A Shattered Childhood: Memories of Kristallnacht

When the Gestapo knocked on 12-year-old Lilli Tauber’s door in November of 1938, her life was forever changed.


Lilli Tauber in 1938, courtesy of Centropa

Lilli Tauber woke up to a typical cloudy November morning in 1938, in Wiener Neustadt, a town located just south of Vienna. She went about her routine, ate breakfast, brushed her teeth, kissed her mother goodbye and headed out on her walk to Hebrew school as usual, not knowing that in a few hours, everything would change.

Early in the day, during morning lessons, someone entered the classroom where 12-year-old Lilli and her classmates studied. The visitor whispered urgently in the teacher’s ear. The teacher in turn immediately dismissed the children and told them to rush home – something was happening and they needed to go home immediately. At once, Lilli understood that something wasn’t right.

The town of Wiener Neustadt, Austria. The Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.

As it turned out, Kristallnacht had found its way to Lilli’s hometown.

Soon after she arrived home, the doorbell rang at the Tauber home. Gestapo personnel in full uniform entered the house and arrested Lilli’s father with no explanation served to his astonished family. The Gestapo vandalized the Tauber home, smashing the front gates and ransacking the front porch and the rooms inside the house. It was only later in the day that they found out that other Jewish men in the neighborhood had also been arrested in the round up and sent to prison.

The Jewish men from Wiener Neustadt were taken to a prison holding cell that was so small that there was no room to sit. There they stayed until the Nazis divided the group, deciding who would be sent to the Dachau work camp and who would be allowed to return home.

German citizens walk past ransacked Jewish shops in Berlin on the day after Kristallnacht

After the men were removed from the area, the remaining women and children were rounded up and stripped of their belongings. The women were forced to sign over the deeds to their houses on threat of violence and Lilli witnessed her friend’s mother, Mrs. Gerstl, get physically beaten by the Gestapo forces until she agreed to sign over her home.

As evening fell over the ransacked neighborhood, the women and children were led to the community synagogue and forced inside where they were locked in for the night. The floors were covered in hay to serve as beds for the prisoners who were given the curtains from the Aron Kodesh (the place where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the covers from the Torahs to use as blankets.


The synagogue of Wiener Neustadt before its destruction during Kristallnacht in 1938 ,courtest of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

Lilli and the rest of the prisoners were forced to remain inside the synagogue for three days, unsure of what had become of their fathers, sons and brothers, and unsure of what the future held. At one point, Lilli glanced through the windows of the synagogue and saw a crowd gathered just outside the iron gates of the building. The crowd of people peered through the bars on the gates to watch the imprisoned Jews with a look of amusement on their faces.

Within the three days of forced imprisonment inside the stuffy synagogue, there was an outbreak of scarlet fever. Lilli was among the sick and was allowed to leave the house of prayer for the hospital along with her mother. They were accompanied by a Nazi officer to ensure they didn’t escape. The doctors at the hospital treated the Jews with the same level of care as they did their non-Jewish patients and the nuns working the hospital floors snuck some food to Lilli and her mother.

The women and children in the synagogue were eventually released and taken by bus to the Jewish community in Vienna. Lilli was allowed to leave the hospital after six weeks and was brought by her father who had been released from prison to join her family in Vienna. They never returned to their home and never retrieved their stolen possessions.

After the horrific events of Kristallnacht and the difficulties that befell the Tauber family, the focus quickly shifted to a plan of escape. For Lilli’s parents, it meant making the choice to send their child away in order to protect her.

Lilli Tauber’s parents Johanna and Wilhelm Schischa, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.


Certificate stating Lilli Tauber’s father Wilhelm Schischa’s right of domecile in Wiener Neuastadt, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

In June of 1939, Lilli’s parents took her to the Vienna train station. Among the crowds were many people wearing uniforms with swastikas on their sleeves. Soldiers in German uniforms crowded the station, a sure sign that Vienna was no longer the free city it once was.

Boys and girls wearing red tags around their necks and identification numbers boarded the Kindertransport heading for England. Lilli, number 39, leaned out the windows and waved a final farewell to her parents. Despite her troubles acclimating to a new language and culture and the difficulties of life without her parents, Lilli survived the war in England. Her parents, unfortunately did not.


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The Disappearing Headstones from the Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara

Were the ancient headstones sold or stolen and who was responsible for their disappearance?

The Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara, Photo by Lungoleno

The Pinkas of the Spanish Levantine School is one of fourteen community registers produced by the Jewish Community of Ferrara in Italy which have been preserved to this day. The manuscript, now housed in the National Library of Israel, holds the protocols and deliberations of the town’s committee meetings from April 23, 1715, to February 18, 1811.

When studying the manuscript, the word “cimiterio” (cemetery in Italian), makes multiple appearances. These occurrences provide interesting new information regarding the cause of the almost total disappearance of the ancient matṣevot (Jewish headstones) from the Sephardic cemetery of Ferrara, currently located on Via Arianuova. The sepulchral ground used by the Spanish and Levantine community is mentioned in 35 acts of the Pinkas, of which 13 are centered on the renewal of the appointments of the caretaker assigned to it.

It is highly unlikely that the considerable number of tombstones presumably present in the two Sephardic cemeteries of Ferrara, the old and the new, went missing by chance. The transcript of the council meeting on April 8, 1717, features the defense of a person accused of stealing and selling sepulchral stones from the Sephardic Community of Ferrara to the local municipal authorities of the time.

Page from the Farrera Pinkas, April 8, 1717. Click image to enlarge.

The Community Council offered a defense for Isacco Lampronti against unjust accusations of the theft and sale of cemetery gravestones. His accusers alleged that he committed these crimes on his own initiative, but the council claimed that the marble stones were sold by the same congregation in 1705 and 1706, in order to make a financial profit.

The first name that appears among the buyers of the missing headstones is that of Scipion Sagrati, who held the high office of Judge of the Savi, and who purchased the marble in order “to repair the floods of the water.” In 1705, Ferrara was damaged by a disastrous flood, called “the highest of all,” caused by the flooding of the Po and Panaro Rivers. Judge of the Savi, the Marquis Scipione Sacrati Giraldi, took preventative measures to avoid damages both before and during the flooding.

In order to prevent the ruinous entry of water into the city, the Sacrati walled the Porta degli Angeli, one of the main city gates sparing Ferrara the fury of the flood. It is very probable that the Marquis Sacrati had an urgent need to acquire some material to wall up the ancient city gate and he therefore lawfully purchased the Jewish burial stones for this purpose. Another possible hypothesis is that the Judge of the Savi may have instead obtained and used the Sephardic tombstones after the long flood to “close the routes, and repair the river banks.” Moreover, it is attested that on 28th June 1706, about a year after the violent flood, the same Scipione Sacrati Giraldi generously donated two octagonal wells to the city of Ferrara made at his own expense with the marble reused from the gravestones of the Jews.

Map of the Porta degli Angeli.

The second name that appears in the Pinkas testimony is that of Cardinal Del Verme. This is the Cardinal Bishop Protempore Taddeo Luigi Dal Verme, Bishop of Ferrara from 1701 until 1717, the year of his death. His relationship with the Jews of Ferrara was slightly ambiguous, so much so that, during his episcopate, his edicts forbade honoring the dead with tombstones. From the lines written by Abbot Girolamo Baruffaldi, we learn of an episode related to the construction of the extravagant Archiepiscopal Palace commissioned by Tommaso Ruffo, former Cardinal Legate and future first Archbishop of the city. According to the Pinkas, the Archiepiscopal stable was paved with tombstones stolen under the cover of darkness from the gardens where Jews were buried.

While Baruffaldi, who was alive at the time of these events but who was often outspoken against Jews, writes of a theft, the minutes of the council meeting of the Spanish Levantine School of April 1717 testify instead of an explicit sale of the headstones made by the Jewish community to the Bishop of Ferrara. What is certain is that Dal Verme, having obtained the Jewish tombstones, gave them to Cardinal Legate Ruffo who then used them to pave the stables of his many horses.


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The shortlist of well-known buyers ends with Emigliano Travaglioni, who purchased the headstones “for the purpose of the fortress in the year of the blockade.” Abbot Emiliano Travaglini was the Commissioner of the Apostolic Chamber of Ferrara during the year 1708, which was emblematically defined “the year of the blockade” as the city was besieged and blocked for many months by the Austrian imperial troops. Despite the fact that the city of Ferrara had been isolated, there was still a large armory inside the Pontifical Fortress, the imposing pentagonal headquarters of barracks, powder magazines and deposits of papal arms. During the imperial siege, while awaiting the arrival of troops and materials from Rome, it was only possible for the people of Ferrara to strengthen the fortifications with that which was available in the city. It is precisely in this particular context that the purchase of Jewish sepulchral stones was carried out by Abbot Travaglini. The headstones were likely to be used to reinforce the defenses against the enemy at the gates.

There are only three people mentioned as buyers of the marble stones of the Spanish cemeteries but the list should certainly be longer. In fact, the list as mentioned in the Pinkas ends with “and others,” making clear reference to other incalculable and unknown buyers.

The root or reason for such a serious accusation – the theft of Jewish headstones – aimed at a well-known and influential character of Ferrara of the time (Isacco Lampronti) remains unknown. It is possible that it was personal resentment that led Isach Saralvo and his sons to make such an accusation against the famous doctor, but the framework of the story and its origins are still very blurred. Even the date of this “criminal accusation” may not have been by chance. In fact, due to a strange and not accidental conjunction of years, there is a theory that this controversy is connected to the reconstruction of the Borso d’Este column.

In 1472, a column supporting the statue of an enthroned Duke Borso was placed on the left side of the entrance of the ducal court of Ferrara, in front of the Cathedral and next to the column with the equestrian monument of Duke Nicolò III. On December 23, 1716, a fire broke out in the surrounding shops and the column suffered serious damage. In 1718, sources attest that, in order to restore it, the city authorities ordered many marble burial headstones to be removed from the Jewish cemeteries, and provided payment to the Ghetto’s caretaker.

The Borso d’Este column containing Jewish headstones. Photo credit: Lungoleno

The story of the reuse of Jewish gravestones for the column, soon abandoned by historians, was lost to time. It was only in 1960, during a restoration of the Borso column, that a photographer successfully captured fragments of Hebrew writing embedded in the structure. The photographs show 36 fragments of tombstones in which Hebrew characters, noble coats of arms and elegant floral decorations are visible. The dating of the stone material shows they come from a chronological period between 1557 and 1680. It is very difficult, especially due to the loss of the auditing book of 1707 and the often conflicting documentary sources, to establish with certainty if the tombstones were indeed deliberately sold by the Jewish community or if, as was often known to happen, they were forcibly removed or taken under special municipal injunctions.

The data contained in this precious documentary source has made it possible to clarify an unusual aspect of the history of the Sephardic Jewish cemeteries of Ferrara, cemeteries that are almost totally void of ancient sepulchral stones, which appear to have been reused in various manners over the long history of the city of Este.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

The Ten Lost Tribes and the Return of the Jews to England

Menasseh Ben Israel, known as the “Ambassador of the Jews,” managed to convince the English that the readmission of the Jews to England would bring about Redemption.

Jews being burned alive for alleged religious crimes. German woodcut from the end of the 15th century.

In the year 1290, the Jews of England were expelled from the realm by royal decree of King Edward I. Even after there were officially no Jews remaining on English soil, Christian theologians continued to regard Judaism as a moral peril that threatened the peace of the pious English folk.  The Jewish community had betrayed Jesus and was culpable for his death. The generations of Jews born after the death of the Messiah were equally guilty of his murder and still had his blood on their hands. Jewish-Christian relations became even more contentious with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced baptism of the Jews who had chosen to remain on the Iberian Peninsula.

During the 16th-century, many New Christians and Jewish converts to Christianity began settling in the British Isles. They developed trade networks to ship all kinds of goods throughout Europe and to the New World. By this time, the attitude towards the Jews had changed somewhat. Many received the New Christians as brothers in all respects, but there were still some who viewed the Christian converts as two-faced shape-shifters, charlatans, and the devil’s henchmen.  This dubious role had, until then, been filled by none other than the Pope in Rome who was viewed by the English as the servant of the devil ever since England broke away from the Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII.

So long as England was ruled by devout Protestant kings, the chances of openly practicing Jews being readmitted to the kingdom was near zero. The relatively small presence of converted Jews was tolerated so long as they did not stand out, to which the bitter demise of Rodrigo Lopez, the real merchant of Venice, stood as proof.

Rodrigo Lopez was tied to a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth I, etching by Friedreich Von Holsen, 1627.

With the execution of King Charles I and the abolishment of the throne in 1649, a rare window of opportunity opened – a historic moment that might have quickly passed had there not been a leader with an iron fist on hand to steer its course. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Young Republic, was determined to be this leader. He was joined on the historical stage by another figure, a Jewish thinker who was known throughout Europe as the “Ambassador of the Jews,” and who helped to promote resolution of the “Jewish Question.”

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, in a painting by Samuel Cooper, 1656.

The Ambassador of the Jews Offers the Jewish People Salvation:

The positive attitude toward the Jews held by the victorious Puritans (who sent the king to his death on 30 January 1649) was an open secret. Their messianic belief had them convinced that the second coming of Jesus would occur only when the conversion of all the Jews in the world was completed. They were less certain of to how to go about making this ideal a reality.

Menasseh Ben Israel in an etching by Rembrandt.

Many found their answers in the short book written in 1650 by Menasseh Ben Israel, a Portuguese Jew whose family had fled to Amsterdam when he was a child. Ben Israel gained prominence in the Netherlands as a rabbi, author and printer. As a consequence of his discussions with the Portuguese journeyman converso Antonio de Montezino, Menasseh Ben Israel became convinced that the native peoples of South America were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. He provided dozens of testimonies and references from sources and travelogues in order to convince his readers. Menasseh dedicated his book to the English parliament – but why set his sights on England?

Since the Jews had already been expelled in 1290, Menasseh Ben Israel called for their readmission to the island nation – a return that would confirm the ancient prophecy that tied Jewish settlement in all corners of the world to the coming of the Messiah. The strange ideas spread by the Ambassador of the Jews rang true for the English. Ben Israel had provided a winning plan for those who believed that the conversion of the lost tribes in South America heralded the conversion of Jews all over the world, a necessary precursor for the second coming of Christ.

When the time came for serious discussion of the question of readmission of the Jews to England, Oliver Cromwell sent Ben Israel an official invitation to visit the new republic.

The discussions commenced in December 1655 in Whitehall Palace. The matter of the readmission of the Jews to England provoked a huge outcry among theologians, merchants, and the rank and file citizenry who opposed the prospect that the hated Jews would return once again to British shores.

Menasseh Ben Israel’s pamphlet “Vindicie Judaeorum (The Hope of Israel),” was devoted entirely to one purpose: the systematic refutation of the various accusations made against the Jewish people. This time, Ben Israel abandoned his messianic plea for a more legal-philosophical essay.

Hebrew version of Vindicie Judaeorum, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in Vienna in 1813.


A page from “The Hope of Israel”, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in London in 1650. From the Valmadonna Trust Collection at the National Library. Click to enlarge.

With the festive conclusion of the meeting at Whitehall, it was decreed that there would no longer be an official law prohibiting settlement of Jews in England. While the government did not necessarily welcome the return of the Jews as many had hoped at the start of the discussions, the door was opened at last for their gradual return. This policy was maintained and later intensified with the reinstatement of the monarchy in England in 1660.

The Great 1932 Victory of Bulgarian Jewry Over Anti-Semitism

In 1930s Europe, as evil parties were gaining traction in Bulgaria, the Jews managed - in one famous case - a victory of justice over hatred.

בוריס מלך בולגריה באחת מפגישותיו הרבות עם היטלר, נובמבר 1940

Hitler’s rise to power and the turbulent events that led to World War II have overshadowed some of the dramatic events that were of the utmost preoccupation for the Jewish world only a short time prior.  One such event which attracted the attention of Jews all over the world was a showcase trial held in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, in the summer of 1932. A rare collection of documentation of this fascinating case is kept in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

A page from the trial protocols. Click to enlarge.

Although Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans are not generally identified as countries infected with anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews, there were, in fact, anti-Semitic organizations that gained political power and public sympathy in the time between the two World Wars. One of them was the “Rodina Zaschita” (“Homeland Defense”), which operated under the guise of a patriotic-nationalist movement. The organization spread anti-Semitic propaganda and called for harming Jews, the purported “enemies” of the Bulgarian homeland.

The emblem of “Rodina Zaschita” (“Homeland Defense”)

The wild incitement that was dispensed by the organization was embraced by the public. Impressionable young Bulgarians began to aggressively implement Rodina Zaschita’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and, by the end of 1931, attacks on innocent Jews merely walking the streets of the capital had begun. The attacks were often violent and accompanied by robbery. Much of the violence was organized by a young mechanic, born in one of Bulgaria’s provincial towns, Demeter Kalpakchiev.

In 1928, the unemployed Kalpakchiev arrived in the capital in search of work. He experienced difficulties integrating into the workplace and before long, he approached Rodina Zaschcita and rose to become one of its main activists. The attacks on Jews which began in an unorganized manner became the planned activity of a gang of criminals.

Demeter Kalpakchiev

The Sofia police’s lack of preventative action against the violence encouraged Kalpakchiev to broaden his activity. He planned kidnappings of affluent Jews for the purposes of collecting ransom against their safe return. Three victims were kidnapped, including the banker Reuven Alkalai, who was also robbed. The severity and daring nature of these acts continued to increase, culminating in an attempt to kidnap the head of the Jewish community. The attempt was botched as the Rodina Zaschita operative accidentally kidnapped his Bulgarian neighbor. This initiated a large-scale manhunt for the entire gang by the Bulgarian police. Eventually, all its members were captured, including the leader, Demeter Kalpakchiev.


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The police and prosecution acted quickly and efficiently. Shortly after he was apprehended, Kalpakchiev was put on trial. Opening statements were delivered on the 25th of May, 1932 in the Sofia District Court. Chaim Kachels, the historian of Bulgarian Jewry, describes the events of that dramatic day.

“On that day, the streets of Sofia were filled with people who had come out on behalf of the leader of the anti-Semitic organization, in his defense, and to prop him up as a national hero. The District Attorney’s office received threatening letters.”

An antisemitic caricature on the cover of one of the booklets published by members of the nationalist party in Bulgaria at the time.

The Bulgarian authorities, who saw the atmosphere as growing ever more incendiary, feared riots and wanted to bring the trial to a quick conclusion. The Kalpakchiev trial was over in exactly one month, ending on June 25, 1932. During the trial, however, larger issues found their way to the forefront. The best lawyers from the Jewish community and the Bulgarian community leaders in Sofia became heavily involved in the trial. Kalpakchiev and his band were almost forgotten in his own trial as the case became centered on the larger phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the entirety of Bulgaria.

The Jewish community organized a long list of expert witnesses on behalf of the prosecution who testified enthusiastically in favor of the Jews’ loyalty to the Bulgarian homeland. The claims of the anti-Semites in Bulgaria were refuted one after the other as historians, economists, retired senior officers of the Bulgarian army and other personalities proved the decisive contribution of the Jews to the development of the Bulgarian nation. The trial spread well beyond the courtroom walls as mass rallies in solidarity with Bulgarian Jewry were held throughout the world, including one in Israel by the Bulgarian-Eretz Israel Fellowship Association.

Demeter Kalpakchev’s conviction was inevitable. Shortly after the end of the trial, the defendant was given a detailed and lengthy ruling signed by three judges, including the President of the Sofia District Court. In the verdict, the defendant was convicted on all charges but was only sentenced to 15 years in prison. Kalpakchiev’s lawyers rushed an appeal to the Supreme Court but the ruling handed down by the judges of the highest court only served to reinforce the original sentence.

Up to the time of his release in 1940, Kalpakchiev bombarded prison authorities and the Bulgarian legal authorities with letters of complaint, proclamations and venomous anti-Semitic “poems” that also reached his circle of friends outside the prison. Although some of them were printed, they received little attention. Eventually, law enforcement banned the distribution of his material entirely.

The first page of the verdict. Click to enlarge.

The Kalpakchiev trial, perhaps the most exciting affair in the history of the battle against anti-Semitism between the two World Wars, ended with a shaky victory. Counselor Davidov, one of the Jewish lawyers who participated in this trial, visited Israel in the summer of 1933. Recognizing the importance of the Jewish National and University Library as a repository for collective Jewish history, he donated the documentation he had accumulated during the trial to the archives.

The detailed protocols (almost 2,000 printed pages), the verdict, and the appeal are all kept today in the Archives Department at the National Library- a souvenir of an event from different times, and perhaps a reminder that the story of humanity is one of unfortunate repetition.