Prisoner 4859: The Hero Who Volunteered for Auschwitz

There are stories of people who escaped the trains traveling to Auschwitz. There are also testimonies of successful and failed escapes from the camp itself. But this is the story of a man who volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz, and lived to tell of what he saw.

"Tomasz Serafiński” - the alias of Witold Pilecki, in an Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform

“Summer 1945

So, I am to write the driest of facts, which is what my friends want me to do.

They have told me: ‘The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it will be.’

Well, here I go…

but we were not made of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.”

So began the report describing daily life in the concentration and death camp at Auschwitz, with chilling detail and precision. The author, Prisoner 4859, had voluntarily gone to that “other planet” in order to document events at the camp and organize an underground resistance movement there. He aimed to bring about a prisoner’s revolt and mass flight.

As a soldier in the Tajna Armia Polska (“Secret Polish Army”) underground, he volunteered to be captured by the Nazis so he could be sent to the camp. The camp’s records identified Prisoner 4859 as “Tomasz Serafiński”, the name written in his forged documents. His real name was Witold Pilecki, and this was not the first time he’d fought the Nazis.

Witold was born on May 13, 1901 in the region of Karelia in the Russian Empire, where his family had been exiled after the repression of the Polish revolt of 1863-1864, known as the January Uprising. His grandfather Józef spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his role in the rebellion. Witold would himself revolt against the Russians during the Soviet occupation, but more on that later.

Witold arrived at Auschwitz with considerable military experience. Following the First World War, he joined the Polish self-defense units and fought to defend Vilna against the Soviet Red Army. In the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), he joined the Polish Army, participated in a number of battles and was twice given medals for his bravery.

After the war, Witold was released from the army. He married Maria and worked the family farm. The couple had two children, Andrzej and Zofia, and it seemed that life was getting back to normal.

By August 1939, the spectre of war again loomed over Europe. Witold re-enlisted, and was put in charge of a cavalry unit. His force fought bravely and suffered serious losses with the outbreak of World War II. There were also successes – during the September 1939 campaign, Witold and his men destroyed seven German tanks and brought down two planes. Later that month, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, in accordance with a previously signed agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the wake of this Soviet attack, the Polish division Pilecki fought for was dismantled and he returned to Warsaw.

In November 1939, Pilecki and his commander founded the Tajna Armia Polska in Warsaw, one of the first underground forces to fight the Nazis in the country. They recruited men, stocked up on weapons, and expanded their activity to other cities in Poland. By 1940, the underground numbered more than 8,000 fighters.

“Tomasz Serafiński”, alias of Witold Pilecki, in an Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform. From Witold Pilecki Fotobiografia Photobiography

The camp at Auschwitz was established in April 1940 as a prison camp for opponents of the Nazi regime gathered from occupied European countries, especially Poland. It was filled with Soviet prisoners of war and political prisoners, Jewish slave laborers, and others. Only later would it become the Nazis’ largest concentration and extermination camp.

In 1940, when it was still an “ordinary” prison camp, Pilecki volunteered to be caught by the Nazis so that he could enter the facility as a a prisoner. He was tasked with sending back reports about life inside the camp, in addition to organizing the prisoners into an anti-Nazi underground. He received forged papers and set out on his mission.


“The 19th of September 1940 – the second street round-up in Warsaw.

There are a few people still alive who saw me go alone at 6:00 AM to the corner of Aleja Wojska and Felinskiego Street and join the ‘fives’ of captured men drawn up by the SS.”

(p. 11)


“Tomasz Serafiński” arrived at the camp and immediately began organizing the prisoners into an underground that promoted cooperation and mutual aid among the inmates, while sending reports to the “outside”. At first, its members only shared notes with the names of prisoners who died or were murdered. Soon, they provided more detailed reports, including descriptions of the camp’s staff abusing the prisoners.

The underground smuggled food, clothing and medicine into the camp, and tried to plan a prisoner’s revolt with the assistance of the Polish underground – which was supposed to overpower the Nazi guards and free the prisoners. In August 1941, “Serafiński” reported the killing of Soviet prisoners of war by gas, apparently one of the Nazis’ first efforts using this method of killing.

“The first Bolshevik prisoners, for the time being just officers, were brought in and after seven hundred of them were locked into one room on Block 13 (Block 11 in the new numbering system) and packed in so tightly that none of them could sit, the room was sealed […]

That same evening a group of German soldiers led by an officer arrived.

The German team entered the room and, after donning gas masks, threw in a few gas canisters and observed the effects.

This was the first effort there at gassing using Prussic acid.”

(p. 131)


Prussic acid was another term for hydrogen cyanide.

Witold notes the names of the prisoners who reported this to him, including the horrific descriptions of the medical staff that had to clear out the bodies.

Pilecki later reported the building of the gas chambers and the crematoria, as well as the increasingly large shipments of prisoners brought into the camp for extermination.

The reports were sent to England with the help of the Polish underground – and weren’t believed. The British claimed that Pilecki was making things up and “inflating” the numbers to convince them to act. When Witold understood help would not come from the outside and that the planned uprising would not come to fruition, he decided to flee.

Late on the night of April 26, 1943, after 945 days as an Auschwitz prisoner, Pilecki fled with two of his comrades. They had been assigned to the night shift at the bakery outside the camp. Pilecki and his comrades were able to overpower the local guard and make their escape – with documents they’d stolen from the Germans. They also possessed cyanide, which they intended to swallow if captured. With the aid of local residents, they were able to quickly distance themselves from the camp and ultimately reached Warsaw.

Pilecki joined the Chrobry II Battalion of the Polish Home Army, the central Polish underground during the war, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The unit he commanded dealt the Germans heavy losses. With the uprising’s defeat, Pilecki was captured by the Nazis and spent the rest of the war in POW camps.

The war ended with Poland under Soviet occupation. Witold Pilecki collected information on the abuses of Polish citizens by Soviet forces and delivered them to the West. He also spent 1945 compiling his Auschwitz memories into an organized report.

On May 8, 1947, Witold Pilecki was arrested by the Polish-Soviet secret service. He was interrogated and brutally tortured, to the point that his suffering was worse than anything he’d undergone at Auschwitz (the graphic novel Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report opens with images of Pilecki’s interrogation and torture).

Cover of Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report

On March 3, 1948, a show trial was held in which Pilecki and three of his friends were charged with espionage for the West and the Polish government in exile. In mid-May, he was sentenced to death and executed in Mokotów Prison in Warsaw on the 25th of that same month. His body was probably tossed into a mass grave in Warsaw’s Powązki Military Cemetery.

The communist government forbade mention of his name and actions in the decades that followed. It was only on October 1, 1990, after the fall of the Polish communist government, that Pilecki and his comrades were exonerated, and books were published about him and his heroism.

At the National Library of Israel, you can find books on Pilecki in English, Polish, and German, including books for young adults, a graphic novel, and a photographic biography.

I first heard of Witold Pilecki when the Swedish metal band Sabaton came out with their “Heroes” album – he is the subject of their song “Inmate 4859.”


Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Union, Pilecki’s story has now come to the fore. In the end, true heroism is a difficult thing to cover up and suppress.


Pilecki’s quotes are taken from The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki, available here.


Translated by Avi Woolf


Further Reading:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki

Episodes from Auschwitz: Witold’s Report, written by Michal Galek, art by Arkadiusz Limek

Witold Pilecki Fotobiografia Photobiography, by Maciej Sadowski

Austria’s Dreyfus? The Story of Philippe Halsman, the Man Who Didn’t Murder His Father

Philippe Halsman took some of the most famous photos in the world – hundreds of images of iconic celebrities and pictures adorning the cover of Life magazine and museum walls. But before all this, Halsman was tried in Austria for the unimaginable crime of murdering his own father. Was he truly a cold-blooded killer, or was he an Austrian Dreyfus, persecuted solely for being Jewish?


British soldier at rest. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine during the 1936 Arab Revolt, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Philippe Halsman was one of the 20th century’s most famous photographers. He created iconic photographs of many famous figures of the era, including Albert Einstein, Marylin Monroe, Marc Chagal, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Betty Davis, Winston Churchill, Henry Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn. His work has graced no fewer than 101 covers of Life magazine, more than any other photographer. He even collaborated with Salvador Dali for 37 years to create unforgettable images.

Halsman was primarily known for his penchant for photographing people while jumping: “Starting in the early 1950s I asked every famous or important person I photographed to jump for me.  I was motivated by a genuine curiosity.  After all, life has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps.  I wanted to see famous people reveal in a jump their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity, and many other traits.”

One of Halsman’s most famous photos with Salvador Dali. From: Wikicommons

But Halsman’s past also included a darker, less well-known chapter. In 1928, he was accused of nothing less than murdering his own father. Tried, convicted twice, and imprisoned, he was ultimately forced to leave Austria altogether. But what actually happened? And how did this affair develop into what some have called “The Austrian Dreyfus Trial?

First, some background: the Halsman family of Riga, Latvia was wealthy and well-educated. It spent its summers on family outings throughout Europe, and 1928 was no exception. That year, the family – father and successful dentist Max, mother Ita, 22-year-old son Philippe and 18-year-old daughter Liouba – set out on a trip through the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps.

At one of the Italian hotels they visited, an acquaintance told them of the beauty of the Tyrol mountains, sparking the father’s interest and imagination. After Liouba returned to Paris for her studies, Max insisted that before Philippe left them to continue his studies in electronics at the University of Dresden, the three would go on to the Tyrol. This decision decided the family’s fate.

Before we continue, some historical context is necessary. In 1928, the Tyrol region of Austria was fertile ground for Nazi ideology, and antisemitism was rampant. Although the number of Jews in the region had been minuscule since the Middle Ages, hair-raising tales of Jewish blood rituals were part of the local folklore.

The Tyrol mountains, late 19th century. From a photo album depicting Austrian landscapes, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On the fateful morning of September 8, 1928, Mrs. Halsman decided to take leave of her son and husband, who then set out on a hike meant to last a few days. Two days later, Father and son ascended to the peak of a mountain with the aid of a local guide, who recalled how they were in good shape and often stopped to photograph one another.

What happened next can be reconstructed from witness accounts given during the investigation and trial, including Philippe’s own version of events. Shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon, they passed by an inn at the mountain’s peak, at a height of some 5,900 feet, and began to descend back down the mountain. An hour later, Philippe reached a small village along the way, out of breath, telling of how his father had slipped and fallen from a height of 26 feet into the local brook, and that he was wounded and in need of medical attention.

A young shepherd named Alois Riederer offered to help Philippe and a young girl was sent to get the local doctor. The shepherd reached Max first, finding him dead, with his lower body immersed in water and his head showing many wounds. He tried to prevent Philippe from seeing his father, but the son insisted on approaching and even attempted to lift the body out of the water with the shepherd’s help – to no avail.

Philippe stayed with his father while the shepherd went out to get help, but when Alois climbed up, he accidentally knocked down some stones, something which would have fateful consequences. The traces of blood seemed to show the body had been dragged, but no-one bothered to ensure the crime scene was untouched, since everyone was still operating under the assumption it was an accident. Philippe ran to the nearby city to call his mother; he didn’t want her to hear of her husband’s death from strangers.

A young Yemenite immigrant to the Land of Israel. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On his way there, Philippe encountered a rescue team and returned with them to the scene, not knowing the doctor leading the team was a known antisemite. When they arrived there, the owner of the nearby inn who also reached the location immediately theorized that the son had murdered the father, and despite Philippe’s insistent denials, the doctor believed the story. They then decided to escort Philippe to a nearby town. A German police officer who was nearby volunteered to search the young man; his clothes contained no blood stains, there were no signs of a struggle, and no money was found on his person.

The local coroner arrived at the scene the next day in the afternoon, and Philippe, who had gone through quite a night in lockup, had to be there as well. The scene had been contaminated in the meantime. Testimony was collected without documentation, a stone with blood stains and hairs, identified as the murder weapon, was passed around and mysteriously disappeared. The body had since been moved to the nearby town and the rain that had fallen since the murder entirely transformed the area.

After all this, the suspect was finally asked to give his own version of events. But Philippe, who according to one of the passing tourists said that he was ahead of his father when he heard a yell, now added another detail – that he saw his father fall. The investigator didn’t dwell on this point at the time, but he did make a note of the discrepancy and insisted on asking Philippe where he was exactly when his father fell. Here Philippe erred: he thought the stones Alois accidentally knocked down the day before marked the spot where the fall occurred. In fact, he mistakenly placed himself precisely where his father had fallen. On September 13, the body was subject to an autopsy, and the pathologist determined that Max was murdered by blows from a sharp object. The fact that no blood or weapons were found on Philippe made no difference, and Philippe was arrested that day.

A female pioneer milks a cow. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The local media was quick to plant the idea of the murder in the minds of the locals, and even before the trial began, the press had concluded that the son murdered his father in cold blood with repeated blows to his head. The police themselves only began to question witnesses two weeks after the murder, after all the locals were already convinced Philippe was guilty.

Every detail took on a life of its own: the fact that Max carried his son’s knapsack supposedly showed the son’s lack of respect for his father. The fact that they had ordered two separate bedrooms was an indication that their relationship was rocky. This was all compounded by rampaging conspiracy theories: the son murdered his father to spare his mother from an abusive marriage; the son fell in love with a woman his father objected to; the father had a life insurance policy with his son as the sole beneficiary; and so on – as far as imagination would take them. Worse, the family’s request to leave the father’s body untouched and deliver it to them to be buried as quickly as possible – as Jewish law requires – was seen as a family conspiracy to conceal the murder they all knew occurred. The desire to bury the father in shrouds rather than a coffin was taken as proof that the family did not respect the memory of their father.

The police went along with a public convinced of Philippe’s guilt and treachery. Nothing that hinted at his innocence was looked into. When tracks were found in the ground that fit neither Philippe nor anyone on the rescue team – no effort was made to identify who made them. Max’s head contained injuries from a sharp object that was never found, Philippe’s light clothes had no blood on them, yet still – nothing was investigated.

Two weeks after the murder, blood-stained Austrian money bills were found at the scene, hidden under a pile of rocks. Pictures taken from the scene of the crime proved that this pile was not there when the body was found – but once again, there was no follow up by the police. The similarity of this case to a number of other murders in the area at the time also suggested Philippe was innocent. It didn’t matter.

Tel Aviv Port. Photo: Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The first trial of Philippe Halsman began on December 13, 1928, and lasted just four days. Standing before a biased jury, head prosecutor Dr. Siegfried Hohenleitner laid out his theory of Philippe’s guilt. The fact that Philippe was aided by one of the best lawyers in Vienna, Richard Pressburger, only worked against him. The locals didn’t care for the liberal atmosphere of the Austrian capital, and the defense attorney’s Jewishness didn’t help, either.

During the first two weeks following his arrest, Philippe wasn’t even allowed to speak with Pressburger. For its part, the police didn’t cooperate with the defense or provide it with information. This forced the defense to take the line that Max fell to his death and was hit by a stone along the way. Pressburger argued that Philippe did not push his father since relations between them were good, and family and friends were put on the witness stand to attest to this.

But Philippe’s behavior at trial worked against him. He appeared too confident, condescending, and self-righteous. It was his own testimony that really got him in trouble. On the witness stand, he told of how his father went to the side of the path to urinate while he kept going. Then, he heard a yell and saw his father lean strangely and fall off. He claimed it took him two minutes to get to the scene, but the prosecution then presented the details he’d given at the time of the incident: the place Philippe said he was standing was just two steps from where his father fell, which meant Philippe must have been lying. The defense tried to argue that Philippe had been in a state of shock, and made an honest mistake in placing his location, but the jury had heard enough.

Thus, without evidence proving his guilt, without any motive for premeditation, and without heeding exculpatory evidence such as Philippe’s clean clothes, and in a general atmosphere that automatically condemned a Jew as a murderer, the jury convened to make a decision. It came very quickly.

By a majority of nine to three, the jury declared his guilt, and the court sentenced Philippe Halsman to ten years of hard labor and one fast day a year on the anniversary of his father’s murder.

“A judicial crime is being committed against me”, The Sentinel, December 28, 1928, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Philippe tried to take his own life with a blade from a pencil sharpener he’d managed to dismantle. In the meantime, his lawyer tried to have a mistrial declared, arguing that the conviction was based on insufficient evidence, and that certain other evidence was hidden from the defense. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal, but decided the retrial would take place in Innsbruck in the Tyrol rather than in Vienna, a serious blow for the defense.

While the Vienna press began writing in support of Philippe’s case and against the biased trial he was subject to in the Tyrol, the attitude was the opposite in the region itself. The local press was entirely swept up by the populist spirit opposing the “socialist-Jewish” winds blowing from Vienna.

The retrial started almost a year later, in September 1929. This time, the defense took the line that Max was apparently murdered by another person, but the defense found itself constantly refuting lies from the prosecution and fighting a war of attrition against local public opinion that was clearly opposed to Halsman. For instance, it was claimed that Philippe witnessed the autopsy of his father with complete calm from the window of the inn where he was detained. The defense was forced to prove that no window in the inn provided a view from which the autopsy could be seen. Many expert opinions the defense tried to submit were rejected for baseless reasons, but slides of the wounds to Max’s head and his father’s severed head were allowed to be shown in court, despite the request of the family not to do so.

For various reasons, the trial had to take a break for a month. During this period, the Halsman affair became a battleground between liberal Vienna, which increasingly supported the defendant, and the conservative periphery. Scandal after scandal began to emerge. In the middle of the second trial, for instance, a witness appeared who claimed that on the day of the murder he was approached by a man covered in blood. He said he provided the man with clothes before helping him cross the border into Italy. A few days later, the same witness claimed he’d made the whole thing up and had received money from Halsman supporters to give this false testimony. In the end, Philippe Halsman was convicted a second time. This time, just seven of the twelve jurors decided that he’d murdered his father, but nine agreed to the manslaughter charge. He was sent to four years of hard labor, an annual fast day, and was required to cover the costs of his trial and imprisonment.

“He is said to have gone mountaineering with his father, and when the two of them reached a precipice he threw his father down and killed him” – The Palestine Bulletin, October 20, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Philippe started a hunger strike, and this time the defense decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. In a detailed, 100-page document, the defense explained why the verdict should be set aside. The court deliberated on the request for three days, after which it announced that there was no reasonable ground for intervening in the verdict, although this did not mean the court took a stand on Philippe Halsman’s guilt or innocence.

All Philippe had left was worldwide public opinion. Even before the court decision, Jewish author Jacob Wasserman published an open letter to the President of Austria to intervene on Halsman’s behalf and pardon him, a letter which reminded many of Emile Zola’s letter in defense of Alfred Dreyfus. Halsman’s family asked that he be released on humanitarian grounds due to his contracting pneumonia and his poor physical state. Within weeks, the Austrian Justice Minister was bombarded with petitions from within Austria and around the world, calling for his pardon. The minister eventually decided to simply avoid the question of the pardon altogether, instead allowing Philippe to stand before the parole board after having served half his sentence.

Jacob Wasserman’s letter drew comparisons to that of Emile Zola, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, December 13, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Efforts to free Halsman continued, and in September 1930, he was finally released from prison, but this was not the end of his travails. As a former convict and foreign citizen, he was immediately expelled from Austria. He could no longer return to his studies and therefore decided to rest and recuperate in Czechoslovakia and then in Paris, where his sister Liouba resided.

The public crusade for Halsman did not end there, as his supporters tried to get him acquitted entirely. To that end, they even recruited Sigmund Freud to come to the defense of a convicted criminal for the first time. Freud dismissed the prosecution’s claim that Philippe acted out of an Oedipal complex and lent support to the argument that trauma was what led Philippe to believe his own testimony. But the prosecution did not stand idly by and worked to prevent the acquittal. The Justice Ministry ultimately stayed out of it and the case remained closed. Philippe remained a convicted felon.

Meantime, Halsman flourished professionally in France. He worked as a freelance photographer and even arrived in British Mandatory Palestine on assignment for a French magazine in 1936, taking pictures which can now be viewed via the National Library of Israel website. He opened a studio in Paris and fell in love with Yvonee Moser, a young female photographer. The couple soon married and had a daughter. As the Nazis were approached Paris, Halsman sought a visa to America for his family. Just before the Germans entered the French capital, Yvonee and their daughter left for New York, along with Philippe’s mother and sister. He was only able to secure a visa for himself later, thanks in no small part to the personal intervention of Albert Einstein.

A report on the death of Philippe Halsman, Maariv, June 29, 1979, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

While everyone knew him in Paris, no-one knew him in New York. Still, Halsman slowly made a name for himself in photography circles in the Big Apple. He met the artist Salvador Dali and together they worked on some fascinating collaborations. His first cover photo for Life magazine soon followed. But the stain of the trial and murder conviction didn’t disappear so quickly. In 1943, his criminal record was discovered and he faced expulsion from the United States, his newfound asylum. Fortunately for him, noted author Thomas Mann came to his aid and Halsman managed to prevent his own deportation.

After this, Halsman focused on leaving his past behind him and building a new future. History and the collective memory of this famous photographer suggests he succeeded. Halsman would live to see his criminal record expunged in Austria in 1973. On July 25, 1979, he died in New York, leaving behind thousands of famous images – as well as a familiar story about a Jew subjected to an unfair trial.

Deep Dive: Bringing Jewish Cemeteries to Life

British author and academic Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein spent the past year working with seven different communities across Europe to bring old Jewish cemeteries alive through new and exciting initiatives, encouraging a phenomenal revival of Jewish history

Images by Dr. Paul Darby and Piotr Banasik, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Krakow, at the Remah Cemetery, a historic necropolis with tombstones dating back to the sixteenth century, I wandered around with a group of students taking photographs. Soon after we walked to the lesser-known New Jewish Cemetery, located near a graffiti-covered underpass on the outskirts of the old town. The gated walls of the burial ground stretched over acres of land, a quiet wild space shaded by a thick canopy of trees. The air was filled with the sound of birdsong and the smell of wild garlic. Many of the graves were concealed beneath a thick covering of ivy, which gave the place an otherworldly feel. As we walked around taking photographs, I spoke to several of the Jewish studies students, many of whom spoke fluent Hebrew and Yiddish although none of them were Jewish. One young Polish woman told me that she keenly felt the void of the Jews in the streets, the constant and continuous sense of loss. She wanted to understand more about Jewish culture, the language and traditions of a people who had co-existed with the Polish community for centuries beforehand but were now unknown to her.

My name is Dr Rachel Lichtenstein, I am a British author and academic from Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., who has spent the past year working with the Foundation for Jewish Heritage steering a range of different creative and educational activities at seven different Jewish cemeteries across Europe for the Deep Dive program. This project was part of an EU funded initiative with a consortium of international partners, that aimed to create ‘the broadest possible educational work on Jewish cemeteries in Europe’. The goal of the Deep Dive program was to demonstrate how Jewish cemeteries can be used as cultural, tourist, and heritage sites, as well as places of significance for educational purposes, whilst also honoring and remembering the Jewish communities who once lived in these places. We explored a variety of cemeteries and tested out a range of activities at seven very different Jewish burial grounds to encourage visitors from local communities and abroad, as well as school groups, to visit and learn more about these places in engaging new ways.

Image by Dr. Paul Darby, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Some of these cemeteries are historic sites that date back to the sixteenth century, while others remain as poignant memorials to those who perished in the Holocaust, as well as tangible remnants of the now largely disappeared Jewish communities who once occupied these locales for centuries. Others are satellite burial grounds, chosen for their ecological value, or due to partnerships with local teachers or communities already developed in those places. A few of these cemeteries are already frequently visited, mainly by religious pilgrims who come to pay their respects or pray at the graves of revered Rabbis and important figures in the Jewish world. Others are semi-abandoned, wild, and ruinous, and overgrown with trees. All are filled with thousands of stories about Jewish European settlement and life, and we can learn a great deal by engaging with them.

The Deep Dive program set out to explore how we can interact with these sites in a plethora of new ways, both educational and touristic. We tested a range of different initiatives to encourage local communities to develop heritage skills, as well as use these sites for educational, artistic, and touristic purposes. The activities we developed ranged from audio guides to heritage trails, digital mapping projects, films, and teacher’s packs. It was important for us to make sure that they were developed in partnership with local people, organizations, and institutions, whilst remaining respectful of these sites, their complex histories, their religious functions, and the participants involved.

Cemeteries by their very nature are full of stories of individuals and communities, past and sometimes present, and I strongly believe that our relationships to places are enriched and deepened when we engage with them directly. We need to have our feet on the ground, and explore them for ourselves, to learn about the layers of stories that exist there, particularly the histories of those who came before us. I cannot think of a more important and urgent project than the exploration of Jewish burial grounds in these places, which are so resonant with the tales of Jewish communities, now largely absent from these sites. These cemeteries are precious and utterly irreplaceable, both to the wider Jewish diaspora and the communities who live alongside them today. I truly hope that this project will encourage others to visit and learn from and about these Jewish cemeteries for themselves.

Images by Davit Mirvelashvili, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Georgia, we developed a teacher’s pack that explores Georgian Jewish history and Jewish cemeteries in that country, which are uniquely different to other burial grounds across Europe. For example, the twentieth century Soviet-era Jewish tombstones are similar in style to Georgian gravestones and often include pictures of the deceased and the inscriptions on the graves are in both Hebrew and Georgian. This project developed out of an urgent need for information, as there has long been a gap in available material for secondary school groups on Jewish cemeteries in Georgia, and many schoolteachers have only a limited knowledge of Jewish history. The development of this educational pack bridged this gap by creating a freely available resource that enables pupils and teachers alike to explore and learn about Jewish cemeteries, and therefore also about Jewish culture, life, and history. The pack is freely available in Georgian and English and has been printed and sent to many schools in Georgia as well as distributed to various libraries. The pack includes historical information, activities such as drawing symbols from Jewish tombstones and interpreting epitaphs, personal stories of Georgian Jewish figures, a quiz for students to test their knowledge, and more.

Image by Judit Sugár, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Hungary, we decided to take a different approach, as meaningful connections with local Jewish history already existed in the city we chose to work with, so our job was to deepen already established connections. Therefore, we developed a project with known local Jewish and non-Jewish partners in the city of Szombathely who have been actively engaged in preserving Jewish memory there. This city was chosen because of its rich Jewish history, still active community, and successful Jewish heritage projects there. The final outcome was ultimately created by the head of the local Jewish community, Judit Sugar, who wrote and directed a documentary which focuses on the Jewish cemetery and captures the stories of the many important personalities buried there. The film also features extensive material on the history of the community, and interviews with the mayor alongside other local people including schoolchildren. The documentary is in Hungarian but subtitled in English and explores the fate of Hungarian and Central European Jewry through the history of just one town.

Image by Gabriel Khiterer, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In each vicinity of the project, we set out to work with the local population, because it is they who are best equipped to tell us about the needs and values of their community. One example of this approach is the Deep Dive project that we carried out in Lithuania, where we collaborated with a local institution, a Jewish historian, and a writer, to encourage school children to develop creative writing pieces around their visits to a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. Local Jewish school children took guided tours to a Jewish cemetery, where they learnt about the history of the Jewish cemetery, community and stories about the individuals buried there. Following these visits, the pupils took part in creative writing workshops, with an award-winning Lithuanian writer, where they were taught how to develop their ideas into poems, stories, and pieces of flash fiction, which were subsequently made into a small publication.

Images by Zuzana Martinková, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

This wasn’t the only community in which we decided to focus on students. In Slovakia we developed a pack for primary school children which explored the history, biodiversity, and ecology, of The Old Forgotten Jewish Cemetery outside the city center of Banská Bystrica. This site is historically rich and has a great range of plant, bird, and insect life. The content for this pack was researched and produced by master’s students from the Department of Biology and Ecology at the local University.

Visits to Jewish cemeteries can of course provide an insight into the historical past of a community, but they can also speak to current ecological concerns, as neglected rural sites such as cemeteries often become places of rich biodiversity. This innovative project demonstrates how we can care for both our past and our future, and combat the negative effects of climate change by protecting these historically and ecologically important sites.

Images by Svetlana Kostetkaia, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein




In other localities, it was more important for us to develop content for the cemeteries themselves. In Moldova, we produced an AudioWalk of 10-12 minutes long, available in Romanian, English and Russian, that explores the history of the Jewish Cemetery in Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, and stories about the individuals buried there. This project set out to create a more immersive visitor experience for those wishing to explore this extraordinary site and direct them to places of interest within the cemetery. We wanted to demonstrate how an audio guide can encourage visitors, tourists, and school groups to explore and experience a Jewish cemetery and how making a digital tool which is freely available in three different languages might expand the visitor footfall of such a site.

Images by Piotr Banasik, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Similarly, in Krakow, Poland, we developed a photographic and historical program to encourage new ways of engaging with Jewish burial sites. The innovative part of this project was to train history students in photographic and artistic techniques, to encourage them to look at familiar places and explore well-known histories in new ways. The project culminated with a launch of the resulting photographic exhibition, which showcased the history and beauty of these historic Jewish cemeteries, in June 2023.

Image by Taras Kovalchuk, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we collectively decided that we were unable to conduct activities on the ground there, so we chose to create a digital outcome for this project. Building on the work of historian Tetiana Fedoriv from the town of Zbarazh, we developed a digital memory map of the cemetery there, which visitors can explore remotely. This interactive digital map brings the stories of 15 individuals buried there vividly to life through a combination of historical research and photographic images. We used emergent technology to geolocate Tetiana’s research before making it widely available to international scholars and other digital visitors to the site.

Our groundbreaking program bought so many kinds of people together, institutions, and organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, across seven European countries, among them educators in all fields, students, schoolteachers, tour guides, historians, university departments and lecturers, as well as museums, local community representatives and politicians. In total approximately 500 individuals have taken part in the program so far, as participants, collaborators, and partners, and many more are expected to engage with the multiple outcomes of this project. The full report of the Deep Dive program and all the outcomes are available here along with the names of all those involved in the program, including funders, organizations, partners and participants:


This article was composed as a collaboration between Rachel Lichtenstein and Mia Amran. 

It Sounds Better in French… or Does It?

What happened when rabbinic courts in Morocco were under the authority of the French colonial government?

A "Ketubah", a traditional Jewish marriage contract from Kenitra, Morocco, 1951, the National Library of Israel

You never know what you’re going to find in an archive. A single, seemingly innocent page might be evidence of something quite large. That was certainly the experience of NLI archivists while cataloging the mid-20th century archive of the Beit Din of Kenitra (also called Port Lyautey), a costal Moroccan town north of Casablanca.

Archives of rabbinical courts and Jewish self-governing institutions are common. They tend to contain summaries of court decisions and the reasons behind them, notarized agreements or receipts, copies of standard contracts or documentation, or details of appointments and administration of the court. They differ of course from time to time or place to place, but there are many commonalities. One of those commonalities is the insistence that internal Jewish communal and court records appear in Jewish languages whether forms of Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, or others.

Medieval and early modern Jews benefitted from a great deal of cultural and political autonomy. Local non-Jewish officials granted the Jewish community rights and obligations, expecting Jews to regulate their own internal affairs, raise money for Jewish use, pay taxes to local governments, litigate disputes, and generally keep community members in line. Jewish communities were granted authority to tax members, and even punish them with fines, excommunication, and sometimes corporal punishment. Jewish communities functioned as autonomous governments over the Jewish residents.

Naturally, governance requires record keeping. The Jewish languages in these records made life easier for communal leaders, and the documentation was designed to keep internal Jewish affairs in the hands of Jews, particularly the leaders themselves. Take a typical pinkas, or record book, from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.

A pinkas (record book) from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main  (1552-1802), the National Library of Israel

The community leaders kept their records in a language that only Jews could understand, and in many cities restricted access to those record books even from lay Jews. Only community leaders could get access to them.

Similar documents exist from Jewish communities in the Arab world, where Jewish communal legislation was recorded in manuscripts that summarized the local communal bylaws, regarding things such as appointment to leadership positions, taxation, sumptuary laws, and fines or punishments for disobedience. One such document, an example of among literally hundreds of similar ones held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, includes lists of 18th-19th century Jewish communal ordinances from Fez and Meknes in Hebrew, written in professional scribal hand.

A pinkas containing 18th and 19th century records of the Jewish communities of Fez and Meknes, written in Hebrew, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Court decisions, contracts, and receipts were also recorded, again largely in Jewish languages. One example, from the NLI’s collection, documents a 1753 Hebrew-language agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds. He would gain exclusive rights to sell his wares to Jews, in exchange for a fee he would pay to the communal coffers.

A 1753 Hebrew-language contract containing an agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds, the National Library of Israel

Records like these provided important resources when problems arose, someone violated a rule or agreement, or an issue came to be adjudicated. Laypeople also needed documentation of economic transactions, in case of disagreement after financial deals. But, since Jewish communities were largely autonomous, responsible for their own affairs, there was no need to make Jewish documents accessible to non-Jews by using the local vernacular.

But the archival materials from the Beit Din of Kenitra in the mid-twentieth century held by the NLI were not in rabbinic Hebrew, but in French. Jews in Morocco spoke French during the colonial era, but it is not common at all to find rabbinical courts or halakhic documentation conducted in the vernacular. Why, then, would the Beit Din use French?

The answer stems from significant reforms that the French colonial government in Morocco made in regulating Batei Din [rabbinic courts]. To understand these reforms, it helps to compare the situation to Jewish courts that exist in the two biggest centers of Jewish life today, the United States and Israel. The model in the United States, where religious courts have no formal governmental authority whatsoever, involves entirely voluntary institutions. The government has little say in how they operate, and those courts act only for themselves and their constituents. The model in Israel is the reverse. Some religious courts are formally part of the state itself. They have no independence at all from the state.

But the French colonial government in Morocco offered a different, hybrid, suggestion. The colonial government wanted to reform the relationship between the Beit Din and the colonial authorities. Beginning in 1918, the French protectorate began to systematically reform Jewish communities and their institutions, modernizing them by limiting their authority and linking them to new, modern bureaucracy. They created Jewish rabbinic courts that would operate based on Jewish laws, but would be subject to the oversight of the colonial authorities, who would authorize the Batei Din to make decisions about internal Jewish affairs, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and family law. Once the Jewish court had acted, the French Protectorate required systematic information about decisions, personal statuses, litigants’ obligations, or divorce settlements and their financial consequences. The French Protectorate demanded that the Jewish Beit Din take responsibility for personal status, and therefore also take responsibility for systematically reporting things to the government.

A French document from the archive of the  Kenitra Beit Din containing a statistical summary of past court decisions, including marriages and divorces, between 1944 and 1964, the National Library of Israel

This created new record-keeping responsibilities for the court. They could not simply run their own business, by Jews for Jews, in Jewish languages. Instead, the French and local authorities required systematical paperwork from the Jewish community. The Beit Din would collate its decisions about personal status, translate the decisions into French, and send them off to the local authorities. This practice continued even after Moroccan independence in 1956. The archive of the court in Kenitra includes such reports for the years 1944-1964. It even includes some long-term statistics, summarizing the total number of marriages and divorces performed during those years.

In terms of the content, the archive of the Kenitra court is fairly typical. But the small change in language is actually a microcosm of much more dramatic changes taking place in the relationship between Moroccan Jews, colonial Europeans, and local Muslim populations.


The Kenitra Beit Din Archive has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.