Treasure Trove: A weekly piece of our history from the collection of David Matlow

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (a.k.a. “The Joint”) was founded in 1914, initially to save the Jews of Palestine from starvation. Since then, it’s been involved in rescue, relief and renewal of Jews around the world. The Joint assisted 190,000 Jews to leave Germany in the 1930s, helped care for 420,000 Holocaust survivors after the war, and assisted 167,000 Jews reach Israel from Muslim countries. Having operated in 85 countries—including Russia, Ethiopia and the former Yugoslavia—its non-sectarian work provides a unified Jewish response to global disasters. The Joint remains active wherever Jews are in distress: currently, it’s providing critical help in Ukraine, both to those inside the country and new refugees. This label publicized a food drive for Holocaust survivors.

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Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), pictured here on Israel’s 10 lira banknote from 1970, was a poet who wrote primarily in Hebrew. Ukrainian born, he earned the status of “national poet” for his depiction of Jewish life in exile—and descriptions of the future in which we controlled our own destiny. “City of Slaughter” was written after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, in which 47 Jews were murdered: it reflects Bialik’s bitterness about the absence of justice, and it’s also critical of those who didn’t act to defend themselves. Today, his surname is still famous thanks to a distant relative, The Big Bang Theory star and Jeopardy co-host Mayim Bialik, a modern Orthodox Jew and very public supporter of Israel.

The Jewish Territorial Organization was founded in 1905 under the leadership of British author Israel Zangwill. It was dedicated to “obtaining a large tract of territory (preferably within the British Empire) wherein to found a Jewish Home of Refuge.” Could you imagine the Jewish state in a different location than where it’s located now? Alaska, Angola and Australia all had areas investigated as possibilities. The obviously unsuccessful effort faded away by the time Zangwill died in 1926. This humourous postcard, which depicts the Territorialists scanning the globe for a home, was drawn by Menachem Birnbaum—a Viennese-born artist, and the son of Nathan Birnbaum, the man who coined the term Zionism. Menachem perished in Auschwitz.

Haggadat Ha’atzmaut (or the Independence Day Haggadah) was commissioned by the State of Israel in its early days as a way to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut within a traditional Jewish framework. This edition from 1952 combined the structure of a Passover seder, and the Zionist spirit, to tell the story of soldiers and civillians defending and building the new country—plus the history of immigration, resistance to the British, and the declaration of independence. But after 10,000 copies were printed, it roused fierce opposition due to the secularization of the Passover liturgy, and the absence of God from the story. In response, prime minister David Ben-Gurion halted further distribution of the book.

We Will Never Die premiered at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943, with two performances before an audience of 40,000. Written by Ben Hecht with music by Kurt Weill, and produced by Billy Rose, its purpose was to make America do something to stop the destruction of European Jewry—which was well underway. “These are the 2 million Jewish dead of Europe today,” the show began. “The 4 million left to kill are being killed, according to plan.” After the debut, it was performed in five other cities, including before Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. According to historian Rafael Medoff, the dramatic pageant helped shatter the curtain of silence surrounding the Holocaust, by drawing attention to a crisis that much of the mainstream news media were ignoring. Listen to the Los Angeles radio performance from July 1943:

The Montreal Expos hosted the St. Louis Cardinals at Jarry Park on April 14, 1969, for what was the first Major League Baseball game played in Canada. The team’s majority owner was Charles Bronfman, a member of the family that controlled distilling giant Seagram. Bronfman initially agreed to be one of 10 equal partners funding the US$10 million expansion fee—but as other investors withdrew, he increased his investment ensuring that Montreal (and not Buffalo) got the team. He sold the Expos in 1991—and they left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals in 2005. Among his many philanthropic initiatives, Bronfman co-founded Birthright in 1999, which has since taken over 750,000 young Jews to Israel for free.

Schapiro’s Kosher Wines billed its product as the kind “you can almost cut with a knife” in marketing its appeal. The company was founded in 1899 by Sam Schaprio in the basement of his Manhattan restaurant: as sales increased, he focused exclusively on making and selling wine. Business was good during the U.S. Prohibition era due to an exemption allowing a family to buy up to 10 gallons of sacramental wine per year. The era of drink-slicing ended when Schapiro’s closed in 2007. We have better Passover seder options today—as wines from Israel compete favourably with the world’s best. L’chaim and Chag Sameach.

The Partition Resolution passed by the United Nations on Nov. 29, 1947, called for the creation of a Jewish State and the end of the British Mandate. The British then started to wind down their administrative duties including ending postal services in April 1948. But, to ensure the public would still be able to send and receive mail, the provisional Jewish government in Palestine improvised and authorized the use of pre-existing Jewish National Fund stamps (overprinted with the word “Doar” or post) as valid postage stamps. These are two JNF stamps—one depicting the partition map of the independent Jewish state and the other the Negev water pipeline—which were used to send mail and postmarked by Minhelet Ha’am (People’s Administration). Israel issued its own stamps right after independence.

Moe Berg (1902-1972) played for five American League teams, and was with the Boston Red Sox when he ended his 15-year baseball career in 1939. He also spoke 10 languages—including Hebrew and Yiddish—read 10 newspapers a day, and graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School. During the Second World War, he was a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. In 1944, Berg was tasked to kill German physicist Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland if he concluded that the Germans were close to developing a nuclear bomb—but he concluded they weren’t. Paul Rudd played Berg in the 2018 biopic The Catcher Was a Spy. This baseball card is from the Jewish Major Leaguers set issued in 2003 by the American Jewish Historical Society.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire erupted on March 25, 1911, on the eighth floor of a building in Greenwich Village, New York. The death toll of garment workers was 146—who were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women, aged 14 to 23. Stairwells and exits had been locked in a common practice to prevent break-ins and thefts, but it meant many couldn’t escape the fire, and jumped to their deaths. Subsequently, new safety standards were introduced for factory workers, and unions were formed to fight for improved working conditions. “Mameniu” (“Dear Mother”) is an elegy for the victims which begins: “Hearts torn by the horror, the Jewish nation wrings its hands, weeping.” 

Unzer Sztyme, the monthly newspaper of the Holocaust survivors in the British Zone of occupied Germany, was published in Yiddish at Bergen-Belsen’s Displaced Person’s Camp from 1945 to 1947. This illustration of “The Modern Haman” was published on March 17, 1946—the date on which Purim falls in 2022. Adolf Hitler is depicted leading a Jewish soldier on horseback: “This is what is to be done to the person the king wants to honour,” a passage from the book of Esther. The drawing depicts 10 Nazi leaders hanging from gallows like the 10 sons of Haman—the caption notes this punishment was the Jewish dream during the time of Hitler. The artist was survivor Berl Friedler who published his sketches in a book called Back from Hell.

The city of Eilat was nothing but a police station in a place called ​​Um Rash-Rash when it was captured by the Israeli army in the last operation of the War of Independence on March 10, 1949. This important victory without a battle extended Israel to the Gulf of Aqaba and gave it a shipping route through the Red Sea. A makeshift flag—made out of a bedsheet with two stripes made of ink and a Star of David from a first-aid kit—was hoisted to signify the victory. This postcard shows Eilat shortly after its lagoon opened in 1967. Anyone who’s visited the luxury hotels and tourist attractions in the past half-century knows how much the city has changed. 

Night of Stars was an annual benefit performance by New York’s film and entertainment industry to raise much needed funds for the development of Eretz Yisra’el and refugee relief and rehabilitation. The first production was in 1934, before a crowd of 45,000 at Yankee Stadium—donated for the evening by team owner Col. Jacob Ruppert—with proceeds sent to help German Jewry. Macy’s department store owner Nathan Strauss was the key driver behind the event, which inspired large-scale fundraisers by the U.S. Army and Navy, the Red Cross and others. This program is from the 1948 performance, the first after Israel’s independence.

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army who in 1894 was wrongly convicted of spying for Germany. His conviction and later exoneration became known as the Dreyfus Affair, a miscarriage of justice rooted in antisemitism, which divided France. Imprisoned on Devil’s Island for five years, Dreyfus was convicted again in a second trial, and ultimately pardoned. He was exonerated in 1906 and reinstated in the French Army, in which he served through the First World War. The yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour de France is related to the Dreyfus Affair—as the bicycle race was founded in 1903 by the anti-Dreyfus sports paper, L’Auto. (To celebrate Family Day, here’s Dreyfus with his children, Pierre and Jeanne.) 

DIG DEEPER: Read more from the first year of Treasure Trove…