It was the late fall of 1917 in Moscow, the Bolshevik Revolution was seizing printing presses and a wealthy young Jewish woman was on the run.
Her name was Shoshana Zlatopolsky Persitz. She was 24.
She carried a revolutionary text of her own – short stories for children, written in Hebrew. When she arrived in Odessa, some 800 miles south, where the Lenin-led Bolsheviks had not yet reached, she arranged for artists to illustrate them.
She then published small editions of six books, with titles such as “To the Dreidel,” “Trying to Please Everyone” and “The Roosters and the Fox.” They were just eight or 10 pages each. The only paper to be found was so thin that it was almost transparent.
When they rolled off the presses, they were the world’s first illustrated children’s books in Hebrew.
“It was such an important moment in Jewish history and for the rise of the Hebrew language,” says Ann Brener, a specialist in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division. “It’s representative of Jewish identity.”
Today, the only known first editions of the three books named above are held at the Library. The other titles printed there in Odessa, or later in Germany, also extremely rare, are at the Library as well. They are among 60 rare and unique books now online in Rare Illustrated Children’s Books in Hebrew and Yiddish, 1900-1929. Despite the poor paper used in the printing – many of the books are now undergoing conservation work ̶ they are still, more than a century later, bursting with vibrant colors, images and stories.
“They arrived on the wings of the Russian Revolution, catching the tail end of the art nouveau and all the excitement and energy of the Russian avant-garde,” Brener writes in the historical introduction to the collection, describing the books’ style.
For centuries after Gutenberg revolutionized printing, books for children were not a serious consideration. But as literacy rates gradually increased, printed fairy tales began to gain hold. By the 19th century, landmarks such as “Fairy Tales Told for Children,” by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” by British author Lewis Carroll in 1865, changed the landscape. Illustrated children’s books soon caught on. By the early 20th century, they were in full flower in a range of languages, particularly in Europe.
But Jewish children in Tsarist Russia – and the rest of world, actually ̶ had no such books in Hebrew or Yiddish. When the tsar was deposed in the 1917 revolution, there was a burst of creativity across the Russian empire. Persitz seized the moment to found the Omanut Press (“The Art Press”) to pursue her dream. She named the project the Gamliel Library, in memory of her late son, who had died at the age of 4.
“I felt this burning sense of shame,” she said in an interview years later. “Here we are, the People of the Book, yet millions of Jewish children in Russia have no books of their own; no books with which they can grow up with.”
Omanut Press didn’t last long in Odessa, as Bolshevik rule advanced into the Ukraine. She fled with her work to Germany, published more titles, and eventually moved to Tel Aviv, where she had a productive career in publishing, education and politics, eventually being elected to the Israeli Knesset.
But, before leaving Odessa, she or someone in her circle mailed out copies of those first books. One was addressed to the Library of Congress.
“My guess is that the copies we have were printed in 1917 and mailed directly here, to an up-and-coming country across the Atlantic,” Brener said.
As Soviet rule, then the Holocaust, destroyed so much of Jewish history across Europe, nearly all of the other copies of the books were lost.
“The same countries that gave birth to so many of these beautiful books were also the countries in which the Jews experienced pogroms, forced deportations and, eventually, the Holocaust,” Brener said. “It’s not surprising if they survive only here.”
That said, the books didn’t strike anyone’s fancy at the Library. They were single copies from a tiny press no one knew in a language that few spoke or read. They were tucked into envelopes, placed on shelves in the stacks and left.
Fast forward nine decades. Brener, who had recently started working at the Library, was poking around volumes of Talmud and rabbinic commentaries, peering into brown old envelopes filled with papers. Pulling a book out of one such envelope, she found herself gazing at an illustration from a Hebrew picture book for children.
“I was stunned by its avant-garde beauty and its whiff of the early 1900s,” she said.
Now, in another place, in another century, Persitz’s publishing dreams can be seen again, just as they appeared when they first came into the world