Name variations: Isrolke, Srolke

Very little is know about Israel Datnowsky, and most of the information about him centers around his mysterious death.

His life is an interesting case study in how secondary sources become the basis for myths used to fill out gaps in family lore when facts are lacking.

Because Isrolke died at the age of twenty-four after living alone, away from his family for the last four of five years of his life, his story took on a somewhat mythical yet simplistic shape.

The little I knew about him came from a few tidbits my father and his cousins shared, stories they had heard from the previous generation, as neither my father nor his cousins had been born or old enough to have known Isrolke. The only people who had known him - my grandmother and her two sisters - died when I was young, long before I would have thought to ask about him. A handful of photos and postcards were the only remaining artifacts from his shortened life.

A quick summary of his life according to family lore went something like this: Isrolke Datnowsky was born in Latvia, the brother of my paternal grandmother. After his mother died, he came to Constantinople with his sisters, who were there set up with wealthy husbands. Isrolke, the "black sheep" of the family who was "slow to learn", was then sent to Palestine, where he lived in the Templer agricultural colony of Wilhelma near Jaffa. He died in 1916, officially from typhus, although the consensus in the family was that he might have had a more violent death, maybe killed by a jealous husband.

While researching the story of the Aaronsohn family and their connections with my grandfather and his brother Haim Avraham, I uncovered two mentions about Isrolke, in Aaron Aaronsohn's journal and in a letter by Avshalom Feinberg, that introduced a new twist in the circumstances of his death.

Then, in Spring 2022, I unexpectedly found a trove of documents and photos that had belonged to Isrolke in the Zionist Archives. A collection of letters and photos had miraculously been preserved after his death and had been sitting in archives for over a century, documents with absolutely no relevance or value to anyone except to me and to a handful of distant relatives.

With these newly found documents, it will now be possible to start to untangle facts from fiction and paint a more realistic portrait of my great-uncle.

This page is a work in progress that will evolve over the next few months.
July 2022.

Israel (Isrolke) Datnowsky was born in Libau (Liepja), Latvia, in 1893(*). The fraternal twin of Eva (Liska), he was the only son among the four children of Abraham and Bassja Datnowsky.

* Problem: Eva/Liska was supposedly born in 1895, so at least one of those dates is incorrect.

Isrolke, 1897 or 1898

Isrolke, 1897 or 1898

The earliest image of Israel Datnowsky, from a family photo taken in Windau around 1898.

There is very little information about Israel's short life. Compounding the issue, all I know about Israel is either unreliable - second-hand stories embelished by time, or changed to protect the family - or else guessed from the handful of photos and postcards.

Israel Datnowsky in Bern - 1906

Israel Datnowsky in Bern - 1906*

The next photo of Israel Datnowsky dates from 1906 and was taken in Bern, Switzerland. He may have been there as a young student, which would suggest that his family was wealthy enough to afford sending him to a boarding school. Since he appears on this photograph to be older than thirteen, either the date of the photo, or his date of birth (or both) may be off by a couple of years.

Israel Datnowsky

Israel Datnowsky, unknown date

Around 1909, Israel's mother Bassja died of cancer. Shortly after her death, Israel and his sisters Eva and Ronya went to Constantinople and stayed with their older sister Bertha and her husband, Israel Auerbach.

Bertha introduced her younger sisters Ronya and Eva to their future husbands - Moritz Abraham from Constantinople and Asher Mallah from Salonique.

Israel with Bertha, Eva and Ronya in Constantinople - 1909

Israel with Bertha, Ronya and Eva in Constantinople - 1909

As for Israel, because "he was the black sheep of the family", "wasn't very smart" and "they didn't know what to do with him" (according to my father's telling), or "he didn't learn", meaning he was a poor student, (according to Michael Rosenberg), the family "decided to send him to Palestine."

Palestine

The exact date of Israel Datnowsky's arrival in Palestine is not known, but could have been as early as 1910. At the end of that year, his sister Ronya had travelled to Palestine, and it is quite possible that they made the trip together. Alex Mallat remembered 1913 as the date for Israel's arrival in Palestine.

Israel Datnowsky with friend, Palestine - 1915

Israel Datnowsky with friend, Palestine, 1915

Instead of going to a Jewish settlement, Israel went to the Templer colony of Wilhelma (today, Bnei Atarot.) Templers were Protestants from Germany who had started settling the land to hasten the return of Jesus to the Holly Land. Why would he have gone to a Protestant colony instead of a Jewish settlement?

A likely answer is that Israel's destination was the agricultural college created in 1909 in Wilhelma. Since Israel, like all Datnowsky children, spoke German, it probably made the most sense for him to study in a German school, and not in an establishments where French or Hebrew were used.

Wilhelma, postcard.

Wilhelma. To the right is Hotel Frank.

collection of the author

Wilhelma, postcard.

Hotel Frank, where Israel Datnowsky lived in Wilhelma.

Collection of the author

Wilhelma, postcard.

Two views of Wilhelma:
Top: Thresher
Bottom: Courtyard of the agricultural school

Collection of the author

Israel mailed this postcard from Wilhelma on April 4, 1915:

Plowmen in Kfar Uria: Postcard 1915, Israel

"Plowmen in Kfar Uria". Postcard sent from Wilhelma, April 4, 1915.

Wilhelma, April 4.

Dear all!

You have probably received my letter. I am doing very well, and I hope to hear the same from you as well.
I have written to Liska, Papa and Bertha as well. Here everything is uneventful as usual.
How were your holidays? I am looking forward to hear from you soon.

Best wishes
Israel

The mysterious death of Israel Datnowsky

Israel Datnowsky died in the summer of 1916. He would have been twenty-three. (provided his date of birth was correct).

According to the "official" explanation told in the family (i.e. as told by my father, who most likely learned it from his mother Ronya), Israel died of a typhus epidemic in 1916. Alex Mallat remembered it as paludism.

However, there were lingering doubts in the family about the actual cause of his death. According to Michael Rosenberg (Bertha's grandson), his mother Lea believed that the epidemic explanation was a made-up story. Lea thought Israel might have been involved with a married woman in Wilhelma, and would have been killed by a jealous husband.

Both of these explanations (or theories) were finally proved wrong when I found a contemporary account in the diary of agronomist and founder of the Nili spy ring Aaron Aaronsohn:

August 15, 1916, Constantinople:

"Ronya received a telegram from the Jaffa Consulate announcing the death of Datnowsky Israel at Wilhelma, following an accident. This telegram which left Jaffa on the 1st, only arrived here on the 13th."

Note that the August 1 date contradicts the date on Israel's tombstone.

According to Michael Rosenberg, since Lea didn't know about the Aaronsohn diary, she might have had some other reasons to believe in a sudden, accidental death. Michael also theorized that Ronya knew more than what she shared with the family, but may have felt that the way Israel had died was a disgrace or embarrassment, and chose a more "acceptable" story.

At the end of WW1, in a letter dated November 18, 1918, Ronya's husband Moritz wrote to Eva's husband Asher Mallah and announced:

"...sadly, Isrolke is not among the living anymore. He fell to typhus two years ago in Jaffa. I let you decide how to break the news to Liska."

This letter is quite surprising for three reasons. First of all, it means that Liska, Israel's fraternal twin, hadn't been told of her brother's death for two years. Disruption of the postal service during the war between Constantinople (an Axis ally) and Thessalonica (an Entente ally since July 1917) is a likely explanation, at least starting in 1917. It is still however hard to believe that there was no way for Ronya to share this information with her sister Liska in Salonique, considering that their respective husbands had a wide range of contacts across the continent who could have helped maintain lines of communications via neutral countries.

The second surprising element is that it is the husbands who are exchanging this information about the loss of the brother of their respective wives. Ronya's husband Moritz is announcing the death to Asher Mallah, asking him to share the news with his wife Liska. Why didn't Ronya herself write to her sister Liska to announce the loss of their brother?

The third surprise is the fact that typhus is blamed for the death of Israel. Since Aron Aaronsohn had mentioned the cause being an "accident" two years earlier, it seems clear that this is a cover-up.

The answer to that last riddle, and the final word on the cause of Israel's death, can be found in a letter from Avshalom Feinberg to Sarah Aaronsohn dated December 16, 1916:

הידעת, שׂרתי, שדטנובסקי שלח יד בנפשו בווילהלמה ומת לפני חדשים אחדים? אני שמעתי את זה רק בהיותי בחיפה.

"Did you known, my Sarah, that Datnowsky committed suicide in Wilhelma and died a few months ago? I only heard that when I was in Haifa."

from: Feinberg Letters to Sarah

If Feinberg's explanation is correct, the discrepancy with Aaronsohn's explanation ("an accident") can be explained by the fact that the wording of the telegram sent to Ronya was probably meant to soften the blow. Also, Ronya's explanation can be understood as having been intended to hide what really happened, which apparently never completely convinced everyone (see Lea's doubts).

The suicide however would then raise a new question - why did Israel decide to end his life? And this answer might possibly take us back to the real reasons why he would have been sent to Palestine, or why he was treated as the "black sheep" of the family.

Aside from finally providing us with a likely explanation for Israel's death, Avshalom Feinberg's letter is also interesting as it shows that he knew Israel Datnowsky. Although it's not clear how close they were, or what the connection was, it does confirm that there were a number of people whose lives intersected: Sarah and Aron Aaronsohn, Avshalom Feinberg, Israel and Ronya Datnwosky, Haim and Moritz Abraham.

Israel Datnowsky's tombstone in Petah Tikwah

Israel Datnowsky's tombstone in Petah Tikwah

Boy (*Not married)
Israel, Son of Abraham DATNOWSKY
5 of Av 5676
(*August 4 1916)

The date on Israel's tombstone places his death on the 5th of Av 5676, which is August 4 1916, yet, according to Aron Aaronsohn, the telegram announcing Israel's death had been sent on August 1.

Special thanks to Dr. Gilad Rosenberg for solving the mystery of Israel's death.

Interviews:
Michael Rosenberg
Bitia Biesel
References
Aaron Aaronsohn Diaries
Avshalom Feinberg's letter to Sarah Aaronsohn, from Absalom Feinberg, Papers and Letters of the late Absalom Feinberg Shikmona, Jerusalem, 1975
Online version: http://benyehuda.org/feinberg/letters_to_sara.htmlbenyehuda.org

This family history project started September 2009.
All photos and documents belong to the author and are © Daniel Abraham, except for maps and where indicated.
Please have the courtesy to ask before copying any content.

This is a work in progress. Please contact me if you have any more information to contribute.

Last Modified: Wednesday, June 29, 2022