The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

Take a glimpse at the coded letters that expose a complex operation to smuggle Jewish women who were in danger out of Italy.

Image from the Livorno Hagadah


The following sentences appeared in a letter sent by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno of Livorno in 1858. Can you guess what the letter is referring to?

“Yesterday, three packages left the city… one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel. Off they went, on their way to a good peaceful life without harm. And may heaven have mercy on this merchandise.”

Let us explain.

A collection of letters donated to the National Library of Israel tells the story of secretive events that took place in Livorno in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters were written by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno (1800-1863) of Livorno, in response to letters from Moise Uzzielli of Florence which are not in out possession. The correspondence between the two men discusses the smuggling of women and their children out of Italy via the port of Livorno to various destinations along the Mediterranean coast.

The port of Livorno (Painting: Bernardino Poccetti). Click on the image to enlarge.

On the eve of Sukkot in the year 1858, Rabbi Piperno was in Pisa for a brit milah (otherwise known as a bris, a ritual circumcision), when he received an urgent letter from Livorno about a woman in danger in the city of Florence. The letter was from Moise Uzzielli who wrote in Italian and asked Piperno to help smuggle the woman out of Italy. Piperno hastened to reply and explained to Uzzielli that his request would not be easy to carry out, “because she is a woman, and because the matter occurred in our midst, and certainly they will search for her. We will risk ourselves fruitlessly, without achieving her salvation.”

“…write henceforth in the holy tongue and use vague language.” Avraham Piperno writes to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.


Despite his discouraging response, Piperno suggested to wait a few days and see what could be done. He also added an important instruction in his letter of reply – telling Uzzielli that, for reasons of secrecy, he should henceforth write in Hebrew and use vague language when describing the matter.

In the following correspondence, Piperno reported on the progress of the smuggling process and the technical challenges involved, giving us a rare peek into this curious historical phenomenon of smuggling Jewish women through the port of Livorno. His writings detail the existence of an entire community network  that set travel arrangements and maintained contact with various Jewish communities along the shores of the Mediterranean, that served as cities of refuge for fleeing women.

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The event described in the document began on September 22, 1858, and was concluded over a month later on October 28. Piperno encountered many difficulties along the way, some of which we learn about in his letters.

“…to inform him that the package he sent is still here,” Avraham Piperno’s second letter to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.

The smuggling plan was laid out in three phases: hiding the woman in Livorno until the day of the journey; sending her by ship to a Jewish community in one of the cities along the Mediterranean coast; and finally finding her work and a place of residence in that community. Piperno utilized his connections in Livorno and various Jewish communities to execute his plan, but he needed money to finance the operation. He asked Uzzielli to urgently transfer the necessary funds to him. In one of the letters, Piperno explains why he could not finance the matter locally. He writes: “Here I cannot take even a pence for such a thing, because they do not wish to give anything, even for our own packages.”

“…and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel,” the third letter of Abraham Piperno to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.

In keeping with his need for secrecy, Piperno refers to the escaping woman as a “package”, a very common word in a bustling port town like Livorno. We can also infer from his words that Livorno already has too many “packages” to handle. In order to clarify the state of affairs in Livorno to Uzzielli, Piperno informs him that he is already caring for a recent arrival from Rome, waiting to be smuggled out. The woman was traveling with her children and was also pregnant with another. Piperno describes the condition of the runaway in his secret code: “one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel.” We can, therefore, infer that the “packages” and “barrels” reached Livorno from many places and that Livorno served as a central smuggling depot for Italian Jews.

There was a brief debate about whether to send the woman to the Jewish community of Tunis or to that of Marseilles. The decision was ultimately made to send her to Marseilles “and to connect her with a single man who will attempt to accomodate her, ether in his home or in another home.” A ship would transport the woman to Marseilles. For this purpose, she would need to carry forged documents (a “transit pass” in the words of the letter). Placing a secret passenger on a ship was a very dangerous step in this process, and it was undertaken with the knowledge of the ship’s owner. In his fourth letter, Piperno reports, “Yesterday I spoke with the owner of the ship to hasten the delivery. He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after.” We do not know whether the owner of the ship was a Jew who cooperated out of sympathy for his people, or whether his loyalty had been purchased by Piperno. In any event, these documents give us a better understanding of the complexity of the matter and the large number of external factors involved in the smuggling process.

“He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after” the fourth letter. Click on the image to enlarge.

After all the hardships and challenges Piperno faced in his efforts to help this particular woman, his last letter details her successful escape to safety. The echo of his sigh of relief can still be heard in his cheerful words: “Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination… and blessed be the Lord, who blessed us with such a great mitzvah, and may he bless all those who joined in this mitzvah with life and good tidings.”

“Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination” the last letter of Abraham Piperno to Moise Uzzielli. Click on the image to enlarge.


Early evidence of a broader phenomenon

The phenomenon revealed here raises the question as to why the women were smuggled out of Italy, and if the phenomenon was unique to the period of the mid-19th century. A partial answer can be obtained from the London-Montefiore 467 manuscript, which includes copies of letters from the Jewish community of Livorno. Here we can see an excerpt of a letter sent to the community of Alexandria (around 1739-40), requesting help for a woman and her children who were whisked out of Italy for fear that their father would force them to convert:

“Our sources are speaking of a difficult and melancholy woman… She and her two sons spoke of her husband who entered into a spirit of folly and took his two sons with him in deceit and led them into the midst of the gentiles, subverting their honor without benefit, and they were almost lost… And because of the great miracle and effort of the leaders of the community… they were returned to us and he also returned with them, but there is no faith in his words…” The community acted quickly to send the children away for fear that the converters would try again.

Another letter sent to the community of Aleppo in 1754 deals with a girl who was pressured to “subvert her honor”- to convert to Christianity or to have sexual intercourse – or both. Subsequently, she was smuggled away in haste.

“She is a good girl as is her name… And she sits within the walls of her house with her mother…and the gentiles have laid their eyes on her on her to suvert her honor…She must be rushed out of this land.”

In both cases, we have no evidence as to whether the women’s trip was of a secret nature. These writings do however offer clues as to the circumstances that may have led to an urgent departure, as well as the existence of a network capable of providing immediate transport and maintening contact with various Jewish communities. Therefore, these other incidents may also be related to the smuggling of women out of Italy from the port of Livorno in the mid-19th century.


The Hungarian Noble Family That Took in the Exiled Jews

The Hungarian noble Batthyány family claims to have roots reaching back to the founding of Hungary. The family is said to be descended from the famous chieftain Kővágó-Örs, first mentioned in a document from the year 970 AC.

Order bearing the secret seal of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary regarding Berthold Elderbach/Ellerbach of Monyorókerék. Buda, 1470.

Count Lajos Batthyány served as Hungary's first Prime Minister in 1848. His image here is from a portrait in the Hungarian National Museum.

The Batthyány Family was an aristocratic family that served as a meeting point of different social classes between the 16th and 20th centuries and contributed greatly to the continuity of the previously Turkish-splintered Hungary, not only with their private armies and bodies of governance, but also through their contributions to Hungarian cultural, educational, political and medical history. In 1848, Count Lajos Batthyány even served as the first Prime Minister of Hungary. Today, the famous “Batthyány tér,” a square in Budapest, preserves the family’s memory.

The Batthyány family’s existence is continuously verifiable from 1398 when the Esztergomer Captain György Kővágóörsi received the estate of Batthyán with the market town Polgárdi from King Sigismund for his services in the fight against the Turks. For hundreds of years, the coat of arms of the Batthyány family was a pelican feeding his chicks with his own blood and a sword carrying lion below it.

Batthyanys Coat of Arm
Boldizsár and Benedek Batthyány’s Coat of Arms received from Ulászló the Second on December 12th, 1500 in Buda

Batthyanys newer Coat of Arms
The coat of arms went through some small changes over the centuries, but its central motif remained the same. Later, the lower part was bordered by a ribbon, that read in Latin, “FIDELITATE ET FORTITUDINE” (with fidelity and courage).

In the second half of the 17th century, when Emperor Leopold the First expelled the Jews from lower Austria and later forbade them from settling in the royal cities, the Batthyánys were among the major landowners, in addition to the noble Esterházy and Zichy families, who welcomed and accepted the Jews, allowing them to settle on their properties in the western part of Hungary as they saw a potential economic advantage in their presence in the local economic life. Typically, once the Jews settled down in the villages of the large estates and in the centers of the capital, they got actively involved in the economic life of the estate.

The first group of Jews came mainly from the Jewish communities of Nikolsburg and Uherský Brod (Magyarbród). The Jews were accommodated and resettled by Esterházy in Sopron county in the well-known “Seven Communities” (Sheva Kehilot) of the Eisenstadt (Kismarton) estate. In Rohonc (Rechnitz), on the Batthyánys estate was established in 1687 the first large Jewish community with more than 30 families. Their lives were governed by a letter of privilege received from the Batthyány landlords. The privileges provided by the Batthyány family, which laid down the duties and rights of Jews, were also used as a model for communities established in subsequent settlements.

Contrary to the seemingly positive attitude of the Batthyány family towards the Jews, the castle in Rohonc has a sad World War II history that is described in the British journalist David R. L. Litchtfield’s article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2007, as well in Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyany’s book “A Crime in the Family” that was published in 2017. Rohonc had been the property of the Batthyánys since the 16th century, but in the 19th-century, the property was transferred to the possession of the Thyssen family. In the 1930s, Count Iván Batthyány married the Rohonc born Margit Thyssen-Bornemisza and Rohonc returned to the Batthyány family.

In the spring of 1945, a party was held at the Castle of Rohonc on Palm Sunday evening (24th March). One hundred and eighty Jewish Hungarian forced laborers were murdered and buried in mass graves during the party. These 180 Jews were among the 600 Jews brought to the Burgenland settlement in Rohonc for the construction of the south-east rampart with the purpose of holding back the advancing Red Army. The mass shooting of 180 Jewish men who were found “unfit for work,” was ordered by Margit’s lover and Nazi sympathizer Joachim Oldenburg and by Franz Podezin, the NSDAP Commander of Rohonc, who freely and purposefully handed out guns to the partygoers. Fifteen of the Jewish prisoners were left alive and were tasked with digging the mass grave for the victims. After they completed their task, the fifteen survivors became victims and were murdered by Podezin and Oldenburg. With the completion of the shootings, the party guests went back to the castle to continue the celebrations with drink and dance. The otherwise immaculate name of the Batthyánys was disreputed following these events. Margit and her husband lived a long life in Bad Homburg in Germany. After their deaths in 1985 and 1989 respectively, the other members of the Batthyány family did not allow the couple to be buried in the family crypt.

The Batthyány Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Batthyány Collection at the National Library of Israel consists of 76 archival files (ARC. 4* 2013 – Batthyány family collection).

These files include about 200 records in Latin, German, Hungarian and Czech and include letters (correspondence), resolutions, orders, certificates and other administrative documents dealing with properties of all kind created by the Batthyány family members or other European medieval noblemen, kings, emperors and administrative workers between 1470 and 1868. It seems that none of these documents are connected to the Jews or their matters.

The Batthyány Family Collection includes documents from the second half of the 15th century issued by various kings and royal officials. The timeframe of the collection begins with this period and stretches all the way to the second half of the 19th century. The collection includes various paraphernalia, documents on heritage issues and other administrative documents that relate to the family’s elaborate mansions. The correspondence includes not only discussions with the most prominent personalities of the time but also communications with high official servants, domestic serfs and property governors who turned to the landlords during the course of their routine tasks, providing us with documentation of the problems of everyday life of that time. Among the administrative documentation from the 16th and 19th centuries are representations of the Ortenegg, Város-Szalónak, Rohonc, Németújvár, Körmend, Ördöglika, and Hidegkút estates. The documents issued in the 18th century have a political and military character and include several matters regarding the Batthyány family members who were prominent in their national positions.

The majority of the documents are clearly related to the Batthyánys and their affairs, however, there are also a number of private letters and official documents which could not be linked directly to the family. Their possible direct or indirect relation to the family has not been disproven but any attempt to reveal this connection may require a deeper knowledge of the Batthyány family tree and its history.

Despite their age, the documents, written on parchment and paper, are in relatively good shape but some of them will undergo special conservation treatment at the National Library in the near future. Because of the sensitivity of these archival materials to humidity and other climate conditions and because of their high historical value and importance, the Batthyány Family Collection is kept in the Library’s Rare Collections Department.

The collection now found in the National Library of Israel completes the archive of Batthyány family in Hungary, which is massive and well known, serving as a major source of information for many historians.  Unfortunately, the archive suffered many misfortunes including damage caused by Soviet soldiers in Körmend during World War II and fire damage during the revolution of 1956 in Budapest. Today it is kept at the National Library of Hungary in Budapest (Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár) including almost 212 meters of archival material created between 1501-1944.

Here are some examples of the interesting historical documents of the Batthyány Family Collection at the National Library of Israel:

Matyas kiraly
Order bearing the secret seal of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary regarding Berthold Elderbach/Ellerbach from Monyorókerék. Buda, 1470.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 02


Elisabeth Swetkowitz
An agreement to divide the estate of Elisabeth Batthyány (née Swetkowitz, wife of Kristóf Battyhány) written by the Austrian inheritance advisor Marshal Wilhelm von Puchaim. Vienna, 09.06.1535

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 05


Anna Lemberg
Inventory of silver, clothes, garments and other property of Anna Szwetkowitz, widow of Joseph von Lemberg. Ortenegg, 04.03.1558.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 09


Balthasar Literatus Schytarocky
Testimony in Latin signed by Balthasar Boldizsár III Batthyány. Nikolsburg, 16.04.1572. Many of his letters are declared lost. Boldizsár had a great passion for books and had about one thousand of them in his personal library.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 14


Bethlen Gabor Thurzo Imre
Letter from the king of Hungary and Prince of Transylvania, Gábor Bethlen to Count Betlenfalvi Imre Thurzó, about an event planned for 16.03.1621. The letter mentions, among others, Friedrich V, Elector Palatinate of the Rhine.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 18


Komornyik István
One letter from the Bailiff István Komornyik to Count Ádám Batthyány reporting on matters concerning escaped bondservants, cattle, debts, Turkish prisoners, battles, etc. Veszprém, 24.03.1639.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 21


Miklós Postákovich
A contract concerning the leasing of family property in Hidegkút involving Ambrosio Ludwig von Reichhardtsperg, Miklós Postákovich, Cristoph Batthyány etc. Koschendorf, 13.06.1696. The document includes a financial redemption for the leased estate (additional text) for 300 florins signed by Augustin Reichhartperg in Güssing on 26.05.1745 (note the difference in years).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 40


Miklós Postákovich
A similar contract concerning the leasing of family property in Hidegkút involving Ambrosio Ludwig von Reichhartsberg, etc. Güssing, 20.08.1696. The document also includes the redemption of the leased estate for a fee of 1000 florins from Augustin Reichhartperg signed also in Güssing on 26.05.1745 (note the difference in years).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 40


Güssinger Zeitung 1930

Güssinger Zeitung 1930
An article in the Güssinger Zeitung newspaper from 21.09.1930 that mentions the redemption of a previously leased (1696) Batthyány family property in Hidegkút for 300 florins in 1745.


Batthyány Eleonora
Instructions from Eleonora Batthyány to the Prefect Sámuel Palotai concerning money matters – rental, sale and credit contracts with the Dominican priests in the city of Sopron (Ödenburg), Steinamanger, etc. Vienna, 15.02.1713.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 47


László Ignác Bercsényi
A barely legible Hungarian letter from László Ignác Bercsényi to count Ferenc Batthyány concerning a future meeting in Rohonc. Szombathely, 10.05.1714.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 48


Galánthai József Esterházy
A letter from Galánthai József Esterházy in Vienna to the Hungarian chancellor Count Lajos Batthyány of Német-Újvár. Cseklész (today Bernolákovo), 15.02.1739.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 51


Maria Theresia - Philipp von Batthyány
Imperial mandate signed by the Holy Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary, Maria Theresia (Theresa) given to Count Philipp von Batthyány (1731-1795), youngest son of Ludwig von Batthyány, allowing him to serve in the Széchenyi Husar Regiment as Lieutenant Colonel. Vienna, 10.10.1760.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 60


Count Philipp von Batthyány
Imperial decree appointing Count Philipp von Batthyány (1731-1795), youngest son of Ludwig von Batthyány, to the rank of Major-General (General Major) and as a member of the Secret Council on a trial basis. Vienna, 08.08.1771.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 65


Karl Carl von Batthyány
Notes on purchased property matters written and signed by Karl (Carl) von Batthyány, Lord of Güssing. Güssing, 30.09.1792. On the same document: additional property notes dated 18.01.1827 in Güssing concerning Johann Batthyány and Philipp Batthyány.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 68


Gábor Sényi
A letter from Gábor Sényi, prince Fülöp Batthyány’s governor of goods, to the property office in Körmend concerning the rental of the premises of the castle of Körmend and the sale of horses and wool from the lordships of Kanizsa and Ludbreg. Vienna, 18.06.1852.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 71


Holic - Goods and Property Administration in Körmend
Two letters from the Imperial Royal Administrative Office in Holitsch (Holíč) to the Goods and Property Administration in Körmend concerning an auction, etc. 09.06.1854.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 73


The Batthyány Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

How Anti-Semitism Robbed the Jewish Miss Europe of Her Crown

Erzsébet Simon faced extreme anti-Semitism despite the glory she brought to her homeland.

Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon

Erzsébet Simon, image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

With the conclusion of the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary underwent a period of extreme instability and political unrest.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and Hungary was reborn as an independent republic, bringing about a period of tremendous upheaval. The country struggled politically, economically and culturally to rebuild and regain its status and position among its neighbors. After years of dramatic changes, in 1929, Hungary finally enjoyed a taste of normalcy, hosting the first-ever Miss Hungary beauty pageant with the hopes that, after years of ugly political unrest, the nation could return to its former beauty.

There was a spark of excitement in the air as the competition kicked off on January 6, 1929. Two hundred and eighteen candidates stepped forward to compete in the first ever nation-wide beauty competition to take place in the country. Among the crowd of beauty queens stood Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon, a young Jewish girl born in 1909 to Sándor Simon, a prominent man and the chief physician of their small town of Keszthely. Böske took to the stage and immediately captured the spotlight, standing out from the crowd of contestants with her bright blue eyes and striking blonde hair that made up her classic beauty. She quickly rose to the top of the competition, winning the hearts of the audience and the judges. Erzsébet Simon was crowned Miss Hungary and declared to be the most beautiful girl in the country.

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Along with the glory and honor that came with winning the top prize in her homeland, the crown of Miss Hungary granted Böske entry into the Miss Europe pageant. She traveled from Hungary to Paris where, on February 18, 1929, she competed against sixteen other beauty queens from across the continent. Fighting against the odds, the most beautiful girl in Hungary was crowned the most beautiful girl in Europe. Hungary returned to center stage with Böske bringing great honor to her country. She was congratulated by the highest of society in France and was showered with praise by the President of the French Republic, artists, celebrities and diplomats.

Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon
Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon, Image from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

A month after taking the crown of Europe, Simon finally returned home from Paris. She was greeted by cheering crowds as thousands came out to see her and celebrate her triumph in the name of Hungary. She was congratulated by the Mayor of Budapest who thanked her for sharing her beauty and reclaiming the glory of her nation from its opponents in the Great War.

Unfortunately for Böske, not everyone was pleased with her victory. Simon quickly discovered that no level of success could win over the hearts of the anti-Semites. During the welcoming ceremony at the train station, she was heckled by several anti-Semitic members of the crowd who called out “Miss Palestine,” and “filthy Jew,” though their shouts were largely ignored.

Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon
Erzsébet “Böske” Simon, image from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Simon chose not to do many public events and instead decided she would host only one autograph signing appearance to be held on March 17, 1929, an event that was interrupted by crowds of anti-Semitic demonstrators who arrived to protest. She was verbally attacked by the crowd who jeered and booed her calling her an “ugly Jewess” and an “untrue Hungarian.” Later that same day, a group of nationalist students protested outside Böske’s apartment, shouting anti-Semitic slurs against her and the Jewish people as a whole.

The crown of Miss Europe granted Böske entry into the Miss Universe pageant scheduled to take place in Texas that year. Due to political pressures and continued anti-Semitism, she gave up her spot in the competition along with several acting job offers she had received from the United States. The severe anti-Semitism she faced drove Erzsébet Simon to retire from public life giving up a future of fame and fortune.

After a whirlwind entry to the world stage, Erzsébet quietly exited stage left in favor of a more simple and quiet life as a citizen of her country. She married a young man named Pál Brammer who worked in the textile industry but they divorced shortly after. Erzsébet married for the second time a little while later. Her second husband, Daniel Job, was a theatre director and the couple survived the Holocaust together in Budapest. They were spared from the deportations and the violence though other members of their families were not as fortunate.

Daniel Job died in 1950 and Erzsébet Simon, the most beautiful woman in Europe, died on October 8, 1970 from health complications.


More on the subject: The Year of Jewish Beauty Queens

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

“Now I think that Kafka himself is saying to me: ‘You have done enough’”

From Zurich to Tel Aviv: A journey tracing the legacy of the writer, composer and philosopher: Max Brod

מקס ברוד

When authors, artists, and academics were forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 (and later Austria and other countries), they generally left in such a haste that they were unable to bring along personal effects and their private archives were often poorly stored or lost altogether. Moving (or being moved) to new cities and countries, last-minute escapes and deteriorating living conditions became the natural enemy threatening the survival of archival materials: documents, correspondence, manuscripts and drafts.

The same was true of the personal libraries of great writers.

Accounts from Jewish artists who fled the Nazi regime best illustrate this matter. In 1934, writer Stefan Zweig began sending away parts of his personal archive (a section of which was sent to the National Library in Jerusalem), but he also left portions of it at almost every stop on his way to Brazil. When the poetess and painter Else Lasker-Schüler fled Nazi Germany in 1933, considerable portions of her written material remained in Berlin. The trail of this material has long run cold and will probably never be rediscovered. Walter Benjamin’s papers were hidden away by an acquaintance in the National Library in Paris. Benjamin sent other materials to his close friend in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem. There are rumors that on his last journey (which was ended at Portbou near the Franco-Spanish border when Benjamin took his own life), he carried with him a suitcase with an unfinished manuscript. To this day, what happened to the suitcase remains a mystery.

מקס ברוד
Max Brod. His diaries reveal a who’s who of the European cultural world in the first half of the twentieth century

After 1945, this situation led a number of archival institutions around the world to invest efforts in locating and collecting the scattered remains of personal legacies, collections and archives lost in the Holocaust. The actions of these institutions helped to rescue and reveal important materials, but they also created a certain competition among the organizations as they raced to track down manuscripts, letters and entire archives. This is precisely what happened in the case of the personal archive of the author, philosopher and playwright, Max Brod (1884-1968), whose 50th memorial will be observed on December 20, 2018.

Although Brod managed to transfer large portions of his archive to Israel, we will see that it only narrowly avoided the fate of the archives mentioned above. The long journey of Max Brod’s archive to the National Library has been the subject of extensive media coverage in Israel and around the world.

There is no need to delve into the details of the affair that spanned four courts, scores of lawyers and even more journalists. I will only note that, in 1961, Max Brod stated in his will that his secretary, Esther Hoffe, was to manage his estate after his death and arrange for all written material to be transferred to the National Library of Israel or to another suitable place. Esther Hoffe did not execute this order posthaste. Instead, she began selling important items in the collection. In 1971, Hoffe sold several letters written to Brod by Franz Kafka and others, as well as three original short manuscripts written by Kafka. Other items were also sold later on.

This selling off of the various items in the collection culminated in the sale of a manuscript of Kafka’s novel, “The Trial,” for two million dollars in 1988. The majority of sales were made on the free market and not to public archives. It is, therefore, difficult to identify any marked intention to preserve the unity of Max Brod’s archive, including the letters and manuscripts written by his friend, Kafka. The German Literature Archive in Marbach tried to acquire the archive from the Hoffe family in order to transfer the works to Germany. But, due to the unequivocal ruling of three Israeli courts in favor of the National Library’s position on the matter, Max Brod’s estate remains in Israel. The first part of the collection is currently undergoing cataloguing and registration in the Archives Department of the National Library. The Brod archive provides a valuable addition to parallel archival collections of Prague-based authors (Felix Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Oskar Baum and others), whose works already reside in the library.

The sections of the archive in Max Brod’s possession arrived in Palestine intact, together with its creator who was able to arrange a last minute immigration from the Czech Republic in March 1939. Brod continued to write in his new home and even extended his influence in the theater world as an artistic advisor at Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv.

During the nearly 30 years in which Max Brod lived in Israel, his personal archive grew as he wrote and accumulated many materials. In the 1940s, Brod gave the Kafka writings to the Schocken family (well-known publishers) for safekeeping. However, those writings which Brod received as a gift from Kafka were transferred to bank vaults in 1952 and 1957. All of Franz Kafka’s other writings (those that never belonged to Brod) were handed over to the author’s nieces in the 1960s, and eventually reached the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The majority of Kafka’s writings that were owned by Brod were placed in a bank vault in Zurich and, over the years, Esther Hoffe removed items to sell them at auction.

Following the decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court, other parts of the Brod archive were removed from bank vaults located in Tel Aviv in December 2016 and January 2017. The archive was declared a public trust and now, fifty years after Brod’s passing, the time has come to allow the materials to be examined by researchers and scholars. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the contents of the vaults were transferred to the National Library, which was granted the status of custodian of the collection.

Among the items found in the vaults were manuscripts of a number of novels composed by Brod, including: “Der Meister” – “The Master”, published in 1952, a novel about Jesus, “Galilei”, written in 1948, about the astronomer Galileo Galilei, “The Prague Circle” from 1966 and others. These novels were published (in German and several other languages), and some of them even became bestsellers. But Max Brod’s diaries are what will shed new light on his life, his work and the period in which he lived. Several of these diaries were discovered in the vaults (others were removed by the Hoffe family in the 1980s and have never resurfaced). In the diaries we mainly find Brod’s own reflections, as well as various stages of his artistic work and descriptions of significant events in his life.

For example, in one diary from 1925-1928, Brod recorded his thoughts and described his efforts to help Franz Kafka’s last wife, Dora Diamant, find work. In a list from October 1926, Brod mentions an entire network of Kafka’s friends who had tried to help Dora. Robert Klopstock thought that Dora Diamant would be best suited to be a kindergarten teacher, but Lisa Weltsch (Robert Weltsch’s sister) had already found Dora a position which she ultimately turned down. Brod wrote a letter to the Neue Rundschau (New Perspective) magazine in Berlin recommending her for a job. He also wrote to Willy Haas, the founder of the influential literary journal, Die Literarische Welt (The World of Literature), and to Berthold Viertel, a writer and director who is well known today.

Alas, the group’s effort was for naught. Dora continued to inhabit an unheated apartment without enough food, her sole source of income stemming from a monthly allowance given to her by Robert Klopstock. One can almost hear Brod’s audible sigh as he wrote these concluding lines: “Now I think Kafka himself is saying to me: ‘You have done enough.'”

The correspondence found in the archive is extensive and impressive. It can be characterized as a type of who’s who of the European cultural world in the first four decades of the twentieth century. There are letters by the philosopher Walter Benjamin (who did not particularly appreciate Max Brod’s work), by Hugo Heller (the book dealer, musicologist and friend of Sigmund Freud) from Vienna, by the communist composer Paul Dessau and by the pioneer of literary expressionism, Kurt Hiller. Brod was in contact with Hiller for at least 40 years and even appeared with him at literary events in Prague. Surprisingly, Hiller is mentioned only once in the memoirs of Max Brod’s life, “A Life of Quarrel.” Max Brod had even corresponded with the founder of the famous Die Weltbühne magazine, Siegfried Jacobsohn. The letters, found in the vaults in Tel Aviv, illustrate how connected Brod was with writers, journalists, scribes, and other literary professionals. Their analysis will enrich the picture of the historical period in which they were written and may even change our understanding of it.


ברוד והילר, שנת 1910
Max Brod and Hiller, 1910

As mentioned above, some items from Brod’s archive are still hidden away in safes in Switzerland. The National Library is working to find a solution, within the Swiss legal system, to transfer these items to Jerusalem. The vaults in Switzerland hold the most valuable materials in Brod’s archive: first and foremost, Franz Kafka’s many letters and even a few small manuscripts (“Wedding Preparations in the Country”, “Letter to His Father”). Kafka’s writings in Hebrew and a number of his paintings are also contained in these vaults.

In addition, the Swiss vaults contain other important pieces of Max Brod’s correspondence including letters by Klaus, Erica and Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, Albert Einstein and Martin Buber. It is reasonable to assume that these parts of the Brod estate were placed in Switzerland for fear of being kept in Israel. They are thought to have been intended for sale, as was the case with Kafka’s two manuscripts, “The Trial” and “Description of a Struggle”, as well as about forty letters written by Stefan Zweig to Brod.

As if the splitting of the archive was not enough, ten years ago thieves broke into the Tel Aviv home of Eva Hoffe, the daughter of Esther Hoffe. In the house were archival materials that the family had refused to account for, their nature and quantity unknown. Five years ago, thousands of pages in Brod’s handwriting appeared in a German manuscript market and were offered for sale.

Our colleagues at the German Literature Archive in Marbach drew our attention to these documents and, eventually, the German police intervened. In a lengthy process, the papers were examined and it turned out that most of them undeniably belonged to the Brod estate. Among the recovered documents were many letters between Brod and his wife Elsa, lists and manuscripts of several of his works (including the early novel Schloss NornepyggeNornepygge Castle). There were also notebooks from his studies at the Prague Gymnasium and various photographs. These documents are slated to be transferred to the National Library in the near future.


כתב ידו של ברוד מתוך יומניו
Brod’s handwriting from his diaries, June 23, 1946: “I have browsed through the old diaries, mainly in numbers 5 and 6, but I have changed quite a bit. At the time, I lived in the illusion that a few good things (a solution to unemployment) could come from evil (the Nazis). Everywhere I saw a mixture of good and evil, good came out of evil and unfortunately the opposite as well. But all this is nonsense. Now I see things clearly and firmly. The terrible doubts were so strong in me because these masochistic Jews (Blau, Thomas Keller, etc.) repeatedly preached in the newspaper Prager Tagblatt: ‘It is true that for us it is not good for what is happening in Germany, but we must not lose objectivity.’ In the end we saw how wrong that assumption was.”


The various locations in which pieces of the Max Brod archive have been discovered (not to mention those yet undiscovered) show the extent to which private ownership can be harmful to the condition of the material. An organic archive that was brought to Israel almost eighty years ago was scattered to a number of locations across the world (most of which were never intended to professionally preserve documents of historical-cultural significance) over the course of fifty years, following Brod’s death.

The full extent to which keeping archival materials in a private home can be unsuitable and even dangerous was exemplified when a team of archivists visited Eva Hoffe’s residence (following her passing) in Tel Aviv in mid-September to identify additional parts of the Max Brod estate and transfer them to the National Library. Prior to the visit, the team was warned that they would encounter the most difficult of conditions – and so it was.

Many cats and cockroaches watched us suspiciously as we discovered and collected a considerable amount of archival materials and books. This is not the place to describe the catastrophic conditions in detail, but it is reasonable to assume that (following the unprofessional maintenance) the National Library’s rehabilitation lab will have a great deal of work in the coming months. Perhaps the sole positive in this situation is that Max Brod was spared the sight of his life’s work having been given this disrespectful treatment.