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.

Escaping Certain Death: How the Jews of Treblinka Rose Up and Fought Back

During its year of operation, Treblinka extermination camp was one of the most deadly places on earth. Dr. Julian Chorążycki led a band of unsung heroes who helped put an end to these horrors, and gave his life for the uprising that brought Treblinka to its knees. In this article we commemorate the brave young doctor and the courage he showed in the face of the greatest possible adversity

Dr. Julian Chorążycki (right) and the Treblinka Memorial (photo: Adrian Grycuk)

In 1943, the fearsome Nazi Gestapo secret police published a series of adverts offering a “tempting reward” for anyone who could provide information on the escaped Jews of Treblinka extermination camp. Who were these fugitives and how were they able to leave Treblinka alive at a time when the only Jews who managed to exit the camp ended up in a mass grave?

This news item appeared in the December 31, 1943 issue of The Sydney Jewish News

The facility at Treblinka was opened by the Nazi regime in July 1942, becoming the third camp to be dedicated to the expressed purpose of annihilating the Jewish population and committing mass genocide. The vast majority of the Jews whose unfortunate fate led them to Treblinka would be robbed of their possessions and then taken straight into the gas chambers to live out their final moments. However, a few young and relatively healthy Jews were kept alive for a short while to do the guards’ dirty work. It was there that many of them would meet the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” – a bloodthirsty camp guard who would routinely torture Jews for fun before killing them (Ivan’s true identity has never been fully resolved. John Demjanjuk was suspected as a possibility and even convicted by an Israeli court before the verdict was later overturned).

Those Jews who were spared the gas chambers had to endure days filled by removing the lifeless bodies, hauling them off to be burned or buried, and searching the dead for any valuable items which would be dutifully looted by the camp guards. In the midst of all this, a small but mighty group of workers found a few stolen moments to hatch a plan of escape.

Dr. Julian Chorążycki – a photo portrait, part of a questionnaire submitted by Chorążycki to Nazi occupation authorities. The original survives in the Central Medical Library of Warsaw (via Wikipedia, enhanced with MyHeritage software)

Amongst this group was a Russian Jew, Dr. Julian Chorążycki. Born on August 19, 1885, he had been a revolutionary from a young age. He spent his pre-war life fighting for Jewish rights and the recognition and representation of people with disabilities. He also served in both the Russian and Polish armies during World War I, before finally settling down in Poland. Dr. Chorążycki lived by a strict policy of helping all those who came to him for medical aid, including those who could not afford to pay him for his services. When the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, Dr. Chorążycki decided that he would become the ghetto doctor and help keep the new ghetto residents as healthy as he could. In 1942, as Jews were being driven to their deaths by the thousands, he was packed into a cohort of Jews headed to Treblinka extermination camp. It was there that he spearheaded a plan to escape, and bring down Treblinka with him.

Shimon Peres, then Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption, addressing an audience during a ceremony in memory of the victims of Treblinka, 1970,  the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Dr. Chorążycki formed a group of brave comrades and laid out the plans. The first step in the battle to escape involved stealing a key to the weapons storage used by the Treblinka guards. It took many attempts to break in undetected but when they did, the stores waiting for them were invaluable: rifles, grenades, knives and axes. As the rebels spent time collecting the goods, Dr. Chorążycki was caught with a wealth of resources and immediately taken into interrogation. Faced with the prospect of turning in his fellow Jews, Julian Chorążycki made the decision to end his own life and avoid releasing the details of the uprising and those involved in it.

Rachel Auerbach, in her book “In the Fields of Treblinka” says Dr. Julian Chorążycki was one of “the faces and personalities that distinguished themselves in a large anonymous crowd and gained eternal glory in the last hours of their lives as great Jews.”

Oyf di felder fun Treblinke (“In the Fields of Treblinka”), an audiobook by Rachel Auerbach, originally recorded by the Jewish Public Library, Montreal

Despite not making it out alive, Dr. Julian Chorążycki’s legacy lived on and the other Jewish prisoners continued to prepare for the uprising. In the middle of the afternoon on a stiflingly hot summer’s day, the guards went down to a nearby river to enjoy a swim and cool down. The Jews saw their opportunity and seized the moment. Around a thousand prisoners rose up, igniting explosives, burning buildings to the ground, and fighting their way into the surrounding fields and freedom beyond. “The fight lasted three hours and in the end, all of us who survived tried to escape” said Holocaust survivor Chaim Sztajer.

This news item appeared in the August 1, 1980 issue of the Australian Jewish News (Melbourne)


Chaim Sztajer, a survivor of Treblinka, pictured with a scale model he created of the camp. This image appeared in the March 6, 1987 issue of The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), colorization by MyHeritage

Of the roughly 300 prisoners who managed to escape during the uprising, between 20-90 Jews are estimated to have survived the Holocaust. Their rebellion was not in vain. Shortly after the uprising, the camp was liquidated and by August 19, 1943, those who operated the well-oiled, efficient killing machine known as Treblinka had murdered their final Jew. Over 800,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka during its period of operation, a mere fifteen months. This is the story of the rebellion that put an end to its atrocities.

Hannah Senesh’s Hanukkah

In December of 1933, a 12-year-old Hannah Senesh composed a Hanukkah poem that concluded with the words: “These candles encourage us at every turn, fear not Israel, the time is yet to come."

Hannah Senesh and her handwritten poem “Hanukkah"

Hannah Senesh was born and raised in Budapest, in an urban Jewish environment that was well-versed in the trends and fashions of Hungary’s cultural elite. In her teenage years, she cultivated her literary talent by writing diaries and poems. Her ambition was to continue in the footsteps of her father, Béla Szenes, an acclaimed writer, journalist and playwright in Hungary who died prematurely, at the age of 33.

Among Hannah Senesh’s archival materials deposited at the National Library of Israel in 2020, is a notebook containing poems she wrote in her youth starting from when she was just seven years old. She would dictate her poems to her maternal grandmother, Fini, who would write them down in beautiful and neat script in special notebooks that are now preserved in Jerusalem. The poems that Hannah wrote throughout her childhood years reveal her sense of grief following the death of her father, as well as her joy and excitement at the changing of the seasons and the transformation of the landscape in her native Hungary,

However, alongside these writings dedicated to her homeland and her own personal experiences, there is also one surprising poem dedicated to the festival of Hanukkah. Senesh wrote this one on December 10, 1933, when she was only 12 years old. The Senesh family were not particularly religious, and it appears that Hannah wrote the poem while attending the Baar-Madas school in Budapest.  Though Baar-Madas is a Calvinist institution, the poem was likely written after one of the “religion lessons” given to Jewish girls who attended the school.

Senesh’s mother Katrina brought these notebooks to Israel, and the poem was later translated into Hebrew by the poet Avigdor Hameiri, on the occasion of the publication of the book Hannah Senesh: Her Life, Mission and Death (Hebrew), on the first anniversary of her death.


Here is a translation of the poem into English:




On Hanukkah, the candles are kindled, every Jewish heart quivers;

In our hearts rise up images of nations long since passed, ancient and great;

Of the days of Egyptian suffering, the kingdom of Greece, and our strength was not broken by any foreign rule;

We carried our Torah from place to place, from which we drew our faith and virtue;

We wandered through the wilderness, hungry and destitute, but God is with us – we will not be alone;

And we are descended from the same fathers, we will not give up. But will stay and fight;

These candles encourage us at every turn, fear not Israel, the time is yet to come.


Despite her young age, the poem already hints at the spirit of national pride and determination that would characterize Senesh in her adulthood, and also the impression left by Hanukkah’s nationalist ideas on her youthful soul.

The Senesh Family Archive is deposited at the National Library of Israel, with thanks to the Eisen Family.

The Wise Men of Chelm: The Unfair Shaming of a Jewish Community

How did the Jews of Chelm, a city in Poland, acquire their reputation as a "town of fools"? Could Chelm have actually been a community of great sages? We set out in search of the true story behind this odd piece of Jewish folklore…

The Wise Men of Chelm. Cover illustration of the book The King's Golden Shoes (Hebrew). Adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Shay Cherka

There is no wise man whose wisdom is as famous as the foolishness of Chelm, with the exception of the wisdom of King Solomon

—Yiddish writer Eliezer Bloom, a native of Chelm

The most famous story about the foolishness of the wise men of Chelm, and the one story that appears in every book about them, tells of how the town’s men attempted to move their neighboring mountain. Years after the town’s founding, as the people of Chelm married and raised children, the community eventually became overcrowded with young and old alike. Despite the rumors concerning their questionable mental capacity, the Chelmites realized correctly that their town had no choice but to expand as the population grew. There was a problem, however: the adjacent mountain was preventing the town from spreading out naturally.

For seven days and seven nights Chelm’s residents deliberated over the best way to solve the issue, until they decided to simply push the mountain out of the way. The next day, all the townsmen rallied together and gathered at the foot of the mountain to begin pushing with all their might. As the sun beat down on their toiling bodies, they became hot and sweaty, eventually removing their coats and leaving them in a big pile. Thieves who happened to be passing by noticed the pile of coats and without hesitating made off with the whole lot. When the people of Chelm finished their day’s work of pushing their mountain they turned back to survey the scene. With the pile of coats nowhere to be seen, they concluded that the mission had been a success and that the mountain had been pushed so far that their coats were no longer visible.

The city of Chelm expands. This is the version I read as a child: The Wise Men of Chelm, collected and adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Dani Kerman. Inbal Publishers, 1986

Those who came across the humorous tales of Chelm as children could be forgiven for thinking that Chelm was a place of legend, a kind of Jewish Atlantis populated by Jewish fools. Yet a bit of historical research reveals that Chelm is not a fictitious place at all, but rather a very real location with an extensive and rich Jewish history.

The Jewish community in the town of Chelm in southeastern Poland prospered for over five hundred years. Its representatives were even quite active in the “Council of Four Lands” (Va’ad Arba Aratzot), the central administrative body of Polish Jewry from the 16th century to the 18th century. From the population censuses conducted in Poland, we know that at the outbreak of World War II, there were 15,000 Jews living in Chelm, accounting for fifty percent of its residents. The Holocaust did not spare the Jews of Chelm, some of whom were murdered in the town itself, though most were sent to the Sobibor extermination camp.

An image of the “Jews’ street” in the town of Chelm, Poland. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard collection

Contrary to the widespread stigma, the town of Chelm actually produced quite a few proper Torah sages. One of the most prominent was Rabbi Solomon of Chelm, who became famous for his work Merkavat HaMishneh (or Mirkeves HaMishneh). According to his own testimony, Rabbi Solomon of Chelm also studied philosophy and science—a rare thing in his day—and he is considered one of the forerunners of the Jewish Enlightenment. In the preface to Merkavat HaMishneh, Rabbi Solomon prided himself on his broad secular knowledge, and even called on others to study secular subjects: “And the Bible stands wide open, ‘She has hewn her seven pillars’, and why do you not keep this on your lips, for ‘this is your wisdom and understanding to the nations’,” he wrote in reference to the seven liberal arts.

These are just a few of the Hebrew books collecting stories of the Wise Men of Chelm

Indeed, the labeling of Chelm as a community of fools seems in itself to be quite silly. That is to say, it is not based on historical truth (how can it be?), nor even on a well-known group of fools who originated in Chelm. The accepted hypothesis for the origin of the mislabeling is much simpler. In his Hebrew book Mila Be’Sela (“Word in Stone”) writer and linguist Uri Sela writes: “In the Slavic languages, ḥolem means fool. And since the pronunciations of ḥolem and Chelm are similar, ḥolem became the city of fools in our treasury of proverbs.” In other words, an entire community was mislabeled due to a fluke of pronunciation, and that is a hard label to shake off.

The inhabitants of historical Chelm were well aware of the funny (in their opinion, misguided) stories concerning their intellect—or rather their amusing lack of it. In fact it seems they actively tried to dispel the stigma – the authors of the Chelm pinkas (the community ledger) recall their town as a place that was home to a great number of scholars. According to them, immediately after the six days of creation, angels set out from the spirit world with three sacks full of souls: one sack contained the souls of fools, another sack contained the souls of the wise and a third sack held the souls of great sages. The angels flew over the cities and villages distributing just the right amount of souls from their sacks. By the time one of these angels reached the skies over Chelm, he was already quite tired and didn’t notice the big tree growing on the top of the huge mountain next to it. The tree ripped open the sack containing the souls of great sages, scattering them over Chelm. And ever since then, the town has been full of extraordinarily bright and wise individuals.

The origin of the wise sages of Chelm. Illustration from The Wise Men of Chelm, collected and adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Dani Kerman. Inbal Publishers, 1986

The idea of ​​a city populated by fools is not an originally Jewish one. The first historical city to be burdened with this unflattering stereotype was the ancient Greek city of Abdera. Although it was one of the great centers of Greek foreign trade as well as the birthplace of the philosophers Democritus, Protagoras and Hecataeus, Abdera’s citizens were known throughout Greece as being quite foolish. The Abderites were the Chelmites of the ancient world.

We do not know the exact origin of the tales surrounding the intellect of the Chelmites. Similar legends about cities whose inhabitants weren’t the sharpest crayons in the box were already popularized even before the Common Era. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore a question that has been troubling us since we began writing this article: Were the stories about the wisdom of the people of Chelm really intended to be meanspirited or did they have an ulterior motive?

Obviously, these stories were not typical tales of heroism and sacrifice. No wise man from Chelm ever saved a princess from a dragon or defeated a cruel enemy in battle. And yet, this is precisely their strength: the stories and jokes about the wise men of Chelm are stories “about the day-to-day, about regular folk and their naïve and occasionally ridiculous struggles to survive, to overcome adversity, to live”. This is how writer Adir Cohen, an expert in education and bibliotherapy, explains the humor of the wise men of Chelm.

The poet and literary scholar Israel Haim Biletzky, who recorded many of the stories, writes about another aspect: “The Chelm tale is silent where its wisdom commands it to be silent. Its eyes are wide open wherever the situation requires. It is charged with life’s tribulations. It is reconciliation with man and with God, it is not a clenched fist, ready for the punch. Those who are willing to, will treasure it.” In other words, the next time you need a pick-me-up, instead of watching the latest light-hearted comedy or stand-up special on Netflix, how about reading a story or two about Chelm and its wise folk? It’s guaranteed to make you smile

And we’ll conclude with a final Chelm story to brighten your day, this time about the building of Chelm itself. After the souls of the wise were scattered at the foot of the mountain, the Chelmites decided to build themselves a large and beautiful town to live in. They built their houses out of wood, cutting down the tries on the mountaintop. To transport them down the mountain, each Chelmite carried a large wooden log on his back.

One day, a Jew from another city happened by the construction site and asked the residents why they did not simply roll the logs down the mountain. When the Chelmites tried out his idea, they discovered that this was the wise and proper thing to do. Once again they convened the city council and debated the proposal for seven days and seven nights. In the end they concluded that it was indeed better to roll the logs from the top of the mountain to the bottom. As soon as the decision was made, the wise men of Chelm understood what they had to do – they proceeded to carry all the logs that already sat at the foot of the mountain back up to the top, and from there they rolled them all back down.

Besides the more recent adaptations there are also classics such as the book by Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History


Further Reading:

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, pictures by Uri Shulevitz, translated by the author and Elizabeth Shub, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

אדיר כהן, “ההומור של חכמי חלם”, מעגלי קריאה 30, מאי 2004

אורי סלע, מלה בסלע, הוצאת כתר, 1990