How a 500 Year-Old Torah Scroll Was Saved from the Nazi Conquest of Rhodes

The scroll was hidden away from the German occupiers in an unlikely location…

The Torah scroll pictured above was originally inscribed in Spain in either the 14th or 15th century, but that was just the beginning…

At some point, it arrived at the famous Kahal Shalom synagogue on the island of Rhodes, which is today the oldest active synagogue in Greece. It was likely brought there by Jewish exiles from Spain or their descendants and may very well have been stored in the synagogue since its founding in 1593.

The Book of Exodus, from the Rhodes Torah scroll. The National Library collections

The first evidence of a Sephardic-Jewish presence on Rhodes dates to the Ottoman period, which began with the conquest of the island in 1522.

For hundreds of years, the members of Rhodes’ Jewish community would read from this scroll at services held at Kahal Shalom. The community thrived and by the 1920s, a quarter of the town of Rhodes’ population was Jewish.  It all came to an end with the Nazi conquest and the deportation of the island’s Jews to Auschwitz in July of 1944.

Just a few days before the deportation, members of the community were able to smuggle the scroll out of the synagogue and place it in the custody of the Mufti of Rhodes, Sheikh Suleyman Kasiloglou. The mufti is said to have hidden the Torah under the pulpit of the Murad Reis Mosque, where the Nazis would never think to look.

1,673 Jews were sent from Rhodes to Auschwitz where they were put to death. Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul-General on the island, was able to save around 50 members of the community by stating that they were Turkish citizens. This was only true for a dozen or so. Regarding the rest, Ülkümen fabricated a lie claiming that spouses of Turkish citizens were citizens themselves. His heroic intervention saved their lives.

The Rhodes Torah Mantle, the Natonal Library collections

Following the conclusion of World War II, the Torah scroll was returned to the community’s few surviving members, in the presence of soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.

In June of 1999, the scroll was deposited at the National Library of Israel by Jacqueline Benatar and her sister Miriam Pimienta-Benatar, to serve as a memorial to the martyrs of Rhodes, their parents among them. The donation was carried out at the suggestion of the President of the Rhodes Jewish community, Mr. Moise Soriano.

The women of the Benatar family depositing the Torah scroll at the National Library of Israel

You can find the Rhodes Torah scroll today at the National Library of Israel.


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When Ingrid Bergman Ate a Soviet Labor Camp Dinner

The legendary movie star was enlisted to join a campaign raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry during the Cold War era

Ingrid Bergman. The iconic actress was a star of American and European films, with a career spanning over forty years

“Do I really have to eat it?” asks this female icon, this woman who represents all women who have loved. She stuck to her own principles against all odds, which caused her to be shunned in her country of birth, yet she never let this defeat her courage and spirit.

I looked into that wonderful face with the artfully enticing eyes which graced the silver screen and melted hearts in the time-warped, yet timeless movie Casablanca, and replied, “Yes you do”.

Ingrid Bergman takes a bite of the unappealing food served to Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience

And so, Ingrid Bergman took a spoon to the watery cabbage soup, accompanied by dried rough black bread, a small potato, a slither of dried cod, a ¼ oz of sugar and margarine. This meal represented the daily intake of Sylva Zalmanson, a Prisoner of Zion in a Soviet labour camp. Ingrid had flown to London on her behalf. “It’s terrible,” she had said earlier about Sylva, but was currently referring to the food.


Footage of Ingrid Bergman eating the Soviet labour camp meal (0:18). Video: Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center

Ingrid had come to London in March 1973. She was invited by the “The 35’s”, also known as “The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry“, to raise the profile of Sylva Zalmanson’s plight. Sylva was one of the few Jewish women to ever be incarcerated in the Soviet Union. In Hanukkah 1970, the news reached London that twelve Jews in Leningrad who had been refused visas to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, were arrested and charged with attempting to “hijack” an airplane. Consequently, Sylva’s husband, the pilot Eduard Kuznetzov and his co-pilot were sentenced to death. There was not a chink in the Iron Curtain at the time.

When Ingrid heard Sylva’s story, she rose to the challenge. Georges Weill, an internationally acclaimed jeweler, had designed a medallion engraved with the name, Sylva Zalmanson, within a Star of David. Hundreds of these medallions were reproduced in solid silver and, with several special orders in gold. A gold version was to be presented to Ingrid Bergman that day.

Sylva Zalmanson finally arrives in Israel, accompanied by Foreign Minister Yigal Allon, 1974. Photo by Akiva Nof, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Everyone was busy. I was one of the women in black demonstrating outside the Imperial Hotel in the heart of London, where she was staying. Suddenly Big D, our leader, called me over and said, “She has to be interviewed by the BBC. They’ll be here any minute! Would you take her up to her room and stay with her for the interview?”

Who would say no?

As soon as we entered the ornate period style suite, she collapsed into a pink brocade antique wingchair. Her nobility of effort, paired with the adoration and esteem in which the public held her, did little to offset the harrowing and emotional experience.

I poured her a small brandy and handed her a large glass of water. She smiled and seemingly relaxed. At that moment, there was a tap on the door. The female journalist entered, microphone in hand.

At the end of the interview, Ingrid was asked, “Was it due to your own personal suffering that you identified with Sylva?” (In the 1950s, as a result of her torrid and turbulent love affair with the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini and the subsequent birth of their son, she was scandalized and denounced in the United States and Sweden, an indication of the puritanical times).

Those beautiful eyes widened, “Not at all,” she said. “My suffering, as you call it, was of my own doing. Sylva has been denied every person’s human right, by a cruel and tyrannical regime”. I found that to be deeply profound.

On November 7th, 2019, an event commemorating The 35’s was held at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center at Glilot. The event was organized in collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office – “Nativ” and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The occasion celebrated the unveiling of archival collections belonging to members of The 35’s and preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The evening was also an opportunity to tell the story of this group of British Jewish women who fought for the rights of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience being held against their will in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s.


The Housewives Who Took on the USSR to Help Soviet Jewry

How a women's protest group made a difference by raising the cause of Soviet Jewish political prisoners during the Cold War

A protest by The 35's calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35's Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

As the lights were dimmed in the main hall of Montreal’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier concert venue, the audience gradually came to a hush. This was not just another show. The ticket holders were there to witness a performance by the legendary 200 year-old Bolshoi Ballet in a major Western city during the Cold War era – a rare spectacle indeed. But as the anticipation reached its peak and the curtain was finally raised, something happened. The dancers onstage and the majority of the audience looked on in horror as dozens of people seated in the front rows suddenly rose from their seats and silently filed out of the chamber. When they were gone, only one man was left standing in the large, now nearly empty front section. He was dressed in the pinstripe uniform of a prisoner.

The date was June 17th, 1974.

A protest by the women of The 35’s and their partners at a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier venue in Montreal, 1974. The protesters walked out in defiance with the raising of the curtain. Photo: The Wendy Eisen Collection: The Canadian 35’s, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

This unusual demonstration was part of a historic protest movement. The group responsible was an organization known as “The 35’s”, or more formally – “The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry”. Formed in London in May of 1971, the group was named in honor of Raiza Palatnik, a 35 year old Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in an isolated cell five months earlier in Odessa in the Soviet Union. Palatnik was accused of “keeping and distributing materials slanderous to the State” and had even dared to request to immigrate to Israel. She had not been allowed any contact with her parents or lawyer.

Upon hearing of the Palatnik case, a group of some thirty-five British women, most of whom were around the age of 35, gathered outside the Soviet Consulate in the United Kingdom, dressed in black, with signs calling for Raiza Palatnik’s release. “Towards the evening it was decided that we would sleep on the streets, and that had never been done since the suffragettes” says Zelda Harris, a founding member of the group.

A protest by The 35’s calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35’s Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, The 35’s Collection


Only around a dozen women spent the night on the street, but it was enough to get the attention of passersby who hooted and waved at them. “Taxi drivers were stopping and saying “Would you like a cigarette girls?'” Harris recalls. “At six o’ clock in the morning, we hadn’t hardly slept anyway, we got up and opposite us was a very swanky hotel, and we crept in, it was deadly quiet…we walked straight in to the ladies room. Imagine, thirteen women in black dresses, looking a bit scruffy…We had to wash up and use the toilet. The manager came in and said ‘Who are you? What are you doing?!'” The media loved the stunt.

Within hours, The 35’s received word from an Israeli diplomat that Palatnik, a quiet librarian turned political prisoner, had finally been moved to a regular jail cell. The tiny protest had made a real difference. The following week a thousand women in black from all over the UK marched along Whitehall to the Foreign Office. “That’s when we knew we had a movement” says Harris.

A protest by The 35’s calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35’s Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, The 35’s Collection

The group took up the cause of Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience and “refuseniks” – the term given to Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate and then persecuted for having asked. Among the prisoners they advocated for were such figures as Eduard Kuznetzov, Sylva Zalmanson, Ida Nudel, Anatoly Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein. Within a few years, The 35’s had branches in nine different countries spanning both sides of the Atlantic.

They targeted symbols of Soviet power and prestige, and few symbols were as prestigious as the famous Bolshoi Ballet which toured the world’s great cities, with the goal of promoting Russian and Soviet art and culture. The dancers travelled under the watchful eye of their KGB guards, who were there to prevent any threat to the performers, as well as any defections to the West. The soon-to-be famous ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, however, was able to successfully slip through the net in Toronto, only a few days after the disrupted Montreal performance, before officially requesting political asylum in Canada.

Less than two weeks later, in London, members of The 35’s again protested outside a Bolshoi performance. “People actually tore up their tickets and threw them out the car window” according to Zelda Harris. Inside the concert hall, white mice were let loose among the audience, and nails were thrown onstage. Harris attributes these actions to right-wing groups who also protested against the treatment of Russian Jews. She stresses that The 35’s steered clear of any form of violence.

The Soviet Embassy demanded that stronger action be taken after “only a few” of the protesters were arrested, threatening to cut short the visit if the safety of the dancers was not guaranteed, according to The Sentinel. The British Foreign office made clear: “…we regret the demonstrations because we want the Bolshoi to be a success”.

Indeed, the actions of The 35’s did not always receive widespread support in their own countries. Barbara Oberman, a leading member, attempted to raise the plight of Soviet Jewry in a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She told the Jerusalem Post in 2007: “They responded in a polite British way, whose subtext read that I was a Jewish housewife who knew nothing, was not positioned to take any kind of action and should go home and busy myself with more appropriate matters”.

The 35’s, however, were not to be deterred, quite the opposite. Their tactics were designed to generate shock value and thus grab the media spotlight and public attention. They didn’t have the numbers to organize massive rallies, but their unorthodox methods often landed them on the front page. The organization was heavily influenced by the women’s liberation movement which was at its height at the time. The 35’s made ironic use of various traditional stigmas which often defined the role of women, and particularly housewives, in Western society. Harris describes the prevailing approach of the protests as “Look like a woman, don’t look like a man. If you’re gonna come out, put some makeup on and smile.”

A 35’s protest calling for the release of Prisoners of Zion at Phillips Square in Montreal. Passersby were offered typical Soviet labor camp meals, 1976. the Wendy Eisen Collection: The Canadian 35’s, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

At some demonstrations, passersby were asked to come and taste morsels from a typical meal provided to laborers in a Soviet prison camp:


14 oz. black bread

1 cup hot water

1 oz. herring


2/3 cup soup

Boiled cabbage

1/2 potato


3 oz. potato or 1 cup of raw cabbage


In April, 1972, Jewish Soviet scientist Sergei Gurevitz was sacked from his post and forced to take a job as a cleaner in a laboratory. Like Palatnik, he too had applied for an exit visa to Israel. In response, The 35’s quickly announced that Bayswater Road, the location of the Soviet embassy in London, would be “unusually clean” the following Tuesday. When the day arrived, a phalanx of broom-wielding housewives positioned themselves outside the embassy and proceeded to sweep the grounds, in solidarity with Gurevitz and others who had suffered similar persecution.

“Bayswater Road will be unusually clean next Tuesday” – The 35’s announce a unique protest against the persecution of a Jewish Soviet scientist, the Eli Valk Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People


On a different occasion, The 35’s rented a goat and paraded him down Bond Street while they themselves dressed as prisoners and wore nametags of actual refuseniks. The goat, which quickly escaped its bonds and ran off, was meant to symbolize the treatment of Soviet Jews, who many felt were being made the scapegoat of the Cold War struggle between the two great superpowers of the time.

A protest by The 35’s on behalf of Prisoners of Zion held in the USSR, Montreal, 1976. Photo by Bill Brennan, the Wendy Eisen Collection: The Canadian 35’s, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People


By this point, the British authorities were keeping close tabs on the group. Harris tells of a demonstration during which she donned a lion suit, to protest the fact that the British rugby team, nicknamed “The Lions”, was going to play the Soviet Union. “Suddenly the detective in charge sidled up to me and said to me: ‘I know you’re in there Zelda,’ and I said ‘How in heaven’s name do you know it’s me?!’ And he said ‘Because I know your height, I know the size of your feet, I know the sound of your voice.’ They knew everything! They had files on all of us.”

Another tactic was the enlistment of celebrities and leading public figures to the cause, such as actresses Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda and Haley Mills, as well as philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre in particular, was a major achievement for The 35’s, as the French intellectual had expressed pro-Soviet views in the past, and the support of such an influential figure had great significance in leftist circles.

The group took it upon itself to maintain constant contact with the prisoners and resfuseniks still held in the USSR through phone calls and tourist visits. They also kept in touch with families of prisoners, offering encouragement and information regarding the status of their imprisoned relatives, while also sending birthday and holiday greetings, as well as books, siddurs, matzos and other gifts.

“Adopt a Prisoner” campaigns were organized in which group members, as well as sympathetic families and politicians, would be assigned a prisoner to keep in touch with. Using these methods, The 35’s were especially effective in collecting up-to-date intelligence on the status of the prisoners and refuseniks, information which was then passed on to the “Nativ” organization.

Today, the actions of The 35’s are widely acknowledged as having played a key role in raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry. This public awareness was often translated into political pressure, which in many cases resulted in the release of prisoners and refuseniks.

Raiza Palatnik, the woman whose ordeal started it all, was finally released after two years in prison, in December, 1972. She was soon allowed to immigrate to Israel, where she found work at the National Library. According to Lizetta Amir, a veteran librarian, and Rini Goldsmith, the director of the Foreign Language Catalog at the Library, Palatnik was a strikingly impressive, strong-willed woman, who never shied away from voicing her opinion and was highly respected for her courage and her successful struggle to reach Israel.

Most of the remaining refuseniks in Soviet Russia were allowed to leave in 1987, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) policies. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, all restrictions on emigration were lifted.

On November 7th, 2019, an event commemorating The 35’s was held at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center at Glilot. The event was organized in collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office – “Nativ” and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The occasion celebrated the unveiling of archival collections belonging to members of The 35’s and preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The evening was also an opportunity to tell the story of this group of British Jewish women who fought for the rights of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience being held against their will in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s.


When Heinrich Heine Revealed His Thoughts on His Conversion to Christianity

Several months after he was baptized, the poet Heinrich Heine wrote to his friend about the frustration, disappointment and remorse that this action had brought about.

Portrait of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1831

It was his “entry ticket”. He saw it as a necessary step to open the gates of the German cultural world. It would serve as his seal of approval, certifying unconditional Germanism, the full and complete removal of all obstacles. If he could have written his own story, he probably would have chosen a simpler path for the hero’s role he was forced to play. One can assume with a high degree of certainty that, given another option, he would not have chosen to convert.

In his youth, he believed that stubbornness paid off, and indeed this turned out to be the case on more than one occasion. His father and uncle insisted that he enter the thriving family business, but he was intent on a life of art and creativity. Eventually, his obstinacy won out over that of his family, and they agreed to finance his higher education. In 1819, Heine began studying law at the University of Bonn.

Six years later, after three different universities, a semester-long suspension and even an invitation to a duel that never took place, Heine finally graduated from Göttingen University. A doctorate of law was not the only thing awarded to the 28-year-old in July of 1825. That same month he was also given his new name – Christian Johann Heinrich. Heine received the name after being baptized in a Protestant church in the nearby town of Heiligenstadt. Using this name, he would come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets and writers of the nineteenth-century.

As part of the continued discussion of Heine’s Jewishness, his writings have been poured over in search of every trace and reference to Jewish culture and religion. The references found were combined to create a 300-page volume. From the volumes of writings Heine produced during his life, only a single letter of his is preserved in the National Library of Israel. As you will soon see, it sheds a great deal of light on the feelings of the poet in regard to his conversion to Christianity.

On January 9th, 1826, less than a year after his conversion, Heine sent a letter to his classmate and confidant, Moses Moser. The letter was composed in the Heine family house in Hamburg and is full of secret references and codes between friends. It even mentions the name of a certain publisher (“the bastard Govitz”) on whom Heine sought revenge after the delayed the publication of a story Heine sent him. Toward the end of the letter, Heine proceeds to address the true source of his own distress: his baptism. He felt torn and confused, and expressed to Moser his difficulty in writing or thinking about “external things.”

Heine believed that German-Christian society, which demanded that its Jews abandon their religion in order to ascend its ranks, had exposed its true nature in light of his sacrifice. From other sources we learn that Heine expected that his conversion would help him win a coveted academic position, an expectation that was ultimately dashed. “Isn’t it strange,” he asked Moser, “I just converted to Christianity and already they are angry at me for being a Jew?”

There is a certain note of irony in Heine’s words that dulls the sting of the situation. “Now I am hated by both Christians and Jews. I am very sorry that I converted to Christianity, and I have not felt better since. Quite the opposite actually, since I seem to be surrounded by bad luck – but enough of that, you are too enlightened not to smile at it.” He added, “I think I’m better off than I know.” The likely truth is that his harshest critic was, of course, himself.


Heinrich Heine’s letter to his friend Moses Moser, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge

Thoughts on German

By 1831, almost six years after his baptism, Heine had had enough of German censorship and repeated criticism of his work and moved to Paris. Two years later, all of his works (including those not yet finished) would be confiscated due to a decision reached by the states of the German Confederation. The converted writer would become something of a refugee, who spent the rest of his life in exile in France.

In his new residence in Paris, Heine would make the most of his new life. He was able to mingle in the most sought-after circles, socialize with great personalities such as Alexander Dumas and Frederic Chopin, his name would become ever more famous, and his works (those that were written in Germany and those that he would write in Paris) would eventually become renowned the world over.

Neither the feelings of rejection nor the fear of a nationalist takeover of German politics could overcome Heinrich Heine’s longings for his native land. His homesickness would remain with him until his death on February 17th, 1856.

This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Stefan Litt, of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel , and Chaya Meier-Herr, Director of the Edelstein Collection at the National Library.


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