Who Are the Jews Depicted in These Holocaust-Era Portraits?

“These were powerful images I saw – to give form to all that misery – to show it to the world – this was always my intent”. The artist David Friedmann produced hundreds of portraits during the time of the Nazi occupation in Prague. Surviving are only ninety-four portraits of members of the Prague Jewish Community from the years 1940-1941. Yet numerous subjects depicted in these artworks remain unidentified to this day. Can you help us solve this mystery?

A charcoal portrait drawing of an unknown subject, from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum

I was born in Israel in 1950, and named after my father’s first daughter.

In 1954, our family immigrated to America and settled in St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up immersed in the world of art and culture. One day my father took an album from the bookcase and there, at the dining room table, I learned more about his art and the great losses he endured during his life.

My father, David Friedman(n), was born December 20, 1893, in Mährisch Ostrau, Austria-Hungary, (Ostrava, Czechia). In 1911, he ventured to Berlin and studied etching with Hermann Struck and painting with Lovis Corinth. During WWI, he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a battle artist and returned to his Berlin studio after the war. He achieved acclaim for his portraits drawn from life and became a leading press artist of the 1920s, sketching hundreds of cultural icons such as Albert Einstein and Max Brod.

David Friedmann in 1936 in his apartment at Paderborner Strasse 9, Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Germany


The Nazi regime abruptly upended his flourishing career in 1933. Friedmann fled to Prague in 1938, with his wife Mathilde and infant daughter Mirjam Helene, escaping the Nazis with only his artistic talent as a means to survive. The Gestapo looted his oeuvre left behind in Berlin. In Prague, my father worked as an artist again, making it known he wished to produce an album. He received orders for portraits and sketched the leaders of the Jewish Community and officials of the Palestine Office, many of them prominent Zionists, later murdered in Auschwitz.

In 1941, David Friedmann was deported to the Lodz Ghetto with his family, and the Nazi authorities once again looted his works. He continued to depict human fate in his art, as a prisoner in the Lodz Ghetto, in the Auschwitz subcamp Gleiwitz I, and as a survivor. His wife and daughter were murdered.

Liberated at the age of 51, Friedmann believed he lived for a reason, as noted in his 1945 postwar diary [in German]:

“These were powerful images I saw – to give form to all that misery – to show it to the world – this was always my intent.”

The art series was titled, “Because They Were Jews!” In 1948, in Prague, Friedmann wed Hildegard Taussig (1921-1989) a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Christianstadt. High-ranking military officers wanted his artwork for Prague’s War Museum. Defying an export prohibition, the couple fled communist Czechoslovakia to Israel in 1949, thus saving his artwork, albums, and historical documents.


Miracles of Survival

The album my father showed me many years ago contains 50 postcard-size portrait prints and photos amid other works produced throughout his life. Among the subjects are Jakob Edelstein, Dr. Franz Weidmann and Fredy Hirsch, but many are still nameless today. The serious faces reflect the stress of persecution and an uncertain future. I was captivated. At my request, my father entrusted this treasure to me at the age of 22 years. I wondered how he could part with the album, a profound piece of his past and the people he had sketched and befriended.

Fredy Hirsch, a portrait print from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


My father added names and captions to numerous portraits — invaluable clues for the task ahead — to identify and learn the fate of each subject — and reconstruct the story. Thus began a decades-long project in 1994. I shared the portraits worldwide and several subjects were recognized by survivors.

Portraits were discovered at the National Museum and Jewish Museum in Prague, Beit Terezin in Israel, as well as in private collections. At the National Museum theater department, three identical postcard-size portraits of František Zelenka awaited me. The fourth is displayed in my father’s album along with duplicates of Dr. Leo Kraus and Viktor Popper. I wondered what was the significance of the identical duplicate portraits. The story continued to unfold.

Thirty-six postcard-size portraits surfaced at Beit Terezin. Among this collection are Franz Kahn, Leo Janowitz, and Otto Zucker. Seven portraits were identical to those displayed in my father’s album: Hans Löw, Stefan Pollak, Rudolf Leipen, Wally Bloch, Ernst Jelinek, Viktor Popper and Hannah Steiner. However, the Eureka moment was Elly Eisinger. The Jewish Museum holds the original pen-and-ink drawings on tracing paper mounted on paper of Eisinger and Weidmann. Somehow the larger originals were used by my father to produce his smaller-sized prints.

Portrait of Elly Eisinger, 1940. She survived. Pen-and ink-drawing on tracing paper, mounted on paper, the Visual Arts Collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague


Numerous portraits have dedications handwritten on the reverse side to Dr. Leo Kraus, the law department head of the Palestine Office in Prague. However, the Beit Terezin archive did not have the Kraus portrait or evidence he was the donor. Kraus was interviewed by Beit Terezin. At 98 years, he had no recollection of the portraits, but remembered the artist. It is still a mystery how the collection survived, but the provocative question remains – who donated the portraits to Beit Theresienstadt?

Dr. Leo Kraus, a portrait print by David Friedmann, courtesy of Dorit Gan-Mor


I contacted Dorit Gan-Mor, Kraus’ daughter, who searched among her father’s books and discovered his postcard-sized portrait, as well as Dr. Kurt Heller and Dr. Ruth Hoffe. I saw the identical Hoffe portrait print in the collection of Judita Chudy. Then, as fate would have it, the original charcoal pencil drawing of Hoffe emerged at the Jewish Museum. His tracings were made “after” the completion of the larger, original portrait drawing. To summarize: The drawings of Weidmann, Eisinger and Hoffe, are evidence they were used to produce the smaller postcard-size versions with the subject and artist signatures as part of the print. The portraits were ordered in multiples and exchanged between colleagues and friends, often with dedications on the reverse side.

Dr. Ruth Hoffe, charcoal pencil portrait by David Friedmann, the Visual Arts Collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague


Help Us Identify the Subjects – Can You Decipher These Signatures?

One of the starkest traumas of the Holocaust — people not only lost their lives, but also traces of their existence. A portrait may be the only image to remain of the victim.

Impeding a successful search are subjects who signed only their surname, eg., Batscha, Adler, and those with common names like Otto Löwy. Even if the signature is legible, one cannot always confirm the identity. In the case of the two victims pictured below, the signatures are unreadable, even among Czech and German friends. Klara is the only subject with a real smile, but only her first name warrants a guess. The second portrait reads D. or Dr. Hermann.

Klara? Portrait print of an unknown subject, courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


Can you decipher the signature in the portrait above?


Who was Dr. Hermann? Portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


A close-up view of the signature in the portrait above


Subjects lacking a positive match despite signing a complete name are Hans Kaminsky and Fritz Löwenstein. The ID photo is imperative for comparison. However, the complete name is necessary to search databases, testimony, documents, and deportation lists. Ninety-four meticulously portrayed subjects by David Friedmann are known to have survived.

The signature reads “Hans Kaminsky”, but a positive match has yet to be found. Portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


The signature reads “Fritz Löwenstein”, but a positive match has yet to be found. Portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


Name unknown, a portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


Can you decipher the signature in the portrait above?


Name unknown, a portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


A close-up view of the signature in the portrait above


The portraits are a testament to the enormous loss of lives, creative potential and accomplishments of the Jewish victims. The expressions he chose, his ability to capture emotions, the attitude of his line, all show us his thoughts. The portraits give face to numerous known and unknown victims — historically significant evidence of a dynamic Jewish community destroyed by the Nazi regime. Additional portraits could still be in private collections.

The charcoal drawings below were not signed by the subject because the portraits were not intended for prints.

Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


I donated my father’s album to the Yad Vashem Art Museum in Jerusalem. My journey’s reward is the recognition of my father’s work as a valuable resource and contribution to Holocaust history, as well as the preservation of his portraits for future generations.

David Friedmann died February 27, 1980 in St. Louis, Missouri.



If you have information regarding the identities of the unknown subjects in the portraits above, please contact: [email protected]. For more about David Friedmann, please visit: www.davidfriedmann.org or the “David Friedmann—Artist As Witness” Facebook page.

This article is based on a version titled, David Friedman Portraits of the Prague Jewish Community 1940-1941: A Timestamp in History During the Nazi Occupation, originally appearing in “Dapei Kesher,” the Beit Theresienstadt Newsletter.

A new Holocaust documentary, “Dear Miriam – The Art and Survival of David Friedmann”, by Emmy Award Winner John Rokosny, is currently in production.


See also:

The Nazis Failed to Destroy the Artist David Friedmann

The Chess Master Portraits That Escaped the Holocaust



The Woman Who Conjured Up Cruella de Vil

She went from selling furniture to becoming a successful screenwriter and author, but she wrote her best-loved and best-known work, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, when she was sixty years old. Her own nine Dalmatians were her inspiration, along with a passing remark made by a friend, that sparked an idea for one of the most beloved villains in popular culture…

Dodie Smith with her black and white companions

When you hear the word “Dalmatians,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Disney movie, though the particular version might vary, depending on your age.

Promotional material for a Hebrew version of the 1961 Disney film, 101 Dalmatians

There is also a slight chance that you might also remember the book on which the films are based, and which had considerable success when it was first published. But do you also remember the author’s name? No, it wasn’t Walt Disney. It was an Englishwoman named Dorothy Smith, who was affectionately called Dodie. She gave the world The Hundred and One Dalmatians and the supervillain Cruella de Vil. She was also the author of another bestseller, I Capture the Castle, which was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, and which was also adapted into a film.

The Hebrew translation of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith, from 1966

Dodie Smith was born in 1896 and when her father died two years later, she went to live with her mother in her grandparents’ house along with her mother’s unmarried brother and sisters. Little Dodie was everyone’s favorite and she absorbed her family’s great love for the theater. At the age of 18, she enrolled in the Academy of Performing Arts in London, but after a few years she realized that she was not meant for an acting career. To make a living, Dodie began working in a furniture store, but this did not diminish her love for the stage, and she soon turned to playwriting. She managed to sell a screenplay for a motion picture under the pen name Charles Henry Percy and published a stage play under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony, which was also a success.

The writer Dodie Smith

We’ll never know if she would have been as successful had she published them under her own name, but when her identity was revealed, the furniture saleswoman turned playwright became a sensation (“Shop-Girl Writes Play” blared the headlines). From there Smith went on to become one of the most successful playwrights of her time. Her writing career took a new turn during World War II, when she moved with her husband to the United States. Her longing for home led her to write I Capture the Castle, a book centered on a teenage girl who describes the world around her in her journal, while telling the story of her extraordinary family who live in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. The book captivated readers and was reprinted many times, making Smith not just a successful screenwriter but also a novelist.

A cover of a 2018 Hebrew translation of I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

But Smith’s most successful book came a few years later, when she was 60 years old. The inspiration for the book were her and her husband’s nine Dalmatians, the first of which was named Pongo, naturally. A friend of Smith’s once commented that Pongo would make an excellent fur coat, and in that instant, the character of Cruella de Vil was suddenly born in Smith’s mind. The rest of the plot would gradually develop around the figure of Cruella.

The book’s success led to a phone call from Walt Disney who offered to turn her story into a movie. The animated film was released in 1961 (Smith loved the film, but was disappointed to not have her name featured more prominently in the opening credits), leading to a rise in books sales, and likely also to the translation of the book into Hebrew in 1966. About ten years after the first book was published, Smith published a sequel titled The Starlight Barking, but it was not as successful as the first and, in fact, the Disney sequels are not based on it at all. Incidentally, Disney also acquired the rights to I Capture the Castle, which was supposed to star Hayley Mills, but due to disputes between the screenwriter and Smith, the project was shelved. After Smith’s death, Disney eventually released the film rights and in 2003 a feature film was made by BBC Films.

Disney released a live action adaptation of 101 Dalmations in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.

Smith, however, did not live to see the film. She passed away in 1990, four years after her husband, who had died unexpectedly, and left her heartbroken. Her Dalmatian Charlie served as her faithful companion, support and source of strength in her later years.

As inevitably happens when a book is adapted to film (even one starring Glenn Close) there will always be nuances that cannot be transferred to the big screen. So it is with Cruella de Vil who in the book is even more ruthless and has an even darker back story. The same goes for the book’s sense of humor, especially as it applies to human-dog relations, as can be seen from the book’s opening lines, “Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.”

So if you’re a dog person or have an appreciation of finely-crafted villains, or if you’d simply like to read a work by a talented, but unfortunately long-forgotten best-selling author, I recommend adding Dodie Smith’s books to your reading list.

And finally, a full disclosure to readers of I Capture the Castle—I didn’t write this article while sitting in the kitchen sink. 😉

“Israel is a graveyard for Jewish languages”: An Interview With Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin

The culture of Iranian Jews in Israel is bound up with a language that is nearly lost: Judeo-Persian. According to Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran, Judeo-Persian is not just one language. It is rather like a tapestry woven over thousands of years of Jewish history in Persia, so that sometimes different dialects were even found in the same city. In this interview, Dr. Eilam Gindin discusses the fate of Judeo-Persian in Israel as well as the secret language of Persian Jewry…


A story written in Judeo-Persian, 17th-18th century. Courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, accessible through the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project

When was the last time you heard someone speaking Judeo-Moroccan, Ladino or Judeo-Persian? You may be familiar with a few words that come up in conversations at home with family members, but the truth is that most Jewish languages are no longer spoken, certainly not on a daily basis. Yet, these languages carry a great deal of cultural baggage, each one telling the story of a whole community, stories that for the most part have disappeared into the mists of time.

One of these Jewish languages that has been nearly forgotten ​​in Israel is Judeo-Persian, which is why we turned to Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran, who is herself fluent in quite a few languages. We wanted to focus on the story of Judeo-Persian but we very quickly learned how mistaken we were in making such a generalization. “It is highly inaccurate to speak about Judeo-Persian as one language. In fact, there are many Iranian-Jewish languages, not all are even Persian, and all of them have undergone quite a few changes. What began as Judeo-Persian is today a language very similar to Persian and is not written in Hebrew,” she explains with a smile.

Dr. Tamar Eilan Gindin. Screenshot courtesy of Kan Broadcasting Corporation

How did this group of languages we call Judeo-Persian come about?

[Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin]: “In general, wherever Jews settled, as with any immigrant community, the first generation probably spoke Hebrew, but the second generation spoke the local language. What preserved the language was the desire to maintain a Jewish identity and this was expressed in the preservation of the “family slang”, that was spoken in Grandma’s house. In addition, given the sacred status of Hebrew, there was always a scholarly elite that continued to speak Hebrew, which remained the common language (Lingua Franca) of all the Jewish communities in the world. Through that elite, Hebrew words continued to permeate the local Jewish language. Specifically in Iran, there are many dialects. Some imagine it like the branches of a tree, but in fact it’s more like patterns on a carpet—between neighboring villages there are small differences, but a few villages away, it’s a completely different dialect. Anywhere with a large enough Jewish community, a Jewish language developed. In Yazd, the language was different from one Jewish neighborhood to the other, so that while the residents of the northern neighborhood understood both languages, the residents of the southern neighborhood didn’t understand the northern one.”

Do the Jewish languages share any characteristics?

“It was once common to speak of the three characteristics of a Jewish language—it had to be written in Hebrew script, it had to have a Hebrew element, as well as archaisms. Yet we now know that none of these are necessary nor sufficient. Most of the Jewish languages ​​today, including Judeo-Persian, are written in local script but are still Jewish and used mainly by Jews. The other two characteristics are not always present either. Take for example, Jewish-American English, we can’t claim that it’s archaic. Also, the Hebrew component in it is not exclusive to the language: Hebrew words have permeated common English. Likewise, today’s Judeo-Persian is not archaic. Contact between Jewish society and the general society in Iran grew closer during the mid-20th century, so that today Judeo-Persian is almost indistinguishable from Persian and the Hebrew component in it is very minimal.”

A manuscript of a Judeo-Persian piyut (liturgical hymn), late 19th century. National Library of Israel, a gift of the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, from the estate of his father Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin

What singles out Judeo-Persian among all the Jewish languages?

“What’s beautiful about Judeo-Persian is that because it’s been around for so long, you can see different stages in its development. You can see the first stage in books like the Book of Esther, which is Hebrew with a Persian element. The Talmud contains a lot of Persian words, but it’s still Hebrew and Aramaic with a Persian element. This is the beginning. In fact, the books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah also contain a Persian influence, and in modern Hebrew there are quite a few words that derive from Persian and are deeply rooted in the Hebrew language, such as pardes (orchard), egoz (nut), zman (time) and handasa (engineering).”

When was the first written documentation of Judeo-Persian?

“Ancient Judeo-Persian is recorded from the 8th century CE. In fact, it is the earliest recorded writing of New Persian. The Muslims, who spoke Persian at home at the time, wrote in Arabic, so there is no record of their spoken language. The Zoroastrians were still trying to write in Middle Persian, which reflects a phase before New Persian. The Jews wrote in the language they spoke, using the letters they knew—the Hebrew alphabet. This is equivalent to Israeli Arabs writing in Arabic in Hebrew letters, or “Penglish”, Iranians writing Persian using the English alphabet.”

A manuscript of a poem in praise of Moses, written in Judeo-Persian, 19th century.  National Library of Israel collections

“The same early Judeo-Persian documentation also contributed to the study of Iranian languages ​​in general. The earliest document in Persian in Hebrew letters, from the 8th century as mentioned, is an inscription found in Afghanistan. Researchers were unable to decipher it. They tried all kinds of Middle Persian scripts and were unsuccessful, until they realized that the letters were Hebrew written in a script that was something between Rashi script and square script. And voila! They were then able to decode this Persian text. In fact, the different languages ​​of the Jews in Iran make it possible to study the history of the Iranian languages, because while the local population was already speaking a different language, the spoken Jewish language remained faithful to the original local dialect. As mentioned, there were many local Jewish dialects in Iran and most were descended from the Median language. Few of them have been studied, mainly those of Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz, Hamadan and Kashan.


How did all these languages ​​develop?

In Iran, the Jews first adopted the local language and then preserved it in a changing environment, which was relatively easy within a closed community. It turned out that like many small and closed communities, they preserved the original language while the Muslim communities around them advanced linguistically. In the Muslim communities, the language was lost in favor of Persian or changed in another direction. The Zoroastrians, for example, are also a minority in Iran, and there are other ethnic minorities and not just religious ones. Every minority in Iran, even in different villages, has different dialects. This is possible because these are closed communities and these dialects remain more archaic, that is, more similar to the original language. So often times, when we want to understand what Iran looked like linguistically, we have to go to the Jewish languages ​​and the local languages ​​and to see through them. What’s also interesting is the Jewish secret language that developed there.”

Judeo-Persian tales. Courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, NY, accessible through the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project

A secret Jewish language in Iran?

“Yes, Loterāʾi is a Persian dialect that uses a Hebrew lexicon which developed at the same time as Judeo-Persian, and was designed to prevent Iranians from understanding what was being said. A whole jargon of a hidden language developed, which Iranians usually could not decipher. Only those in the know, meaning the Jews, could.

The Jewish community in Iran maintained its Jewish language, but after most of the community immigrated to Israel, the Iranian-Jewish languages ​​suffered a severe blow. I call the unique phenomenon occurring to the Jewish languages in Israel “sandwich languages”: the bottom layer, which we call the substrate language, is the language of the conquered—not necessarily in a military or political sense, but it can certainly be cultural—and affects the language from the bottom up. The top layer is the superstrate language, that is, the influence of the conqueror on the conquered to the point where the language of the conquered is lost and a new language forms. Hebrew was the substrate of all the Jewish languages ​​around the world and the need to maintain a distinct identity is what preserved the Jewish languages ​​in the Diaspora. Jewish language, which was created everywhere, was the product of the dialogue between Hebrew and the local language. With the immigration to Israel, the superstrate of Israeli Hebrew went into action. Because of the melting pot policy, Israel became a giant cemetery for Jewish languages, because not only is there no longer a reason to preserve these languages. The need to remain separate has been removed as well and in its place is the need to come together and unify in the melting pot.

A manuscript of Judeo-Persian piyutim, 19th century. National Library of Israel, a gift of the President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin, from the estate of his father Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin

In Israel today, the Judeo-Persian language of those who emigrated from Iran is heavily influenced by everyday Hebrew. It’s a similar situation to that of the Persian communities in the US, who preserved their Persian heritage but who have also assimilated into society, so that Persian has naturally disappeared over time.”

Maya the Bee in the Service of Germany’s Soldiers

The beloved children’s book about the brave little bee who saves her beehive became one of the most popular books among German soldiers during the First World War. What led them to carry this book about the adventures of a small bee with them onto the battlefield? Does it contain hints of the devious ideology that would cause global devastation only a few decades later?

Maya the Bee and German Soldiers in WWI

Maya the Bee is all grown up, and this year (2022) she celebrates 110 years of delighting the world’s children with her adventures in a multitude of languages ​​and media. It was therefore all the more disappointing to discover that the creator of this beloved character was openly antisemitic and promoted some questionable values. However, if you are one of Maya’s fans, don’t worry. We aren’t going to spoil the image of this adorable fictional and animated character. Along the way, we’ll meet Henrietta Szold’s younger sister Adele, who will remind us that books can be read in many ways.

Maya and Willy seem concerned. From the 1975 television cartoon series

First published in Germany in 1912, The Adventures of Maya the Bee tells the story of a little bee who leaves her hive in the midst of a rebellion, encounters the outside world with its friendly and dangerous creatures, and eventually returns to her hive to save it. The book was written by Waldemar Bonsels (1880–1952) for his sons, and became a great success when it was published.

First edition of The Adventures of Maya the Bee

The fact that it was popular not just among German children, but also among Germany’s soldiers in the First World War suggests that there is more to this book than meets the eye. What was it about this story and the adventures of a little bee that brought young men on the battlefield to eagerly read a book that was clearly intended for children?

The reason is that among the flowers, insects and adventures, hide militaristic and nationalist messages and values which can be interpreted as a parable of the German people and its army.

One of the clear messages conveyed in the book is that one must fight—and if necessary be prepared to die—for the homeland. Already at the beginning of the book, the nanny Cassandra says to the newly born young bee: “So do not sting . . . except in dire need, and then do it without flinching or fear of death” (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Adventures of Maya the Bee [New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1922]). Maya internalizes this lesson and when she finds herself captured (for the second time in the book!) she thinks, “I am doomed anyhow. So since death is certain one way or another, I may as well be proud and brave and do everything I can to try to save them . . . If my people are to be vanquished and killed, I want to be killed, too. But first I must do everything in my power to save them.” This message reaches its climax in the battle that takes place between the bees and the wasps, where we find this exchange: “’I should like to die for you,’ Maya stammered, quivering. ‘Don’t worry about us,’ replied the queen. ‘Among the thousands inhabiting this city there is not one who would hesitate a moment to sacrifice his life for me and for the welfare of the country. You can go to sleep peacefully.'”

Here too death in battle is presented as sad but also heroic. The brave commander bee perishes in battle, and the readers learn how “His brave death inspired them all with the wild rapture that comes from utter willingness to die for a noble cause.” Reading these passages makes the book’s presence on the brutal battlefields of the First World War a little more understandable.

The book also emphasizes the duty of loyalty to the homeland. Maya’s leaving the hive is a reprehensible act, and only the fact that she returned to save it means that she is forgiven for “the crime of  leaving her homeland” (from the Hebrew translation by Aryeh Leib Smiatitzky, Devora Zivit, Omanut Publishers, 1928). Even during her journey, the readers understand that it is better to shelter in the shadow of the rulers and serve them, rather than set out on an independent path. “Oh, thought Maya, how happy it made you to be able to count yourself one in a community like that, to feel that everybody respected you, and you had the powerful protection of the state. Here, out in the world, lonely and exposed, she ran great risks of her life. She was cold, too.” Even the wasps admit that “we are a more powerful race, but the bees are a unified nation, and unflinchingly loyal to their people and their state.”

“You did not forget your home and your people… In your heart you were loyal.” The illustration above is by Franz Franke, from a German edition dating to 1920

As can be understood from the last sentence, nationalism is not limited to loyalty to the homeland but also includes expressions of national and racial superiority. Emphasized throughout the book is the bees’ superiority over all other insects. “For it is to our courage as well as our wisdom that we bees owe the universal respect and esteem in which we are held,” explains Cassandra to the young bee Maya. In her meeting with the beetle, the narrator points out that “The bees had more culture and better manners,” than the other insects, and the fly, which is afraid of being stung, declares “Everybody knows that you bees are the most respected of all insects.”

The author Waldemar Bonsels

This feeling of superiority is connected to the fact that Bonsels, a humanist and lover of nature, was also an avowed antisemite. He openly expressed his support for the Nazis with their rise in 1933 by publishing a hateful article about the Jews. According to the article, the Jewish people are a deadly enemy that poisons German culture and must be stopped. The book about Maya the Bee was written years before, but some believe that an inkling of this thinking can also be found among its pages. On one of the first pages of the book, the governess Cassandra tells Maya: “The hornets are our most formidable enemy, and the wickedest, and the wasps are a useless tribe of thieves, without home or religion. We are a stronger, more powerful nation, while they steal and murder wherever they can.” It is not unreasonable to assume that the evil wasps in the book symbolize the Jewish people. Bonsels was even approached to turn Maya the Bee into an animated film in the service of Nazi propaganda. The request came from a German studio established in 1941, with the aim of presenting an alternative to Walt Disney’s American studios and spreading German ideology through animated films. Bonsels accepted the offer and only a financial dispute led to the deal’s falling apart. After the war, Bonsels’ ties with the Nazi Party led to the boycott of his books for a short period.

Maya the Bee appears in a Nazi magazine for Germany’s soldiers, June, 1941

In the United States, the book was first published in 1922. The English translator was none other than Adele Szold-Seltzer, the younger sister of Henrietta Szold, leader and founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. At the time, Bonsels’ views were not yet widely known and the story was seen as a naïve children’s book. Reading it today, we cannot ignore what we now know about the writer’s personal views or the various militaristic messages embedded throughout. Nevertheless, it also shows appreciation for nature’s beauty, as well as the values of curiosity, compassion, and coming to the aid of one’s fellow creatures. Maya befriends many insects she meets along the way, marvels at the beauty of the butterfly, the dragonfly and the night gnome, the song of the red-breasted robin, the melody of the cricket. The various insects share information with her and come to each other’s rescue—Maya helps the dung beetle regain its footing, and later he will be the one to save her from almost certain death in the spider’s web. And we haven’t yet mentioned love. In one episode, upon seeing a loving young couple and thinking it the most glorious sight, Maya says to herself “human beings are most beautiful when they are in love.”

The American edition of The Adventures of Maya the Bee, translated by Adele Szold-Seltzer

But let’s be honest, most of us first fell in love with Maya the Bee at the movies or on television and not in the pages of a book. The first film adaptation was a silent film starring real animals, released in 1926 during Bonsels’ lifetime and with his collaboration. Yet Maya’s great success came only in 1975, over twenty years after Bonsels’ death, and from Japan, of all places. It was the Japanese animated 104-episode series that brought Maya into homes all over the world and turned her into a famous and beloved children’s character and star of an array of merchandise from chocolates and puddings to dolls and bedding. The series also brought us Willy and Flip, two beloved characters who don’t appear in Bonsels’ book and were only added in the animated series. Willy became so popular that he appeared in almost every adaptation of the story (for example, in the French animated series from 2012), even though, as mentioned, he doesn’t appear at all in the original book.

A Hebrew poster for the movie Maya the Bee. L.A.C. Productions


The first Hebrew translation of the original book was by Aryeh Leib Smiatitzky in 1928, titled Hadvorah Zivit. A new translation by Bezalel Wechsler appeared in 1977 under the title Hadvora Maya VeHarpatka’oteha.  Added to these were shorter books based on the television series, which were already far removed in spirit from the original.

Hadvora Maya Veharpatka’oteha, 1977


Hadvora Maya Nilhemet BaTzra’ot (“Maya the Bee Battles the Wasps”)


The makeover was finally completed in 2014, with another motion picture based on the book (Maya the Bee Movie), featuring even fewer ties to the original narrative. The film received poor reviews but was quite successful at the box office and also spawned two sequels. It even managed to completely overturn Bonsels’ doctrine from beginning to end. Not only does it erase all traces of any antisemitic undercurrent and offer a practically pacifist message, but it also reverses Bonsels’ most basic message for young, especially female readers – to obey and conform. Instead, the film teaches its young viewers to see Maya’s free spirit and independence in a sympathetic and positive light, and in the spirit of the times educates them to listen to their hearts and to be themselves. Bonsels, who died in 1952, but whose name appears in the credits as one of the writers, would not have approved.

A Hebrew poster for Maya the Bee Movie, 2014