The Opera That Survived the Ghetto: The Story of “The Kaiser of Atlantis”

Under a perpetual shadow of death, as train after train was sent to Auschwitz, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien, imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, composed a searing opera satirizing the awful reality in Europe. Both were murdered, but a suitcase filled with Ullmann's works survived to tell the story of the human spirit’s triumph over death

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Self-portrait of Peter Kien and a photograph of Viktor Ullmann, source: Wikipedia

In 1943, as the Nazi regime presided over its network of concentration and death camps, as Jews were sent to their deaths on train after train, two prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto secretly composed an opera decrying what was happening in Europe. The two were Viktor Ullmann, a rising Austrian composer of Polish-Jewish origin, and Peter Kien, a promising young painter, poet and playwright. Their opera was never performed in this “model” ghetto, which to cover up its sinister purpose, housed a fully operational theater and a full schedule of productions. The opera’s composers and cast were all murdered eventually, but miraculously the libretto and music survived, and in the 1970s the opera was even produced on stage. How did this miracle happen?

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Ghetto currency from the Theresienstadt Ghetto, designed by Peter Kien. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Shturman Family Archive. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel, see here as well.

Sent together to Auschwitz

Viktor Ullmann was born on January 1, 1898 in Teschen (Czech Republic), an area that was then part of to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ulllmann’s parents had converted to Christianity before he was born, enabling his father to pursue a military career. When Viktor was 11 years old, the family moved to Vienna, where he continued his studies in music theory and piano. Viktor was discharged from the army in 1918 after a short period of military service during World War I, and went to study law and musical composition. A year later he left for Prague, where he devoted himself to music. He conducted a choir and worked as a rehearsal pianist. This was how he made a living as he wandered across Europe before returning permanently to Prague in 1933. After the Nazi occupation in 1939, he managed to smuggle two of his children to England on the kindertransport, although both died there at a young age. Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt in September 1942 along with his third wife and their young son. He was reunited there with his eldest son who had already arrived. Some of Ullmann’s works from this period have been preserved.

Not long after arriving in the ghetto, Ullmann became one of the central figures in the musical scene that developed in Theresienstadt. He wrote music reviews, organized concerts and wrote musical compositions, 16 of which have been preserved and four that have apparently been lost forever. In the ghetto, Ullmann began to integrate Jewish motifs into his music. Some claim his works show a musical identity that combines all his national identities—Jewish, German and Czech. Ullmann kept his musical works and writings in a suitcase which he gave to the ghetto librarian, Professor Emil Utitz, before his deportation to Auschwitz. Utitz, who survived the war, moved to England, and thus saved Ullmann’s works.

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Viktor Ullmann in a drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of Jewish-Theatre.com

Peter Kien was born in 1919, coincidentally also on January 1. Kien was born to a Jewish family living in Varnsdorf, on the Czech-German border. The family moved to Brno, now in the Czech Republic, in 1929. His artistic talent was noticeable from a young age. At 14, his paintings were already being displayed at exhibitions. Graduating from high school with honors and special recognition for his talent in painting and writing, he immediately began his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1939, he was expelled due to the Nazi racial laws, after which he began teaching art in the Jewish community. He tried to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine but did not receive the coveted certificate due to a heart condition. In 1940, he married Ilse Stransky, who was four years his senior. His attempt to immigrate with his family to the United States and Turkey also failed.

In December 1941, he was deported to Theresienstadt where he was assigned the job of assistant director of the technical drawing department. Unsatisfied with the technical work, Kien risked his life by stealing office stationary which he used for his art. Most of the paintings he left are painted on both sides of the page. He gave his paintings to Helga Wolfstein, a fellow artist with whom he was having an extramarital affair in the ghetto. Helga kept the suitcase containing the approximately 500 paintings and drawings in the ghetto clinic’s department of infectious diseases, where her mother worked. After the war, she took the suitcase back to her hometown of Brno, where it was confiscated by the communist authorities. The works are now in the memorial museum in Terezin.

Kien and Ullmann were deported together on the transport that left Theresienstadt on October 16 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later.

 

“The Kaiser of Atlantis”: A timeless protest from the depths of the ghetto

In Theresienstadt, Kien and Ullmann wrote an opera called The Kaiser of Atlantis (or The Emperor of Atlantis). Kien wrote the libretto and Ullmann composed the music. The opera has only one act and just four scenes, but every detail is meaningful and the deeper one looks, the more layers of meaning one finds. The words and music were written on the backs of papers containing prisoner lists and prisoner requests, which were apparently stolen at great personal risk from the ghetto offices. The opera begins with all the singers coming on stage with suitcases. The cry “Hallo! Hallo! Achtung! Achtung!” comes over a loudspeaker, evoking the announcements in the camps, everyone is assigned a role and each person then leaves to go and dress accordingly. In this scene one might recognize the erasure of identity that happened in the camps, the arbitrariness of determining people’s fates based solely on their origin, or perhaps the idea that evil exists in every person. We can only assume that this is exactly the message the opera’s creators were aiming for.

The story is set in an imaginary Atlantis, where Emperor Überall (loosely translated – “Emperor Above-All”, a name that recalls the Nazi anthem “Deutschland über alles”) elects to wage a total war—everyone against everyone. The Angel of Death then decides to go on strike because of humanity’s attempt to usurp his job, decreeing that no one will die. The executions ordered by the emperor fail. A soldier and a young woman fight and wound each other almost to the death, but somehow fall in love at the same time. In the end, all the characters ask for death, even the emperor, who explains to Death itself that people cannot live without it.

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Portrait of Ilse Stransky, part of a two sided work by Peter Kien. Courtesy of the Museum of Holocaust Art, Yad Vashem

In the face of the unbearable overcrowding, epidemics of dysentery and typhus, hunger and forced labor, the opera’s sarcastic tone and biting criticism of the tyrant—of any tyrant from any period of time and place – flowed forth effortlessly. The opera ends with the Angel of Death agreeing to end his strike. He slays the emperor first, followed by all the other characters, who die while singing that the name of Death must not be taken in vain. Death prevails, but perhaps the people who asked for death and accepted it proudly and with dignity are also the victors. It is heartbreaking to think that none of the opera’s writers or performers survived. If their final wish was to die with dignity, one can only hope that at least this was granted them.

 

A creative spark remained even in the darkest gloom

Terezin, the small garrison town designed to house about 7,000 people, was the only ghetto in Central Europe and at its peak housed about 59,000 Jews. The Theresienstadt Ghetto became known as a “model ghetto” because the Nazis used it for the purpose of propaganda. A delegation from the Red Cross was brought there to show how good conditions were for the Jews, and to debunk the rumors of mass extermination. In practice, it was a ghetto that the SS ran like a concentration camp. About 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt, 35,440 of them perished there, and another 88,000 were sent on to the death camps.

Ullmann and Kien decided against all odds to stage this opera in the ghetto, or as Ullmann wrote in one of his surviving letters: “No matter what, we did not sit and cry by the river of Babylon, our pursuit of art is as our desire to live.” That was indeed the case. In the overcrowded conditions of the ghetto, surrounded by hunger, death, disease and forced labor, creativity did not cease for a moment. Nothing stopped the creative desire even in the midst of the darkest gloom.

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A shoemaker, drawing by Peter Kien, courtesy of Jewish-Theatre.com

Like the story of its creators, the story of the staging of the opera in the ghetto did not end well. Rehearsals began in May 1944, with a limited number of singers and musicians. In August 1944, SS officers present at a rehearsal of the opera announced then and there that it would never be performed. On October 16, Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien were sent to Auschwitz. Ullmann was immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is not clear if Kien was sent as well, or whether he died later of an illness.

Yet, sometimes, what seems like the end is not. A copy of the opera, which was never performed in the ghetto, ended up in the hands of British orchestra director Kerry Woodward. At his initiative and encouragement, the opera was staged for the first time in 1975, 31 years after the murder of its creators. Since then it has been performed around the world and continues to warn against tyrants, war and absolute human evil.

When Topol Fled From ‘Fiddler’… Twice

Chaim Topol was originally disgusted by 'Fiddler on the Roof'. Soon after changing his mind, war in Israel took him off the stage...

Israeli poster for the 'Fiddler on the Roof' feature film, starring Chaim Topol. From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

By Zack Rothbart

Chaim Topol recalled that the first time he ever saw Fiddler on the Roof, “I nearly fled from the theatre with my hands to my ears.”

It wasn’t a two-bit off-Broadway version of Fiddler Topol had seen, either. He was in New York not long after the show opened and saw the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, in action. Though Topol remembered feeling that he was “in the presence of a genius” when he saw Mostel’s Tevye on a different occasion, that first show was an “off-day” for Mostel in Topol’s opinion. The veteran American actor had cracked inappropriate jokes off the cuff, turning Anatevka into “the shtetl Madison Avenue style,” according to Topol, who described it in his autobiography as:

“…reek[ing] both of the old golah (diaspora) as represented by the Russian Pale of Settlement, and the new one, as represented by New York: it seemed to reflect some of the worst features of both…”

His overall feeling regarding the show at the time? “Ugh!”

He also didn’t think it would work in Israel where, he assumed, the sensitivities and propensities were more in line with his. It wasn’t until seeing veteran Russian-born Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky in the role of Tevye (known as “Tuvia” in Hebrew) that Topol was moved by the story and reconsidered a previous request he had rejected to take on the role in the Tel Aviv production of Fiddler.

Shmuel Rodensky as Tevye, 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Rodensky’s portrayal was more authentic and less comical, and when the older actor could no longer do all of the weekly shows, Topol – then in his late 20s – assumed the role.

Not long after, Topol was called to audition for the role of Tevye in the London production of the show. He had memorized the songs and much of the choreography for the audition, but his English was very poor.

Israeli ad for the original Fiddler on the Roof album, which Topol used to learn the show’s songs. From the Yossi Alfi Archive at the Israeli Center for the Documentation of the Performing Arts, accessible online as part of a collaborative initiative between The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

“I didn’t speak English and had a vocabulary of about fifty words – most of them swear words; but I managed to get by and I was told at the end of the day that the part was mine,” he later recalled.

After months of practice and private English tutoring, Fiddler on the Roof, starring 31 year-old Chaim Topol as Tevye the Milkman, opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on February 16, 1967.

A man of many faces: Chaim Topol in 1967, the year Fiddler opened in London. From the Chaim Topol Archive, accessible online by courtesy of the family and as part of a collaborative initiative between The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa
Bearded for his role as Yevye in London, this photo was taken of Chaim Topol on a return visit to Israel in late 1967 (Photo: IPPA Staff). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Just about three months into the successful run, tensions began to build in the Middle East and war increasingly seemed imminent. Every night after his performance, Topol would rush to his dressing room to listen to the news.

His contract had specified that he would not work on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, yet there was no “war clause”. After hearing the news that war had in fact finally erupted, Topol nonetheless told the show’s producer that he needed to take leave, and he “fled” to Israel.

Topol of course didn’t know that the war would only last six days. After reporting for duty in Tel Aviv and then finding himself in Jerusalem following its reunification and then in the Golan Heights, he promptly went back to being Tevye at Her Majesty’s Theatre, after only being absent for about a week. Following the war, Topol recalled how Israelis “suddenly began to think of themselves and speak of themselves as Jews,” while Jews abroad took pride in the war’s miraculous results.

Celebratory Israeli Air Force flyover, July 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani / Colorization: MyHeritage). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“Jews who had seen Fiddler once came back to see it a second and third time, and some of the performances in June and July 1967 took on the character of a victory celebration,” he recounted.

A few years later, when preparations were being made to create a film version of Fiddler on the Roof, Chaim Topol was cast as Tevye, beating out legendary stars including Walter Matthau, Danny Kaye, Richard Burton and even Frank Sinatra.

According to the film’s director, Norman Jewison, Topol possessed “that don’t-mess-with-me pride that the Tevye of my imagination had”.

“Chaim Topol was made for this part. Not only is he a fine actor, but there was a strain of dignity. It was the Israeli in him, the pride of being Jewish that really struck me. When he said, ‘Get off my land,’ you could see him stiffen up and stand as tall as he could. There was a strength that epitomized the hope that these people would somehow create a country of their own.”

 

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Celebrating English Royalty at Synagogue

Though England's royal coronations are traditionally held at Westminster Abbey, over the years the Jews of the British Empire have celebrated the ascensions of new monarchs in their synagogues, with special prayers tailored for the occasion…

This year (2022) the United Kingdom and much of the world is celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70th year on the royal throne. Though she became Queen in 1952, her official coronation was held more than a year later, to allow the nation to mourn the death of her father, King George VI, as well as to allow time to prepare a magnificent ceremony.

To mark the momentous jubilee, the UK’s Chief Rabbi composed a special prayer for the occasion.

This, however, was certainly not the first time the Jews of England have prayed for the well-being of their respective kings and queens. Ahead of royal coronations held over the years, special prayers were prepared for Jewish congregations and read in synagogues across the British Empire. These prayers and rituals were published by the Chief Rabbinate as well as other Jewish organizations. Many of the resulting prayer books are preserved today in the collections of the National Library of Israel.

The obligation to pray for the safety and well-being of kings is rooted in a verse from the Mishnah – Pirkei Avot, 3:2:

Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Cohen Gadol, says “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow their fellow alive.”

(The above translation is taken from here)

The hope conveyed in the words above is that a proper and effective monarchy, meaning one that is not preoccupied with wars and infighting, is more likely to invest its resources and time in good governance, legislation and public order, for the benefit of its subjects, including Jews.

To this day, in Jewish congregations in Britain and the Commonwealth countries, a prayer for the blessing and health of the Queen and the Royal Family is recited before the Musaf Shabbat prayer.

Queen Elizabeth II is England’s longest serving monarch. The previous record holder was her grandfather’s grandmother – Queen Victoria.

Victoria’s coronation was held in 1838, a year after she acceded to the throne. 50 years on, the Chief Rabbinate and the kingdom’s Sephardic community published prayers giving thanks for the protection afforded to the Queen “during a long and prosperous reign”.

From a prayer book published by the British Sephardic community to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years on the throne

 

An Ashkenazi prayer book marking Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

A decade later, Queen Victoria celebrated her 60th year on the throne. Prayers were renewed and even the Jews of Jerusalem published a Hebrew song of prayer, citing “the children of Israel who dwell in Zion and who appreciate your feelings and take part in your joy and in the happiness of your peoples”.

A Hebrew song of prayer celebrating Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne, printed in Jerusalem

Victoria’s son and heir, Edward VII, was crowned along with his wife Queen Alexandra in 1902. Once again, in England, Australia and other countries, prayer books containing psalms, hymns such as Adon Olam, special prayers for the protection of the new king and queen as well a general prayer for the safety of the Royal Family were printed. One of the books included the last-minute addition of a thanksgiving prayer in Hebrew on its final page, noting that “the sword hath been put into the scabbard, and the covenant of peace and brotherhood hath been established”.

The coronation was held about a month after the conclusion of the Second Boer War in South Africa. The Chief Rabbinate felt it was fitting to address the issue during the coronation celebrations.

“the sword hath been put into the scabbard, and the covenant of peace and brotherhood hath been established..” – A prayer prepared for the occasion of Edward VII’s coronation, shortly after the conclusion of the Second Boer War, 1902

A Hebrew “Ode on the Coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty Edward VII” was also composed and translated into English and Yiddish. The author, Joseph Massel, had immigrated to Britain from Russia in 1895. He settled in Manchester, where he worked in printing and translation while writing poetry as well. A passionate Zionist, he took part in the Zionist congresses and even hosted Chaim Weizmann in his home.

Ode on the Coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty Edward VII

The next coronation was that of King George V, alongside his wife Queen Mary in 1911. Aside from the more common prayers printed in London, here we have examples of prayers published in distant parts of the British Empire, such as the cities of Bombay and Calcutta in India.

A brief prayer published by the “Gate of Mercy” Synagogue in Bombay
A prayer published in Calcutta, India (today Kolkata). Note that George V is referred to here as “King-Emperor”, as among his other titles he was also considered “Emperor of India”

George V was eventually followed by his son King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth in 1937 (Edward VIII was George V’s immediate successor but abdicated before his coronation could be held). Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Rachel Yanait represented the Jewish Yishuv of Mandatory Palestine at the ceremony.

Yitzhak and Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi at the coronation of George VI, Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the collection of Benzion Israeli. Collection source: Aharon Israeli, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In this case as well, a variety of brief prayer books were printed. One of these hailed from Tianjin (Tientsin) in northern China, where a community of some 2000 Jews, mostly refugees from Russia, had settled.

This was the first appearance of Elizabeth II in the coronation prayers, though here she was still a princess. Elizabeth was 11 years old when her parents were crowned, and the prayers made reference to her as well. She also appeared alongside her sister Margaret in official photos of the event.

The coronation prayers of 1937 mention Princess Elizabeth

In the Land of Israel, a “Grand Coronation Ball” was organized to celebrate the event. According to the official programme, primarily filled with advertisements, the ball featured three orchestras, and participants were able to enjoy dances, catering and a fireworks display.

The programme of the “Grand Coronation Ball”, 1937

With the passing of George VI in 1952, Elizabeth II was made Queen. Her mother, also named Elizabeth, now became “The Queen Mother”. The official prayer published by the Chief Rabbinate for the 1953 coronation ceremony features a minor, understandable, mistake. The booklet was printed while Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, was still alive and her name appears among those of the other Royal Family members. Mary passed away little more than two months before the official coronation and there was no time to reprint the booklets.

Elizabeth II’s coronation prayer mentions the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as well as her son, Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall

That same year, the Jewish National Fund planted a forest near the town of Nazareth in honor of the Queen with funds donated from around the world. To mark this occasion, an elegant book was produced, featuring a poem dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, as well as an article on the subject of the Royal Family and the Jewish people and another article on the topic of forestation and agriculture in the Holy Land. The book also included several photographs of yet another forest planted in honor of George V in 1935.

From a book titled The Queen Elizabeth Coronation Forest, celebrating the trees planted in her honor by the Jewish National Fund

To mark Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, celebrating 25 years on the throne, a special prayer service was held at the central synagogue of the United Synagogue organization, with the Chief Rabbi in attendance along with other dignitaries. After the Rabbi’s sermon, the Holy Ark was opened and the cantor recited:

Five and twenty years have passed since our Gracious Queen ascended the throne. In common with our fellow citizens we pray humbly that Her Majesty will be granted many more years of fruitful and felicitous reign that will continue to shed lustre and glory upon our Sovereign and her people.

Our Father Who art in Heaven,

Bestow Thy bountiful blessings upon Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip, upon the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales. Wonderful in their splendor, may they be richly blessed together with all the Royal Family. Prolong their years in health, well-being and strength…

In this year of joyful remebrance and exultation we are filled with the deepest sentiments of loyalty, esteem and gratitude. We pray for the peace and prosperity of Great Britain, for the security and salvation of Israel and for the redemption of mankind under the sovereignty of God.

May our prayers and supplications find speedy and abiding fulfillment. 

Amen.

 

And with that, all that is left is to wish Her Majesty health and happiness.

God save the Queen.

Revealed: Rare Documentation of the Portuguese Inquisition

A recently discovered manuscript documents the first 130 years of the Portuguese Inquisition’s tribunals, mainly in Lisbon. Recorded on the pages are trials conducted by inquisitors and others against newly converted Christians accused of continuing to practice Judaism in secret…

The Portuguese Inquisition

In 2020, the Portuguese Parliament declared March 31 to be the official Memorial Day for the Victims of the Inquisition. This unprecedented initiative by the parliament in Lisbon is indicative of the government of Portugal’s desire to acknowledge the historical trauma of the many that were tortured or punished over the years by the monarchy and the Inquisition.

In 1536, at the request of King John (João) III of Portugal, the Catholic Church initiated the Inquisition following a mass influx into the country of anusim (Jews who had been forced to convert) who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. The forced conversions and persecution by the Inquisition tribunals brutally cut off hundreds of thousands of Jews from their religion, although the exact number of Jewish victims is unknown. The Portuguese Inquisition included particularly cruel punishments often carried out before large crowds that gathered to watch autos-da-fé (public penance rituals for heretics and non-believers). Trials ceased after about 250 years, although Portugal’s Inquisition was only officially abolished in 1821.

A page from the manuscript describing auto-da-fé trials in Lisbon. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel have revealed a manuscript from the 18th century comprising about 60 pages documenting the first 130 years of the Inquisition tribunal’s activity, mainly in Lisbon. These pages document the trials conducted by inquisitors and others, who often questioned whole families of converts accused of continuing to practice Judaism in secret.

Evidence of the tribunals in Lisbon leaps from the pages of the bound manuscript discovered by the Central Archives. Entitled Memoria de todos os autos da fé que setem feito em Lisboa (“An Accounting of All the Autos-da-Fé that Took Place in Lisbon”), it includes dozens of pages in Portuguese succinctly documenting the autos-da-fé held in the Portuguese capital between the years 1540–1669, with a brief mention of trials that took place in the city of Tomar. Next to the exact dates and locations of the trials the manuscript cites the names of the priests who delivered the sermons. The sermons served as a means of encouraging religious discipline among the Christian masses and were a significant part of the trial, so much so that they were later printed and disseminated separately as a further form of commemoration.

Title page of the auto-da-fé sermon of the priest Phillippe Moreira, printed in 1646, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

The manuscript also contains the numbers of men and women accused of heresy and cites the amount of people burned at the stake. Among those prosecuted were “New Christians” accused of “Judaizing.” Yet, it appears from the recently discovered pages that religious practice was not the only reason for the persecutions. “Old Christians”’ (defendants who came from families without any Jewish background) were convicted of sodomy, bigamy, possession of forbidden books, and sacrilege. The punishment mentioned in the pages is exile aboard “a galley ship”, essentially meaning slave labor.

It should be noted that over the centuries, most of the anusim in Portugal abandoned any sign of their Jewish roots that might betray them—circumcision, immersion in the mikvah, and the observance of Jewish holidays. Some, however, continued to observe Jewish rituals in their homes in secret, or commemorate holidays, often a number of days after the actual date. For example, to confuse the inquisitors, some would secretly celebrate Yom Kippur and Passover belatedly, or light Shabbat candles inside pottery vessels to conceal the flames. Children under the age of 12 were not permitted to attend these clandestine religious ceremonies in order to keep them from revealing secrets that might betray their families.

These discoveries shed light on the realities of a complex chapter of Jewish history as well as on the devotion of Iberian Jewry to the observance of religious precepts, even in the direst of times.

Click here to view the manuscript

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