In 1832, at just 11 years old, the young Rachel Félix, a Jewish girl from Switzerland, left her home for Paris. There, she enrolled in one of France’s most prestigious schools for the performing arts, she also acquired broad literary knowledge. Despite her great love of the classics, her favorite writer of all time was the contemporary, best-selling author of The Count of Montecristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père.
It took Rachel a little over a decade to become the most famous stage actress of the day for her roles in the classic tragedies of Racine and Corneille. By the 1840s, she had become the most celebrated actress in Paris, the European theater capital of the time. While vacationing in Madrid, she happened to meet the idol of her youth, and at the end of their brief encounter Dumas invited her to join him for lunch at the seashore. Excited at the opportunity to dine in the company of the famous author, she also accepted Dumas’s proposal to continue to correspond with him after her return to Paris.
The great dramatic actress quickly became disillusioned. Her reply to Dumas reveals the great miscalculation on both of their parts regarding the intentions of their mutual correspondence: whereas Rachel was certain that the much admired author was interested in an intellectual exchange, his intentions were clearly amorous in nature.
Deeply offended, Rachel was determined to beat him at his own game, and penned a response laced with equal measures of dry sarcasm, wonder and sincere regret. Using the words “fraudulent interpretation” in the letter she sent him on 17 July 1848, she expressed her bewilderment at how such a pleasant afternoon spent in each other’s company could have led Dumas to draw conclusions, “so far from my own thoughts.” She asked to immediately end their epistolary exchange, “which has wounded me deeply.” She also wanted to make it clear to him that while she had indeed been very honored to conduct a correspondence with someone whom she viewed as the greatest living author of the day, she now regretted the direction Dumas had chosen to take things.
As the letter progresses, we see Rachel’s anger rise along with her feeling that an affront to her honor had been committed, which becomes apparent in the small grammatical errors, and especially in the multiple underlines she includes for emphasis. Toward the end of the letter, Rachel launches her final salvo: “I knew that with stupid folk one must consider one’s every word, but one need not be so careful with intelligent, intellectual people.”
Dumas’s response did not take long, since in a second letter also written in Rachel’s hand and now found among the National Library of Israel’s treasures, she disdainfully quotes from a telegram Dumas sent her: “Madame, If you truly desire it, we shall leave things at that. This will always be a part of the path we have traveled together, with utmost regard, your friend, Dumas.”
The temptation was too great for Rachel, and she added a short retort of her own. She asked to apologize, sarcastically, of course, for having apparently misread Dumas’s intentions, and now scolded him, in light of the flirtatious letter he had sent before. “If you have jotted down these lines from your inkstand by mistake, in the midst of your endless duties – I am indeed honored to receive them,” she concluded. Then, she erased a number of lines she had written and sent off her undated, indignant response to Dumas, without bothering to compose a new one.
Our story could easily end here. In fact, the missing pieces might even add an element of mystery to the entire affair. And yet, in the Library’s collection there is one more letter that was sent by Rachel, this one to her sister Sara. The letter is undated, leaving it for us to decide when it might have been written and sent.
What’s in it?
Stated simply, Rachel asks that her sister inform Dumas that she cannot meet him on Sunday and would, therefore, be happy if he would choose another day during the week.
When was it sent?
Based on the two letters described above, the meeting referred to in this third letter would have to have been written after Rachel and Dumas’s initial encounter in Madrid, which was the event that triggered the exchange of letters that had so deeply offended Rachel. In other words, we don’t precisely know.
Did Rachel eventually respond to Dumas’s advances? Did they ever make up and become friends?
In all likelihood, we will never know the answers to these questions either. Melodrama, mystery, lovers’ quarrels and reconciliation, were, no doubt, all integral parts of daily life in nineteenth-century France.
Revealed: SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s Warm Wishes to Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini
Discovered in the National Library archives, Himmler's message to the Mufti decried the "Jewish invaders", while sending “warm wishes for your continued struggle..."
The Mufti and Heinrich Himmler meeting in 1943. Photo: Albert Kurt
To the Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini,
The National-Socialist Movement of the Greater German Reich has since its inception upheld the fight against World Jewry.
It is for this reason that it closely follows the struggle of the freedom-seeking Arabs – and particularly in Palestine – against the Jewish invaders.
The common recognition of the enemy and the joint struggle against it is what creates the firm foundation between Germany and freedom-seeking Muslims around the world.
In this spirit, I am pleased to convey to you, on the anniversary of the execrable Balfour Declaration, warm wishes for your continued struggle until the great victory.
Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler
Haj Amin al-Husseini, Leader of the Arab World?
In 1937 the authorities of the British Mandate for Palestine sought to arrest the Mufti due to his involvement in the Arab Uprising. In response, the Mufti fled the country to Lebanon, and from there to Iraq, where he stayed for some two years. In Iraq he joined a pro-Nazi group led by Rashid Ali al-Kaylani which rebelled against the monarchic regime and carried out a military coup in April of 1941, which lasted for only two months until British forces reached the outskirts of Baghdad. Kaylani and the Mufti fled through Iran to Italy and from there to Nazi Germany. The Mufti reached Berlin in November 1941.
The German Wehrmacht’s astonishing string of victories convinced the Mufti that he must secure a meeting with Adolph Hitler, the Fuhrer of the now enormous Nazi Reich. During the 90-minute meeting between Hitler and the Mufti, the latter strove to present himself not just as leader of the Palestinian national movement, but as a leader of the Arabs in general, and even as the representative of all Muslims.
As a member of the “Muslim Brotherhood” movement, the Mufti believed in pan-Islamic unity and in the struggle to liberate Arab peoples from the yoke of colonial powers like Britain and France. In Germany he labored to obtain a declaration of Nazi support for the independence of Arab countries and support for the expulsion of Britain and France from the Middle East. He saw his fight against Zionism as one facet of his struggle against European colonialism, which also coincided with his personal virulent antisemitism – views he strove to disseminate during his years in Germany through Radio Berlin broadcasts in Arabic.
As part of his war against Zionism, the Mufti marked the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration (Nov. 2nd) as a major annual day of protest because he realized that only through diplomatic recognition from the world’s powers could Zionism achieve its aim of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Out of deep fear that the ongoing annihilation of Jews in Europe would lead those who escaped to Palestine, the Mufti sought to receive assurances from the heads of the Nazi regime that no Jew would be sent there.
The above telegram, which was recently discovered in the archives of the National Library, and is apparently dated to 1943, includes a promise by Heinrich Himmler – one of the architects of the “final solution” – that “Nazi Germany will stand by the Arab people in Palestine in their struggle against the ‘miserable’ Balfour Declaration.
“In the end,” says historian Dr. Esther Webman of Tel Aviv University, “the Mufti failed to achieve most of his aims. Nazi Germany did not declare its support for the idea of Arab independence and the Nazi leadership merely used him to achieve its own goals. His attempts to foment rebellion by the Arabs of the Middle East against the colonial regimes during World War II were unsuccessful. His only meaningful achievement was to succeed in preventing a few cases of Jews departing Europe for Palestine during the war.”
Written with the kind assistance of Dr. Esther Webman, senior research fellow at the Dayan Center and head of the Zeev Vered Desk for the Study of Tolerance and Intolerance.
Rare Photos Taken Right After the Unification of Jerusalem
In the Six Day War of 1967, the entire city of Jerusalem came under Israel's control, including the Old City and the Western Wall. These pictures captured the emotions of the days which immediately followed...
Everyone – men, women and children, soliders and civilians, they all wanted to see the holiest of holy places with their own eyes. The photographers of the day understood the historical significance of the moment and made the most of it. They shot picture after picture, capturing and documenting the hundreds of thousands of visitors who traveled to the Western Wall. They also documented the clearing of the rubble that surrounded the Wall and the beginning of work on the plaza soon to be in place, which would mark the spot as a site of pilgrimage.
In those first few days following the war, the Jewish state’s leaders arrived to pray at the Wall, among them President Zalman Shazar who insisted on going to Jerusalem before the war was over and even donned a helmet. David Ben-Gurion arrived at the Wall the day after the war was declared over.
The photographs in the album were taken by the IPPA agency, founded by photographer Dan Hadani. The Dan Hadani Collection, which documents the life and times of the State of Israel, as well as Israeli society and culture in the twentieth century, includes approximately one million historic photographs. It was acquired by the National Library of Israelin September, 2016.
A Rare Find: The Prayers, News and Blessings Concealed Within the Pages of Visitors’ Books from Rachel’s Tomb
The difficulty of daily life in the Jewish Yishuv, coping with the Holocaust and the breakout of the War of Independence revealed.
Every morning, except for Sabbath and festivals, Shlomo Eliyahu would board bus no. 22 from Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and arrive at Rachel’s Tomb at around nine o’clock in the morning. Armed with a pistol out of fear of attacks from the local Arabs, he would open the entrance door with his long iron key and receive the visitors who came to pray at the Tomb. This was relatively novel in comparison to his predecessors: in their time, the Tomb was open to visitors mainly during the month of Elul and during the festival period.
There is Hope for your Future
And they journeyed from Beth el, and there was still some distance to come to Efrata,
and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult.
It came to pass when she had such difficulty giving birth, that the midwife said to her,
“Do not be afraid, for this one, too, is a son for you.”
And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni,
but his father called him Benjamin.
So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Efrata, which is Bethlehem.
And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.
Fifty eight words in the original Hebrew. Five verses. One of the most tragic events of the book of Genesis is told with familiar Biblical brevity: On the way to the house of Isaac, the father of her beloved husband, Rachel gives birth to her second son and dies in childbirth. She did not even hear her child’s (final) name – Benjamin.
The tragedy of Rachel’s death is intensified by the fact that Jacob’s voice is unheard. What did he feel? What did he do? The Bible does not provide details. The only tears to fall in the Bible are those of Rachel herself. In the book of Jeremiah, the third matriarch is mentioned as one weeping for her children’s fate: “So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31: 15-17 – English translation from www.chabad.org).
It is this image of Rachel which has been preserved through the generations: the mother who prayed for her children throughout her life continues to worry about them after her death. So too the traditional place of Rachel’s burial is perceived as a place of prayers and pleading for the sons and daughters of the “tearful mother”s .
The Last Caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb
Shlomo Eliyahu inherited the position of Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb from his father, Yaakov “Yankele HaShamash” Freiman, who served as caretaker for only two short years until his death in 1918. Shlomo Eliyahu had a lot to live up to and he was determined to fulfill the mission he had received.
From as soon as he began his role until it ended under tragic circumstances 29 years later, Shlomo Eliyahu conducted a daily record of the events at the Tomb in the visitors’ journal. The National Library of Israel recently received the last two surviving volumes of the visitors’ journal, out of 24 that are known to have existed. The period they relate to is a crucial period in Jewish history and that of the “State in the making” – the third and fourth decade of the 20th century.
The visitors’ journals were arranged in chronological order on a wooden shelf in the room where Rachel’s tombstone is situated. Most of the journals’ pages are full of the names of the various visitors. The many visitors and the varied places they came from show the significance of Rachel’s Tomb, not only to the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora, but also to the many Christian visitors – some of them pilgrims, others soldiers in the allied forces or commanders in the British Mandate. There were visitors who did not suffice with simply writing their names, and added requests from “Mama Rachel”.
Most of the names are unfamiliar to a modern day reader of the journals; others will immediately conjure up images of key figures in the Jewish settlement and in the future State of Israel: Dr. David Yellin, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Henrietta Szold, and even a 7 year old Ezer Weizmann who came to visit together with his mother Yehudit and his sister Yael.
The anonymous visitors are objects of greater interest: What became of Rachel Frank from Lithuania who visited in 1932, a decade before the Holocaust? Was the couple Esther and Rachamim’s dream to have children fulfilled? Who were the visitors from Persia – new immigrants or tourists who returned to their native country? Each page brings more and more questions.
Eliyahu Freiman made slightly different use of the journals: dozens, and perhaps hundreds of his comments and observations in the two journals provide a more in-depth glimpse into the impact of the dramatic events in the Land of Israel and Europe on the Tomb’s activities. For him, the journals were a way to document the daily activity at the Tomb and his impression of the various visitors. They served as an account of the renovations and repairs, which Freiman himself (usually) carried out, out of fear of the Arab workers, and contain a description of his tense relationship with the local Arabs while mentioning the dramatic events taking place in the world.
From 1940 onward, the terrifying descriptions of the Second World War and the decimation of the Jews take a central place in the journal. As well as the emotional pleas for help to which Freiman was accustomed. The Holocaust, which the Jewish people was enduring, awakened criticism of “Mama Rachel” as abandoning her sons and daughters.
It is doubtful that Freiman, or any of the visitors at the Tomb, were aware of the extent of the destruction taking place in Europe. Nonetheless, prayers for the salvation of the Jews “who are in danger of destruction” began to fill the journal’s pages. A fixed wording appears in the journal almost daily: a group of Jews comes to the Tomb, and they pray for the welfare of their brethren in occupied territory. One of the detailed examples is on the page dated April 5, 1943. On this day, Freiman notes there was a mass prayer of “several thousand visitors, including schools from throughout the country and several hundred soldiers”. Due to the crowdedness “there were several hours when it was impossible to visit inside due to the multitudes who stood and prayed.” In this emotional prayer “the cries and weeping…were unnatural.” The sights and things said in the Tomb were so disturbing that “several people fainted in distress upon hearing details of the anguish of our brethren who are suffering in the occupied countries.”
A few days before the end of the War, on April 26, 1945, Freiman records a touching event which took place, when “an historical parokhet [curtain for a Holy Ark] which was preserved from several dozens of synagogues in Poland from the time of the riots which took place in several cities, and still has blood stains on it” was brought to the Tomb. It can be assumed that the parokhet was brought to the Tomb in the early days of the War, as the Freiman family brought the parokhet to the Tomb for several years “And now, on the 14th of Iyar 5705 [April 26, 1945], it was mended and brought once again as a memorial in the holy place.”
Five days before the German surrender, on May 3, 1945, Freiman began the victory celebrations by drawing a large ‘V’ on page 314 of the diary. On the next page he wrote in large letters, perhaps in a very emotional state, the words: “Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended, today was officially declared Victory Day”.
Frieman dedicated the following two pages to writing a blessing of thanksgiving for victory day and a prayer of thanks. The victory celebrations continue at the top of the next page as well.
Rachel’s Tomb as the Arena of the National Struggle
Even though many of the visitors expressed concern for the survival of the European and North African Jews during the Holocaust, Freiman dedicated the lion’s share of his writing in the journal to the Jewish-Arab battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Even some of his most banal reports contain expressions of the escalating battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Freiman, who tried to remain on warm terms with the local Arabs as much as possible, found himself, together with them, in an impossible situation. He tried to help his Arab neighbors whenever they approached him for help, but never denied his identification with the Zionist mission and the nation to which he belonged.
When the time came to carry out repairs and renovations in the ancient building, Freiman and his Sephardi counterpart were forced to do the work themselves, out of concern of creating a precedent supporting employment of Arab workers on the site.
Throughout his years as caretaker, Freiman was concerned that the Mufti and the Waqf would attempt to take control of the site by creating small de facto precedents. On March 26, 1936, the secretary of the Mandate government came for a visit and ordered the caretakers to file a report about the tensions with the local Arabs.
As the years passed, even the most encouraging visits turned sour. When a number of Arabs came to ask for water during Passover of 1940, they told him that they want “the Arabs and the Jews to live in peace”, and did not forget to mention that “the situation is very bad for them because they are not gaining.”
In 1946, a pipe bomb was thrown on Freiman and two Arab neighbors who he was spending time with. This was an omen of what was to come. As the security situation in the Land of Israel became increasingly unstable, and with the mutual preparations for war, the feeling of security at Rachel’s Tomb was lost.
In one of the last entries in the journal, Freiman copied the letter which he sent to the National Committee in March 1947, in which he informs them about the worrying developments: the appointment of an Arab guard by the Waqf. Ibn Hassan, the guard stationed in the nearby cemetery, antagonized the two caretakers and told the local Arabs that he is the guard of the Tomb. Whenever Ibn Hassan dared approach Freiman and threaten him with commands, Freiman made clear to the National Committee, “I shout at him and he leaves immediately”.
A few days after the U.N. vote on the Partition Plan, Freiman arrived at the Tomb and prepared it as if it was a regular day. The tremendous tension in the area eventually convinced him that he should pack up his belongings and leave. He did so, not before giving the journals to an Arab sheikh who lived nearby. This was last time he saw Rachel’s Tomb.
The two journals belong to an anonymous donor who chose to give them over to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping.