Was the Giving Tree Simply Spineless?

Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree" sold millions of copies around the world, but it was also a target of harsh reviews. What is it about this minimalist book that evokes such conflicting feelings and what did its creator have to say about it? And perhaps we can all learn from success instead of arguing with it

Shel Silverstein (photo: Jerry Yulsman 1964) and the cover of the Hebrew edition of "The Giving Tree" (Adam Publishers, 1979)

When 34-year-old Shel Silverstein submitted the illustrated manuscript of The Giving Tree to publishers, it was rejected.

Silverstein was already a well-known writer with several books for adults, a children’s book and even a first album that he wrote and recorded (many more would follow) under his belt, and yet, his latest creative effort was rejected. The reason the publishers gave was that it was not clear whether the book was intended for children or adults and that it would be confusing to readers.

We know how this story ends: Silverstein persevered, the book was published, and the skeptics’ misgivings turned out to be his trump card – the book, bought by adults and children alike, flew off the shelves.

Since then, generations of children have grown up reading The Giving Tree, which was published in 1964 to resounding international success. The Hebrew edition came out in 1979. The book depicts the relationship between a child and an apple tree. The tree gives and the child takes. At first the tree only gives the boy its shade and fruit, but later, when the boy grows up and returns to the tree, it gives him its branches, then its trunk, until there is nothing left but a bare stump. And yet, “the tree was happy”, according to the book’s unforgettable ending.

There is no single explanation for the book’s enormous popularity. Perhaps it is Silverstein’s sharp and clear writing and minimalist, uncluttered illustrations. Or the book’s message about the universal values of generosity, giving, dedication and unconditional love. In the United States, many religious institutions incorporated the book into their curricula, using the story as a model for leading a good, unselfish life. In Israel, the book complemented the values of Zionism and Israeli culture itself – a culture highly influenced by the requirement of military service, which demands immense giving and absolute devotion.

The book has been translated into more than 30 languages, and in 2022, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in the book’s honor.

The stamp issued in 2022 by the US Postal Service in honor of The Giving Tree

However, alongside its enormous success, The Giving Tree was also the target of significant criticism from different directions. One of the main criticisms originated with feminist organizations. In the original English version of the book, the tree was referred to in the feminine tense: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy”. [emphasis YI]

Page from the 1964 edition of The Giving Tree, published by Harper & Row

Silverstein had chosen to imagine the tree in the feminine, which led to the book’s being interpreted as a mother’s absolute sacrifice or as women’s capitulation in the face of male selfishness.

In the Hebrew edition, the tree is referred to as male, but this change was in no way self-evident. Silverstein was very careful about controlling the copyrights and other publishing details of his books (which is why you won’t ever find any of his books in paperback). When the book was translated into Hebrew, a special request was made to refer to the tree in the masculine, due to the fact that nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and a tree is masculine. The request was approved, which is perhaps why criticism of the Hebrew edition was more generalized.

A selection of Silverstein’s books in Hebrew translation, available in at the National Library of Israel. All of them, without exception are in hardcover editions only

Criticism also came from environmentalists who claimed that the book encourages destruction and wanton disregard for the environment. Others voiced concern that it will promote a child’s selfishness if they identify with the child, or self-destructive behavior if they identify with the tree. Author Rivka Galchen wrote in the New York Times: “The boy and the tree are both ‘flawed’, and in the most old-fashioned way, their flaws, which are also their characters, determine their fates”.

Over the last decade, perhaps with the rise of political correctness or the development of more conscious parenting styles, criticism of the book has intensified and given rise to several parodies and alternate versions. Daniel Goldstein created a Hebrew parody called The Polish Tree and American writer Topher Payne came up with another alternate take: The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. Both seem to respond to the anger the book provokes when re-reading it as adults or as young parents, and seeing things in it that we did not see when we read it as children.

Cover of The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. An alternate ending to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, by Topher Payne, part of the “Topher Fixed It” series which provides “parody alternate endings to beloved but problematic children’s literature”

Along with suggestions for discussing the book after reading it to children and asking what they feel and think about it, perhaps it is also worth asking whether we can simply ignore the matter of its political correctness or the messages it conveys. Can it simply be enjoyed as a story? Each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Chicago, Silverstein was a prolific writer, but gave very few interviews throughout his life. He never tried to justify himself or respond to the criticism about his best-known book, The Giving Tree. He let his success speak for itself. In a rare interview from 1975, he summarizes his thoughts about reviews in general: “I think if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received. I never read reviews, because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don’t care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too”. Speaking to the New York Times in 1978, when asked about the meaning of The Giving Tree, Silverstein answered: “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”.

Life Inside the World’s First Ever Ghetto

In 1516, the Venetian Republic changed the course of Jewish world history by opening the first ever Jewish ghetto. Amidst deep persecution, segregation and humiliation, the oppressed Venetian Jews were somehow able to create a thriving society in their enclave, and soon Jews were even attempting to get inside!

Images of the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

If you ever visit Venice, take the train to St. Lucia Railway Station, and cross the scenic bridge in front of you. Turn right onto the Fondamenta de la Misericordia and continue for a couple of minutes. Before long, you’ll start to smell the rich fusions of Jewish and Italian food wafting out of one of the Kosher restaurants. The smell of fried artichokes stuffed with meat and fragrant sardines mix with freshly baked challot and homemade humous, and if you continue to follow your nose into the Jewish quarter, you’ll notice that you’re in a part of Venice quite different from its surroundings. The second sign that you’re in the right place is that you will notice that you’re looking up a lot more – the buildings here are taller than almost any other area in Venice. You will also see how closely packed together they are, and on a rainy day you may even find yourself stranded as the small alleyways fill up with water.

Soon enough you’ll start to recognize various Jewish establishments: a glassblowing workshop carefully molding fragile shofars and chanukiahs, a sweet shop selling traditional Jewish Italian delicacies, a Jewish hotel, a Jewish cultural museum tracing the history of the Venetian Jewish people, and of course, sooner or later you will find at least one of the five remaining synagogues which still stand in the Jewish quarter.

Images of the Jewish Ghetto (1, 2, 3,) Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Looking at this busting, vibrant area, you may believe that Jewish life in Venice has always been successful, happy and thriving, and to an extent you would be right – but this prosperous history took place against a backdrop of deep antisemitism and segregation. The Venetian Republic at times did almost everything in its power to break down and wipe out the Jewish community of Venice, but it was in the face of this persecution that the Jews expressed the limits of human strength, as they found ways around the oppressive regime and built a society which was so fruitful that it actually grew, rather than diminished – not only were the Jews able to raise families in Venice, but new immigrants often applied to move in, seeking a better life! How this was possible from within the confines of a ghetto and deep antisemitic oppression is testimony to the resilience of these admirable Jews.

Jews have a long history in Italy, and in Venice in the early 16th century the community was thriving. Despite making up only 923 of the city’s 160,208-strong population (according to the 1555 census,) the Jews were overwhelmingly wealthy and controlled many businesses in the region. Most of them were merchants who made healthy profits, rousing their neighbors’ jealousy, and they of course practiced customs and rituals which many non-Jews could not understand, making them alien and strange in the eyes of their peers.

Hence, antisemitism continued to grow and the Jews were “othered” time and time again. Unsure of what to do with this strange segment of the population, the laws regarding Jews fluctuated regularly, alternatively banning their commerce, then realizing that the economy would struggle without said commerce and thus reinstating it; taking away their rights, then realizing that this made the Jews even more reclusive as a community until eventually the government just reinstated them; banning their religious practices, but then realizing that this simply drove their practices underground, making them harder to keep an eye on, so reverting this law too – it seems that no one knew what to do with the Jews!

Stone depictions of the struggles of Jews in the Venetian ghetto, 2011, Venice, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

No one, it seemed, aside from Doge Leonardo Loredan. Leonardo Loredan was born to a noble family in 1436 and became a talented statesman. In 1501 he was elected the 75th Doge of Venice, a position he held for 20 years. He was known for being fearsome and shrewd in matters of war, understanding the law in depth, partaking in an auspicious marriage, and fathering 9 children who also held important leadership roles. He was also the man who created the world’s first ever Jewish ghetto (it should be noted that there had been previous cases of Jews being confined to particular urban enclaves,  but the term “ghetto” was first associated with the Venice Jewish community).

On the 29th of March, 1516, Doge Leonardo Loredan sat down with his senators to discuss what to do about the Jews. This problem had been plaguing Venice for long enough and Leonardo Loredan was determined to be the one to solve it. After hours of intense conversation, they came up with a decree which was enacted immediately: the Jews would be totally and legally isolated from the rest of Venetian society.

With the backdrop of the Holocaust, we may be used to the idea of a ghetto, but in 1516 this was a completely new phenomenon which had never been attempted before. To start, one small area was designated for the Jews to live in. The idea was simple – the Republic of Venice would completely control the lives of the Jews in exchange for their right to practice their religion within the borders of this ghetto.

Images of the Jewish Ghetto (1, 2, 3,) Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The first task was to pick a site. Today we know it as the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto,) but back in the 1500s this area was just a small and unassuming part of town, best known for its cannon-making foundry. Molten metal was poured into a mold and formed into cannonballs for use in war. This was a dangerous and monotonous task, so the Doge figured that it was the exact sort of job that should be done by the Jews. Hence, the small Jewish enclave was to be built near the factory. Eventually, when the Ghetto Vecchio was deemed too small to hold all of the city’s Jews, the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) was also added to the site.

Located in the Cannaregio Sestiere of Venice (one of Venice’s six districts,) this area wasn’t only chosen for its foundry, but also for its bridges. The ghetto only had two bridges with which people could use to enter or leave, meaning that if they were closed, the entire ghetto could be essentially trapped inside. From 6pm each evening until St. Mark’s Campanile Belfry rang its largest bell (the Marangona) at 12pm the next day, the ghetto was closed-off entirely. No one could come in or out. Christian guards circled the ghetto on boats after dark, making sure that no Jew attempted to brave the canals and escape during the night. Any Jew who was found by the surrounding neighborhood’s surveillance teams outside of curfew would face harsh penalties including imprisonment and financial losses.

The ghetto was also closed off with high walls, and the surrounding quays were bricked-in to make coming or going virtually impossible without permission. The Christians who had previously lived in the area were moved out into the far superior homes and villages which once belonged to the Jews, and the ghetto became known as a dark and imposing place which locals would avoid at all cost.

Plaque commemorating prominent Jews of the Venice ghetto, 2011, Venice, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The word “ghetto” has a number of possible origins. The word geto means foundry, which was the main factory in the area, but it’s also linked to the words gatwo (street,) borghetto (little town,) and gettare (to throw away unwanted items). Oxford University claims that these etymological theories are speculative at best, but Marcella Ansaldi, the Director of the Jewish Museum in Venice, agrees with the theory that the word ghetto comes from gettare, symbolic of the “throwing out” of the Jews from the rest of the city.

By the end of the year 1516, 700 Jews already inhabited the ghetto. The Jews were promised military protection and the freedom to practice their religion within the ghetto confines, but aside from that, the laws were harsh. Jews had to wear identification markers to alert others of their religion, their tax and rent was much higher than that of non-Jews, the living conditions were poor and cramped, and only a few jobs were available to them. Most Jews worked as moneylenders, doctors, traders and salesmen, but some were also forced to work in the pawnshops of Venice at low rates set by the government. Because Jews struggled to enter and exit the ghetto, many simply couldn’t find meaningful employment.

Jewish books printed in the Venetian ghetto:                                                          Fugger’s First Venetian Miscellany on Kabbalah, 1548, Scribe: Yaakov ben Yosef & David ben Moshe,
Venetian Biblical Commentaries, 1552, Scribe: Meir Yishai ben Yehiel,
Machzor, 1642,
Slichot, 1735,
Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As time progressed, it also became difficult for their trade industry to continue, as foreign Jews were restricted from staying in the ghetto for work and trade from the year 1541. Only if government officials explicitly allowed a Jewish trader into Venice would they be permitted to attempt to find accommodation in the already overcrowded ghetto, but the terms of their stay were still limited to a few days and they could not bring any family members with them. That, therefore, was essentially the end of Jewish prosperity in Venice, at least for a little while. Most Jews went to work in the cannon factory or took up selling secondhand items and clothes to make a modest living.

However, as time went on, the community of Jews in the ghetto grew steadily. 100 years later they had reached a population of over 5000! This was not a mistake – Jews really did start trying to move into the ghetto! For all the struggles that the Jews had to endure, they started to find ways to excel at life, despite their confines. Working with what they had, they began opening butchers, bakeries, and shops which were popular with all locals, and money started entering the little quarter. Soon it became a market hub for Venice locals and visitors, and as Jews would only spend their own money inside the ghetto, there was a strong inflow and little outflow.

The tall buildings which housed far too many people grew even higher, making room for all the new immigrants. Today these buildings are in desperate need of restoration lest they collapse, and a few different local groups have set out to preserve the most important of them already.

This newfound Jewish money was used to build new and better infrastructure. Some of the most important constructions were the synagogues: The German Jews built their Scuola Grane Tedesca, the native Italians had their Scuola Italiana, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed the Scuola Spagnola, the Levantine Sephardim built the Scuola Levantina and the Ashkenazim erected the Scuola Canton.

Scuola Levantina in Venice (1, 2, 3,) 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Scuola Italiana in Venice (1, 2,) 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection,  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Canton in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Grande Tedesca in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Grande Spagnola in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Scuola Grane Tedesca, or the Great German Synagogue, was the first synagogue to be built in the ghetto, in 1528. It still exists today and appears to be a fairly traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, but now it is used as a museum, not a house of prayer. The second synagogue constructed was the Scuola Canton, just four years later. The Ashkenazim were increasingly noticing a rift between the Germanic and French Venetian cultures, so the French decided to break away and form their own community and build a new synagogue, the Scoula Canton, for the Provençal Jews, which would include French architecture and additions to the prayer service. Today this synagogue is also part of the Jewish Museum of Venice.

Next, the Scuola Italiana, or the Italian Synagogue, was built in 1575, to service the local-born Jews. The native Jews were not in the area because of trade or business but because of ancestry, and were therefore the poorest of the groups. Thus, it is the smallest of the synagogues, housing only 25 worshippers. Despite a lovingly-decorated interior, no money was left to enhance the synagogue’s façade, so it remains unremarkable as a building, and blends into its surroundings.

Constructed only 5 years later, the Scuola Spagnola, the Spanish synagogue, was home to the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s. Constructed so shortly after the Scuola Italiana, the Spanish Jews wanted to behave according to local customs, so followed the lead of the Italians and only decorated the inside of the Synagogue, leaving its exterior bare and unremarkable. This synagogue still functions as a house of worship between the start of Passover and the end of Sukkot each year.

In 1541, the Venetian government came to an arrangement with some Levantine merchants who had also originally fled Spain. The Venetian government allowed them to live and trade in the ghetto, and so it was that in 1689 they opened the Scuola Levantina – the first synagogue to be built from scratch and not in a pre-existing building. They wanted it to be larger than the Spanish synagogue and couldn’t find a building that would fit the bill, so they constructed their own!

Between all these communities, the ghetto Jews spoke Venetian, Italian (yes, it’s different to Venetian,) Judeo-Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew, which was the language used in traditional Jewish documents such as Kettubot.

As commerce grew, books, and especially religious books, began to emerge from the ghetto. Soon enough, printing presses were set up to print books in Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish, and many famous works were produced from within the ghetto, such as the 1609 Venice Haggadah which is one of the most famous Haggadot in the world. The first press-printed edition of the Talmud, the Bomberg Talmud, was also produced in Venice at this time, instantly becoming a best seller and taking the Jewish world by storm. The riveting story of this Talmud can be found here.

Venice Haggadah of 1609 (1, 2, 3, 4,) Folios, Printer: Israel ha-Zifroni of Guastalla, CJA,  Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Venice Haggadah of 1599, Fol. 2, Printers: Shlomo Hayyim and his son Avraham, CJA, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

So it was that the Jewish ghetto in Venice grew to become well-known around the world, and increasing pressure was put on the Venetian government to dissolve the harsh rules that governed the ghetto, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 1797 after more than 250 years, Napoleon and the French Army of Italy captured Venice and commanded the Venetian Republic to disband. Two months later, on the 11th of July, 1797, the ghetto finally opened its borders and shed its laws of discrimination.

Napoleon declared that Jews would be treated as equals, and Venice would no longer be allowed to operate under a system of segregation. The ghetto was renamed Contrada dell’unione (The Union District) to represent their reunion with the rest of Venice, but many Jews remained in the district, although under happier circumstances.

Today, the former ghetto still represents the Jewish Quarter of Venice, and it is a hub for religious life in the city. Around 450 Jews live in Venice today but only about 30 of these Jews (around 12 Jewish households), still live in the ghetto area, due to the fact that it’s a very expensive zone.

All 5 synagogues still remain standing, and the 3 central ones are bordered by a Jewish Museum which explains the history of Jewish Venice. Today’s religious Jews tend to worship at the Levantine Synagogue in the winter as it’s the only synagogue with central heating, but they use the Spanish Synagogue in summer as it has a nice breeze. All 5 synagogues host religious lessons, Talmud classes, children’s Jewish studies, courses in Hebrew, and other events. There is also a Jewish kindergarten, yeshiva, Judaica stores, and old age home in the area of the Old Ghetto.

Jewish items from the Venice ghetto:                                Torah Amulet, 1700s,
Torah Coronet, 1600s,
Torah Crown, 1755,
Book binding, 1550, Yishai ben Yehiel, Yaakov ben Yosef, Itzhak ben Elijahu Manosh,
Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Each year thousands of visitors, both Jewish and not, come to see the ghetto, attend the International Conference on Hebrew Studies held there, or join one of the other Jewish conferences, exhibitions and seminars which also take place in Venice at different points during the year. The floating canal-boat sukkah and floating chanukiah also attract crowds of tourists at the appropriate Jewish festivals.

Unfortunately, rising water levels and lack of proper construction means that many of the buildings in the ghetto are falling to ruin, but renovations are beginning to occur, and as Jewish infrastructure once again offers good job opportunities, Jewish families are slowly beginning to move back into the area.

After 500 years, it is hard to know exactly what life must have been like for the Jews living in the world’s first ghetto, but of some things we can be certain: the Venetian government did all it could to take away the rights and freedoms of the Jews in Venice, subjecting them to harsh discrimination, unfair rules, financial hardships, and restricting their freedom of movement. Yet, even in the face of this, the Jews decided that they would not be trampled on and they continued to stand strong, making the best of a very bad situation. They not only got through the period with dignity and grace, but they also managed to do so with financial success, a growing community, new and exciting places of worship and infrastructure, and success on all terms. If there’s a lesson to learn here, it’s that even in the face of antisemitism and adversity, Jews can, and will, rise up time and time again.

The Jewish Designer Who Transformed the Future of Modernism

World-renowned designer Josef Frank rebelled against artistic norms, delivered scathing critiques of fellow artists, and was repeatedly forced to defend his identity. Despite this, he became one of the most famous, if also one of the most controversial, Jewish designers in history.

Josef Frank's original watercolor from a 1936 tufted carpet, The life of Josef Frank, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

“We should design our surroundings as if they originated by chance,” wrote Josef Frank in his essay Accidentism. This may seem like a strange sentence from a celebrated interior designer – someone famous for placing color, light and object with such focused intention. But Josef Frank was never going to fit into the mold and adhere to the conventions of those around him – it simply wasn’t in his nature as a defiant, opinionated, Jewish artist.

In the agricultural, Ashkenazi Jewish village of Heves in Eastern Hungary, Isak and Jenny, two young religious locals, fell in love and were betrothed to one another. Moving to Austria to start a new life of opportunity together, they gave birth to a son and named their little boy Josef – little did they know how important the name Josef Frank would become.

Josef Frank grew up to be a proud Austrian, and a creative, opinionated youth. He enrolled to study architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, and it was there that, despite his professors’ best efforts, he discovered a hatred of interior design. “Away with universal styles,” he wrote. “Away with the idea of equating art and industry, away with the whole system that has become popular under the name of functionalism.” – The idea that homes and buildings should be fashioned by a designer who has never experienced those spaces and will never have to live in those spaces frustrated him. He believed that a home was a sanctuary and not something to be filled with artistic yet essentially useless objects.

But, as most of us turn away from the things that we despise and pursue other passions in their place, Josef Frank did the opposite. He ran towards interior design head first, and decided that instead of abandoning architecture to those whom he felt didn’t do it justice, he would enter the field himself, and rip up the rulebook from within.

In 1921, only two years after Frank and his unconventional attitude had been accepted into the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, his father Isak passed away. Isak and Jenny were traditional Jews and Josef knew that it was important for them to be buried in Jewish graves. He went and sought out the Jewish section of the Vienna Central Cemetery, looking for two side-by-side plots for his religious parents, but he couldn’t find a grave that pleased him.

Grave of Isak and Jenny Frank in the old Jewish section of the Vienna Central Cemetery. It was designed by their son, Josef Frank. Via Wikimedia Commons

Thus he was faced with his first real-life design task. He wanted to create a set of Jewish gravestones that would satisfy his parents’ traditional roots, while remaining true to his own ideals of functionality, so he came up with a simple modernist design. This morbid project resulted in Josef Frank’s fateful realization that object design was an area he excelled in, and pursing this dream together with two other prominent designers of the day, he set up Haus & Garten in 1925, a design and furniture company that focused, in the words of architectural journalist Marlene Ott, on “the use of light, flexible and convenient, stand-alone pieces of furniture, combining different forms and materials, and allowing homeowners to arrange them according to their own precise needs.”

In this way, Frank rebelled against the prominent Austrian trend of Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of creating a complete stylized interior in which everything has its own place and comes together to form one singular piece of art. Instead, Frank focused on workable items which would allow each individual to customize their own space, rather than conform to uniform standards.

Terrazzo 1885-1985, Josef Frank commemorative poster, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

So it was that Frank found himself looking for a way into the already crowded European design market, but he had an edge that many others lacked: his religion. Many of Frank’s peers and community members were middle- and upper-class Jews with money to spend on home furnishings. The majority of Haus & Garten’s clients in those days were therefore rich Jews who had ties to Frank and his family, and helped boost his brand to fame. Design historian Elana Shapira writes that Frank “developed a unique principle of empowerment in design during his early career while designing the homes of members of Viennese Jewish families.”

It was ironically while he was rising to artistic fame with the help of his Jewish roots that life started to turn on its head for Josef exactly because of this Judaism. As the Nazis came to power, Josef Frank had the foresight to know that this would not be a positive development for him. He decided to move to Manhattan and the relative safety offered by the USA, but soon after meeting his Swedish wife Anna, she convinced him that he would be both safe, and able to continue flourishing as a designer, in Sweden, and together they moved to Anna’s home country, where Frank gained citizenship in 1939 and lived out the rest of his days in the Scandinavian town of Stockholm.

Josef Frank’s application to emigrate from Austria, Application submitted in Vienna (Austria), May 14, 1938, the Vienna Jewish Community, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel
Josef Frank’s application to emigrate from Austria, Application submitted in Vienna (Austria), May 14, 1938, the Vienna Jewish Community, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

It was there that he found Svenskt Tenn, or more likely, Svenskt Tenn found him! Just 9 years earlier, the wonderfully artistic Estrid Ericson had set up her design company, and it was soon flourishing. When she hired the controversial Austrian Jew Josef Frank, she was taking a huge gamble, especially as his Jewish genealogy meant that his citizenship in Sweden wasn’t guaranteed to be permanent, but the risk paid off and Frank helped boost the firm to become the most prominent design company in all of Sweden (IKEA hadn’t yet been founded!)

Svenskt Tenn order form, 1985, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

Frank believed that design should be an answer to the day-to-day functionality of life, and reflect modern needs. Pursuing this ideal, he mixed trends from the past with future predictions, and created a new way of designing which shocked many. In the media, he was criticized for his “feminine interiors,” and he was often forced to swim against the tide of modern-day architectural norms.

Despite this, Josef Frank fit into Swedish society well, and he loved the socialist values that he was greeted with. As the Nazis continued to rise to power, it was not just Jews who sought refuge in neutral Sweden, but many minority groups, and those who were fleeing what would become the battle grounds of World War ׀׀. Many of these refugees ended up in Sweden, for which the country was not well equipped. But that’s where Frank fit in. He had experience designing functional homes, and was commissioned by the municipal government to create vast social housing blocks for these fleeing Jews and refugees, many of which are still standing today. In stark contrast to other social housing, these blocks were attractive and meticulously designed with aesthetics in mind. Blending together livability and beauty was, after all, Frank’s objective. This may seem normal to us, but actually this was one of the many forays that led to his expulsion from the International Congress of Modern Architecture, who found that he held an “increasingly critical attitude” towards the harsh functionalism, metals, and concrete on which they believed that the new world would be constructed.

The life of Josef Frank,  the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

But Frank was not only a master of design, he was also an intellectual. Brother of philosopher Philip Frank, Josef did not escape the curiosity gene which was so clearly part of his DNA. Frank’s assistant Ernst Plischke said of him that he “wasn’t really an architect, but an intellectual who built ideas.” Most of Frank’s time was spent in deep philosophical ponderance of architecture, and he wrote widely on the topic, including authoring architectural novels which spanned 400 pages or more! After his death, another 800 or so pages of manuscripts with his musings on design were found, and wait eagerly to be published.

Most of Frank’s writings were derisive criticisms of modern design, which he said was led by “extremists.” As a man who had experienced the Nazi uprising, it is unclear how he could have believed that glass coffee tables represented extremism, but he acutely felt that home designers were misguided. He thought that houses were becoming art galleries instead of places for living, and one can only image what he would have thought of the stylistic minimalism which is so popular today! He was probably the first proponent of what we might call ‘Scandi’ design – simple spaces with lots of room to move around, and furniture carefully placed to meet the needs of its occupants.

In his work Accidentism, he attacked German designers, saying that their “applied art has become a problem and destroyed the whole meaning of those objects with which it has become concerned, filled them with pathos, and hence rendered them useless.” It is clear to see what he means but the critique is perhaps a tad unfair, as his own furniture design was sometimes whimsical or colorful and often made use of space in unconventional ways too. But above all, Frank really never did stray away from his priority of well-being, saying that “one can use everything that can be used and making sure that if nothing else, his furniture would be comfortable and agreeable to use. He was widely criticized for his usage of patterns and upholstery, as well as vivid colors and movable furniture. He left blank spaces in rooms, intended for users to fill, in stark contrast to the predominant attitude of filling a designed space. Almost every prominent Scandinavian and German designer had some comment on Frank, and often they were not positive. Thankfully he could dish out the scathing remarks as fast as they were received.

Josef Frank was constantly under attack for his ideals and creations. But more than that, he was under attack for his identity. He had suffered greatly under the auspices of antisemitism, and despite the fact that his Jewish connections had bolstered his career, they also nearly brought about his downfall. Some German artists didn’t take his criticism seriously, assuming that it was just a rebellion against their country’s complicity in the Holocaust, and they saw his insurgence against traditional European art as one born from a place of trauma and rejection.

Josef Frank’s original watercolor from a 1936 tufted carpet, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

In fact, Frank became so distressed by constantly having to defend his Jewish identity that he decided to distance himself from religion altogether. Despite having been born to traditional Jewish parents, Frank didn’t follow religious customs, and promised that Judaism’s influence on his art was negligible. It is a great shame that the negative forces of antisemitism pushed Frank to abandon his roots, especially as this Judaism was what propelled him into architecture in the first place.

Even further, his art almost seems reactionary to his Judaism. Take, for example, his candelabra – a gorgeous set of candle sticks, fused together with gold tubes – they look exactly like Shabbat candle sticks, aside from only being created in sets of 3, never 2, forbidding a Jew to use them for sanctification of the Sabbath. Or his dishes – beautiful glass kitchenware, which he labeled as “for lobster and seafood” – meals which are decidedly non-kosher. A candlestick in the shape of a sun – reminding the viewer of Christ’s halo and also portraying a symbol prohibited to depict in Judaism. Add to this the even more explicit Christmas baubles, Easter decorations and an entire dining set created for a “crayfish party”. His only noted Jewish design (his parent’s gravestones) was of tragically morbid origins. Frank’s rebellion against Judaism makes sense in the context of his life – it was due to his Judaism  that he was forced to flee his home country, and many critics discredited him, believing that his fame was due only to his Jewish connections. His troubled relationship with Judaism shines through in his work, but despite this, his philosophy was Jewish in its entirety – to make use of life’s offerings, to utilize spaces to host guests, lay down roots, and feel safe in one’s own family-friendly home. Despite his insistence on secularity, there is something uniquely Jewish in his large dining tables, bright table cloths, pomegranate and grape vine patterns – these are pieces that simply couldn’t help but fit into the home of an Ashkenazi Jewish bubbe.

Josef Frank left behind a rich and full legacy. He wanted design to be “fun and accessible,” but he felt that he had not succeeded in this goal. “Everyone needs a certain degree of sentimentality to feel free. That will be lost if we are forced to make moral demands of every object, including aesthetic ones,” he wrote in Accidentism, but he supposed that he never quite managed to convince the world around him of this value. He died not knowing what an impact he had made on the future of modernism, and feeling lonely and isolated. He had abandoned his religion, his home country, and belittled many of his peers in pursuit of his one true passion, and despite dedicating his life to a philosophy of design, he had not managed to convince many people of its correctness.

Memorial plaque for Josef Frank in Vienna’s 4th district, Wiedner Hauptstraße 64, Feldkurat Katz, via Wikimedia Commons

Depressed and disconnected, he passed away, not quite understanding how celebrated he had really been. Maybe he was not able to convince the whole world of his own beliefs, but it didn’t mean that people didn’t listen. They did. In the 1980s, there was an upsurgence in demand for his joyous and colorful works, which started to do exceedingly well on auction floors. IKEA decided to model some of their pieces after his signature style of modernism, and now his designs sell for tens of thousands of dollars. If only he could have seen that his life was not in fact a waste, as he sometimes believed it to be. In actuality, he is surely one of the most celebrated of all Jewish designers, and maybe even one of the foremost designers in world history.

“The Mother of Monasteries” vs. “The Tower of Babel” in World War II

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, often called the “Mother of Monasteries”, occupies a very strategic location dominating the road leading north-west to Rome. From January to May 1944, fierce battles took place there in which Allied soldiers from more than twenty different nations faced off against German, Austrian and Italian troops. The campaign ended with a German withdrawal after Allied troops breached the “Gustav Line”…

Polish soldiers inside the ruins of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Photo: Melchior Wańkowicz

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in the 6th century, is the oldest of Western Europe’s monasteries. Its founder was Benedict of Nursia, who was also the founder of the Benedictine Order. Benedict is buried at Monte Cassino alongside his sister, the nun Scholastica. The regulations established by Benedict served as a prototype for the monastic orders that followed, which led to Monte Cassino being dubbed the “Mother of Monasteries.”

Over its lifetime, the monastery accumulated many treasured artworks. During the Second World War, works of art from the museum in Naples were transferred there for safekeeping. As the Allies neared the monastery, the Germans organized the transfer of some of the pieces to the Vatican, as well as to other monasteries in Italy. The evacuation operation led to disputes among the German officers over where to take the works and who would escort them. This was mainly due to the intention to transfer some of the artworks to none other than Hermann Göring, after whom their military division was named. Göring was notorious for “adopting” looted works of art from occupied areas.

Among the Hebrew manuscripts found in the National Library of Israel’s catalog is a scan of an interesting manuscript currently kept at Monte Cassino. It is in fact a palimpsest, that is, a manuscript written over an earlier manuscript. In our case – a Latin book of Psalms written over an earlier Hebrew manuscript from the 13th century containing the religious Jewish laws of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi for the Talmudic tractate Eruvin.

In World War II, after a failed series of ground attacks to capture the abbey from the Germans who controlled the area, the Allies bombed the monastery from the air. Despite its importance to the Christian world and the Vatican’s attempts to prevent its destruction, the bombing of Monte Cassino was carried out due to public pressure following the heavy number of allied casualties from the ground offensives, primarily in the United States. To this day, researchers still debate whether the Germans did in fact have positions on the grounds of the monastery, although none dispute that the Germans had observation posts and machine guns positioned outside the monastery’s walls which benefited from their shelter.

After the war, the monastery was restored, and most of the art and cultural treasures were returned.

The Monte Cassino campaign exacted a terrible price: over 54,000 Allied deaths, and about 20,000 deaths for the Axis countries. Many studies have been published on the strategic and tactical considerations and military decisions of the warring parties. I would like to focus on the personal and human aspect of the campaign and its later cultural influence.

The Allied forces that took part in the battles at Monte Cassino were made up of people from many different countries and nationalities: Americans soldiers—including Japanese US citizens; British soldiers— including forces from England, Australia, New Zealand (among them Maoris); and India (among them Punjabis and Gurkhas). In the French Expeditionary Corps, alongside French European troops, there were also Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian soldiers. They were joined by Polish and Italian volunteers, as well as troops from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, the various Baltic countries, and soldiers from as far as Brazil. And of course, among these, were also Jewish soldiers, whether in the Polish Anders’ Army, in the British Army or in the US Armed Forces.

“The New Zealanders, these tall, raw-boned men who had come from halfway around the world, now contributed their distinctive accent to the polyglot medley of shouts and curses along the road. One of the officers described his introduction to the multinational world of the Fifth Army:

‘Running up Highway Six we were nearly put in the ditch by American Negro drivers. An Indian military policeman warned us to waste no time at the San Vittore corner, beyond which we overtook an Algerian battalion with French officers. We passed through an English field regiment’s area, several hundred American infantry working on the road, and reached Corps headquarters immediately behind two Brazilian generals. In the first room I was astounded and mystified to hear that the Japanese had taken the castle'”. (Monte Cassino, by David Hapgood and David Richardson, pp. 160-161).

The officer in question was most likely Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger, whose autobiographical book Infantry Brigadier gives a similar description. In it, he explains that the “Japanese” are American soldiers of Japanese origin.

In his memoirs, Jan Eibenschutz, a Jewish soldier who served in Anders’ Army, in the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, offers a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and their feelings in wartime on the road to Rome:

“During the first months, I discovered that what characterizes our units is physical effort and fatigue, the fear of danger was only a secondary component. To think that I received this impression while serving in the modern British Eighth Army, of which our unit was a part and which had at its disposal enormous amounts of services and means of transportation. Despite this, at the frontline, we almost always had to reach our destination on foot, walking along difficult paths, while carrying heavy weaponry.”

(Translation of an excerpt from Eibenshcutz’s memoirs published in Hebrew:

יאן אייבנשוץ, “שביתי פלוגת צנחנים גרמנים”. בתוך: עדות, 13: 112, 1996)

And this is how Eibenschutz describes the arrival at Monte Cassino, from the chapter “Journey to Hell”:

“Here we are in the Monte Cassino theater facing a key position of the German defensive Gustav Line. Here, in November 1943, the Germans managed to stop the attack of the American Fifth Army and then one after another the attacks of the English, New Zealanders, Indians, the South African units, the French (which included Algerians, Moroccans and Italians) while causing heavy losses of life and equipment. All these were not helped by the heavy bombardment of hundreds of bombers, which turned the famous Benedictine monastery on the mountain into ruins.

Now it’s our turn to attack Monte Cassino.

The approach to the front line began on April 27, a beautiful spring day. We climbed a steep path on foot which even jeeps could pass up to a certain point. The path led to a hill situated between the monastery and the top of Monte Cairo, which was over 1,500 meters high, and from where the Germans controlled the whole area and all the access roads. Already, the trees growing there had become naked black skeletons, but the entire ground was covered with carpets of red poppies; it would be hard to describe a greater contrast” (p. 113).

Jan Eibenschutz and his friends remained at Monte Cassino until May 1944, when the monastery was conquered.

“On the night of May 17, everything was ready to strike at the Germans and finish them off…

Shortly before dawn we received the order to capture the monastery, which was on the other side of the valley. We had to take up new deployment positions… It wasn’t until around 10 o’clock in the morning that we noticed movement near the monastery ruins. A short time later we saw the red and white flag flying over it. We let out cries of relief and joy.

It happened on May 18, my 24th birthday.

…with a joint effort of the Fifth and Eighth Armies, the ‘Gustav Line’ was finally breached and the Germans found themselves in retreat.

Two weeks later on June 4, 1944, Allied forces entered Rome and liberated the city from the Germans” (ibid., pp. 114–115).

About 1000 Polish soldiers are buried in the Monte Cassino cemetery, and among the gravestones about 20 are decorated with the Star of David.

One exceptional Polish soldier stood out on the battlefield – he was awarded a medal of bravery and promoted from the rank of private to corporal. This soldier was a Syrian brown bear named Wojtek that had been bought as a unit mascot and was eventually officially recruited into the 22nd Polish Artillery Supply Company in Anders’ Army. Wojtek the bear, who had learned by imitating his fellow soldiers to walk upright, could, thanks to his great strength, single-handedly lift and carry an artillery munition crate that would normally require four soldiers to transport. In the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek excelled in speedily carrying crate after crate of heavy ammunition while under fire, which earned him both a medal for bravery and a promotion. Wojtek was even commemorated on the unit’s official emblem, and in May 2019, a commemorative statue of him was installed in Monte Cassino’s town square.


Jewish Brigade soldier Yehuda Harari’s illustrations, which he published in a book in 1946, also reflect the difficulties experienced by the soldiers in the battles to break through to Rome.

The Hebrew sign reads: “Don’t move -The enemy sees you”. The captions reads “Too late!” in Yiddish.


“Don’t be an antisemite!” reads the Hebrew caption

The Battle of Monte Cassino also led to the writing of one of the canonical works of modern science fiction. Walter Michael Miller, Jr. served in World War II as a tail gunner in the US Air Force. He participated in the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and said that this experience influenced his entire life’s work. His dystopian novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1959, was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel by the World Science Fiction Convention in 1961. It is considered by many to be one of the seminal works of speculative post-apocalyptic literature. The only book he published in his lifetime (alongside short stories), it describes a world after a nuclear holocaust in which Catholic monks are the guardians of humanity’s cultural knowledge and values.

A Hebrew translation of the science-fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Michael Miller Jr – inspired by the Battle of Monte Cassino

The legacy of the Battle of Monte Cassino lives on to this day. For example, the Swedish metal band Sabaton, whose songs deal with military history from different periods, were so inspired by the combined efforts of the Allies at the Battle of Monte Cassino, involving so many disparate nationalities, that they wrote a song about it, which they titled “Union” (The song is featured on the album The Art of War. Original battle photographs and film clips appear in the official music video and related video segment analyzing the battle).


Mile after mile our march carries on
No army may stop our approach
Fight side by side
Many nations unite
At the shadow of Monte Cassino
We fight and die together
As we head for the valley of death
Destiny calls
We’ll not surrender or fail

To arms!
Under one banner
As a unit we stand and united we fall
As one! Fighting together
Bringing the end to the slaughter
Winds are changing
head on north


What resonates most in the recollections of those who took part in the campaign, and in later military analyses of the battle, is the cooperation that existed among soldiers from all over the world, among army units with different battle doctrines, languages and even diametrically opposed traditions of officer/soldier relations. But the common goal of subduing the Nazi enemy bridged the gaps and resulted in victory in the battle at Monte Cassino and the opening of the road to Rome.


Further Reading:

  • Monte Cassino, David Hapgood and David Richardson, New York: Berkley Books, 1986
  • Cassino to the Alps, Ernest F. Fisher, Washington: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1977
  • Bloody River: Prelude to the Battle of Cassino, Martin Bluminson, London: Allen & Unwin, 1970
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr., Toronto: Bantam Books, 1959
  • Infantry Brigadier, Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger, London: Oxford University Press, 1949

• אייבנשוץ, יאן: “שביתי פלוגת צנחנים גרמנים”. בתוך: “עדות”, 13: 112-119, 1996
• בן אריה, כתריאל. מערכת קסינו. תל אביב: אוניברסיטת תל אביב – פקולטה למדעי הרוח – בית הספר להיסטוריה, 1978
• הררי, יהודה. סביב אירופה על חוד העפרון (מיומנו המצוייר של חייל ארצישראלי). בריסל: דפוס החיל, תש”ו
• מג’דלני, פרד. קאסינו : דיוקנה של מערכה. ישראל: מערכות, תשנ”א
• מג’דלני, פרד. הפטרול / המנזר. ישראל: מערכות, תשכ”ב


Translation: Sharon Assaf