Gershom Scholem’s Mystical Experiences

How the famous scholar of Kabbalah experimented with secret mystical techniques.

Gershom Scholem, at the age of 28, studying the Zohar, Sukkot, October 1925. The photograph was taken in Mandatory Palestine.

He came into the world toward the end of 1897, the fourth son of Betty and Arthur Scholem, an assimilated middle-class Jewish couple living in Berlin, capital of the German empire. The child learned about Zionism and the study of religion from his uncle Theobald, his father’s younger brother. Later, and more systematically, he would deepen his knowledge and intellectual and national commitment (for him, these were not contradictory) in the intellectual circles of the universities of Berlin and Munich. After graduating, he would leave the Berlin of his youth, and at the age of twenty-five would immigrate to Mandatory Palestine and become a lecturer at the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Thanks to his groundbreaking research in a new academic field that he established in the country — the study of Kabbala and Jewish mysticism — the name Gershom Scholem is widely known across Israel today, decades after his death. He was awarded the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize and several honorary doctorates. He participated in dozens of academic and public committees and eventually the entire contents of his private library came to the National Library upon his death.

But for at least one moment, all of this simply was not enough. Before he was to gain widespread recognition, there was a point when the young researcher wished to go a step beyond the classic scholarly approach: He wanted to try his hand at what he had learned.

A single piece of written evidence attests to that moment and is found in a single paragraph written by Scholem, buried on page 161 of the Hebrew translation of From Berlin to Jerusalem — a paragraph with no parallel in either the English or German edition of the book. According to his own testimony, the scholar and historian traded his intellectual detachment for practical experimentation, and he decided to try the techniques he had found in ancient manuscripts on himself.

In his autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem, Scholem wrote:

“I had been working on my dissertation for two years and began reading the masterpieces of the ancient Kabbalah in order, as many as I could lay my hands on, in both print and manuscript form. In Munich there were several books by Abraham Abulafia (in manuscript form) and I began to wonder, and even tried to follow some of his instructions in practice and was convinced that they were changing the state of my consciousness and I realized that one must differentiate between the various goals of different Kabbalistic methods, and not place them all in the same pot. I read the Zohar, but without commentaries; I tried to understand what I was looking at and had yet to broach the questions of historical criticism, and what is more, it immediately became clear to me that one must not ask questions of this kind without first going through the midrashic literature…”

Gershom Scholem, From Berlin to Jerusalem, Am Oved Press, 1982

In September 1919, Scholem arrived at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (the Bavarian State Library) in Munich in order to write his dissertation. Among the Kabbalistic manuscripts preserved there, Scholem found fifty manuscripts of works by Abraham Abulafia, who at the time was considered to be one of the fathers of Kabbalah and even a possible author of the Zohar. Scholem decided to try a few of the techniques he found in Abulafia’s manuscripts on himself.

One of the manuscripts Scholem found in Munich was a 1552 copy of Or Hasekhel
One of the manuscripts Scholem found in Munich was a 1552 copy of Or Hasekhel

Abraham Abulafia: The Ecstatic Kabbalist

At age thirty, the Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia experienced a prophetic vision commanding him to meet with the pope with the purpose of converting him to Judaism. The year was 1270 CE. From the moment of revelation until his death in late 1291 or the beginning of 1292, Abulafia wrote close to fifty original works. Alongside his commentaries — among them a commentary on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed — Abulafia devoted most of his writing to the compilation of several instruction manuals on how to achieve prophecy and complete devotion to God.

Abulafia suggests that the spring of divine prophecy is reached by means of the divine names. The use of sacred names is not foreign to Judaism, and already in the mystical Hekhalot and Merkava literature we find some of the Talmudic sages making use of them in order to ascend to the upper spheres, with the goal of encountering the occupant of the divine throne. Abulafia went so far as to claim that it was precisely through the dissolution of the names of God and the creation of new ones that the practitioner could achieve a prophetic state.

It is doubtful whether we can replicate the specific techniques suggested by Abulafia and attempted by Gershom Scholem in Munich. However, since Abulafia’s Kabbalistic method is systematic and orderly, we can sketch the main process at its core, as interpreted by Kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel.

The contemplation of the divine names is divided into three stages: writing, speech and thought.  First one writes the holy name in its various permutations (“Take pen, parchment and ink and write and combine the names,” writes Abulafia in the book Otsar Eden Ganuz [“Treasure of the Hidden Paradise”]). In the book Or Hasekhel [“Light of the Mind”], a mystical guide compiled by Abulafia of which several copies can be found in the manuscript collection of the Munich library, he focuses on the tetragrammaton Y-H-W-H, which he takes apart and reassembles. To each of the four letters of the name, Abulafia adds the Hebrew letter aleph — a letter he believed was part of the original name of God (A”Y, A”H, A”W, A”H), before adding diacritical marks (niqqud) to these combinations based on five Hebrew vowels (holam, kamats, hiriq, tseirei, kubbuts).

The dissolution of the divine name, from a manuscript of Or Hasekhel at the Bavarian State Library

The practitioner is then required to recite aloud the resulting four tables. This part of the practice is more complicated. First the prophesier must sing all of the combinations with their various vocalizations. Abulafia believed that, like music, combinations of Hebrew letters can stir the soul. The melody, when applied to the letter combinations, ensures that the power of the names spreads through the body, the musical vibrations accentuating and strengthening the sacred utterances.

During the singing of the names, the practitioner must maintain a uniform rhythm of breathing. This is a technical process consisting of three components: breathing in before speaking, breathing out while singing, and at the end, resting between the exhale and the next intake of breath, at which point the practitioner continues to the next letter. Abulafia believed that the single breath (divided into these three segments), contains the power to enhance the human spirit.

While singing and breathing correctly, the practitioner must also ensure his head moves in accordance with the vocalization of the letters. Detailed instructions for this are found in Abulafia’s book Hayeii Haolam Haba (“The Life of the World to Come”). The goal of the movement of the head is not to mimic the shape of the letters, but rather to differentiate between them while reading: “When you enunciate the vowel of the letter, raise your head up against the sky and close your eyes and open your mouth and illuminate your words…”

Finally, the practitioner must internalize the names he has recited. The main change the practitioner seeks is the transition from intellectual understanding to internalization. This process of internalization occurs with the help of imagination. Abulafia explains this in the book Hayeii Haolam Haba:

And he closes his eyes and directs his focus, and his first focus is to draw [in his imagination] four camps of Shekhina or Mishkan surrounding him and four, precious, round-shaped flags surrounding the fifth camp.

 Only at this stage, according to Abulafia, and only after all the previous stages have been performed correctly, can the prophesier reach the highest level of human consciousness: prophecy.

“And these are the forms of his letters and their vocalizations”, from a manuscript of Or Hasekhel at the Bavarian State Library

Ultimately, the doctoral dissertation Scholem intended to write about the linguistic concept of Abraham Abulafia did not materialize. The dissertation he submitted dealt with the origins of Sefer Habahir, which scholars consider to be the earliest known Kabbalistic work. Several manuscripts of Sefer Habahir are preserved in the Munich library, including the earliest manuscript of this treatise, from the end of the thirteenth century. Scholem did not desert Abraham Abulafia, and continued to study the ecstatic Kabbalist for many decades after.

There is no other reference to Scholem’s unique experiments in his writing. According to Moshe Idel, this stemmed from Scholem’s uncertain position at the start of his academic career. As the founder of a new field of academic research, the study of the Kabbalah, Scholem spent most of his professional career as the only lecturer on the subject at the Hebrew University. In fact, until his death, he was the only professor of Kabbalah to be found anywhere in the world and was often considered an eccentric outsider by the Talmudic and Biblical scholars of the Hebrew University. According to Idel, speaking too freely about his strange mystical experiences, could have been “grounds for dismissal.”


Many thanks to David Lang, Yacov Fuchs, Yuval de Malach and Zvi Leshem for their help in the preparation of this article.


Further reading:

Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, Albany, NY, SUNY, 1988

Moshe Idel, Language, Torah, and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia, SUNY Series in Judaica, 1988

Moshe Idel, Kabbalah, New Perspectives, New Haven, Yale University, 1988

Gershom Scholem, From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back, Waltham, MA, Brandeis University Press, 2018


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The 19th Century Jewish Orientalist Who Took a Stand Against Racism

Rabbi Márton Schreiner, a religious educator, orientalist and scholar of Semitic languages, struggled against the Ethnic Cultural Movement’s intent to be substitute for Jewish religious life.

Zsidó Egyetem

The building of the University of Jewish Studies at Guttenberg Square in Budapest towards the end of the 19th century. (Photo: Fortepan / Capital Archives of Budapest. Archive reference: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.05.161)

Rabbi Márton Schreiner was active mainly between 1881 and 1902 in Hungary and Germany. His manuscripts kept at the National Library indicate that he opposed the racist element of the ethnic cultural ideas of the period (biological anthropology), according to which Judaism is a race community (a concept based on the idea that race is an unchanging hereditary characteristic). In addition, he saw the cultivation of religious customs as a historical necessity resulting in the liberation of the Jewish spirit. He also appealed against the German liberal parties and their Jewish representatives who adopted the ethnic cultural thoughts that did not see any contradiction between the Torah and the discoveries of science, and sought for a total separation between them:

“The liberal representatives [referring to Jewish politicians] have forgotten that the Jewish community is a religious community and not a race community. …”

“We must realize in our religious lives that our love for the Jewish customs and Jewish life does not require supernatural support. We recognize that our institutions [referring to the Jewish religious community and its institutions] are historical needs …”

“If the Liberal Party wants to be the outpost of the Reform Judaism, then it has no justification within the community. …”

“One of the movements that tries to replace the historical religions is the “Ethnic Cultural Movement” [Ethnische Kulturbewegung]. To the extent that it seeks to realize the general moral ideals, it should be accepted with joy from the point of view of Judaism. But, it cannot serve as a substitute for religion and Judaism in particular. … The historical religions are inextricably inconsistent with the scientific results of science. If Judaism is defined as compatible with science, it is no longer Judaism. … As for the morality of life: Judaism teaches effectively this morality without relating to its believers level of education. The worship of God, the holidays, and certainly the Jewish institutions, have always reminded the followers of Judaism of the teachings of the Torah. …”

“The recent reports of the Board of Directors indicate that in the past three years 347 members of the community have left Judaism … , but we believe that … Judaism, as the Bible science opines today, has been a religious community since the days of the Second Temple, which reaches beyond the borders of the nation … . Our community, in its special status, is the basis of Christianity and Islam. …”

(Quotations from Schreiner’s manuscripts written following his activities and involvement in the life of the Jewish community in Berlin. Archive reference at the National Library of Israel: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 05)


Schreiner in Hungary

Márton Schreiner was born in the city of Nagyvárad (today Romanian Oradea) in Transylvania in 1863. A study of the documents in his personal archives at the National Library reveals that his family was a relatively poor. His father, Albert Schreiner, who died during Márton’s youth, served as an official of the local community and a highly knowledgeable Jewish religious scholar who also gave his son the basic knowledge of Jewish literature.

School and university studies

He completed high school at a Catholic school in his hometown. After receiving his matriculation certificate, he moved to Budapest, where he signed up to the Jewish Theological Seminary, also known as University of Jewish Studies (Országos Rabbiképző – Zsidó Egyetem). At the same time he studied at the University of Budapest (today: Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem). His spiritual development was significantly influenced by the well-known lecturers of the Theological Seminary, such as Benjamin Bacher, Bloch Mózes Löb and David Kaufmann. At the University of Budapest, Schreiner spent some time mainly studying philosophy and Arabic. He was a student of the great scholar and researcher in the field of Islamic studies, Ignác Goldziher. Schreiner’s correspondence with Goldziher is famous. According to Kinga Dévényi, Schreiner wrote more than 150 letters to Goldziher. The letters are a part of the Oriental collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Parts of the letters were published in Goldziher’s diary edited by Rabbi Alexander (Sándor) Scheiber.

He received his doctorate in 1886 based on his scientific work Supplements to the History of Biblical Pronunciation, which he published already a year earlier. He completed his studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and served as a rabbi of Dunapentele community (today Dunaújváros).

Certified rabbi

In 1887 he received a rabbinical ordination certificate and moved to the Csurgó community, which sought to employ a rabbi who studied at the Rabbinical Training Institute.

As a rabbi, Schreiner focused on youth education. Thus he introduced the practice of the boys’ prayer in Csurgó’s community. He delivered his sermons and speeches in Hungarian and German. Some of them he published in 1887. The National Library of Israel holds about 70 handwritten sermons and speeches that Schreiner delivered in many communities in which he hosted or performed for events and festivals between 1881 and 1892.

Teacher at the Jewish teachers’ training seminary in Budapest

Schreiner felt uncomfortable in the small community of Csurgó and tried to apply for a position in larger communities. In 1891 he received a teacher position at the Institute for the Training of Jewish Teachers in Budapest (Országos Izraelita Tanítóképző Intézet). As a teacher, Schreiner showed great responsibility for the education of the future Jewish teachers. He focused on pedagogic tasks and wrote a textbook for religious education on the prophets of Israel. He also taught religion at the Catholic high school )Nagyváradi Premontrei Főgimnázium( where he himself graduated in 1881. Evidence of this is found in the examination notebooks of his students, which Schreiner kept in his archive. Among his students: Armin Stern, Vilmos Rosenberg, the future Hebrew teacher Henrik Blau, the author Kornél Hüvös and many others.

Schreiner in Germany

Despite his devotion to his role as rabbi and lover of Jewish religious education, Schreiner always aspired to academia. His search for an opportunity to engage in scientific research eventually led him to transit to Germany.

Active community member in Berlin

Quite a few documents, such as the protocols and drafts of Schreiner indicate that he was involved and took actively part in the politics of the Berliner Jewish community. He supported the constitutional equality of the Jewish religion with the Christian religion, but opposed Jewish religious observance on Sundays instead of or in addition to Sabbath.

Lecturer at the Graduate School of Jewish Studies

Schreiner tried to apply for a position as a lecturer at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary (Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin). Although he was rejected by David Cassel (prominent docent of the above institute), but later, about eleven months after Cassel’s death, he was accepted as a full professor supported by Moritz Lazarus in December 1893. There, too, his full effort and obligation to his students were his characteristics. He taught linguistics, religious history of Semitic nations, religious philosophy, interpretation of ancient texts, and more. He felt at his best in Berlin. He was an inspiring teacher arousing interest among his listeners. Some of his students: Leo Baeck, George Alexander Kohut, Yehuda L. Magnes, Shmuel Avraham Poznanski, Elyakim Gotthold Weil, and others.

Schreiner believed that it was inconceivable to be engaged in the study of languages ​​without taking into account the philosophy and the religious-cultural history of the peoples. He referred to any text intended for interpretation as a historical-intellectual document of humanity. He studied the Islamic sources in their original language in order to explore the post-Islamic influences on Jewish literature, religious philosophy, the history of sects and linguistics. The study of these influences was the main subject of Schreiner’s scientific activity. Although all, this important and rich activity was suddenly interrupted when Schreiner became mentally ill in 1902. He was interned in the Lankwitz Sanatorium in Berlin. The National Library of Israel holds a few letters that he sent and received in this chapter of his life. The letters indicate that despite his illness, he kept in touch with colleagues and relatives remaining in the sanatorium until his death in 1921. Márton Schreiner’s personal archive, containing biographical material, notes, lectures, articles, sermons, correspondence and some handwriting of his father, was deposited at the National Library of Israel in the second half of 1965.

Documents from Schreiner’s personal archive

מרטון שריינר - תעודת סיום שנה א' של התיכון
Graduation certificate for the school year 1872/73, Márton Schreiner’s first high school year, including a grade sheet. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 01 01 


תעודת בגרות
Márton Schreiner’s matriculation certificate from 1881. (To view the item click on the image).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 01 01


מסמכים המעידים על משפחת שריינר כדלת אמצעים
On the left: a certification from the Jewish community of Nagyvárad, dated 1879, confirming that the Schreiner family was a low income one. On the right: Márton Schreiner’s 1881 request for a scholarship from the Jewish Students Aid Fund. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Links to the records of the above documents: Certification, Request, (ARC. Ms. Var. 347 01 02 and 04)


כתב ידו של אלברט שריינר
Booklet of commentaries on the Talmud, probably written by Albert Schreiner, Márton’s father. This booklet includes the signatures of the recipient Israel Epstein as well as those of personalities from the city of Papa, Hungary. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 10


דרשה לראש השנה מאת אלברט שריינר
A sermon for Rosh Hashana by Albert Schreiner, Márton’s father. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 10


דוח על השוחט
Albert Schreiner, Márton’s father, was a community official. Here: a report on the level of knowledge of a certain Shlomo, who came to the community of Nagyvárad to study Jewish ritual slaughter. The name of Rabbi Yisrael Yitzchak Aharon Landsberg is mentioned in the document.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 10


דרשה לרגל ראש השנה בפני קהילת סקשפהרוואר
Schreiner gave his speeches and sermons in German and Hungarian in various communities during festivals and events. Here: A sermon in German addressed to the community of Székesfehérvár on Rosh Hashanah in 1886. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 03


נאומו של מרטון שריינר לרגל חנוכת בית כנסת בראצקווה
Márton Schreiner’s speech in Hungarian on the occasion of the dedication of the Ráckeve synagogue in 1886 (to view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 04


דרשתו של מרטון שריינר לרגל חתונה בנדיפרקטה
A sermon by Márton Schreiner at a wedding in the city of Nagy-Perkáta in 1886. (To view the item click on the image).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 04


דרשתו של מרטין שריינר לרגל ראש השנה בצ'ורגו
Márton Shreiner’s sermon in Hungarian held on Rosh Hashana 1887 at the community of Csurgó. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 03


מרטין שריינר - נאום כניסה לתפקיד כרב
Márton Schreiner’s speech in Hungarian on the occasion of his appointment as rabbi of the Csurgó community in 1887. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 04


פרשת נחמו - דרשה של מרטין שריינר
Márton Schreiner’s sermon in Hungarian for the Shabbat of Nachamu in 1890. (To view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 02

שיר מאת מרטין שריינר על הפסח.
Pesach” – an undated 18 stanza Hungarian poem by Márton Schreiner. The song deals with Passover from the point of view of comparison between present and past. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 02 08


מכתב מאת מרטין שריינר אל יצחק גולדציהר
Letter from Márton Schreiner to his teacher Ignác Goldziher from his time as rabbi of the Csurgó community. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 08


עבודתו של ארמין שטרן בנושא מונותאיזם
Márton Schreiner taught religious studies to Jewish students in the Catholic high school where he himself had studied. Here: the work of Armin Stern, one of Schreiner’s students. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 04 07


עבודתו של הנריק בלאו בנושא מונותאיזם
The work of high school student Henrik Blau on the subject of monotheism. Later on Blau became a Hebrew teacher. (To view the item, click on the image.)

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 04 07


Kornel Hüvös - עסודת בית ספר תיכון
A high school work by the Hungarian Jewish writer Kornel Hüvös on the subject of the concept of holiness in Judaism. 1893. (To view the item click on the image).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 04 08


כתביו של מרטין שריינר בנושאים שהקהילות היהודיות עסקו בברלין
Schreiner took an active part in local Jewish politics in Germany. His writings dealing with the political life of the Berlin community are preserved in the archives of the National Library in Israel (to view the item click on the picture).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC. Ms. Var. 347 03 05

Zsido Egyetem Budapest
The Jewish Theological Seminary, also known as the University of Jewish Studies (Országos Rabbiképző – Zsidó Egyetem) today. (Photo: Shaul Greenstein)


The Martin (Márton) Schreiner Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

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The Archivists and the Forgotten Boxes: Rediscovering the Victims of the Sajmište Concentration Camp

The discovery of boxes of forgotten materials in the Historical Archives of Belgrade sparked the creation of a touching series of historical graphic novels on the Holocaust


Illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

A few years ago, the archivists at the Historical Archives of Belgrade discovered 6 boxes among old unsorted piles hidden behind the shelves in a far dusty corner of the depot. When they removed the lock from the first box, they were suprised to find a 14-year old girl with big eyes staring back at them with a smile from a pile of old papers: “Hello, my name is Ester, and I’ve waited patiently for 70 years to tell you that once I used to be alive!”

Illustration from the educational graphic novel “The Archivists And The Forgotten Boxes” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Gabriel Kousbroek

When the archivists dug deeper in the box, they discovered that Ester had been a student at the First Belgrade Gymnasium. She had been popular, with many friends and a loving family. “We lived in the Dorćol neighborhood in Belgrade, and I used to dream about becoming an actress,” Ester told them.

All of a sudden, more voices began to emerge from the box, and then other boxes on the surrounding shelves began to chime in. Soon enough, the entire archive depot was filled with thousands of voices echoing throughout the storage chamber.

Illustration from the educational graphic novel “The Archivists And The Forgotten Boxes” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Gabriel Kousbroek

The boxes found in the Historical Archives of Belgrade revealed forgotten, unprocessed and unlisted documentation regarding the lives of several thousand Belgrade Jews from who were killed at the Old Fairground (Sajmište) concentration camp.

During WWII, in autumn and winter of 1941, the Old Fairground was where the Nazis and their allies brought Jews from all over occupied Serbia to be killed using an infamous gas-van known as  the “dušegupka.”

“The gas van known as ‘dušegupka,’” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

On May 29, 1942, Franz Rademacher, Chief of the Jewish Department in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, stated that the “Jewish question in Serbia has been solved.”

What he meant was that almost all of the Jews in Serbia had been killed. From that day on, the Old Fairground remained a symbol of total destruction for the Jews of Serbia.

Inspired by the discovery of the boxes filled with forgotten documents, the archivists of the Historical Archives of Belgrade began a complex and long-term project – Much like detectives, the archivists worked to combine the newly discovered materials with other pre-war archives including school registers, membership lists of sport-club associations, employees lists, property registers, old photographs, letters and newspaper clippings…

Day after day, piece-by-piece, the archivists worked to put together their huge puzzle. Together with their colleagues and historians, they were determined to once again reveal a vision of pre-war Belgrade that could be shared with their Jewish neighbors, friends, and schoolmates. It was like traveleling back in time, a vivid and colorful picture was appearing in front of their eyes – and with that, Ester was reborn.

The “Ester” graphic novels respresent an extremely significant educational resource. They consist of a series of dramatized stories about the Jewish victims killed in the camp at Sajmište in Belgrade (Judenlager Semlin) at the beginning of 1942. The stories focus on young victims and their families, their pre-war life, the situation under the German occupation and during the Holocaust. They are based on true historical events and characters.

“Departure to the Sajmiste concentration camp” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

“Ester” was produced by an international team consisting of historians, teachers, experts on Jewish culture and tradition and Holocaust survivors, as well as a group of illustrators from Serbia and the Netherlands who worked together on bringing the vision to life.

The Ester graphic novels were created as a reconstruction and dramatization of history, based on available fragments of personal stories. While keeping historical events and facts central to the stories, we put the main focus on the human aspects, feelings, and thoughts of the main characters, with the aim of engaging students on a different level, thus creating a creative and engaging tool for learning about the Holocaust.

A Story about the Red Race Car

The first story shared in this project is a dramatization of the Frelih family’s history in pre-war Belgrade, based on true events, real people, historical documentation and testimonies.

“The Synagogue during the occupation”  illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

Aleksandar Frelih is an eleven-year-old Jewish boy from Belgrade. As we follow Aleksandar and his family through twelve illustrated scenes, we learn more about their life, the local Jewish culture and traditions, and about pre-war Belgrade and Serbia in general. When the war brought anti-Jewish measures, repression, and death, the Frelih family shared the same destiny as thousands of other Belgrade Jews. Above all else, “Story about the Red Race Car” is a human story about friendship in times of suffering, told from the perspective of a young Jewish boy.

“The bombing of Belgrade,” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car,” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

The Frelih family is registered in the Sajmiste database. Since there were no photos available that could help to visualize the story to the students, illustrations based on actual historical documentation were created instead.  The illustrations that accompany the story speak for themselves, telling the tale of a proud and rich Jewish culture in Belgrade, a happy young boy living his day to day life, and the untimely end that his family faced like so many others.

Besides this story, the educational material consists of two other stories, about the Demajo and Fisher families, both of which were destroyed in the Sajmiste concentration camp.

“Parting with father” illustration from the educational graphic novel “A Story About the Red Race Car” copyright: Terraforming, author: Misko Stanisic, illustrator: Silva Vujovic

Project Background

The international project titled Escalating into Holocaust was organized by the Historical Archives of Belgrade, Terraforming – a non-governmental organization  from Sweden, the Center for Holocaust Research and Education based in Belgrade, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies based in the Netherlands and the University of Rijeka of Croatia. The project was implemented in 2016 and 2017 in Serbia, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The project was funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), as part of its Europe for Citizens, European Remembrance program.

The Historical Archives of Belgrade, as the leader of the project, created a database of victims killed in the Sajmiste camp and, for the first time, the names of victims of this camp were gathered in one place.

As part of the same project, the Terraforming organization developed teaching materials based on the stories of the victims killed in 1941 and 1942 in Sajmiste. While working on this material, “Ester” was born.

The development of Ester began in the framework of the “Escalating into Holocaust” project, with the support of the ODIHR project ”Words into Action to Combat Antisemitism.”

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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Meet the Jewish Circus Performer Who Could Bend Iron with His Bare Hands

Zishe Breitbart was known as the "Modern Day Samson" and performed all over the world until his untimely death.


Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia

Jewish culture has always preferred brains to brawn, placing more of an emphasis on scholarship than the gymnasium. Jews shine in many fields, but you usually won’t see too many of them in your typical sports highlight reel – and yet, despite the odds, there have been some exceptional Jewish sports stars, such as boxer Daniel Mendoza (champion of England in 1792–5) and baseball’s Sandy Koufax. U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Russian gymnast Yelena Shushunova  also won plenty of Olympic medals.

And then there was Siegmund Zishe Breitbart.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

The Modern Day Samson

Zishe Breitbart was born circa 1883 to a poor family in Stryków, Poland. His father was a blacksmith and Zishe followed in his footsteps but with one twist: much to their customers’ amazement, Zishe could successfully bend metal with his bare hands.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, the blacksmith. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Stryków was under czarist rule when World War I broke out and Breitbart enlisted in the Russian army, only to be captured by the Germans. Lucky enough to survive and be freed, he joined Busch, a German roving circus. Renamed “Siegmund,” he appeared and performed all over Germany as well other European countries, then toured America. He straightened horseshoes and bent iron bars with his bare hands, broke chains with his teeth, and lifted strange and various weights including wagons loaded with passengers – and even the occasional elephant.

Settling in Germany, Breitbart married a rabbi’s daughter and fathered a son. Performing his one man show, he solidified his reputation among Eastern European Jewry as the Iron Man, the World’s Strongest Man, and of course, the Modern Day Samson.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Posters advertising his performances in Poland promoted a new Jewish national image. Between the two world wars, as Jews integrated more than ever into modern economies, these ads broadcast Jewish strength, raising Jews’ spirits – and non-Jews’ expectations.

Of the four posters preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, a couple are particularly large. One, printed in Cologne, shows the champ chomping on chains. The date and time of the act were left blank, to be filled in later. The other three were printed in Stanisławow – now Ivano-Frankivsk, part of Ukraine – in Polish as well as Yiddish, indicating that Breitbart’s fans weren’t all Jews.

One of four posters from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People advertising a Zishe Breitbart performance.

Beloved by Millions

As president of the Maccabi Berlin sports federation, Breitbart symbolized a Jewish renaissance. He never hid his Jewish identity or his Zionism. Some claim he visited Palestine, but there are no records of such a trip. The rumors probably testify more to the breadth of his popularity, extending even as far as the Middle East.

Breitbart’s career was cut short after just six years by a tragic work accident. While driving a spike through a thick pile of tin sheets – using his hand as a hammer of course – he was stabbed in the knee by a rusty nail, resulting in blood poisoning. Antibiotics had yet to be invented, so he struggled against the infection for eight weeks, submitting to ten operations, including the amputation of both legs. He died on September 29, 1925, the 24th of Tishrei,and was buried in the Adass Yisroel cemetery in Berlin.

The Sentinal,  Friday, October 20, 1925. From the National Library of Israel Historical Jewish Press collection. Click image to enlarge.

The funeral of this Jewish celebrity was covered by Doar Hayom (The Daily Post), published in Mandatory Palestine by Itamar Ben Avi (son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew). The article was entitled “On the Death of a Second Samson:”

The massive funeral was attended by thousands of Jews and Christians. A good few kilometers around the graveyard were jammed with hundreds of cars filled with people coming to the funeral. There were so many people that the elderly cemetery officials declared they couldn’t remember ever seeing such an enormous Jewish funeral in Berlin. The police had to send numerous constables out to maintain order and supervise the procession.

Cameras and filming equipment were set up on the surrounding roofs and photographed various scenes throughout the funeral….

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Chief Rabbi Dr. [Esra] Munk delivered the eulogy, emphasizing that the deceased had won the hearts of millions…. [Munk] particularly praised the deceased for disregarding all the glory and honor accorded him by the world at large, for Breitbart never forgot he was a Jew. He always came back to be with his fellow Jews, wherever they might be, telling them how happy he was that today Jews could claim the strongest man in the world as one of their own….     A black flag belonging to the Berlin Maccabi sports federation, of which Zishe Breitbart was honorary president, fluttered throughout the funeral. Telegrams of condolence arrived, and wreaths were laid on the grave by sports associations from Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, and Warsaw.
(Doar Ha-yom, 7 Marheshvan 5686, October 25, 1925)


A version of this article first appeared in Segula Magazine, October 2016, Issue 34.