The Kindergarten That Became the Mossad HQ in Morocco

In 1954, Yehudit Galili arrived in Morocco as part of a Jewish Agency mission. She set up a kindergarten, an "Ulpan" for teaching Hebrew, and a network of contacts within Casablanca’s Jewish community. One day she discovered a group of strangers in the building that housed her kindergarten and was surprised to hear them speaking Hebrew. This is the true story of how a kindergarten teacher became a spy for the Jewish underground in Morocco.

المربية اليهودية يحزقيلي غليلي (من اليسار) في احتفالات عيد الأنوار في الروضة العبرية الأولى، الدار البيضاء، المغرب.

Kindergarten teacher Yehudit Galili (left) overseeing Hanukkah celebrations in the first Hebrew kindergarten in Casablanca, Morocco

Imagine the following scenario: You are sent to a foreign country with the mission of opening a Hebrew kindergarten for the children of the local Jewish community. One bright morning, you suddenly discover that your kindergarten has become a training ground for the Mossad as well as a branch of the local Jewish underground. This is not the plot of a spy novel, but a true story, and the description you’ve just read is only the tip of the iceberg. In her book Shlihut Goralit (“Fateful Mission”) published in late 2022, Yehudit (Galili) Yehezkeli recounts the parts of her story that have been approved for publication, including many of her incredible experiences in Morocco.

In 1954, Yehudit Galili was sent to Morocco on behalf of the Culture and Education Department of the Jewish Agency. Her mission was simple: to start an Israeli-Hebrew kindergarten in Morocco and to teach Hebrew in an Ulpan (lit. “studio”, the common Israeli term for a Hebrew school). At the time, Yehudit was working as a teacher at the Hartuv transit camp for new immigrants (a ma’abara) which she had helped establish. One day, while waiting for the train home to Jerusalem, a friend told her that the Jewish Agency was looking for teachers for a mission to Morocco. Yehudit, who could not point out Casablanca on a map, didn’t think twice and applied for the job. After passing the interview and the rest of the admissions process, she found herself at only 24 years old, on her way to Morocco as an official representative of the Jewish Agency.

Yehudit Galili was born in Tiberias in 1930 and grew up in the small town of Nesher. During her childhood she was a member of Zionist youth movements, and as a young adult she trained as a squad commander in the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite fighting force). Yehudit took part in military operations and was even wounded in the battle for Haifa during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In May 1948 she joined the Harel Brigade where she escorted and trained convoys.

Yehudit Galili (later Yehezkeli) practicing with a firearm during a Palmach training course]


Palmach fighters train for a river-crossing. Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli is in the foreground, on the shoulders of a fellow-soldier


The Mission: Establish a Zionist Kindergarten in Morocco

Yehudit’s mission, at least in the beginning, was the essence of Zionist outreach activity at that time: to arouse interest in Israel among Moroccan Jews, particularly the middle and upper classes who had distanced themselves from the Zionist idea and the State of Israel. Moroccan Jewry was the largest of the Jewish communities in the Islamic countries. The educated and affluent Jews sent their children to French educational institutions rather than to Zionist schools such as Alliance and similar establishments. A large part of this population, which was concentrated in Casablanca (where Yehudit was sent), did not even consider the idea of immigrating to the State of Israel. At that time, Morocco was still a “protectorate” of the French colonial regime—which was about to come to an end. Despite a number of violent incidents (such as the pogroms in the cities of Oujda and Jerada after the declaration of Israel’s independence), the Jews of Morocco had a relatively comfortable life under the French regime. However, the State of Israel was aware that this situation might not last for long—and sent emissaries to bring Moroccan Jews closer to the Zionist cause, just in case.

In her first year there, Yehudit worked to set up a Hebrew kindergarten in Casablanca as well as an Ulpan for Hebrew language instruction. She conducted the kindergarten entirely in Hebrew, with the help of her assistant Zippora, a local Jewish girl who spoke Hebrew. The kindergarten followed the same format and curriculum as the Hebrew kindergartens in Israel. The children were provided with transportation to and from the kindergarten, and Zionist organizations in Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee donated the equipment. The kindergarten was housed in a fancy villa in the French quarter in Casablanca, and included an apartment for Yehudit. Besides running the kindergarten and Ulpan, Yehudit also forged connections with the parents of the children, which would prove very useful later on, when some of the parents were recruited into the Misgeret (“framework”)—the code-name for the Jewish underground in Morocco. As early as 1954, representatives of the Israeli security service were sent to Morocco, headed by Col. Shlomo Havilio, to assess the situation of the Jews in the country. Morocco was moving towards independence, and the Jews—whose status had improved during the French colonial period—had to prepare for the impending changes. This, in fact, had been one of the reasons behind Yehudit’s original mission, since encouraging immigration was one of the official ways Israel chose to deal with the situation.

Kindergarten class photograph for the Purim holiday (Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli is standing on the far right in the second row), Nesher

After working for a year, Yehudit took a few days off. When she returned, the situation in the country had significantly worsened. The State of Israel assessed that Morocco would adopt the anti-Israel position taken by other Arab countries and feared for the lives of the nearly 200,000 Moroccan Jews remaining in the country. The Mossad sped up the establishment of the Jewish underground in Morocco, and various cells began forming secretly throughout the country, one of them right inside Yehudit Galili’s kindergarten. November 16, 1955, the day the King of Morocco returned to his country, was a turning point for Yehudit. The underground at that time was trying to find a cover story by blending in among the Jewish Agency workers who had “official” permits to be in the country, while also attempting to recruit locals into its ranks. When Yehudit returned from her short vacation, she discovered that the villa that housed her kindergarten had also been recruited for this purpose.

Sultan Mohammed V and his son Mawlay Hassan return from exile in Madagascar. Their car was accompanied by a cavalry guard through the streets of Casablanca, Morocco. Photo by Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli

Yehudit Galili Alias “Nora”

“While walking upstairs to my room, I heard strange voices coming from the second floor […] At first, I thought about getting out quickly, but what I heard sounded like Hebrew and I calmed down. I was shocked to find strangers, but I think they were more frightened than I was… Their presence in Morocco was supposed to be top secret. They had come to Morocco under cover and no one knew of their existence, and suddenly an Israeli woman had found them out…” Yehudit Galili recalls in her memoir about her first meeting with members of the Jewish underground in Morocco. Shlomo Yehezkeli, the leader of the cell and later Yehudit’s husband, was the first to get a grip of himself. He asked her to sit down and after briefly introducing himself he started to interrogate her. “At first, I politely answered all the questions but then my patience ran out. Angrily, I said ‘What’s with all these questions? Who are you? Who authorized you to enter the kindergarten? I live here and this is my kindergarten!’” Yehudit writes about the meeting. Her assertive outburst served to diffuse the tension and by the end of the encounter she found herself recruited into the Jewish underground in Morocco. She agreed to join, despite having little idea what this was all about, after discovering that the members of the underground already knew everything about her without her telling them anything.

A girl placing a donation inside a KKL-JNF blue and white charity box, Hebrew kindergarten, Casablanca, Morocco. Kindergarten teacher Yehudit Galili is standing in the center of the photo. The children are wearing costumes for the Purim holiday

It was during this same meeting that the secret agents decided to set up shop in the kindergarten building in Casablanca, which is how it became the temporary headquarters of the Jewish underground in Morocco. The basement was turned into a slick – a hiding place for the underground’s weapons. Later it was also used for training members in how to take apart and reassemble weapons, as well as for secret meetings in which new recruits were sworn in. Mossad personnel posed as Jewish Agency emissaries, and thus the well-known Zionist organization became deeply involved in the Mossad’s activities. Yehudit, as a “certified” Agency worker with papers, became an asset for the underground. Her role as a kindergarten teacher enabled her to be in contact with locals without raising any suspicions. She was in touch with parents of the children in the kindergarten and students in the Ulpan and could listen to their conversations and assess their mindset. Most importantly, her position was ideal for finding potential recruits. Yehudit was trained in using invisible ink, preparing hiding places and various methods for gathering materials and information. She was even given an alias – “Nora”. Yehudit also acted as a courier and liaison between different groups, and eventually began to forge passports for Jews wanting to escape from Morocco.

Kindergarten teacher Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli with the children of the first Hebrew kindergarten in Morocco dressed up for Purim, Casablanca, Morocco


A Kindergarten and an Underground HQ: How Did It Work?

How did this strange combination of kindergarten and Jewish underground headquarters function day to day? Let’s consider the case of Carmela and Yona—two Mossad agents—who arrived in Morocco with their young daughter Orly and settled in Casablanca. Carmela and Yona arrived under cover as Jewish Agency emissaries. Orly enrolled in Yehudit’s kindergarten, which provided a perfect cover for conversations between Yehudit and the couple. In the mornings, when Carmela brought her daughter to kindergarten, she would leave confidential packages and letters with Yehudit who in her role as courier would deliver them. Yona, who was Shlomo Yehezkeli’s deputy, was involved in gathering and hiding weapons as well as training recruits in how to use them. He was also an expert in creating special envelopes to hide secret messages. When he came to the kindergarten, he would be busy devising hiding places for weapons and secret storage spaces for messages within the villa grounds. For example, he built a secret compartment inside the pot of a large plant placed near the villa’s entrance where messages could be stored.

A love story. Shlomo Yehezkeli, commander of the underground, and his wife Yehudit Galili who he recruited, in a classroom used to teach Hebrew and arithmetic, Casablanca, Morocco

In early June 1956, the Moroccan authorities decided to limit Zionist activity in the country. Yehudit’s kindergarten continued to operate at full capacity and serve as the center for the underground’s work until it finally was closed down.  After this, the Jewish underground operated from other locations. Yehudit continued her work in the Mazagan immigrant camp near Casablanca until she was forced to leave the country. She would continue her underground work on behalf of Moroccan Jewry from Marseille.

Continuing her work even after her expulsion from Morocco. Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli at a typewriter preparing a list of illegal immigrants from Morocco to Israel, Marseille, France

Yehudit married the commander of the underground in Morocco Shlomo Yehezkeli, whom she met for the first time on that fateful day in the kindergarten. The couple relocated to Paris, where they continued to engage in security, intelligence and public work on behalf of Israel from 1960 to 1964. Later they also took up official posts in Africa before eventually returning to Israel where they raised their three children. In Israel, Yehudit was involved in education, teaching and writing, as well as painting, sculpting, and filmmaking. She published nine books and dozens of articles, as well as numerous exhibitions and even three films. She has won many awards over the course of her life. Her latest book, Shlihut Goralit (Hebrew), about her mission in Morocco, served as the source for this article. The book is available to read online.

Just like in the spy movies. The debonair couple Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli and Shlomo Yehezkeli at a café in Casablanca, Morocco


The photos in this article are part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Breaking Bard: Uncovering Shakespeare’s True Identity

For centuries, the true identity of William Shakespeare has been shrouded in mystery. What if the famous playwright we all know and love was not who we thought him to be? The controversial theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was a group of women writing under one pseudonym has been gaining traction, raising fascinating questions about gender, authorship, and the nature of creativity. It's high time we examine the evidence behind this theory and explore its implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's legacy.

If I asked you to name the most famous playwright in history, you would almost certainly say Shakespeare. In fact, if I were to ask you to name the most famous people in history, Shakespeare would probably make the list! Whether you genuinely enjoy his writing, or you were simply forced to memorize his plays in English class at school, most people can confidently name at least a few Shakespeare works and their basic plotlines.

Shakespeare, El Progresso-La Bos del Pueblo-La Epocaאיל פרוגריסו/לה בוז דיל פואיבלו/לה איפוקה די נו יורק, 23 June 1916, Artist: Phinsan, via the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

But the world of Shakespeare is not as innocuous as it may seem. Many prominent authors have actually posited the theory that Shakespeare was not just one man, but a group of multiple people acting under a common pseudonym.

Much evidence to support this invigorating theory has been uncovered over the last 50 years, and it’s easy to see why the idea has so much traction. For a start, the way Shakespeare describes both the life of royalty and the life of a serf in magnificent detail points to the fact that Shakespeare had access both to the upper floors and the lower basements of the noble British household – something absolutely unheard of in the 1500s. Maybe today we wouldn’t scoff at the concept of being able to truthfully describe the lives of both a sailor and a servant, a prince and a pauper, but if you consider the fact that during Shakespeare’s lifetime the majority of people never even left their own small hamlet, or met anyone more diverse than their own neighbors, it does seem odd that Shakespeare should have had such an intimate understanding of so many varied lifestyles. We’re talking about someone who didn’t have a car, a phone, the internet, or even access to very many books. We’re talking about someone who relied on excruciatingly slow snail mail to talk to anyone outside his immediate village. We’re talking about a time in which most people never set foot outside their own town, let alone their home country.

So how is Shakespeare able, in his plays, to describe all these diverse lives that he unquestionably should not have had access to? He depicts numerous countries in vast detail, despite the fact that during his lifetime he would have had neither the time nor resources to visit those places. Moreover, Shakespeare confidently describes the taste of an orange in Much Ado About Nothing, a fruit not found in his native England until decades after his death. It is unlikely that one person, even today, could have acquired such a wealth of experiences to write about, much less 500 years ago without access to the internet, or even, by modern standards, a well-stocked library!

How are we to believe that a middle-class man born in the provincial English town of Stratford gained the plethora of experiences needed to write the plays that we find in his anthology? Intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan court, the ability to write in multiple languages, understanding of law, astronomy, music, the military, other continents, and multiple cities across Europe? This is even more astounding when we realize that no proofs exist of him ever traveling outside England. Moreover, the language he used and vocabulary that he employed in his plays far exceeds what his abilities rightfully should have allowed, seeing as his only formal education ended at the age of 13.

Ephemera – Hamlet, author: Benjamin Pollock Limited, Shakespeare & Company, 1948-2006, the Roni Toren Archive, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the University of Haifa and the National Library of Israel
Ephemera – Hamlet, author: Benjamin Pollock Limited, Shakespeare & Company, 1948-2006, the Roni Toren Archive, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the University of Haifa and the National Library of Israel

If all that doesn’t convince you that something suspicious is happening here, maybe this fact will: After Shakespeare’s death, he left behind not one original writing or manuscript in his home, no proof that he had ever put a pen to paper, not one reference book, not one musical instrument (despite a seemingly innate familiarity of over 25 instruments cited throughout his works), and he also left nothing in his will to his daughter, despite the blatant feminism apparent in so many of his plays (a point worth bearing in mind for later!)

Most convincing in the quest to prove that Shakespeare was not actually a single entity, is the fact that the signature of Shakespeare appears throughout his manuscripts with seven completely different spellings, almost all of which were bizarrely found in unexpected locations or years after his passing with no way to trace them back to his hometown. Many forensic scientists have pored over the numerous differing signatures attached to his manuscripts and determined that they may not in fact all belong to the same person. Maybe Shakespeare simply forgot how to spell his own last name, or maybe something unexpected was happening…

Shakespeare’s signature on the cover of a first edition copy of the book – Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, by Cornelius Agrippa, 1569, the National Library of Israel collections
Fragment from the first edition of The First Folio, a compilation of all Shakespeare’s plays, 1623, the National Library of Israel collections

The biggest question to ask upon receiving any new theory is always “why?” If you suddenly hear the sound of galloping, you can assume you’re hearing a zebra, but it is probably just a horse. There is, however, one obvious answer to the question of why multiple people may have wanted to write under a single presumed name.

Have you ever heard of the Bell brothers? Otherwise known as the Bronte sisters. What about George Eliot? Now known as Mary Ann Evans. Or A.M. Branard, who was actually Louisa May Alcott? I could go on and on, and by now you perhaps understand where we are going with all of this.

First edition of Shakespeare’s poems, 1640, the National Library of Israel

Women in the 1500s were scarcely permitted to speak their own truths, let alone write them down for public consumption! So, if there were hypothetically a group of female writers, seeking empowerment from their constrained existences, a collective name would be a great secret code to symbolize to those in the know that this work had actually been written by a woman. Shakespeare.

In case you’re still not convinced, let me explain. Perhaps today, a perceptive and well-educated man could write pretty decently from the perspective of a woman, as he is almost certainly surrounded by women who are willing to share their experiences and let him watch their feminine rituals. However, needless to say, this is a recent phenomenon entirely.

Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre
Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre
Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre

Thus, how Lady Macbeth and her sisters describe their femininity so accurately in Macbeth, a play supposedly written by a man, is perhaps a tad suspicious. Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, rages in a uniquely perceptive way at the limitations of being a woman; and Rosalind, in As You Like It, alters her demeanor to appear more masculine and thus progress further in life, an act that surely only aggrieved women usually identify with; Isabella, in Measure for Measure, understands, as women unfortunately often did, that her word was less trustworthy than a man’s and consequently fears that no one will hear her pleas; and Emilia, in Othello, argues passionately for women’s equality – I am sorry to say it, but these accounts which so acutely describe the inner-lives and struggles of women, do not seem to have been written by a man.

Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre

“Why was Shakespeare able to see the woman’s position, write entirely as if he were a woman, in a way that none of the other playwrights of the age were able to?” asks Tina Packer, Founding Director of Shakespeare & Company, in her book Women of Will. There is one obvious reason that a group of playwrights would need to use a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female. “One would think that Shakespeare had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman,” wrote Philosopher and Playwright Margaret Cavendish.

Cover of Isaac Edward Salkinsohn’s Hebrew translation of “Romeo & Juliet,” 1878, the National Library of Israel collections

It may seem slightly outlandish to posit the theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was the encoded pseudonym for an underground society of female playwrights, but this theory is actually becoming more and more widely accepted. In fact, it was discussed in detail at the International Shakespeare Convention last year, by some of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars in the world.

The writer John Ruskin fascinatingly pointed out that “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” And many of these heroines are seemingly quite feminist: At least ten Shakespearean women defied their fathers, eight disguised themselves as men, six led armies – this was far from the norm in male playwriting until probably the second half of the 1900s!

If more evidence is needed, an incredibly interesting little nugget is found in the works of Gabriel Harvey, a famous Elizabethan literary critic. In 1593, he mysteriously mentioned an “excellent Gentlewoman” who had composed three sonnets and a comedy play. “I dare not particularize her description,” he wrote. In 1593, Shakespeare wrote three sonnets and a comedy play.

William Shakespeare Sq. Chandos Portrait, Wikimedia Commons, Author: Buaidh

At least one of the women often supposed to belong to this group, Emilia Bassano, was Jewish – yet another reason, amidst the raging antisemitism of the 16th century, to hide her real identity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and Charlie Chaplin are amongst the many who propose lists of different women who may have belonged to the Shakespeare collective. Much of their theorizing is based on the fact that although Shakespeare’s life is well documented by any standards as an actor and theatre-owner, we have no proof that he ever actually put pen to paper: No letters mentioning him writing, no documents recording payments for commissions or plays, no journal entries proving that he ever wrote so much as a word. For example, despite his wife’s extensive journaling, she not once mentions that her husband was a playwright.

So, was Shakespeare a group of women from around the globe, writing under this pseudonym and thus displaying their literary brilliance far before society would allow them to do so? We may never know, but you can decide for yourself.

The National Library of Israel is one of only a select few institutions around the world who hold “The First Folio,” a collection of Shakespeare plays published in 1623. This unique piece, as well as other rare Shakespeare manuscripts, were anonymously donated to the NLI in the autumn of 2022. To mark the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, The National Library of Israel is organizing a series of lectures on William Shakespeare and his legacy, with leading Israeli cultural and academic figures. The series will be broadcast between May and July 2023.


Episode 1: Israeli Contemporary Theater and Shakespeare, with Yair Sherman and Dori Parnes. May 7, 2023.

Episode 2: Contemporary Translations of Shakespeare into Hebrew, with Dori Parnes and Ronen Sonis. May 28, 2023.

Episode 3: General overview on NLI’s Shakespeare collection and the Folio structure, with Dr. Stefan Litt and Dr. Micha Lazarus. Date to be announced.

Episode 4: The early modern English objections to Shakespeare, with Dr. Reut Barzilai. Date to be announced.

To see more and register for the free events, visit:

Living the Good Life in a Nazi Death Camp: The SS at Sobibor

These photos reveal the leisure activities of the SS members who lived on the grounds of the Sobibor extermination camp

In front of the “new casino,” in the SS living quarters of the Lager I compound at Sobibor. From left to right, camp commander Franz Reichleiner, Erich Bauer, responsible for operation of the gas chambers (embracing a Polish woman servant of the SS), Erich Shultze and deputy camp commander Johann Niemann, 1943

A review of the book:

From “Euthanasia” to Sobibor: An SS Officer’s Photo Collection / edited by Martin Cüppers, Anne Lepper, and Jürgen Matthäus, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press

On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference convened under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich in order to discuss practical matters relating to the extermination of European Jewry. A few months later, three extermination camps became operational in occupied Poland—Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, where nearly two million Jews were murdered—as part of “Operation Reinhard”. The sole purpose of these camps was mass murder. In order to hide the extermination process, the Nazis strictly forbade photography in the camps. Nevertheless, a few photographs taken at Belzec and Sobibor when the camps were active have survived.

The Lager II compound at Sobibor, with the sign “Erbhof” (Estate). A German officer stands in the middle, with a Jewish female prisoner at left drawing water from a well and another Jewish male prisoner at the right holding a rake, both are dressed in civilian clothing. Jews were led into this courtyard and commanded to undress, before they were herded into the gas chambers. Afterwards, Jewish prisoners combed the area with rakes looking for any valuable items that may have fallen. Photographed in Summer 1943.]

After the uprising in Sobibor in October 1943, the Germans completely destroyed the camp and planted trees in order to cover up any evidence of mass murder. Archaeological excavations that began in the 2000s have revealed the exact location of the camp’s various compounds as well as some personal belongings of the Jews who were murdered there. The excavations also revealed the foundations of the gas chambers. Their dimensions make it possible to understand the magnitude of the extermination perpetrated at the site.

The camp’s Ukrainian guards (Trawniki) photographed on the parade ground of the Lager III compound.  The man lying down in middle of the front row has often been identified as Ivan Demjanjuk. The gas chamber building is visible in the background. Spring, 1943

The discovery of two private photo albums belonging to Johann Niemann, the camp’s deputy commander, affords a look at the camp’s buildings and the SS men who ran it. The two albums, which had been kept by Niemann’s grandson, include some 350 photos. About fifty of the photos were taken in Sobibor, most of them in the area housing the German officers (Vorlager). The photos show the SS men engaged in leisure activities just a few hundred meters from the pits where bodies were cremated. Among the photos, one can see the Ukrainian guards (including a man who is likely Ivan Demjanjuk), Niemann on his horse, standing by a well, and holding a piglet recently born on the camp’s farm.

One photograph is of an SS officer playing an accordion, another shows a group of jolly SS soldiers in the company of two Polish women during an afternoon lunch break.

Meals would be followed by drinks, coffee, cigarettes and a game of chess. Interestingly, the SS men do not carry weapons, evidence of their sense of personal security in the camp.

In the album, Neimann documented various places and camps he served in as an SS officer. He began as an officer in the “Aktion T4” euthanasia project (in which tens of thousands of disabled and mentally ill German citizens were exterminated on German soil), continued as an officer in Belzec and at the end of his service was appointed deputy commander of the Sobibor extermination camp. A handsome man who paid much attention to his appearance, he loved taking photographs and having his photograph taken.

According to the book, it was this tendency towards vanity that led to his demise, with the start of the uprising at Sobibor on October 14, 1943. That same day, Niemann arrived at the shack used by the camp tailor on horseback. He had come to have measurements taken for a leather jacket that had caught his eye from among the looted items stolen from Jews. The tailor, who was himself a Jewish prisoner, asked Neimann to turn around with his back towards him so that he could take one last measurement for the length of the coat. This enabled another prisoner to enter, hit him with an axe and kill him. He was the first of eleven SS men killed that day in the revolt, which put an end to the camp’s extermination activities.

Both photo albums were donated to an educational center in Germany (Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz), which published them as a book, in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart, along with scholarly essays. The albums are now in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

Tracking a Child’s Footprint: The Rescue of France’s Jewish Children in the Holocaust

"Colonie Scolaire" was founded years before WWII with the aim of supporting the children of Paris’s poor immigrants. With the beginning of Jewish persecution in occupied France, the organization went underground in order to save as many Jewish children as possible. This is the story of one of those children, told through the organization's documents…

Colonie Scolaire children on a summer outing to Berck-Plage

On August 27, 1942, the director of a French orphanage, “La Pouponnière” – Nouvelle Etoile des Enfants de France (“The Nursery”) – sent a short letter to a colleague at the La Mère et L’Enfant (“Mother and Child”) clinic at 36 rue Amelot in Paris, along with the outline of a child’s footprint, cut from a newspaper.

The newspaper cutout of a child’s footprint and the attached letter from the director

In the letter, the orphanage director requests the clinic’s help in contacting the mother of the child Cecile Beras, so that she can buy her boots in the shoe size of the footprint attached to the letter.  At the end of the letter, she confirms receipt of the postal check for 475 francs for the settlement of Cecile’s room and board.

Why did the director of the orphanage where Cecile was staying, send a letter to her colleague at another institution in order to contact the little girl’s mother? And why did she not mention her colleague’s name in her letter?

In the first half of the 20th century, Paris was flooded with waves of Jewish immigrants, many of them from eastern Europe, who crowded into the city’s poorer quarters. Rather than integrating into the French Republic’s melting pot, the new immigrants continued speaking Yiddish and lived their lives largely apart from the rest of French society, much to the chagrin of the official leadership of the French Jewish community.

Headed by electrical engineer Boris Wolski, La Colonie Scolaire was established in 1926 to aid the children of eastern European immigrants. It ran social services and a medical clinic called La Mère et l’Enfant, but the highlight of its activities was its yearly summer camps for the children living in the poor quarters of Paris. The camps were held at Berck-Plage on the Atlantic coast, an area familiar to us mainly from the works of Impressionist painters. These summer camps offered the children a chance to escape the suffocation of the crowded city once a year and breathe some fresh air. The organization’s offices were located in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, at 36 rue Amelot, an address that became the organization’s code name during the Holocaust.

The underground organization “Rue Amelot” was founded on June 15, 1940, twenty-four hours after Paris fell to the Nazis. It was headed by David Rapaport. Like any good third sector organization, Colonie Scolaire learned to adapt itself to the changing reality. The organization took under its auspices existing orphanages and at the same time opened four soup kitchens that operated in secret, through which medical services, food, and additional assistance were provided to children and their families.

The orphanage at La Varenne

The biggest challenge facing the organization stemmed from the mass arrests of Jews, especially of foreign Jews without French citizenship (many from eastern Europe, the organization’s target group). A large portion were incarcerated in detention camps or deported to extermination camps. As a result, many children were left without one or both of their parents, and a framework had to be provided for them. The need intensified in July 1942 after thousands of Jews were arrested and later deported in what became known as the as the Vel d’Hiv roundup (Vel’ d’Hiv was short for Velodrome d’Hiver, meaning “winter stadium”, where the detainees were held).

One of the most significant steps the organization undertook to deal with this challenge was the hiding of Jewish children from Paris with Christian families in rural France, as well as in French monasteries and orphanages. “La Pouponnière” where little Cecile was hidden, was one of these orphanages. Contrary to the familiar stories about children from eastern Europe or Belgium who were sporadically sent by their families to the families of acquaintances, Rue Amelot ran a supervised network that monitored the placement of the children with “caretakers.” Thanks to this network, the director of the institution where Cecile was staying could contact the organization to find the girl’s mother. Because of the underground activity, no names were mentioned in the letter.

The organization did not only manage the hiding of children throughout France. Rue Amelot trained volunteer social workers who visited the children periodically, both to deliver the monthly payments to the “caretakers,” which was usually about 700 francs, and to monitor the children’s health and development. The visits to each child were recorded on a special card file and in personal files, which included references to the child’s rate of development, their relationship with the caretaker, their physical and mental health as expressed in tendencies towards nightmares and bedwetting, for example, as well as comments such as – “beautiful boy.” The activity was organized in such an exemplary manner that viewers of the files must continually remind themselves that all of this was conducted in secret, and at great personal and daily risk. The network’s own activists destroyed much of the Rue Amelot archive after the Gestapo raided a number of Jewish institutions in 1943. Despite all this, a considerable part of the archive has survived, and includes, among other things, about 1,500 personal files, many of them from the post-war period.

One of the files belongs to Isaac Beras, Cecile’s brother. Isaac was born on December 27, 1933 to Sarah (Monique) and Chaklis (Charles) Beras, an immigrant couple from Lithuania. His personal file also includes a document from 1947, in which the then 14-year-old Isaac describes his experiences during the Holocaust. The family had lived in Gagny, a suburb of Paris. In the testimony, Isaac describes how the family was deported from Gagny following the German occupation, and little Isaac was forced to give up his place in the car, and walk on foot to the destination. The walk was difficult for him and the child cried until his mother occasionally put him in the car. His parents were also very tired from the journey.

Eventually they reached a large garage and his mother ordered him to stay calm and quiet while she went out with his father. They were arrested and interrogated for several hours by the Germans. At the end of the interrogation, they were released and allowed to return to their home.

Isaac Beras’s testimony from 1947

Thus Isaac remained with his parents for two years until one morning he woke up to a knock on the door. When his mother saw the policemen standing on the doorstep she started shouting and crying. Isaac’s father was immediately arrested and two hours later, the police brought him back so that he could pick up his coat. Isaac’s mother wanted to give her husband strawberries and cheese but he refused and gave them to Isaac instead.

It was the last time the two saw each other.

Document preserved in the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris documenting the deportation of the father Chaklis (Charles) Beras to Auschwitz from Drancy on September 14, 1942

Isaac then underwent surgery and remained in hospital for a month. A nurse who visited their home in 1942, apparently on behalf of Colonie Scolaire, recommended that his mother send him to an orphanage. At the hospital, he was prepared for the transfer, and his mother visited him twice. His mother and one-and-a-half year-old sister Liliane were then deported to the camps.

Document from the Memorial de la Shoah: Liliane, born May 29, 1941, deported from Drancy on November 11, 1942. Sara Mednik, born in Poukovitch on December 27, 1912, was deported on the same day

Isaac remained in the countryside, first with one “caretaker” and then for an additional two years with a different “caretaker.” In a letter preserved in the archives, the caretaker tending to Isaac and his brother Jacob wrote to the organization asking for money for items such as stockings (socks) that she needed to buy for him, due to the costs involved in raising the child. After staying with two “caretakers,” Isaac was sent to an orphanage, where he remained even after the war. His sister Cecile, whose footprint was mentioned at the beginning of this article, had wanted to stay with him but was sent to Switzerland. She later returned to France and was adopted by a family from Alsace.

The caretaker’s letter

The card file with the visits of the Rue Amelot activists to the families with whom Isaac was hidden are preserved in the archive. The file mentions the items given to Isaac by the activists, including socks and other items of clothing, and also notes the condition of the shoes in his possession.

Visitation card

Isaac was unable to contact his sister Cecile after the war. He also searched for his brother Jacob who had survived the horrors of the Shoah. Jacob recently passed away in France. Isaac Beras remained at the orphanage until 1949 when he immigrated with the Youth Aliyah to Israel. He eventually started a family, and now lives with his wife in Zichron Yaacov. Cecile also survived and lives in Strasbourg.

Isaac Beras as a child. Photo courtesy of the family


Isaac Beras today. Photo courtesy of the family

The Colonie Scolaire Archive includes documentation of thousands of Jewish children in France during and after the Holocaust who were cared for by the organization. Each such child is an entire world with a complex background that remains mostly hidden away in the archive files. Like the tale of Cinderella, we set out in search of a small footprint left behind, and discovered the story of the Beras family’s children.


The Colonie Scolaire Archive is now preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

We are grateful to Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who devoted herself to cataloging the Colonie Scolaire Archive with all its children, and drew our attention to this story; Tami Siesel for the background research; Nachman Fahrner for the translations from French; Germain Choukroun for the introduction to Isaac Beras and his thorough research on the Beras family; and especially Isaac Beras, who has allowed us to tell his story. Due to privacy restrictions, the Colonie Scolaire files at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People are closed to the public. If you have interest in the files, please contact: [email protected]