Declaring Independence With 150 Lira in Your Pocket

In May of 1948, designer Otte Wallish was given his “mission impossible”: Get everything ready for a Declaration of Independence ceremony. You have 24 hours. Also: Were there nude images hiding behind Theodor Herzl’s portrait?

independence hall

Declaration of Independence ceremony on May 14, 1948. Photo: Rudi Weissenstein

At 11:00 AM on the morning of May 13, 1948, one day before Israel declared statehood, Otte Wallish was given a very sensitive assignment. The official graphic artist of the Hebrew Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-State Israel) was summoned to an urgent meeting at the Tel Aviv Museum – at the time, the only museum in the first Hebrew city. He had been summoned by Ze’ev Sherf, who had only recently been appointed “Temporary Secretary of the People’s Administration”. During the hasty meeting, which lasted no more than a few minutes, Sherf assigned Otte Wallish his task: “Get the large hall of the museum ready within 24 hours. That’s where the ceremony for the Declaration of Independence will take place.” Before Wallish could even ask for details, Sherf disappeared from the room to in a rush to attend to the other pressing items on his agenda that day.

Otte Wallish at work. Source: Wallish family

Wallish was given a budget of 150 lira.

Ben-Gurion’s plan was for the ceremony to be held under a heavy veil of secrecy.

Wallish approached this urgent task with every ounce of energy he had left after having spent several sleepless nights designing the first series of stamps to be used by the state-in-the-making. As the battles of the War of Independence were underway in neighboring Jaffa, Wallish ran around the streets of Tel Aviv to purchase a wooden desk, cloth to cover up the walls that were covered in nude images behind the stage upon which the nation’s leaders would be sitting in a few short hours, and a carpet to lend the hall a more dignified ambiance. The chairs to be placed on the stage were confiscated from local cafes. The meager budget wasn’t enough to cover flags, and it wasn’t possible to get a picture of the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl from any of the stores. He therefore borrowed both of these items from the Keren Hayesod (the United Israel Appeal). However, the flags needed to be washed, so Wallish took them to a nearby laundromat and ordered “lightning-fast washing.”

Some of the expenses that were paid for the Declaration of Statehood ceremony, from the Ari Wallish Collection

The nude statue at the entrance to the museum was covered in white cloth, and even though the War of Independence was still in its initial stages, Wallish decided to cover all the window curtains in the hall with black, as a precaution to avoid damage from possible aerial bombardments launched against Tel Aviv. It was a case of “who knows what will happen?” And as if all that wasn’t enough, Wallish was called back to Sherf’s office to receive another assignment: to prepare – without delay – a parchment upon which the Declaration of Independence itself would be written.

Wallish hurried off to the Beit HaMehandes (“engineer’s house”) at the end of Dizengoff Street. He asked to see examples of various parchments, but since he wasn’t permitted to reveal why he needed this strange request fulfilled, the clerk helping him got the feeling that this fellow was just a bit “off.” Wallish bought the parchment and brought it back to his office to test it for durability, to make sure it would last for generations to come.

The end of the Declaration of Independence, designed and prepared by Otte Walish

As soon as his dizzying spree of purchasing/borrowing/confiscating was complete, this graphic artist turned interior designer was free to prepare the hall for the historic occasion. And so, at 11:00 AM the following day, exactly 24 hours after he was assigned his task and only five hours before the declaration was signed and the State of Israel came into being, the hall was finally ready for the attendees. This was all described in a pictorial article by Pinchas Yourman in the Davar newspaper five years later, in 1953. The Hebrew article can be found online in the National Library’s Historical Press Collection.

The official invitation given to Otte Wallish to attend the Declaration of Independence ceremony. Ari Wallish Collection.

That same Pinchas Yourman described the declaration itself in his book The First 32 Minutes, as follows:

“It is unbelievable – but it is a fact; the most important and decisive ceremony ever held in Israel – the historic ceremony for the Declaration of Statehood in the Tel Aviv Museum – lasted only 32 minutes; it included one short speech; was conducted with exemplary order, and was praised afterward by its participants with the best of compliments, ranging from “great and impressive” to “once in a lifetime, moving and felt in the depths of the soul.”

Despite the cloud of secrecy cast over the location of the ceremony, the large gathering inside the Tel Aviv Museum – which had previously served as the private home of the late mayor Meir Dizengoff – guaranteed that a large crowd would show up outside the entrance hall in the hope of catching a glimpse of the most important ceremony in the country’s history. One particularly amusing story told by historian Mordechai Naor in his book The Friday that Changed Destiny concerned a guest who almost didn’t get in. The guest was Pinchas Rosen, then chairman of the small and now forgotten “New Aliyah” political party. Since Rosen had forgotten his official invitation to the ceremony at home, the guard stationed at the entrance to the museum refused to allow him to enter. None of his begging and pleading helped. He remained stuck outside until Ze’ev Sherf intervened, and Rosen, who would soon become Justice Minister of the State of Israel, was finally allowed to enter the ceremony and sign the declaration. The truth is that there was no shortage of offended parties and people with all manner of grievances trying to use all their contacts to gain entry to the prestigious event.

Ultimately, only 350 people were allowed through the doors of the museum at 16 Rothschild Blvd. The newspaper reporters didn’t even reveal where it was being held. The entire event was broadcast on the Kol Israel (“Voice of Israel”) radio station, as its inaugural broadcast.

A Broadcast From the Meeting of the Jewish National Council” – This laconic announcement informing the public of a radio broadcast on Kol Yisrael at 4 pm was published in every morning paper on May 14, 1948. This particular item is taken from HaTzofe.

Pinchas Yourman offered the following description:

“After a light banging of the (walnut-colored) gavel on the desk, everyone stood up and sang HaTikvah. In a voice that was later described in the newspapers as “trembling,” David Ben-Gurion began by uttering 15 words that have been stamped by the seal of history: “I will read for you the founding Declaration of the State of Israel, which has been approved in the first reading by the Jewish National Council.”

Upon hearing the name of the State of Israel being called out explicitly, the crowd burst into thunderous applause. One of the men sitting on the stage, Rabbi Y. L. Fishman, didn’t take part in the spontaneous applause. He burst into tears.

The haste with which the Declaration of Statehood ceremony was organized, and the amount of improvisation required in order for it to take place within such a short time didn’t manage to detract anything from the importance of the event. Ultimately, the ceremony was every bit as moving as it was brief, and it also symbolized a new beginning in many ways, for example, with new institutions (the radio station, for one) being established which would continue to accompany the new state for many years to follow.

Long live the State of Israel!

From Ben Shemen to the Concentration Camp and Back: The Story of a Family Photo

One photograph. That’s what Sarah Kagan left behind at the concentration camp in Klooga. But sometimes one picture is all you need to have closure on a painful chapter in a family's history.

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The Linkovsky family in Kovno (Kaunas). The photo was found among the ruins of the Klooga concentration camp and is now held at Yad Vashem

Family. Young men and women who share DNA or marital ties, and three little children, all of them smiling for a photographer, frozen in one moment in time and in a single place: Kovno, 1939. Just a few months before the whole world turned upside down. Ostensibly, this is a perfectly ordinary family picture, one of millions kept in the Yad Vashem photographic collections, each commemorating entire worlds which once were and are no more. But behind this specific picture is a broader story, written in part on the picture itself.

Writing on the back of the picture. Photo kept at Yad Vashem

On the other side of the photograph is a brief message written in Yiddish, in Hebrew script:

“A gift for the entire family, from your brother and the granddaughter,

Avraham

Daliah

Linkovsky

May 18, 1939

Ben Shemen”

How did a picture reach the distant concentration camp in Estonia from a Zionist youth village in the Land of Israel? Who were Avraham and Daliah Linkovsky and what was their connection to the people in the photograph?

To see the big picture, we have to go back a bit.

In the 1920s, a terrible tragedy befell the Linkovsky family living in Kovno: they lost both their parents. The father’s death certificate can be found at Yad Vashem, but the mother apparently also died before the war. The older brothers each went their own way, even if earlier than expected. But the two younger brothers – Avraham and Pesha – were sent to the Jewish orphanage in the city. This fact, which must have seemed particularly tragic at the time, ended up saving their lives.

Children at the Kovno orphanage. From the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive, IL-BSYV-001-13-0102-02

The Kovno Jewish orphanage, or the Kinderhaus as it was known then, was founded and run by the German-Jewish educator Siegfried Lehman. Lehman came to Kovno at the request of Max Soloveichik – the Jewish Affairs Minister for the Lithuanian government. Lehman was an inspiring figure who dreamt of equal, collective education. He eventually became an enthusiastic Zionist, though he didn’t start out that way, and made Aliyah in 1926 to found what would become the Youth Village of Ben Shemen – an educational institution which served as a home for the children who grew up there.

Dr. Siegfried Lehman. Photo: Ben Shemen Archive, IL-BSYV-001-13-0102-01

He didn’t come alone. With him came the first class of students for this new youth village – the children of the Kovno Kinderhaus. Later, two more groups of children came from Kovno, mixing in with native-born “Sabra” children as well as kids who were later rescued from Europe and brought to Mandatory Palestine by the Youth Aliyah organization.

Avraham Linkovsky’s Aliyah certificate. Photo courtesy of the Ben Shemen Archive

One of the first groups to arrive included the orphans Avraham and Pasha Linkovsky. Avraham was sixteen years old, Pasha fourteen. Pictures from Ben Shemen show them with their friends and teachers who became their family. But they never entirely forgot their old family in Lithuania, and kept in contact via correspondence. Upon completing their studies, Avraham married Sarah (of the Warful family) and they stayed in the country to work at the youth village. They had a daughter, whom they named Daliah.

In the spring of 1939, the young family travelled to visit their relatives in Lithuania. Avraham and Sarah took Daliah to meet their uncles and aunts in distant Kovno, people she would see only once in her life, when she was too small to remember. As a reminder of their trip before heading back, they all took a picture together. A fence passed behind them, behind which was a river or fields. A European landscape. What were they thinking when posing for this picture? Did they think this might be their last meeting?

Picture kept at Yad Vashem

The picture apparently belonged to Avraham, and he took it back with him to the Land of Israel, where he developed the photo and sent it as a gift to his brother back in Kovno, as a souvenir. Did he keep a copy for himself? We don’t know.

Meanwhile, the war broke out. Avraham would never hear from his brother or sisters again, murdered in the Holocaust that engulfed European Jewry. For many years, the family left in the Land of Israel didn’t even know the exact details of when and where they died.

But the picture, the souvenir sent from the Land of Israel to Europe before it went up in flames, survived, and it tells us the story of the family that was lost.

In 1944, the Russians liberated Estonia from the Germans. Among other sites, they reached the remains of the Klooga concentration camp. This camp was established in 1943 as one of the work camps meant to exploit the area’s natural resources. Prisoners were mostly sent from the ghettos of Vilna (Vilnius) and Kovno.

But when the Russians finally came to “liberate” the camp, there wasn’t much to free. A few days before the arrival of the Red Army, as they heard the approaching Russian guns echoing in the distance, the German camp commanders understood that this was the end of the line for them. Together with local collaborators, they murdered all the prisoners, tying them to tree branches to entirely burn the bodies and erase any trace of the horrors that took place there. But perhaps due to haste or the weather, the fire didn’t spread to all the bodies, most of which remained intact.

The Russians found piles of corpses, still warm, a strong scent of burnt flesh, as well as piles of documents and photographs. Within this inferno and the horror covered in ash, pages and fragments of documents remained which would tell, silently, the story of those who perished there.

Among them was this photo, with the writing which clearly tied it to people who were still alive at the time. Those people being family members waiting in the Land of Israel and hearing of the worst from afar. Aside from this picture, other hints were found: Eliyahu Linkovsky’s death certificate (dated to many years before the war, a testament to the early orphanhood of the brothers) as well as the marriage certificate of Avraham’s sister, also named Sarah, and Yehudah Kagan. Sarah Kagan’s name was found on the prisoners’ roster, no. 856.

The connection between the siblings was apparently cut off in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. From this point on, we can only guess, based on the stories of other survivors from that area, what Sarah went through. The crowding in the ghetto. The hunger. The death. The fear. The orders from the Germans to quickly pack their things: how to choose what to take from home, knowing how unlikely it was they’d return? The nightmarish trip to the concentration camps, the confiscation of everything she brought once she came to the German offices. The certificates. And the pictures.

They came with her, in her pockets or under her underclothes, but they didn’t stay with her.

They were left behind, to tell others a little more of what was and is no more.

Avraham, who was able to raise a model family in the Land of Israel, was never able to see the picture again or hear this story. The Russians eventually passed along the archival material of what is now known as the “Klooga Collection” at Yad Vashem, but only after he passed away.

Among the thousands of documents and pictures, the picture would probably have remained in the shadows, an anonymous item in the Yad Vashem collection. But one scholar, Orit Adorian, did not rest until she succeeded, together with the veteran staff members who run the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive, in giving the family closure.

The items appearing in the article are preserved at the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive and are made available thanks to the collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Special thanks to Orit Adorian for sharing her part in the story and helping us prepare the article.

Who Is the Empty Chair at the Passover Seder Intended for?

Along with the ancient tradition of leaving an empty chair on the Seder Night for Elijah the Prophet, a modern Zionist tradition has developed in which we leave an empty chair for our loved ones who have not yet returned from captivity. In the 1970s-80s, these were the “Prisoners of Zion”. Today these are the hostages of October 7. "Let my people go," Moses commanded Pharaoh in the name of God, and thousands of years later the same call is carried in Passover celebrations around the world, and with it we leave an empty chair and a glass of wine waiting for every single one of them to return

“And you shall tell your son, next to the Passover Seder table, across from the empty chair…” - A Hebrew poster on behalf of the Ma'oz Association, which worked to open the gates of the Soviet Union to Aliyah (from the Ephemera Collection of the National Library of Israel), and in the background a Passover Seder held by refuseniks in Moscow. Courtesy of the Enid Lynne Wurtman Archive, the CAHJP at the National Library of Israel

While we all sit, as we do every year, at the Seder table, while we sing, ask questions, read the Haggadah and enjoy the holiday meal, hundreds of families among us will not be able to do this. Their holiday spirit, their joy, their loved ones were taken from them.  Their loved ones were kidnapped; they are still being held captive by Hamas. In fact, for the majority of Jews in Israel and שרםומג the world, it seems that the Hebrew month of Nissan, which in Judaism usually symbolizes the renewal of spring, the blossoming and the departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom, stands in complete contradiction to the current public atmosphere. But history shows us that since the beginning of time, the joy of the people of Israel during the festival of Passover has never been complete, due to the heavy price they have had to pay for their very existence.

One of the characters that comes to visit us on the Seder Night is Elijah the Prophet. Every Jew is familiar with the amiable custom of opening the door in his honor during the “pour out thy wrath” section of the Haggadah, after the meal. We usually pour Elijah the fifth glass of wine and leave it full for him, as well as prepare a chair for him at the table in case he drops by for a visit. Elijah the Prophet symbolizes the hope to return to Israel. According to the prophecies, he will come to announce a new redemption. Therefore, opening the door on Seder Night also symbolizes the readiness to receive Elijah the Prophet and go with him to the Land of Israel. It turns out that this ancient tradition is accompanied by another long-standing tradition, designed to mark and remember those who cannot be with us.

ציור של כיסא אליהו המרכז לאמנות יהודית באוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים Center For Jewish Art At The Hebrew University Of Jerusalem
Painting of Eliyahu’s chair, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora used to commemorate their loved ones who perished in the Holocaust by leaving an empty chair for them at the Seder table.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a custom began in the Soviet Union of leaving a chair empty on the Seder Night for the “Prisoners of Zion”. The idea behind the custom was to not forget the Jewish prisoners languishing in Soviet prisons and to express the pain of Jews throughout the Western world who fought for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe. At the time they were called “The Jews of Silence”, as in Elie Wiesel’s famous book, because they were forbidden to practice their Judaism and observe the mitzvot of the Jewish religion. Jews all over the world left an empty chair at the table, in order to express their pain and desire to tear down the Iron Curtain and allow Soviet Jewry to return to their Judaism and immigrate to Israel.

The Prisoners of Zion were activists – Zionist men and women in various countries around the world. Many of them were arrested and imprisoned in their homelands because of their Zionist activities, others were deported because of their Jewishness or because of their country’s hostile relations with Israel.

כרזה של אסירי ציון, תחילת שנות ה 70 בהוצאת Jewish Chronicle בלונדון, 23 בנובמבר 1973.
Prisoners of [for] Zion poster, early 1970s, published by the Jewish Chronicle in London, November 23, 1973

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews from all over the world worked to free their brothers and sisters, who were banned and imprisoned because of their Zionist activities, and bring them to Israel. Prisoners of Zion suffered arrests, imprisonments and some also suffered torture and other violations of their freedom. They are part of a long-standing heritage of Jewish heroism. Prisoners of Zion were held against their will across the globe, in Romania, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, Egypt and of course the countries of the communist bloc in the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet authorities refused to recognize Judaism and the national aspirations of Jews, and in response to this some Jews became active in various Zionist undergrounds. If they were caught, they were imprisoned and tortured by the regime. Some were exiled to remote places in the Soviet Union, some were sent to forced labor camps, some died in prison, often under false accusations, and some were forcibly placed in psychiatric hospitals, even though their mental health was not in question.

A demonstration in Jerusalem for the Prisoners of Zion. Courtesy of Enid Lynne Wurtman whose archive is deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

From Rabbi Nachman of Breslav to American Jewry

“The Empty Chair” is also the name of a book that contains the writings and philosophy of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It includes advice for living a spiritual life and various pearls of wisdom. The empty chair which appears on the book’s cover is in fact Rabbi Nachman’s chair, which was brought to Israel by his followers and is kept in the Breslov Synagogue in Mea She’arim in Jerusalem. For the Breslov Hasidim, the Rabbi’s chair symbolizes both presence and absence.

תפילת סדר פסח למען יהודי ברית המועצות, 1969
Passover Seder prayer for the Jews of the Soviet Union, 1969

Eventually, the idea of the “empty chair” at the Passover Seder was given new meaning. Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, recalled an early childhood memory of the custom of leaving a chair empty at the Seder table for the Prisoners of Zion: “The custom was created when the Jews of the Soviet Union were behind the Iron Curtain. There was always one empty seat at the table. When I asked about it, I was told that it was for the Jews in the Soviet Union who were forbidden to celebrate Passover, so we saved a seat at our table, to remember that they could not be with us, and in honor of their actions. Next to the chair, we would put a sign on the table with the phrase ‘let my people go’.”

עפרה חזה שרה בהופעת אומנים בהיכל הספורט למען יהודי ברית המועצות. צילום מוטי פתאל ארכיון דן הדני הספרייה הלאומית
Ofra Haza singing at the Sports Hall for the Jews of the Soviet Union. Photo by: Moti Fattal, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This old custom is described in the children’s book, An Extra Seat, by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. The book was written in 2016 and contains the following passage:

Far away, in the Soviet Union, a group of Jews had tried to leave to find a better life in Israel. They were not allowed to. In fact they were punished for trying to leave – as if a giant iron door was closed in their faces.

One of those courageous Jews was called Anatoly Sharansky. He had just been arrested. 

The book tells the story of the release of a number of Prisoners of Zion, among them the human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who would go on to a career in politics and who became a close friend of the author. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld was a student of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who told him about his volunteer work promoting the cause of the Prisoners of Zion, including Natan Sharansky. Sharansky – who was convicted in 1978 of treason, spying for the United States, incitement and anti-Soviet propaganda – was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He was released in 1986 after nine years behind bars, and was finally allowed to immigrate to Israel.

הפגנה למען יהדות ברית המועצות בניו יורק.
Demonstration for Soviet Jewry in New York ~ Aliyah refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion. Avital Sharansky (center) holds a poster of her husband, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. Posters published by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry

Rabbi Herzfeld decided that it was important to tell the story of the Prisoners of Zion to children as well, and that’s how the idea for the book came about. An Extra Seat describes how two kids from New York, Sarah and Joseph, hear of Sharansky’s story and decide to join the demonstrations for his release. The book relates how, during the years of Sharansky’s imprisonment, the children made sure to keep an empty chair for him at every Shabbat and holiday meal, with their friends following them and also adopting the habit in their homes.

משמאל לימין יולי קושרובסקי, טניה אדלשטיין, הבת של טניה ואסיר ציון יולי אדלשטיין, מוסקבה
Left to right: Yuli Koshrovsky, Tanya Edelstein, Tanya’s daughter and the Prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein, Moscow

Let My People Go

Enid Lynne Wurtman also remembers the old custom and kept it herself in her home with her family.

Enid grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in Israel since 1977. She is among the most prominent activists in the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion and their immigration to Israel. Enid, a social worker by profession, and her husband, Stewart, who was a lawyer at the time, visited the Soviet Union in their early thirties, an eight-day trip to Moscow and Leningrad: “In 1973, my husband and I went to the Soviet Union to visit besieged Jews who were desperate to immigrate to Israel,” Wurtman says. The Jews they met experienced many difficulties: they lost their jobs, their children were expelled from the universities they studied in, and their telephones were disconnected – all because they were Zionists and longed to immigrate to Israel. Enid was heartbroken when she heard their stories. She felt that she was watching a different version of her own life, an alternate reality in which her grandparents had never left Russia for the United States. She felt she had to help them.

הבן של אניד, אלי וורטמן, בהפגנה למען אסירי ציון בפילדלפיה. ארכיונהשל...
Enid’s son, Elie Wurtman, at a demonstration for the Prisoners of Zion in Philadelphia. The Enid Lynne Wurtman Archive, deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

The inspiration for the slogan which became a symbol of the movement came from the story of the Exodus. “Let my people go” is the first part of God’s command to Pharaoh, repeated throughout Moses and Aaron’s exchanges with the ruler of Egypt. The biblical verse became the slogan for the inspirational campaign to exert pressure on the Soviet authorities to grant exit permits to Jews who wished to leave for Israel. The expression appeared in many posters promoting the cause of various Prisoners of Zion, in particular the struggle for the Jews of the Soviet Union. The phrase “Prisoner of Zion” is taken from a line in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s poem “Zion, shall you not beseech the welfare of your prisoners.”

כרזה מעצרת שלח את עמי, 1969, מתוך אוסף אפמרה של הספרייה לאומית
“‘Let My People Go” – a Hebrew poster promoting a rally featuring Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yosef Burg, January 1968, from the Ephemera Collection at the National LIbrary of Israel

“Our meeting with these Soviet Jews, who were ready to sacrifice everything for their dream, and some of whom lived in very difficult conditions, ignited our Jewish consciousness,” Enid says. “We lived in Philadelphia at the time and began to be active in the fight for them.”

Shortly afterwards, Stewart became president of the Union of Soviet Jewry in 1975-77. Enid became involved in local organizations for Soviet Jewry and in the 1970s returned to the Soviet Union twice more to visit Prisoners of Zion. In 1977, Enid herself immigrated to Israel with her family. In Israel as well, she did not stop volunteering for the Jews of the Soviet Union. She always knew what was happening with each of the Zionist activists – who was arrested, who was sick, who needed financial help. “I worked on advertising, fundraising and political activism. At first from my home in Philadelphia and then from my home in Jerusalem,” she describes. “In all those years, we left an empty chair for the Prisoners of Zion at the Seder Night table, it was a custom we always maintained.” Enid continued to volunteer for the Jews of the Soviet Union and does so to this day, alongside various social activities, even in her eighties.

, ​כרזה מטעם אגודת מעוז, שפעלה למען פתיחת שערי ברית המועצות לעלייה, מתוך אוסף אפמרה של הספרייה הלאומית
And you shall tell your son, next to the Passover Seder table, across from the empty chair…” –A poster on behalf of the Ma’oz Association, which worked to open the gates of the Soviet Union to immigration, from the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

The New Empty Chairs

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the restrictions on the Jews of the Soviet Union were lifted and they were finally allowed to immigrate to Israel in the 1990s. However, instead of removing the empty chair from the Seder table, Jews began looking for new Zionist and Jewish symbols for which they would reserve a seat. Thus, empty chairs were left for captured soldiers – including Ron Arad, Udi Goldwasser, Eldad Regev, Gilad Shalit, and Jonathan Pollard – all of them chosen to be remembered with an empty chair at the Seder table by many Jewish families in Israel and around the world.

Meanwhile, the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion did not stop after the Jews of the Soviet Union began arriving in Israel in the early 1990s.

פוסטר משנת 87 פורסם על ידי המועצה הישראלית ליהדות ברית המועצות
Poster from 1987, published by the Israeli Public Council for Soviet Jewry

“Many activists decided that the story ended when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But hundreds of thousands of Jews still needed help when they arrived in Israel. The refuseniks who were the heroes of the movement often needed help the most. After years of struggle, they lost their professions and many found themselves destitute, they could not survive on the allowances provided by the state,” Wurtman describes. She established an emergency aid fund and worked tirelessly for them, on a completely voluntary basis.

אניד וורטמן ומשפחתה
Enid Lynne Wurtman and her family. Taken from a private album

Enid has been living in Israel for 46 years. She has eight grandchildren and continues to be involved in social causes: “I really think that I had a great privilege, to help the Prisoners of Zion and to live in the State of Israel. The happiest moments of my life were when my children were born and when I had the privilege of seeing the Prisoners of Zion arrive in Israel and becoming their friend.” Even during these difficult times, she does not regret her choice. Today her daughter continues the tradition of volunteering, engaged in a campaign for the release of the hostages of October 7. She suggests that we maintain the tradition of the empty chair for them: “Now, we have to do it again.” Enid tells me. “This will not be the festival of freedom for the families of the abductees. We need to reserve a seat for them at our Seder table, in solidarity with them and their families.”

מוסקבה, סדר פסח של מסורבי עליה
Moscow, refuseniks holding a Passover Seder. In the picture are Leah Chernobylsky, Boris Chernobylsky, Yuri Stern, Lena Stern, Galia Kerman, Mikhail Kerman, Yaakov Rachlenko, Gennady Hassin. Courtesy of Enid Lynne Wurtman whose archive is deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

This request does not only come from Wurtman. There is also a touching request from Shelly Shem Tov, the mother of Omer Shem Tov who is still held by Hamas. “My suggestion, as Omer’s mom – is to immediately after drinking the fourth cup and just before the great blessing, with the pouring of the fifth cup, say the blessing ‘I shall bring’ [veheveti]  for the hostages… I believe in the power of a great prayer, I invite you all to share and help, to spread the word, so the message will reach as many people as possible.” 

This request is joined by a civil initiative – a request that all the Jews in Israel and around the world leave an empty chair for the hostages who have not yet returned home. After everything we’ve been through lately, and with some of us still experiencing these ordeals, celebrating the Exodus and freedom can seem absurd. In order to have faith in a future redemption, or a glimmer of hope, the least we can do is fulfill the request of Shelly Shem Tov, and reserve a seat for the hostages at the Seder table, as well as keep a permanent place in our hearts for them. We should not forget, even for a moment- they are still there.

The blessing as suggested by Shelly Shem Tov, Omer Shem Tov’s mother:

May it be Your will that every expression of redemption is realized in each and every captive.

And I shall deliver-and I shall rescue-and I shall redeem-and I shall take-and I shall bring

May they all return to their families in good health

May we all receive them with unsurpassed joy

Soon, in our own days, amen

Where Did Ben-Gurion’s Piano Disappear To?

When David and Paula Ben-Gurion moved to the Hapoalim (workers) neighborhood on the outskirts of the young city of Tel Aviv, it was clear that there would be a piano in the living room of their new home, even though they didn’t have the money to buy one. Documents in archives show how the family obtained the expensive piano, who played it, where it went after the house was donated to the state, and the story of how it was returned after many years. A story befitting a mystery novel…

David Ben-Gurion (Nadav Man, Bitmuna Collection. From the Degani Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel) and the piano (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

“I am very sorry for the three unpaid bills. At the moment we are not being paid a salary and the money has not reached me. According to the contract, you have absolute permission to come at any time and get the piano back without any hindrance. With great respect, D. Ben-Gurion”

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“…you have absolute permission to come at any time and get the piano back ” Ben-Gurion apologizes for the returned checks (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

It is December 1931 in Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel. The young Ben-Gurion family, father David, mother Paula, and the children: thirteen-year-old Geula, eleven-year-old Amos, and six-year-old Renana, have recently moved to their new home in the Hapoalim neighborhood, not far from the “Education House – The School for the Children of Workers” in the developing western section of the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv.

The chairman of Mapai (“The Workers Party of the Land of Israel”) which had just gained a great many seats in the Zionist Congress, the most important political institution of the Jewish People at the time, made sure to carefully add up his expenses in his journal. These included the expenses for the construction of his home, number 17 on KKL Boulevard, which later became Ben-Gurion Boulevard. The house is now a museum which recreates the home and daily routine of the first Israeli Prime Minister’s family.

Ben-Gurion summarized the expenses: payment for the architect 11.9 Israeli lira, purchase of cabinets for 20 lira, and a buffet for 5 lira. Transporting and transferring the objects 8 lira, table 1.5 lira, 4 bar stools and 6 low chairs 2.80 lira, and also a piano bench – only 1 lira.

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“Piano bench, one Israeli lira.” Ben-Gurion totals the expenses of building his house in Tel Aviv (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

So Paula and David bought the piano bench themselves, but they rented the piano itself, an expensive musical instrument, from Mr. Hofenko of Tel Aviv, for a monthly usage fee. They gave him future promissory notes (checks), which, due to some difficulty, were regretfully not honored.

“Ben-Gurion had no special affection or sensitivity for music,” says Michael Bar-Zohar, author of the comprehensive biography on Ben-Gurion. “He wasn’t interested in or appreciative of works and he didn’t have a musical ear. Once, after the Six Day-War, they played ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ for him. Ben-Gurion was moved by the words and tried to join in with his voice but it didn’t work out so well…” laughs Bar-Zohar. He explains that Ben-Gurion’s documented visits to concerts were intended for political purposes. “He hosted famous musicians and conductors because it was good for publicity. When the opera in Tel Aviv had its premiere, it was very important for Ben-Gurion to attend and sit in the seats reserved for dignitaries between the American ambassador James McDonald and the Soviet ambassador [Pavel] Yershov. It wasn’t the opera that intrigued him but rather his public appearance alongside the two ambassadors of the bickering superpowers – a gesture of recognition of the young State of Israel by the two important countries. That was more urgent and interesting for Ben-Gurion than all the scenes and singing on stage.”

Ray Charles plays “Hava Nagila” during his visit to Israel. David Ben-Gurion joins in the applause

Despite this, and even though they fell short of paying the monthly rental fees in the early 1930s, the family finally eventually got a piano and it was placed in their house. The eldest child Geula received a score of “excellent” on her certificate of completion for compulsory piano lessons in the second grade, but it seems she didn’t continue to play afterwards.

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Geula Ben-Gurion, the eldest daughter, completes her compulsory piano lessons with excellent grades (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

On the other hand, Renana, the youngest, at the age of 9, wrote to her father abroad: “I will play in a concert soon, in a few days, and for an exam that will take place soon.” As a side note, the little one promised not to desecrate the upcoming workers’ holiday: “My [piano] lesson was supposed to be on May 1st, so I changed it to May 3rd…”

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”My lesson was supposed to be on May 1st, so I changed it to May 3rd.” Renana reports to her father (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

Renana persevered in practicing and studying her music lessons. By the time she was twelve years old, her father, visiting Zurich at the time, bought her a book of Beethoven’s sheet music, a book on the History of Music, and a dress. In his journal, he noted the prices and totaled up the expenses: “Renana, DBG money, gifts.”

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“Beethoven, the History of Music, a dress for Renana”. Father Ben-Gurion concludes shopping in Zurich (courtesy: Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

A year passed. In September 1938, her parents were once again abroad for a long trip, and thirteen-year-old Renana sent them a letter: “Hello Mom and Dad… I visited the house. The gardener cut the grass and uprooted all the weeds in honor of Rosh Hashanah… On Wednesday, I’ll start studying at the gymnasium. Since I had to get sheet music, I went to Sara’s and took the house key. The closets are closed, so I ask that you write and tell me where the keys are because I need a raincoat and dresses. It rained in Tel Aviv! And in Haifa, the first rains have already come down.”

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Renana went by the house to collect sheet music and reported to her father and mother: “The gardener cut the grass in honor of Rosh Hashanah.” (Courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

How does a piano disappear?

The Ben-Gurion Museum in Tel Aviv recreates how the house looked back when the Prime Minister lived there with his family. The museum staff was enlisted about three years ago to take care of the photo and album collections. While arranging and organizing, an undated envelope was found, and inside it were several photos documenting the interior of the house. One of the pictures showed the living room: the armchairs, the carpet, the coffee table, the pictures on the walls, sculptures, and decorations – all the furnishings and objects that can be found there today. But much to everyone’s surprise, the old photo also showed a grand piano standing in all its glory in the corner of the living room.

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The piano was discovered in an old photo (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

And here a mystery plot unfolded: on the one hand, the photograph indicated that there was a piano, and based on the other objects in the photo, it appears to have been taken in later years.  On the other hand, the piano was nowhere to be found. How can a piano disappear?

All the documents were rummaged through. In the will that Ben-Gurion wrote about six months before his death, he specifically stated: “I bequeath to the State of Israel my house in Tel Aviv, [the] library and the property inside it with the exception of personal objects and tools, so that they can serve as an institution for reading, study, and research.”

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“”I bequeath and leave to my daughter Renana Ben-Gurion my grand piano as well as my mink cape.” Paula’s will (Courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and the Ben-Gurion Archive)

If there had been a piano in the house, it was supposed to still be there. Another review of the papers led to Paula’s will. It turns out that Mrs. Ben-Gurion had other plans for the family’s assets: “I bequeath and leave to my daughter Renana Ben-Gurion my grand piano as well as my mink cape,” she instructed in a will written in the spring of 1956. Paula died five years before David, when the couple lived in two homes simultaneously: a house in Tel Aviv and a cabin in Kibbutz Sde Boker.

By the time the museum staff discovered the piano in the photograph, Renana had been dead for over a decade. Her only son, Uri, who never started a family of his own, was living by himself in Tel Aviv and was also no longer a young man. The director of the Ben-Gurion Museum, Nelly Markman, called Uri and asked to visit him. She held out hope that the lost instrument could still be found. After all, Uri lived in the apartment where his mother Renana lived before him, so maybe the piano would be found there. Indeed, her hope was realized, and she recognized the piano in Uri’s living room as the very same one from the photo.

Uri didn’t play piano. He had never played any musical instrument. Aware that when his time would come, the piano could end up in any number of strange places, he agreed and even expressed his desire to return the piano to his grandparents’ house, as a souvenir and a legacy for future generations. Moreover, the grand piano was taking up a lot of room and if it was returned, it would free up some space in the small living room.

That’s when a new problem arose, one that no one could have foreseen: when Renana took the piano as her mother had wished, it was impossible to get it through the stairwell of the shared apartment building, so it was brought into her apartment via the balcony. At some point, the balcony was closed in by a built wall and thus the exit for the piano was now blocked. So what did they do? They knocked on the next-door neighbor’s door and carefully asked: Would you agree to let us move a piano and get it out of the building using your balcony? A little taken aback by the strange request, the neighbors heard the story of this unique piano and its illustrious history and agreed to do their part.

אז אחרי כמעט 50 שנים, הפסנתר של רננה, בתו של דוד בן-גוריון, חזר להאיר את סלון הבית. מוזמנים לראות את תהליך ההרכבה המקוצר, ולקפוץ לבקר כמובן 🙂

פורסם על ידי ‏בית בן-גוריון בתל אביב‏ ב- יום רביעי, 21 ביולי 2021

And so, more or less towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an operation that required a Tel Aviv street to be closed down, the cooperation of neighbors in two separate apartments, and one large crane, Renana Ben-Gurion’s piano was brought back to her parents’ house, placed there once again for the complete restoration of the living room of Israel’s first Prime Minister.

סיוון פייבל
The piano is back where it belongs in the restored Ben-Gurion House (photo credit: Sivan Faivel)