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!

How Eli Cohen, Israel’s Man in Damascus, Was Captured

Noam Nachman-Tepper seeks to dispute the accepted narrative surrounding the capture of Eli Cohen.

Eli Cohen, undercover as Kamel Amin Thaabet, in the cockpit of a Syrian aircraft.

For many years, Israel believed that Eli Cohen was captured due to the fact that Syrian intelligence managed to intercept his correspondence with Mossad headquarters in Israel. However, testimony which appears in my book, “Eli Cohen – Open Case” shows that there is actually very little chance that the Syrians succeeded in locating the signal of Cohen’s communication device.

Documents and testimony from the head of Syrian intelligence and the testimony of an intelligence officer who broke into Cohen’s apartment indicate that the Syrians carried out constant physical surveillance of Cohen. How, then, was Israel’s man in Damascus really captured?

Eli Cohen’s last letter to his wife, Nadia, written in Arabic an hour before his execution.


The decision to recruit and train an agent to be stationed in a target country (Egypt, Jordan or Syria) was made in 1958, not long after military intelligence failed to identify the Egyptian army’s infiltration into the Sinai Peninsula. Indeed, the head of Military Intelligence was dismissed as a result. This failure stemmed from a decision made by one of the officers in the IDF listening unit to not pass along information regarding Egyptian armored units crossing the Suez Canal. Military Intelligence decided there was a need to significantly improve its ability to identify states of high alert and the movement of forces in unfriendly Arab countries. To this end, it was decided to plant a number of agents in Arab countries who would report on military movements and preparations. As part of this directive, an operative was recruited to be stationed in Damascus.

The recruitment of Eli Cohen to Unit 188, a military intelligence unit dedicated top operations beyond Israel’s borders, happened by coincidence. In September 1959, Cohen sent a Rosh Hashana greeting to Shlomo Millett, the interviewer who had previously disqualified him from serving as a spy. As a result of this greeting card, the question of Cohen’s candidacy was raised again. This time, as there was an immediate demand, Cohen was allowed to begin the recruitment process with two other candidates.

Finally, Cohen was chosen and he began learning his craft at Israel’s “School of Espionage”, which at the time consisted of only two instructors, Motti Kfir and Nathan Salomon. Salomon began to teach Eli Cohen the most basic skills needed by any spy – how to follow and how to avoid being followed, how to write in secret ink, and other methods of avoiding detection. Among other things, Salomon noticed that his student had an exceptional memory.


Eli and Nadia Cohen under the chuppah. August, 1959.


Cohen underwent nine months of basic training, which also included photography and film development and instruction in the use of encryption and a Morse code transmitter. Finally, Cohen’s instructors decided that the time had come to craft him a cover story. Cohen became Kamel Amin Thaabet, a businessman whose parents were of Syrian origin, but had immigrated to Lebanon. According to the story, his parents had died one after the other and he was summoned to work with his uncle, a businessman in Argentina.

Cohen landed in the Argentine capital in February 1961 and immediately began learning Spanish with a private teacher. The goal was to be able to speak at such a level as to convince Syrians that he had been living in Argentina for the last 16 years.


Behind Enemy Lines

Upon his return from Argentina, Eli Cohen underwent further training in an operational unit. On January 10, 1962, “Kamel Amin Thaabet” boarded a tourist ship that set out from the city of Genoa, Italy, anchored in Alexandria and, eventually, reached the port of Beirut.

On the ship, Eli Cohen met Majeed Sheikh al-Ard – a figure who would accompany him during his three years in Damascus. Al-Ard was a man of the world; he spoke many languages ​​and was fluent in German. The two met on the deck of the ship and struck up a conversation, during which Cohen told him his cover story. As a rich businessman, looking to invest inherited capital, Cohen expressed his desire to examine the possibility of doing business in his native Syria. Majeed Sheikh al-Ard suggested that after landing in Beirut, Cohen should join him on a journey from Beirut to Damascus. Al-Arad invited Cohen to make the journey with him in his new car and, after a day of rest in Beirut, the pair made their way to the border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.

According to documents from US intelligence, Majeed Sheikh al-Ard was no innocent bystander. Al-Ard was a paid informant for the Americans from 1951 to 1959. Majeed Sheikh al-Ard explained to Cohen that he had a number of friends who could arrange a smooth crossing of the border for a few hundred Syrian pounds. Majeed Sheikh al-Ard called his friend, a Syrian security man waiting for them at the border crossing, while loaning a sum of 400 Syrian pounds from Cohen, a loan that would never be returned.  Another friend of al-Ard’s was in charge of customs at the border crossing. Kamel Amin Thaabet (Eli Cohen) sat, drinking coffee at the border crossing as Majeed Sheikh al-Ard’s friends took care of the paperwork and transferred the bags containing the spy equipment that Cohen had brought with him from Israel. When the junior customs officers tried to open the suitcases, their boss scolded them loudly, “They’ve already been checked!” lied the supervisor. This was how Eli Cohen arrived in Damascus without so much as a search of his personal effects.

Damascus: Point A marks Eli Cohen's apartment, point B marks Air Force Headquarters. (Google Maps).
Damascus: Point A marks Eli Cohen’s apartment, point B marks Air Force Headquarters (Google Maps). Click to enlarge.

Five days after arriving in Damascus, and having already managed to rent an apartment, Eli Cohen transmitted his first message back to headquarters in Israel – I have arrived safely.


The Arrest

Eli Cohen served in Syria from January, 1962 until his arrest on January 18, 1965.

According to the head of Syrian intelligence, the Syrians began suspecting Cohen when they learned of his interactions with “a man of suspicious ties.” The officer went on to explain that following Cohen’s arrest, a Syrian citizen who had helped him cross the Lebanese border and enter Damascus was also arrested. The source was referring to Majeed Sheikh al-Ard – the very same person who accompanied Cohen throughout his three years in Syria.

Eli Cohen left and re-entered Syria multiple times. The fifth instance was on November 26, 1964. Not long before this, the Syrians had captured two American spies operating out the CIA branch in Damascus. One of the spies, Farhan Atassi, knew Eli Cohen. The Syrians, now acutely aware that they were the target of active clandestine operations, monitored the comings and goings of anyone connected to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

On December 1st, Cohen met with his friend Majeed Sheikh al-Ard for lunch. During the meal al-Ard told him that a few days earlier he had met with a man named “Rosolio.” He let slip to Cohen that Rosolio was actually the Nazi war criminal, Franz Rademacher, hiding in Damascus.


Franz Rademacher at the time of his trial, 1968. Photograph: Karl Schnoerrer, EPA.


Eli Cohen’s ears perked up. He feigned disbelief and told his friend that it was not possible that he knew where Rademacher was hiding. In response, Majeed Sheikh al-Ard telephoned Rademacher. Just forty minutes later, Eli Cohen and Majeed Sheikh al-Ard sat in the Nazi war criminal’s safe house. The apartment was only a ten minute walk from where Eli Cohen lived.

The day after the chance meeting, Eli Cohen happily reported to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv that he had located a Nazi war criminal. Cohen provided descriptions of Rademacher’s appearance, his exact address and details of surroundings of the safe house. He awaited further orders, but did not receive positive reinforcement from Mossad headquarters. Instead, he was directed to “stop pursuing the Rademacher lead and focus on the mission.”

Mossad headquarters were obviously not aware of the clear and present danger caused by the tripartite meeting. Otherwise, they would have directed Eli Cohen to drop everything and take the first train to Beirut.

US intelligence documents indicate that Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, who once served as an informant for the Americans, tried to continue to be of use to them. He continued to transmit reports to them, enthusiastically reporting the intelligence he gathered from his meetings with the Nazi, Franz Rademacher.

The theory that I have formulated, and which is supported by the documents and testimonials which appear in my book, is that Syrian intelligence was aware of the tripartite meeting that involved Eli Cohen and Rademacher – either in real time or via information they received shortly after the meeting took place.

At this point, it is worth examining how the Syrians would have perceived this meeting.

They noticed Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, who was an informer for the Americans, coming and going through the gates of the U.S. Embassy. The Syrians also knew full and well that “Rosolio” was a Nazi war criminal, up to his neck in espionage.


From right to left: Majeed Sheikh el-Ard, George Saif and Eli Cohen.
From right to left: Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, George Saif and Eli Cohen.

At this point you must put yourself in the position of the Syrians and ask yourself – what you would do if you witnessed this meeting between a Syrian businessman and two spies? Would you suspect the businessman as well, and put a tail on him? Well, this is exactly what the Syrians did.

The testimonies of Ahmed Sweidani, Head of Syrian Intelligence, and of the officer who broke into Cohen’s apartment indicate that the Syrians had begun to monitor Eli Cohen. Not long after, they decided to break into his apartment and discovered his spy equipment, including his transmitters and receivers.

The story of the break-in and the analysis of the testimonies indicate that Syrian intelligence had no idea that Eli Cohen was a Zionist spy.

Ma’ariv reports the execution of Eli Cohen, May 18, 1965. Click on the picture to see the full article.

The analysis and the various testimonies and documents can be further examined in the book “Eli Cohen – Open File“.


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.