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 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.

Jerusalem’s First Tourist Map

Where did one go to watch a movie in British-Mandate era Jerusalem? Where could you catch a bus? And what were the popular hot spots? Presenting the map that resurrects pre-state Jerusalem...

Not many maps are capable of visually resurrecting a city. The task is even more challenging when that city is Jerusalem, and not only that but Jerusalem as it appeared eighty-eight years ago. Rare are the maps that show us not only a schematic of a street grid, but also depict buildings, cultural and recreational institutions, as well as government structures, in a detailed and aesthetic fashion. Maps that place a picture of life in Jerusalem as it once was before our eyes. Such are the hand drawn Jerusalem maps of Spyro Spiridon.

But who was Spiridon?

Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav has traced the course of Spiridon’s life: He was born in Jerusalem in 1894 and, in his later years, served a President of the Greek Orthodox Society in the city. In his twenties, Spiridion studied electrical engineering and civil engineering in Switzerland. During his time there, he was exposed to a new style of modern tourist map that was becoming popular in the country. When he returned to Jerusalem, Spiridon struggled to make a living in his field and decided to focus on something entirely different – he set out to create a map that would express the urban space of Jerusalem in three dimensions.

His map was published in the 1930s. The very first tourist map of Jerusalem, it was originally printed by the Greek Orthodox Church and, later, by the Goldberg Press.

Below are some stellar examples from Spiridon’s map. Please feel free to click on any of the images to enlarge.

Spiridon’s tourist map from the 1930s. Click the map to enlarge.


The “Horva” and “Tiferet Yisrael” synagogues:


Spiridon designed a detailed key which marked the religious affiliations of various buildings in the city:


Neighborhoods that once existed are reconstructed before our very eyes – here are the houses of the Yemenite neighborhood Ezrat Nidahim in Silwan, accompanied of course, by a Star of David symbol:


Here is Djort al-Enab, once a neighborhood of Mizrahi Jews just outside the walls of the Old City, near the present-day location of the artists’ quarter of Hutzot Hayotzer:


The Amireh neighborhood on the outskirts of Rehavia:


Some of the buildings are depicted in impressive detail – Hansen House, once a Leper hospital, is today a cultural center and museum:


The clock tower, which stood until 1934 near the present-day Jerusalem City Hall compound and St. Louis French Hospital:


The luxurious Palace Hotel (today the Waldorf Astoria Hotel stands in its place) opposite the Mamilla Pool, next to the US Consulate:


The Lemel School opposite the Edison Cinema, referred to here as the Opera House:


In the 1945 edition of the map, we see that drawings of buildings continue to occupy a central role. It is interesting to note that the map is east-oriented, an unusual orientation for maps of Jerusalem:

Spiridon’s tourist map from 1945. Click the map to enlarge.


Most of the inscriptions on the 1945 map are in English, except for a few instances where a community-adapted caption was utilized – a small inscription in Russian in the area of the Russian Compound, a few Arabic inscriptions in the Old City and in the eastern parts of the city, Greek inscriptions in the Greek Colony and three Hebrew inscriptions – the Meah Shearim neighborhood, Ben Mimon Street and the Zichron Moshe neighborhood which houses the Edison Cinema Building:


Here we can see the Alliance school, where the Clal Building stands today:


In the center of the city you can see the Egged central bus station, where the “Jaffa Center” light rail station is located today. You can also see the Zion, Eden and Orion Cinemas. Also depicted are the famous cafés of the time – Café Vienna and Café Europe:


Not only do the cinemas in the center of the city center receive special attention, the Regent Cinema in the German Colony also has its place on the map (known today as Smadar Cinema):


In the Talbieh neighborhood there is a drawing of a leper house known as Moravian Home, and we can also spot the consulates of Turkey, Iran, Spain and Greece:


The consulates of Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia were located west of the Greek colony in the Katamon neighborhood:


In south Jerusalem, the map extends as far as the Dead Sea and includes the potash factory on its northern shore, King Herod’s desert palace of Herodium, and Government House, the seat of the British High Commissioner which serves today as UN headquarters:


The Hebrew University compound on Mount Scopus features a drawing of Beit Wolfson, home of the National and University Library at the time:


The Citadel and police headquarters in the Old City:


The map shows the names of streets as they were known during the British Mandate:

Julian Road = Kind David Street

Queen Mary = Queen Shlomziyon Street

Mamilla Street = Agron Street, Yitshak Kariv Street

Saint Paulos Street = Shabtai Yisrael Street

Saint Louis Street = Shlomo HaMelekh Street

Geoffrey Mavoyon Street = HaAyin Het Street

Sultan Suleiman = HaTsanhanim Street

Chancellor Street = Strauss Street


Perhaps due to the Greek origin of the author of the map, the area of the Greek Colony is very detailed:

The Greek Club = next to Avner Street

Beit Safafa Road= Emek Rafaim Street

Greek Colony Road = Rachel Imenu Street

Efthimios Road = Yehoshua Bin Nun Street


Information about Spiridon’s life and work is attributed to the work of Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav.

When Leonard Cohen Met Ariel Sharon in the Sinai Desert

The story of how the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter ended up singing for soldiers and crossing the Suez Canal with the IDF during one of Israel's most desperate hours...

Leonard Cohen performs for Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War. Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

“I am in my myth home but I have no proof and I cannot debate and I am in no danger of believing myself … Speaking no Hebrew I enjoy my legitimate silence.”

This was how Leonard Cohen, the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter and poet, described his arrival in Israel in the fall of 1973, shortly before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. At the time, Cohen was staying on the Greek island of Hydra with his girlfriend Suzanne Elrod and their son Adam. Their relationship was experiencing some turmoil and it was an unhappy period for him.

Cohen’s abrupt decision to book a flight to Israel may have been partly inspired by rising tensions between the Jewish state and its neighbors, but it appears there were other reasons as well. In his unpublished manuscript “The Final Revision of My Life in Art,” Cohen wrote: “…because it is so horrible between us I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet. Trumpets and a curtain of razor blades.”

Cohen didn’t know anyone in Israel. A married couple on the flight offered him to stay with relatives of theirs in Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv. According to his biographer Ira Nadel, Cohen had a string of short affairs with several women during this period, with the singer often spending his evenings wandering the streets of Tel Aviv in a rather lonely state of existence.

One day, after the war had broken out, a group of Israeli musicians including singers Oshik Levi, Matti Caspi and Ilana Rovina, were sitting in Tel Aviv’s popular Pinati Café when Levi spotted a man who looked just like Leonard Cohen sitting alone in the corner. When Levi approached Cohen and confirmed it was indeed him, the local singer asked the international celebrity what he was doing in Israel. Cohen answered that he was looking to volunteer on a kibbutz so that he could help tend to the harvest while the locals went off to war.

The Israeli musicians explained to Cohen that it was not harvest time, adding that they were about to head down to the Sinai desert to entertain the troops who were desperately trying to fend off the surprise Egyptian attack. They offered Cohen to join their group. The visitor was hesitant, offering a string of excuses: He was a pacifist, he had no guitar, his songs were sad and hardly morale-boosting, but all of these were brushed aside and Cohen eventually agreed to join the band.

From left to right: Ilana Rovina, Matti Caspi and Leonard Cohen. Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

The singer was popular in Israel even though only a year earlier he had publicly voiced pro-Arab political views. He told the “Davar” newspaper: “I am joining my brothers fighting in the desert. I don’t care if their war is just or not. I know only that war is cruel, that it leaves bones, blood and ugly stains on the holy soil.” Explaining the apparent shift in his political position, Cohen said: “A Jew remains a Jew. Now it’s war and there’s no need for explanations. My name is Cohen, no?”

Cohen spoke of his experiences in Sinai with the Israeli musicians in an interview given a year later to Robin Pike of Zigzag magazine: “We would just drop into little places, like a rocket site and they would shine their flashlights at us and we would sing a few songs. Or they would give us a jeep and we would go down the road towards the front and wherever we saw a few soldiers waiting for a helicopter or something like that we would sing a few songs. And maybe back at the airbase we would do a little concert, maybe with amplifiers. It was very informal, and you know, very intense.”

Matti Caspi, one of Israel’s most popular musicians, would accompany Cohen, who was just one of a chain of performers, on classical guitar. He also acted as Cohen’s translator, whenever the singer would offer a few words to his audiences of weary battle-worn soldiers. In an Army Radio recording, Cohen can be heard introducing his popular hit “Suzanne”: “These songs are too quiet for the desert. They belong in a room with a woman and something to drink. Where I hope you’ll all be very soon”.

Caspi recalls some of their experiences on his website, telling of how Cohen’s famous song “Lover, Lover, Lover” came together during their early performances: “He actually wrote the lyrics and melody onstage during a show for some soldiers, and from show to show he would improve on it”

And may the spirit of this song

May it rise up pure and free

May it be a shield for you

A shield against the enemy

– Final verse of “Lover, Lover, Lover”, by Leonard Cohen



Caspi also tells of the following experience: “I can remember a surreal image of us next to the landing strip at the airport at Rapidim. We saw a Hercules plane land, and dozens of soldiers poured out of it. They were ordered to sit down on the runway and then I accompanied Leonard Cohen as he sang “Bird on the Wire.” When the song was over, they were ordered onto trucks heading down to the Suez Canal. Right after that another Hercules landed and the scene repeated itself: They sat down on the runway, Leonard Cohen sang the same song and immediately afterwards they got on the trucks heading to the canal.”


Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

Cohen and Caspi spent the whole day like this, as truckload after truckload of soldiers were treated to a brief performance by an international superstar in the most unlikely of locations. After evening fell the musicians themselves boarded the last of the trucks and headed west. They crossed the Suez Canal, arriving in the enclave on the Egyptian side that had been captured by IDF soldiers under the command of Major General Ariel Sharon, the controversial officer who would eventually become prime minister of Israel decades later. Caspi added: “We found ourselves helping to carry injured soldiers to waiting helicopters. These were the same soldiers we had performed for only a few hours earlier”.

Cohen’s ambivalence towards the war is clear in his recollections of his meeting with Sharon – “I am introduced to a great general, ‘The Lion of the Desert.’ Under my breath I ask him, ‘How dare you?’ He does not repent. We drink some cognac sitting on the sand in the shade of a tank. I want his job.”

Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, a controversial Israeli war hero and later prime minister, met Cohen during his time in Sinai. The singer had mixed feelings about the general. Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

The singer’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War were a major source of inspiration for his next album, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” released in August, 1974. In addition to “Lover, Lover, Lover,” the album also included songs with such titles as “Field Commander Cohen,” “There is a War,” and “Who by Fire,” a song famously based on the Yom Kippur prayer “Unetanneh Tokef.”



Cohen told Robin Pike about the emotional impact the war had on him:”…you get caught up in the thing. And the desert is beautiful and you think your life is meaningful for a moment or two. And war is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother. The sense of community and kinship and brotherhood, devotion. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life.”

Leonard Cohen would continue to visit and perform in Israel throughout the rest of his life. He passed away in November of 2016.


You can read more about Leonard Cohen’s life and experiences during the Yom Kippur War in Ira Nadel’s biography, “Various Positions – A Life of Leonard Cohen,” available at the National Library of Israel.


You can find the original photos that appear above at the Farkash Gallery:


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