The Enigmatic Life of a Hebrew Graphic Design Pioneer

Dr. Moshe Spitzer helped preserve a Jewish publisher's body of work from the Nazis in 1939 before leaving Germany for Palestine, where he designed iconic Hebrew fonts as well as beautiful books. To his friends and admirers he was an authority on good taste, but his children remembering as cold and distant.

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Moshe Spitzer.
Moshe Spitzer.Credit: Reproduction by Emil Salman
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

“When I saw the painting ‘Dr. Moshe Spitzer on a Hot Day,’ painted in August 1977 – reprinted in a Haaretz article marking the 80th birthday of the artist, Avigdor Arikha, in 2009 – I was suddenly reminded of my own childhood years and of Moshe Spitzer, who every Saturday night would sit in our kitchen with us, drinking cognac and eating my mother’s baked fish,” recalls graphic art designer and researcher Ada Wardi.

“After dinner, he and my father would talk for hours on end. On a few occasions I joined my father when he went to visit Spitzer at Yad Meir, the housing for senior citizens that was popular with the Yekkes (German Jews) in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood. There was never any room to sit in his room, which was overflowing with books.”

About a year after seeing the portrait in the paper of the sweating laborer in an undershirt, Wardi was standing in the bedroom of the late Arikha and his widow, Anne Atik, in their apartment in Paris. She was having a hard time keeping her eyes off the original work, which had been hanging over the couple’s bed for 40 years.

Wardi devoted seven years to researching the life and work of Spitzer – the graphic artist, publisher, bibliophile, typographer, art collector and occasional cellist who had three doctorates (in philosophy, Sanskrit and Tibetan). In 1940, Spitzer founded Tarshish Books in Jerusalem, a publishing house that published 119 magnificent volumes with a typographical quality previously unknown in these parts. It published its last book in 1979, three years before Spitzer’s death.

He was among the pioneers who designed lettering for Hebrew set in type. In the 1940s, he contributed to the development of the Bezalel and Romema fonts, as well as the David font (along with Itamar David) and the Hatzvi font (together with Zvi Hausmann). The Tarshish publishing house printing press was the “pilot” for introducing the new typography. Spitzer conducted studies on the design of Hebrew letters that are still referred to today. During his lifetime, everyone called him Dr. Spitzer, and he charmed everyone he encountered.

Upon his death, Wardi explains, the cultural process he initiated came to a halt, but she refused to let it disappear: Her years of research produced the impressive “Spitzer Book” (Kedem), about the man and his publishing house, as well as an Israel Museum exhibition, “New Types,” which closed in June. The show spotlighted the design wizardry of Spitzer, Franziska Baruch and Henri Friedlaender.

Wardi says she was introduced to Spitzer through her father, Ariel Wardi, who learned the art of book design from his esteemed colleague. “My father said that all of the papers and layouts of the Tarshish publishing house that he had in his possession were transferred to Meron Eren, owner of Kedem Auction House, who was planning to publish a book about Spitzer.”

Eren, 53, founded Kedem eight years ago, while continuing to work on his farm in the Negev. In contrast to everyone who came to know Spitzer from the realms of Hebrew typography design or the world of books, Eren says he was introduced to Spitzer in a much more down-to-earth way.

“About 12 years ago, I was buying collections of books on kibbutzim and from the estates of Yekkes, and then selling them to academic institutions and collectors,” says Eren. “I noticed that collectors sought books published by Tarshish and were prepared to pay high prices for a copy, even several hundred dollars. I wanted to understand why, and began looking for more information about Spitzer. Rafi Weiser, director of the archives and manuscripts department at the National Library of Israel, gave me a catalog of books published by Tarshish. I found three articles about Spitzer and a highly laudatory piece about him from 1970, which appeared in the important [London-based] graphics journal Penrose Annual.

“I approached Daniel and Amitai, Spitzer’s sons, and that’s how I got to Yona Fischer, curator of Israeli art at the Israel Museum. Fischer’s eyes lit up upon hearing Spitzer’s name, and he jumped onto a ladder and for two hours pulled down books and catalogs that were published to accompany the shows he himself had curated at the Israel Museum. He told me Spitzer would scrutinize every one of them, make a comment or offer advice, and that the outcome was always extraordinary.”

Fischer told Eren about the connection between Spitzer and Arikha, and referred him to people in the circle that developed around Spitzer in Jerusalem. Among others, Eren was introduced to Ariel Wardi. Eren understood the greatness of Spitzer, but it was only when working on “Spitzer Book” that he began to fully “comprehend the stature of his genius in the worldwide pantheon of typography.”

Spitzer’s personal life was equally fascinating. “People told me he would send someone to buy a bag of milk – but because he never had any cash, he’d write a check,” says Eren. “They told me he would only drink kosher-for-Passover slivovitz from Yugoslavia, and that he loved women the way he loved books, since he loved anything and everything of inherent beauty.”

Basement treasure

Wardi set the wheels of research in motion in 2009. First, she found an interview conducted by editor-translator Helit Yeshurun with Spitzer, which appeared under the title “Unfinished Conversations” in her literary journal Hadarim (Winter 1982/3). The interview focused on the Zionist activities of Spitzer and his relationship with Martin Buber, which began when a 16-year-old Spitzer wrote the famous philosopher a letter.

Arikha – Spitzer’s protégé from the time they met in 1951 until Spitzer’s death in November 1982 – wrote in that issue of Hadarim, which came out soon after Spitzer’s death: “There was nothing that did not attract his interest. Philosophy or art. The life of a stranger or the history of a stone. Everything excited him, and he delved deeply into it all ... and enjoyed every moment. With Spitzer, time stood still. Inexplicable wonders were explained, they were within easy reach.

“Instead of accumulating graduate degrees, he published books. The books he designed were the most beautiful books in Israel. He would print and derive pleasure from it, print and lose money. Hardly any artist in Israel failed to receive some encouragement from him. And there was no one who met him and failed to learn from him. All of humankind, all of the generations of the human race, was embodied in the soul of this wonder child. That is how it was, until the end. We will not come across another person like him again.”

The cover of 'Flesh and Blood,' designed by Moshe Spitzer.Credit: Courtesy
Heinrich von Kleist's 'Michael Kohlhaas.' A book cover designed by Moshe Spitzer.Credit: Courtesy
Shakespeare's 'A Winter's Tale.' A book cover designed by Moshe Spitzer. Credit: Eli Posner / Tarshish Publishing

Wardi and Eren started with nothing. Initially, they had no financing for their project and issued a public appeal for funding to organizations and individuals who had known Spitzer. They decided to start conducting interviews, and even flew to Paris at their own expense to interview Arikha’s widow.

The three children of Spitzer and his wife, Pepa Hammermann – Daniel, Amitai and Judith, all of whom live in Jerusalem – were an important link. “There is a lot of Spitzer in each of them,” says Wardi. “There’s a good reason the three of them pursued similar professional directions.”

Daniel is in publishing, and in recent years has worked primarily with the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University; he lives in the house in which he was born in 1940 – 20 Radak Street, in the Rehavia neighborhood. Judith worked with Yona Fischer and served as curator of Israeli art at the Israel Museum; Amitai is a historian.

It took a year to build up trust between the Spitzer offspring and Wardi and Eren, but once it was there, a formative event occurred: In 2011, the latter were invited by Amitai to deal with the colossal estate left by his father, stored in dozens of cardboard boxes in a basement apartment, also situated in Rehavia.

Wardi and Eren’s excitement at discovering the piles of material knew no bounds. They found themselves looking at papers and sketches, designs of symbols and letters, and, of course, many books. The trove contained Spitzer’s personal library and books by the Schocken publishing house in Berlin, where Spitzer had worked as an editor and chief director before immigrating to Palestine in 1939. There were entire editions of Tarshish Books, outstanding because of their high quality, whether in the choice of typeface or the bindings. The latter were graced with the symbol of a ship carrying gold from Tarshish, a city that was known for its precious metals. All these masterworks were swathed in wrapping paper, ready for distribution.

Amitai Spitzer.Credit: Emil Salman

The piles included Tarshish volumes complete with personal dedications to Spitzer – from Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon to the poets Yitzhak Shenhar and Else Lasker-Schüler, who drew the illustration on the cover of her book “My Blue Piano.” Artists such as Yosl Bergner and Igael Tumarkin also left copies with their dedications inscribed within.

The various parties strived to bring order to the chaos of the Spitzer estate for some two years. “We put up shelves and arranged the materials in a logical order,” relates Wardi. “In the boxes we found the complete history of Tarshish Books, including manuscripts, sketches of the typefaces and documentation, and also financial records. It was a rich cultural treasure that had to be studied. There were books there that Spitzer had managed to rescue from Nazi Germany in 1939. With uncanny prescience, he took out containers of books published by Schocken. He had good taste; we discovered a selection of the finest German typography of the 1920s. This was the best of book design in the world. There were also books that dated to the 16th century, with unique title pages.

“When we set out on the journey to discover Spitzer, a meager amount of material was available,” she continues. “The profusion of materials in that little basement apartment changed everything. We found treasures, in terms of the literary scholarship: manuscripts from the 1930s in Berlin that Agnon proofread, with his handwriting on the printed pages; bas-reliefs of drawings that Arikha made for his work ‘A Stray Dog’; letters from Lea Goldberg, who was wrestling with ideas related to translation; postcards written by Lasker-Schüler; manuscripts of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, who wrote on large, unique folio sheets. Spitzer had been Buber’s research assistant in a project in which the Bible was translated into German at the start of his career at Schocken Verlag.”

The full documentation of the closure of the Schocken publishing house in Germany in 1939, as reconstructed from the materials the two researchers found in the Rehavia basement, was itself a fascinating story, says Wardi. Spitzer told Yeshurun in the Hadarim interview that his last year in Nazi Germany had been difficult, explaining, “I felt and I knew this was the end. [Publisher Salman Z.] Schocken didn’t want to believe it. I went to London to convince him to bring things to a close. I had a not-so-honest proposal, a means to salvage the inventory of books: I suggested that he establish a fictitious company somewhere, and that it buy the books at a low price. The Germans were interested in foreign currency. Schocken didn’t want to liquidate the company, and this was already after Kristallnacht.”

Spitzer used his good connections with the German propaganda minister to transfer many less important books to the Judischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League), which he founded for this purpose. “But the vast majority I sold in accordance with my plan, to Schocken’s export entity. The books were shipped to Palestine. This period of time, between my concerns for myself and how I would get out and how I’d get my own things out, plus my concerns for the books – it was a serious test of nerves.”

The books arrived in Palestine, and Spitzer arrived in Jerusalem around Passover time. He was invited to the Schocken home in Jerusalem for the seder, and the next morning learned that he would not have a job at the family’s newly relocated publishing house. With the money he received as compensation and with the help of his friend Yitzhak Shenhar, he established Tarshish Books.

‘Lunatic phase’

After the organization of Spitzer’s literary legacy was complete, Wardi and Eren started on the “Spitzer Book.” They approached noted figures from Israel’s arts world to write essays on the masterworks published by Tarshish; among them are Jonathan Ofek, Dror Burstein, Ariel Hirschfeld, Shimon Sandbank, Jonatan Meir, Gideon Efrat, Gila Kaplan and Ariel Wardi.

The years Wardi spent researching the life and achievements of Spitzer passed quickly. Although she was not being paid – she was simultaneously teaching at the WIZO Academic Center in Haifa and working as art director of a publishing house, among other things – the materials she was sifting through swept her away.

Wardi: “I worked like a crazy person. My world was filled with meaning and although my children were young at the start of this project, they weren’t upset. It was good for them to see me so involved, in this sort of lunatic phase. It infused the house with energy. What’s more, I turned out to be a good detective and found people we hadn’t dreamed of finding.”

Wardi also enlisted members of her family in the Spitzer project. Her mother Dina spent endless days burrowing through materials in the National Library and Zionist Archive in Jerusalem, and helping with the editing. Alma, Ada’s older sister, who is a literary editor at Kinneret Publishers, was also enlisted in that effort.

“Everything started at home,” explains Wardi – meaning with her father Ariel, who studied design and typography under Spitzer. He was director of the printing department at Hadassah College of Technology, and after retirement bought an old letterpress machine and began casting letters in metal with a method he himself developed. Ada Wardi is proud of having recruited her father in the collaborative effort to produce the book about his mentor. Her father’s presence in the book is conspicuous, and sheds light on Spitzer’s unique work as a designer and typographer.

Ada Wardi raised the funding for the book from the Mifal Hapayis national lottery, the Rabinowitz Foundation for the Arts and, primarily, through Headstart, a Kickstarter-inspired Israeli website through which the 500 copies were sold even before publication. “Spitzer Book” is divided into three parts: The first is a chronicle of the designer’s life; the second focuses on the books published by Tarshish, accompanied by eight essays; and the third is a full catalog of the printing house’s books and a partial list of the works Spitzer designed for other publishers.

On his Hebrew-language website Gideon Efrat’s Storeroom, the art historian-curator Efrat recalls how Arikha told him how, in 1951, he wanted to show an editor at the Dvir publishing house the illustrations he’d drawn for the book “The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke,” by Rainer Maria Rilke.

“He told me to ask Dr. Moshe Spitzer if he might be interested in them. So I telephoned him, and he told me, ‘Come over in the afternoon, and do not stay too long, because I only have a half hour.’ I went over and showed him the illustrations. He immediately said, ‘Yes, they are of interest ... we will publish it.’ After a very lengthy conversation, we parted; he’d quite forgotten that he only had half an hour for me.”

Efrat notes that shortly after their first meeting, Arikha was invited to the Spitzer home. “And there in the library, by Spitzer’s bed, Arikha began working on sketches, in light of the comments and criticisms, suggestions and approvals of the host and publisher. Those days would be etched into Arikha’s memory for many years to come as a paradise lost.”

“The story about the literary figure or artist summoned for a half-hour meeting at the library in the Spitzer home repeated itself many times,” relates Wardi. “Spitzer’s sense of time management is a great mystery.”

A young Moshe Spitzer. Credit: Reproduction by Emil Salman

Indeed, all parties confirm that the home of Spitzer and his wife Pepa was a pilgrimage site. The door was open at all times to anyone who sought the designer’s company.

A devoted Zionist movement activist in the Austrian capital of Vienna in his youth, Spitzer was invited by philosopher Hugo Bergmann to take part in a conference at which two movements, Youths of Zion (Tze’irei Zion) and Young Worker (Hapoel Hatzair), merged. It was there that Spitzer met Franz Kafka. (Years later, as a director and editor at Schocken in Berlin, Spitzer suggested that they acquire the rights to publish the works of the German-speaking Jewish author.)

The idealistic 20-year-old Spitzer had chosen to study in the department of Eastern studies. He first met Pepa Hammermann at her family home – as he was passionately wooing her older sister, another Zionist activist. Ultimately, the object of his affection ditched him and married his best friend, Max Frankel. Spitzer left Vienna in the autumn of 1922, forsaking Zionist activity to enroll in Kiel University, northern Germany; there he pursued studies in the languages of India and wrote a doctorate on Sanskrit. Much later, after fleeing Nazi Germany and arriving in Palestine in 1939, he paid a visit to his old friend Frankel, in whose house he re-met Pepa Hammermann, then 36 and still unmarried. A relationship ensued.

Hammermann had previously left Austria due to anti-Semitism and, at 29, made her home in Tel Aviv – where she earned a good living as an actuary in an insurance company. After she and Spitzer were engaged, they moved to Jerusalem. The couple married the following year, 1940, when Spitzer was 40 and Hammermann 37.

That same year – also the year their first child, Daniel, was born – Tarshish Books published its first hardcover volume: “Flesh and Blood,” a collection of six stories by Yitzhak Shenberg (Shenhar). Spitzer devoted all his energies to his new publishing house.

Moshe Spitzer plays the cello in a photo taken in Jerusalem in the '70s. Credit: Courtesy of Helit Yeshurun

The Bohemian idealist, the colorful figure who charmed all who met him, was a perfectionist when it came to his work, famous for attending to the tiniest detail in the design of a letter, or the format, type of paper and bookbinding materials he needed. He loved humankind and was well received by others, but didn’t open the doors of his room – or his heart – to his children; he liked to be surrounded by friends and books.

His children recall that their mother “was not so crazy about Father’s friends, some of whom she did not like to be alone with, like the poet Lasker-Schüler, who in her later years would, without prior warning, show up to accompany Spitzer wherever he was going.”

They remember a father who was always shut away in his room, amid his hundreds of books and his art collection. He was always diligently working on publishing and meticulous about locking the door. His children knew where the key was, but never dared use it.

“Mother raised us,” says Amitai. “Father wasn’t present and did not take part. He agreed for us to sit in the room when his guests arrived, but forbade us from speaking or relating to them.”

Amitai and Judith say Daniel was their father’s favorite. And Daniel remembers many conversations with his father, who developed high expectations from the talented youngster who would eventually disappoint Spitzer for turning his back on an academic career, which caused much heartache.

Daniel: “Mother always had patience for us, and thanks to her I remember my childhood as a good thing. ... Mother gave up her career for us.”

While Spitzer did not exactly devote himself to bringing up his children, he was a stickler about certain rules. On Friday evenings, for instance, they were not allowed to leave the home. Amitai: “There was a custom that all of us would sit around a perfectly set dinner table. We were not religious, but father insisted on Kiddush and the Shabbat-eve religious songs. He wanted the home to be kosher, but Mother objected.”

When they were young, Spitzer sent them to synagogue on Shabbat, but he himself took advantage of these hours to sleep until 11 A.M. Asked if he ever expressed warmth or words of encouragement, the three answer unanimously – “In his way.” “Father was emotionally reserved, while Mother boiled over with warmth,” says Judith.

Judith Spitzer and Pepa Hammermann. Credit: Reproduction by Emil Salman

Amitai’s relationship with his father was virtually nonexistent, he says. “He didn’t allow you to communicate with him. He didn’t give me anything in an emotional sense; he was very critical. When I came back to Israel after many years in England, he didn’t lessen or break down the feeling of distance between us, even though I was already married and had a family. With his friends, there was no distance; with us, yes.

“Daniel was talented and, as we said, he was the favorite,” adds Amitai. “Father would talk with him a great deal. ... My successes never mattered to him, even though I followed in his path in the academic world and did a doctorate as a historian of the Middle Ages at the prestigious Warburg Institute, which is affiliated with the University of London. Father wanted as many intellectuals as possible in his family, but did not embrace [us] or hand out compliments. Not to Daniel, either, who studied history and Jewish philosophy at [the University of California at] Berkeley, and has excelled in his work as an editor and publisher of scientific publications.”

The marriage between the parents ended in the winter of 1968, an especially harsh time: Snow blocked off the entrance to Jerusalem, and the supply of heating oil ran out. Spitzer decided to leave home; a relationship with another woman was apparently a contributing factor in that decision. After 28 years of marriage, he packed up his hundreds of books, gathered his art collection – and, of course, the cabinet that held the graphic equipment – and moved to the Yekke-dominated retirement home. He decided that this was the time to rebuild his life.

Devastated wife

The small apartment in his housing complex became a focal point for guests, once again. “All sorts of people came, masses of them. This one wanted a dust jacket, this one wanted a front cover designed for his book, and Father would sketch for them. He didn’t know how to say no, and didn’t ask for money,” relates Daniel. “There were painters who came because they hoped that Dr. Spitzer would say that their works were good. When he didn’t think so, he would be quiet, and there were some artists who got angry.”

Hammermann was devastated. All those years she had stood by him and hosted guests at the house, but was never invited to sit with them, according to her children. None of Spitzer’s visitors or friends ever expressed any interest in her welfare after he abandoned her, or ever paid a visit to the woman who had offered such gracious hospitality.

“We know we had great fortune to have such a mother,” Judith says. “She was an extraordinary person. Kind, wise and loyal, she had a good sense of humor and was modest. She was both mother and lifelong friend. We would go together to the cinema, usually to see the detective movies that she liked so much. Father did not make it possible to have a close connection with him, and was entirely focused on his own world.”

In 1968, following the death of his friend, artist Isidor Ascheim, at age 77, Spitzer announced that since his last remaining friend who was older than himself had now passed away, he would no longer go to funerals. During those years, he would invite 18-year-old poets and filmmakers to his apartment, and his older friends came as well, including the poet T. Carmi and artist Tamara Rickman.

In 1982, Spitzer’s health deteriorated and he required oxygen. His doctors suggested that he move to a nursing facility in the Sharon area. “Father invited us, his children, and his female friend, to the first Chinese restaurant in Jerusalem, at the gas station in Kiryat Hayovel,” Judith recalls. “In his pocket was a little oxygen tank, just to be on the safe side. Suddenly, a gang of his friends came in, including T. Carmi and the artists Liliane Klapisch and Rickman, who came to bid him farewell” before leaving the city.

For his part, Amitai remembers his father “sitting in the restaurant and gorging on the food, enjoying every bite. He wasn’t listening to the people who were speaking with him; he was only concentrating on the food.”

The next day, Judith asked her father what she should pack for him. And he replied, “No books and no pictures.” He sat down in his room and Judith noticed a “strange tranquillity that had come over him.” He died of cardiac arrest a few days later.

Spitzer summed up his life in Hadarim: “I am basically content. I’ve gone through all sorts of phases in my life and I accept them all. But it isn’t possible not to enjoy the beauty of Jerusalem, even from the balcony.”

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