Ghosts of Purim past

Collector Avram Paz has an intriguing array of 1940s Jewish memorabilia.

purim cartoon 88 298 (photo credit: )
purim cartoon 88 298
(photo credit: )
One of the most amazing things about the Purim holiday is that we Jews celebrate in a most high-spirited fashion the near destruction of our ancestors in Persia. The name of the holiday stems from the Persian word pur, meaning "lot" as in throwing a dice in a game of chance ("throwing in one's lot") or drawing lots to make a decision. The latter is the system used by Haman to decide on which date the destruction of the Jews would commence. The odds were stacked against the Jews surviving the wicked Haman. Had it not been for Queen Esther, we would have little to make merry and get drunk over in present times. Sixty years ago, Jews from Palestine serving in the British army in the Middle East fashioned their own version of the Megila - Scroll of Esther - in which they compared Hitler to Haman. They served in the transport division known as YA'AL, shuttling water and heavy equipment between Libya, Alexandria and Tel Aviv. "Among them were a band of talented writers and artists who made sure that the soldiers would maintain some sort of cultural life," explains Aviram Paz, one of Israel's foremost collectors of Jewish l940s memorabilia. One of those soldiers, Haim Caspi, created a megila entitled "Purim Night in the Shadow of the Fuhrer." On the front page of the megila, made to look like a scroll with freehand artwork in the corners, is the typewritten wording of Caspi; on another page is a rather shocking cartoon signed by another soldier going by the nickname Koti. "The writer and the cartoonist wove the reality of that time - Hitler and the Third Reich - into the story of Haman and his foot soldiers of hate against the Jews in Persia that they read about every year at Purim," explains Paz as he carefully handles the fragile pages. He points to a caricature of the fuhrer, dejected and slouched on a chair propped up by an oversized pillow, blood dripping onto the floor from one hand. Hitler's other is held by the Angel of Death, who holds a large alarm clock in his other bony hand. With the waistband of his trousers unbuttoned, Hitler's feet are soaking in a basin bearing the wording "the big illusion" in Hebrew. A jackbooted Nazi dangles from a rope, alluding to the gallows Haman ordered built for hanging Mordecai for refusing to bow down to him, but where Haman himself came to his end. Few copies of the megila penned and drawn by Caspi and Koti survive, of a limited print in the first place. "There were a few hundred soldiers serving as drivers at this time, but it was a period known for its dearth of paper, and that is why the print was so restricted. It's rare to find copies these days," says Paz. In addition to producing their own megila, the soldiers also penned Haggada prayer books for Pessah. One example in Paz's collection was printed on the flip side of official Libyan telegram forms. The Jewish writers, artists and cartoonists who drove from Libya to Egypt and on to Palestine also wrote and delivered copies of a do-it-yourself Jewish soldiers' publication called The Jewish Soldier. "The Jewish Soldier was written mostly in Libya and made up of news items, letters, stories and an abundance of cartoons," explains Paz as he pulls out some 30 flimsy, tatty cornered and yellowish stenciled pages stapled together. "The 'paper' appeared every two weeks for a period of about two years," continues Paz as he gingerly turns the pages of that particular edition. "In another edition there's an article describing how women from Palestine who were serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) took care of Jewish children who had survived the German presence in Africa and were attending the Beit Sefer Ha'yehudi school in Benghazi." In Paz's home in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, among the thousands of pieces of paper, journals, photographs, Haggadot, Rosh Hashana cards and insignia worn during the 1940s are piles of albums containing tickets and coupons, including money notes specially printed by the Germans for use by Jews incarcerated in concentration camps. A collection of coupons marked one, two, and half a shekel slotted into shiny plastic pockets of the album reveal another Purim connection. "After the camps were liberated, some were turned into displaced persons' camps, and some refugees remained there for a number of years while they awaited permission to immigrate to wherever they had applied," Paz recounts. "There were three large camps just for children run by Allied Forces, UNWRA (United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Administration) and the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which were taken over at some point by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There's an old tradition of giving half a shekel to the poor at Purim, so they printed coupons to give the children so that they could give to others in keeping with the tradition. The coupons were in booklets, and most of them ended up trampled and torn on the ground," he says. "These are very rare," Paz remarks as he arranges the coupons from his collection. "Other collectors often try to tempt me to exchange them for other items, but they will not succeed," he asserts. He suddenly pulls out another rather special item: a collection of stapled, grubby sheaves of paper. This is another hastily put together item produced as a Purim guide for children by KKL-JNF, he explains. "Look, they have instructions here on how to create a noise-maker, and there are a number of quizzes - all the answers keyed toward understanding the significance of Keren Kayemet L'Israel," Paz muses. The illustrations throughout the booklet are by Nahum Guttman, one of Israel's most renowned artists. "Pamphlets like these were made to meet the needs of the displaced persons population - especially the children among them - for all the Jewish holidays and other cultural events," says Paz, who is still searching to expand his enormous collection with prized items he knows are somewhere, though they will cost a lot more than one, two, or half a shekel to obtain.