My Visit to the National Library of Israel – An Unexpected Family Resource

Yesterday I took my first trip to the National Library of Israel, located on the beautiful campus of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I didn’t realize the size of their collection of books, documents, manuscripts and other holdings from all over the world until last week when I wrote about a different archive in this area. That archive is called the Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) and you can read more about it here.

In addition to Jewish resources, they have large collections of internationally recognized material related to Christianity, Islam, Middle Eastern studies, science, history and more.

I searched the online catalog at the top of their home page to see if they had anything worth looking at in person and found a number of potentially useful things.

One of the folders that I wanted to see contains some of my cousin, Simon Bernfeld’s hand written letters and manuscripts. I found pictures of him in another folder. A few of his writings are also part of the library’s online digital collection.

Hand drawn portrait Simon Bernfeld c. 1920's

Hand drawn portrait
Simon Bernfeld c. 1920’s

This is the first photo I have seen of Simon Bernfeld in his earlier years.

This is the first photo that I have seen of Simon Bernfeld in his earlier years.

Some of his letters were written in Hebrew and others were in German. They have not been translated yet.

This Hebrew letter written in 1883 was the oldest item in the folder.

This Hebrew letter written in 1883 was the oldest item in the folder.

Letter written in German from Berlin

Letter written in German from Berlin

The envelope attached with the letter provided some additional clues.

The envelope attached with a letter written in 1895 provided some useful details.

There were a few addresses in the folder including the one in the photo above. I searched for the name on the envelope, Dr. Joseph Chazanowicz, a physician from Bialystok and learned that he was one of the co-founders of this library.

The last photo in this group is an edited manuscript. There were additional manuscripts, perhaps one of them was the final copy of this text.



The other two items that I requested were very old hand written books relating to births in one of my ancestral towns. As I walked to the floor where they were located, I passed stained glass windows created by artist Mordecai Ardon. They were made in the 1980’s and are dedicated to the prophet Isaiah’s vision of eternal peace.

A brief description from the library’s website states that the left panel depicts the roads taken by the nations on their way up to Jerusalem. The central panel focuses on Jerusalem. In the lower section the city wall [the wall that surrounds the old city of Jerusalem] is represented as the Dead Sea Scroll. If you would like additional information about the meaning of these windows, you can find it here. The following photos are two of the three panels.

Left panel

Left panel

Center panel

Center panel

While waiting for an archivist to retrieve the books, I found some display cases containing signed documents from a few American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln.

In the first document, dated July 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appoints Edward Joy Morris of Pennsylvania as U.S. Minister Resident in Istanbul. In the next item, he directs the Secretary of State to affix the seal of the United States to the envelope of a letter addressed to the Sultan of Turkey.

Abraham Lincoln signed document - 1861

Abraham Lincoln signed document – 1861

I found out that there are additional items in the catalog that are not held at the library’s Jerusalem location. When that happens, the catalog will reference where each item can be found. I wanted to see a third book that was part of the collection from my ancestral town but this library didn’t have it. I searched the online collection at the place where the book is located (in NY) and found a digital copy of it.

If you’re ever in the Jerusalem area, a visit to the library is worth the trip. There’s something for everyone. In addition, the staff was extremely helpful and one of the patrons even assisted me when he overheard that I didn’t understand the Yiddish written in one of the documents.

The website for the National Library of Israel is:

Archival Holdings in Jerusalem

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) is one of the best places to check for family history material if you have Jewish roots. This wonderful resource recently merged with the National Library of Israel and they are both located in Jerusalem.

CAHJP is in the process of updating their website and it is now part of the greater National Library of Israel site. The information is well organized and is an improvement over their previous site. The website is still new so expect future updates.

You will find a general overview of their collections, arranged geographically by country, community, (according to the borders in existence between the two World Wars) organizations and by private collections.

The following picture gives an example of some of the communities which the archive represents. Some of the material dates back to the Middle Ages.


When I visited the archive, some of the documents that I found for personal research were almost two hundred years old. There is so much to explore at CAHJP that I think it will take a few more trips until I’ve looked through everything I want to see.

The website for the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) is:

Happy hunting!

Two Fabulous Tips of the Day

Tip #1

If you are doing any type of family research and would like to expand your family tree, try this creative idea from blogger Kenneth Marks.

Google a last name that you are searching for with words such as “beloved”, “dear” or “brother” and you are likely to find new information that you never came across before.

I tried it and found new items such as a family tree, a marriage certificate and obituaries both online and within newspaper images.

Tip #2

While searching for a free photo, I came across a site which contains images that were contributed by artists and can be used freely. The site can be found here.

Family Heirlooms: Chinese Figurines

My mom is a retired interior designer who loves to collect antiques. Years ago, when she was still working, she would always purchase interesting items for her clients. During my childhood, she occasionally showed me things that she bought for me thinking that I might cherish them one day. It happened on very rare occasions so the memories are still clear. I’ll always appreciate her thoughtfulness.

It took me a long time to sincerely appreciate antiques because of my exposure to them as a child. Every summer, we took a road trip to New England so that we could visit cousins in Massachusetts. The drive from New York always seemed to last an eternity because mom HAD to STOP at EVERY antique shop along the way. In my child’s mind, I could never quite understand why she always wanted to stop at these ‘junk shops.’ I told myself back then that when I grow up, I’ll never decorate my home with anything ancient.

Eventually I did grow up and for a while, I really did resist antiques. But then my fascination for history and all things vintage opened my mind and I became more interested in these types of items because of the history behind them and the sentimental value.

As I unpacked the last boxes, (finally after moving four years ago) I found a few things that my mom gave to my family. They are figurines from the Kiangsi Province in China. There was also a note inside the box that she wrote about their history.

Four years is a long time to be without something and you tend to forget about it. So when I opened up the box and unwrapped these items, it was almost like receiving them for the first time. When my mom gave us this gift, I wasn’t yet interested in family history or history in general. She must have foreseen something in me that I didn’t even know yet. Last week, I was thrilled to learn the background of these antiques again and they now have a special spot on our shelf.

History of Chinese Figurines

These porcelain figurines came from Kiangsi Province, and were made between 1900-1940. After Communists came into power, the figurines were no longer made. The Communists did not want to export. President Truman did not want to do business with the Communists and closed trade with mainland China. A man whom my mother purchased the figurines from was an importer of Chinese porcelain before 1940. The Communists broke the molds when they came into power and the ones produced today are reproductions of the originals.

After the United States opened trade with China in the late 1970’s, these figurines appeared in wholesale Oriental showrooms in limited quantity. The people who used to make these figurines had died off, and nothing like the originals could be made. Only poor reproductions were sold in places like Chinatown in New York City.

Kassel-Bettenhausen Cemetery

Photographer Jürgen Krug did an outstanding job capturing this image of the cemetery where my 4th great-grandfather, Joseph Simon Frankel (1742-1815) is buried. The cemetery is located in Kassel, Germany.

Der jüdische Friedhof Kassel - Bettenhausen Jewish cemetery in Kassel

Der jüdische Friedhof Kassel – Bettenhausen
Jewish Cemetery in Kassel


Finding Humor in the Archives

Castle Garden port of immigration – New York

I’ve come across a few inaccuracies while researching my family but the following example is definitely the best one that I’ve seen. An author that has done extensive research on one of my family branches found something written in a registry book that made me laugh.

It said that my great-grandmother and three of her siblings sailed on the SS Elbe to New York. Then the following was written, “They moved to Castle Garden, Manhattan where their older sister Carolina lives.”

Castle Garden was a port of immigration between 1855-1890. Nobody actually set up residence there and I’m certain that immigrants were more than happy to leave the port as soon as possible to begin their new life in America. The registry office back in their native town accepted the location without any additional investigating and closed the file.

The Immigration Experience – A Firsthand Account From the 1890’s

Visions of the American Dream danced around in my ancestors thoughts. Twelve of them took the difficult and somewhat dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean for a better life in America. At least eleven of them made it. Each left his or her home for different reasons. Some left to escape poverty and persecution while others desired opportunities unavailable to them in their native lands. They all had one thing in common, to reach that often spoken about Promised Land, a place where they hoped their dreams would come true.

Although many of my relatives immigrated to America, I only know a few details. I wanted to find out what it was like and found a first hand account written in the 1890’s. In the book, From Plotzk to Boston, author Mary Antin shared her experience, beginning from the time her family decided to emigrate from the small town of Plotzk in Russia until the time she, her mother and three siblings arrived in America.

Mary Antin (right) and her sister

Mary Antin (right) and her sister

Most of the people who lived in Mary’s small village had America on their mind. Leaving loved ones and everything familiar behind for a new life was a difficult undertaking. People in the process of emigrating were both admired and envied. Townspeople would talk about America while at work, in the market, in the neighborhood and everywhere else. Children also had ideas about a better life based upon what they heard from their parents. They even made up games pretending to immigrate. If someone from Plotzk visited America, the townspeople would gather around when he returned to enthusiastically soak up every word.

Mary’s father was the first person in the family to leave. Three years later, during the spring of 1894, enough money was saved so that the rest of the family could join him. Before the Antin family left, they gave away most of their belongings including many valuables because they were only permitted to travel with a few pieces of luggage.

When the big day arrived, half the town came to the train station to bid Mary and her family farewell. Following tears, advice, and requests from family and friends, the Antins set off by train. The only place that they ever called home and the crowd of people that they loved dearly faded into the distance.

The first stop, in Vilna was uneventful but necessary because Mary’s mother, Esther had to pick up travel documents. Mary wrote that Vilna was larger and cleaner than Plotzk. It was also the first time that she saw horse cars. She visited a bookstore, something foreign to her as well. She had never seen so many books in one place. Mary did not mention how many days it took until they were able to continue their travels but during the time-lapse, they stayed with her uncle.

In their eagerness to continue the journey, they arrived at the train station too early. The cold wet dreary morning seemed to last forever. They felt relieved when they finally heard the sound of the train whistle. The next stop to Verzbolovo (today known as Virbalis), was a long and uncomfortable eight hour trip.  As they pulled into the next station, the scene changed. The sky cleared up and the sunny weather enhanced the pleasant atmosphere. A man whom Esther was talking to during the ride helped her purchase tickets for Eidtkunen, the next station along their route.

One of the greatest fears that immigrants faced during this time was the spread of cholera, an epidemic which was prevalent in Russia. It became a pandemic in Hamburg in 1892, making immigration restrictions even tighter. With that in mind, the passengers at the next depot were greeted by very serious, stern and frightening looking German police. One of men that entered the car told Esther that she and her family could not leave the train. Esther asked why but did not receive a response. A second policeman entered the train and asked where they were going. After he left, a third policeman entered with a doctor. Many routine health questions were asked along with questions about their travel plans. Then the doctor, who also served as an officer told them, “With these third class tickets you cannot go to America now because it is forbidden to admit emigrants into Germany who have not at least second class tickets. You will have to return to Russia unless you pay at the office here to have your tickets changed for second class ones.” After studying his notes for a few minutes, he continued, “I find you will need two hundred rubles to get your tickets exchanged. Your passports are of no use at all now because the necessary part has to be torn out whether you are allowed to pass or not.” Mary and her family felt helpless.

Would Mary’s dream to reunite with her father after three long years be shattered? Had all the planning and money saved gone to waste? They barely had enough cash to complete their trip and the fear that they might not make it to America was a frightening reality.

Esther pleaded with the doctor to allow them to move forward with their journey. Her appeal touched a soft spot in his heart and he allowed them to continue. He sent them to Keebart (today known as Kybartai) to speak to a well-known man that helped emigrants. His name was Herr Schidorsky.

Once they arrived at the Keebart station, Esther inquired where Herr Schidorsky lived. After traveling to his home, she waited until he was able to meet with her. Herr Schidorsky was willing to help resolve what appeared to be a complicated situation. They spent a couple of nights lodging in town, including an evening at Herr Schidorshy’s home. At the moment when the paperwork was in order, Mary and her family rushed quickly back to the train station so that they could catch the next ride out of town and return back to Eidtkunen.

When the train pulled up to the Eidtkunen station, the guards once again questioned Esther. Just mentioning Herr Schidorsky’s name was the pass needed to proceed and exit the train. After entering a waiting area in a building next to the train station, they encountered chaos and confusion. All of the luggage was aimlessly thrown into piles and the belongings of those going to America were pulled aside to be fumigated.

There was a long wait before the Antins could board the next train. This time, they were directed to fourth class boxcars. The ride was overcrowded and very uncomfortable because of poor ventilation and nowhere to move.

Their next stop was Berlin. When the passengers exited the train, Mary felt that everyone was being herded like cattle. They were taken into a small room, where they were examined and then told to remove their clothes and to shower. They were then told to get dressed and were inspected again. Throughout the journey, the Antins were charged unexpected fees for various services and this time it was no different. A man asked each person to pay two marcs for the shower that was forced upon them!

The next train compartment was even more crowded than the previous one. People were leaning against each other, elbows were in faces and knees were pushed into backs. Despite the discomfort, Mary was amused by the scene.

The next stop was Hamburg where they were asked more questions and then proceeded toward and boarded a horse-drawn express wagon. The wagon brought them to a building near the port.

Emigrant wagon

Emigrant wagon

The inspectors with their harsh expressions and intimidating demeanor were frightening. At every junction, fear of the unknown raced through Mary’s mind. At the final stop in Hamburg, the interrogations continued. With the ongoing epidemic of cholera in the city of Hamburg quarantine was required. Since the family came from Russia where the outbreak of cholera originated and was still rampant, they had to be detained even though they did not show outward signs of the disease.

At last the time arrived when they could go to the waiting area until their ship arrived. While in the waiting room, there was chaos, excitement, noise, fast movement, confusion, boxes and luggage everywhere, the loud whistling of boats was clearly heard, children were crying and passengers were filled with emotion.

Finally they boarded their ship, the Polynesia. Shortly after that, each person was given one plate, cup and spoon which would be used over and over again for the duration of the trip. The family traveled in steerage with the majority of other passengers.

Once aboard the ship, Mary felt a sense of calmness and peace. However, by the next day the rough waves caused many people to become seasick. The conditions rapidly worsened. For six long days, it was hard to eat and a sense of sadness overcame Mary. Memories of the past flashed before her eyes as did fears of the unknown. Would they arrive safely or fall upon misfortune?  To her advantage, the anticipation of a bright future always overshadowed her negative thoughts. So many mixed emotions were at play. Mary spent much of her time in deep contemplation.

Passengers on the upper deck. The ships were always crowded and passengers in steerage lacked privacy.

Passengers on the upper deck. The ships were always crowded and passengers in steerage lacked privacy.

During the trip, the captain and crew interacted with the passengers. Children were able to run around and play on the deck. When the sea was calm and passengers were feeling better, their spirits were high and they enjoyed dancing and singing.

On day twelve of their journey, the captain told the passengers that they would soon see land. But that never happened because they encountered a storm. During the evening of day thirteen, the storm gained strength and the waves became violent. The ship rocked intensely. Belongings broke and some people were thrown from one side to the other. The foghorn blared throughout the night making the situation very stressful for everyone.

The weather improved by the following morning but the voyage lasted a couple more days. On day seventeen of the journey, the sea calmed down and the sun was shining. They could see land, trees, birds, and homes. There wasn’t a person who could contain his excitement. After docking, Mary disembarked from the ship and immediately saw her father. However, she could not go to him. First they had to be examined and questioned one last time. Each family member passed the immigration requirements and was finally free to start a new life. After three long years without their father and husband, at last the family was together again.

Mary Antin was an author and a civil rights activist. Before the age of thirty, she published her autobiography, The Promised Land. It was an immediate best seller and was praised by Theodore Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, and other proponents of open integration. She became an icon for the opportunities offered in America.

Mary was born June 13, 1881 in Plotzk, Russia and died May 15, 1949 Suffern, New York.

If you would like to read this short book or any of Mary’s other books, they are free and available at Project Gutenberg.