“Bless the mother of the child with a maid and a servant”: Birthing Songs of Yemen’s Jewish Women

“If only you had seen, O my sisters! What I experienced during childbirth” - These songs sung by Yemenite Jewish women helped them regain their silenced voices, by directly addressing the difficulties of childbirth and life in a patriarchal society

New immigrants from Yemen. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Yemenite Immigration Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

While researching the origins of the women’s gallery typically found in synagogues for one of our previous articles, we learned that these galleries didn’t actually exist in the Jewish communities of Yemen. What’s more, Yemenite women were not allowed to take part in any intellectual pursuits or Torah study.

Our interest piqued, we read in Dr. Vered Madar’s doctoral thesis that women in Yemen were able to regain their voice, which had been silenced and policed by the patriarchal society that surrounded them, through the songs and poems they composed and sang. In this article, we will focus on childbirth songs, but in fact, women in Yemen sang songs for many different kinds of circumstances and events. Through song, they expressed themselves, their private world and yearnings in the diverse contexts of their daily lives. They did this both in the company of women—among their close family or in social gatherings during life cycle ceremonies—and alone, for example, before dawn while they would grind flour.

Before we dive into the songs themselves, we’ll begin with some background on the life of Jewish women in Yemen. It was common in the Jewish community for a woman to hide a pregnancy for as long as possible, even from close family. She would share this information only with the women closest to her: her mother, her mother-in-law and friends or neighbors who served as her advisors, and later as caretakers. The shame of publicly acknowledging the sexual act combined with the fear of evil spirits and demons led to this secrecy. Loose dresses helped women to hide their growing bellies, and anyway, there was no special maternity clothing. Pregnant women also usually worked right up until the birth.

A newly-arrived immigrant from Yemen. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Yemenite Immigration Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The birth itself also took place in secret and mother, midwife and female family members all helped to keep it that way. Considering a first-time mother’s lack of preparation for the birth and the very young age at which a woman married in Yemen, a first birth was often remembered as a confusing experience and the young mother would have felt extremely vulnerable. The women who tended to the birthing mother would have signaled to her to try to refrain from crying aloud or making a sound. The reason being that according to Yemenite folk belief, if during labor the voice of the woman giving birth is heard by passers-by, her pain and the birth will end only when those who heard her had reached their own homes.

The midwife also typically avoided physical contact with the mother or the fetus as it made its way through the birth canal “lest its soft bones break.” In the absence of advanced medical knowledge, a woman struggling to give birth was offered various folk remedies. Among these were foods, such as the etrog from Sukkot or beverages such as aged wine which was perceived as beneficial for warming the body and improving blood circulation. Amulets and charms such as precious stones were also used. The bitter herb (maror) from the Passover Seder was often hung around the mother’s neck, a Torah mantle could be placed on her head or a paper with the names of forty venerated sages could be tied to her thigh.


Mazal Tov: She Came Away with Her Arms Full

At the conclusion of a successful birth, if all was well with the mother and newborn, ceremonies in their honor began immediately. From this moment on, celebration replaced the concealment and shame of pregnancy and childbirth. Already during the cutting of the umbilical cord, those present would being to cheer and sing. These ritual cheers, hagar in Yemenite, had a double purpose: to inform others about what was happening and to chase away the demons lurking near the mother and newborn. But there was also another, unstated goal: to drown out any expression of difficult emotions or feelings by the new mother.

The month after the birth was known as the month of the new mother, in which her family and community showered her with fortifying and comforting food, salves, rest and pampering so that she could regain her strength and health once she returned to her husband and the community after her period of confinement. Repeated over and again in the women’s birth songs is the belief that the new mother’s grave remains open during the first month after childbirth. The community’s efforts were geared towards steering her away from it. Therefore, they took care of her every need, never allowing her to leave the house unaccompanied, and even then – only rarely.

Yom Alwafa—the “day of completion”—marked the end of the new mother’s month-long isolation.  This was the occasion when the birth-songs would come to the fore. The songs that the women sang at the completion ceremony were composed of rhymes that would sometimes come to them spontaneously, or they might combine lines they had heard sung before. But no song was like another. Each was a completely new version. Thus, there was never a single, established version of these songs, and they were never recorded or written down.


There’s a Rumor Going Around

In the birth song recorded by the late singer Shalom Tzbari, he performs the song Ya-Walida, Ya-Walad! (“O birthing mother! O birth!”). The song blesses the mother with good health and tells us: “the rumor is widespread in the city—a son has already been born to my lord”. The song then lists all the treats the new mother deserves: a maid and a servant, fine porridge every day, cow’s butter every morning, poultry from the villages, a piece of lamb every night, sweet honey, fine coffee, an upper floor and a sofa to lie on, bedding from Europe, large pillows and much more…

The term waḥima means “a pregnant woman with a food craving” – a subject covered in detail by the song above. The husband must satisfy the craving no matter the cost, according to the popular Yemenite proverb: “Give me something to eat so that the child is not born blind”. A woman’s right and need for rest and pampering was reserved until well after the birth, for the sake of the health and strength of both mother and newborn.

There are many versions of the song Tsabari recorded. His is filled with details about the pleasures and treats showered on the new mother. Its tone is optimistic, but it also offers a veiled glimpse into the life of Yemenite women: on the one hand, they would spend many hours a day performing hard physical labor, grinding flour, pumping water from the well, or washing laundry in a cold spring, and therefore the month of childbirth was reserved for rest and pampering. On the other hand, the song repeats over and again a blessing for the new mother’s health. In other versions of the song, the mother’s health is highlighted in a different, more tragic light.

Madar’s research also focuses on a different version, sung by Yona Ozeri. Here the lyrics look squarely at the difficulties of pregnancy. Below is the opening segment of the song, translated into English:


O birthing mother, O birth! O, a box filled with zbad (a very fragrant perfume intended for women only, – C.M.)


Do not rejoice in gown or wedding garment


O the joy of pregnancy at the time of childbirth, praise (to God)!


There is yet more pregnancy and childbirth, it weakens both arms


It weakens both arms and leaves the chest like a drum


Bless the mother of the child with a servant and a maid


Queen for a Day

Let’s return again to the Yom Alwafa ceremony, the final day of the birth month.

In her research, Madar focused on the songs Yemenite women sang about the life cycle events of death and childbirth. While these two events are far apart in the life cycle, they often appear side by side in the songs.

Several weeks after the birth, the women of the community held a party in honor of the mother. She would wear bridal clothes, cover her fingers with rings and don all her jewelry. Her friends and neighbors painted her hand black with an embroidery-like drawing at the wrist, and adhere a gold coin to her forehead to ward off the evil eye. Now that the first few weeks, which are considered especially dangerous for mother and newborn, had passed, the mother could lean back on a chair padded with pillows to enjoy the temporary status of a queen. Her house was also decorated in accordance. A bottle of special perfume was placed on a shelf in the room where the party was taking place. According to tradition, the perfume was able to expel any demons and evil spirits.

The fear of supernatural beings causing harm to mothers and infants is not unique to Yemenite culture. The most common amulet in the Jewish world is an amulet used to protect both mother and child from the demon Lilith – the first wife of Adam.

Childbirth amulet featuring Adam and Eve, the earliest printed Jewish amulet. Amsterdam, ca. 1700. From: Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic through the Ages, ed. Filip Vukasovović, Jerusalem, 2010

So what makes the Yom Alwafa ceremony so unique? Besides being a “regular” celebration, it is also an exorcism, particularly of a certain demon known as “Kariniye”. This demon is described as a kind of twin of the mother, which has also given birth, and who clings to the mother’s body and is nourished from her food. The concluding ceremony was intended to banish her for three years or so, the ideal period of time in Yemenite tradition until the birth of the next child.

At the end of the celebration at the mother’s home, the mother steps out of her house with her baby in her arms.  She walks with the baby a few steps while spilling behind her the aforementioned perfume in order to keep Kariniye away.

Throughout the ceremony, the women sing birth songs. In them, childbirth is described as a mortal danger for both mother and unborn fetus. The songs of the women of Yemen offer an uncompromising look at the difficulties of the lives of women in a patriarchal society. The texts do not idealize the experiences of the female body, neither in marriage nor in childbirth. Those singing these songs were aware of the effects of childbirth on a woman’s body and the danger of death that hovers over the mother and child. In light of the silence imposed by the society on the female voice during childbirth, as well as the intense physical ordeal, singing served as a therapeutic tool, and the community’s women embraced it for the space it created to hold their silenced experiences. These women played a powerful and important social role, and their voices marked the boundaries of their space for healing.


The article is based for the most part on Dr. Vered Madar’s doctoral dissertation, Yemenite Women’s Songs for the Parturient and Their Laments over the Dead: Text, Body and Voice. Dr. Madar assisted in the writing of this article.

To conclude, we bring a recording of the song Navda Basem Alalah, Ala, with an English translation appearing below:



Let us start with the name of God, who lives after death


If you had seen, O my sisters! What I experienced in childbirth


I felt limp in my bones and death attacked me


I felt limp in my bones […] fading.


My grave was already open and the midwife lifted her voice


O, one who sings praises to the new mother, may your mouth be blessed with health!


Bless you, mother of the child! In seven complete cloths.

The Missing Milkcan of Warsaw Ghetto

Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum knew that it was only a matter of time until his Jewish community was completely wiped out. But, refusing to let the Nazis destroy all evidence of Polish Jewish life, Ringelblum began archiving his entire community… with the help of a Shabbat afternoon club and a small collection of milkcans.

Emanuel Ringelblum, Koperczak, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Wikimedia Commons

If you knew that you only had a few months in which to document every single shred of evidence pertaining to your entire community, what would you collect? For Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, this question was not a hypothetical one. As conditions worsened in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ringelblum knew that it was only a matter of time until his entire community ceased to exist. But this phenomenal character in Jewish history refused to let the Nazis take away everything that the ghetto community had fought so hard to preserve… and he did this with the help of a Shabbat afternoon club and a small collection of milkcans.

Born on November 21st, 1900, in a small religious shtetl in Buchach, Ukraine, life for little Emanuel Ringelblum revolved around his family, Judaism, lively political discussions with the other men in the shtetl, and a strict regimen of religious and secular schooling. Emanuel excelled in his studies which were conducted in his mother tongue of Yiddish, and he was encouraged to apply for university, something of a rarity for young shtetl boys.

In 1920, Emanuel was offered a place at the University of Warsaw to study the History of Warsaw Jewry. He bid farewell to his parents, packed up his possessions, and set off for university. It was here that he met his sweetheart Yehudis Herman, and before long he had proposed marriage. In 1927, Emanuel graduated with a doctorate degree, after presenting a thesis on the history of Jews in Warsaw during the Middle Ages. With this achievement under his belt, Emanuel took a job at a Jewish high school teaching history, and Yehudis gave birth to a son who they named Uri.

Emanuel Ringelblum, Koperczak, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Wikimedia Commons

Life was good for the young family, and as Emanuel became more entrenched in Warsaw society, he started taking on different community social projects. In 1925 he joined YIVO, an organization that preserves and teaches Eastern European Jewish history and regulated the Yiddish language. He also formed a historical society called the “Young Historians Circle” and wrote for their two journals. By the late 1930s, Emanuel had published 126 of his own scholarly articles and was traveling all around Poland with the Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that provided relief and aid to Jews in need.

A staunch member of the Zionist political party Po’alei Zion Left, Ringelblum was elected as their delegate to the 21st Zionist congress in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. By this point, war was on the horizon and life for Jews in Poland was increasingly bleak. During the conference, Emanuel was offered an attractive opportunity to leave Europe and the prospect of war behind, and immigrate to pre-state Israel with his family. However, Ringelblum chose to remain in Poland, stating in his diary that he had not yet fulfilled his “obligation” to the Eastern European Jewish people. He knew that this decision could potentially cost him his life.

World War II broke out just as Emanuel was returning home from a trip, later that year. He had been helping the JDC organize legal and welfare-based aid for Jewish refugees who had ended up in Poland after escaping Nazi Germany, in a Polish-German border town called Zbaszyn. Emanuel had known that it was only a matter of time before war broke out, and when the Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel and his family yet again faced a choice. Influential and wealthy community leaders were occasionally granted papers to flee Poland, and Emanuel knew that he could have secured these precious documents for himself, but he refused to leave behind the less fortunate members of his community, and resigned himself to living alongside them in 1940 when the ghetto was established.

Jewish life in Warsaw, Voyage en Pologne de l’Union Nationale des Combattants (UNC) 1933, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

A good man through and through, Emanuel’s community efforts didn’t stop within the walls of the ghetto. He would volunteer for guard duty regularly, and assist medical teams as they tended to injured Jews. He remained a member of The Joint Distribution Committee and offered aid where he could and he even created a movement for the continuation of Yiddish culture inside the ghetto walls.

But the most significant of his activities was yet to come. Ringelblum was among the leaders of the Aleynhilf, the largest Jewish aid organization within the Warsaw Ghetto, helping to distribute goods and food to those in need and providing solutions to housing issues. Leading this organization would have been impressive in and of itself, but this is not why we are interested in his involvement with the Aleynhilf.

Emanuel sensed an opportunity here, and began approaching other members of the Aleynhilf almost immediately. He would find historians like himself, or writers, educators, professors and the like, and see if he could trust them. He would befriend those he had marked out and learn about their level of commitment to the Jewish community. If he deemed them suitable, he would tentatively ask them to meet with him on the next Saturday afternoon in a secret storage house within the ghetto walls.

Ringelblum’s growing clandestine group of recruits would thereafter meet in secret once a week in their hideout, each Saturday afternoon. They called themselves the “Oneg Shabbat” group, meaning the group of Sabbath Joy. This was because they would only dare to meet on Shabbat, when larger gatherings of Jews were commonplace, in case they happened to be caught and questioned. Each member of the Oneg Shabbat underground group had an important job to perform.

Emanuel feared that with the liquidation of the ghetto which would eventually take place in April 1943, all the archives, details of Jewish life, and holy artifacts of his community would be lost forever, and he simply couldn’t stand to see the history of the Warsaw Jews be burned to the ground by the Nazis. With incredible foresight, he knew that if he wanted anything to survive, it would have to be kept secret.

So, Ringelblum orchestrated his plan: each member of the Oneg Shabbat group would spend the week collecting materials, prayer books, holy literature, ephemera, and more. On top of that, they would document their life in the ghetto and write about Jewish customs, community practices, family stories and the like. Anything worth keeping or recording could be collected. But it all had to be done surreptitiously. The success of Ringelblum’s budding archive depended on the group’s ability to hide it not only from the Nazis but also from any Jews within the ghetto who could foil their plans, even accidentally. This, they did superbly. There is no mention of the Oneg Shabbat group in any other Warsaw documents or notes from the time, and it truly seems that they were able to keep their mission private.

Bible from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, Moses Dal Castellazzo, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Memorial stone from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Emanuel would spend his nights looking through the materials and deciding what to keep. He also wrote diaries detailing every aspect of Jewish daily life inside the ghetto. Emanuel’s final collection contained over 25,000 sheets of writing, Torah covers, an Esther scroll, memorial stones, a bible published in Warsaw, his own diary, Yiddish songs and scripts, and so much more. With over 25 members of the secret Oneg Shabbat group dedicated to the cause, they managed to work fast and undetected.

Esther Scroll from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
 Torah Ark curtain from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As stories began pouring in of Jews being deported and carted away to concentration camps, Emanuel knew that the time had come. He packed up the materials from the Oneg Shabbat group and hid them in three large milkcans and at least ten tin boxes. He knew that there was a possibility that they could be discovered no matter how well they were hidden, so he sought out three different covert locations and spread the archives between them. Therefore, if one of them was found, the rest of the materials would still be safe.

With a heavy heart, he closed up the archives and hid them deep underground. Saying a final farewell to his collaborators, he disbanded the Oneg Shabbat group, unsure of whether they would ever meet again. They had done everything they could to preserve Jewish history in Warsaw, and they knew that the rest was out of their hands. Only Emanuel knew the location of the archives, as he didn’t want to endanger any of the other group members with this knowledge. The group met one final time to say their goodbyes and dispose of any materials that didn’t make it into the archive. The members left their hideout one by one, each walking off in separate directions. Never again did they speak of their clandestine activities.

One of the milk cans used to hide documents, from the Ringelblum Oneg Shabbat Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Not long before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, Emanuel managed to escape the ghetto with his family, and find a secure hiding place in a safer part of Warsaw. In a dark and unknown cellar at 81 Grójecka Street, Emanuel hid with his family and 35 other Jews, with the help of Mieczysław Wolski and Janusz Wysocki, two Polish non-Jews who bravely came to their aid. Emanuel kept one diary with him in hiding and continued documenting his experience of Jewish life in Poland. In this small hideout, the Ringelblum family nearly made it to the end of the war. However, on March 7, 1944, the Gestapo stormed their hiding place and deported Ringelblum’s entire family, the other 35 Jews, and also the Polish couple who had helped them hide, taking them all to Pawiak Prison Camp, where every single one of them was murdered.

In total, only three members of the Oneg Shabbat group survived the Holocaust. The rest were killed.

One of these surviving members was a writer and historian named Rokhl Auerbach. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, she returned to Warsaw and the site of the ghetto, to lead a search for Ringelblum’s buried artifacts. On September 18, 1946, she found the first of the burial sites. Inside it were ten tin boxes, sealed with clay. They had become damp and most of the papers within the boxes were starting to mold, but special restorers were brought in to save the contents, and almost everything from these boxes was eventually recovered.

Rokhl knew that there were two other locations, but it took a team of archeologists another four years to find the second site. With this discovery, the first two milkcans were located, in a cellar at 68 Nowolipki Street. They were difficult to retrieve as the home had been destroyed in the war and rubble covered the entranceway, but upon removing the milkcans from the wreckage, the team found that they had held up much better than the boxes from the previous discovery. The contents of the milkcans were perfectly preserved and held a wider assortment of items than the documents found four years earlier.

Two milkcans and three tins buried by Emanuel Ringelblum, 1939–1945, Wikimedia Commons

The contents of these two findings are still to this very day the most in-depth and informative archives of Warsaw’s Jewish history, and the most accurate testimony of life within the ghetto. But you may be wondering what happened to the third burial site. The truth is that we don’t know. Ringelblum wrote that he buried the archives in three different locations and notes that he filled three milkcans with contents, only two of which have been found. We know therefore that there is still more to uncover. It is commonly thought that this third burial location is under the site of what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw, but a group of archeologists who set out to find the milkcan in 2005 came back empty-handed.

Even without the third and final milkcan, Ringelblum’s archives are some of the most precious Holocaust documents ever revealed, telling us all about life under the most extreme form of Nazi occupation and ensuring that Jewish life in Poland before the war would never be forgotten. It was only due to the amazing foresight of Ringelblum that we have these materials at all. Though he was offered the chance to leave Europe before the Holocaust, Ringelblum chose to remain, knowing that he had work to do telling the story of the Jewish people. Ringelblum is a shining example of Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote “If not I, then who? If not now, then when?” We still hope to find the missing milkcan of Warsaw Ghetto, and learn even more about Polish Jewry in the early 1900s. But in the meantime, we can thank Ringelblum – for his sacrifice, for his intelligence to know what needed to be done, and for deciding that he would be the one to do it.

If you want to contribute to keeping your own Jewish community’s culture alive, the National Library of Israel has an ephemera collection which you can submit items to! Learn more here.

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: https://www.jewishcemeteries.eu/deep-dives


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