The Search for Sella Podbielski’s Books

How the National Library of Israel contributes to book provenance research.

I came to the National Library in December, 2017 in search of Sella’s books. Sella Podbielski née Weiss was born in Gostyn in Poland in 1888 and was most likely murdered in Auschwitz. Her books – if they still exist – would be the only surviving items from her possessions.

One of her two sons, the writer Gerhard René Podbielski, left Poland in January 1939 and I have been working for his son since 2015, exploring the family’s tabooed fate.

My autopsy work place in the reading room on 19 December 2017. Photo: Marc Jarzebowski

Sella’s books first came to my attention during an online search in a tangle of digitized microfilms from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington. They were recorded in the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD), established in early 1946 by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the American military government to collect books, manuscripts and archival materials that had been looted, confiscated or taken by the German army under the Nazi government.

In 1947, the organization, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc. (JCR), was founded to deal with the restitution procedure of Jewish property and heirlooms following the Holocaust. Its executive secretary from 1949 to 1952 was the political theorist Hannah Arendt. When the Offenbach Depot was cleared in June 1949, the remaining items from the more than three million volumes which had been handled there, most of which had already been restituted, were transferred to the Central Collecting Point (CCP) Wiesbaden. In Oct 1949 a list of books received from Offenbach was compiled, containing about 45000 books previously owned by private Jewish owners identifiable by signatures, stamps or ex-libris. According to this list, three of the books contained Sella’s signature.

I realized that I was searching for a needle in a haystack as the lists from Offenbach and Wiesbaden named the previous owners of the books but listed no book titles. But it was too early for me to give up. I found out in the NARA microfilms that about 12,000 books from this list were packed in cases and mostly sent to New York and Jerusalem in 1950. I realized that JCR provenances have not been recorded in the library catalogs, even more so the names of the previous owners. My correspondences with library staff showed that not much institutional knowledge of the processes of book distributions in the 1950s has remained.

I was fortunate that Daniel Lipson of Israel National Library was also interested in the books from the JCR and in their stories. He put much effort into responding to my request and he created an excel list with thousands of books, which the National Library had received from the JCR in the 1950s.

It is a reconstruction and – as Lipson puts it – definitely not complete and far from being accurate. But it was something to work with and I decided to work by taking random samples. I chose 40 books written by authors read and appreciated by Sella’s son – this was the only possible lead I had – and requested them into the reading room for an autopsy.

Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) label

Some of them still had the JCR label from Wiesbaden, but in other cases it has fallen off or has been lost during re-binding.

I found stamps, from institutions like the Jewish communities of Dresden and Frankfurt upon Main or the Königsberg Zionist Association, but also of Nazi institutions which had formed libraries mainly from looted books. I also found signatures, and some of such private owner marks can be directly connected to the 1949 list.

Just to give one example: The library’s third copy of Arnold Zweig’s Novellen um Claudia contains the following handwritten entry: Else Ehrlich, Hildesheim, Juli 1921 v. L. Meyerhof (Else Ehrlich, a resident of the city of Hildesheim, has received this book from L. Meyerhof in July 1921).

Signature of Else Ehrlich, Hildesheim in Arnold Zweig’s “Novellen um Claudia”


Else Hildesheim entry in 1949 Wiesbaden list

The Wiesbaden source does not contain the name Else Ehrlich, but lists one book from the possession of a Hildesheim Ehrlich. Evidently the person in charge could not decipher Else or simply forgot to include the given name in the list and put Hildesheim into the column for the given name instead of the place column.

As much research is being done on the victims of the Nazi terror, it took me only five minutes and a few clicks to find out about the deportation of Else Ehrlich from Hildesheim in April 1942 into Warsaw Ghetto. Her date and place of death are unknown, but this one book – and maybe more – has survived and we can hold it physically in our hands.

Book provenance research is – in the shadow of art provenance research – still quite a young discipline, but many public libraries in Germany have started to check their stocks for looted items and to document their previous owners, for example in the cooperative looted cultural assets database, with six – so far – participating institutions such as the Free University Berlin Library.

I did not find Sella’s books. But I found books from the possession of people who shared her fate. And with the help of Daniel Lipson I found a way to regain knowledge which had been lost over the decades in the shut library stacks. Ten matches out of the 40 books I have checked and compared with the 1949 list is a promising quota, but it is only just the start.

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.

The Story of a Dying Community: A Diary from the Amsterdam Jewish Community at the End of WWII

An anonymous Jew describes the last months of World War II in Amsterdam. This city, once a large and vibrant Jewish center, turns into a ghost town before his eyes, while he and a handful of Jews try against all odds to survive.

In the pages of a diary, we come face to face with the perseverance of an anonymous author and his fellow survivors who, even in the most difficult of times, work to give their fellow community members a decent burial. Hidden between the lines of this unknown writer’s diary is the story of their great strength and bravery as the writer prays for one thing: “That peace will come soon so that I may finish writing this diary and present it to the community secretary. Amen. So be it.”

But who is the author? What happened to him? We have no answers to these questions. Perhaps our readers will help us discover his identity.

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish population of The Netherlands numbered approximately 140,000. The mass deportations of Jews to the concentration camps began in mid-1942 and continued until the end of 1944. In less than two years more than 100,000 Dutch Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazis.

This anonymous diary, which we are presenting here for the first time, offers a detailed, first-hand account of the final months of the war at a time when very few had survived the liquidation of Amsterdam’s Jewish community. In these few pages, we are exposed to the courage of those who survived.

“Nothing could prevent us from burying the dead”

One of the subjects that the writer describes at length is the great difficulty of burying the dead. At that time, it was impossible to get hold of a horse and wagon or any vehicle for transporting the dead and it was nearly impossible to find wood for a casket. Nevertheless, this writer, with the help of a few remaining friends, made enormous efforts to overcome those difficulties.

“Nothing could prevent us from burying the dead,” writes this survivor in his diary.

He describes one incident in January 1945, when the snow was so high that “it was impossible to remove the dead.” He writes an update two months later, that he was able to procure a hand-wagon on which to lay the bodies and bring them to burial.

“I hope that peace will come soon”

These were indeed the last days of the war, but the reality, as noted, was extremely harsh. The writer describes in brief the events unfolding around him in the Jewish neighborhood that was almost completely uninhabited. One day the windows of the Jewish orphanage were shattered and another day citizens broke into the abandoned homes of the Jews in order to take their furniture to use for firewood. The heavy snow had collapsed the roof of the synagogue, and by the end of January the writer prayed for just one thing: “I hope that peace will come soon so that I may finish writing this diary and give it to the community secretary. Amen. So be it.”


In the midst of all this horror, we learn about a few people who somehow tried to live their lives. In entries written at the end of 1944, the writer tells that the few remaining people tried to gather in the Great Synagogue and adjacent study house but were prohibited from doing so. He also tells of how the Jews, who numbered less than the ten necessary for a prayer quorum, decided to gather for communal prayer in a private home. He also describes a pleasant coffee break enjoyed by all.

Help us solve the mystery of the author’s identity:

It is difficult to determine the identity of the writer who chronicled the lasts glimmers of Jewish life in Amsterdam on the eve of liberation, but there is no doubt that he survived the war as he continued to write up to, and even after that day. The only clue in the diary that may help identify him is the information that he was “appointed in place of Jacobson.” We know nothing about this Jacobson, except that he was in all probability an Ashkenazi Jew, and that he was sent “to the East” on 3 September 1944.

Feel free to browse the rest of the pages of the diary presented here and perhaps you – the readers – and especially members of the Dutch community, will help us to solve the riddle of the author’s identity.

Update: Has the identity of the author been discovered?

In November 2018, we received an email from one of our readers, Yochai Copenhagen, who wrote to us on behalf of his mother Channa who is 94 years old. Yochai wrote as follows:

“We tried to go over the diary and based on the bit we managed to read (and the information included in the article), my mother has a good feeling (though she is not certain of course), that the man in question is Mr. Salomon Coutinho who was the administrative director in the Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) in Amsterdam before, during, and even after the war. He left behind no children when he died. My mother remembers that her husband, may his memory be a blessing, (Yakov Copenhagen, my father) who in the 1960s was a librarian in the Etz Haim Library in the community. He met Salomon and learned about his background. Yakov told her that Coutinho was an undertaker during the years of the war and survived the war (even I met him after the war during my childhood) thanks to his wife who succeeded in convincing the Nazis that she was English or not Jewish. With this explanation in hand, the couple managed to travel freely in Amsterdam and was not forced into hiding (the diary shows that he continued to work as an undertaker even during with winter of 1944 when most of the Jews were already deported to concentration camps. The dead seem to be Jews who died in hiding. Some of the names of the dead listed are familiar to my mother).

At the request of Yochai and Channa, we have sent them a high-quality scan of the diary. With this, maybe- just maybe- as Yochai wrote, “we will find more clues.”

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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