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The book that survived Kristallnacht and made it to the Land of Israel

How one Agnon tale about making aliyah survived Kristallnacht and made aliyah
The aftermath of the 'Kristallnacht' pogrom in Germany, November 1938 (public domain)
The aftermath of the 'Kristallnacht' pogrom in Germany, November 1938 (public domain)

In the thriving, cultured and sophisticated country that was the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s to early 1930s, Jews made up an integral part of German society, experiencing the best that the country had to offer. When the Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1933, life as the Jewish community knew it was quickly brought to an end.

On November 3, 1938, a young Jewish man named Herschel Grynszpan, in an apparent reaction to his family’s deportation from their home in Germany to Poland, shot a German diplomat in Paris where he was living at the time.

The Palestine Post, November 8, 1938

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The death of the diplomat sparked rage in the Nazi party who decided to use this incident as a reason to exact a widespread pogrom against the Jews of Germany. Testimonies that came forth following the events told of how the press was instructed to push the story and to exaggerate the details of the incident to inspire anger amidst the public while the Nazis prepared for a carefully orchestrated night of violence against the Jews.

November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass, hearts, brick and mortar. In just two days, over 7,000 businesses, so carefully grown and cultivated were trashed, looted, and burned to the ground along with 250 beloved synagogues.

On that fateful night, Felix Pinczower, a resident of Berlin at the time, found himself on the streets in heart of the violence. He was pushed into a large crowd and witnessed the violent mob looting a Jewish book store. The vandals had shattered the store windows and were systematically throwing the books out into the street for the pages to be torn out and stomped on before being discarded into a large trash heap.

“In the Heart of the Seas,” a book by the famed author, S. Y. Agnon, that tells the story of a group of Hasidim on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was among the books being thrown through the window into the streets — only this book was spared the fate faced by the thousands of books destroyed that night. That little book with its simple white cover was saved by Felix Pinczower on that night of violence that shattered the Jewish community of Germany.

The cover of the rescued copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” by S.Y. Agnon, from the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon at the National Library of Israel.

As the mob around the book store was broken up, Pinczower was arrested along with thousands of others who were rounded up on Kristallnacht and was taken to a concentration camp where he stayed for six weeks. He was released from the camp once his official request to leave Germany was approved.

On May 8, 1939, Pinczower sent the rescued book along with a descriptive letter of the violence he had experienced to the famed author after immigrating to the Land of Israel and establishing his new home in Tel Aviv.

In his heartfelt letter, Pinczower described how, upon witnessing the scene at the Jewish bookstore, he had become consumed with rage. Just as he was about to take action, something that could have cost him his life, a gust of wind picked up and a small, simple book landed at his feet. He quickly picked up the book, brushed it off and took it home.

“The little book eluded my memory,” wrote Pinczower. “Only when my ‘lift’ was being packed beneath the eyes of the customs clerks, did it reemerge. ‘Do you want to take that dirty book with you?’ the customs man asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. “It’s an interesting book that contains a special story.’ He nodded and examined it again. Suddenly, he had an idea. I saw how his face was contorting into a devilish smile. He uttered not a word, but flipped through the book, page by page, checking it against the light, apparently with the thought that foreign currency was hidden among its pages. And then, when the inspection yielded nothing, he returned the book to me. I expressed my preference not to pack the book in the lift, but rather in the baggage compartment, in order to read it on the journey.”

The letter sent to S.Y. Agnon from Felix Pinczower on May 8, 1939, from Agnon’s personal archive at the National Library of Israel.

It was only once he had boarded the ship to take him to safety that Pinczower finally had the opportunity to properly examine and read the book. He was amazed at what he found between the stained covers of the book; a vibrant story of Hasidim who set out on a sea voyage that takes months from start to finish to arrive in the glorious Land of Israel.

“Was it not a direct sign from heaven that this, of all books, fell into my hands, truly in the literal sense of the expression? I do not believe in coincidence in life,” wrote Pinczower.

“Is it not true that today, as well, ships set sail and make their way over months at sea in order to bring refugees to Eretz Israel? People waiting in anticipation for the land of their longing, with the same sentiment.”

The book became Pinczower’s companion, a constant reminder of what awaited him on the other side of his journey. Once he arrived safely to the Land of Israel and settled into his new home, Pinczower felt the time had come for the book to return to its author and to tell the story of it’s incredible journey.

Pinczower concluded his letter with a simple request of Agnon, “to integrate the book into your library as an anecdotal item — a book that has a story like a human being does.”

“If only this book, which came out of Zion and returned to Zion, might serve as a symbol to the ingathering of our dispersed writings, held in unworthy hands.”

Today, the letter and book sent by Felix Pinczower to S.Y Agnon, are found in the personal archive of S.Y Agnon, housed at the National Library of Israel.

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Related Article:

The Nazi Atrocities Revealed in Invisible Ink

About the Author
Writer, editor and lover of all things Jewish, Ro works at the National Library of Israel writing and creating web and social media content to tell the story behind the library's rich and unique collections. In her spare time she enjoys learning new and useless facts, reading, hiking and cupcake baking- not necessarily in that order.
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