The Hero from Třebíč Who Saved 900 Children During the Holocaust

The annual Shamayim festival held in Třebíč honors Antonín Kalina who was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp

It is the only Jewish site included on the UNESCO world heritage list that is not in Israel. It was almost demolished during the time of the communist regime and was saved in part thanks to another minority that lived there after the Jews left or perished.

Třebíč or Trebitsch is a town in the Czech Republic with a unique, well preserved former Jewish quarter. Unfortunately, this rich Jewish community was destroyed during World War II and the later regimes did not really support any religion – especially not after the war. However, locals still call that part of the town “Židy,” a word that means Jews, or “v Židech,” meaning in the Jewish area, despite the fact that the area boasts a different official name.

Postcard of a Street in the Jewish Quarter of Třebíč, The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This hidden gem was rediscovered in the late 1980s and reconstruction and repairs have since begun. One of the uncovered synagogues was used at one point as a warehouse to store leathers. Later on, it would house fruits and vegetables. As a result, the restorers had no shortage of work to do.

Nowadays the quarter draws all kinds of tourists, not just those looking for traces of Jewish history. Many cultural festivals and events are held in the area, the most famous of these is the festival of Jewish culture known as “Samajim,” pronounced “Shamayim” (Heavens, in English), which is held every year at the end of July and beginning of August. The former Jewish quarter becomes full of life again during this week-long festival. There are lectures about Jewish traditions, history, and literature, as well as concerts by a variety of bands from Central and Eastern Europe. You can also taste a range of traditional Jewish delicacies. Some of the faces become familiar as people return year after year.

The Jewish Cemetery of Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The festival is dedicated to a man named Antonín Kalina. Antonín was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations after his death in 2012 for his heroic work during the Holocaust.

Kalina, who was born in Třebíč in 1902 became a member of the communist party in 1923. Due to his political activism, he was arrested in 1939 by the Nazis and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. A month later he was transferred to Buchenwald.

Antonín Kalina

With the help of the underground movement in the camp, Kalina risked his own life to help the children of Buchenwald. He worked to relocate the children from their barracks on the other side of the camp to his. The Nazis avoided this area for fear of catching disease after Kalina put up a sign reading, “Danger: Typhoid.” He managed to bring food and clothing to the children he had smuggled away and protected them from the harsh conditions of the camp as much as possible until the end of the war.

Kalina is credited with saving 900 children in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Following the war and his release from the camp, Kalina returned to his hometown of Třebíč where he lived until his death in 1990.

Program for the 2018 Samajim (Shamayim) Festival, Courtesy of Domina Sedlakova

Naftali Furst is one of the many children who owes his life to Antonín Kalina and he attended this year’s Samajim festival to honor his memory. Naftali was born in Slovakia but he left to move to Israel after the Second World War. Speaking in Slovak tinged with a slight Hebrew accent, he spoke in memory of Antonín Kalina. He told of how the children would “cook” in the barracks in Buchenwald. This activity did not consist of any actual food. Rather, the children would simply share memories of their favorite dishes and deserts, with one boy preferring poppy seed cake and another recalling cakes topped with apples or nuts. They all hoped to taste them again after the war.

Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The week-long festival came to a close with a concert in tribute to the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, being celebrated this year. The concert featured a chorus of thirty-five people from all over Slovakia and some parts of the Czech Republic, with people joining together to dance in the restored synagogue.  After the concert, the audience was invited to continue the festivities outside in the Romanesque-gothic basilica from the 13th century near the Jewish quarter.

This was the 15th iteration of the festival and we look forward to next years’ experience. We hope you can join us to learn more about the rich Jewish heritage here – as they say, Shana Haba’ah B’Třebíč – Next year in Třebíč!

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 in cooperation with Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies.

The Brothers Polyakov: From the Shtetls of Poland to Russian Nobility

Yakov Polyakov was a rare breed. Luckily for us, this fascinating figure also kept a diary.

Yakov Polyakov, The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the NLI

It could easily have been a Chekhov play or a novel by Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Polyakov. Their lives certainly provided enough drama.

Yakov, one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons, was the oldest of the three brothers Polyakov, all prominent Russian bankers and industrialists. His diary, preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, was recently published online, all made possible thanks to the hard work of the volunteers of the Russian-based project “Prozhito.” Spanning forty-three years and searchable by year, this chronicle reflects the daily anxieties and joys of a wealthy Jewish businessman in 19th-century Russia.

The Brothers Polyakov

The Polyakov family originated in the shtetl of Dubrovno (today’s Belarus), to which Yakov’s grandfather had moved from Poland in 1783. Hence the name “Polyakov”- the Russified version of the Jewish family name “Polyak,” meaning Pole. The three brothers spread throughout Russia: Samuil lived in St. Petersburg, Lazar in Moscow, and Yakov in distant Taganrog, where he represented the Polyakov’s interests in the south.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Yakov’s diary meticulously notes his trips, meetings, and family matters. Though his records are often short and sketchy, with many featuring no more than one line, they number more than four thousand entries. Polyakov’s Russian is somewhat clumsy and grammatically problematic. One of his jottings explains why:

“As soon as we moved from Dubrovna to Orsha, Mother set about organizing our schooling and education at home. This was quite unusual for the time, as there was nothing but heders and melamdim, and nobody had any thought or hope of learning even the slightest Russian or arithmetic. When we moved, I was twelve, my brother Samuil was ten, and my brother Lazar only three. Mother found a teacher who was considered highly educated and therefore not quite trusted to be religious enough (a Jewish communal requirement for every melamed).”

Yakov launched his incredible career by joining his brothers in the railway business. They supervised the construction of the Kursk-Kharkov-Sevastopol and Voronezh-Rostov lines. In 1870, Yakov opened a trading house and established a coal mine on his estate. The mine, he claimed, ended Russia’s reliance on expensive English coal to power its steamships in the Black and Azov Seas.  The Polyakov brothers subsequently founded several banks including the Azov-Don commercial bank (in St. Petersburg), Donskoy Land Bank (in Taganrog), and the St. Petersburg-Azov Commercial Bank.

In the early 1890s, Yakov and Lazar branched out to Iran, building railways and investing in trade, industry, and banking under the aegis of the Russian government.

As the first general consul of Persia in St. Petersburg, Yakov was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Lion and the Sun for his services to the Shah. He tried parlaying this honor into a Russian baronial title (as the famous Günzburg family had with their German baronial rank), but without success.

Yakov’s diary testifies to his wealth as well as his philanthropic initiatives. In 1896 he bought his wife, Amalia, a villa in Biarritz (in the south of France, playground of Europe’s rich and famous) for 130,000 francs. Before investing in his own villa, he spearheaded the building of a synagogue in the resort, donating generously to bring the project to fruition. On Rosh Hashana eve of 1895, Yakov noted with satisfaction:

“All suited well for prayer and table. We invited Brodsky, but he arranged everything separately! Showed his wealth, what he is capable of. I donated two thousand francs for the construction of the synagogue in Biarritz. Lazar Solomonovich also donated two thousand, Brodsky three thousand, so the beginning is set. May God help finish it!”

The synagogue in Biarritz, built at Yakov’s initiative, postcard from 1910.

The synagogue was inaugurated in August 1904.

Persecuted Tycoons

Despite Yakov’s wealth, his actions were in some ways as limited as Russian Jewry’s as a whole. When his parents lost their sight and needed daily assistance, he couldn’t get permits for relatives to come live with them in Moscow:

“Unfortunately, the assistants for Father weren’t given permission [to reside with him]. It’s painful to see [my parents] disabled. Mother is completely blind. Father is partially blind. And they cannot have two of their kin look after them? It hurts, but what can be done?”

Five years earlier, all Jewish craftsmen were expelled from Moscow. That Passover, Yakov called the decree “[…] woeful for the Jews. All the newspapers are cruelly exaggerating, ridiculing, and defaming [them], happy to see [Jews] thrown out onto the streets.”

Yet there were bright spots too. In late 1897, despite rising anti-Semitism, Yakov and Lazar were awarded hereditary noble titles, making them one of Russia’s very few noble Jewish families. Their relatives in the countryside, however, still couldn’t leave the Pale of Settlement. Russian Jewish life was in constant flux, with changing regulations constantly making their lives more difficult until the revolution of February 1917. The provisional government that replaced the monarchy finally abolished all anti-Jewish laws making Jews equal citizens.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

On the Brink

Yakov’s business practices were criticized – perhaps sometimes deservedly – but there were also anti-Semitic outbursts. The following citation, from a note on Yakov Polyakov and the Jews of southern Russia received by the state comptroller’s office in the late 1880’s:

“The Jews of the Pryazovye district [straddling Ukraine and Russia’s Rostov Oblast], which has always been full of Greeks and Armenians, could never engage permanently in any trade but alcohol, until the Jew Ya. S. Polyakov arrived there to build the Kharkov-Azov and Voronezh-Rostov railroads.

Having constructed these railroads in ramshackle fashion using government-guaranteed bonds, this Polyakov remains the owner of the entire stock (also government-guaranteed) of both railroads, making him their true master […].

Along with Polyakov, his many relatives and masses of Jews came to the region and settled there, exploiting his protection for a variety of geschefts [funny business] and tricks at the locals’ expense, all while evading our every law restricting Jewish rights.”

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives fo the History of the Jewish People

Considering their modest background, the brothers Polyakov achieved a great deal. Samuil died young, leaving his family a substantial inheritance. Yakov and Lazar, however, lost most of their fortunes in Russia’s economic crisis at the turn of the 20th century. Yakov spent his final years in Biarritz until his death in 1909. His two daughters, who lived in his French residence after his death, perished in the Holocaust.

Special thanks to Olga Lempert for translating the diary entries from Russian to English. 

This post was originally published in Segula, The Jewish History Magazine, Issue 97, June 2018.

Love Songs From a Poet Who Was Banned From Publication

The poet Dorian, a doctor by profession, devoted his entire collection to his daughter and published it as his first book under the name "Poems to Lelioara," in 1923.

Emil Dorian with his wife Paula (nee Fränkel) and their daughters towards the end of the 1920s

In the framework of the routine catalog activity of the National Library, a special item was recently unearthed from the Collection of Jewish Romanian Intellectuals’ Private Papers. This item sheds new light on the literary activity of one of Romania’s Jewish poets and writers. The 1920’s notebook was used for drafting the first book of poems by the poet and novelist Emil Lustig, who published his works under the pseudonym “Dorian,” which became later his official family name. This archival material contains most of the poems that were published in Dorian’s first book.

Often it catches me a moment of miss
As I still was floating in soft dreams
And you stretched your wing just
To get down in tranquility to us.
I’d like to feel the thrill then
Of those cruel hopes
To be crushed by sorrow again
And to struggle in remorse.
And picking up an armful of stars
To love you more than bold,
Entering into my songs
As into a cradle of gold.
(Translated from Romanian by Shaul Greenstein)


Ades mă prinde un dor de clipă
Când mai pluteam în visuri moi
Şi tu de-abea’ntindeai aripa
Ca să cobori senin la noi.
Aş vrea să simt atunci fiorul
Acelei crunte aşteptări
Să mă zdrobească iarăşi dorul
Şi să mă zbat în remuşcări.
Şi culegând un braţ de stele
Ca să te’ndrăgostesc mai viu,
Să intri’n cântecele mele
Ca într’un legăn auriu.
(The three stanzas of the poem “Longings” by Emil Dorian)

The poet Dorian, a doctor by profession, expressed his longing for the birth of his eldest daughter, Lilia, whom he called Lelioara through the medium of poetry. Dorian devoted the entire collection to his daughter and published it as his first book under the name “Poems to Lelioara,” in 1923.

The poem collection “Poems to Lelioara” published as a book in 1923
The draft-manuscript of 1920 that is to find at the National Library Archives and which is a part of Collection of Jewish Romanian Intellectuals’ Private Papers.

Along with corrections, deletions and additional poems that have not yet been published, this manuscript of poems contains illustrations and poems dedicated to the poet’s wife, Paula. Dorian bridged his tendency to artistic writing and his delivery as a physician and also wrote books in a popular vulgar style on medicine and sexuality.

The poem “Longings” (on the left) from the draft manuscript “Poems for Lelioara”.

Young Dorian was drafted into the Romanian army during the First World War, but it was during World War II, at the time of the fascist reign of Marshal Antonescu, that his works were marked as Jewish works and were banned.

A page dedicated to his wife Paula from the draft-manuscript “Poems to Lelioara”.

Pages from the draft-manuscript “Poems to Lelioara.”
The poem “The Bathing” (on the left) in its non-final version of the collection “Poems to Lelioara” 1920. This song was published separately in the Romanian National newspaper “Gândirea” around its founding in 1921 

 As a poet, Dorian was once again launched to fame two and a half decades after his death in 1973 when two of his diaries were published. These diaries brought to light the Romanian Jewry’s confrontation with rising anti-Semitism from the late 1930s until Dorian’s death in 1956.

When Anti-Semitism Forced a Champion Jewish Boxer to Throw in the Towel

Motzi Spakow was a prize-winning boxer in Romania for many years until he was forced to give up his title after he was attacked by a mob during a match.

Romanian Jewish boxer Motzi (Moți) Spakov and Chief Rabbi of Romania, Rabbi Dr. Jacob Itzhak Niemirower

Motzi Spakow, the undisputed boxing champion in Romania between 1927 and 1940, was forced to give up his title following an anti-Semitic incident in the Romanian boxing scene, where at one of the many competitions he participated in, he was physically attacked by a nationalist crowd.

“I, who fought from the bottom of my heart for Romania in France, Poland, and other countries, am no longer considered as a physical, genuine Romanian in my own fatherland, against that I can no longer fight… I renounce the title and wich that my successor may defend the Romanian flag with the same enthusiasm that I have for the last nine years.” 

Quotations from Spakow’s letter to the Romanian Boxing Federation in the report of the Jewish Telegram Intelligence of September 1936. (Jewish Telegraph Agency – Sept. 18th, 1936)

In October of 1936, just a month after giving up his title, Spakow asked the Chief Rabbi of Romania, Rabbi Jacob Itzhak Niemirower, for financial support and spiritual guidance on immigrating to the Land of Israel where he hoped to acquire the right equipment and train so he could continue his profession as a boxer.

“After nine years of winning the boxing championships, I was forced to give up my position under the circumstances that are known to you, and in light of my current situation, I decided to leave for Eretz Israel, the Holy Land, in order to achieve better results for my efforts than those I achieved in Romania.”

Spakow’s letter to the first Chief Rabbi of Romania, Dr. Jacob Itzhak Niemirower. from the Collection of Jewish Romanian Intellectuals’ Private Papers at the National Library.

 Rabbi Niemirower was himself a victim of an anti-Semitic attempted murder in early 1936, and he later died in 1939.

Rabbi Niemirower waving from the window of his house after an assassination attempt against him, on January 11th, 1936. This archival item was deposited in the National Library a few years after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Spakow managed to maintain his position in Romania until Antonescu’s fascist rule was established in 1940. After that, he was definitively banned from performing in the arena as a Jewish athlete. He immigrated to Israel in 1947 but failed in his efforts to develop the sport of boxing in the Holy Land.

Spakow left Israel for Australia, wherein 1980, he died at the age of 74.

“Muscle Judaism” – What didn’t work?

Another interesting archival item was found in the collection of publications of the National Library – an essay entitled “Physical Education and Sport” by Ignatz Weiss, which may provide a partial explanation for Sapakow’s failure in his attempts to build up the sport of boxing in the Holy Land. The essay deals with the renaissance of Jewish sport as a goal of self-realization, in which the author distinguishes between two types of sports: one for the sake of physical health, and the other for the purpose of competition.

Ignatz Weiss’s theoretical essay, “Sport and Physical Education,” published in the Jewish-Romanian Almanac of 1939-1938

Weiss brings the example of Samson the hero and King David as proof of the importance of physical fitness and competition in Jewish society in ancient times. He also draws attention to the concept of “Muscle Judaism,” Max Nordau’s vision of the need to establish Jewish sports clubs, an idea that Nordau presented during his speech at the Second Jewish Congress in 1898.

Remarkably, even before the start of Jewish Emancipation, the boxing industry had many successful Jewish representatives but Jewish society was not yet enthusiastic about this sport or about the achievements of Spakow and his colleagues.

Weiss admitted in his article that, even after four decades, the innovations of the Zionist Congress in Basel had not yet reached the consciousness of the Jewish public:

“Unfortunately, today, the interest of Jewish society in Jewish sports is not directly proportional to the aspirations of sports representatives in physical education.”

Weiss concluded:

The athletic youth is the commitment to the Jewish future…Only the youth trained in sports, who have been prepared with this dedication can lead Judaism to the desired calm. Even if it sounds paradoxally, but the march to a happier and more peaceful Jewish future is through sports

The Jewish Almanac for the year 5699 (1938-1939), which includes about 19 articles and essays by Jewish authors and thinkers in Romanian, Hungarian and German.


Article on the Viennese “Hakoach”  swimmers Hedy Bienenfeld and Fritzi Löwy

Article on the Viennese “Hakoach” athlete Alfred König and his mysterious identity as Ali Ferit Gören