In celebration of Mother’s Day, we present photographs of our heroic veterans as children, safe and warm in their mothers' arms. These photographs were collected by the Archive as part of its Veteran Oral History Project. With love and gratitude to Mom!
Department of History, Queens University
A note from Solomon Mikhoels to Solomon Zil’berblat, 1930. Mikhoels, whose leg was not fully recovered from trauma, is asking Zil’berblat to fill in for him onstage. Handwritten and signed by Mikhoels on November 29, 1930.
“Because the condition of my leg does not allow me to move it to the full extent, I am asking, if it is possible, that you perform again tonight,” wrote Mikhoels to Zil’berblat in 1930. Otherwise, he continued, “heroic measures will have to be taken to save the show.”
Once asked about the relationship between his real life and his life onstage, Mikhoels replied that when on stage, playing a role, he “extracts” an image from himself, and that image “lives onstage.” In Mikhoels’s words, “The force of life onstage is unbelievably great and, obviously, has not been studied enough. Once, when performing in Sholem Aleichem’s 200,000 I fell, severely injuring my leg. However, my role required intense dancing, singing, and jumping. I performed all four acts. I felt severe pain during the intermissions, but no pain at all while performing onstage.” Mikhoels also recalled another episode, when his eye was accidentally burnt by another actor’s cigarette on stage. Feeling a “wild pain” he nevertheless continued to perform. Mikhoels explained, “I was focused, so I was able to set aside real physical feeling and continue living my onstage life.”
In 1943, Mikhoels and the Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer visited the United States as representatives of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to seek support for the USSR war effort. At a rally in Chicago, the enthusiastic crowd climbed on the podium where Mikhoels was speaking to cheer him and show their support. As a result, the podium collapsed and Mikhoels broke his leg. Upon his return to Moscow in January 1944, Mikhoels played King Lear at GOSET. After this performance he decided to take a break from acting, because, according to his daughter Nataliia Vovsi-Mikhoels, he did not want to appear “lame onstage.”
In 1945, more and more “heroic measures” had to be taken by Mikhoels in order to perform. Suffering from exhaustion, he commented: “Crossing the threshold of the stage takes more effort, has become harder. I reluctantly remind myself of the moment when I have to go onstage. Once I’m onstage, I feel a relief, but before that moment it is extremely hard to make this transition. I am in an extremely bad mood. I do not like to perform anymore.”
Department of History, Queens University
Komandirovochnoe udostoverenie (letter of performance tour assignment) issued by GOSET on May 4, 1941 to S.Ia. Zil’berblat to certify that he is assigned to join GOSET’s tour in Leningrad and Kharkiv from May 5 to June 25, 1941. Sealed and signed by GOSET’s administrator Kanter. On the theater’s official stationary.
In spring 1941, when the theatrical season ended, GOSET (Moscow State Yiddish Theater), like many other Moscow theaters, set on tour to Russian provinces. The troupe and staff members were issued letters of performance tour assignment, such as the one received by Solomon Zil’berblat, and packed their bags, while stage workers prepared props. For two decades it had been GOSET’s routine. However, the 1941 tour was different.
The tour repertoire included classics of Yiddish literature: stage adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s novel “Wandering Stars,” and a comedy “Two Kuni-Lemls” by Abraham Goldfaden, legendary father of Yiddish theater. “Wandering Stars,” directed by Solomon Mikhoels, premiered in Leningrad in May, 1941. Both public audience and critics received the show with great enthusiasm. According to one reviewer, Mikhoels, who presented the love story of two young Yiddish actors as an optimistic take on a tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, not just adapted Sholem Aleichem for stage, but created new original script.
On June 22, 1941, in Kharkiv, GOSET had two shows: a matinee, “Two Kuni-Lemls,” and evening performance of “Wandering Stars” at the local Red Army House. Moisei Belen’kii, head of GOSET’s school of acting and close friend of Mikhoels remembered that at noon, when the matinee was well underway, they learned about the German invasion of USSR from a radio announcement and rushed to the theater. Mikhoels interrupted the show and delivered a short and passionate oration, calling to “smash Nazi reptile.” After performing “Wandering Stars” in the afternoon, GOSET left for Moscow.
Chaos caused by the catastrophic beginning of the war, made the theater’s journey from Kharkiv to Moscow long and difficult. Moisei Belen’kii recalled that troupe members tried to cheer up one another, desperately hoping that invasion would be stopped by the time they were to reach Moscow. Instead, Germans reached both tour destinations shortly—Leningrad was sieged on September 8, Kharkiv was taken on October 24. The war continued for the next four years and, in the words of historian Jeffrey Veidlinger, the vast majority of the audience attending the last performance of 1941 tour, “which was mostly composed of soldiers and officers, would be killed, along with an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens.”
Department of History, Queens University
This invitation is a vivid material testimony to Eli Wiesel’s account of his 1965 visit to Moscow: “Tens of thousands of Jews [in USSR] convicted of ‘Jewish nationalism’ and sentenced to prison have been released. It is no longer dangerous to be known as a Yiddish writer; now and again one hears of whole evening devoted to Yiddish songs and public readings of Yiddish works. The legendary figure of Solomon Mikhoels has been revived” (Elie Wiesel, Jews of Silence). The 1965 celebration of Mikhoels’s 75th anniversary was not the first public event commemorating the beloved star of Soviet Yiddish theater. In 1960, major soviet celebrities, such as the Bolshoi's opera tenor Ivan Kozlovskii, renowned theater critic Pavel Markov, literary critic Iraklii Andronikov, and many others gathered at the same prestigious venue, Moscow Actor’s House, to celebrate Mikhoels’s 70th birthday. They remembered Mikhoels as a great actor, important public figure, and dear friend. The 1960 event was also attended by Mikhoels’s family, including his widow biologist Anastasia Pototskaia, and his daughters Natalia and Nina, and by his GOSET colleagues and friends, such as artist Aleksandr Tyshler.
The full event was recorded (view here). Selected speeches and memoirs about Mikhoels were published as part of the very first collection of Mikhoels’s oeuvre (Moscow, 1965). This bold celebration of Yiddish culture became possible thanks to the “thaw,” policy of de-Stalinization and overall liberalization of social life inaugurated by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In 1965, after Khrushchev’s dismissal, it was still possible to organize the event at Moscow Actor’s House well attended by celebrities as well as by ordinary Moscow Jews. According to Pototskaia, the atmosphere was so emotional, that one of the speakers, actress Faina Ranevskaia, Mikhoels’s close friend, was unable to speak and left. Next morning she called Pototskaia, saying: “My memories about Mikhoels were so vivid in my mind. I’ve been so agitated, I’ve been afraid of having heart attack on stage… I simply cannot speak” (Matvei Geizer, Mikhoels: zhizn’ i smert’).
In this atmosphere, back in 1965, many Soviet Jews were enthusiastic about revival of Yiddish culture and optimistic about Jewish future in USSR. Eli Wiesel observed, “Should a Yiddish theater be established again in Moscow, there would be no difficulty filling the auditorium. Of that I am sure” (Eli Wiesel, Jews of Silence). However, history proved the opposite. The next public commemoration of Solomon Mikhoels happened only in 1989.
As an Archival Ephemera Digitization and Media Specialist at the Blavatnik Archive, I regularly come into contact with the past via a process of cataloguing eclectic fragments of historical material. During a recent graduate fellowship with NYU in Prague, however, I had the opportunity to synthesize the historical past and present by observing the sites featured within one of the archive’s some 90,000 physical assets.
The Blavatnik Archive holds a physical copy of the Antiquitates Judaicae Pragenses (Jewish Antiquities in Prague), a postcard album printed by M. Schulz for the Gomel Hasidim Burial Society in Prague [c.1910]. This album, crafted from cardboard and fastened with olive green cord, contains 25 photo plates featuring several locations within Josefov, Prague’s Jewish Quarter.
The locations and structures featured within this booklet still exist today more than 100 years following the album’s printing date. Presented here are various images of the exterior of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. This synagogue stands as the oldest active synagogue in Europe--first opened to the public in the year 1270. It was originally named the “New or Great Shul,” however, later within the 16th century and the development of several local synagogues, the name was adjusted to Altneuschul, or, the Old-New Synagogue.
The synagogue holds additional architectural significance as the oldest surviving synagogue with a medieval double-nave (see Interior Photo of Altneuschul). This double-nave was a part of the original construction, however, the synagogue continued to develop structurally into the mid 1700s. Circa 1300, the Altneuschul expanded to include a southern vestibule and western annex for women, during the early 15th century an entrance hall to the women’s section was attached, and in 1732 a northern women’s section was finalized. Combined, the completed structure is rectangular, featuring a saddle roof and Gothic-style gables (see Exterior Photo of Altneuschul and Street View of Altneuschul).
The interior of the Old-New Synagogue is similarly remarkable as it is highlighted by six bays of five-ribbed vaulting on two octagonal pillars. Twelve windows envelop the perimeter walls of synagogue as an homage to the number of tribes of Israel. The main hall is centered around a raised platform that is adorned with a Gothic-style grille, and the Torah scrolls are retained within a holy ark along the eastern wall of the synagogue. This structure held a status as the most prominent synagogue within the city of Prague. Among this synagogue’s many acting Rabbis, Judah ben Bezalel, Rabbi Loew of Prague taught here during the 16th century. His grave, seen below resides in the adjacent Old Jewish Cemetery, an additional location featured within the booklet.
While the founding date of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is unknown, the oldest gravestone, amongst the near 12,000 present, is from the year 1439. A rough estimate of 100,000 Jews have been buried in this location. The disproportionate body to tombstone ratio stems from the Jewish custom of banning the removal of old graves, leading to a practice of the dead being buried on top of existing grave plots.
Of the thousands of headstones present within Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, a clear aesthetic division is present. Those originating prior to the 16th century are smaller in size and stylistically more simplistic. Those originating from the 17th century, however, feature baroque-style sculpting with emblems that indicate an individual’s profession, family name, and personal characteristics.
The grave of the aforementioned Rabbi Loew of Prague [1520-1609], pictured here, serves as a visual example of this latter stylistic type. Known informally as the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Loew served as a leading Rabbi in the aforementioned city following a 20-year term as the Rabbi in Nikolsburg, Moravia. He is well known for his advancements made to the respective fields of Jewish philosophy and mysticism that have been expressed through his authoring of multiple literary works. His grave features the symbolic elements of the lion and wine grapes-- the former, an emblem of his first name, Judah, and the latter, a symbol of prosperity.
Post by Rachel Angelica Engle
During World War I, women were not only replacing men on the home front but some were replacing them on the battlefield as well. When Russian soldiers no longer wanted to fight the war and their morale and spirits became obsolete “shock battalions” or “battalions of death” were established. These battalions would be deployed to various places along the front to inspire soldiers to get up and fight. The most famous unit was known as the “First Russian Women’s Battalion of Death” led by Maria Bochkareva. Russia’s Ministry of War saw this as the perfect propaganda tool, because they believed that if even women were answering their country’s call to arms, then surely the men on the front would do the same. Bochkareva believed that a disciplined and exemplary battalion of Russian women could “shame” the unmotivated soldiers on the frontlines into action.
This all-female combat unit managed to recruit over two thousand women between the ages of eighteen and forty at the beginning, but due to Bochkareva’s strict discipline and training the number of enlistees was reduced to three hundred fearsome volunteers. Recruits rose at 5:00AM and would train until 9:00PM. Bochkareva believed that suppressing femininity and mimicking masculine behaviors was the key to make good soldiers out of women. To reassure this transformation from sheep to wolf, she insisted that the women shave their heads and taught them to smoke and swear like men. Bochkareva’s training was so serious that giggling and smiling at male instructors were grounds for dismissal.
Bochkareva’s unit would finally be called onto the front during the Kerensky Offensive, where they would occupy a trench near Smorgon. When ordered to go over the top, the male soldiers faltered and hesitated but the women decided to go without them anyway. Eventually they managed to cross three trenches into German territory and returned with two hundred prisoners. While raiding these trenches soldiers discovered a stash of vodka, which the women attempted to destroy before the men could drink them. Although this women’s unit made impeccable progress, relief units never arrived, which forced them to retreat and lose all the ground gained in the offensive. The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death would be disbanded later as a result of increasing hostility from male troops because they prevented them from retreating.
To put it simply, Maria Bochkareva was one hell of a woman and not someone to take lightly. Some of her career highlights include retrieving wounded men from the dangerous No Man’s Lands and bayonetting at least one German soldier to death. Over the next three years she would be wounded many times but that wouldn’t hinder her resolve. In one instance she was paralyzed by a piece of shrapnel in her spine but not even that could stop her. Within six months she had learned to walk again and returned back to the battlefield. Because of her bravery she was awarded many medals and was even given a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson and a private audience with King George V.
Post by Arvin Ramdas
At first glance, it may seem odd and confusing that knights, dragons, and Vikings were used in propaganda during the Great War. Propagandists were tasked with the difficult job of convincing citizens that the war was a just cause and they should both fight and support it. These artists would later draw inspiration from the Middle Ages, because it was a time filled with myths and legends about courage, bravery, and most importantly the battle between good and evil their ancestors fought. This postcard shows a triumphant Viking warrior stepping on his opponent’s corpse while holding a sword and chains in his hands while being held by a thankful German woman. The caption reads “Germans do not tolerate any chains!”, which is meant to not only depict the warrior as a liberator but also serves as a reflection of why they are fighting this battle against evil. Gender was also another important element in WWI war propaganda because women were seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. The stereotype of women being kind and weak made them both the object of men’s affections but also the victims of the enemies’ brutal acts. Women and children served as a reminder of the importance to participate in this battle and of the companionship that awaited soldiers upon their return.
Post by Arvin Ramdas
Belgium is littered with interesting statues and sculptures but there seems to be a boar frenzy. In Belgium, the wild boar is a symbolic animal of the Ardennes forests in the south of the country. More importantly, the wild boar served as a symbol of bravery and the warrior spirit. The infamous Belgian infantry regiment Chasseurs Ardennes (Hunters of the Ardennes), chose the wild boar as their insignia and wore a boars’ head badge on their green beret.
This regiment was created to guard the eastern border of Belgium from German attacks. At the beginning of WWII, the Chasseurs Ardennes regiment only consisted of 35,000 men and would later get involved in some of the fiercest battles on Belgian ground. Despite their numbers, the Chasseurs Ardennes were in charge of defending a long front and were not intended to be a strong defense. Their main goal would be to delay their enemies by using obstacles and long range fire in the dense terrain.
Due to Belgium’s declaration of neutrality in 1936, there was no coordination between Belgium and the Allies because they believed that the German Government would keep their promise and not invade them. Because of this neutrality, the Belgian military was reorganized to be only a defensive force and began to fortify the country. While the Allies would be fending off the German attacks in the north of Belgium, they didn’t know that the Germans were using this as a smoke screen to send their main forces through the dense terrains of the Ardennes forests to the Meuse River. This was the worst possible situation for the Chasseurs Ardennes, because they would face a heavy concentration of troops and tanks that they were not prepared for.
This regiment became well known in Belgium for putting up a fierce resistance against the Nazi invasion of WWII. They lived by the motto “resist and bite” and even when outgunned and pushed into a corner they didn’t back down. In one battle, a single 47mm antitank gun managed to destroy and disable five German tanks before taking serious damage. Recently a band named Sabaton released a song called “Resist and Bite” which tells of the heroics of this company of soldiers.
Post by Arvin Ramdas
The most important thing about a battle plan is its execution but sometimes people decide to make changes that completely ruin it. When Alfred von Schlieffen retired in 1906, General von Moltke became the German Chief of Staff and assumed the responsibility of carrying out the famous Schlieffen Plan. Before Wilhelm II appointed Moltke to chief of staff, Moltke had one condition - that the emperor would not intervene in his military affairs. People expected great things from him because he was the nephew of Field Marshal Count Moltke, who led Germany to victory against France in 1871. What people didn’t expect was that Moltkes deviations from the Schlieffen Plan would lead to one of the biggest screw ups for Germany in WWI that would lead them into a bloody stalemate that would cost them the war.
The Schlieffen Plan was designed to quickly defeat France by leading a single powerful flank attack through Belgium and Holland that would eventually help encircle the French armies while also capturing Paris. At the same time a small army would keep Russia at bay until France was defeated because they were allies. Schlieffen’s plan also took into account that it would be much easier to defeat France by attacking its rear because it was vulnerable rather than pushing through the heavily fortified Franco-German border. The Schlieffen Plan predicted that there would be little resistance from Belgium and expected them to simply let them pass or be quickly defeated if they decided to fight.
Moltke disliked the Schlieffen Plan and severely altered it by making two critical decisions. The first critical change Moltke made was removing two of his armies that were supposed to push through Belgium and placing them in another area to counter the expected French invasion. But this wasn’t a decision made based on military strategy but on pride. Moltke felt that it would be unacceptable and disgraceful to allow French troops onto German soil. The original plan would have allowed the French invasion since it would have been a small sacrifice and would concentrate a large faction of the French Army in the South while 90% of the German Army would push through Belgium and storm France.
This change proved to be disastrous because Moltke decided to use scorched earth tactics to intimidate the Belgians in order to keep up with the Schlieffen Plan timetable. Not only did Moltke anger the Belgian people, but he also inspired rebellion movements that managed to hold out long enough until British reinforcements showed up. The Belgian Army managed to fight the Germans for 13 weeks with support from the British and reduced the might of their army. Because of his actions Moltke and his troops had to retreat. To make things worse German commanders decided to waive the plan of attacking France at its undefended rear and decided to make a full-frontal attack on the Franco-German border. This was one of the gravest mistake of the war because the full frontal attack began where the line was heavily protected by the French.
Moltkes second slew of mistakes began with his strategic failures during the Battle of Marne. After the German Armies had successfully made their way through Belgium, they began their advance to Paris and aimed to cut a large portion of the French Army off from the coastlines. The German Army was making good progress until a strategic error early in the campaign would eventually derail any hopes of winning the Battle of the Marne. Moltkes managed to do the unthinkable, he had lost command over his armies! The lack of communication became obvious when the offensives of both armies fell out of synch and opened up a gap near Paris that the British Forces and the French exploited. As a result, the 2nd German Army was in grave danger of being destroyed and the field commanders thought it was best to avoid an encirclement. They then retreated to a more favorable positioning which forced their other comrades to fend for themselves. Moltkes could no longer encircle Paris by flanking nor control his men. Not only did the Battle of the Marne successfully stop the advancement of German troops, it also created the trench warfare system that WWI is known for.
Post by Arvin Ramdas
It is hard to imagine that during a war, a kitten in the trenches could save a man’s life but that’s exactly what Pitoutchi did. While on trench duty, Lieutenant Lekeux had followed the noise of kittens crying only to find a group of soldiers surrounding a small basket of kittens. The mother of the litter of eight had been killed before they had even opened their eyes and Lekeux took it upon himself to nurse them all back to health. He tried as best as he could to put drops of milk into their mouths but only one kitten would drink the milk. By the next evening, all but one kitten had died. In exchange for saving his life, the cat gave Lekeux his loyalty by following him wherever he went. If the ground was dry, he would walk with Lekeux in the trenches and if the ground was wet, he would leap onto his shoulder and ride along.
While on patrol one day, Lekeux had spotted German soldiers digging a new trench and decided to investigate. He hid himself in a shell hole nearby and began to sketch, but he was so engrossed in his sketching that he didn’t notice the German soldiers on patrol approaching him. Lekeux was stuck in one hell of a predicament, because if he left the hole he would be shot and if he didn’t he would be bayoneted. He decided to lie very still and hoped that the Germans would not see him, but unfortunately he heard one soldier say, “He’s in the hole,” and knew he had been seen. Seeing his captain in danger, Pitoutchi did not hesitate to expose himself in his place. The kitten courageously jumped out of the hole onto a piece of timber and drew enemy fire. The Germans were startled and fired two shots at the cat. Thankfully, Pitoutchi was not hit and he jumped back into the hole with his beloved Lekeux. The Germans laughed and joked that they had mistaken a cat for a man and turned around. Lekeux then finished his sketches and returned to the Belgian lines with Pitoutchi on his shoulder.
Post by Arvin Ramdas