When the Nazis came to power, Franz Bernheim was dismissed from his job in Upper Silesia for being a Jew. The lowly and obscure warehouse employee filed a petition before the League of Nations on May 17, 1933, in which he complained that the antisemitic legislation of the Third Reich was being extended to Upper Silesia in violation of the May 15, 1922, German-Polish Geneva Convention, which guaranteed equal civil and political rights to all minorities in Upper Silesia. He demanded that the rights of all Upper Silesian Jews be reinstated and that the German government be ordered to pay damages.
When the petition was placed on the League agenda on May 22, 1933, the German representative, Friedrich von Keller, vehemently objected on the grounds that Bernheim lacked standing to file his complaint, an argument that was rejected. When, over Germany’s objection, the League jurists assigned the case, which itself was a stunning and unexpected victory over the antisemitic German government because Germany would be forced to defend itself before the entire world at a public session of the League’s Council. At the session, it blamed the violation of Jewish rights upon errors by “subordinate agencies,” a transparent and wholly disingenuous German attempt to shift the blame for its overt antisemitism that was mocked by many League of Nations diplomats.
Through this acknowledgement that Jewish rights had, indeed, been violated – albeit allegedly by others – Germany sought to prevent a general debate on the petition, but its tactics failed in dramatic fashion when the League went forward with two further public sessions to broadly discuss the persecution of Jews in Germany. The result was a severe censure of Germany for its treatment of the Jews and an order to pay compensation to Jewish victims in Upper Silesia. The equal rights of the Jews of Upper Silesia continued to be respected until the expiration of the Geneva Convention on July 15, 1937.
Exhibited here is a 1934 Purim card celebrating Bernheim’s Jewish victory over Germany. Issued by Michael Hall at 1 Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, this most unusual card, in the language of the Megillah, states:
A Jewish man was in Upper Silesia and his name was Bernheim, “Ish Yemini.” He was exiled from Germany with the expulsion of Hitler, the enemy of the Jews. And his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him [i.e., to Hitler] “If from the seed of the Jews is Mordechai before whom you have begun to fall, you will not prevail against him, because you will surely fall before him.” And they hung Haman on the tree that had been prepared for Mordechai, and so may all your enemies, oh G-d, be vanquished.
And the King said to Queen Esther, what is your question and for what are you asking? And Esther answered “let my life be given me at my petition and my people at my request.”
Mordechai the Jew was the second to King Achashverosh, seeks the good of his people and speaking peace to all his progeny.
And Queen Esther the daughter of Avichayil and Mordechai the Jew wrote down all the acts of power, to confirm these days of Purim in their appointed times upon themselves and upon their progeny.
The text finishes with the Shoshanat Yaakov prayer in its entirety, except instead of citing Charvonah, the final verse reads: “And also remember Bernheim for the good.” At the very bottom of this fascinating card is Herzl’s famous quote, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
Exhibited here is a very unusual card, issued in celebration of Purim 1936 and praising Great Britain. Over a Tanach flanked on the right by a Magen David flag and on the left by the British Union Jack is the legend “the flag of Israel gave the Tanach to the entire world, and the Great British flag recognizes and respects the Tanach.” Below the Tanach is the verse from Kohelet 4:12, “The three-stranded cord will not quickly be broken,” meaning that the tie between the British, the Jews, and the Tanach will hold firm.
Below are verses from the Megillah: “And Mordechai went forth from the presence of the King in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a robe of fine linen and purple, etc. . . . The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor . . . and the city of Shushan shouted and was joyous.” A representation of Mordechai announces: “Shema Yisrael; I prevailed over Haman the Aggagite, hater of the Jews, because I refused to bow to foreign gods, as is written `and Mordechai would not bow and prostrate himself.’” The card closes with the Shoshanat Yaakov and, again, with the famous Herzl quote “If you will it, it is no dream.”
With the British Mandate then in tight control of Eretz Yisrael, it is difficult to determine if this card reflects genuine affection for the Jewish-British relationship or was merely designed to appease the British authorities. Ironically, weeks after Purim, which in 1936 was March 8, six principal Arab leaders, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, overcame their internal rivalries to join forces and form an Arab national government, dubbed the “Arab High Command.” The AHC launched “The Great Palestinian Revolt,” which demanded the end to Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael and to Jewish land purchases there.
The AHC campaign began with a general strike and a boycott of Jewish products, which quickly escalated into terrorist attacks beginning on April 15, 1936, when an Arab attack on a Jewish bus that killed three Jews and quickly became a full-fledged rebellion. Many historians write that the Great Revolt was unsuccessful and that it only generated British sympathy for the Haganah but, in fact, it forced the British, who were preparing for an anticipated war and were in great need of Arab oil, to reorient their already pro-Arab Eretz Yisrael policy to one of appeasing the Arabs at every turn. The rest, as they say, is history, and one can only wonder what the publishers and distributors of our pro-British card thought of the British when Purim 1937 rolled around the next year.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), a French stage and early film actress, earned the nickname “the Divine Sarah,” was perhaps the most widely-known personality in the world, and is broadly considered to be the most famous actress in history. Born Henriette Rosine Bernard to the Dutch Jewish courtesan Julie Bernard, she was mercilessly attacked by the popular press for her supposedly Jewish features and behavior, notwithstanding her early Catholic baptism. Particularly after the Franco-Prussian War (1871), she was forced to defend herself against press accusations that she was German and Jewish; her proud response “Jewish most certainly, but German, no,” and she proclaimed, “I am a daughter of the great Jewish race.” A staunch defender of Alfred Dreyfus, she is even credited by some for inspiring Emile Zola to write and publish J’accuse.
Extraordinarily, in an era when women did not yet even have the right to vote in most the world, including in France, Great Britain, and the United States, Bernhardt flouted the gender conventions of her time and frequently played men on stage. Her later years yielded two transcendent male roles that implicated her much commented-upon Jewish ancestry, including in 1905, when she starred in Jean Racine’s Esther but chose to play Achashverosh rather than Queen Esther. Exhibited here are various materials relating to her performance in Esther, including a rare postcard, photograph, and program.
Jean Racine (1639-1699), one of the most respected authors of his time, was commissioned by Madame de Maintenon, the wife of Louis XIV, to write Esther for the girls at her convent seminary in Saint-Cyr, where she taught the daughters of poorer noble families. The play, which premiered on January 26, 1689, was intended to add to the women’s moral education, “instructing them in entertaining them,” as Racine wrote in his preface to the piece. While intended to be a fable for the young women, historians generally agree that Racine wrote Esther as an Aristotelian tragedy and an allegory for contemporary French political events. For example, Achashverosh’s planned extermination of the Jews of Persia was ostensibly a metaphor for Louis XIV’s revocation only four years earlier of the Edict of Nantes, pursuant to which Henty IV had guaranteed religious freedom to Protestants.
While his plot generally followed the account in the Megillah, Racine did change the story somewhat, including particularly adding Elise, a confidante of Esther, who rejoices in her friend’s good fortune, and expanding on Mordechai’s confrontation with Esther, when she fears death if she appears before the King without being specifically summoned. Nonetheless, Rabbi Stephen Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism, characterized Esther as “a masterpiece” and described it as “faithful to the original.”
Shown here is print of Purim, a study for an unrealized mural in which Marc Chagall, employing his familiar cubist style, uses folkloric imagery and vivid colors that are evocative of the artist’s beloved childhood village of Vitesbsk. The theme of the work is a brilliant analogy between Purim and Chagall’s Russia on the eve of the Russian revolution; just as the Jews of Persia were saved from the evil Haman, the Jews of Russia were about to be saved from the evil Czar.
At the center of the painting are a man and a woman preparing to exchange shalach manos, an exhibition of holiday joy in a place besieged by regular pogroms and framed against a background of a Russian village with small wooden houses. Chagall hopes that freedom will come with a Bolshevik victory, including particularly freedom of expression for Jewish artists, which he expresses through the dominant red of the piece. In contrast with the artist’s usual use of floating figures, the figures on the upper left seem to be hanging, representing Haman and his ten sins on the gallows. His daughter, Ida, born a year earlier, is shown on the white table to the right; her exaggerated size indicates her importance in the artist’s life. Finally, tying it all together, the word “Purim” is written in Hebrew in the upper right corner.
The story of how Chagall’s Purim persevered through the Holocaust and came to rest in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a remarkable tale of survival. Chagall had returned to his native Vitesbsk after ten years in St. Petersburg and Paris and after completing highly successful exhibitions in Berlin and Moscow when the Petrograd Jewish Society for the Promotion of the Arts engaged him to create a series of large-scale murals of the Jewish festivals for a Jewish secondary school attached to the city’s main synagogue.
This time in Chagall’s life was particularly productive; the nascent revolutionary Soviet government invited him to serve as Commissar for the arts, but he declined because of the volume of work already on his plate. Although he never finished the Petrograd murals, he took his study of Purim that he had painted in 1917 with him when he moved to France and sold it a few years later to Dr. Herbert Tannenbaum, a German-Jewish art dealer. However, it was confiscated by Nazi authorities and displayed in Joseph Goebbels’ infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, which featured modern works and other art “inimical to the Aryan ideal.”
In 1941, Chagall and his wife, Bella, barely escaped Vichy France for the United States. The Nazis gave the confiscated painting to art dealer Ferdinand Möller, who was the Third Reich’s agent for selling “degenerate art” on the international market to raise funds for the Nazi war effort, but when Möller failed to sell it, it was ultimately sold to a German, Dr. Kurt Feldhäusser, a Nazi Party member who was later killed in an Allied bombing raid. Feldhäusser’s mother brought Purim to Brooklyn (1948), where she sold it to lawyer Louis E. Stern, a friend of Chagall’s and, when Stern died, he left Purim to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1962), where it may be seen today.
Exhibited here are Purim sketches by Chagall from Burning Lights, which was written by his wife Bella and which he illustrated. His chapter-by-chapter 36 pen and ink drawings convey his tenderness and love not only for the Jewish holidays but also, most conspicuously, for his wife.
At the center of the first sketch, the artist depicts a large male figure carrying a covered plate of food while, to his left, a much smaller woman carries her own plate of shalach manos to be shared with others. As in the Purim painting discussed above, the top half of the work depicts the characteristic wooden houses of the Russian shtetl. The second sketch features the Megillah Reader in the foreground. Interestingly, three women – and no men – are portrayed in the background but, as Bella explains in the text, “Reb Laib,” the Megillah Reader, comes every year to read it in the synagogue, after which he comes to her home to read it for her, her mother, and the family cook. Reb Laib removed his Megillah scroll, which he stored in from the bookcase depicted in the sketch, and he tells Bella “This year you’ll be strong enough to outshout Haman all by yourself, eh?”
In his introduction to the 1947 edition of Burning Lights, Chagall compared Bella’s words and phrases to “a wash of color over a canvas.” She was the subject of many of his paintings, including Bella with White Collar (1917), and he often represented her as a beloved bride, or in the form of a wife floating symbolically over the rooftops, or walking on air before a river while carefully balancing her husband and child on her shoulders. Lionello Venturi, a famous art critic and Chagall’s biographer, acclaimed her as “the critical consciousness of whatever work has just left his hand, the guiding intellect to his conduct.”
In the chapter on Purim, Bella describes her joy as a child receiving Purim money, copper coins that “clink in my hands”; her memories of tables set up in the town displaying confections of every type and shape, “warmed by coats of sugar”; having the awesome responsibility of delivering shalach manot on plates without dropping and breaking them; receiving a hot hamantash right out of the oven (“my hands at once become wet and warm as though somebody had kissed them”); and describes how her mother distributes gifts amongst the town populace.
Exhibited here is a rare 12-page booklet written by Levin Kipnis featuring materials for a children’s Purim celebration, including his characteristically beautiful poems and stories. The poem on the front cover, titled “Flowers of Israel,” sees garden flowers as a metaphor for Jewish children and the immortality of the Jewish people:
Beautiful flowers will grow in the garden,
they are the Children of Israel.
From the heat of the sun they will swim,
from heaven’s dew they will bloom again!
Also shown is one of his poems from the booklet titled “Haman’s Trauma:”
Haman’s Trauma – beat, hit and strike!
The story is ours to relate:
it’s the same old story
that is always new:
that in every generation,
an evil Haman arises against the Jews.
Haman’s Trauma – beat, hit and strike!
The story is ours to relate.
To destroy and kill and eliminate,
so did the evil Haman decree.
But the Jews call out to G-d,
and He always assists!
Haman’s Trauma – beat, hit and strike!
The story is ours to relate:
That which is ancient
is also the end of this story:
The Jews had light and gladness,
and Haman – to the hanging!
Kipnis (1894-1990) was a fascinating figure. Known as “King of the Children,” he established the fundamentals of Israeli children’s literature and, through his work, had a seminal influence on the teaching of Jewish holiday traditions and historical figures throughout the Israeli elementary education system. The author of some 600 Hebrew poems and 200 books, most written for children, he was also the founder of children’s theatre in Israel, and he received several prestigious awards, including the Israel Prize (1978), for children’s literature.
Born in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, Kipnis was educated in a cheder and, showing early artistic talent, he wrote mezuzot to help support his family. He made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael (1913), where he attended the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, established the “Little Library for Children” publisher in Jaffa, and published story and song collections for children and Ganenu (“our kindergarten”), the first periodical for preschool teachers.
Wishing a happy and healthy Purim to all!