more Morgenthau felt himself changing from a mild-mannered man into a man with a mission. He felt it his duty to save as many Jews as possible.  Determined to force Roosevelt to act even at the price of his job, he met with the President in 1944 and presented him with a detailed report titled “Report on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of Jews.” He then spread the facts before the President (which Roosevelt had known already since the start of 1942), and demanded that the American government take every action to stop the systematic and industrialized killing of the Jewish People. He did not stop with a moral demand, but appealed to the President’s base interest. He called upon Roosevelt to reveal publicly what was happening in Europe and to condemn the Nazi atrocities in no uncertain terms, lest the discovery lead to a scandal which would seriously damage Roosevelt’s chances of re-election to a fourth presidential term.

The chance Morgenthau took paid off: within weeks a refugee commission was formed, whose purpose was to unite the efforts to smuggle Jews out of Nazi occupied areas. An agreement was signed allowing for the unrestricted admission into the US of Jews from Europe, and considerable aid was sent to Raoul Wallenberg to help in his heroic rescue efforts. Less than two months after their encounter in the Oval Office, Roosevelt made his first speech acknowledging the Holocaust that was raging in Europe. Morgenthau did not stop there. He formulated a plan of action against Germany: the plan called for the destruction of all military and civil industry in Germany at the end of the war. “The Morgenthau Plan” was rejected by Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor to the presidency after the latter’s death in April 1945 (only weeks before Germany’s surrender).  In the end, the efforts of Morgenthau and of other American activists led to the rescue of 200,000 Jewish refugees from the jaws of the Nazi killing machines.

After the war Henry Morgenthau was fired by President Truman. He became an enthusiastic and loyal supporter of the fledgling State of Israel, and was appointed chairman of the United Jewish Appeal in America.

Letter from Morgenthau to Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes, congratulating him on the achievements of the Hebrew University, and showing Morgenthau’s support (even during the war) for the “state in the making.” From the Yehuda Leib Magnes Archive, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel