Hollywood in the Holy Land: The Story of the First (and Last) “Matzah Western”

The Israeli film industry has known its share of successes despite a whole range of challenges. But the dream of setting up an international film studio producing Hollywood-level movies in the Holy Land never really got off the ground. This is the story of the plan to transform the resort city of Eilat into Israel's filmmaking capital and its connection to Gregory Peck and the first “Matzah Western.”

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Israeli actor Zeev Berlinsky portraying a Native American in the movie “Billy Two Hats.” Screenshot from film

The Western Billy Two Hats hit theaters in 1974. It starred Gregory Peck and Jack Warden, two Hollywood legends, alongside Desi Arnaz Jr., son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who was in a relationship at the time with superstar actress and singer Liza Minnelli. But none of this helped. The movie remained a marginal and forgettable cinematic foray, but it does serve as a piece of fascinating history – a brief episode during which Hollywood attempted to bask in the glow of the Holy Land.

As befitting a classic western, Billy Two Hats tells the story of two highway robbers (Peck and Arnaz Jr.) who are fleeing a tough and determined sheriff played by Warden, after one of their robberies leads to a murder. Arnaz Jr. plays Billy Two Hats, a young man who never got to know his Native-American mother nor his white father. He is treated as a kind of adopted-son by his older partner in crime Arch Deans, a roughhewn Scottish thief played by Peck.

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Gregory Peck to Star in Film to Be Shot in Eilat” – A news item on the planned filming of Billy Two Hats in Eilat, Maariv, August 22, 1972. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

The film depicts their escape, including Deans’ wounding by the sheriff and an attempted robbery by four Natives who take pity on the wounded Deans and his young friend Billy, as the latter speaks to them in their language and identifies as one of them. And of course, there’s a love interest – a forbidden romance between the handsome, soft-spoken Billy and the beautiful Esther, a mail-order bride married to an abusive husband.

Underneath the standard Western plot devices and the requisite gunfights is a film that examines racism and the humiliating treatment meted out to Native Americans.

Despite its star-studded cast, Hollywood production levels, and even its message of tolerance, the movie was a flop – with critics and at the box office.

We would not be paying any attention to this film had it not been dubbed the “The First Matzah Western.” To understand exactly what that means, we need to go back to late October, 1972. Yaakov Gross, a reporter for Al Hamishmar, an Israeli newspaper, wrote at the time: “At a celebratory press conference at the HaSharon hotel, you could find a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Israeli film industry. They had all come to welcome the producers of the film Billy Two Hats starring Gregory Peck.”

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The Western Goes East” – a report in Al Hamishmar, dated October 18, 1972. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yes, Billy Two Hats was filmed entirely in Israel, despite the plot taking place in the deserts of the American frontier in the 19th century. It remains one of the few films made in Israel with no actual plot connection to the region itself.

Just as Westerns produced in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s were called “Spaghetti Westerns”, Billy Two Hats ended up being the first Western filmed in Israel, with plenty of locals taking part in the production. Naturally enough, it was called the first “Matzah Western.”

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Dezi Arnaz Jr. and Gregory Peck on set near Eilat. Photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

The film’s production took two months and involved an extensive Israeli staff, including two actors: Zeev Berlinsky and Nathan Cogan. Berlinsky was an experienced theater and film actor who was among the founders of the Cameri and Sambation theaters. On set, Berlinsky told reporter Baruch Meiri: “I was killed dozens of times by Gregory Peck. It was an unusual pleasure to be killed by this great actor.”

Two Israelis in ‘Two Hats’” – Feature article by Baruch Meiri in Maariv on the filming of Billy Two Hats in Israel, November 11, 1972. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Peck’s double was also Israeli. Gadi Katz was hired at first to be a local guide for the production and didn’t even dream of actually taking part in the film, but due to his clear physical similarity to the star of the movie, he was immediately chosen to be Peck’s double. This didn’t surprise him at all: “When I was in the United States, where I met my wife, a few girls stopped me and asked for an autograph,” he told Maariv reporter Baruch Meiri.

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Liza Minnelli on the set of Billy Two Hats, photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

Aside from the leading actors, who were major Hollywood stars at the time, one of the world’s most famous celebrities also arrived in Israel to support her partner, who was acting in the film. Liza Minnelli, star of the Oscar-winning 1972 film Cabaret, came to spend time with her young fiancé, Desi Arnaz Jr.

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Liza Minnelli and Dezi Arnaz Jr. on the set of Billy Two Hats, photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

But how and why did the powers that be in Hollywood decide to film an American Western in Israel of all places?

Ever since motion pictures were invented, the Land of Israel – then still Ottoman Palestine – had been a major destination for filmmakers. One of the first films by the Lumière Brothers from 1897 depicted the landscapes of the Holy Land, according to movie critic and screenwriter Yair Raveh.

During the first decade of the State of Israel’s existence, the country’s tiny movie industry tried to take its first steps like many other newly independent countries. In 1955, the film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was made as a joint Israeli-British project. The turning point came with the film Exodus, filmed in Israel in 1959.

The movie, starring Paul Newman, was released in 1960, telling the story of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel. It was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Leon Uris. Exodus was filmed in Israel: “It was the first time that the tiny Israeli film industry here was involved in the professionalism of a Hollywood production, rather than the propaganda films that were common back then,” Raveh explained.

Paul Newman on the left as Ari Ben Canaan, in Exodus (1960). Screenshot

The filming of Exodus gave birth to the Zionist dream of founding a film industry in Israel which would allow for cheaper productions than in America, though the local potential went beyond matters of finance: “Israel offers a very great variety of landscapes in a very small area: deserts, snowy mountains, ancient and historic structures,” Raveh explained. Peck agreed with him, as he explained to the press during the filming of Billy Two Hats: “Eilat is a wonderful place for the film industry. There is a combination here of Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and California. Who could ask for more?”.

Peck was not just flattering his Israeli hosts. After the filming, he visited the country dozens of times and even filmed additional movies here. In fact, a documentary telling the story of the filming of Billy Two Hats, meant to attract more production companies to the Holy Land, was narrated by Peck himself. Peck’s children also came to Israel and his daughter, director and producer Cecilia Peck even directed Brave Miss World, which documents the story of Linor Abargil and her publicized fight for justice after her rape.

But let’s get back to the 1960s for a moment. At the time, perhaps due to Exodus or Israel’s own military and cultural achievements, the Jewish state itself was often seen as a sort of inspirational miracle, and this popularity extended to Hollywood as well. With plenty of Jewish producers playing major roles in the American film industry, that popularity was hardly a surprise.

Over the next two decades, many other international films were also filmed in Israel. A few could easily have been filmed in plenty of other locations (such as The Big Red One), but the majority of these movies had an actual plot connection to Israel itself, like The Ambassador or Jesus Christ Superstar. During the filming of the latter, Norman Jewison, the film’s director and producer, discovered Israel’s potential as a desert setting. It was exactly what he needed for another film he would end up producing – Billy Two Hats.

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Gregory Peck and Desi Arnaz Jr. alongside David Huddleston on set. Photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

In 1966, just as Hollywood interest in the Holy Land was on the rise, a film entrepreneur named Alex Hacohen received permission to establish a large Wild West style film set near Eilat, resembling an actual town. The project was a failure. In its five years of existence, just three films were made there, and it usually looked as abandoned as many an Old West ghost town.

In 1971, the set burned down in a fire, with Hacohen racking up large debts due to the failed venture. The Naveh Ilan studios established near Jerusalem by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were also planned to attract big name productions from overseas, but without much success.

If you visited Eilat in the 1980s, you could have your picture taken next to the “Texas Ranch” guillotine. “Texas Ranch” was another film set established in the area, which ended up becoming a tourist attraction before closing down and later being converted into a water park.

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“Texas Ranch”, a 1980s Eilat-adjacent Wild West film set. Photo: Facebook

“In the 1980s, [film producers] Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus brought many Hollywood productions here. Brook Shields’ Sahara, Stallone’s Over the Top, and Chuck Norris’ Delta Force,” Raveh said. “Most of the movies were not particularly high quality but they were very successful and brought a lot of money into the country. Golan and Globus were very successful in Hollywood with [their company] Cannon during those years.”

Menahem Golan Awarded Kinor David 1964
The “Kinor David” (David’s Harp) award is given to Menachem Golan for Best Film, 1964. Photo: Fritz Cohen, GPO

But here is where our story ends, more or less. The intifada that broke out in the late 1980s and all that came after brought the saga of Hollywood movies in Israel to an end: “The high costs of production, which certainly increased after the inflation of the mid-eighties, combined with the security situation, made Israel an unattractive destination. Insurance companies simply refused to insure the actors. Today we’re in a situation where even movies whose plots occur in Israel are filmed abroad. In Steven Spielberg’s Munich, for instance, scenes ostensibly taking place in Jerusalem were filmed in Malta.”

In 2000, a tiny hope once again emerged with the arrival of a major production to Israel, featuring none other than Brad Pitt. Excitement in Israel was at its peak, but just then the second intifada broke out. Pitt’s arrival was cancelled due to insurance companies refusing to cover him.

Despite the efforts of various dreamers, Israel never managed to establish itself as a satellite of the American film industry.

Still, in addition to the local Hebrew and Arabic film industry which has seen its share of successes, Israel also has a whole other film industry many are not aware of: “Quite a few Christian films are made in the country which provide a lot of work for the industry in Israel,” Raveh explained. “These are not widely known films, and they go direct to home distribution or are distributed via religious platforms.”

In any case, we can always take comfort in the fact that there was once such a thing as a Matzah Western, and thanks to the National Library of Israel’s online catalog we can enjoy hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos from the filming of Billy Two Hats, taken by photographer Aliza Auerbach.

The Riddle of the Baal Shem Tov

No one knows when or where he was born, but on the festival of Shavuot we mark the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, one of the most influential figures in the Jewish world of the past few centuries. Was "The Besht" a real person or just a Hasidic legend? How has this enigmatic figure influenced generations of followers? How did he foresee his own death? Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of our Judaica Collection, offers insight on the life of this fascinating person.

The Baal Shem Tov, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to legend, when the Baal Shem Tov was just starting out, he arrived in a Jewish town. Early in the morning, he stood with his cart, met a Jew on his way to the synagogue, started talking to him, and told him a story. The Jew enjoyed the story and stayed to hear another one. In the meantime, more Jews passed by, saw what was happening, listened to the story being told, and they too stayed to hear yet another story. This kept happening until all the Jews of the town stood there listening to the Baal Shem Tov and his stories.

The stern Rabbi of the town was very strict about praying on time. The Rabbi arrived at the synagogue waiting for a minyan (a quorum of ten required for prayers), but no one showed up. He waited for half an hour, then an hour, until he realized there would be no minyan that day. Annoyed, the Rabbi prayed on his own and then went to find out why no one else in the town had shown up to pray that day.

That’s when the Rabbi understood that a Jewish traveler was standing in the center of the town and telling stories, keeping everyone from arriving on time to pray. The Rabbi instructed his assistant to go bring that man to him so he could be punished for stopping the prayers from happening that morning. A few minutes later, the Baal Shem Tov went to see the Rabbi, who asked him why he had stopped everyone from coming to pray. The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Honorable Rabbi, I truly deserve to be punished for preventing the public from praying, but before you punish me, let me tell you a story.”

And so, the Baal Shem Tov told the town’s Rabbi story after story, until that Rabbi took it upon himself to be among the Baal Shem Tov’s greatest disciples. The Hasidim say that this Rabbi was called Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, known for being a great student of the Baal Shem Tov and one of the first great Hasidim.

The Hasidic movement’s extraordinary story-telling abilities contributed quite a bit to the confusion surrounding the enigmatic and wonderous character of its founder, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer – the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”) – who has kept generations of historians and researchers occupied. Simon Dubnow, a pioneer in the critical study of Hasidism, wrote the following in the opening section of his book The History of Hasidism:

“Out of the fog, the historical image of the creator of Hasidism emerges and becomes visible to us…a thick mask, woven into the imagination of his contemporaries and later generations, hides the true image of the Baal Shem Tov from our eyes until it almost seems to us as if this person never existed, but was rather a metaphor, a fictitious name for whatever may have caused a religious movement to shake the world of Judaism.”

Dubnow himself never doubted the Baal Shem Tov’s existence, but a lack of factual information overshadowed Hasidic research for decades. To this day we can’t say with certainty where or when he was born. We don’t know anything about his parents or his teachers. His entire childhood is shrouded in mystery. Eliezer Steinman wrote that it was “as if a loyal hand had gone to the trouble of obscuring his footprints.”

It was only when he began his public activity, in the 1730s, that he began to be revealed little by little, but by then he was already appearing in the full extent of his stature. By this point he was meeting with Kabbalists, and had students, admirers, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, thinkers and simple folk clustered around him. He was particularly known as the “Baal Shem,” a healer and miracle worker.

Dubnow, Gershom Scholem, and many scholars of Hasidism assessed with certainty that the Baal Shem Tov was not merely a legend – after all, his students mentioned him and taught Torah in his name, we have the siddur (prayer book) that he used, and we know exactly where he is buried. Still, several other scholars did began raising doubts about whether this person had ever truly existed. Isn’t it possible that different legends about different figures merged to tell one story? Is it possible that a person whose whole life was one of miracles and wonders truly walked this earth? Maybe there truly was such a person, but his students created a legend surrounding him after his death.

Professor Moshe Rosman is a skilled professional historian, who also benefited from a bit of luck. At the beginning of his academic career, he decided to focus not on the theology of the Baal Shem Tov, but on his life. He tried to avoid writing an intellectual biography about the man and instead rummaged through archives that offer an understanding of what Jewish life in that period may have looked like.

Rosman made a very important discovery at the beginning of his career, in the 1990s.  The 1740-1760 tax records of the town of Medzhybizh in Ukraine – the town where the Baal Shem Tov lived – which are kept in the Czartoryski Library in Krakow, contain references to a “Kabbalist” or “Baal Shem, Doctor” who lived in a house owned by the Jewish community and was exempt from paying taxes.

Appearing alongside this “Baal Shem” in the tax records are many familiar figures from the book In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov. All of this indicates that not only did the Baal Shem Tov exist, but that he was already known as the Baal Shem Tov, a healer, “doctor”, and even a “Kabbalist” in his lifetime. The tax records also show that the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t necessarily an anti-establishment figure – as later generations tended to portray him – but rather someone whose community recognized his uniqueness and showed its appreciation by providing him with a home, and a tax exemption from the authorities.

As of 1760, the Baal Shem Tov no longer appeared on any tax records, indicating that he likely passed around this time.

The Baal Shem Tov continues to serve as an enigmatic, wonderous, legendary figure. To this day, there are differences of opinion about when he was born, but there is a consensus that he died during the festival of Shavuot in the year 1760. But just as the life of the Baal Shem Tov was full of riddles and legends, so is everything surrounding his passing.

In a story that appears in In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov’s death seems to be controlled by the Baal Shem Tov himself. He knows the timing, he feels the struggle, and to him, death is simply a transition from one type of existence to another:

“First, the Baal Shem Tov gave his students a sign: when both clocks in his house stopped, it would mean that he had passed on from this earth.

And then, when the Baal Shem Tov returned from the bathroom and washed his hands, the large clock stopped. And the people and students surrounding him tried to hide it from him so that he wouldn’t see that it had stopped.

The Baal Shem Tov said to them: ‘I know the clock has stopped, and I am not worried, for I know with certainty that when I leave through this door, I will immediately enter another.’

The Hasidic tale continues:

The Baal Shem Tov sat on a bed and asked for his students to stand around it. He shared Torah lessons with them. The Baal Shem Tov said that there was a pillar used to ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden, which exists in every world. And that pillar exists in every person at all times.

Slowly, his voice grew weaker until his students could no longer understand the words and letters coming out of his mouth. He told them to cover him with a sheet, and he began to tremble and shake, just as he used to do when praying.

Then, he rested a bit and his body relaxed, and they all saw that the smaller clock had stopped as well.

Rabbi Leib Kessler, who was there, later testified that he had seen the Baal Shem Tov’s soul depart his body as a pale-blue colored flame.”

In the Hebrew song Kol Mi She’At (“Everything You Are”) which he wrote as a farewell to his mother Naomi Shemer, Ariel Horowitz describes clock hands moving like a pair of scissors, counting time backward.  The hands on the clock are like a pair of scissorsClose to touching the thread of your lifeAnd it’s impossible to catch in a glimpseEverything you are Horiwitz’s song doesn’t describe a big clock and a small clock, but rather clock hands moving like scissors, cutting through time and cutting off the thread of life.

Perhaps it was like the Baal Shem Tov himself said: “The pillar on which you ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden…exists in every person at all times,” and it is impossible to grasp the enigma of a person – “everything you are” – in a glimpse. 

For the Hasidim, the fact that the Baal Shem Tov died during Shavuot symbolizes more than anything his status and how his soul was deeply connected to the giving of the Torah. The Baal Shem Tov’s image is interwoven with that of other Jewish leaders who were also deeply connected to Shavuot, including Moses, who received the Torah, and King David, from whose descendants the Messiah is to come and who also died on Shavuot, according to Jewish tradition. The Baal Shem Tov’s passing on Shavuot symbolizes that he was a link in the long chain spreading the teachings of the Torah outward and thus bringing redemption closer.

The Lost History of the Jews of Corfu

In memory of an ancient community snuffed out by the Holocaust.

The Corfu Jewish cemetery, photo: the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On March 22, 1946, the Sephardic Jewish newspaper Hed HaMizrach (“Echo of the East”) published a pained Hebrew letter written by Haim Mizrachi (1901-1969), a resident of the island of Corfu and a Revisionist Zionist activist, parts of whose personal archive are kept at the National Library of Israel. The Jerusalem weekly didn’t make the letter a front-page affair, instead tucking it in between pages 9 and 10 of a 12-page publication, but the content remains difficult to stomach.

The beginning of the Hed HaMizrach article. March 22, 1946. Click here for the full article.

In the text he wrote and published, Mizrachi mourned his community’s destruction in the Holocaust. He told of how on June 9, 1944, the Nazis, with the aid of Greek police officers, arrested most of the Jews on the island of Corfu and sent them to the Birkenau death camp. Of some 1,700 Jews on the island, only 200 survived – 80 of them managing to escape the Nazis altogether and 120 surviving the camps. The rest were murdered.

Mizrachi issued a desperate plea for aid to help for the remnant of Corfu Jewry – the orphans, widows, sick, and unemployed. They needed clothes, blankets, funds and assistance in rebuilding the one remaining synagogue, which was left “half-demolished.”

Mizrachi added that of the 200 surviving Jews, 30 had already made Aliyah to the Land of Israel and many more intended to follow “for they do not see any hope of rearranging their lives in the exile”. Thus did an ancient Jewish community, which had survived for over 700 years, come to an end. The story of the Corfu Jewish community, especially its final years, is not widely known to the public, and deserves elaboration.

The island of Corfu rests in the eastern Mediterranean, near the western shores of Greece and Albania, and not far from southern Italy, occupying a militarily and economically strategic point. As such, it has been conquered many times: by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Venetians, the Kings of Sicily, the Ottoman Empire, and the armies of Napoleon. In 1815, it was occupied by Britain, which handed it over to the Kingdom of Greece in 1864.

Jews are known to have been present in Corfu since the Middle Ages. The famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions visiting the island in the 12th century and encountering a Jew named Yosef, who worked as a dyer of fabrics. Two major communities lived on the island – one composed of Romaniote Jews and the other of Italian Jews.

In a letter published in the Berlin-based Hebrew weekly HaMagid on September 24, 1891, a Corfu Jew named Halevi said the following of his community:

 “…the Jews of Corfu separated here into two communities regarding matters of worshipping God. The first, the smaller of the two, includes the descendants of the first exiles from the time of the exile of the First Temple, and it has a synagogue built according to tradition in the first year of the Christian calendar, and the second community includes the children of the exiles of Spain and Neapol (Naples – N.G.), and it has three synagogues and its prayer is according to the Sephardic rite. The two communities conduct themselves according to special committees, which occasionally meet when needed in matters regarding the public.”

The community of Corfu is mentioned in rabbinic literature, and some of its pinkasim (community ledgers), piyutim (liturgical hymns) and songs have survived. In the 19th century, a Jewish printing press operated in Corfu owned by the Nachmoli family, which printed religious books.

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Sefer Arvit and Hagaddah. Joseph Nachmoli Publishing, Corfu, 1876, the Rare Books Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Jews of Corfu dealt primarily in trade, and some of them became prominent in trading in etrogim (citrons) grown on the island, which were considered particularly aesthetic and beautiful and therefore appropriate for the holiday of Sukkot. The Jewish traders tended to acquire the etrogim from Christian farmers and then export them throughout the Jewish world. During the 19th century, a religious debate raged across Jewish communities worldwide regarding the kosher status of these etrogim, and some communities preferred to acquire etrogim from other sources, instead.

In 1864, after Corfu was handed over to Greece, local Jews were emancipated and received civil rights. They lived in relative freedom and comfort, and made great efforts to be on good terms with the majority Christian population. Nevertheless, from time to time they did suffer from both overt and covert expressions of antisemitism.

A particularly serious incident happened in 1891, when a blood libel was spread against the local Jews. The story began shortly after Passover, when a young Jewish girl named Rubina Sardas, the daughter of a tailor, went missing and was eventually found dead in a sack. A report that her father was seen with other Jews while carrying the bloody sack in the middle of the night caused a firestorm.

A rumor spread among local Christians that the girl was actually a Christian orphan named Maria Desylla, who worked for the Sardas household, and that the Jews murdered her as part of their religious rituals. Although the legal investigation produced no damning evidence against the Jews, not all the Christians were appeased and some began to attack Jewish homes and businesses. The local police made little effort to stop the rioters, and even helped to spread the rumors that the murder victim was Christian.

On May 12, 1891, the Warsaw-based Hebrew daily HaTzfira reported that

 “from the day of April 14 until today the Jews of Corfu sit imprisoned in their homes as if in jail, for their windows are also closed, and none go outside out of great fear. They are forced to purchase their vital provisions early in the morning from cruel merchants who demand triple the price. Poverty has greatly increased among these miserable souls. From the day of April 23, all the houses of prayer are sealed shut. When one of the Jews died, they could not bring him to a grave but sixty hours later, and twenty soldiers went beside the bed to guard it. Commerce has ceased. The common folk’s hatred of the downtrodden has greatly increased, and the soldiers born of the city help the masses incite evil against the Jews.”

22 Jews were killed in the pogroms.

Eight days later, HaTzfira reported that in response to these events, Austria, France, and England sent warships to the area to protect their citizens. In addition, representatives of France, the Ottoman Empire, and other countries were instructed to protest the Greek government’s failure to rein in the riots, with the German central bank even warning Greece that continued unrest could harm the value of its currency.

In the end, the authorities in Athens sent military units to Corfu, driving away the rioters with gunfire. The Greek government stressed that

“the Jews have since then shared one constitution and one law with all the residents of the country. The government is very saddened by the incidents, but its heart is confident that its actions will prove to all nations that the good of all its servants under its wing is close to its heart” (HaTzfira, May 21, 1891).

The events took the Jewish world by storm. On May 21, 1891, HaMagid published an editorial full of harsh words for the Greek residents of Corfu, who made a fortune selling etrogim to the Jewish world while libeling and murdering the local Jews. The article claimed that the Jews’ main problem was their lack of any defensive force:

“And our hands are powerless to save them from their oppressors by force, for our hands do not pull back the bowstrings of heroes and we have no ships and no war stratagems to avenge the spilled blood of our brothers, for Israel is weak among the nations and its power is but in the mouth.”

Following the blood libel events, which Corfu Jews called “the evil decree,” about half of the Jews residing there left the island. Most of these were the wealthier sort, with many of them immigrating to Italy or Egypt. The Jews remaining in Corfu were mostly poor.

In the years following the “evil decree,” the lives of Corfu Jews were mostly peaceful. They loved life on the picturesque island, and author Albert Cohen, a native of Corfu, described it in longing terms in some of his works. Nata Osmo Gattegno (1923-2019), another Corfu native who survived the Holocaust, attested in her Hebrew autobiographical work From Corfu to Birkenau and Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Aked, 1999), that the community rabbi and the local Greek bishop had mutual respect for one another, with the bishop being invited to the synagogue on Jewish holidays as a guest of honor. However, when the dates of Passover and Easter fell in close proximity, tension between the two sides increased. In the week before Easter, the Greek Christians would shutter their windows, before later opening them and tossing ceramic vessels out into the street while crying out “On the heads of the Jews! On the heads of the Jews!”

On March 22, 1914, the Jerusalem daily Moriah reported on Greek rioters who smashed up the Corfu Jewish cemetery.

On April 21, 1930, Haim Mizrachi published a report in the Jerusalem daily Do’ar HaYom on another blood libel against the Jews of Corfu. Mizrachi told of how on Monday, April 7, 1930, a great panic arose in the Jewish neighborhood. The Jewish merchants who set out to sell their wares suddenly returned to their homes in fear. Local Christians had threatened to murder them in revenge for the alleged Jewish abduction of a Christian child, whose blood the Jews supposedly sought to use in a Passover ritual.

Community leaders responded by quickly appealing to the authorities to intervene. The situation became even more tense the next day, and some Jews were beaten by their Christian neighbors. The police and the Greek bishop, who Mizrachi called a “friend of the Jews,” intervened, and overnight guards and detectives were sent to protect the Jewish neighborhood. The police published a special pamphlet to calm the mob, explaining that an anonymous individual had tried to kidnap the child to sexually assault him.

Unfortunately, not all the Greek residents believed this statement and some continued with their attacks. Mizrachi claimed that the Jewish community attempted to conceal the incident so that it would not become widely known and damage Greece’s international reputation. He noted that the local educated public and press in Corfu strongly condemned the blood libels, which did not do credit to Greece.

Opening of a Hebrew report on the blood libel. Do’ar HaYom, April 21, 1930. Click here for the full article.

During the 1930s, despite expressions of nationalism and antisemitism in Greece, Jewish life in Corfu went on as normal. The community had a rabbi, synagogues, a Hevra Kadisha burial society, charity associations, mikvah ritual baths, and even an elementary school with a modern curriculum which included the study of the Greek language.

In April 1933, Haim Mizrachi was given permission to use the matza-baking floor in the community building to set up a night school for young members of the community so that they could study Judaism and Hebrew. The community leadership demanded that Mizrachi, a Zionist activist, ensure that the children were studying both Jewish and Greek history, stressing that Jews living in Greece needed to be both law-abiding Greek citizens as well as “good Jews”.

מכתב הקמת בית ספר לילה ללימוד עברית בקורפו כתבה חיים מזרחי
Approval by the Corfu Jewish community for Haim Mizrachi to establish a night school to study Judaism and Hebrew. April 21, 1933. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

The community also contained social organizations, one of which was the “Phoenix” association of Corfu Jews, founded in 1931.

הזמנה לנשף כתבה חיים מזרחי
Invitation to the Jewish “Phoenix” association’s ball on February 4, 1935. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

There was also Zionist activity, of course. A number of Zionist organizations operated on the island from the beginning of the 20th century. Haim Mizrachi himself worked on organizing Revisionist Zionist activity. As a youth in 1913, Mizrachi organized a Zionist youth group called Tikvat Zion (Zion’s Hope), which operated for a few years before disbanding. In 1924, he established another movement named Theodor Herzl, which he later merged with the Revisionist Betar movement. He kept in regular contact with the global Betar movement, and had close ties to his colleagues in Saloniki and the Land of Israel. He died in Corfu in 1969.

תמונה חיים מזרחי
Haim Mizrachi. Photo courtesy of Guy Raz and the Eretz Israel Museum’s Israel Photography House
המכתב של ז'בוטינסקי כתבה חיים מזרחי
Letter from the Revisionist Zionist leadership, headed by Jabotinsky, to the Revisionist branches in Europe. June 25, 1934. This copy was sent to the Betar branch in Corfu. From the Haim Mizrachi Collection on Revisionist Zionism in Greece. The collection has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington.

The community of Corfu was wiped out in the Holocaust. In the letter published in Hed HaMizrach, mentioned at the start of this article, Haim Mizrachi described his community’s last moments: In April 1941, fascist Italy conquered Corfu, but the Italians made no distinction between Jew and Gentile and took no special steps against the former.

Things took a turn for the worse in October 1943, when the Italians left and the Nazi Wehrmacht took over. SS units under the command of Jurgen Stroop – who had previously served in Poland, ruthlessly putting down the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion – ordered the Jews to be registered in a special book and present themselves before a town official three times a week. The Jews were also burdened with a heavy tax to serve the Germans’ needs.

Wehrmacht soldiers entering Corfu, Spring 1944. Photo: German Federal Archive.

In May 1944, a delegation from the Gestapo arrived in Corfu, tasked with planning the deportation of the Jews to the death camp in Birkenau. On June 9, 1944, all Jews were concentrated in the city square, and the Nazi soldiers, with the aid of Greek policemen, herded them into the local fortress at gunpoint. At the same time, pamphlets were published on the island declaring that “Corfu has been liberated from the Jewish monster” and demanding those hiding Jews or Jewish property to immediately surrender them or be executed. Consequently, another 100 Jews hiding among their Christian neighbors were handed over to the Nazis.

Nata Osmo Gattegno attested that at the same time, Greek Christians invaded the Jewish neighborhood and looted it. The Jews were deported from Corfu in boats to the Haidari concentration camp near Athens, and from there they were very quickly sent on trains to the Birkenau death camp. Most were murdered there. Of some 1,700 Jews living in Corfu at the time of the Nazi occupation, only 200 survived.

After the Holocaust, the Greek government ordered the governor of Corfu in 1946 to return all property to the Jewish community and residents without delay, including public buildings used by the community and private property such as homes and stores (HaMashkif, January 17, 1946). But much of the property was in ruins. On the eve of the Holocaust, there were four synagogues. After the war, only one was left standing, and that barely. It was later restored by local authorities together with Jewish organizations.

Corfu Syn
The sole surviving synagogue on Corfu. Photo: Dan Lundberg

The ancient cemetery was also seriously damaged. Haim Mizrachi told of how after the war, the Greeks destroyed the cemetery’s fence, desecrated the graves, and turned it into a “place of trash and an abandoned field,” as he put it. In 1960, media outlets in Israel and around the world reported that the Jewish community in Corfu sold the cemetery land to the local authorities, which demolished it.

The Central Council of Greek Jewry denied this (Herut, January 1, 1961), explaining that in 1939, under pressure from local authorities, the community management had to give up a third of the cemetery plot for the sake of a children’s home and a hospital. The site was badly damaged during the war, most of the gravestones were destroyed, and one could only barely discern that this was indeed a cemetery.

After the war, the authorities expropriated the territory, began to level it, and even tossed bones into the sea. The community asked the authorities to stop their work, and in the end both sides reached an agreement to fence off a small part of the original cemetery and leave it alone.

Corfu Gader
Corfu Jewish cemetery. Photo: Nikodem Nijaki

In an article published in April 1978 in BaMa’arachah magazine, author David Benvenisti reported on his visit to the community of Corfu. He wrote that the old cemetery was being destroyed, the building once used for the Jewish school now stood desolate, and the few Jewish children living on the island were receiving no Jewish education. As of the 2020s, just a few dozen Jews live there; the desolate synagogue is now more a tourist attraction than anything else, and it is mostly active on weekends and holidays.

The community now uses a new location for its cemetery in place of the old one. In it one can find a memorial plaque commemorating those murdered in the Holocaust.

The Corfu Jews who made Aliyah established a monument in the cemetery of the Israeli city of Holon, which is dedicated to the memory of their brethren murdered in the Holocaust. Every year, on the 8th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, they conduct a ceremony in memory of the ancient Corfu Jewish community, which was wiped out.

Corfu Holon
Monument in memory of Corfu’s murdered Jews, Holon Cemetery. Photo: David Shai

The Haim Mizrachi Collection at the National Library of Israel has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel. Dr. Nimrod Gaatone is the director of the Samis Project, and is responsible for handling the Haim Mizrachi Collection.

Thanks to Dr. Shay Eshel and Meytal Solomon for their help with the Greek.


Franz Kafka on His Deathbed

On the author's last days, and some of the last words that he was able to put in writing.

Franz Kafka

In the early 20th century, tuberculosis was a fairly common disease. At that point in time, an effective treatment had yet to be developed. The disease mainly spread among populations that suffered from nutritional deficiencies. War could often lead to significant parts of the population suffering from malnutrition, and so it isn’t surprising that Franz Kafka contracted tuberculosis in 1917 – in the midst of the First World War.

At first, Kafka tried a very simple method of treatment; he figured a few months of rest outside the city at his sister Ottilie’s home might help. During his years of illness, Kafka occasionally returned to work at the insurance company in Prague where he was employed but he found he increasingly needed long breaks, which he took at various sanatoriums in Bohemia and Austria. During his last weeks, he stayed at a sanatorium in the town of Kierling near Vienna, Austria. Many of the patients there were in the terminal stages of tuberculosis and had hardly any chance of leaving in a reasonably healthy state. For Kafka, the disease had spread to his throat, preventing him from speaking and he switched to exclusively written communication.

The author sent letters and postcards to his friends, like the ones pictured here that he sent to Max Brod in April and May 1924:

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
The last postcards sent by Kafka to Max Brod. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

In these postcards, Kafka wrote about his own literary interests, the works of other authors, and also his unpleasant experiences due to the difficult treatments he was receiving, for example, injections of alcohol. At best, these injections offered a bit of relief.

About 40 “conversation sheets” from this difficult period have been preserved. They contain the ideas Kafka wrote down and the words he wished to express to the people who surrounded him: his friend and lover Dora Diamant, the doctor Robert Klopstock, Max Brod, and possibly others. After Kafka’s death on June 3, 1924, these pages were distributed among his friends, with five of them given to Max Brod. These items were brought to the National Library of Israel, along with Max Brod’s personal archive and a number of Kafka’s writings which were in Brod’s possession. While reading the pages (which were never published), it is not always easy to understand who exactly Kafka was “conversing” with when he wrote a certain line on the page, or what exactly the conversation was about. Some interesting references can be found among the pages, for example, his memories of experiences he had with his father when he was a child:

“When I was a little boy, before I learned to swim, I sometimes went with my father, who also can’t swim, to the shallow-water pool. Then we sat together naked at the buffet, each with a sausage and a half liter of beer. My father used to bring the sausages from home, because at the swimming school, they were too expensive.”

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

Elsewhere in these pages, two lines reveal Kafka’s concern for the flowers that were brought to his room in the sanatorium:

“Not cold water, but not too hot either, so that they don’t get sick.”

“And they should have made sure the flowers that were pushed to the bottom of the vase were not damaged. How can they do that?

Kafka also had comments about his diet: “It makes sense that in the hospital, dinner was between six and seven-thirty, after lying down all day, you can’t eat at half past eight” and “after all, a round of meals without fruit is unbearable over time.” In his deteriorated condition, it wasn’t easy for him to drink, either: “Milk? I drank sour milk for too long, then vinegar. The agony that drinking milk causes, now.

Of course, his illness and the treatments also became an issue: “It was from a cough at the time. I’m still burning from the oil. The injections don’t excite me anymore either, it’s too confusing.”

The exact order of the pages isn’t clear, nor is it clear if they contain all the content of Kafka’s written conversations in his last days or if there were more.

Despite his health and mental condition, he put together several short stories for a final collection he prepared, entitled A Hunger Artist. Proofreading the pages may have been the last literary act Kafka undertook. His friend Brod completed the process of getting it published. Franz Kafka never got to see it in print.

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

These and many other items will be displayed in the National Library of Israel’s exhibition on Franz Kafka, which will open towards the end of 2024.