Things You Never Knew About the Printed Bible

When was the first Jewish Bible printed? How did the annotated Bible we are familiar with today first come about? What competition took Bible publishers by storm in the 19th century? How does one handle a Bible that is over a foot and a half tall? Here's a deep dive into the history behind the printed Bible.

Kehilot Moshe, Amsterdam, 1724. On display in the permanent exhibition of the National Library of Israel – "A Treasury of Words"

We’ll begin with an unsurprising fact: The first book ever printed was a Latin version of the Bible, including the New Testament. It was printed in Germany around the year 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. Somewhat more surprising is the fact that when Jews first began printing books, the Bible was not their first choice. Jewish printers started out by investing their time and money in printing Bible commentaries by Rashi and Nachmanides (Ramban), the Arba’ah Turim collection of Halachic rulings, and other books.

One possible explanation relates to the diacritics of the text. Diacritics (niqqud) in the Hebrew Bible are extremely important. Indeed, many biblical manuscripts contained these small glyphs which indicate how Hebrew letters and vowels are to be vocalized. Printing these diacritic symbols must have been a challenge when the printing industry was just starting out, and what’s more, manuscripts of the Bible were relatively common, so Jewish printers may have simply preferred to print other texts. Two decades later, the Book of Psalms became the first book of the Bible to be printed by Jewish printers, along with commentary by Rabbi David Kimchi (The Radak), which was published in Bologna in 1477. In this book, each verse appears followed by the commentary for that verse, unlike the more commonly used method of printing two blocks of text next to each other, one being the source and the other the commentary. The early sections of the book contain diacritics, but the printers soon stopped printing the symbols after a few sections, as it proved too complicated a challenge.

תהילים רדק
The Radak’s commentary on the Book of Psalms, the first of the Bible’s books to be printed by Jewish printers, Bologna, 1477

A complete Hebrew Bible containing diacritics was only printed 11 years later, in 1488, by the Soncino family printing house in the Northern Italian city of Soncino. Over the following 30 years, about 60 books of the Pentateuch and Bible were printed, most of them only partial versions.

A version of the Pentateuch was printed, with the Targum Onkelos (a famous Jewish Aramaic translation) and commentary by Rashi, by the famous printer Daniel Bomberg in Venice, apparently in 1511. The original cover had of course stated the year of publication, but this page was lost over time. So how do we (ostensibly) know the year of publication? A copy of this edition was sent to the National Library of Israel, and its cover page states the year 1511 alongside the coat of arms of King Henry IV of France. This page was not the original but was prepared for the King, who ruled France from 1589 to 1610. Whoever printed it believed that the original year of publication was 1511.

1511
The Pentateuch, i.e. the five books of the Torah, Venice, approx. 1511. From the private collection of King Henry IV of France (according to the symbol in the center of the page)

In 1515, Bomberg received a license to print a complete Hebrew Bible. In 1517, Bomberg and his partner Felix Pratensis, a Jew who converted to Christianity, printed a complete Bible in two almost identical editions. One was intended for Jewish readers, and the other included a dedication to the Pope and was intended for Christian use. For the first time since the invention of the printing press, a complete Hebrew Bible was published, alongside an Aramaic translation, and at least one commentary for each book. Rashi’s commentary, for example, accompanied the books of the Torah and the Radak’s commentary appeared in Prophets. Pratensis was meticulous about comparing old biblical manuscripts to ensure that he was printing an accurate Bible. The Hebrew title that appears on the cover of the book, similar to many manuscripts before it, reads Four and Twenty, named for the 24 books of the Bible. Pratensis’ Bible included two innovations that are used to this day: the division of the text into chapters (based on a Christian division), and the division of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two parts each.

24 1518
Four and Twenty, the complete Hebrew Bible (in four volumes), Venice 1517

Seven years later, in 1524, Bomberg was working on a new edition that he called Sha’ar HaShem HaChadash (“The New Gate of the Lord”). This time, he recruited an editor named Jacob Ben Hayyim Ibn Adonijah, a learned Jew who came to Venice from Tunisia. Ben Hayyim strove to print a more accurate edition than that of Pratensis. To accomplish that goal, he mainly based his work on Middle Eastern Jewish manuscripts, which were considered more accurate. One of the most important aspects for Ben Hayyim was the addition of the Masoretic text, a set of instructions and rules for writing the biblical text according to the tradition passed down from generation to generation. The purpose of the Masora is to maintain accuracy and uniformity for all Torah books in the world. This is reflected in its meticulousness concerning diacritics, cantillation, words that are pronounced differently than they are spelled, special use of smaller or larger letters, etc. Ben Hayyim edited this new Bible according to the instructions of the Masora, printing the rules of the Masora alongside the text, while also including Ibn Ezra’s commentary for some of the sections. He was able to convince Bomberg that printing this version was worthwhile, in large part due to the inclusion of the Masoretic text, which was a key feature of the edition. The Masora is of great value to Jewish Kabbalah, and this interested Bomberg as well as other Christian scholars at the time.

1524 יעקב בן חיים
Sha’ar HaShem HaChadash (“The New Gate of the Lord”), Venice, 1524

In the first of the four volumes of “The New Gate of the Lord”, Ben Hayyim wrote a long introduction explaining the importance of the Masora, including the different opinions and the differences between the pronounced and written words. His name is only mentioned at the beginning of this introduction, in the first edition, which was published in 1524.

Ben Hayyim later converted to Christianity, and in subsequent editions, instead of his name he simply wrote “the copyist”. The introduction is important for understanding the Masora, so it was also copied and printed separately several times. It was even translated into English in 1865 and again in 1867 by the Bible scholar Christian David Ginsburg. The translated copy that is kept at the National Library contains a dedication by Ginsburg to the German theologian and scholar Professor Konstantin Schlottmann. For the purpose of this article, we will simply note during the last quarter of the 19th century, Ginsburg and Schlottman were involved in an episode that gained international notoriety when they clashed with Moshe Shapira – a Jewish antiquities dealer in Jerusalem who converted to Christianity and was exposed as an international forger of biblical manuscripts that he claimed to have found. But that’s a story for another article. In any case, the English-translated copy of “The New Gate of the Lord”, from Schlottman’s collection eventually ended up in the hands of the Chief Sephardic Rabbi in London, Dr. Moses Gaster, a scholar of languages ​​and folklore. In the 1950s, the National Library acquired some of Gaster’s books, including this copy.

הקדמה יעקב בן חיים
English translation of Jacob Ben Hayyim’s introduction, London, 1867

Back to the 16th century: In a manner similar to the format he used when printing the Talmud, Bomberg designed the pages of his printed Bible so that a selection of commentaries would appear alongside each portion of the biblical text. This format proved to be very successful and popular and remains common to this day (mainly in Prophets and Writings).

There is no major difference between Bomberg’s Venice print from 1524 and the book I used to study for my high school matriculation exams. Although different commentaries were added, they generally appear at the end of the book, and the general appearance is still quite similar.

יהושע
The Book of Joshua from an edition printed in the 1990s next to a similar book printed by Bomberg in 1524

But that is not where the evolution of the printed Bible ends. In 1724, a Bible with multiple commentaries was published in Amsterdam, which was a major center for Jewish printing at the time. It was called Kehilot Moshe, named after the publisher Rabbi Moshe Frankfurter, who printed many books in Amsterdam. This Bible, which was also published in four volumes, has no less than eight commentaries printed around the text, including Rashi, the Ralbag, Sforno, and the Chizkuni. Some editions even included small colored illustrations. The title written across the cover is Mikra Gedola (“The Large Reading”), alluding to the book’s importance and size. Some argue that “large” refers to the physical size of the books, which are in fact over a foot and a half in length.

קהלות משה
Beginning of the Book of Exodus in the Kehilot Moshe Bible, Amsterdam, 1724

The next milestone event occurred in the city of Lviv, or Lemberg as the Jews called it. In 1808, another large edition featuring many commentaries was published in the city. This publication only included Prophets and some books from Writings, leaving out the five books of the Torah – the Pentateuch. This Bible was entitled Mikraot Gedolot (“the Great Readings”) – a name that has taken root and is commonly used nowadays to refer to Bible or Pentateuch editions which have many commentaries attached to the text or printed at the end.

תקסח מקראות גדולות
The first time the phrase Mikraot Gedolot was used to refer to a Bible printed with commentaries. Lemberg, 1808.

Throughout the 19th century, Mikraot Gedolot books gained momentum, and more and more editions were printed. Publishers at the time boasted about how many commentators they could cram into their books in what became a sort of open competition, as follows:

In Warsaw in 1860, the first volume of an edition of Mikraot Gedolot with 32 commentaries was published

In Piotrków, Poland, in 1897, a version of Mikraot Gedolot with the five books of the Torah and 42 commentaries was published

In Lemberg in 1909, a version of Mikraot Gedolot with the five books of the Torah and 49 commentaries was published

And in Vilna in 1923, a version of the Mikraot Gedolot was published containing only the Book of Leviticus, alongside 70 commentaries

Mikaraot Gedolot books are still staples of the Jewish bookshelf. Nowadays, there are many new, more accurate editions, featuring additional commentaries and high-quality printing. 

And to think, it all started 500 years ago in Daniel Bomberg’s printing house in Venice.

The Riddle of the Baal Shem Tov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hasidic tale continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost History of the Jews of Corfu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ספר הוצאת נחמולי קורפו 1
Sefer Arvit and Hagaddah. Joseph Nachmoli Publishing, Corfu, 1876, the Rare Books Collection at the National Library of Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 Jews were killed in the pogroms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corfu Gader
Corfu Jewish cemetery. Photo: Nikodem Nijaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Franz Kafka on His Deathbed

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

Franz Kafka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama
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These and many other items will be displayed in the National Library of Israel’s exhibition on Franz Kafka, which will open towards the end of 2024.