“If Judaism is a tragedy, let us live it” – Stefan Zweig’s Letters Revealed

26 letters and 6 postcards, previously unknown, all by Stefan Zweig, one of the greatest writers of the first half of the twentieth century, have been given to the National Library of Israel.

The author Stefan Zweig in a photograph from the 1920s

The letters shed new light on Zweig’s personality, his attitudes toward Judaism and Zionism, and his political prophecy, as he alludes to the rise of Nazism 12 years before Adolf Hitler seized power.

​In 1921 a 16 year old fan of Stefan Zweig, Hans Rosenkranz, sent him a letter, seeking advice on becoming a writer. Zweig wrote back to Resenkranz beginning the long correspondence between the two that blossomed into a mentorship. Zweig offered professional, moral, and even financial support for years – right through 1933, when the Nazis rose to power.

A letter the author Stefan Zweig sent to Hans Rosenkranz. Donated by Hannah Jacobson

The letters have been given to the National Library of Israel by Hannah Jacobcon, Rosenkranz’s step daughter, a resident of Bat Yam in Israel,  are remarkable. It was unusual for authors to write back to their fans in such a way, but Zweig even referred a number of his writer friends. Zweig also went so far as to give Rosenkranz the right to print and market the German version of Anatole France’s “Joan of Arc”, which had been translated by his first wife, Friderike Zweig. This was certainly great help to the young publisher.

Throughout their longstanding correspondence, and contrary to his usual practice, Zweig discussed Jewish topics, writing in his first letter, for example, “There is nothing I hate more than the self-worship of nations and their refusal to recognize a variety of forms of peoples and the types of human beings and to experience them as the beauty of being. In terms of history, it is simply clear to me that certainly Judaism is now thriving culturally and flourishing as it has not flourished for hundreds of years. Perhaps this is the flare up before extinguishment. Perhaps this is nothing other than a brief burst in the eruption of the world’s hatred…”  Zweig continues, “The Jew must be proud of his Judaism and glorify in it – yet it is not appropriate to brag about accomplishments you have achieved with your own hands, not to mention the accomplishments of a mass and homogenous body to which you belong… anti-Semitism, hatred, internal strife are all ancient elements of our historical destiny – always problematic… we must therefore look for a way out; we must be brave to remain within our destiny. If Judaism is a tragedy, let us live it.”

The author Stefan Zweig in a photograph from the 1920s

In another letter the young Rosenkranz wished to know Zweig’s opinion regarding the possibility of moving to the Land of Israel. Zweig, who was well travelled, but never to Israel, did not support the idea, citing the death of the son of a friend who had moved there, leaving the father “a broken vessel”.

Despite the fact that Zweig had reservations about the Zionist enterprise, Zweig admired Theodore Herzl, and wrote, “In recent days I have read Herzl’s diaries: so great was the idea, so pure, so long as it was just a dream, clean of politics and sociology… we, who were close to him, were hesitant to hand all of our lives over to him… I told him that I cannot do anything which is not complete  … art and the world as a whole were too important for me to devote myself to the nation and nothing else… go there only if you believe, not out of disgust from this German world nor due to bitterness seeking an outlet through escape.”

Dr. Stefan Litt, who is responsible for handling Zweig’s archival materials at the National Library, explains that these letters provide important new information about Zweig as a writer and an individual with a critical eye. The letters contain fascinating insights into the beliefs and mindset of the renowned author, who offered many pieces of advice for aspiring writers throughout the decade-long correspondence. Zweig notes that it is important to study in university, as a broad education is essential for anyone wanting to be a writer and that it is important to get to know other countries and cultures, and especially to learn additional languages. In Zweig’s words, “Learn languages now! That’s the key to freedom. Who knows, maybe Germany and Europe will become so stifling that the free spirit will not be able to breathe within them”.

Despite Zweig’s advice, literary support and financial assistance, Rosenkranz was unable to fulfill his literary ambitions. In the early 1930s, he married Lily Hyman, a divorcee and mother of a very young daughter. The family immigrated to Palestine in December 1933 and several years later Rosenkranz joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army as an officer in a unit that fought in Italy during World War II. During the war, he contracted lung disease from which he never fully recovered.

After the war, he divorced, changed his name to Chai Ataron and began writing for the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. On October 25, 1956, Rosenkranz committed suicide, as Stefan Zweig had 14 years earlier. His stepdaughter Hannah Jacobsohn kept in touch with him over the years, even after he separated from her mother. Jacobsohn, who served as an officer in the Israel Police, told National Library archivists that her stepfather had a very broad education and vast knowledge of literature and art. Findings in archives across Europe indicate that Rosenkranz also corresponded with other writers, including Thomas Mann, Klaus Mann, Franz Goldstein and others, though it is not known what happened to these letters.

Photograph of Hans Rosenkranz

“Jacobsohn’s contribution to the National Library is exciting and significant, as it helps us to become more familiar with the work, personality and writings of Stefan Zweig, whose archive is in the National Library of Israel. For the research community and the general public interested in Zweig, these letters open another window into the tempestuous and fascinating life of one of the world’s most important and well-known writers,” said David Blumberg, Chairman of the National Library of Israel Board of Directors.


Was This Ad Published by Franz Kafka in a Zionist Newspaper?

A discovery by an archivist at the National Library sheds new light on Kafka’s connection with the Zionist movement.

A photograph from the famous “Prater” amusement park in Vienna. From left to right: Franz Kafka, Albert Ehrenstein, Otto Pick, Leisa Waltsch, photographed in 1913. The photograph is taken from the Albert Ehrenstein Archive at the National Library.

In the fall of 1911, Karl Hermann proposed to his brother-in-law, Franz Kafka, that he join him in managing the asbestos factory he had recently established. The offer of extra income appealed to Kafka, who worked in the “Governmental Company for Insuring Workers from Accidents”; even though he regarded his duties in the factory as an additional bureaucratic nuisance to a life already rife with bureaucracy. This fact caused many of Kafka’s biographers to minimize his contribution to the factory’s success and to state that the author took advantage of any opportunity to avoid his professional responsibilities as a lawyer.

An advertisement discovered by Dr. Stefan Litt, an archivist at the National Library of Israel, sheds new light on Kafka’s work in the factory and on the surprising connection between the asbestos factory and the Zionist movement.


Insurance, Asbestos and Zionism at the Vienna Congresses

Two years after joining his brother-in-law in managing the asbestos factory, Kafka’s life had reached a new low point. Battling insomnia, preoccupied with fears stemming from his recent engagement to Felice Bauer, and grappling with a persistent case of writers’ block; Kafka left his fiancé in Berlin and boarded a train.

His destination, along with his travel companion, author Otto Pick, was Vienna.

It was September of 1913.

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer, a photograph from 1917. Source: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images.

Kafka wanted to kill two birds with one stone in Vienna. Firstly, he had to participate in the Second International Congress for Rescue Services and Accident Prevention as part of his governmental work. Secondly, he was hoping to take part in the Zionist Congress which had begun a week earlier.

Kafka and Pick arrived in Vienna several days before the beginning of the insurance congress. They spent their first day in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire visiting their friend, the influential expressionist author and poet, Albert Ehrenstein. Even if he would have preferred to spend his first hours in the city alone and in complete anonymity, Kafka knew that he had to visit Ehrenstein – who was the first critic to read his literary works.

After spending several days of leisure in the city, Kafka took part in the debates of the 11th Zionist Congress. Almost ten thousand participants from across the Jewish world attended the Congress. If Kafka had previously considered Zionism a vague and elusive expression of Jewish nationalism, he now encountered the Zionist movement as an orderly and active force, even if not one that he perceived to be particularly positive.

Until Dr. Stefan Litt’s discovery, the only information we possessed about Kafka’s activities at the Zionist Congress was the little Kafka himself recorded in a letter to his fiancé on September 13th of that year.

Kafka’s testimony from the Congress shows an attitude which is, to say the least, not complimentary: “Endless shouting”, petty disagreements and a description of the typical Zionist activist as a person with “a small round head and frozen cheeks”. The author was singularly unimpressed by what he saw.

However, it seems that Kafka’s contribution to the Congress did not end there. During an incidental perusal through a special issue of the “Die Welt” Zionist newspaper published in honor of the Zionist Congress in Vienna, Dr. Litt discovered a notice which drew his attention: an advertisement for the asbestos factory owned by “Hermann & Co.” – the same factory established by Kafka’s borther-in-law Karl Hermann, and for which Kafka himself worked from 1911 onward. As no one in Kafka’s family had any real connection with the Zionist movement, and in light of the fact that Kafka participated in the meetings of the Congress to which this special edition of the newspaper was dedicated, it is a reasonable assumption that he himself purchased and ran the advertisement in the well-known Zionist newspaper

The advertisement for Karl Hermann and Franz Kafka’s asbestos factory, which appeared in the Zionist newspaper “Die Welt”


Supporter or Opponent? Kafka’s Attitude to the Zionist Movement

During the decades since Kafka’s death from tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, many scholars have attempted to provide a conclusive answer to the question of Kafka’s Zionism: What did he think about the Zionist movement at different points in his life? Did he support it? Did he oppose it? We know that in 1917, the same year his illness was diagnosed, he began to study Hebrew. In the period prior to his death he even expressed his desire to visit the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel – a dream which his severe illness prevented him from realizing. And still, we do not claim to provide unequivocal answers, and it is possible that no such answers exist.

The advertisement discovered in such an important Zionist newspaper, a newspaper established by non-other than Theodore Herzl himself, teaches us that just like many others before and after him – one of the great modernist authors of the twentieth century was not loathe to combine his personal curiosity about the Zionist movement with his professional occupation.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Stefan Litt, from the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel. 


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When the Nazis Desecrated the Jewish Cemetery of Salonika

Human bones and broken tombstones were used as building materials, desecrating 500 years of Jewish history and half a million gravestones.

A swimming pool for Wehrmacht soldiers made out of Jewish tombstones

The Jewish cemetery of Salonika (also known as Thessaloniki) was an anchor of the long standing Jewish community of that city, the largest Jewish community in Greece before the Holocaust. The cemetery was established at the end of the 15th-century, when Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal arrived in Greece. The Jews who survived the expulsion and the long journey, buried their dead in a plot of land that would become the Jewish cemetery of Salonika, as precious and important to the community as their synagogues.

Holocaust survivors gathered for the “Mourners’ Kaddish”

The process of expropriating the land belonging to the cemetery did not begin with the Nazis.

Decades prior to the Nazi occupation, the non-Jewish residents of Salonika sought to take the land and use it for their own benefit. In 1886 a Turkish Ottoman gymnasium was established on the cemetery ground and famously, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was founded in 1925. The university took over from the gymnasium when Greece gained independence. In the 1930s the city administration officially decreed that the Jewish cemetery would be expropriated and given to the expanding Aristotle University. The plan never came into effect, but fear of demolishment motivated the Jewish community to give the university a section of unused cemetery ground.

In 1941 the Nazis came, and with them, total destruction of the Jewish cemetery.

By the end of 1942 cemetery grounds were confiscated by the city’s administration, which was controlled by the Nazi occupiers. A Jewish family who had relatives buried there and wished to have the grave exhumed was forced to do so through the city administration. In December of 1942 the city pushed for a quick demolishment and within days gravestones were destroyed and human bones were gathered in unmarked piles. When the Jewish community heard of what had occurred it was too late. All they could do was take the remains of their family members and re-bury them in a mass grave, outside the city of Salonika.

Exhumed bones and desecrated tombstones

The desecration of the dead was part of the Nazis plan to dehumanize the living. With the destruction of the Jewish cemetery, the Germans swiftly began transporting the Jews of Salonika to the death camps.


View the entire album here:

Fifty thousand of Salonika’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 96 percent of the city’s Jewish community perished.

When the survivors returned they found that the broken tombstones were used to build pools for Wehrmacht soldiers, pave the streets of the city, and even rebuild Greek churches that were harmed in the war. They took photographs, documenting the destruction and desecration and demanding compensation from the newly liberated Greek government, to no avail.

A pool lined with tombstones built by the Nazi occupying forces for Wehrmacht jackboots

 The Jewish cemetery of Salonika was a victim of modernization and city development as well as anti-Semitism and Nazism. The photos taken by the survivors were put together as an album, a testament to what had occurred to the living and the dead during the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The album was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1949 by Rabbi Michael Molho.

Along with the remaining Jewish community, Rabbi Molho founded the Institute for the Research of the Jews of Thessaloniki, which operates to this day.

Rabbi Michael Molho examining broken tombstones

I Bet You Didn’t Know Captain America was a Golem!

The very public Jewish roots of Captain America, the first superhero to punch Hitler in the face!

“Captain America was me, and I was Captain America.  I saw him as part of me, and he always will be.  In the fight scenes, when Cap used to take on seven men at once, and five bodies would fly around the room while he punched two in the jaw — that’s how I remember the street fights from my childhood.”

 – Jack Kirby

Once upon a time, in the city of New York, two young mentches created a comic book the world had never seen before. It was March 1941 and Captain America was giving Hitler a proper right hook, right in the kisser!

Captain America was probably the first truly political superhero, taking a stance against Hitler and Nazism. The Jewish background of his creators, Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurzberg) and Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon), directly influenced the character and the original plot of the Nazi-punching hero.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, 1940’s, AP

They were both second generation Americans, their parents having come from Europe and brought with them the traditions and folklore of the Jewish communities who left their homes behind; seeking out a new life and new opportunities in America. It’s very likely that their families imagined that in this new country, they would not have to deal with the persecution and antisemitism that plagued Jewish people in Europe for centuries.

But antisemitism was all too common in America of the 1930s. After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, groups like the German-American Bund (Amerikadeutscher Bund), an American group made up exclusively of German immigrants and German-Americans, worked to promote a favorable view of Germany, Hitler, and Nazism. They were, of course, outspokenly antisemitic.

The German-American Bund at a gathering in New York’s Madison Square Garden, February 20, 1939

“Jewish kids then were raised with a belief in moral values.  In the movies, good always triumphed over evil.  Underneath all of the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil.”

– Jack Kirby 

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, and the war broke out, the United States kept its isolationist strategy as long as it could. It was at this time that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, already successful animation and cartoon writers and artists, began to develop a character; a character who would be a savior for the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis and would fight against the Nazi war machine, aiming to conquer Europe and the world.

Captain America #1 was published eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which ushered in American participation in the war on the side of the Allies. By then, Captain America was a Nazi-fighting veteran.

The patriotic concept of Captain America is clear from the name and the colors of the American flag that make up his costume. And in many ways, Kirby and Simon intended for the hero to be All-American and unifying in the face of an enemy that was dangerous to the world at large. However, the Jewish signifiers crept in, some intentional and some very likely unconscious.

Captain America’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a well-known Jewish enclave from the late 19th-century and well into the 1940s and 1950s. When Steve Rogers attempts to get drafted into the US Army in order to go fight the Nazis in Europe, he is rejected time and again for health reasons. But Doctor Reinstein (an analogue for Albert Einstein, already a cultural icon of the time) taps Rogers for a special project in which he injects the frail patriot with “Super-Serum” that gives him health, strength, and agility; making Rogers the pinnacle of human ability and a super-soldier able to fight the Nazis practically single handed.

Captain America #1, March 1941. (Marvel Entertainment)

“Those are the things I learned from my parents and from the Bible.  It’s part of my Jewish heritage.”

– Jack Kirby

The analogy between Captain America and the Golem from Prague is clear when you look at the parallels. The Golem itself can be read as a precursor of superhero stories, a creature created for the protection of a community in peril. Like the Golem of the 16th-century, the frail Steve Rogers is the raw material needed in order to create a hero that will drive the persecutors of Jews away in fear.

In the 20th-century they were Hitler and the Nazis. The Golem is animated by the letters אמת spelling out the word “Truth” in Hebrew. The letter emblazoned on Captain America’s mask is “A” obviously for America, but the Hebrew letter א is analogous to the English letter A. Captain America’s weapon of choice is the shield, bringing to mind the Shield of David, that is, the Magen David. The modern interpretations of the Golem contain a star on his chest, just like Captain America.

The Golem, 1915 and Captain America, 1941

For more information about the Jewish roots of Captain America:

“Up, Up, And Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” by Simcha Weinstein, Leviathan Press, 2006

The quotes from Jack Kirby are from “Secret Identities: Jewish Comic-Book Creators” by Michael Weiss, http://bit.ly/2wmqYKA, 1995