Tag Archives: Eastern Europe

Jew of the Week: Albert Ballin

The Inventor of Cruises

Commemorative Stamp of Albert Ballin

Commemorative Stamp of Albert Ballin

Albert Ballin (1857-1918) was born in Hamburg, Germany to a lower-middle class family. At 17, Ballin’s father died so the young man took over his father’s work at an emigration agency. By 22, he owned the agency, and at 29 he was the director of HAPAG, a ship liner providing service from Hamburg to New York. Ballin transformed the company into the world’s largest sea company with 175 ships. He revolutionized the business, focusing on providing customer service and a comfortable voyage. By using return voyages to deliver goods, Ballin was able to cut the price of a Transatlantic trip by nearly 40%. This work made it possible for myriads of Jews to escape Eastern Europe before, and during, the World Wars, saving countless lives. He would often sail on his own ships and ask the customers how their voyage could be improved. To make sea travel even better, Ballin constructed a massive neighbourhood on an island near Hamburg’s port (later called BallinCity) where voyagers could relax, shop, pray, and receive health inspections and travel documents. Ballin pioneered the production of ever larger and more luxurious ships. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the invention of the cruise ship. When Transatlantic voyages were perilous in the winter, Ballin had an idea to use his idle ships in other ways, outfitting them for “pleasure cruises”, where the voyage was not only a means to get somewhere, but the destination itself. Many scoffed at the idea (some said Ballin totally lost his mind), but the first such voyage, a 57-day Mediterranean adventure in 1891, was a huge success and sparked the cruise ship industry. Ballin became the German Emperor’s ship operator, and was nicknamed the “Kaiser’s Jew”, though his religion cost him many great opportunities. The Kaiser once admitted that Ballin would have been made Chancellor if he weren’t a Jew. A gentle and kind man, Ballin also donated anonymously to a great many causes, and strove to make peace between the European powers. Unable to prevent World War I, he was labelled as a “pacifist traitor” of Germany, and at 61, overdosed on sleeping pills. His home in Hamburg is now the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.


Words of the Week

Why is the Torah called “fire”? Just as fire receives no impurities, so too the words of Torah.
– Talmud, Berachot 22a

Jew of the Week: Saul Bass

Saul Bass

Saul Bass (1920-1996) was born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Blessed with a talent for art, he made his way to Hollywood as a young man and worked in film advertising. In 1954 he designed his first poster for a major motion picture. Impressed by its ingenuity, the filmmaker asked Bass to put together the opening credits sequence as well. Bass realized he can make the opening and closing credits more than just boring scrawls of peoples’ names. And so, Bass single-handedly invented creative film title sequences that are now standard with all movies. His elaborate and creative sequences quickly became hugely popular. Over a 40-year career, he designed the opening sequences and movie posters for countless blockbusters. Bass also produced short films of his own, one of which won an Oscar (and two more were nominated), as well as a full length science-fiction movie. He served as a director and cameraman, too, most famously for the “shower-murder” scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Aside from film-making, Bass designed the logos for dozens of big companies, including AT&T and Quaker. All in all, Bass is considered to be one of the greatest graphic designers of all time, and a major force in the development of film. Of his work, he said: “Design is thinking made visible.” Today’s ‘Google Doodle’ is a tribute to Saul Bass, in honour of his birthday.


Words of the Week

This is the meaning of “Love your fellow as yourself”: Just like you are blind to your own failings, since your self-love covers them up, so, too, should your fellow’s failings be swallowed up and concealed by your love for him.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866)

Jews of the Week: Khazars

The Medieval World’s Greatest Kingdom

Map of Khazaria – The Medieval Jewish Kingdom

The Khazars (c. 650-1016 CE) A perplexing people with unknown origins who rose to European and Asian dominance, the Khazars are most famous for their national conversion to Judaism. Speculated to have begun as a Turkic break-away kingdom, the Khazars spread quickly to encompass the entire Caucasus region, southern Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. In the 700s, the Khazars waged a series of wars against the superpower Arab Caliphate, which historians agree prevented Europe from becoming an Islamic continent. Around 740 CE, King Bulan, feeling a lack of spirituality in his warrior life, invited representatives of the major religions. He found truth in Judaism and converted. Keeping with the Jewish way, he did not impose his new lifestyle on anyone. Nonetheless, the nobility slowly followed suit and by 860 CE, so had most of the kingdom. The Khazars dominated world trade, controlling much of the Silk Road. The silver coins that they minted (called Yarmaqs) are commonly found in places like China and England, and in 1999 a large reserve of these coins was found in Sweden, bearing the inscription “Moses is the Prophet of God”. Sadly, the kingdom declined after a series of revolts, was then overrun by the Rus, and destroyed by the Mongols.

Words of the Week

Stay away – to the ultimate degree – from “holy wars.” Not because we lack the means of prevailing or because of timorousness, but because we must consecrate all our strength exclusively to strengthening our own structure, the edifice of Torah and mitzvot performed in holiness and purity
Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch