Chaim Topol’s Unbelievable Journey to “Fiddler on the Roof”

The lead role? In English? In London? Dan Almagor, the translator of "Fiddler on the Roof" into Hebrew, almost laughed in Chaim Topol’s face when the actor told him he was auditioning for the role of Tevye the Milkman in the prestigious British production. Although he had seen Topol’s failure only a year before live on American television, he could not have been happier to admit his mistake…

Chaim Topol on the set of the film "Fiddler on the Roof", the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1966, 31-year-old Chaim Topol, a well-known and beloved actor in Israel, had cast his sights on the great big world. A year before, he won the Golden Globe for “best new actor” for his role as Salah Shabbati, and played a supporting role alongside Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra in his first Hollywood film, Cast a Giant Shadow. Born and raised in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, Topol struggled with English. He claimed his entire vocabulary at this point amounted to around fifty words.

Topol never imagined that a year later he would be performing on London’s West End stage speaking perfect English. Dan Almagor, who translated Fiddler on the Roof into Hebrew, also doubted Topol’s ability to take on a major role in the English language. He had good reason for thinking so, having seen with his own eyes Topol’s failed attempt at singing a song from Fiddler on the Roof in English.

In a column Almagor published in Maariv on April 30, 1967, he recounted Topol’s obstacle-laden “romance” with Tevye the Milkman that ended in a successful and long-lasting marriage, thanks not only to Topol’s personal talent and charm, but also to his grit and determination. With a mixture of wonder and satisfaction, Almagor told of how Topol, who just a year earlier couldn’t sing a single verse from the musical in English, won over London’s theater crowd. Almagor, who was in Los Angeles at the time pursuing his doctoral studies, had met Topol a few times on the latter’s visits to the US and witnessed first-hand the events that led to Topol playing Tevye. He even played a supporting role in Topol’s getting the part.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

Photo from the film Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas and Chaim Topol (with beard and keffiyeh), Kibbutz Hulda, 1965. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.]

Almagor wrote in his article:

“The first time I spoke with Chaim Topol about his role as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about two years ago, on his first visit to Los Angeles to accept the Golden Globe award for his performance in Salah Shabbati. That same week, I had by chance just finished translating the musical into Hebrew, and Chaim and his wife Galia were the first Israelis to hear the Hebrew version of the play, when we were all sitting on the balcony of their room at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel. And since Chaim’s name was mentioned as one of the possible leads for the role in the Israeli production, alongside “Bomba” Tzur, I immediately sent a telegram to the Israeli producer in Hebrew (in English transliteration), using these exact words: “Please notify me who will play Tevye in Israel Stop Topol or Bomba Stop If Topol is chosen we can work on the role here in Los Angeles.”

Minutes after Almagor sent the telegram to Israel, he received a polite phone call from a Western Union representative. After a several minutes-long conversation during which Almagor was trying to understand why Western Union was refusing to send the telegram, the representative asked him, “But what is ‘Bomba’?” Almagor, of course, had been referring to the Israeli actor Yosef “Bomba” Tzur, who was finally chosen to play Tevye the Milkman in the first Israeli production of the musical. The Western Union representative was concerned that this was some kind of hidden message being sent about a terrorist bomb plot. After Almagor explained the misunderstanding to the representative’s satisfaction, the telegram was finally sent out.

Chaim Topol with his family, 1970, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Topol didn’t get the part in Giora Godik’s Israeli production of Fiddler. After Bomba Tzur eventually retired from the role, Topol split it with Shmuel Rodensky, playing it on alternate nights for a total of 40 performances on the Israeli stage. Almagor even hinted in his article that Topol appeared in the Hebrew production for only about a month and a half because Godik wasn’t satisfied with his acting.

A year later, Almagor and Topol met again, this time behind the scenes of Danny Kaye’s successful TV show. Topol was a guest on the show to promote the movie Cast a Giant Shadow, and Kaye, who knew that Topol had played Tevye in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof, suggested that they sing a song together from the musical, in English. They chose the song “L’Chaim.”

But then they ran into a problem. Almagor recalled:

“After two attempts at singing the song in English, Danny Kaye turned to his young Israeli colleague, and said with a smile: ‘You know, Chaim, instead of you breaking your teeth to sing the song in English, I will sing it in the Hebrew translation!’ It was an amusing idea, and Chaim was quick to introduce me to Danny Kaye and the crew as the play’s translator. ‘Great,’ said Danny. ‘Write down the Hebrew words to the song using English letters.’”

Here Almagor and Topol encountered a new problem—neither of them could remember Almagor’s translation. Almagor had to recreate the translation he had written for the song on the spot while Danny Kaye and his team waited. You can see the result in this video, in which Danny Kaye reveals the reason why they are singing the Hebrew version of the song. You can see how Topol struggles with English, and how uncomfortable he is conversing in a language that is not his mother tongue:

After that experience, it’s no wonder that Almagor was taken by surprise by Topol’s request the next time they met.

Almagor was finishing up a 10-week visit to Israel, and on the last night of his stay he went to see Topol on the set of the movie Ervinka. Between takes, Topol called him over and asked him for a small favor. “But promise not to tell anyone. So they won’t make fun,” Topol said. Almagor promised, and Topol asked: “As soon as you get back to the States, send me the English version of Fiddler on the Roof right away.” “Why,” Almagor asked: “He looked around carefully, to make sure no one was listening. ‘There’s a chance that I will be invited to London soon, for an audition in connection with Fiddler,’ he told me.  ‘And I want to surprise them, and learn a bit of the English text before the trip.’ ‘For what part?’ I asked innocently. ‘I know you won’t believe it,’ he stammered, ‘it’s for the role of Tevye’.”

Although he had promised Topol, Almagor found it hard to stop himself from laughing.

“The leading role? In English? In London? I remembered how Danny Kaye preferred to sing ‘L’Chaim!’ in Hebrew instead of waiting for Topol to learn the English. I thought of the London theater. Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook. I remembered the promises to the other stars of the Israeli Fiddler on the Roof production – tempting promises of performances abroad that ended in bitter disappointment. It seemed that Topol read my thoughts. ‘What do you care?’’ he whispered. ‘Send the text. Promise?’… I confess that I didn’t believe for a minute that he would get the part. I didn’t even think he would go to London for the audition.”

“A Great Success for Topol in London” – Lamerhav, February 29, 1967

Despite his skepticism, Almagor kept his word and when he returned to the US he sent Topol the English text. He was angry with himself for spending more than two dollars on mailing it to Israel. For several months, Almagor heard nothing from Topol. He assumed he had failed the audition, and thought no more of it.

Then came the reviews from London. Everyone was praising the amazing Israeli actor playing the role of Tevye on the West End stage. Almagor hurried to send Topol a telegram, this time in English:

“I was happy to hear that London’s Rothschild will soon be singing ‘If I Were Topol’. Stop. Just remember, you still owe me two dollars and ten cents.” [The famous line “If I were a rich man…” was translated into Hebrew as “If I were a Rothschild…”]

Chaim Topol and the actors of Fiddler on the Roof. From the play at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. A selection of archival footage from the Chaim Topol Archive is available digitally. Courtesy of the family and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and University of Haifa

Our circuitous story is not over yet. Two months later, according to Almagor, he flew from New York to Tel Aviv. He decided to stop over for one night in London to watch Chaim Topol playing Tevye the Milkman in English with his own eyes, and see if there was any truth to the rage reviews gushing over his acting performance. He got his answer already during the taxi ride from the airport:

“The red-nosed taxi driver asked me in a typical cockney accent how long I was in town for.  And when he heard that I would only be in London for one night, he immediately said: ‘Well, there’s only one thing you mustn’t miss, especially if you’re in London for one night… there’s a new musical in town, not to be missed,’ he said to me, ‘… that is, if you manage to get a ticket. Fiddler on the Roof. Have you heard of the play? It features a young, outstanding actor. Topol, from Israel. You know, Israel…’ I swear to you this is word for word what he said. And this without me giving him the slightest hint that I’m Israeli.” The driver surprised Almagor with his knowledge of the musical and its star. He told Almagor the content of the reviews praising Topol and even gossiped about his salary, which was higher than that of any other actor on the London stage at the time.

“Then the driver commented sadly: ‘You know, I’m afraid you won’t see him there again, in Israel,’ and after a second thought he added with the same melancholy attitude, ‘Actually, we too will surely lose him soon.’ He suddenly spoke of Topol as if he had been a British national treasure for generations,” wrote Almagor in his article.

Maariv, August 6, 1971

When Almagor met Topol backstage before the show, he found the actor in a thoughtful mood: “‘Remember how we used to peek in the newspaper… to see what plays were currently being performed in London and who the new actors were that had been discovered on its stages?’ mused Topol while putting on his makeup. ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize the wealth of possibilities for an actor in this play until I saw Rodensky. Even Zero Mostel [the first actor to play Tevye the Milkman in the Broadway production – L.H.] didn’t make that much of an impression on me. It’s a pity that I didn’t have any director or assistant in Israel who could work with me on the part the way we should have.  But here—we spent four whole months working. There are no shortcuts here’.”

Almagor returned to his seat in the audience and excitedly awaited Topol’s entry on the stage.

“I had seen five different performances of Fiddler on the Roof and was a bit worried about Topol’s appearance on the English stage,” Almagor wrote. “But from the first moment he stepped on stage, I knew there was no more reason to fear. Our ‘Salah’ controls the audience and the stage like a ‘star’ and his English is nothing like what it was the year before on Danny Kaye’s show… here and there, one can still sense some stiffness, due to the foreign language, but this too will surely pass with time… and when the show ended, and the London audience rose to its feet, enthusiastically applauding to loud chants of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’, I had to pinch myself…”

A poster ad promoting the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

A few years after successfully playing Tevye in the West End, Chaim Topol got the role of Tevye the Milkman in the Hollywood production of the musical. He won the part over veteran actors, even Zero Mostel, who had originated the role on Broadway. Generations of actors had embraced Mostel’s iconic performance of Tevye on stages around the world, but when it came time to make the movie based on the musical, Norman Jewison, the film’s director, felt that Mostel would overshadow the film with his larger-than-life performance. “I didn’t feel he was a Russian Milkman,” he said in a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof. Then Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof, approached him and said: “‘You know, there is this Israeli guy, Topol, playing the role of Tevye in London.” “I flew to London. I saw Topol and I saw the play and suddenly it felt true, it felt credible. I felt like I wasn’t watching an American production with someone from Brooklyn. I felt he was proud to be Jewish,” Jewison recalled.

Fiddler on the Roof was also an international success as a film and won three Oscars and two Golden Globes in 1971, one of them for Topol for his performance in the film. Chaim Topol would return to the role of Tevye the Milkman over the years, including in a Broadway production in the late 1980s. In 1997 he again sang “If I were a Rothschild”, in Hebrew, in the Avraham “Deshe” Pashanel production here in Israel.

Around the World in Three Years: How the “Tehran Children” Were Rescued

In February 1943, the “Tehran Children” arrived in Israel. These child refugees from Poland were gathered in Iran from where they were sent via a circuitous route to Mandatory Palestine in one of WWII's most comprehensive and successful rescue operations. Documents and photos in the Ein Harod Archive offer an intimate glimpse into the complex absorption process and heart-wrenching personal stories

The “Tehran Children" on a train bound for Mandatory Palestine, 1943, photo courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives

The train pulls into the station. Children stare out from the carriage windows and doorways. Hundreds of small, sad faces pressing up against the windows and doors, looking with astonishment at the strangers waiting for them on the platform.

The year is 1943. No, this is not another awful scene of children being sent to their deaths in the East. It is the opposite. This particular train carries children who have been rescued from the European inferno, and it is passing through stations of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel—Rehovot, Lod, Hadera, Binyamina and Atlit—providing the residents with an opportunity to welcome the refugees with open arms.

The strangers on the platform cry, smile, wave and extend a hand, cakes and flowers to the embarrassed and surprised children. They sing songs that some of the children have already learned the words to from the counselors at the transit camp in Tehran: Hatikva, Shir Hama’a lot, and others.

Among the children are two brothers: Aryeh and Moshe Drucker. Aryeh is much older than his fifteen years, a result of what he has witnessed and endured. Moshe is ten years old, still a child, perhaps thanks to his protective older brother who makes sure he remains so.

Some of the Tehran Children standing outside the train at Atlit. Aryeh Druker is the first on the left.

The names of the Drucker brothers are the first on the orderly list of children preserved in the Ein Harod Archive. Name. Date of birth. Country of birth: Poland.

While going through the yellowing and almost crumbling documents in the archive, just before they begin to undergo the process of conservation and digitization at the National Library of Israel, we discover that Moshe is still alive, and that he is happy to talk with us.

The list of the children preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

From Poland to the Children’s Transit Camp in Tehran

20,000 kilometers, 719 children and three continents—these are the dry figures behind the rescue mission. The children, collected from orphanages and gulags across the Soviet Union, were transferred to a temporary tent camp in Tehran. From there, they set out, together with counselors and other adult refugees, on the long and circuitous journey to the Land of Israel. They came to be known collectively as the “Tehran Children”.

Almost all the children were born in pre-war Poland, in the eastern part that was transferred to Russian control as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Polish Jews who suddenly found themselves on the Soviet side of the border were quickly labelled as enemies of Mother Russia. Many were sent to Siberia or the endless Asian steppes of the USSR. Many others had fled there on their own accord after the German invasion in 1941.

“We actually came from Katowice,” says Moshe, “but when the war broke out, mother, Aryeh and I were visiting Aunt Rosa, in Polish Ukraine. And we were ‘stuck’ there.” On the day Poland was partitioned, their little family was also torn apart: all of a sudden, there was a border separating Clara, Aryeh and Moshe from Leon (the father) and Herman (the older brother). A border that could no longer be crossed.

When Clara was put on the train to Siberia with her two sons, her world shattered. She never imagined that it was there that she would find the chance to save her children.

The fact that things were worse in Germany did not make life in Siberia any easier. After almost two years of battling hunger, cold and disease, and without any way of being able to properly feed or clothe her sons, at the first opportunity, Clara placed them in an orphanage.

“At night we would sometimes sneak back to her house to sleep,” Moshe recalled, “and we would bring food with us, what we managed to steal from the kitchen. If it weren’t for our leftovers, there would have been days when she wouldn’t have had anything to eat.”

When the Polish government-in-exile established an army under the command of General Władysław Anders, inside Russian territory, the Soviet authorities allowed Polish citizens to join it by crossing the border into Iran, which was then under British control. This exceptional sharing of interests was a rare chance for the refugees inside the Soviet Union to escape.

In order not to miss out on this opportunity, Zionist activists worked to collect Jewish children from the orphanages, in the hope that the British authorities would eventually approve their entry into the Land of Israel.

With a heavy heart, and knowing that she would probably never see them again, Clara chose the option that was more likely to save her sons’ lives: she sent them with the HeHalutz and Histadrut activists to Iran and from there to the Land of Israel.

When the Anders Army arrived in Tehran together with the Jewish refugees attached to it, the Jewish Agency set up a temporary camp for the 719 children, most of them orphaned from at least one parent. A majority still didn’t even know what had happened to their parents or siblings.

There, for the first time in close to three years, they no longer had to worry about their most basic needs. There were now adults who cared for them. The counselors came from Mandatory Palestine, or were refugees themselves, graduates of the various Zionist training courses in Eastern Europe. The director of the operation, who was also beginning to plan the complex absorption process, was Henrietta Szold, who until then managed the Jewish Agency’s bureau for youth immigration.

She reported to the annual council meeting of the “Institute for Children and Youth”:

“The members of the HeHalutz organization in Tehran removed the Jewish children from the Polish group and placed them in a special camp, a camp that consists of one small house, one large barracks and tents. Most of the children we are waiting for are currently living in these tents. They have no beds; they sleep on the floor. Their upkeep is reasonable. They have blankets but no clothes; there is not enough instruction.”

With Szold at the helm, aided by her assistant Hans Beyth, the absorption program was managed down to the minute details that only someone who cared deeply and truly for the children’s safety and future could think of.

“Not all the children are orphans, but at the moment none have parents; perhaps in the future these children will find their parents, or the parents will find their children in The Land [“of Israel”]. This is the reason I asked that the children in Tehran be photographed with their names so that the parents will recognize them when they arrive in The Land despite the changes in their facial features.”

With every council meeting and discussion, it became clearer that the children required food, clothing and housing, and that their education, psychological counseling, and practical training for their eventual independence also required attention.

“I have already insisted that a different concept should be given to the word refugee, these children are not refugees, they are olim [Jewish immigrants to the Land of Israel], and the approach to them and our duty towards them should be as olim, we are olim and the country needs olim.”

(Henrietta Szold)


Here Come the Children: Initial Absorption in Israel

When the trains filled with children finally arrived from Egypt, they were greeted with great excitement.

From contemporary descriptions in the press, it appears that the Jewish settlement did all it could for these children, wishing that it could do the same for rest of the Jews who remained in Europe.

At the stations, waiting to welcome and embrace the new arrivals were the leaders of the Yishuv, rabbis and their wives, entire classes of children, entire schools and regular people from near and far.

“The crowds stood on the platform and between the tracks, holding gifts, sweets, baskets with white flour rolls brought from Givat Brenner, canned fruits, crates with bottles of fruit juices.”

“The thousands of people, everyone calling out in Hebrew, everyone overflowing with endless love for them, reaching out to them with the gift of their love—a bouquet of flowers, a chocolate bar, a refreshing drink, a word of endearment, ‘Welcome, welcome to you, Polish orphans of orphaned Poland!’”

            (Hatsofeh, February 19, 1943)

Among those waiting were the refugees’ relatives, themselves recent-arrived immigrants, and officers from the Anders Army who were also waiting to greet their families. Many could not hold back the tears when one of the children loudly asked those waiting at the station “Do you know where father is?” – his father was not there.

Also at the Atlit station waiting to welcome the children after their long journey was Henrietta Szold, ready for the huge task of caring for the hundreds of youngsters, each of whom was hurt in ways that a person from the local Jewish settlement could not even begin to comprehend.

Henrietta Szold welcoming the Tehran Children. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, from Hadassah Hospital. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In Atlit, the children underwent their first medical examinations, and from there they were taken by bus to transit camps, which were actually “children’s homes” prepared for them in advance throughout the country.

A recruitment letter addressed to possible candidates for the positions of counselors and caretakers for those children’s homes, emphasized:

“We do not wish for there to be a refugee camp atmosphere in these places, but that the children and youth will be kept occupied during the day, according to the different ages, in learning, gymnastics, playing, field trips, etc.”

A letter from Henrietta Szold asking if the recipient is willing to serve as a counselor for the Tehran Children. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

Aryeh and Moshe arrived at Beit Hahalutzot (“Women Pioneers House”) in Jerusalem, where, as Moshe tells us, “We went back to being children.”

The counselors and caretakers encouraged them to play the many games they received as gifts from the public, taught them Hebrew and took them on field trips around the country.

A group of the Tehran Children on a visit to an agricultural school in the Talpiot neighborhood, Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of the Ben Zvi Institute (“Israel Revealed”), Talpiot  Agricultural School Collection, Jerusalem

The Adoptive Kibbutz

The transition period ended once the children reached their permanent residences. Thirty-three children went to Kibbutz Ein Harod, which had considerable experience in youth immigration in the 1930s.

The children’s admission documents were filed along with the few other documents found in their possession—entry visas and various medical certificates. Birth certificates or other civil documents are almost non-existent. These seemingly formal documents provide a heartbreaking glimpse into the loss of the children’s former lives.

“Father: Leon Drucker. Profession: Factory owner. Current location: Remained with the Germans.”

Moshe Drucker’s admission file. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive
Aryeh Drucker’s admission file. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

In a majority of the forms, the descriptions—”Remained with the Germans”; “Died in Poland”; “Killed in Russia”—repeat over and over.

In what voice does a child read these answers to a young counselor standing in front of him, who likely does not even speak his mother-tongue? Can one still call this person a “child”?

Fifteen years later, the poet Nathan Alterman thought – no, these could not be children:


Time moves away and sinks below,

But suddenly burst out of it in a cloud

The wars of despair and the burden and the strength

Of the children of the day, of the elders of Tehran.

Yes, the war of the elders of Tehran, aged ten,

 And the war of the six-year-old elders of Kazakhstan,

all the elders of the battles between Siberia and Polesia

The little old men, persecuted by fire…


Kibbutz Ein Harod not only provided these adult-like children with room and board, but also prepared a comprehensive rehabilitation program for them beginning with the psychological evaluation of each child by Dr. Moshe Bril (who himself died of an illness less than a year later), and culminating in a detailed education program approved by Henrietta Szold herself.

To this day, Moshe remembers the days in Ein Harod as a healing and happy time. His brother Aryeh was his rock, his protective shield that allowed him the freedom to behave just like any other mischievous child.

Even after the children were sent to their permanent residences, Henrietta Szold kept a careful eye on their care. She continued to visit them, received letters for them or about them from parents who were able to contact her and wrote to parents who were able to receive mail.

Clara, who did not know where her children had eventually ended up, sent letters to the Bureau of Children and Youth Immigration at the Jewish Agency, and to Hans Beyth, Szold’s close assistant, who answered her and forwarded her letters to Aryeh and Moshe.

She requests to come to the Land of Israel to be with her children“, Hans Beyth’s letter to the secretariat of Ein Harod reporting on his correspondence with Clara. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive
A page from Clara’s letter to her children. From the moment of contact with Hans Beyth, she wrote many letters to the children and their caretakers. The original document is preserved in the Ein Harod Archive

After the War

World War II ended, and the Tehran Children became an integral part of the fabric of life in the country. Some of them remained in the kibbutzim and moshavim where they had been initially assigned, while slowly and determinedly taking their place among “Sabra” society (which at first had a hard time accepting them). Some were adopted by relatives or kind-hearted strangers and some, like Aryeh and Moshe, waited for their mother or father or older siblings, who somehow had managed to keep in touch and knew they were still alive.

Clara ended the war in the Asian steppes of the Soviet Union. She knew that Aryeh and Moshe were safe and being cared for. On the other hand, she knew nothing about the fate of her husband Leon or of her eldest son Herman. So she traveled to Europe. Back to blood-soaked Poland and its ghosts.

When she arrived in Katowice, she met one of her former neighbors, who was thrilled to see her alive.

Hoping to find a grave, or at least some information about how her family had died, she asked, “Do you perhaps know what happened to any of the Drucker family?”  The neighbor looked at her in astonishment and replied, “But Mrs. Drucker, your husband is waiting for you at home.” And Leon was indeed there.

When the Germans tricked the Jews into registering with the occupation authorities “for the purpose of food rations,” Leon saw what was happening and told his son that he would rather die of starvation than be on a German list. With whatever was left of their possessions, they purchased fake “Aryan” documents and continued to live as Poles in their home. Herman was finally caught by the Gestapo after they received a tip from one of his classmates, but he did not give up any information about his father.

Herman was murdered by the Germans. At first, the family thought that he had been killed in Katowice, but several years ago, Moshe’s granddaughter, during a class trip to Poland, found her great uncle’s name in the lists of those killed in Auschwitz.

While they attempted to obtain visas to immigrate to Palestine, Clara and Leon continued to live in their house in Poland. But when Clara did finally arrive in Israel to reunite with her sons, she came alone. Leon died of a heart attack just three months after his incredible reunion with Clara but without seeing his sons who were waiting for them in the Land of Israel.

“We now have here fresh and cheerful children,” wrote Shoshana Geller, who was one of the caregivers assigned to the Tehran Children. She and Atara Shturman devoted themselves to the children, trying to fill the huge hole left by their mothers.

Two years later, they were proud of the results of their work:

“Girls full of humility and grace, tall upright and broad-shouldered young men… there is great satisfaction and joy in seeing them so, and there is sadness for the mothers and fathers who were unable to accompany their children during this period of growth and see with their own eyes how their sons and daughters have grown and developed.”

The documents in this article are preserved in the Ein Harod Archive and will be available digitally as part of a collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

The Case of Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Disappearance

One rainy December evening, Agatha Christie left her house and never returned. The disappearance of the bestselling mystery writer shocked the British nation, including Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who took a surprising part in the unprecedented search mission…

Autographed photograph of Agatha Christie

One rainy December evening, Agatha Christie disappeared without a trace, as if she were swallowed up by the ground.

All of Britain was anxious about the fate of their beloved novelist, and thousands of fans and volunteers joined in what was, at the time, the largest ever search operation conducted by the British police. Among the volunteers was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who employed methods that might cause you to raise an eyebrow or two.

It sounds like the plot of a good English detective story. One that Christie herself, or Conan Doyle, could have easily written, but it turns out that reality sometimes trumps fiction.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie was already a famous writer. Her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published a few months earlier, spread her fame beyond England and made her a respected figure in the international literary world. Her married life, however, was not as great a success.

She wed Archie Christie (whose name she kept until her death) on the eve of the First World War, in a hasty decision that was characteristic of many marriages all over the continent at the time.

Their relationship began to fizzle after the war. Archie returned to London from the trench war in France as Colonel Archibald Christie, and typical of the men of his day, he had a hard time dealing with his wife’s independence and professional success.

Agatha, however, was devoted to her family, even with her successful writing career well underway. “I didn’t consider myself a writer. A married woman was a profession in itself. Writing books was something I did on the side,” she said of those years.

Still, that “something she did on the side” was a sensation that brought publishers and fans knocking on her door while driving her husband away.

עטיפת אחת המהדורות הראשונות בעברית
An early Hebrew edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

On the night she disappeared, her husband confessed to her that he was in love with another woman—Nancy Neele— that he had been having an affair with her for two years and that he wanted a divorce. After dropping this bombshell, he left their house to spend the weekend in the arms of his mistress (who would later become his wife). Christie then went into her daughter’s bedroom, gave her sleeping child a kiss, and then she too left the house.

She didn’t come back.

Her car was found the next day between an abandoned quarry and a lake, with its headlights on and the motor still running. Inside was a bag with her personal belongings and an expired driver’s license.

Britain was gripped with worry. Did the beloved writer commit suicide? Had she been murdered? Did she drown in a terrible accident?

Thousands of volunteers (estimates range from 2,000 to 15,000), sniffer dogs and police officers embarked on an unprecedented search. For the first time in the history of the British police, planes were sent to assist in the search. But in vain.

Her disappearance made waves far from Britain’s shores, and was reported in the Jewish press around the world.

Haaretz made do with a short and somewhat laconic news item:

“In London, the well-known author Agatha Christie has disappeared. Following matters between her husband and herself, she left the house in an automobile and the automobile was later found stuck in mud.”

The editors of the American Yiddish newspapers Forṿerṭs (The Forward) and Der Ṭog devoted more space to the headlines, and in general were much more informative:

This edition of The Palestine Bulletin was also quite detailed:

It was at this point that no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entered the story. The creator of Sherlock Holmes offered to help with the police search for the vanished murder mystery novelist. However, contrary to what one might have expected, he did not offer Scotland Yard the benefit of his sharp logical mind, instead volunteering to help in a completely unexpected way.

By this point in his life, Conan Doyle had become an ardent spiritualist, something that Sherlock Holmes would have surely curled his lip at. He was now a firm believer in the existence of the world beyond this one as well as our ability to communicate with it.

The “Cottingley Fairies” appeared in a photographic series published in England in 1917. Apparently, Conan Doyle considered this proof of the existence of fairies. In the 1980s, the girls in the photographs revealed that the images were fake. The fairies were pictures cut out from a children’s book. The photographs can be found today in the National Science and Media Museum

The police gave Conan Doyle one of Christie’s gloves that was found in the abandoned car. He then took it to a local medium hoping that she would use her special abilities to uncover Christie’s whereabouts. The medium was unable to find out the exact location of the missing person, but declared decisively that she was alive, in no physical danger and would be found soon.

The proof Conan Doyle had been waiting for came eleven days later. A waiter or receptionist at a spa hotel in Harrogate where Christie was staying under a false name recognized her, and contacted the authorities. She was picked up by Archie and the police, safe and sound, her sanity intact, but she never fully explained her disappearance.


שרלוק וווטסון, איור של הסראנד לאחד מסיפורי הולמס של ארתור קונן דויל שפורסמו בעיתון זה.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, an illustration by Sidney Paget from the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Greek Interpreter, which appeared in The Strand Magazine in September, 1893

The official version (probably put out by her husband) was that she suffered from what would be described today as dissociation, and was not aware of what was happening to her the whole time.

But this explanation, is, shall we say, less plausible than some other possibilities. Did Agatha Christie stage her own disappearance? And if so, to what end?

She never offered an official version of events and the episode is not even mentioned in her autobiography. But years later it came out that on that evening, after abandoning her car, Agatha boarded a train to London, where she stayed the night with a friend in Chelsea Park Gardens.

The cynics tried to claim that it was a brazen publicity stunt. A sort of elaborate ruse to promote her detective novels.

The romantics, on the other hand (and probably also tabloid readers, in other words – almost everyone), thought differently.

Was it an attempt to embarrass her husband (whom the police snatched from Nancy’s bed the night Christie went missing), or worse—to frame him for her murder? Was she trying to shock him so that he would return to her or was it really the mental collapse of a woman who had just discovered the answer to a mystery that had been brewing in her own home for over two years?

In retrospect, we can reasonably assume that the motives were related to the betrayal, since beyond the extraordinarily coincidental timing, it turns out that the pseudonym Christie used to register at the hotel included the last name of her husband’s lover—she called herself “Teresa Neele.”

We will never really know for sure. This mystery, unlike all the hundreds of mysteries she solved for us, will remain just as it is: open and intriguing.

From that point, Agatha Christie’s life took a massively positive turn. She remarried an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who took her on fascinating journeys around the world, and she won unprecedented professional success, the likes of which no other writer has been able to replicate to this day. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies.

Agatha Christie on an archaeological dig in the Middle East with her second husband, Max Mallowan

In 1971, Christie was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, so in fact proper protocol would decree that we should have added the title “Dame” to her name throughout this article.

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie passed away on January 12, 1976, taking the secret surrounding her disappearance for eleven days with her to her grave.

What’s It Like Being a Nazi Hunter? The Files of Tuviah Friedman

Tuviah Friedman never forgot nor did he forgive. He dedicated his life to finding and capturing fugitive Nazis, as part of the effort to bring them to trial for their crimes. He was the first to obtain credible information that placed Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Looking through his archive files preserved at the National Library of Israel offers a glimpse into the day-to-day work of a Nazi hunter…


An image of Adolf Eichmann, from the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Imagine a typical workday that went something like this: you wake up, drink your morning coffee, and leaf through the local newspaper. Then you shower, dress and head to the office where you find stacks of mail on your desk from all over the world. You read the European newspapers, open the letters, and arrange all the information you have gathered in an index-card file arranged alphabetically, which looks something like this:


Of course, back then the cards were either stored in a rotating desktop card index, called a rolodex, or perhaps filed in drawers in a fancy mahogany wood filing cabinet. But all that is less important – You lean back in your chair, smoke your pipe if you like, and go over the text on the cards once more. You open up the personal files, look over the photos and biographical details, and try to verify the information you’ve received. All this as part of the effort to discover the current whereabouts of these people—the individuals responsible for what is likely the greatest crime in human history.

Photos and “Wanted” posters. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

This was the life of Tuviah Friedman (sometimes spelled Toviyya), whose business card could have featured the simple job description: “Nazi Hunter”. In the 1950s, gathering information was a much harder task than it is today – no Google, no Facebook. But Friedman set himself one mission with a single objective: find and prosecute as many Nazi war criminals as possible.

His quest to catch Nazis began even before the war was officially over. When the Russian army entered Friedman’s hometown, Radom, in Poland, the new occupiers sought to reorganize the local police and Friedman took advantage of the opportunity, enlisting under a false identity. As part of his job, he exposed, arrested, and brought Nazi criminals to justice.

Nazi SS officer Bruno Streckenbach. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

At some point, Friedman concluded that his future was not in Poland. He quit the police and decided to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Leaving what was then communist Poland through illegal means, he arrived in Vienna on his way to Palestine, but then, his plans changed. In Vienna, he met members of the Haganah involved in the clandestine immigration of Jewish refugees to the Land of Israel (they belonged to the Haganah’s Mossad LeAliyah Bet organization). These operatives suggested that Friedman form a team to track down Nazi war criminals, which is exactly what he did. Friedman settled in the Austrian capital and began gathering information, and with the help of the Vienna police, he was not only able to locate SS officers in hiding, but also to bring forth evidence that helped in their arrest, and sometimes even their prosecution.

File card of Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Back then, how would one go about bringing Nazi criminals to justice? First, one would have to create a separate file for each Nazi, including their name, date and place of birth, rank and position in the German army, SS, Gestapo or Nazi Party. Next, one would have to find evidence and proof of that individual’s part in crimes against humanity. Then of course there was the need to physically locate the fugitives—find out where they were living, whether they had changed their identity and if so, all the details of their new identity, including any new names or aliases and whether they had changed their appearance.  Finally, one had to convince the authorities to act on the evidence and materials that had been collected. Friedman did all of this. For his files on suspected Nazis, he would track down photos and news articles or other information that would indicate their responsibility for the crimes committed personally by them or under their direction. In this way, he was able to capture SS officers who had ordered the extermination of the Jews of Radom. During his time in Austria, he managed to bring about the arrest of some 250 Nazis.

One of these was Kurt Becher, who served as head of the SS Economic Department in occupied Hungary as well as commissar of all German concentration camps. Becher is particularly known for his negotiations with Rudolf Israel Kastner which facilitated the escape of some Budapest Jews to Switzerland in exchange for goods and money. Kastner testified as a character witness on Becher’s behalf after the war and the former Nazi officer was eventually released. He would go on to become a successful businessman despite his criminal past documented by Friedman and others.

“Himmler’s Devil” – Odilo Globocnikת a senior SS officer involved in the mass-murder of Polish Jews. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

Friedman’s Nazi files contain details about many more Nazis: Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp; Hans Bothmann, commandant of the Chelmno extermination camp; Bruno Streckenbach, a senior officer in the Reich Security Ministry who was placed in charge of operations of the Einsatzgruppen. These are just a few examples from the hundreds of index cards on Friedman’s rolodex of Nazis.

In 1952, Friedman finally immigrated to Israel, and after working for a period at Yad Vashem, he moved to Haifa, where he re-established the organization he had founded in Vienna, now called the Institute for the Documentation of Nazi War Crimes. Friedman was critical of Yad Vashem’s focus on documenting the victims and survivors of the Holocaust instead of actively searching for the Nazi criminals responsible. Indeed, the documents at the Institute for Documentation are a kind of mirror image of the Yad Vashem archives. Instead of lists of those who perished, there are rosters of Nazis with information on their various roles and documentation of their actions during the Holocaust.

Photographs of Hermann Baranowski (above), a senior SS officer and concentration camp commandant, and Hermann Göring (below), one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and the commander of the Luftwaffe. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

In Haifa, he continued his work to locate the same Nazi criminals, but with fewer resources and less assistance than he had in Austria. He built up his files on Nazi officers of different ranks, from camp commandants like Rudolf Höss, who was in charge of Auschwitz, to the most senior Nazis like Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe. Friedman mainly devoted his time to raising media awareness of the need to bring members of the Nazi regime to justice and maintaining public interest in their capture even when the country’s attention had turned elsewhere.

Photo of Adolf Eichmann. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel
Various photos of Adolf Eichmann. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

The highlight of Friedman’s life’s work was undoubtedly his contribution to the capture and prosecution in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Friedman had begun gathering information about Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for implementing the Final Solution, during his Vienna days, and had even obtained an up-to-date photo of him. A number of rare photos of Eichmann are preserved in Friedman’s archive, which can be seen here. He continued to collect information from around the world about Eichmann’s current hiding place and used the media to lobby for his capture. He even offered a cash reward for information about Eichmann, after which he began to receive letters from people claiming to know his whereabouts. Friedman was the first to receive a tip that Eichmann was living in Argentina, which he passed on to the Mossad. It was Friedman who convinced the Mossad to actively pursue Eichmann’s capture.

Photographs of a youthful Eichmann and his wife Vera. From the Tuviah Friedman Archive, the National Library of Israel

After Eichmann’s capture, Friedman sent the file he had amassed for over 15 years on the Nazi officer to the Israel Police, and directly assisted in building the legal case against him. The Eichmann case is certainly the most famous of Tuviah Friedman’s Nazi hunting stories. Tuviah Friedman’s archive is preserved in the National Library of Israel. It contents, which show his methodical and painstaking work, are available for viewing here.