When Romeo and Juliet Became Ram and Yael

The original translations of Shakespeare’s works from English to Hebrew have a curious past and may be older than you think.

The portrait as known as the 'Chandos portrait' of William Shakespeare

The continued popularity of William Shakespeare’s plays is such that it is as though the Bard never died. Immortal and timeless are his words- in Elizabethan English at least- but the translations of Shakespeare’s works are not to be disregarded.

One of the most famous and notorious translations of Shakespeare’s works is the Isaac Edward Salkinsohn Hebrew translation of “Romeo and Juliet.” Many believe this translation to be far more modern than it actually is, assuming that it was produced in the era of the Hebrew Yishuv and the burgeoning state of Israel when localizing the classics was an extremely popular practice.

This is not so!

Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, translated into Hebrew by J.E.S, 1878

Isaac Salkinsohn translated “Ram ve-Yael,” the Hebraicized names of the protagonists of Shakespeare’s famous tale of star-crossed lovers, in 1878 during what is considered the time of Jewish Enlightenment. The Haskalah, a period of Jewish secularization and modernization in Europe, took place long before the first Zionist congress in 1897 and long before Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, began his project of standardizing the Hebrew language to become the mother-tongue of the modern Jewish people.

The revolution of the Hebrew language was brought about by people like Salkinsohn who sought to make the masterpieces of the non-Jewish world accessible to Jews who were not literate in the Gentile languages that surrounded them. During this period, the revolutionary Maskilim (the purveyors of the Haskala movement) were also working to transform Hebrew from a language of religion to a language of literature.

This transformation was not readily accepted by all the Jews of Europe as there were groups who viewed the Haskala not as modernization, but as an attempt to assimilate. These Jews were especially skeptical towards Isaac Edward Salkinsohn who was not merely secular, but had left Judaism in its entirety in favor of conversion to Christianity.

Yitzhak Salkinsohn was born in 1820 in to a Lithuanian Jewish family in Belarus and following his conversion in 1849 in London, the community he left behind slandered and disowned him.

It was in London that he met Peretz Smolenskin, one of the revivers of the Hebrew language and fellow Haskalah revolutionary. Smolenskin encouraged Salkhinsohn to translate the great works of Western civilization because these works were potential masterpieces that deserved to be written.

In addition to the aforementioned “Romeo and Juliet,” Salkhinsohn also translated “Othello” and changed “Othello, the Moore of Venice,” to, “Iti’el Ha’Kushi Mi’Venezia.” Salkhinson took great care in his work, preserving the iambic pentameter famously used by Shakespeare in his original plays.

Shakespear’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, translated into Hebrew by J.E.S., 1874

Despite the difficulties he faced bridging the worlds of Romeo & Juliet to Ram & Yael, and Othello to Iti’el, Salkinsohn managed to successfully transmit Shakespeare’s work from the English world to the Jewish world, giving Shakespeare his voice in Hebrew.

Abba Kovner and the Jewish Avengers

"Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!"

Abba Kovner (back row, center) with members of the FPO in Vilna, 1940's

When the Nazis infiltrated Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941, they established the Vilna Ghetto and rounded up the Jews of the city. Between June and December of 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 40,000 of Vilna’s Jews, herding them to the forest of Ponar. It was there, in the forest, that the Nazis forced the Jews to dig their own graves. Once the digging was complete, the Nazis shot the Jews and buried them in the freshly turned earth. Their bodies have remained there to this day.

On New Year’s Eve of 1942, Abba Kovner published a manifesto in the Vilna Ghetto whose message has become infamous:

“Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe…We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!”

Abba Kovner in 1940s Vilna. Photo: From Yad Va’Shem

Practically overnight, the Vilna Ghetto partisans formed a militia under the name Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (The FPO – Eng: United Partisan Organization) of which Abba Kovner was one of the leaders. Among the fighters was the poet Avraham Sutzkever and student activist Vitka Kempner.

“We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter,” the battle cry of the Vilna Ghetto partisans, spread far and wide. The organization, nicknamed Ha Nokmim (“The Avengers”), was considered a valiant group in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

When the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the Avengers fled to the woods and continued their fight against the Nazis and their collaborators until the bitter end of the Second World War.

Once the war was won and the the Nazi camps were captured and liberated, the magnitude of what the Nazis had done came to light. Kovner and his Vilna partisan compatriots traveled to the Ponar forest and, after seeing the murder perpetuated there, Kovner was stunned by the extent of the destruction. He continued traveling through the countryside that had been liberated from the Nazis and saw the cold industrialization of murder that was perpetrated at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.

Abba Kovner with a Partisan Delegation, 1971. From the Dan Hadani Collection in the National Library of Israel

Kovner’s desire for revenge became all-consuming and he began penning a plan for action. It was then that Kovner founded a secret organization of likeminded people called Nakam (“revenge”).

“… We have taken it upon ourselves not to let the world forget by performing the necessary act: Retribution. It will be more than revenge; it must be the law of the murdered Jewish people! Its name will therefore be DIN [the acronym of Dam Israel Noter, means “The Blood of Israel is Vengeful” – and “din” itself means “judgement”] so that posterity may know that in this merciless, uncompassionate world there are both judge and judgement.”

The ultimate plan for revenge? To kill six million Germans.

Kovner’s grand plan to poison a German reservoir never did come to pass, but in the spring of 1946, the Nakam group poisoned bread meant to feed S.S. unit prisoners in Stalag 13 in Nuremberg, which was under American authority at the time. The Nakam group infiltrated the kitchens of the POW camp and brushed 3,000 loafs of bread with arsenic.

The outcome of these events and what actually occurred as a result of the actions of Nakam is widely disputed.

In the decades following the Holocaust and the founding of Nakam, Kovner settled in Israel, married Vitka Kempner, published poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew, was a founding member of the Museum of the Jewish People, and was awarded several prizes for his work and legacy, among them the Israel Prize.

Left to right: Isaac Bashevis-Singer, Nekhama Lifshsitz, Abba Kovner, Reuven Rubin, Avraham Sutzkever, Esther Rubin in Israel, 1969. From the Avraham Sutzkever Archive at the National Library of Israel

The desire for vengeance burned within Kovner’s heart for decades, and though he and the Nakam group never fulfilled their ultimate plan for revenge on six million Germans, he and the rest of the surviving partisans of the Vilna Ghetto played a crucial part in telling the story of rebellion and heroism during the Holocaust.

More Information about Nakam and Abba Kovner’s involvement can be found in Dina Porat’s “The Fall of the Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner“.

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Who Stood With the Orphans When the Nazis Came?

Meet Doctor Henryk Goldszmit who refused to leave the Jewish orphans to face the Nazis alone.

Janusz Korczak, in the yard of the orphanage, the Ghetto Fighters' House Archives

Warsaw, Poland, the interwar period.

Doctor Henryk Goldszmit makes his way to the Jewish orphanage he founded on Krochmalna Street. As he passes through the gates, he is greeted with the joyous cheers of excited children, happy to see the kind doctor return once again.

In the Polish landscape of the early 1900s, this orphanage was considered atypical compared to other orphanages of the time. Dr. Goldszmit, an advocate for children’s rights, created a system wherein the orphanage was governed by a children’s parliament and courthouse. The parliament set the rules that everyone, including the staff, had to follow. Every child was also fully entitled to summon to court any resident of the orphanage who had injured or harmed them in any way – including the warden and the doctor himself.

Beyond having administrative and judicial power equal to their caretakers, the children in this orphanage received special attention from the institution. This included a higher level of medical treatment, proper nutrition, and most importantly, they were treated warmly and humanely, their dignity and rights were upheld and they were treated with remarkable understanding and patience for their emotions.

Janusz Korczak at the orphanage. Photograph by A.Y. Poznansky, 1930. From the From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the NLI.

Doctor Henryk Goldszmit was not just a successful and well-regarded doctor; he was a war veteran, an accomplished philosopher, storyteller, author, lecturer, host of a popular radio show, and the founder and editor of a popular newspaper written entirely by children.  He was also a well-respected researcher and educator. Despite his many accomplishments and achievements, few know his true name. Most people know him only by his pen name: Janusz Korczak.

In 1937, as the flames of anti-Semitism spread across Europe, Korczak was forced to give up his many high level positions and end his involvement in the Polish orphanage that he ran alongside the Jewish orphanage. He penned a letter expressing his desire to leave Poland and move to the Land of Israel: “I have made a decision: I would like to live out my final years in the Land of Israel, for the time being in Jerusalem. There I will learn the Hebrew language in order to move to a kibbutz after a year.”

His vision for the future never came to fruition despite having visited Israel several times. Korczak remained forever faithful to the children of the orphanage and thus, remained in Poland.

Zrubavel Gilad, an Israeli author and poet, visited the orphanage in Poland in 1938 where he had the chance to experience the unique atmosphere the doctor had created for the young orphans. “When we entered the home we were greeted by loud cheers from the joyful children- the standard exuberant welcome for the beloved doctor,” Gilad recounted.

In 1940, the Jewish orphanage was forced to move from its comfortable and familiar home on Krochmalna Street to the Warsaw Ghetto. The orphanage became crowded and cramped as the number of orphans in the small residence nearly doubled. There, in the shadow of poverty, hunger, desolation, and the spreading plague of typhoid, Korczak fought daily to ensure his children at the orphanage had enough food to live a decent life in as much as the circumstances allowed.

Inside the walls of the ghetto, Korczak continued to run the orphanage with his unique philosophy, producing cultural events and special activities such as concerts and plays to keep the children busy, entertained and happy.

Janusz Korczak with the children of the orphanage.

On the 5th of August, 1942, Korczak was forced, along with 192 children and the 10 members of his staff, to leave the safety of the orphanage and march to the main square of the Warsaw Ghetto where they were to board the train to the Treblinka death-camp.

The well-renowned and beloved doctor was offered an escape, a chance to save himself from the inevitable death that faced the passengers of the train. Instead, Korczak marched, head held high, alongside the orphans, as they drew closer to the final ride of their lives.

With a child on each side, and a child in each arm, Korczak marched towards the train, refusing to leave behind the Jewish orphans. They marched together, the children and their greatest friend and advocate.

The witnesses of this scene who survived to share the experience expressed a feeling of unbearable sadness, despair and complete helplessness at the sight of the innocent children and their teacher as they were led to their deaths. They described the doctor, leading the crowd, proud and dignified. One of humanity’s gentlest and most noble figures was ultimately murdered, during that dark and cruel chapter of human history.

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The Artist Who Forewarned the Dangers of the Nazis

Take a look at the incredible treasures from the archive of the Hungarian-Jewish Artist, Gyula Zilzer.

This 1933 drawing is apparently one of the earliest illustrations of a Nazi concentration camp

The materials in the archive of Hungarian-Jewish born artist Gyula Zilzer were bestowed to the Archives of National Library of Israel in 2002 as part of the estate of Mary Zilzer, the artist’s widow, after she passed away in 2001.

The story of the artist’s life can be traced back through the personal documents, photographs, correspondence, literary works, paintings and illustrations contained within the archive.

Most of the paintings in the archive are lithographs, which, unlike a painting, can exist in more than one original copy. Making duplicates with the lithographic method involves a lot of effort and all duplicates are made by the same artist, using the same stone on which the original image was painted.

"Opium". Lithograph by Gyula Zilzer
“Opium”. Lithograph by Gyula Zilzer

Gyula Zilzer, a descendant of an artisan family, was born in 1898 in Budapest, Hungary. Members of this illustrious family include the Bavarian king’s court painter Antal Zilzer, the sculptor Hajnalka Zilzer, and the modern painter Frigyes Frank.

In his youth, Zilzer had a special interest in machines and spent time working on inventions.

Certificate from the Royal Hungarian Museum of Technology given to Gyula Zilzer concerning absolving a gas engine operator course in 1920
Certificate from the Royal Hungarian Museum of Technology given to Gyula Zilzer concerning absolving a gas engine operator course in 1920

In 1917, together with two of his friends, Trotzer and Mintz, he worked to create a radio controlled torpedo. During the Russian Revolution, the Russian Army gave the three young men access to a factory to build their torpedo model and to produce it for military purposes, but the project was never completed.

The model became a secret German patent and later served as the basis for several technological innovations, including the dial mechanism of telephones and missile control systems developed in other countries.

The artist Gyula Zilzer in his study. Photo by André Kertész
The artist Gyula Zilzer in his study. Photo by André Kertész

As a Jew, Zilzer was prevented from continuing his academic studies in mechanical engineering due to the implementation of Numerus Clausus. In 1919 he fled from Hungarian nationalists to Trieste, Italy. There, while involved in the leadership of a factory that he founded along with his business partners, he began to paint. After displaying much talent, from 1922-1923 Zilzer went to study painting at the school of the famous German painter Hans Hoffman in Munich.

In 1924, after acquiring a Triestian certificate which attested to his status as a Christian, Zilzer returned to Budapest and signed up for the Academy of the Arts. When his Jewish origins were revealed to the academic administration, he was dismissed from the Academy as “untalented.” Despite this humiliation, Zilzer pushed forward and published his collection of lithographs entitled, “Kaleidoskop,” in 1924. This publication was so successful that it enabled him to leave Hungary for good. After leaving Hungary in 1924, he lived in Paris until 1932 where he worked for the French magazine Clarté and the daily newspaper L’Humanité, both of which belonged to the Communist Party. It was during this time that he became friends with the French writer and publicist Henri Barbusse.

From 1929, Zilzer’s works became clearly anti-fascist in nature with several of his pieces focusing in on Hitler and Mussolini. In 1932, in an exhibition in Amsterdam, he presented his “Gaz” album, a collection protesting the use of gas as a form of warfare against the civilian population. That year, following the success of the original installment, the collection was also displayed in the United States.

Zilzer, the socialist artist who suffered at the hands of anti-Semitism from his youth, expressed his political and general worldview through his paintings. He was an artist ahead of his time, presenting the horrors of the First World War in the 1920s. When he published the collections “Kaleidoskop” and “Gaz” in 1924 and 1932 respectively, he hoped they would forewarn of a future war that the fascist authorities may inspire. Additionally, his paintings criticized the cruelty of the National Socialist Party, as portrayed in his drawings of concentration camps from the early 1930s.

The cover drawing of the album "Kaleidoskop" by Gyla Zilzer, 1924
The cover drawing of the album “Kaleidoskop” by Gyla Zilzer, 1924


One of the drawings from the album “GAZ” by Zilzer from 1934

Concentration camps were not an original invention of the Nazi apparatus in Germany. The camps set up by the British in South Africa during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, as well as the Russian Gulag (a punitive system based on forced labor), preceded and influenced the formation of the Nazi camps. The first concentration camp on German territory was established in Dachau after Hitler came to power in 1933. The camp intended to imprison opponents of the Nazi regime as well as people from social groups marked by the Nazis as “undesirable,” including homeless people, homosexuals, and others.

drawing from 1933 representing the concentration camp

Women and Children under the Swastika
Two drawings from 1933 representing the concentration camps. The second (bottom) one served as the cover page of the English booklet “Women and Children under the Swastika”, which collected factual reports on terrorism and oppression in the Third Reich, published 1936 in New York, USA

Zilzer belonged to the expressionist artistic movement, protesting the fascist ideology, calling for unity against the Nazi horrors in his published paintings as early as 1933.

"The Peace Talk" of Hitler calling for war. Caricature from 1934
“The Peace Talk” of Hitler calling for war. Caricature from 1934


" Let us share it" - Mussolini and Hitler sharing the globe. 1935
” Let us share it” – Mussolini and Hitler sharing the globe. 1935

By 1932 Zilzer left Europe and moved to the United States, where he spent a year traveling throughout the country all the while continuing to draw and to paint.

Letter of recommendation
Letter of recommendation from G. P. Putnam’s Sons given to Zilzer concerning his US citizenship. 1934


Social Security Card of Zilzer Gyula
US Social Security Card of Zilzer Gyula


Gyula Zilzer apparently in the late 30s
Gyula Zilzer apparently in the late 30s

He moved to Hollywood in 1939 where he worked designing stage sets of famous films as an art director. Outside of his work in the film industry, Zilzer created more patents for items such as a toy book for children, a helical underground parking area with shelter and the “VISI-Recorder”.

Stage set Zilzer Gyula
A stage set planned and drawn by Zilzer for the film “The short happy life of Francis Macomber”
Patented book for children
A patented toy book for children planned an designed by Zilzer


Helical parkin by Gyula Zilzer
A helical underground parking area with shelter planned by Zilzer, Kovacs and Williger


Air raid precaution parking place
Another version of the same shelter as above called “Air raid precaution parking place”


Logo of the Visi Recorder
Logo of the patented Visi Recorder by Zilzer


Membership certificate from The Institute of American Inventors given to Gyula Zilzer
Membership certificate from The Institute of American Inventors given to Gyula Zilzer in 1940

After the end of the Second World War, Zilzer returned to Europe and traveled between Paris and Budapest for a few years. In 1954 he moved to his final residence in New York City where he worked for the television networks NBC and Cinerama, all while continuing to paint and manage his private exhibitions, until his death in 1969.

An oil painting by Gyula Zilzer
An oil painting by Gyula Zilzer


Gyula Zilzer in his atelier in ca. 1943
Gyula Zilzer in his atelier in ca. 1943


Throughout his tumultuous life, Zilzer rubbed shoulders with many well-known, contemporary personalities including American writer and publicist Upton Sinclair, the French director Jean Vigo, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, the movie actor Gregory Peck, the writers Roman Roland and Ilya Ehrenburg, the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, the Hungarian poet József Attila, the author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Zilzer was also in close contact with the physicist Albert Einstein who received a collection of paintings gifted from Zilzer himself. This is certified by a letter of thanks sent from Einstein to Zilzer on March 26th 1933.

Records on “My Heritage” database show that Gyula was married to Irene P. Kellog. After their divorce he married Mary (Fuchs) Pitjel. Mary met Gyula in the USA, where she moved after the death of her first husband Kalman Pitjel, who fell during Israel’s War for Independence in 1948. This information is based on Tanya Rubinstein-Horowitz from Düsseldorf, Germany. Her father was a cousin of Kalman Pitjel.

A letter from Henry Miller to Gyula Zilzer 1956
I am glad you have found a wife – a real one! – writes Henry Miller to Zilzer in 1956; apparently regarding Mary

For the Gyula Zilzer Archive at the National Library and detailed information click here.

The Gyula Zilzer Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.