Letter of the Author Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel to His Friend in Germany regarding the Future German Ambassador to Israel, 1963

Among the letters preserved in his personal archive in the National Library one can find correspondences with individuals in Germany discussing the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries

Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel, 1963

Author Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel (Eugen Hoeflic, 1891-1965), was born in Vienna. Early in his career, he was active in his home city as a writer and editor. During WWI, he served as an officer in the Austrian Army, and in this capacity, visited Jerusalem where he discovered his connection to the Land of Israel and the languages spoken here.
In 1927 he emigrated together with his wife, and the couple settled in Jerusalem. In Palestine Ben-Gavriel worked as a journalist and wrote mainly for European newspapers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but also for Jewish and non-Jewish papers in France, England, the United States, Czechoslovakia and other countries. The outbreak of WWII significantly reduced his realms of employment, since most of the newspapers for which he wrote were closed by the Nazis or changed orientation, and articles about the Middle East by a Jewish journalist no longer had a place.

During that time, Ben-Gavriel began to write novels and short stories. Following reports of a Nazi invasion, he wrote Das Haus in der Karpfengasse, perhaps his most important book, in which he describes the fate of Jewish and non-Jewish residents of a fictional house in Prague during the first two weeks after the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

After WWII ended, Ben-Gavriel resumed working as a journalist, but he continued writing novels, stories and radio plays, almost exclusively in German.

His works were also published in Hebrew, but only as translations from the German original. Already in the 1950s Ben-Gavriel became very popular in Germany, of all places. By this time, most of his books were light and humoristic, and relayed a picture of the young Israeli society to German readers. His works gained a large readership in Germany. Due to his success, Ben-Gavriel traveled frequently to Germany and toured among diverse audiences. He read aloud from his writings, was invited to speak on the radio, and became a sought-after interviewee among German intellectuals and cultural figures. This activity and his rich correspondence are testimony to the cautious contacts between Israeli and German cultural figures during the early years after the Holocaust.

Among the letters preserved in his personal archive in the National Library one can find correspondences with individuals in Germany discussing the question of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The letters reveal that Ben-Gavriel supported the idea in no uncertain terms.

Among other things, he exchanged views with Dr. Franz Schierholz, a cultural figure and activist in the rapprochement between the two countries in the 1950s and 60s.

The letter presented here suggests that Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel was exposed to rumors regarding who would be appointed as the German ambassador and that these rumors were not to his liking. Ben-Gavriel attributes to the letter’s recipient, Franz Schierholz, the ability to exert his influence in the matter, and he tries to warn the German side against making an unsuitable choice for the sensitive job. It is not known to what extent the letter affected the ultimate outcome, but it is an interesting fact that Ben-Gavriel was so interested and involved in the topic of appointing the first German ambassador to the State of Israel.

Moshe Yaakov Ben Gavriel’s letter to Franz Schierholz

The letter (translated from the German):


Honorable Herr Doctor,

Many thanks for your letter and particularly the news regarding the likelihood of establishing diplomatic relations; of late, the matter has also been addressed in Der Spiegel. Since I know that you maintain particular ties, I would like to draw your attention to the matter in which certain dangers inhere. To the best of my knowledge, at least two journalists in Bonn – perhaps even more – are trying to secure the position of ambassador to Jerusalem, but they bear no particular advantage beyond the fact that for a number of years they have chosen Israel as a life’s profession. I believe that it is imperative to make every effort possible in order to prevent this erroneous selection, also since a few of them have close ties with Adenauer. In order to arrange the complex affairs here, what is necessary, in my opinion, is an experienced diplomat who brings with him all of the necessary tact, which a publicist cannot offer, by virtue of his profession. Since you also place a value on the proper development of ties, I would like to place this matter at your discretion and I ask, if you agree with me, to take the necessary steps on the matter. It is desirable to do so before they make their final decision. I ask you to relate to this letter as confidential and not to mention my name in this context.

[The last part of the letter has not been translated out of respect for the author’s privacy.]

All the best to you and your family,

[Moshe Yaakov Ben-Gavriel]

Munich Olympics

Massacre of the Israeli Athletes on German Soil

אילנה רומנו, אלמנתו של יוסף רומנו, מתוך אוסף דן הדני

In 1972, the twentieth Olympics took place. For the first time since WWII, Germany was chosen to host a world sporting event of supreme importance. The Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup were considered then, as they are today, to be the most important and prestigious events in world sports. The years of the Second World War led to the disruption of both. The Olympic Games in particular bore the burden of the difficult memory of the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin and manipulated by Hitler’s Nazi regime for self-glorification and promotion of the vision of the superiority of the Aryan race.

The Olympic Games were resumed in 1948, in London, and the choice of the English capital was not incidental. The World Cup Games were resumed only in 1950, and took place in Brazil. Germany, which meanwhile had been divided into two countries, was not privileged to host one of the two distinguished institutions until 1972. West Germany, the republic that made its trademark democracy and the desire to rehabilitate Germany, both materially and in terms of its image and standing among the world’s nations, related to the 1972 Olympics as a corrective opportunity. Munich was chosen as the host city. This, too, was highly symbolic. Munich, birth city of the Nazi Party and cradle of the cultic worship of the German race, the place where giant processions were held aimed at glorifying the superior race and demonstrating its physical power, had now become a place where over 7,000 athletes from more than 121 nations were to gather for fifteen days of brotherhood, equality and cooperation based on universal human values. The Olympics were intended to take place from August 26-September 10.

American investigation of the Munich events, 2002

Israeli participation in the 1972 Munich Olympics had a clear symbolic significance. Although at this stage the relations between Israel and West Germany were developed and deep in many realms, the delegation of Israeli athletes, waving the Israeli flag over German soil before the entire world on live television, was a sensitive public declaration regarding Israel’s readiness to accept “a different Germany.” The Munich Olympics were the first to be broadcast on Israeli television, making the emotional resonance aroused by participation of the Israeli delegation in Olympics held in Germany particularly strong among the Israeli public.

The Germans sought a “happy Olympics” so that the atmosphere would reflect the new age in their rehabilitated land that had made a commitment to the ideal of peace and brotherhood among nations. In effect, it appears that this desire on the part of the organizers led to inattentiveness to very clear warnings that the games might be threatened by various terror organizations. The Israeli delegation was housed in an unprotected building facing the street, separated from it only by the minimalistic fence of the Olympic Village. Although Israeli officials had warned against the poor security, and despite the information received by the German security authorities, the Olympic Village authorities and members of the International Olympic Committee took no steps to augment the security measures.

And so, at the crack of dawn on September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists, members of the “Black September” organization, crossed the fence of the Olympic Village. During the takeover some of the members of Israeli delegation resisted and tried to block the way of the terrorists. The terrorists shot the boxing coach Moshe Weinberg and threw his body outside of the building. Meanwhile, the media arrived at the scene and photographed the sights. The terrorists presented their list of demands. The police organized a group of plainclothes policemen, who lacked proper training, and sent them to the apartment where terrorists were barricaded with the Israeli hostages. Due to the television coverage, the Israelis were able to see the police in live broadcast. Meanwhile, Yossef Romano, from the Israeli delegation, was murdered after trying to attack the terrorists with a paring knife. The Germans conducted a negotiation with the Palestinian terrorists, who demanded that they be allowed to fly with the hostages to Cairo. During the night of September 5, two German helicopters, carrying eight terrorists and nine bound Israeli hostages, landed at the Fürstenfeldbruck near Munich.

Booklet by the Israeli Foreign Ministry containing a collection of international press responses to the massacre, 1972

At this point, the failed German attempt to extricate the hostages began. An unskilled team, lacking proper equipment and adequate planning, exhanged fire with the terrorists, until close to midnight. Ultimately, all nine hostages were killed. Five terrorists were also killed, and three were captured alive. A German police officer was killed during the operation. The next day, the Olympic Committee decided to resume the games, which had been suspended for 24 hours, after a memorial ceremony had been held. The Israeli delegation left Munich immediately after the ceremony.

Special stamp commemorating the 30th anniversary of the massacre, 1972

The murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics left a deep scar on Israeli society, not least because the tragedy occurred in Germany. With time, the extent of neglect by the German authorities in handling the event became known. As if that were not enough, it emerged that German officials had warned of the possibility of a terror attack at the game. The terrorists who were captured were imprisoned in Germany for only a brief period. It seems that West Germany made agreements with the Palestinian terrorist organizations in order to keep their activities away from them. The German authorities did not carry out an in-depth investigation or complete proceedings against the guilty. Germany also refused Israeli offers of help in rescuing the hostages: members of the Mossad were not permitted to contribute from their experience during the negotiations with the captors, and the Israeli offer to send a commando unit also went unanswered.

Israel acted with determination to assassinate those responsible for the attack, and over the years, conducted an international chase in their pursuit. All Palestinian terrorists who had been involved in the Munich massacre were assassinated by Israel by 1992. But beyond this, harsh feelings remained in Israel regarding what was perceived as cold treatment on the part of the West German government and on the part of the International Olympic Committee. Moreover, since 1972 and to this day, the International Olympic Committee has continued to resist marking the massacre of the Israeli athletes as part of the Olympic Games, and does not allow a ceremony to be held on the premises of the Olympic Village.

The massacre of the 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 is a lasting, indelible stain on the relationship between Germany and Israel, precisely because of the deep symbolism attached to this particular Olympics, and the Israeli participation in them.

How a 16th Century Business Dispute Triggered a Religious War

Printing of a Jewish book in 1551 caused religious strife and turmoil all over Italy

A 1572 map of Venice from the National Library of Israel's Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

The Jewish ghetto in Venice was established in 1516, and all the Jews living in the prosperous city were forced to move there. Among the limitations imposed on the Jews of the ghetto was that the printing of Hebrew books had to be contracted to a Christian press. A dispute that broke out between two such Christian printers threatened to destroy the cultural universe of Italian Jewry.

A map of the Venice ghetto from the early 16th century. The map may be found in the Civico Corer Museum in Venice

In 1551, Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen contacted the owner of the Guistiniani printing press with a proposal for printing Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah with a commentary he had written. The printer refused. Disappointed but still determined, the rabbi then brought the same proposal to Alvise Bragadini, owner of the new and less-established Bragadini press, who agreed to publish it. The phenomenal success of the Mishneh Torah in its new format attracted the attention of Guistiniani, who then hurried to print an identical edition of the book.

Frontispiece of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah printed by the Bragadini press. From the National Library of Israel collection
Frontispiece of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah printed by the Guistiniani press. From the National Library of Israel collection

European Jewish communities declared a boycott against the pirated Guistiniani edition, but despite this, the printer refused to acknowledge his defeat, and instead appealed directly to the Pope to settle the dispute. In order to damage one another’s credibility, the rival printing press owners hurled accusations that the other had, in his edition, inserted heresy against Christianity and the Catholic Church. The Pope’s decision stunned both sides: in the summer of 1553, Pope Julius III ordered all Hebrew books – first and foremost the Talmud – to be brought to Rome’s central square, where they were burned.

This decree was then carried out in other cities across Italy including Venice.


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Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Awarded to Martin Buber, 1953

​Buber’s winning the prize made many waves in the German media, and it can be assumed that the event was a paving stone in the path to the establishment of official relations between West Germany and Israel

From 1950, the German Booksellers Association began awarding a peace prize to well-known individuals in the disciplines of science, literature and art, who exhibited outstanding activity on behalf of peace. For many years, the prestigious prize was granted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest international fair of its kind – held in mid-October. The awards ceremony takes place in the building of St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt, where the first democratic German parliament convened in the mid-19th century. The ceremony receives much attention from the public and the media. While it is a Germany prize, the recipients hail from around the world. The list of winners already includes 65 names, including Albert Schweitzer, Hermann Hesse, Karl Jaspers, Max Frisch, Astrid Lindgren, Yehudi Menuhin, Teddy Kollek, Amos Oz, David Grossman and others. And yet the first Jew – and Israeli – to receive it was Martin Buber (1878-1965), who received the prize already in October 1953, just eight years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. What led the Israeli philosopher to accept the prize, even though he was forced to leave Germany in 1938 following the racist Nazi persecutions?

Buber’s Peace Prize Certificate

Relatively soon after the Second World War ended, Buber began his extensive travels to European countries, but also to the United States, in order to participate in conferences and give lectures in varied forums. However, until 1951, the philosopher took care not to set foot on German soil, even though he had also been invited to speak in the Western part of this country. Only the repeated and insistent requests of Protestant theologian Karl Heinrich Rengstorf succeeded in convincing Buber to give a private lecture to a small and select audience in the apartment of the German scholar in the city of Münster. Buber met people there who listened to him respectfully, “people who have a face,” as Buber called them, since Buber was unable to identify a human face among most of the German people, who followed Hitler’s path. It seems that this encounter illustrated for Buber that a “new Germany” may, indeed, have come into existence. In that same year, 1951, Buber was informed that he had received the Goethe Prize awarded by the city of Hamburg. However, among the Israeli public, many opposed Buber’s agreement to accept the prize. Among the opponents were those who claimed that it was too early to accept a humanistic prize from an official German organization. Ultimately, Buber went to Germany to accept the prize only in 1953. During this year, he won additional prizes and honorary degrees, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Invitation to Buber to the prize awards ceremony

The prize – which today is considered quite prestigious – was at the time just starting out: Buber was the fourth recipient. Those present at the ceremony in Frankfurt proved to what extent granting the prize to a Jewish philosopher was significant for the prize committee and for those involved in the matter: among the guests of honor was Theodor Huess, the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany. During the ceremony, four people spoke: Arthur Georgi, at the time Chairman of the German Booksellers Association, Frankfurt Mayor Walter Kolb, Albrecht Goes, Protestant theologian and author, who spoke in praise of the work of Martin Buber and its importance, and finally, the winner of the prize himself spoke. Buber’s speech was entitled “Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace” (“Das echte Gespräch und die Möglichkeit des Friedens”). In his speech, he of course made reference to the dark memories of the days of the Holocaust, declaring: “And who am I to ‘forgive’!” At the same time, Buber called upon the nations to find ways to embark on a humanistic discourse, for the sake of peace and mutual understanding. In his speech at this auspicious occasion, Buber remained faithful to the philosophy of dialogue that he developed and promoted through many decades of academic and public activity.

The first page of Buber’s speech: “Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities for Peace,” in his handwriting

​Buber’s winning the prize made many waves in the German media, and it can be assumed that the event was a paving stone in the path to the establishment of official relations between West Germany and Israel. In contrast, the media buzz in Israel was very restrained. Generally speaking, Buber was at the time much better known and accepted in the various European nations than in Israel, and it is reasonable to assume that there were still many who did not agree with his readiness as early as 1953 to accept the prize granted by an official German body. In contrast, acceptance of the honorable doctoral degree from the Hebrew University that same year was the first honor that Buber received in Israel, and his winning the Israel Prize in 1958 marked the acceptance of his views among an even broader population in his country.