Spotted Off the Shores of the Holy Land: The Little Mermaid

Mermaids, sea monsters and all sorts of fantastic creatures were a common feature of ancient maps

בת הים על המפה

When examining ancient maps of different kinds, a recurring theme will often catch the eye.

As oceans and seas naturally occupy large, expansive areas of maps, we find that illustrators tend to fill these spaces with interesting drawings of a rather imaginative nature. Sea monsters are a popular theme, as are ships. But, another exotic sea creature of a different sort is often the subject of these oceanic map illustrations – mermaids.

Mermaids feature in a number of ancient maps preserved in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. On Sebastian Münster’s 1572 map of the Asian continent, you can spot a mermaid with a sloping fin-tail splashing in the waters south of Indonesia, not far from a fairly ordinary looking sea monster.




In this map of the Arabian Peninsula created by Ptolemy and printed in Basel in 1545, we can see a mermaid swimming in the Gulf of Aden. She is depicted with a crown-like braid, a style popular with high-born maidens of the Renaissance-era, and she has wings or fins instead of arms.

בת הים על המפה


Even in the famous Bünting Clover Leaf Map, which depicts Jerusalem as the center of the world, we can see a mermaid bathing in the eastern oceans as a merman gazes at her with keen interest.4


Indeed, here at the National Library of Israel, we need not look far to find these aquatic creatures – In 1722 Edward Wells created a map which displayed how the land of Canaan was divided up among the twelve tribes of Israel. Here as well, you can see a mermaid leaning against the frame of the title, her infant mer-child clinging on to her. This touching scene takes place right off the coast of the city of Acre (Akko).


It seems these aquatic creatures could be found all over the world, so long as those spotting them used a little bit of imagination!

The Bullet Retrieved from a Famous Jewish Playwright in the Krakow Ghetto

The bullet was fired by a Gestapo officer during the liquidation of the Ghetto and is now kept in the National Library of Israel.

The projectile fired at Dr. Michael Weichart. Photo: Hadar Ben Yehuda of The National Library

The Krakow Ghetto, May 31, 1942 – the day before the roundup

The Jewish police force was ordered to round up all residents who had not received an official stamp from the SS to remain in the Ghetto. This stamp ultimately determined who lived and who died. Anyone unfortunate enough not to receive one simply awaited his fate. The police knocked on the doors of each house and arrested anyone who could not produce a stamp.

The next morning, people gathered in the main square. It was filled with men and women, young and old, all laden with packages. The sun was beating down, scorching and oppressive. Two cars of Gestapo officers entered the gates of the square. One of the cars drove up to the headquarters of the Jewish police while the other stopped in the square. The Gestapo men carried their revolvers. The streets around the square quickly emptied.

“One of the Gestapo men aimed his gun down Jozefinska Street. Jewish policemen called back and forth to one another. Suddenly, a bullet was fired …one …two…three. The first to be hit was Dr. Michael Weichart, the chairman of the ‘Jewish Self-Help Organization.’ The shooter was Sturmsharfuhrer Wilhelm Kunde, the spokesman for the SS and Gestapo on Jewish affairs. He held the title of Kriminal-Sekretär in the criminal police department (the Kripo). His bullet struck one of Dr. Weichart’s limbs.”

This is how Tadeusz Pankiewicz describes the events that preceded the shooting of Dr. Weichert, who was also a playwright and director, in his book, The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy.

Weichert was wounded by the Gestapo officer’s bullet, but he was not killed. He later removed the bullet from his limb and kept it for his entire life. For him, it served as a memory of that day in the Ghetto when his life was spared.

Back in the square, the Jews were requested to board trolley carts. They did so with the belief that the carts were taking them away from the Ghetto but it was only a charade. It turned out that they were asked to board the carts only for the purpose of being photographed in them. Once the photos were taken, the Jews were forced to depart the Ghetto on foot, leaving the majority of their heavy baggage behind. The group began walking along the railroad tracks to Plaszow.

That night the Gestapo raided each residence in the Ghetto, inspecting papers and catching Jews in the street. Apparently, not enough people reported for the roundup. Throughout the next day, those without a stamp who decided to remain in the Ghetto were forcibly rounded up. This roundup was far more aggressive and cruel.

Who was Michael Weichert?

Michael Weichert (1890-1967) was born in the town of Podhajce in Eastern Galicia. He headed the JSS (Juedische Soziale Selbsthilfe), the Jewish Self-Help Organization that was established in Warsaw in September 1939 to help Jews in the Ghettos. The organization operated throughout the Generalgouvernement (the term for German-occupied Poland during the war).

Weichert, a jurist by education, was a man of extraordinary talents, high intelligence, and great organizational ability. Before the war, he was one of the prominent figures in Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. He was a man of the theater who founded and ran an experimental Yiddish theater in Warsaw. He worked with the “Vilna Troupe,” which put on “The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky even before the Moscow Theater.

Dr. Michael Weichert

Despite the fame he garnered in the world of theater, Weichert was unable to make a living from his art and worked concurrently as a lawyer. He advised several Jewish charities and cultural organizations supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and helped them navigate the laws and restrictions imposed by the Polish regime in the years preceding the war.

Through these connections, Weichert came to head the Jewish Self-Help Organization during the war. As part of his work in the organization, he organized food, medicine and clothing donations for Jews through organizations like the Joint and the Red Cross. He arranged for the distribution of these vital necessities and often interacted with the authorities, intervening on behalf of those who had no other voice.

“No one knew how to speak to the Germans like him. Almost no one understood their mentality and way of thinking,” says Pankiewicz in his book.

Indeed, Weichert often helped Ghetto residents obtain life-saving documents and mediated between them and Polish trustees who agreed to hold money or belongings that were temporarily entrusted to them for safekeeping by the Ghetto residents. These actions were strictly prohibited and to be involved in this meant nothing short of endangering one’s life.

His ties with Poles and Germans during the war, and the very fact that he headed a welfare organization that operated under the authority of the Nazis led to post-war accusations against Weichert.

Weichert claimed that he had not collaborated with the Germans and that all he had done was strive to ease the situation of the Jewish population. Two separate courts dealing with the matter reached opposite conclusions.


“The bullet that wounded me which was removed from my body by Professor Geltzel in surgery.” The caption in Yiddish on the tablet in Weichert’s handwriting. Photo: Hadar Ben Yehuda of the National Library of Israel.

There were those who argued that the reason that Weichert was shot in the Ghetto prior to the roundup was to divert suspicion that he had collaborated with the Nazi authorities. In Weichert’s eyes, however, it is possible that the bullet he kept all these years was not only a reminder of the day his life was miraculously saved, but also conclusive proof that he was not a collaborator.

After the verdict, Weichert never returned to public service in the Jewish community in Poland. The man who worked in the Jewish theater before the war and contributed greatly to cultural life in the Ghettos, returned to the field he loved best and dedicated his life to researching and documenting Yiddish theater.

Weichert immigrated to Israel in 1958. He donated his archive, a collection of documentation and material of immeasurable value on the history of theater, folklore and Jewish theater during the Nazi occupation, to the National Library of Israel. Included in this collection was the bullet retrieved from Weichert’s body on that fateful day in May of 1942. Weichert passed away in 1967.

Thank you to Dr. Gil Weissblei of the Archive Department for his assistance in the research for this article.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


In Disguise and Under a Watchful Eye: The Heroic Story of Libyan Immigration

Illegal border crossings, forged documents and sham marriages: The struggle of Libyan Jews to immigrate to Israel prior to the establishment of the State

Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Grottaferrata, Italy

Written by: Ya’akov Hajaj Liluf

Libyan Jews began immigrating to Eretz Israel as early as the 1920s. Notably, in 1923, Eliyahu Falah led a group of eleven youths to Mandatory Palestine. The Libyan immigration rate continued to rise throughout the 1930s. Due to the policies outlined in the British White Paper (1939), Jews had to be smuggled into the Land of Israel through Egypt. With the assistance of members of the armed Jewish organizations, the immigrants crossed borders illegally, forged documents and permits and set up sham weddings, all in a desperate effort to reach the Promised Land.


Illegal immigration routes from Libya to the Land of Israel
Illegal Jewish immigration routes from Libya to the Mandatory Palestine.


A forged document given to David Peled (Fadlon) on his departure from Tunisia to France
A forged document given to David Peled (Fadlon) on his departure from Tunisia to France


Following the Libyan anti-Jewish riots of 1945, illegal immigration sharply increased. This happened despite a rigid British policy, which disallowed the issuing of exit permits from Libya as well as entry permits into Palestine. Illegal immigration was a desperate answer to the uncompromising policy, and it was carried out through scorching deserts and on turbulent seas. Prospective illegal immigrants traversed Tunisia disguised as Arabs. With the assistance of Tunisian Jews, they passed into France or Italy, before continuing to Palestine. They navigated the Mediterranean to reach these countries using any means necessary, including forged medical, business, student or tourist visas. They often boarded commercial cargo vessels as stowaways or disguised themselves as crew members.


Illegal immigrants from Libya in Tunisia, disguised as Arabs
Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Tunisia, disguised as Arabs


Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Florence, Italy.
Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Florence, Italy.


Illegal immigrants who were caught by the British on their way to to the Land of Israel were exiled to internment camps in Cyprus. Those who were able to reach the shores of the country immediately joined the armed organizations.

Members of the Zionist movements were sought out in Libya by Yisrael Gur (known as “The Uncle”), a representative of the “Mossad Le’Aliya Bet”, a branch of the Haganah dedicated to immigration.

While Gur handled much of the Libyan side of the operation, Haim Fadlon (Ciccio) and Klimo Adadi operated out of Italy and began organizing ships of immigrants to smuggle groups of youths (organized by Joseph Gueta) into the country. These Hebrew-speaking, military-trained Zionists, served as guides for the immigrants on their way to Mandatory Palestine.

Some 3,500 Libyan Jews reached the Land of Israel through illegal immigration, a number which constituted about 10 percent of the total Jewish population in Libya at the time. This phenomenon was unmatched in other Jewish communities.

Internees in a detention camp in Cyprus.
Internees in a detention camp in Cyprus.


Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya after arrival in their homeland.
Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya after arrival in their homeland.