Abba Kovner

December 31, 1941: In the dark days of the European Night, this was an attempt to strike a match and bring a flicker of hope to the desperate. On this night, Abba Kovner uttered some of the most meaningful lines of the 20th century.  On New Year’s Eve, Abba Kovner spoke out at a meeting of Zionist Youth hiding in a convent outside of Vilna.  He asserted that Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews and called for armed resistance with his famous words. “Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter.”  As a result of the meeting and his stirring call to action, the Jews formed the United Partisan Organization.  Kovner’s revolt failed and he became part of a partisan unit.  Later, he was active in smuggling Jews into Palestine.  After fighting in the War for Independence, he settled down on a kibbutz with his wife and pursued a career as a poet.  He was one of the witnesses against Eichmann when the Nazi butcher was brought to trial in Jerusalem.

In 1983, Israel Post issued a souvenir sheet honoring WWII Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Fighters - Israel S.S.

And here is a photo of Kovner testifying at Eichmann’s trial in May 1961:

abba kovner at eichmann's trial


The Gadsden Purchase, 1853

December 30, 1853 – The Gadsden Purchase: The United States buys land from Mexico to facilitate railroad building in the Southwest.

Tied up in the negotiations that sent South Carolinian James Gadsden to negotiate with Mexican President Santa Anna (of Alamo “in”-fame), was the relatively new concept of “manifest destiny,” the festering conflict over slave v. free states, the desire for a transcontinental railroad and much more, worthy of several volumes.

In the years following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had ended the Mexican-American War in February 1848 and gave the United States much of the West and Southwest, there was still conflict over ownership of the Mesilla Valley in what is today’s south-central New Mexico, and over continuing Apache raids from U.S. territory into Mexico. Though the United States had agreed to stop such raiding, such would continue largely unabated until the 1886 surrender of Geronimo.

The treaty that Gadsden negotiated, which offered $15 million for 45,000 square miles, wasn’t exactly what the Pierce administration wanted, but as it discussed the deal in January, it decided to forward the proposal to Congress.  The Senate took up debate in February, at the same time its attention was directed toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and it was ready for a vote in April.  While a majority of senators voted for the deal, it didn’t get the two-thirds majority required for treaty approval.

A revised version, paying out $10 million for 29,670 square miles, would be approved, and the president signed it into law June 8, 1854.

Within a few years, American settlers were beginning to flow into the Gadsden Purchase area, mingling with the Native Americans and Mexicans who were already there.  In most cases, the interaction was peaceful, though the Apaches would soon start resisting the American advance just as they had resisted the Mexicans.  In November 1856, the Army was directed to develop Fort Buchanan on Sonoita Creek in today’s southern Arizona to protect miners who were developing the silver resources of the are.  It would be from this point, about five years later, that a drama would play out that would put a previously peaceful leader of the Chiricahua Apaches, Cochise, on the warpath.  But that’s another story for another time.

Today, the land south of the Gila provides numerous resources, cultural attributes and wonders, just as every part of the country boasts.  Much of the nation’s copper, for example, is mined in this region.  In 1853, copper was not in that great of demand and the resources of the territory were not known.

A railroad through this part of the country, by the way, wouldn’t be completed until 1881.  The great dreams of a transcontinental railroad were delayed time and again, by events great and small, including the Civil War, and the first linkup would have to wait until 1869, a full two decades after the gold rush that made the road so desireable.

The United States 3-cent stamp commemorating the centennial of the Gadsden Purchase (Scott No. 1028) was issued in Tucson, Arizona, on Dec. 30, 1953.  The stamp was printed by the rotary process, electric-eye perforated and issued in sheets of 50.  An initial printing order of 110 million stamps was authorized.

(with thanks to Gary Dillard)

gadsden purchase - usa


Naseroddin Shah of Persia, 1831 – 1896

December 29, 1874: A review of “The Travels of the Shah of Persia” by J.W. Redhouse which uses the diary of Naseroddin Shah’s to recount the monarch’s 1873 tour of Europe, included a description of his meeting with Lord Rothschild.  After praising Rothschild for his wealth, the Shah told Rothschild that “the best thing to do would be that you should” use your money “and buy a territory in which you could collect all the Jews of the whole world, you becoming their chief and leading them on their way in peace, so that you should no longer thus be scattered and dispersed.” (Compare this sentiment with the Iranian -modern day Persia- view on the Jewish state.)

During his visit to the United Kingdom in 1873, Naseroddin Shah was also appointed by Queen Victoria a Knight of the Order of the Garter, the highest English order of chivalry. He was the first Iranian monarch to be so honored. Of course this was a publicity to cover his failures. In addition to meeting with Lord Rothschild during his visit, Naseroddin met with other British Jewish leaders, including Sir Moses Montefiore.

Persia (Iran) issued this 10-franc stamp honoring the Shah in 1884.

Qajar_Naseroddin_Shah_Stamp - 1882

Galileo and Neptune

December 28, 1612 – Galileo Galilei becomes the first astronomer to observe the planet Neptune, although he mistakenly catalogued it as a fixed star.

Galileo was an Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician who played a major role in the scientific revolution during the Renaissance. Galileo has been called the “father of observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, and the “father of science”. His contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galileian moons in his honour), and the observation and analysis of sunspots.

Neptune is not visible to the unaided eye and is the only planet found by mathematical prediction rather than by empirical observation. Unexpected changes in the orbit of Uranus led Alexis Bouvard to deduce that its orbit was subject to gravitational perturbation by an unknown planet. Neptune was subsequently observed with a telescope on September 23, 1846 by Johann Galle within a degree of the position predicted by Urbain Le Verrier. Its largest moon, Triton, was discovered shortly thereafter, though none of the planet’s remaining 14 moons were located telescopically until the 20th century. The planet’s distance from Earth gives it a very small apparent size, making it challenging to study with Earth-based telescopes. Neptune was visited by Voyager 2, when it flew by the planet on August 25, 1989. The advent of the Hubble Space Telescope and large ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics has allowed for more-detailed observations.

The United States Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp picturing the planet Neptune and Voyager 2 (Scott No. 2576) on October 1, 1991 as part of a thematic booklet of 20 stamps entitled “Space Exploration.”

Italy issued a 0,70 euro stamp in 2014 honoring the 450th anniversary of the birth of Galileo.

neptune voyager 2 - usa

galileo galilei - italy 0,70 euro

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

December 27, 1812 (24th of Tevet, 5573):  Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism passed away (date based on adjusted secular calendar). Born in 1745, Shneur Zalman of Liadi was a descendant of the mystic and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew (known as the “Maharal of Prague”). He was a prominent disciple of Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, the “Great Maggid” who was in turn a major disciple of the founder of Hasidism Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer known as the Baal Shem Tov (“Master [of the] Good Name”). After the death of Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, his students dispersed over Europe. Rabbi Shneur Zalman became the leader of Hasidism in Lithuania, and is accepted as one of the great Hasidic leaders. The movement he founded was moved to the town of Lubavitch in present-day Belarus by his son and successor Rabbi Dovber Schneersohn. In 1940 the Chabad Lubavitch movement moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, New York in the United States with branches all over the world staffed by its own Lubavitch-trained, and ordained, rabbis with their wives and children. He involved himself in opposing Napoleon’s advance on Russia and supporting the Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel, then under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Due to false charges from his Misnagdim opponents in Vilna, he was imprisoned by the Czar on charges of supporting the Ottoman Empire, since he advocated sending charity to the Ottoman territory of Palestine. The day of his acquittal and release, the 19th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, is celebrated as the “Hasidic New Year” by Lubavitch Hasidim, who have a festive meal and communal pledges to learn the whole of the Talmud known as “Chalukat Ha’Shas.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is well known for his systematic exposition of Hasidic Jewish philosophy, entitled Likkutei Amarim, and more popularly known as the Tanya, first published in 1797. (The fuller and more authoritative version of this work dates from 1814) Due to the popularity of this book, Hasidic Jews often refer to Shneur Zalman as the Baal HaTanya.  He is also well known for his work Shulchan Aruch HaRav, his version of the classic Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative code of Jewish law and custom. The work states the decided halakha, as well as the underlying reasoning. The Shulchan Aruch HaRav is used by Lubavitch Hasidism. However, citations to this work are sometimes found in non-Lubavitch sources such as the Mishnah Berurah and the Ben Ish Chai. Rabbi Zalman is one of three authorities on whom Shlomo Ganzfried based his Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh. Descendants of Rabbi Shneur Zalman adopted the names Schneersohn or Schneerson to accommodate Napoleonic edicts that required all subjects to take permanent surnames. (Prior to Napoleon’s conquests and the winds of Enlightenment he brought in his wake, Jews only had their traditional names such as Shneur ben (son of) Boruch.) The last two Rebbes of Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), adhered strictly to their family surnames.

The Chabad Hasidic Rebbes have been honored on two stamps issued by Israel. In 2012, Reb Shneur Zalman’s book Tanya was pictured on Scott No. 1914. Shown here is a Maximum Card with an illustration of Shneur Zalman, and a special First Day of Issue Cancel tying the stamp to the card.  In 2006, a stamp picturing the Chabad world headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY was issued (Scott No. 1631).  There was some controversy over this second stamp as it was issued to honor one of Shneur Zalman’s descendants, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Originally, Israel Post had planned an illustration or photo of Schneerson, however, the Rebbe’s followers protested against this as they felt that licking the back of a stamp with the image of their Rebbe would be disrespectful.

Shneur Zalman - Israel Maximum Card Scott No 1914 issued 2012

Schneerson House in Crown Heights - Israel

Turkish Calendar Transition, 1925-26

December 26, 1925 – Turkey adopts the Gregorian calendar.  Prior to 12/26/25, the Ottoman Empire used the Rumi calendar, a specific calendar based on the Julian calendar, but starting with the year of Muhammad’s emigration (Hijra) in 622 C.E.   The Rumi calendar was officially used by the Ottoman Empire after Tanzimat beginning in 1839 – a period of reorganization and modernization in Turkey – and by its successor, the Republic of Turkey until 1926. It was adopted for civic matters and is a solar based calendar, assigning a date to each solar day.

Submitted here for your enjoyment today are stamps showing both calendars.  The first, is a Turkish stamp overprinted with the Rumi Star and Crescent date of  1331 (Scott No. 302).  The second is a 2007 stamp from Montenegro commemorating the 425th anniversary of the Gregorian calendar (Scott No. 155).

rumi calendar postmark 1331 - turkey


Gregorian Calendar


Christmas in the Holy Land, 1949


December 25, 1949: Israel and Jordan ease armistice restrictions so pilgrims can attend Christmas services in Bethlehem. Most people in the Holy Land are UN personnel and diplomats, because Jordan prohibits other pilgrims from returning directly to Israel.

Shown here is a 13p stamp issued by Great Britain in 1979 picturing Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem.

bethlehem - great britain 1979

Hamid Karzai

December 24, 1957 – Birthdate of Hamid Karzai, Afghan politician, 12th President of Afghanistan.

After the October 7, 2001 launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, the United Front (Northern Alliance) worked with teams of U.S. special forces. Together, they overthrew the Taliban regime and mustered support for a new government in Afghanistan. Karzai and his group were in Quetta (Pakistan) at the time, where they began their covert operation. Before entering Afghanistan, he warned his fighters:

“We might be captured the moment we enter Afghanistan and be killed. We have 60 percent chance of death and 40 percent chance to live and survive. Winning was no consideration. We could not even think of that. We got on two motorbikes. We drove into Afghanistan.”

— Hamid Karzai, October 2001

In December 2001, political leaders gathered in Germany to agree on new leadership structures. Under the December 5th Bonn Agreement, they formed an Interim Administration and named Karzai Chairman of a 29-member governing committee. He was sworn in as leader on December 22nd. The loya jirga of June 13, 2002 appointed Karzai as Interim President of the new position as President of the Afghan Transitional Administration.  Former members of the Northern Alliance remained extremely influential, most notably Vice President Mohammed Fahim, who also served as the Defense Minister.

After Karzai was installed into power, his actual authority outside the capital city of Kabul was said to be so limited that he was often derided as the “Mayor of Kabul”. The situation was particularly delicate since Karzai and his administration have not been equipped either financially or politically to influence reforms outside of the region around Kabul.

Karzai served as president of Afghanistan from December 2001 to September 2014.

On July 10, 2004, Afghan Post issued a set of 2 stamps commemorating Karzai’s inauguration and shows him taking the presidential oath.

Hamid Karzai Inauguration July 10 2004

On September 10, 2004 Afghan Post issued a set of 2 stamps commemorating the First Direct Presidential Elections in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan First Direct Elections - 2004


Sophie Masloff, 1917 – 2014

December 23, 1917: In Pittsburgh, PA, Jennie and Louis Friedman gave birth to Sophie Friedman who gained fame as Sophie Masloff, the first woman and the first Jew to serve as Mayor of Pittsburgh.

As City Council President, Masloff assumed the mayor’s office on May 6, 1988 when the Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri died in office and she served out the remainder of his term. She was reelected in November 1989. She was the first woman and the first Jew to hold the post.  She once referred to the rock band The Who as “The How,” among many other rehearsed malapropisms.

  • Masloff’s administration was forced to deal with problems such as urban decay, a shrinking industrial sector, and crumbling infrastructure.
  • She was the first public figure to suggest that the city’s baseball and football teams each have their own stadiums. Her vision was eventually implemented years after she left office. The success of retro-style ballparks such as Cleveland’s Jacobs Field and Baltimore’s Camden Yards eventually led to the building of PNC Park and of Heinz Field, a separate football stadium.
  • Masloff made fiscal responsibility the centerpiece of her term in office. During her administration, she privatized numerous costly city assets including the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory, and the Schenley Park Golf Course. She and the city council were sued by city controller Tom Flaherty for cutting $506,000 from his 1992 budget.

Pictured today is a 1938 U.S. postage stamp of George Washington bearing a Pittsburgh, PA precancel.

pittsburgh precancel - USA 1938

Down to the Countryside Movement

December 22, 1968 – Cultural Revolution: People’s Daily posted the instructions of Mao Zedong that “The intellectual youth must go to the country, and will be educated from living in rural poverty.”(Down to the Countryside Movement)

In fact, “the intellectual youth” were part of a demographic in China, loosely defined by the engineers of the Cultural Revolution, who were persecuted because of their supposed elitist position as the bourgeoise. According to the Cultural Revolution, they had a more sophisticated education than the average and honorable poor rural Chinese people or the average and honorable poor working-class Chinese.  They appreciated fine art, literature and the sciences.  As a result of the Countryside Movement, thousands of youth were separated from their families and deported to labor camps were they lived in squalor and were starved to death.  In fact, many of them died from starvation and disease.

The stamp pictured here today is called, “The Victory of the Cultural Revolution” showing Chairman Mao and Lin Biao (Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China).  This stamp sold at auction recently for $162,000.

Mao Zedong - China