PARIS — “The Code of Esther” reads like “The Da Vinci Code,” yet has nothing to do with fiction. In its first seven weeks in French stores, the book sold more than 26,000 copies, enough to put it on best-seller lists and earn national attention.
“This is unlike anything I‘ve experienced before,” says co-author Bernard Benyamin, a leading figure in French investigative journalism and a co-host of the popular TV program “Envoyé Spécial.”
“I never thought I would face this kind of challenge.”
After his mother passed away last year, 63-year-old Benyamin visited his local synagogue in Paris to recite the Kaddish. While there, he met television director and entrepreneur Yohan Perez — his future co-author — who used their encounter to share findings from a four-year investigation into two seemingly disparate topics: senior Nazi official Julius Streicher and the biblical Book of Esther.
Perez and Benyamin’s new best-seller opens at the post-war Nuremberg trials, then shifts to the October 1946 execution of Streicher, a key Nazi propagandist and the publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer. Just before he was hanged, Streicher turned to witnesses and snapped, “Purim festival, 1946!”
“When I first listened to this story, I was cut to the quick,” says Benyamin. “My mother had just died; I was lost. I needed something to hold onto, and this fascinating project was just what I needed.”
The authors believe they’ve uncovered peculiar similarities between a biblical drama and the Holocaust
To understand Streicher’s final words, Perez decided to look into the textual origins of Purim — the Book of Esther. Part of the Ketuvim, or Writings, of the Hebrew Bible, the book recounts plans to exterminate the Jewish people by Haman, a high-ranking royal adviser, and how those plans were thwarted by Esther, a Jewish woman who had hidden her religious identity to marry Ahasuerus, the king.
Unlike the 20th century genocide that Streicher helped to carry out, the slaughter in Persia was avoided. Yet the more Perez tried to read between the lines, the more he saw peculiar similarities between the two events.
Just like Haman and his 10 sons, Streicher and nine other Nazi defendants were hanged. (Hermann Göring, the head of the German air force and a key figure in planning the Holocaust, killed himself in his jail cell. The Talmud says that Haman’s daughter also committed suicide.)
“Yohan didn’t want this story to sound trivial. He urged me to take part in the project because I already had a strong reputation in journalism,” says Benyamin, who spoke to The Times of Israel by phone. “But I have to admit that if my name hadn’t been on the cover, people might have not taken the book as seriously.”
In “The Code,” the co-authors draw readers’ attention to the Book of Esther’s place as one of the most mysterious, distinctive texts in the Torah.
“It is, in fact, the only book in which the key protagonist is a woman,” Benyamin notes, “and in which the name of God is never explicitly mentioned.”
But arguably even more intriguing is the style — even the calligraphy — in which the text is written. For generations, Jewish scholars have pondered differences in the sizes of individual letters, as well as other mysteries that inspired talk of “the code of Esther.”
A research trip to Jerusalem proved a key stage of Benyamin’s journey. There, he interviewed “the man who deciphered the code”: Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel, a Holocaust educator and co-founder of Arachim, an Israeli organization that promotes the application of Jewish philosophy to modern society.
According to Neugroschel, the key to the code of Esther lies in the names of Haman’s 10 sons. Three of the Hebrew letters — a tav, a shin and a zayin — are written smaller than the rest, while a vav is written larger. The outsized vav — which can also represent the number six — corresponds to the sixth millennium in the Zohar, the central books of Jewish mysticism. As for the tav, shin and zayin, their numerical values add up to 707. Put together, these letters refer to the Jewish year 5707, which corresponds to the secular 1946-1947.
In his research, Neugroschel also noticed that the 10 Nazi defendants were executed on Oct. 16, 1946 , which that year was also Hoshana Rabba — the day that God’s judgment of the world is finalized after Rosh Hashanah, according to the Zohar.
Describing himself as a “non-observant Jew with a rational outlook on life,” Benyamin says that the seeming connections shook him, describing the Book of Esther as a “prophecy” of what was to occur centuries later in Europe.
Nevertheless, he says, “We are not trying to do religious propaganda here. It is up to the readers to interpret this.”
“I had many pre-conceived ideas about Jewish scholars before I met Rabbi Neugroschel and others,” he says. “I’ve always been slightly agnostic, so when he told me about the code of Esther, my brain was turned upside down… I was in the middle of a situation I never thought I would experience and, strangely, I didn’t want it to end.”
Looking for more information, Benyamin and Perez flew from Israel to the Germany city of Landsberg am Lech. “It was the most hectic moment of the investigation,” Benyamin says. “This is where everything started. Hitler wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ while imprisoned there, following the attempted coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch.”
As Benyamin explored Landsberg prison, he found another peculiar similarity with the Book of Esther: the existence of a man named Max Amann (the spelling of “Haman” in French), one of Hitler’s earliest followers and later the head of Eher Verlag, the Nazi party’s publishing house. It was Amann who suggested that Hitler title his book “Mein Kampf.”
‘Unearthing the mysteries of this text was undoubtedly one of the biggest intellectual challenges of my career’
Unlike Esther, Benyamin has never hidden his Jewish origins. But he knew that writing about the purported secrets of a biblical text presented certain risks, especially for a reporter with a reputation to protect in a largely secular country. Yet he says he never worried that he was putting his professional standing on the line.
“I didn’t fear the reaction of readers and critics, not even for one split second, because this is the result of a transparent, rational, journalistic investigation,” he says.
Except for a handful of positive reviews, the French media have largely overlooked the book. But the idea of a secret connection between ancient Persia and Nazi Germany has piqued public interest, generating both solid sales and a spin-off documentary that Benyamin is working on now.
When the investigation ended, he recalls, he felt “groggy.”
“I just needed to catch my breath — I felt like I ran a marathon,” he says.
“My vision of religion has changed,” he continues, although “it doesn’t mean that I will become more observant.”
Whatever the book‘s impact on his religious life, he takes pride in bringing discussion of the Book of Esther to a mass secular audience, and in the exploration it forced him to do for himself.
“Unearthing the mysteries of this text,” he says, “was undoubtedly one of the biggest intellectual challenges of my career.”