How a 16th Century Business Dispute Triggered a Religious War

Printing of a Jewish book in 1551 caused religious strife and turmoil all over Italy

A 1572 map of Venice from the National Library of Israel's Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

The Jewish ghetto in Venice was established in 1516, and all the Jews living in the prosperous city were forced to move there. Among the limitations imposed on the Jews of the ghetto was that the printing of Hebrew books had to be contracted to a Christian press. A dispute that broke out between two such Christian printers threatened to destroy the cultural universe of Italian Jewry.

A map of the Venice ghetto from the early 16th century. The map may be found in the Civico Corer Museum in Venice

In 1551, Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen contacted the owner of the Guistiniani printing press with a proposal for printing Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah with a commentary he had written. The printer refused. Disappointed but still determined, the rabbi then brought the same proposal to Alvise Bragadini, owner of the new and less-established Bragadini press, who agreed to publish it. The phenomenal success of the Mishneh Torah in its new format attracted the attention of Guistiniani, who then hurried to print an identical edition of the book.

Frontispiece of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah printed by the Bragadini press. From the National Library of Israel collection
Frontispiece of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah printed by the Guistiniani press. From the National Library of Israel collection

European Jewish communities declared a boycott against the pirated Guistiniani edition, but despite this, the printer refused to acknowledge his defeat, and instead appealed directly to the Pope to settle the dispute. In order to damage one another’s credibility, the rival printing press owners hurled accusations that the other had, in his edition, inserted heresy against Christianity and the Catholic Church. The Pope’s decision stunned both sides: in the summer of 1553, Pope Julius III ordered all Hebrew books – first and foremost the Talmud – to be brought to Rome’s central square, where they were burned.

This decree was then carried out in other cities across Italy including Venice.


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Beyond the Iron Curtain: East Germany and the Collapse of the Wall

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries

Following the Allied victory over Germany in the Second World War, the country was divided, and on October 7, 1949, an independent state, known as “The German Democratic Republic” was established in the area of the Soviet occupation. A few weeks earlier, the Federal Republic had been established in the western part of Germany.

East Germany’s distorted self-presentation, for dissemination in the world, 1986.

A book about the 1989 events, including texts in three languages. Published in Berlin, 1990.

At first, only a small number of countries in the world recognized the East German state, home to some 17 million people. Predictably, the countries that recognized it were mainly those who were under direct control of the Soviet regime in Moscow. Although, formally, the East German republic proclaimed its aspiration to democracy (reflected even in the country’s name), it was a very limited democracy: the control of the Socialist-Communist Party was not up for discussion. The Soviet Army forces stationed on East German soil, numbering 350,0000-500,000 soldiers, was not only the westernmost force of the Soviet Union in Europe, but also a means of pressure for maintaining the status quo: the Soviet military force there was intended to ensure loyalty, which it did until the dissolution of the Communist Bloc in 1989. The Soviet military force acted with all of its strength during the days of the civil uprising of East Germany against the communist regime in June 1953, an uprising after which a tense calm prevailed, maintained with an iron fist.​

The lack of satisfaction of many citizens with the East German dictatorship was also reflected in the mass flight to the West, which continued through mid-August of 1961. In an abrupt – but not entirely surprising action – the police and army forces established a wall around West Berlin, and also along a portion of the border between the two parts of Germany, with the goal of preventing the continued flight of citizens from East to West. This border was also the boundary between the two large political blocs, which led to a large concentration of military forces along both sides of the Iron Curtain, including Russian and American nuclear weapons.

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries. Despite this, many did not remain complacent, and tried to flee to the other side of the wall. Some succeeded, but over 200 people paid with their lives for the attempt to break free. The political leadership operated according to the instructions of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, and tried in every manner possible to induce citizens to sympathize with the Russian-Soviet school of ideology. The media functioned under censorship, literature and all types of publications were required to adhere to the ruling party line. Opponents of the regime were at the focus of the activity of the secret police, the Stasi, which maintained enormous archives that included (and still include) information on millions of citizens.

A booklet with the speeches given during a ceremony in the East German parliament on November 9th, 1988

According to the official ideology, residents of the German Democratic Republic lived according to humanistic principles, and therefore, there was no need to deal with the dark past of the German nation prior to 1945. In the view of the communist leaders, all of the Nazis, old and new, were in West Germany, while the socialist-communist essence of East Germany absolved East German society of scrutinizing and taking responsibility for the Nazi crimes. While the official historical narrative mentioned the Jewish victims, relative to the Communist victims, they took only second place. This reconstruction of history was apparently accepted by a considerable portion of the population, since it spared them the torturous journey of taking responsibility for the Holocaust, and recognizing the deeds perpetrated by the Nazis, many of whom were living in East Germany. This was also the root of the political leadership’s refraining from any contact with Jewish organizations or with the State of Israel, almost until the end of the East German state in 1989-1990. ​ ​

The quieting of global politics in the 1970s and the new policy of the West German government at the time towards the East, led to a certain softening in East Germany. Many countries gave it formal recognition, and the communist regime relinquished strict Stalinism and tried to improve the standard of life of the country’s residents. This social policy exacted a high price, which the planned Communist economy was unable to withstand for long. The power of the East German economy – one of the strongest in the Communist Bloc, but weak in comparison with the western countries – declined greatly, and citizens were unable to buy much with the money they earned. For most residents of East Germany, access to unobtainable, often essential supplies and products, depended on the black market and personal connections. This situation stood out in stark relief to the ideological image of communist society, which was ostensibly superior to capitalist society. And yet, millions of residents of East Germany were exposed to West German television and radio broadcasts, and gained a growing impression of the actual situation, which was precisely the reverse of what they knew in their own country.

Given this state of affairs, the political leadership adopted some opportunistic measures. One was a sudden move towards closer acquaintance with Jewish issues. In November 1988, the East German Parliament (which was in effect a powerless body) held a memorial event for Kristallnacht, and even established a Jewish historical research center, the “Centrum Judaicum,” in the building of the New Synagogue in Berlin. Through the “Jewish channel,” leaders hoped to forge a better relationship with the American government, and in so doing, to obtain economic benefits.

The program for the ceremony in the East German parliament, in German and faulty Hebrew.

From the 1980s, dissident groups were formed by skeptical citizens, mainly among congregations from the Protestant Church. The secret police tried to permeate these circles and to slow their spread, but in the second half of this decade, the trend was irreversible. More and more citizens submitted official requests to leave the country, others tried to flee through the Soviet Bloc countries, and in the autumn of 1989, hundreds of thousands gathered for a non-violent demonstration against the regime. The political leadership, which comprised mainly elderly members of the establishment who lacked an understanding of the changes of the time, found no suitable answers for the demands of the demonstrators, and in October 1989, the Communist government fell to the pressure of the demonstrations. This time, in contrast to 1953, the leadership in Moscow, headed by Michael Gorbachev, who advanced the reform of Communism (perestroika), did not intervene.

In the stream of events, the opening of the borders on the evening of November 9, 1989, was almost unpreventable. During a press conference on various topics, one communist leader spontaneously declared the decision to enable citizens to travel throughout the world without limit. Following this, thousands of citizens at the border crossings in Berlin gathered, demanding they be opened. Ultimately, the soldiers of the border guard gave in and opened the gates to the west. The opening of the borders changed the dynamics of the “quiet revolution”: From November 9, growing numbers of demonstrators stopped calling for social changes in East Berlin: they now demanded unification with the Federal Republic. And indeed, unification was achieved after discussion with the former Allies (the United States, Soviet Union, England and France) on October 3, 1990.

The Nuremberg Trails, 1945-1946

Beginning November 20, 1945, 24 Nazis sat on the Nuremberg Court House's seating area for the accused. These were the men defined as the main criminals

Even before the end of WWII, the three strongest nations among the Allied Powers (United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain) decided upon a series of arrangements in anticipation of the war’s end. At the summit meetings that took place in Tehran and Yalta, and after the end of the war at the Potsdam Conference, it was decided that now that Germany had been defeated, an international court would be established.

The Allies agreed among themselves to establish an international military court vested with the responsibility of investigating and conducting trials for the deeds committed in Germany’s name prior to and during the war. The idea was mainly to address war crimes, crimes committed against civilians and crimes committed in the concentration camps. Prior to the establishment of the court, France joined the three major Allied nations and was also admitted to the bench (two judges were appointed from each country).

The city of Nuremberg was selected as the site of the military court, for a number of reasons. First, despite the great destruction that visited this city, the local court building was almost unscathed, such that discussions could be held with a large number of participants and a sizeable audience. Next to it was the prison, where the accused could be held during the discussions and easily transported as required. Secondly, precisely due to the prominent role of Nuremberg in Nazi ideology ­– as the city where the Nazi Party conventions were held and the racist anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws were legislated – conducting the trials in this city, of all places, had a clear symbolic dimension.

A contemporary response to the Nuremberg Trails, London 1945

In order for the court to perform its task vis-à-vis the accused, it was necessary to apprehend them. Immediately after the last days of the war, it emerged that several of the senior Nazis were no longer alive: Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide on April 30 and May 1 respectively. Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, disappeared (his remains were discovered only in the 70s, in Berlin). Other prominent Nazis initially tried to hide, but during the weeks following Germany’s surrender, an increasing number were captured in remote locations and in prisoner of war camps, where they had disguised themselves among the masses of German soldiers taken prisoner by the Allies. Such was the case of the Reich Leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who tried to survive under an assumed identity. Despite his efforts, British soldiers identified him, but before the British authorities managed to interrogate him thoroughly, he managed to commit suicide. Rudolf Hess, the second-highest ranking member of the Nazi Party, was arrested already in 1941, when he flew to England of his own accord to conduct peace negotiations on behalf of Germany. The highest-ranking Nazi to be captured alive was Hermann Göring. Göring surrendered to American forces, together with his family and property, loaded on to no fewer than 17 trucks.

Beginning November 20, 1945, 24 Nazis sat on the Nuremberg Court House’s seating area for the accused. These were the men defined as the main criminals. Eight judges presided over the trials. Heading the international military court was British Justice Sir Geoffrey Lawrence. Each of the participating Allied nations appointed a prosecutor.

During the preliminary discussions on the question of accusations, it became clear that the issue was inconceivably more complex than could have been anticipated. While there was no doubt regarding German responsibility for the war, some of the same crimes carried out by the Nazis were also committed de facto by certain Allied armies. For example, in September 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland, together with Germany, and summarily executed thousands of Polish officers in the city of Katyn and in other locations. And just as the Germans bombed many cities across Europe with the goal of destroying them, so, too, did the British and Americans – bombed German cities with the same intention. Therefore, in order to hold the Nuremberg Trials while not undermining the authority of the court, the international jurists were required to refrain from comparisons, and to focus on the German acts. Additionally, already in the early days of the discussions, tensions began mounting between the Soviet Union and the Allied Powers regarding the ideological differences between the blocs, which eventually, indeed, led to the Cold War.

The discussions took place in various languages: English, French, Russian and German. For the duration of almost a year, the Court heard 240 witnesses and was presented with many written documents and much film footage. The international Nuremberg Trials were groundbreaking in many senses: They took place simultaneously in a number of languages and were accompanied by simultaneous translation; the prosecution relied on the idea that the international court would try responsible individuals from a particular country that committed a crime according to international law and against humanity as a whole. The work of the court at Nuremberg as well as that of a similar body that operated after the end of the war in the Far East served as an example for the functioning of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, established following the experience and resulting insights garnered from the trials after WWII.

At the end of the trials, on September 30 and on October 1 1945, 12 of the accused were sentenced to death, three were exonerated and the rest were imprisoned in Allied prisons in the old Spandau Citadel in Berlin, after being handed prison sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment. None of them pleaded guilty. On October 16, those sentenced to death were executed. Göring convinced an American soldier to obtain poison for him, managing to kill himself just a few hours before he was scheduled to be hanged. The last prisoner in the Berlin jail was Rudolf Hess. Ultimately, Hess also killed himself, in 1987, at the age of 93.

The opening page of the protocols series’ first volume, London 1946

Many journalists reported on the Nuremberg Trials. Among them were well known personalities and writers, including Willy Brandt, Alfred Dublin, Ilya Ehrenberg, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Kästner, John Steinbeck and many others. Haaretz’s reporter covering the trials was Robert Weltsch, later the director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. Surprisingly, Weltsch did not believe that the trial conducted at Nuremberg had great significance or would be very effective. In a letter to Martin Buber from Nuremberg of December 1945, he even stated that the entire trial “is actually not interesting at all.” The trial was documented in films, and when it ended, the protocols were published in English, French and German. The trials themselves and the publications about them spurred the beginning of the comprehensive study of the Third Reich and Nazi crimes.

Under the Watchful Eye of “Big Brother”

Relations between the Communist Parties in Israel and East Germany

In contrast to the growing formal and informal ties that began to develop between Israel and the Federal German Republic already in the 1950s beginning with the reparations agreement, no ties developed between the eastern part of Germany and the Jewish state. Apparently, the disconnect did not stem from one side only: alongside East Germany’s obvious fear from contact with Israel, which in all likelihood would have led to demands for reparations (which, indeed, were submitted by the Israeli government, but remained unanswered), the Israeli leadership knew that any contact with the Communist German state would cause problems in the relationship with the Federal Republic. The West German government was at the time adhering to the Hallstein Doctrine, which prohibited official ties with East Germany and with any entities that recognized this country.

Copy of letter sent by MaKI to its sister party in East Germany, 1960

Despite the lack of connection between the two countries until 1990, ties were conducted between the ruling Socialist-Communist Party in East Germany, and the Communist Party in Israel (MaKI), and continued after MaKI split in June 1965 and one stream formed “The New Communist List” (RAKAH). In the party’s archives at the National Library, a number of letters were recently discovered that attest to ties between the parties, which viewed one another as comrades in the anti-imperialist struggle. The letters received from the leadership of the ruling East German government were written in German. Most of the letters from East Germany in the correspondence files bear the signature of party leader and East Germany head of state Walter Ulbricht.

The letters, from the 1960s and 70s, discuss the various topics: Most are greetings for party occasions marking independence celebrations for East Germany, and long abstracts about Soviet policy in the context of the Communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

These letters were written formulaically in a manner characteristic of the Communist Party, lauding the Soviet ideological position and condemning the deeds of the imperialist West. The very fact that Walter Ulbricht’s signature appears on most of the letters shows the importance he attributed to these announcements to the communists in Israel. It should be noted that this was the most heated period of the Cold War, when the world was at the brink of a nuclear war between the super powers. At this time, the division of Germany was also completed, with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Communist leadership in East Berlin understandably was using every means to close itself off from the capitalist enemy.

Reply letter of Walter Ulbricht to the MaKI Central Committee, in which he agreed to the Israeli party’s request that East Germany receive “progressive” students, and in which he asked what subjects the Israeli students were hoping to study in East Germany.

Other matters discussed in the correspondence between the two parties were the verification of personal data regarding communists who moved from Israel to East Germany or vice-versa, a request for a supply of ideological textbooks from East Germany to Israel, and even the request for a printing press for the publication of newspapers in the Arabic language.

In April 1960, members of the Israeli party contacted its German sister party regarding the possibility of sending five “progressive” students” to East Germany for study. As secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Walter Ulbricht responded favorably to this request and agreed to accept five students to universities and colleges in his country, on condition that their mastery of the German language was satisfactory. He added that this move should not be publicized at the time, since it did not suit the current political situation. The correspondence files contain several additional letters that relate to this, but it is not entirely clear whether the project was ultimately implemented. Of course, hosting Israeli students in any case in East Germany, and particularly in 1960, was an unconventional move. The fact that Ulbricht gave his personal approval, regarding a matter that under normal circumstances would not have reached the desk of the head of state, shows the importance that functionaries attributed to this move. And yet, the correspondence files of the Israel Communist Party (MaKI) show that party clerks during the same period also contacted other countries in the Communist bloc. It is likely that in these cases, matters developed with greater ease, since the State of Israel conducted official diplomatic ties with all of the Eastern European countries until the Six-Day War, with the exception of the German Democratic Republic.