The Siddur That Survived the Nazis

This prayer book was published by Schocken in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht. Decades later, a reader at the National Library was surprised to find in it a clearly visible Nazi seal featuring a swastika...

A stamp featuring a Nazi "Imperial Eagle" clutching a swastika - the "Reichsadler", found on the siddur's title page, photo by Udi Edery

The synagogue in the current National Library of Israel building is located on the top floor. Observant visitors and employees gather here throughout the day to pray. For this purpose, the nearby reading rooms have siddurim (Jewish prayer books) available on their shelves. And so, not too long ago, a student working in the Music Department asked for a siddur so that she could take part in prayers.

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

The young woman was given a siddur that was thicker, heavier and larger than usual, and began to pray. But as soon as she opened the book, she was utterly shocked to see a complete, perfectly clear stamp of the Nazi eagle, its claws clutching a swastika underneath it, surrounded by a caption in German – the Nazi Reichsadler. The seal appeared on the siddur‘s title page below the Hebrew caption which read: “Seder Avodat Israel, including prayers and blessings for the entire year, Shabbat portions and additions, selichot and additional prayers, with Yakin Lashon commentary, authored and edited by Rabbi Seligman Baer (Isaac Dov) Bamberger.”

The title page states that it is a revised edition, published by Schocken in the Hebrew year 5697, or 1937. A year later, the “Night of Broken Glass” – Kristallnacht – would take place, while the racist Nuremberg Laws were already in full effect at the time of publication. The Nazi stamp belonged to the Reichinstituts für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands library, namely the “Reich Institute for the History of New Germany.”

The title page of Seder Avodat Israel, featuring the Nazi Reichsadler seal, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

Librarians at the National Library of Israel are very familiar with the stamp and with the Reich Institute, as the seal appears in many books in the library’s collections. The books were brought here immediately after World War II, following the Holocaust, by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. organization. The group’s logo – a Star of David and the JCR’s name in Hebrew – also appears in the book.

The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. logo in the siddur‘s bookplate (ex-libris), photo by Udi Edery

The siddur contains another piece of history: a Hebrew label indicating that it was printed under a contract with the M. Lehrberger and Co. publishing house in Frankfurt am Main, “who had the good fortune of publishing the first edition of Seder Avodat Israel.” The Schocken publishing house continued to operate in Germany even after the Schocken family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, when this was still permitted in Nazi Germany. Books such as this one were printed right up until the beginning of the Holocaust. Like many books belonging to Jews in Germany and in German-occupied countries, they were looted and collected as part of the Nazi plan to document the culture which they were simultaneously systematically destroying.

“Printed under a contract with the M. Lehrberger and Co. publishing house in Frankfurt am Main, who had the good fortune of publishing the first edition of Seder Avodat Israel“, photo by Udi Edery

The original copies of Seder Avodat Israel were published in Rödelheim (a Frankfurt suburb) in 1868 and hundreds of editions were published throughout the years. Seligman Baer was a grammarian whose work focused primarily on prayers and piyyutim (Jewish liturgical hymns). The siddur was also designed to appeal to “modern” Jews who could read Hebrew but spoke German, thus the instructions do not appear in Yiddish but rather in German spelled with Hebrew letters. The commentary on the prayers and piyyutim is philological and summarizes modern research in addition to providing the traditional erudition. The siddur’s target audience was traditionally Orthodox Jews who were acquainted with European languages, Latin, as well as philology and Bible studies.

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

Either way, if you are not a librarian at the National Library of Israel, and you are not accustomed to opening books and finding the Nazi seal in them, then encountering a siddur such as this one can come as a bit of a shock. Indeed, when one holds this prayer book in their hands, the eyes move naturally from the Nazi seal to the stamp of the “Jewish National and University Library”. How fierce is the irony of history – with this siddur now being put to use in Jerusalem, in the National Library of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.


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Hand in Glove? or Not? How Manuscripts Should Be Handled

We decided to check, once and for all, whether gloves are necessary when handling rare manuscripts

“But why are you handling that manuscript without gloves?!” This is perhaps the most common question scholars come across every time they are photographed with a manuscript. No doubt about it- handling a manuscript with gloves looks much more impressive. However, in most cases – this can actually do more harm than good.

There are two main reasons for this: The first is the issue of sensitivity. Wearing gloves causes us to lose the natural sensitivity in our hand – our sense of touch. This increases the chances that the person handling the manuscript will damage the very work that they are seeking to examine and preserve. This is especially true when it comes to manuscripts with fine or thin pages.

The second reason is that cotton gloves used by libraries and universities around the world can get just as dirty as bare hands – if not more so.

At most, wearing gloves can be said to be a neutral approach (though as aforementioned, it probably does more harm than good). However, many institutions indeed demand that gloves be used due to norms that have been established over time. A strange result of this is that these institutions often don’t bother teaching their handlers how to properly hold and browse through manuscripts, based on the assumption that glove-use is sufficient. An assumption that turned out to be mistaken.

Dr. Yacov Fuchs, of the National Library of Israel’s Manuscript Department, gloveless while handling a manuscript from the department collection

So the next time you’re handling a rare manuscript (and every manuscript is rare, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), remember that the best way to read it is with bare hands, which were washed in soap and dried carefully beforehand. However, if the manuscript you intend to touch is infected with a harmful fungus or covered in some sort of hazardous material, it is recommended, and even crucial, that you use gloves. In addition, the room should be properly ventilated and a protective mask should be worn as well. Why would a manuscript be hazardous, you ask? In one recent case, researchers at the University of Southern Denmark discovered three books dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries which were covered in a green pigment containing arsenic – a highly toxic substance that would become even more common in the Victorian era, when it could be found in everyday items. At the time, people were not fully aware of the dangers of the substance.

Incidentally, it is unclear when people started using gloves in libraries and universities in order to handle rare manuscripts and books. This is probably a new practice, which began in the second half of the 20th century. Some associate it with the practice of photographers, who as early as the nineteenth century, used gloves when working with negatives. Or perhaps the answer is concealed in the book, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Have you read it?


The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, (Hebrew edition) Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing, 1987

Read more on the topic in this study from 2007.


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“The Caine Mutiny”, “The Juggler”, Hemingway – Michael Blankfort and Me

Howard Kaplan looks back on his special relationship with his mentor – legendary Hollywood screenwriter and author, Michael Blankfort

Howard Kaplan (left) and Michael Blankfort (right) during the 1970s

Tuesday night, July 13, 1982. Michael Blankfort died today. Twelve highly acclaimed novels; one biography, theatrical plays; a horde of movies, collaboration on the film version of The Caine Mutiny, adapting the film The Juggler from his novel of the same name, the first Hollywood picture shot in Israel starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor, 1953.  I met Michael in 1973. I had returned from Israel clutching a 300 page manuscript about my travels and arrest in the Soviet Union. I had heard the name Michael Blankfort as a board member when I attended the Brandeis Camp Institute.

The Juggler, 1953

I looked up his number in the phone book. In a rush of nervousness: I was interrogated by the KGB for four days, I had been among the first to meet with the Hebrew teachers in Moscow, told him I’d written a book about my experience and asked if he had time to read it.

“No,” came his response. Then he said, “But I’ll read it anyway.”

That was Michael, he never turned anyone away. The following day I met him in his office. He was 65 and I was 23. For the next nine years we had lunch together about every ten days.

I walked through his world in Beverly Hills that morning in 1982, stood outside the Writers and Artists Building, subsidized by a patron of the arts. It once housed Billy Wilder, Ray Bradbury and Jack Nicholson. An old manual Royal typewriter sat on his desk beneath a cork wall crowded with the pictures and clippings. His row of pipes and classical tapes rested to the right of the paper-strewn desk. Books spilled from the shelves and there was always the volume (or more likely the two) that he was reading at the time, there on the narrow cot against the wall behind his chair.

Though earlier he had shunned art as bourgeois, in the 50s he and his friends started to buy contemporary works they liked and rarely paid more than $100 a painting. Michael’s de Kooning, Montauk Highway, is now on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His hundreds of other works were all bequeathed to LACMA and I was there at the preview reception in March 1982. I did not appreciate how unique and fabulous my young life was.

Montauk Highway, Willem de Kooning, 1958

Michael lent his precise eye and understanding to everything I wrote. I would leave each of my manuscripts with him, then wait nervously. When he finally called, there were no wasted words. Either there would be praise or he would say quietly, “I’ve read your material. You better come over.” When that happened, I knew as I grabbed a notebook and pen that I would be out of trouble before the long lunch was over — he would exhaust himself repairing my work during the time he should have been resting from his own.

Always lunch. Unlike many people who listed their office numbers and held their homes sacrosanct, Michael did the opposite. The day I looked him up in the phone book, I found only his home number. He thought he wouldn’t be disturbed as much with his office unlisted. It didn’t work. The phone rang constantly and with a humanity I came to be in awe of, he made time for everyone. There was a different name scribbled in pen every day at 12:45 in his little appointment book. In addition to me, there was an entire stable of young writers he helped.

An elegant, dashing man, with a moustache and a full head of wavy gray hair, Michael was always ebullient and full of humor. He had a breadth of spirit: there was nothing small or petty about him, something I only partially achieve as I’m inclined to dream of revenge though I don’t pursue it. And perhaps most of all, he was a lover — of people, and especially of women. The eyes of the maître d’ at the Swiss Café lit up when he came through the door; he always had a few moments to smile that huge smile of his and talk to her.

He transformed Mrs. Kramer, a little old lady who owned a tobacco shop near his office, into a young, beautiful woman with all his attention and the way he flirted with her. He went to see her every day, and if he didn’t need anything, he’d buy a candy bar or some gum. But most importantly was Dorothy — Dossy — his wife, partner, companion. He discussed everything with her and made no major moves without her counsel.

Once he took me to see The Juggler (Columbia Pictures 1953), screened as part of a Film Festival at UCLA. He was in a wonderful mood, bear-hugging friends as he always did though a little nervous; he had not seen the movie in over twenty years. I watched Kirk Douglas, as a German juggler, the toast of Berlin who believes he won’t be touched by the Nazis, a concentration camp survivor running through the streets of Haifa, unable at first to accept either his new homeland or what had happened to him.

Afterwards Michael told me that he had been set to direct the picture but the McCarthy hunters had taken his passport. The only part of the movie he saw filmed was the scene of a hora danced around a fire shot in a Hollywood backlot.

Michael’s fiction is a remarkably eclectic yet cohesive body of work. The Brave and the Blind (1940) about the Spanish Civil War which Hemingway panned in a national review and then apologized years later to Michael saying it was a great novel and he had been worried it would eclipse the coming For Whom The Bells Toll. The Strong Hand (1956) about the dead hand that holds back change when an Orthodox rabbi falls in love with a woman whose husband has been killed over the Pacific but not declared legally dead; I Didn’t Know I Would Live So Long (1973) about an out of fashion painter who leaves his marriage and then returns; Take the A Train (1978) about a Jewish boy who befriends a charismatic black con man from who he learns honor.

The day before the accident, Michael came to my Third Annual 30th Birthday Party. In the nine years we had known each other, it was the first time he visited my home. Two years before he had forgotten my (first) 30th birthday party (the second was never held) and called the following morning. He had remembered as he went to bed, and upset, had lain awake much of the night. He wanted to apologize and asked if I would forgive him.

He had finished his new novel on Saturday, the day before the party, and was rereading it. On Monday, he took it home with him as he did each night, stood near the bottom of his steep driveway, the manuscript in one hand, the garage door clicker in the other, pushed the button, lost his balance and toppled backwards. All six feet of him. Unable to break the fall, his head crashed into the cement. Neighbors across the street immediately called the paramedics, then ran to the house to get Dorothy. Though bleeding, Michael was still alert. They exchanged a few words and she kissed him on the lips, twice. He went into surgery, then into a coma and never regained consciousness. The world lost a treasure.


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The Stories Behind the Voyage of the Exodus

These video testimonies from the Toldot Yisrael Collection offer a behind the scenes look at the story of the famous ship

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

For a certain generation, the story of the Exodus, the ship that carried 4,500 Jewish refugees from post-war Europe to Mandatory Palestine, encapsulates the essence of Israel’s creation – a journey, an exodus – from the hellish depths of the Holocaust to the exhilarating heights of independence and nationhood.

Indeed, there are many who first became aware of the story of the modern State of Israel thanks to “Exodus” – the 1960 Hollywood hit film, though the movie is only very loosely based on the history of the actual ship.

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Toldot Yisrael project, which is hosted on the National Library of Israel’s various platforms, was able to gather several video interviews which tell the true story of the voyage of the Exodus, as well as provide a rare glimpse into events which transpired behind the scenes.

When Monica Levin finally saw the film starring Paul Newman, her father – Louis “Shorty” Levin – shocked his daughter by telling her, “I want you to know that that ship belonged to me…”

Levin had owned the ship back when it was known as the “President Warfield”.

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The organization that eventually purchased the ship from “Shorty” Levin was known as HaMossad LeAliyah Bet (“The Institution for Immigration B”). This was a branch of the Jewish underground Haganah organization, devoted to facilitating clandestine, illegal, Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

To mask its activities, the underground group made use of front organizations which it could hide behind. When it came to buying the President Warfield, things were run through a straw company answering to the very non-Jewish sounding name: “The Chinese American Industrial Corporation”. The only Jew on the company board was a Haganah operative who had a habit for popping up just about everywhere, the future mayor of Jerusalem – Teddy Kollek…

Monica Levin relates the full story below:


“Mr. Lopez, I have an envelope for you. Do you have an envelope for me?”

These were trying times. A third of world Jewry had just been annihilated in Europe, and the men and women of the various Zionist organizations had no intention of being deterred by bureaucratic or even legal obstacles getting in the way of what was seen as a matter of pure survival.

Before ships could be arranged to carry Jewish Holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine, those ships had to have their papers in order. David Macarov was one of those tasked with speaking to diplomatic consuls in New York, who could provide the flag papers necessary to embark on the rescue voyages. Unsurprisingly, Macarov often had to grease a few palms. A typical sentence of his became:

“Mr. Lopez, I have an envelope for you. Do you have an envelope for me?”

In a surprising twist, David Macarov also revealed how the voyage of the Exodus was tied to the price of bananas on the international market…


A ship to Oklahoma?

Sam Schulman was one of the few who boarded the President Warfield at its home port in Baltimore, on its way to collect refugees from France. Even in a friendly American port, there was a need for discretion and secrecy.

When Schulman reached the pier, he approached the men manning the ship at the docks…

“I says – ‘This the ship that’s goin’ to Palestine?’ They said, ‘No, no, no, we’re goin’ to Oklahoma.’ In my mind [I’m thinking]  – “Oklahoma is landlocked…”

Schulman went on to describe the fateful voyage of the Exodus in detail, including just how the ship was converted to hold so many refugees, as well as the dramatic altercations with the British Royal Navy…


You can find hundreds of interviews with the men and women of Israel’s founding generation here, and you can learn more about the Toldot Yisrael project here.

Thanks to Aryeh Halivni, director of Toldot Yisrael, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.


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