Natan Sharansky’s First Seder

The Haggadah's words were felt as KGB agents surrounded them. Later he would "celebrate" Passover in the Gulag

Natan and Avital Sharansky upon their arrival in Israel, 12 February 1986 (Photo: Israel Simionsky). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

I was born into a completely assimilated Jewish family.

Nothing Jewish, except the anti-Semitism. No traditions, no holidays, no language.

At 24, I joined the Zionist movement. We struggled to free the Jews of the Soviet Union. As part of my Zionist activities, I began to learn Hebrew in secret, in an underground ulpan.

Natan Sharansky, 1972

I celebrated the first Passover Seder of my life with my fiancé at the time, Avital (then Natasha), in Moscow. Three Hebrew teachers brought all of their students together for one big Seder in a Moscow apartment.

As we didn’t know Hebrew well enough to read from the Haggadah, the teachers gave each of us a short part to memorize. We didn’t understand many of the words, expressions or sentences, yet one line in particular we didn’t just understand… we felt:

…ela sh’bkhol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’khaloteinu” – “in each generation, they stand against us to destroy us…”

It was enough to simply look out the window and see the KGB agents surrounding the apartment to know that we ourselves were continuing the Exodus from Egypt.

And when we said, “L’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”, we believed and knew that just like the Israelites in Egypt, we too would live lives of freedom.

Before that freedom came, Avital and I would be separated from one another for twelve years.

For nine of them, I was in the Gulag.

Avital Sharansky, 1977

When I celebrated the Seder in solitary confinement, I needed to decide what would be matzah, what would be maror and what would be wine, when all I had in solitary were three slices of bread, three cups of warm water and a bit of salt.

I decided that the maror was salt, the wine was warm water, and the matzah was dry bread.

Recalling the lines I had learned for my first Seder, I felt that our struggle continued. It strengthened my spirit.

B’Shana zo anu avadim l’shana ha’baa bnei horin, ha’shana anu kan uv’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim” – “This year we are slaves, next year free men; this year we are here, and next year in Jerusalem.”

A crowd celebrates Natan Sharansky’s arrival at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 12 February 1986 (Photo: Efi Sharir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Natan Sharansky Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

A Brief Blinken Family History: From Pereiaslav to DC and Back

US secretary of state's immigrant ancestor was a trailblazing Yiddishist, as well as a carpenter and masseuse

Der Kibitzer, a Yiddish publication dedicated to "Fun, Humor and Satire", was one of a number of periodicals that published Meir Blinken's work in the early 20th century (Image: Caricature published in Der Kibbitzer on July 29, 1909, from the National Library of Israel Digital Collection; Photos of Meir and Antony Blinken / Public Domain)

In 2014, Antony (Tony) Blinken guided the American response to civil unrest in Ukraine, yet the U.S. secretary of state’s roots connecting him to the region run much deeper.


The Blinkens of Ukraine

Tony Blinken’s great-grandfather, Meir Blinken, was born in 1879 in Pereiaslav, the birthplace of the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, not far from Kyiv. During his childhood, Meir had a Jewish education at the Talmud-Torah, a religious elementary school.

Synagogue in Pereiaslav-Khmel’nyts’kyi, built ca. 1900 (Photo: Ukrzakhidprojectrestavratsiia, CJA). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In the late 1890s, Meir studied at the Kyivan Commercial College, which was built as part of a joint educational project undertaken by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. The college’s main sponsor was the Kyivan millionaire and philanthropist Lev Brodsky.

In Kyiv, Meir Blinken became a master cabinetmaker, carpenter, and even massage therapist.

His son, Moritz (1900–1986), Tony’s grandfather, who would become a prominent American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kyiv.

If Ukraine would like to present a souvenir to the next U.S. secretary of state, it could be the recently discovered archival documents about his ancestors: civil registration records from the book of the Rabbinate of Pereiaslav and Kyiv for Meir and Moritz, as well as the Blinken family page from the document collection of the 1897 Kyiv census.


Crossing the Atlantic

When Meir was 25 years old, he and his young family moved to the U.S., a tiny drop in the flood of 105,000 Jews who arrived in America in 1904.

There he opened a private massage office on East Broadway.

This district was filled with the bustling life and Yiddish culture of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side had the highest concentration of Jews on the planet: 300,000 Jews occupying one square mile.

Postcard of New York’s Lower East Side, ca. 1906. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Dr. Mordechai Yushkovsky, academic director of the International Yiddish Center at the World Jewish Congress, told the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that Meir Blinken mostly wrote short satirical sketches for the Yiddish satirical journal Der Kibetzer, for example, a feuilleton about a writer who swamps all Yiddish-language newspapers in America with his texts, whenever a new publication appears.


Trailblazing Yiddishist

Blinken portrayed the real world of Jewish immigrants: the poverty and lack of food, unhygienic conditions, religious superstitions, the lack of education, a lack of understanding of the new country, and the desire to find one’s place in it.

Incidentally, the editorial offices of Der Kibitzer were located 400 meters from today’s Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where in the building dating to that period you can see the reconstructed world of Jewish immigrants with all the accompanying difficulties of life in this New York City “ghetto”.

Masthead of Der Kibitzer from the June 11, 1909 issue, which featured an article by Meir Blinken. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His essays and short stories were also published in socialist and left-wing Zionist periodicals, including Chicago’s Der Yidisher Arbeter Velt (Jewish Labor World).

In 1908, Meir Blinken published his book Weiber (Women), a poem in prose, in London. In this work, as well as in his short stories, the young writer – one of the first Yiddish writers to raise the subject of women’s sexuality – writes about marital infidelity, abortion, and sexual desire.

In 1965, the literary critic Dovid Shub noted that Meir Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex.


The ancestral home’s fate

Meir always signed his name as Blinkin, but his descendants changed one letter, and the name became Blinken. Even on the headstone of the prematurely deceased 36-year-old writer (d. 1915),  his children wrote his name as Blinken.

In the opinion of Professor Wolf Moskovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading Israeli Slavist and member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, Blinken’s Jewish surname means that the founder of the family arrived in Kyiv gubernia from the village of Blinki, which was then in Nevel County, Vitebsk gubernia (today’s Belarus).

In Ukraine, there is no settlement with such a name.

It is interesting to note that Nevel is legendary among Hasidim, who belong to the Chabad movement. In the nineteenth century, the town of Nevel and the surrounding district were a stronghold of Hasidic learning.

In 1927, the communist government seized Nevel raion from Belarus and ceded it to Russia. Thus, today the village of Blinki is located on the territory of the Russian Federation, even though it is only two kilometers from the border with Belarus.

Nevel, 2016 (Photo: Vladimir Levin). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel

Between the censuses of 2001 and 2010, the population of the village of Blinki decreased from twelve to ten inhabitants. The irony is that if the incoming U.S. state of secretary decides to visit the village from whose name his surname is derived, he will probably find his ancestral home completely deserted.


A version of this article was originally published by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Less Famous Scholem? Meet Gershom’s Brother, Werner

The renowned Kabbalah scholar's brother chose a very different path, at one point leading the German Communist Party

Gershom Scholem, who was born in Berlin in 1897, had three older brothers. The closest in age, and his closest friend of the three, was Werner, born in 1895.

Gershom Scholem (first from left) with his three brothers, dressed up in “Oriental” garb. According to Scholem’s handwritten description on the back of the photo, it was taken at the wedding of their “Zionist uncle”, Theobald Scholem. From the National Library of Israel archives

Quite a bit has been written about Werner, who eventually became the head of the German Communist Party and was murdered by the Nazis in Buchenwald in 1940. I once heard Prof. Mirjam Zadoff, the author of “Werner Scholem: a German Life”, say that “there was a time when Werner was the famous Scholem”!

In fact there is even a documentary film about him.

Werner Scholem giving a speech at “Anti-War Day” in Potsdam, Germany, 1925. From the private archive of his daughter, Renee Goddard, London

In 1911 or 1912 Werner joined the German Zionist youth movement “Jung Juda”, and convinced his younger brother Gershom (then Gerhardt) to do the same. The brothers’ Zionism was not to the liking of their semi-assimilated book-publisher father Arthur, and from then on the conflicts with the domineering patriarch continued to grow, culminating with the boys’ activism against the First World War.

Through his involvement in Jung Juda, Gershom became a Zionist activist and began his deep involvement in Jewish studies in general, and in Kabbalah in particular. In 1923 he emigrated to Palestine to become the head of the Judaica Department of the Jewish National Library (now the National Library of Israel), then headed by Professor Hugo Bergmann.

Werner’s trajectory was quite different. Within a year of Jung Juda he decided that Zionism was not for him and joined the youth movement of the Social Democrats. From there he moved further and further left politically. In 1917 he married a young working class political activist named Emmy, who was not Jewish, and the couple had two daughters.

The weddings of the Scholem brothers (“Betty’s children”) appearing in the Scholem family Bible. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1924 Werner was elected to the Reichstag as a representative of the Communist Party. There, as well as in the right wing press, he suffered from many base anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually anti-Semitism made its way into the party as well, as Stalin consolidated his leadership over international Communism. Scholem and his (mostly Jewish) comrades were accused of being Trotskyites and “ultra-leftists” and were expelled from the Party.

In the following years, Scholem actually did work with Trotsky, but eventually left politics and became a lawyer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 they well remembered the young Jewish former Communist leader and Werner was immediately arrested, and ultimately murdered in 1940.

Emmy and their two daughters managed to escape to England. In 2012 I was privileged to meet the younger daughter, Renee Goddard, while at a conference in London marking thirty years since the passing of Gershom Scholem. During the seven years of Werner’s incarceration, his family made great efforts to have him freed, but to no avail.

In light of Werner’s personal history, I was quite surprised to discover that in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a copy of Prof. Solomon Schechter’s German book on Hasidism, Die Chassidim: Eine Studie Ueber Juedische Mystik (Berlin 1904), with Werner’s signature!

Werner had apparently purchased the book at the famous Berlin Jewish bookstore of Moritz Poppelauer (1824-1888), a well-known antique collector and publisher, who also authored an introduction to the Talmud. The bookshop, which continued to be operated by the family until the Nazis came to power, was not far from the Scholem home and Gershom purchased books there, as well.

When did Werner purchase this small volume on Hasidism? At what stage of his Jewish and/or political development?

Unfortunately, all we know for sure is that by 1923, Gershom already owned the book, as it appears on the inventory he prepared of his library in preparation for his move to the Land of Israel.

But when did Werner gift him the book and why?

Was it early on, in order to bring his younger brother closer to Judaism? Or perhaps at a later stage when Werner became a communist? At that point he may have decided that the volume was no longer meaningful for him, but that for his brother, the young scholar of Jewish mysticism, it would be important. Alas, to this question as well we have no answer.

As with Gershom Scholem, so too with Werner – sometimes the hidden is greater than the revealed. Sadly, today no one remains for us to ask. All that we have is their books, those they wrote or acquired, as a silent testimony to their fascinating lives.

Lost Letter on Zionism from ‘Father of the Chinese Nation’ Surfaces

Century-old message from Dr. Sun Yat-sen found at the National Library of Israel now online

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of pre-Communist era China: "All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation…"

On April 24, 1920, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the pre-Communist era leader venerated until today as the father of the Chinese nation, expressed his strong support for Zionism, calling it “one of the greatest movements of the present time.”

The words were written in a letter sent to N.E.B. Ezra, an influential writer and publisher, and founder of the Shanghai Zionist Association.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, 1911

Dr. Sun Yat-sen served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China, established in 1912 following the fall of the last imperial dynasty, prior to the Chinese Civil War and Communist Revolution. While his support of Zionism is well-documented and the letter’s text was previously known, the original signed copy has only now been rediscovered, over a century after it was written.

According to Prof. Gao Bei, an expert on Shanghai’s 20th century Jewish community, “It is very exciting that this original letter from Sun Yat-sen to N.E.B. Ezra has been unearthed. It is one of the seminal documents that illuminates the Chinese Nationalist government’s early support for the Zionist cause.”

It appears here online for the first time.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen expresses his support for Zionism in a letter sent to N.E.B. Ezra, 24 April 1920. From the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Full text of the letter:

29 Rue Moliere,

24 April.1920.

Mr. N. E. B. Ezra,



Dear Mr. Ezra:

I have read you [sic] letter and the copy of “Israel’s Messenger” with much interest, and wish to assure you of my sympathy for this movement – which is one of the greatest movements of the present time. All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserve [sic] an honorable place in the family of nations.

                                     I am,

                                              Yours very truly,

                                                                 [Sun Yat-sen]


History revealed

The letter has surfaced as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in its archival collections, including personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of the 20th century’s most prominent figures. The initiative is part of the National Library’s current renewal, which includes the 2022 opening of its new landmark campus adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem.

Simulated image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

Recently reviewed internal National Library documentation indicates that the letter has been in its collections since at least 1938, but was never included in the public catalogue available to external scholars until now.

How exactly the letter got to the Library remains a mystery, though according to NLI archivist Rachel Misrati, “N.E.B. Ezra passed away in 1936. The fact that the letter arrived in 1938 at latest indicates that – like many Zionist figures of the period – Ezra himself may have bequeathed it to the Library, or perhaps someone came across it after his death and sent it to us after determining that the National Library was its rightful home.”

Photo of N.E.B. Ezra published in The Jewish Tribune, 21 December 1917. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in Lahore (modern-day Pakistan), Ezra was a Jewish scholar, writer, publisher and activist who lived most of his life in Shanghai. In addition to founding the Shanghai Zionist Association, he edited its mouthpiece, Israel’s Messenger, for decades. Though far removed from the main centers of Jewish life and Zionist activity, Ezra made his voice heard by distributing his newspaper globally, and submitting for publication letters and articles on a range of topics including the Jews of China, Zionism, Kabbalah and current events.


Warm relations

Dr. Sun Yat-sen and other members of the Chinese leadership had warm relations with local and international Jewish communities and figures, many of them cultivated during years of exile prior to the ultimate fall of the Qing dynasty. Just one example was Sun’s colorful personal bodyguard and senior adviser, Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, a Polish-born Jew and an ardent Zionist.

Nonetheless, Sun was certainly not the first or only prominent Chinese figure at the time to publicly support the Zionist movement, with such support stemming from both ideological and practical considerations.

Both Dr. Sun Yat-sen (seated) and Chiang Kai-shek expressed their support for Zionism

In her book Shanghai Sanctuary, Prof. Gao explains that already in 1918, Chen Lu, the Chinese government in Beijing’s vice minister of foreign affairs, wrote a letter to Shanghai Zionist Association chairman Elly S. Kadoorie expressing “personal sympathy” for the movement and that following the Balfour Declaration, “the Chinese government had adopted the same attitude toward the Zionist aspirations as the British…”

After Sun’s death, N.E.B. Ezra and another representative of the Shanghai Zionist Association attended his state burial at the invitation of the Chinese government, further demonstrating that the connection was more than just a personal one.

The state burial of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, 1929

Why English?

It may seem somewhat surprising that Sun’s letter to Ezra – sent from one Shanghai resident to another – would be written in English.

Yet, according to Prof. Gao, Sun and many other Chinese Nationalist officials during that period were educated in English and were known to employ it as their language of communication, such that even “much of their official correspondence with each other [was] in English.”

It was also certainly in Ezra’s interest that the letter be written in English, so that he could publicize it internationally, which he did, including publication of the letter’s contents in Israel’s Messenger.

Fortunately, the language of the letter also now enables a broad global audience to read it in the original, more than a century after it was written.


Many thanks to Prof. Gao Bei and Rachel Misrati for their expertise and assistance.