The Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. Built in 1910 and destroyed on Kristallnacht.
The loud pop of an early 20th century camera flash and the clumsy angling of a budding photographer are all that remain of a beloved synagogue in Hamburg, Germany, a building that had served as the epicenter of the religious Jewish community until the early 1930s when the horrors of the Holocaust brought German Jewish life crashing down.
Jewish suffering in Germany didn’t begin with World War II. The Jewish community in Germany, founded in the early 5th century, began to flourish in the Medieval times in Worms, Speyer, Berlin and Mains. After suffering through decades of crusades and pogroms, the Jewish community eventually achieved emancipation and began to flourish once again.
By the early 1930s, over half a million Jews were living and flourishing in the heart of Germany. In a matter of a few short years, Jewish life descended into chaos. The Jewish community was caught off guard as the rise of the Nazi party reinvigorated the persecution and discrimination in their beloved country.
Imagine the scene.
It is November 9, 1938. The streets of Germany under the Nazi regime are rife with tension as evening approaches.
That night, the carefully orchestrated violence begins. Jews hide, cowering in their homes as their businesses are destroyed by raging German citizens and officials. They hide in fear as their Great Synagogue of Hamburg, photographed just a few short years ago by a passing tourist, goes up in flames, leaving nothing behind but a simple photograph to remember it by.
Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass. Two days of violence that resulted in the destruction of 250 beloved synagogues, the very heart of the religious Jewish communities.
The photographs and old postcards found in the National Library of Israel archives depict the beautiful architecture of the beloved synagogues built in the decades before the start of World War II and stand in living memory of what was lost to the Jews of Germany.
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.
Lola Bergman's postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The Yad Vashem Archives.
In a small museum in Poland there is a display of letters which reveal information on a series of Nazi experiments on humans subjects. These letters were written in invisible ink made from urine in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The medical experiments were performed on Polish political prisoners. The letters were donated to the “Saints Under the Clock” museum in Lublin in Eastern Poland, by the family of one of the former prisoners, Krystyna Czyż-Wilgat.
During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany conducted medical experiments on humans – not only in the Auschwitz camp, but also in Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and others. Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp for women in northern Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, some 132,000 prisoners passed through the camp, including about 40,000 Poles and 26,000 Jews.
At Auschwitz, brutal experiments of marginal medical value were conducted, such as attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of children. At Ravensbrück however, the experiments were designed to improve the health of German soldiers. Modern penicillin was not yet available and many German soldiers died of gangrene caused by infected wounds. In the attempt to find alternative medicines to cure infections, the Nazis implanted bacteria into the leg bones and muscles of soldiers by inserting pieces of wood or glass into the wounds. The human victims of experiments in the lab were called little rabbits. The experiments were also conducted on 74 Polish women, young and healthy, whose names appear in the 27 letters that contain hidden messages about the horrors of the experiments they were part of in the camp.
In the concentration camps it was forbidden to hold any personal belongings. Correspondence was permitted under strict regulation and with the scrutiny of censorship. It was possible to send letters from the camp that contained neutral information that was approved by the censors, but several prisoners managed, through the use of invisible ink made of human urine, to inform their families and the world of the shocking medical experiments being conducted.
The brilliant idea to write using urine as ink belonged to Janina Iwańska and was carried out by Krystyna Czyż who had a very clear and beautiful handwriting. Their extraordinary intelligence and love of literature was the key. In her first letter to her brother, Krystyna mentioned the period when they would read books together. She particularly emphasized the book, “Satan from the Seventh Grade,” by the Polish children’s author Kornel Makuszyński. In that novel, the hero sends a letter in which the first letters of each line of text, when put together, form a secret message. Krystyna also placed the words “letter,” and “urine,” in the overt text. Krystyna’s brother understood the intentions and knew what to do. That was how their secret correspondence began.
Janina Iwańska planned to escape the prison and wrote a secret text on the envelope containing a letter addressed to her father. The letter itself contained some clues indicating that the envelope held secret information written in invisible ink. Since the letter did not have a censorship stamp, it was likely smuggled out by prisoners working in the factories outside the camp. Once the letter reached its destination, the recipients still faced the task of reading the invisible text. The usual method was to heat the pieces of paper with the hidden text using an iron. Thanks to the encrypted messages, the list of 74 women from Lublin who had undergone medical experiments by Nazi doctors in Ravensbrück was made public in the first few years following the end of World War II. In addition to information on medical experiments which included the intentional infection of wounds for the sake of testing new drugs, the letters also contained information about the camp’s operations, punishments and executions.
In 1995, Yad Vashem received a postcard containing a message written in hidden ink to add to their collections. This seemingly innocent postcard was sent by a woman from Krakow, Poland, to Bucharest, the capitol of Romania in 1943. It contains a secret message written in invisible ink describing terrible conditions in a concentration camp. The postcard is part of a collection of letters and postcards, yellow patches and other objects which were donated to the Yad Vashem Archives as part of the estate of Theodore Feldman, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who passed away in 1993. According to the donor of the collection, Elisheva Ezri, Feldman’s daughter, her father purchased the postcard in a small town near Bucharest. On the postcard, in addition to the addressee and the address, there is a short text is spread out along two lines and written in German: “My dear, I’ll remember you with love. Lola, Krakow, 20.8.1943.”
The sender of the postcard was Lola Bergmann of Krakow. Her address did not contain a street name. The recipient was Yaakov Rosenblum, who, according to the address, lived in the Jewish ghetto in Bucharest. The invisible message included was sent by a man called Otto. The text, written in invisible ink, was in German and contains inside information about one of the concentration camps in the area, incuding details of a well-organized underground movement. The letter even contained a request for aid and equipment suitable for advanced underground warfare conditions, which lends to the theory that this was a part of an espionage operation on behalf of the Allies.
The postcard bears the stamp of the Romanian censor, indicating that it had indeed reached Romania, but it is unclear whether it was read by the addressee or not. According to Elisheva Ezri, Feldman himself made the secret text visible by heating up both sides of the postcard with a household clothing iron. If that is the case, it can be concluded that the postcard did not reach the destination or that if it arrived, it seems that it was not clear to the recipient that it contained a message written in secret ink. In addition, the ink may belong to a group of chemicals that can be removed and then made visible when it comes in contact with another chemical. There are many materials and recipes for manufacturing hidden ink and many methods for making the hidden text visible. The use of secret ink for transmitting secret messages was already well known during World War I, and the censor was alert to this even during World War II. Across the postcard is a thick, light brown line. This line attests to an attempt to discover the hidden text using chemical material. Was the hidden text of the postcard visible and therefore caught by the censors? Or was it able to evade censorship because censorship checks could not identify the secret ink?
Frederick Accum was a pharmacist in Hanover who immigrated on his own to England at the age of 24. He made his way into the the world of apothecary and chemistry in England and was soon mastering English and the science field in which he was apprenticing.
At the turn of the 19th century, Compton Street in London was the center of scientific research in England and it was there that Accum situated himself selling lab equipment and taking his own risks in the lab while working on gas and gaslight. It was that audaciousness in the lab that would lead him on his crusade against the liars in the food industry.
“Adulteration of Bread.
This is one of the sophistications of the articles of food most commonly practiced in this metropolis, where the goodness of bread is estimated entirely by its whiteness. It is therefore usual to add a certain quantity of alum to the dough; this improves the look of the bread very much, and renders it whiter and firmer. Good, white, and porous bread, may certainly be manufactured from good wheaten flour alone; but to produce the degree of whiteness rendered indispensable by the caprice of the consumers in London, it is necessary (unless the very best flour is employed,) that the dough should be bleached; and no substance has hitherto been found to answer this purpose better than alum.”
His risk taking and seemingly condescending attitude was clear when he went after those he considered food tainters and fraudsters. In 1820, Accum’s treatise denounced the use of toxic food additives and marked the beginning of a social consciousness in the approach to food. Accum’s publication addressing the issue of food adulteration by companies became a best seller, with three editions come out in the same year.
The treatise contained methods of detecting the additives, explained in what foods they were found, and the harm they could do if and when consumed.
“Poisonous Soda Water.
The beverage called soda water is frequently contaminated both with copper and lead; these metals being largely employed in the construction of the apparatus for preparing the carbonated water, and the great excess of carbonic acid which the water contains, particularly enables it to act strongly on the metallic substances of the apparatus; a truth, of which the reader will find no difficulty in convincing himself, by suffering a stream of sulphuretted hydrogen gas to pass through the water.”
While his treatise became immensely popular, London’s food producers viewed him as enemy number one.
In the second edition of the book, Accum writes in the foreword that he had received threats from the businesses whose reputation he had “tarnished” by publishing the truth about their dealings. Accum would continue to report the crimes of these businesses and the cheats who were not only guilty of lying to the public, but who were in fact, poisoning the public.
Several instances have come under my notice in which Gloucester cheese has been contaminated with red lead, and has produced serious consequences on being taken into the stomach. In one poisonous sample which it fell to my lot to investigate, the evil had been caused by the sophistication of the anotta, employed for colouring cheese.”
Accum continued publishing more works on food that the public consumed much like the recipes contain within “A Treatise on the Art of Brewing,” “A Treatise on the Art of Making Wine,” and “A Treatise on the Art of Making Good and Wholesome Bread”.
Though he was forced to return to Germany after being persecuted by his poisonous enemies, his works continued to be printed and reprinted and were then translated into French, Italian and German, reaching a wide readership in Europe and in the United States.
Frederick was born in 1769 to a father and a French mother who had fled from France with her family due to the persecution of Protestants by Catholics. His father had converted from Judaism to Christianity and had changed his name from Markus Herz to Christian Accum at the time of his baptism in 1755. Beyond picking the name “Christian”, Accum’s father made the interesting choice of changing his surname to a word derived from the Hebrew “Akum”, an acronym meaning “a worshiper of stars and signs”, which was traditionally used to refer to Gentiles.
This article was written with the help of Chaya Meier Herr, curator of the the Sidney Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel.
The Golem: Super Villain or Super Hero?
The creature made of clay was brought to life by the name of God to protect the Jewish people. Did it fulfill its purpose?
Throughout Jewish history, there have been different incarnations of the Golem – an amorphous creature made of mud or clay that was given life using the extended name of God. Some have painted the Golem as a hero, coming to life just in time to save the Jewish community, while in other stories the Golem is depicted as a murderous villain and uncontrollable demon.
Though there have been many iterations of the Golem, in the classic telling of the story, Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi known as the Maharal of Prague, was said to have formed a Golem out of clay after deciding that the Jewish community was in need of a defender against rising anti-Semitic attacks. The Maharal brought the figure to life using magic rituals, Hebrew incantations and by placing the ineffable name of God in the clay figure’s mouth. Thus was born the Golem of Prague whom the rabbi named Yosseleh.
Yosseleh the Golem possessed a unique skill set. According to the classic tale, the Golem could make himself invisible and summon the spirits of the dead. Defender of the Jewish community during the week, the Maharal allowed Yosseleh to rest on the Sabbath along with the rest of the community. He would deactivate the Golem every Friday evening by removing the name of God from his mouth.
According to some of the legends, one Friday, the Maharal forgot to deactivate the Golem. Yosseleh, in a fit of rage, ran amok, damaging the city and causing physical harm to the unfortunate people who happened to be in his way. The Maharal, realizing what happened, ran out into the streets and managed to deactivate the rampaging Golem and put an end to the destruction.
An alternative end to the story of the Golem explains that the threat of anti-Semitism had passed and the clay protector was no longer needed. Rabbi Loew quietly removed the name of God from his mouth and the Golem was deactivated forever. The mute presence of Yosseleh, simply disappeared from community life, and the clay form of the Golem was put in storage in the attic of the synagogue where it still believed to be resting today.
The Golem, a creature shrouded in mystery, has drawn continued interest over the centuries. The story of the Golem has been reenacted and reinvented many times and has served as a source of inspiration for artists, sculptors, scientists, movies, books, dramatic productions and comic book heroes.
There is much speculation as to whether the Golem was a benign creature expected to obey its creator or if it was a monstrous creature, prone to fits of rage and destruction. The Golem’s silver screen debuts came in a series of movies produced between 1915 and 1920. The most popular film in the series was a silent horror film where the Golem is used without the permission of Rabbi Loew by his assistant. The assistant, not knowing how to properly control the Golem, sets the Golem on a destructive rampage in which a man is killed and fire is set to the synagogue.
In 1925, in the Land of Israel, the Golem was adapted for the “Habimah” stage. In the original performance, the Golem, brought to life to protect the Jewish ghetto, was treated with much suspicion by the local community. The Golem turned his frustration at being different back onto the community and used his tremendous strength, the very thing that was supposed to protect the Jews from anti-Semitic attacks, to murder the Jews themselves. In the face of the evolving catastrophe, the Maharal was forced to return the Golem to the lump of dirt from which he came.
The Golem took to the stage many times in the years following, enthralling the community in the Yeshuv.
The Golem returned to the public in later years in the form of a Marvel comic book where the Golem, “The thing that walks like a man,” was featured as the great defender who draws his strength from the truth and has the Hebrew letters אמת (truth) emblazoned on his forehead.
Elie Weisel, in his retelling of the classic tale, wished that the Maharal would have allowed the Golem to continue his work as defender of the Jews.
“Ah, if only the Golem were still among us… I would sleep more peacefully. Why did the Maharal take him from us? Did he really believe that the era of suffering and injustice was a thing of the past? That we no longer needed a protector, a shield?”
While the Golem has captured audiences worldwide, there is no proof that the Golem ever existed. Aside from the fact that the story requires a firm belief in the supernatural, Rabbi Loew himself, the purported creator of the Golem, never mentioned creating a Golem in any of his writings.
Real or not, the existence of a creature fighting in defense of the downtrodden in the spirit of truth, carries a universal message that has inspired audiences across the globe for centuries on end. Who knows? Maybe someday the Golem will return to defend the truth in an ever evolving world.
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.