WILLIAM TOPKIS, a respected American Zionist leader just after World War I, is now even more widely remembered for two initiatives of his in Palestine in 1923. A longtime resident of Wilmington, Delaware, Topkis came to Israel for a five-month stay that year, accompanied by his wife and daughter. He wanted to see the country first-hand, hoping to aid in the budding tourism industry.
Once here, he founded the American Information Bureau which offered visitors the first Jewish tour guides when other established groups refused to.
After a few months of innovative activities, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund invited Topkis to assist in making a silent film to encourage American tourism and aliya.
“Topkis was a true ‘Eretz Yisrael’ film pioneer,” says Yaakov Gross, a film historian who seeks out films which have disappeared. “Without his efforts, the 1923 production, our second silent film, would never have come to be.” A previous silent film came out the year before.
Topkis, who tragically passed away two years later in 1925, succeeded in his tourism project and wrote the 1923 script for Palestine Awakening, the silent film by Ya’acov Ben-Dov, a pioneer of Israeli film and cinematography.
Hillel Tryster, a film historian, writes in his book, Israel before Israel: Silent Cinema in the Holy Land, about Topkis’s role in the KKL-JNF 1923 film project.
Topkis moved quickly with the idea, wrote a script and decided to direct the film himself. He hired an actor to play the character of the American Jewish tourist, the wealthy John Bloomberg, a cotton merchant from Pittsburgh. A real tour guide was hired to play that role. Shooting began on May 3 and lasted two weeks. Topkis’s diary, which he kept daily, earned the status as the “day book” of the film.
Editing began in June and the first showing took place on July 4 at Zion Cinema in Jerusalem.
At the end of his film review in The Palestine Weekly, Judah Magnes, later chancellor of Hebrew University, wrote: “This film being exhibited in Jerusalem on Herzl’s yahrzeit with all that it shows us of the growth of the land – is a key omen best understood by the adage of the Zionist founder – ‘if you will it – it is no fable.’” Tryster describes the film’s plot in his book. “John Bloomberg, a cotton merchant from Pittsburgh, touring the Middle East, stops in Jaffa. A Jewish guide persuades him to see the country.
“Now the travelogue is in motion. Bloomberg occasionally interjects a comment to keep the ball rolling: ‘I have not seen anything of industrial activity so far!’ or [after visiting the Ra’anan confectionery factory and Rishon LeZion wine cellars)...
‘Impossible to exist on chocolates and wine. Show me the Jewish peasants instead.’” Some people who read the script felt that it was about its author. Tryster interprets this point as follows.
“Bloomberg is a well assimilated American Jew, but in some ways he is a reflection of Topkis himself, looking at the country with an industrialist’s eye, seeking out those areas which could still be developed.”
Tryster’s observation is very accurate in regard to Topkis. On his return to the US he was interviewed by the Zionist Organization of America’s magazine.
“Noted Zionist Leader, on his return from Palestine, emphasizes that with 20 American Jewish industrialists living there – the country would change dramatically,” reads the headline.
Bloomberg in the film is inspired to return to his Hebrew language roots when he meets a child who speaks nothing else. This is a significant comment by Tryster. “Topkis had been amazed at the ethnic variety among the Jews he had met in Palestine, and his alter ego, Bloomberg, encounters Yemenites, Russians, Iraqis, Czechs and Poles.” Bloomberg, like many other visitors to the country, finds a relative in Palestine, at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. He decides to leave his American life behind and return to live in the Yishuv. This marks the first time on film that an American Jew states that he will make aliya.
The film had titles in 13 languages and was premiered to the Jewish world at the World Zionist Congress in the summer of 1923 at Carlsbad.
Topkis was born in Russia in 1878 and his parents brought him to the US when he was four years old.
The family settled in Pennsylvania and then moved to Wilmington, Delaware where they entered a variety of business enterprises ultimately opening the Topkis Athletic Underwear Company. After World War I, the company became the third largest underwear company in the United States after BVD and Fruit of the Loom. Quieter than his other four brothers and sister, Topkis sought more schooling than his siblings and received it.
In his early 20s, he was given the opportunity to use his written English for a communal institution.
By 1900 there was a large Orthodox synagogue in Wilmington, plus a smaller one barely surviving.
Adas Kodesch, the larger shul, decided to be more American, so it elected young Topkis its secretary.
All the minutes from the congregation’s inception in 1879 had been written in Yiddish – now they were to be in English. As one reads those two years of recorded minutes by Topkis, one has the feeling that this was a literary exercise, not the protocol of a meeting.
Then an unexpected turn of events called Topkis to the fore. He had to use his language skills to counter a public charge. A Polish rabblerouser in Wilmington accused the local Jews and all American Jews of spreading information which inspired the assassination of US president William McKinley.
To prepare an answer which would be worthy of placement in the newspaper as well as for a speech in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, Topkis composed a brief essay in English. His words, when read and heard in Wilmington, restored the status of the Jews in the community.
The 24-year-old realized for the first time the power of language to influence.
Because of his business acumen, William was invited by Alfred DuPont, a member of the noted family, to be on the board of one of the local banks. His fiscal talents demonstrated to the DuPonts and other leaders in Wilmington of what he was capable.
Parallel to his financial success, in the years before WWI, his brothers, led by Louis Topkis, developed the Topkis Underwear Company. William Topkis was made a silent partner to whom his family turned when needed.
As Samuel Goldwyn began his movie career, he sought funding for his productions. He turned to the DuPonts and they included Topkis in this venture.
In the year before World War 1, Topkis and his wife Vi motored out to California to seek a better climate for William’s ill health. While in Los Angeles he met with Goldwyn. In 1920, after becoming active in the Zionist movement, Topkis encouraged Goldwyn to produce a film on Palestine, which, unfortunately, did not come to be. Rather than the movie producer bringing such a picture to life, Topkis himself made it happen. At the start of 1923, after an elaborate banquet in his honor, William, Vi, and Esther sailed for the Middle East.
His first communication home was dated in late February 1923.
“To my family, we have arrived safely in the land of Our Fathers. On our first day out in Haifa, where the ship docked, I found a Sephardic synagogue to say Kaddish for our mother. Next we watched our local brothers and sisters, in short pants, constructing new housing and digging trenches for sewage.
Quite a sight to see Jews working in such a fashion.
I realized how important our Zionist work in America is to provide them financial assistance.”
They visited Elijah’s Cave on Mount Carmel, and they continued to take in the sights of the Jewish homeland in the Haifa area. A friend from Los Angeles, who had come with his family to live in the country in 1922, urged Topkis, in a lengthy letter that has survived, to leave the US and settle in Palestine. The letter closed with these words: “All the places you run to for your health needs in California and other locales, can all be found here in our land and only a few miles away.”
The late-Esther Potts, Topkis’s daughter, who died at the age of 92, told me about her father heeding his friend’s advice.
“My father was able to make big decisions quite easily,” she told me. “In December 1922, when I had my school vacation, I was informed we were going to Palestine sailing the following month. My father was beloved and at the event in his honor before we left, he said that ‘this trip was the opportunity we required to visit our ancestral home.’” Leaving Haifa, they drove on the Macadam road from that port city all the way to Jerusalem.
“As we passed over a hill in Judean territory,” Topkis wrote in his diary, “Jerusalem appeared majestic – especially with the sunlight reflecting off the buildings. I was fulfilling those hopes of return, which all the generations before me had.”
An inveterate diary keeper, somehow he was so busy that after the first few entries in February he ceased writing until the latter part of April.
So his tourism project which came to be in March and April can best be described from a letter written by Brig.-Gen. Frederick Kisch to the London central Zionist office. Starting in 1921 Kisch served as the head of the Palestine Zionist Executive. When World War II broke out, he re-enlisted in 1939 in the tank corps and was killed in Tunisia in April 1943.
A copy of Kisch’s letter to Leonard Stein in London is found in the Central Zionist Archives.
“With true American initiative [Topkis] has put up a sign at the corner of the road, with the name American Information Bureau. I asked him if he did not fear trouble with the American Consul, but he assured me there would be none.”
Not only were there no problems, but as Kisch noted “a number of clients have been sent on tours of the country by him employing Jewish guides.”
The letter’s last line was the best. “I might mention that he himself pays his office rent and the salary of his secretary out of his own pocket.”
Topkis, a virtuous individual, amazes many of his Zionist colleagues today when they learn of his behavior.
Kisch’s reference to “Jewish guides” is the key to the tourist project of Topkis. At the end of 1922, four Jewish men were officially licensed as tour guides.
When they approached Cook’s Travel for work, they were turned away. The company only hired Arab guides.
Topkis knew about these prejudicial acts even before he arrived in Palestine. He felt compelled to help them. Topkis ventured to the Haifa port when the ships were arriving and he persuaded Jewish tourists to employ Jewish guides.
In April, Zionist publication HaOlam featured a major article on Topkis’s new American Information Bureau. It urged all Jewish travelers to the Holy Land to use Jewish guides. Harry Hanaux, who had guide badge number one, told me before he died that, “William Topkis was the lifeblood of Palestine Jewish tourism. Without his unyielding spirit the first guides would have never worked.”
Because of his volunteer work, Topkis was an inspiration to many in the Land of Israel. He met Herbert Samuel, Arthur Ruppin, Ahad HaAm, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and many others.
He saw as much of the land as he was able.
However, on his last trip to the Dead Sea for three days, he burned his hand badly. Back in Jerusalem, after avoiding a highway robbery from bandits lurking on the road, he was treated by the pioneer physician, Dr. Helena Kagan, because his hand was infected.
The Topkis family left for Europe in June 1923.
Esther Potts, recalled her father as modest and motivated by his belief in Zionism.
“My dad was quiet, but forceful. He accomplished much when other people received the glory. His love for Israel seemed so monumental to me.
Mostly, he was a kind, dedicated father.”
Sadly, Potts lost her father when she was 10 years old. But throughout her life, she kept her father’s diary and looked at the memorabilia from her family’s Palestine adventure.
When Topkis died in 1925 in Wilmington, Louis Lipsky, the ZOA president, eulogized him. “William Topkis has truly followed in the footsteps of Herzl and personally helped our land to be.”
The writer is the founder of the Delaware Jewish Historical Society and Archives. The papers of William Topkis are found there and his movie at Spielberg Film Archives at Hebrew University.