When Life Gives You Lemons: Sukkot Preparations in the Town of Halberstadt

Living in a cold climate in Central Europe sometimes meant going to great lengths to get the citrus fruit required to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town of Halberstadt (then in Prussia, now in Germany), had one of the largest Jewish communities in Central Europe. The community Pinkas (registry), now housed in the Manuscript Department of the National Library, details the activities of the town’s Jewish residents from 1773-1808. This community register was written in chronological order and in several languages including Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. The Pinkas served as a centralized record of rules and regulations, criteria for acceptance into the community, diplomatic initiatives, and interactions with other communities.

In European countries with colder climates like Prussia, it was historically difficult to find fresh citrus fruit. While this may not seem like a critical issue for most, for the Jewish people citrus fruit play a fundamental role in the celebration of one of the central Jewish holidays – Sukkot.

An elderly man holding an Etrog used to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, illustration by Alphonse Levy from the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University

During the weeklong holiday, Jews celebrate by living and eating in huts constructed especially for the occasion in accordance with precise traditional instructions.

The citrus fruit known as the etrog, or citron in English,  plays a key part in the in the prayer services performed on Sukkot, which marks the end of the harvest season in the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

The Jewish communities in Central Europe were typically dependent on imported etrogim, a reality that served as a source of great apprehension for many given the dangers of sea travel.  As the high holidays approached, if the shipment of etrogim had yet to arrive, concern would grow within the community and the local Jews would find themselves feeling a bit frantic. In fact, there are recorded incidents where local merchants successfully tricked the despairing Jewish community into purchasing lemons in place of etrogim for want of a better option.

The concern over the timely arrival of etrogim was a familiar feeling for the community of Halberstadt. The community Pinkas includes an entry that tells of the great lengths the community leaders went through to ensure the town would be able to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot in its entirety.

Pages 101- 102 of the Halberstadt Community Pinkas, from the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge the image.

Written in Yiddish on the 28th day of the Jewish month of Elul, just a few days before the start of the High Holy Days of 1796, an entry describes how the Jewish leaders of the town were working their personal connections in other Jewish communities to try and procure enough etrogim for the town to use in the upcoming holiday services.

“Reb Moshe said in the name of Reb Gissel, who wrote to the community leaders of Frankfurt to inquire about etrogim a while ago but until now we have yet received an answer,” reads page 201 of the Pinkas.

The entry even recorded suggestions by community leaders that another letter be written in the hopes of increasing pressure on potential suppliers of etrogim. They also included a contingency plan, in case the additional pressures were insufficient.

Etrog trees, photograph from the Dan Hadani Archive at the National Library of Israel

The entry reads, “Reb Gissel will continue to wait for an answer and in the case that his contact will not bring forth etrogim, we will instead buy a few etrogim at the fair in Leipzig before Rosh Chodesh Tishre (the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishre), as many as are needed for the community.”

This entry and the decision of the community council gives the impression that there were other locations with accessible etrogim but perhaps they were pricier or of a lesser quality, and therefore it was preferred to have them brought in from Frankfurt.

While the Pinkas does not mention the outcome of the community’s conundrum, this entry gives us an interesting insight into life for the religious Jewish community in the 19th century and provides a closer look at the difficulties faced when trying to uphold the laws of the holiday of Sukkot.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Hero from Třebíč Who Saved 900 Children During the Holocaust

The annual Shamayim festival held in Třebíč honors Antonín Kalina who was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp

It is the only Jewish site included on the UNESCO world heritage list that is not in Israel. It was almost demolished during the time of the communist regime and was saved in part thanks to another minority that lived there after the Jews left or perished.

Třebíč or Trebitsch is a town in the Czech Republic with a unique, well preserved former Jewish quarter. Unfortunately, this rich Jewish community was destroyed during World War II and the later regimes did not really support any religion – especially not after the war. However, locals still call that part of the town “Židy,” a word that means Jews, or “v Židech,” meaning in the Jewish area, despite the fact that the area boasts a different official name.

Postcard of a Street in the Jewish Quarter of Třebíč, The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This hidden gem was rediscovered in the late 1980s and reconstruction and repairs have since begun. One of the uncovered synagogues was used at one point as a warehouse to store leathers. Later on, it would house fruits and vegetables. As a result, the restorers had no shortage of work to do.

Nowadays the quarter draws all kinds of tourists, not just those looking for traces of Jewish history. Many cultural festivals and events are held in the area, the most famous of these is the festival of Jewish culture known as “Samajim,” pronounced “Shamayim” (Heavens, in English), which is held every year at the end of July and beginning of August. The former Jewish quarter becomes full of life again during this week-long festival. There are lectures about Jewish traditions, history, and literature, as well as concerts by a variety of bands from Central and Eastern Europe. You can also taste a range of traditional Jewish delicacies. Some of the faces become familiar as people return year after year.

The Jewish Cemetery of Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The festival is dedicated to a man named Antonín Kalina. Antonín was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations after his death in 2012 for his heroic work during the Holocaust.

Kalina, who was born in Třebíč in 1902 became a member of the communist party in 1923. Due to his political activism, he was arrested in 1939 by the Nazis and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. A month later he was transferred to Buchenwald.

Antonín Kalina

With the help of the underground movement in the camp, Kalina risked his own life to help the children of Buchenwald. He worked to relocate the children from their barracks on the other side of the camp to his. The Nazis avoided this area for fear of catching disease after Kalina put up a sign reading, “Danger: Typhoid.” He managed to bring food and clothing to the children he had smuggled away and protected them from the harsh conditions of the camp as much as possible until the end of the war.

Kalina is credited with saving 900 children in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Following the war and his release from the camp, Kalina returned to his hometown of Třebíč where he lived until his death in 1990.

Program for the 2018 Samajim (Shamayim) Festival, Courtesy of Domina Sedlakova

Naftali Furst is one of the many children who owes his life to Antonín Kalina and he attended this year’s Samajim festival to honor his memory. Naftali was born in Slovakia but he left to move to Israel after the Second World War. Speaking in Slovak tinged with a slight Hebrew accent, he spoke in memory of Antonín Kalina. He told of how the children would “cook” in the barracks in Buchenwald. This activity did not consist of any actual food. Rather, the children would simply share memories of their favorite dishes and deserts, with one boy preferring poppy seed cake and another recalling cakes topped with apples or nuts. They all hoped to taste them again after the war.

Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The week-long festival came to a close with a concert in tribute to the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, being celebrated this year. The concert featured a chorus of thirty-five people from all over Slovakia and some parts of the Czech Republic, with people joining together to dance in the restored synagogue.  After the concert, the audience was invited to continue the festivities outside in the Romanesque-gothic basilica from the 13th century near the Jewish quarter.

This was the 15th iteration of the festival and we look forward to next years’ experience. We hope you can join us to learn more about the rich Jewish heritage here – as they say, Shana Haba’ah B’Třebíč – Next year in Třebíč!

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 in cooperation with Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies.

The Special Needs Educator Who was Murdered by the Nazis

Meet Sally and Rebeka Bein who ran an educational institution for Jewish children with special needs during the Holocaust, and were eventually killed along with the children by the Nazis.

Sally Bein (background) with some of the institution's children. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

In the early 20th century, in the heart of a pine forest in eastern Germany, a one of a kind institution was established – an educational facility for Jewish children with special needs. The director of this institution, set up in October 1908 near the town of Beelitz, was a 27-year-old Jewish man by the name of Sally (Samuel) Bein, who until then had worked as a teacher for deaf and mute children.

Sally Bein. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

The facility (known as the Israelitische Erziehungsanstalt Wilhelm-Auguste-Viktoria-Stiftung) accepted children ranging from preschool aged to adolescents, most of them with special needs of various types. Others were sent there because of domestic issues at home and an inability of their parents to take care of them, while later on more children arrived because of limitations on the number of Jews allowed at ordinary schools. Sally Bein sought to receive them all, and integrate the different groups, a view that was quite ahead of its time.

In the beginning Sally and his wife Rebeka were the only teachers at the facility, but as the years went by more staff members joined the team, including three additional teachers and a teaching assistant, a cook, a caretaker and a gardener, all of whom contributed to the children’s education in addition to their regular work. Pupils would spend about two years at the institution, during which they studied academic subjects like Hebrew, German, history, and arithmetic, but a heavy emphasis was also placed on more mundane life skills and practices, including proper codes of social conduct, guidelines on order and cleanliness, as well as various arts and crafts like carpentry, cooking, and gardening.

A carpentry class (Photo taken from an album belonging to Arthur Feiner, a teacher at the institution)

Studies took place in a Jewish atmosphere, with Bible classes, observation of the Sabbath and dietary laws of Kosher, as well as the celebration of Jewish holidays. Day trips and games would take place during free time with the participation of all children, and no separation by gender or age, nor any consideration for cognitive differences among them. Throughout the years nearly 400 children studied at the institution, with most of them able to eventually move on to ordinary high schools or to find work. Bein’s achievements gained him a worldwide reputation, with doctors and educators from across Europe and even pre-state Israel coming to visit and learn his work methods.


Rebeka Bein (Photographer unknown)

The skies over the school began to darken in 1933, with the coming to power of the Nazi party. Sally Bein was forced to contend with constant attempts by local authorities to disrupt the institution’s activity and shut it down. The main complaint was that the facility and its children were perceived as a stain on the local population – a supposed negative influence on tourists who visited the area. When the Nazis began their extermination programs, the institution’s fate was sealed. Under the Third Reich, Jewish special needs children had no right to exist.

In April of 1942, nearly 30 children and staff members were sent away to the Warsaw Ghetto. Sally could by then sense the direction the wind was blowing, yet decided to stay put, though he and his family held visas that would have allowed them to leave Germany. In the months that followed, the last hopes of survival were dashed. On the 13th of June, 1942, a “shipment to the East” left Berlin. On board the train were 748 Jews from Berlin, in addition to some 280 Jews from the Beelitz area, including all of the facility’s children and staff members, among them Sally Bein, his wife Rebeka and their daughter Lisa Carola. The train took them to the Sobibor death camp, where they were murdered. The institution, which for 34 years had been full of life and the sounds of children at play, was now silent.

The school building used by the institution’s children which now serves as the Sally Bein Gymnasium (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

A short time after the eviction, the facility was taken over by the League of German Girls, a Nazi youth movement. For the past few decades, it has been the sight of a high school, named after Sally Bein. The students take part in a number of commemorative activities in hopes of preserving the site’s history for the sake of future generations.

A memorial plaque at the front of the building (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

We were made aware of this story by Ronny Dotan, who first learned of it thanks to the Holocaust Railway Car Project, and later continued studying the subject along with Tatjana Ruge of Berlin. Their research collected information about hundreds of children and staff members, whose relatives have since been located. If you have further information about the institution or the children who studied there, you are welcome to contact Ronny Dotan: [email protected].

The Brothers Polyakov: From the Shtetls of Poland to Russian Nobility

Yakov Polyakov was a rare breed. Luckily for us, this fascinating figure also kept a diary.

Yakov Polyakov, The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the NLI

It could easily have been a Chekhov play or a novel by Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Polyakov. Their lives certainly provided enough drama.

Yakov, one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons, was the oldest of the three brothers Polyakov, all prominent Russian bankers and industrialists. His diary, preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, was recently published online, all made possible thanks to the hard work of the volunteers of the Russian-based project “Prozhito.” Spanning forty-three years and searchable by year, this chronicle reflects the daily anxieties and joys of a wealthy Jewish businessman in 19th-century Russia.

The Brothers Polyakov

The Polyakov family originated in the shtetl of Dubrovno (today’s Belarus), to which Yakov’s grandfather had moved from Poland in 1783. Hence the name “Polyakov”- the Russified version of the Jewish family name “Polyak,” meaning Pole. The three brothers spread throughout Russia: Samuil lived in St. Petersburg, Lazar in Moscow, and Yakov in distant Taganrog, where he represented the Polyakov’s interests in the south.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Yakov’s diary meticulously notes his trips, meetings, and family matters. Though his records are often short and sketchy, with many featuring no more than one line, they number more than four thousand entries. Polyakov’s Russian is somewhat clumsy and grammatically problematic. One of his jottings explains why:

“As soon as we moved from Dubrovna to Orsha, Mother set about organizing our schooling and education at home. This was quite unusual for the time, as there was nothing but heders and melamdim, and nobody had any thought or hope of learning even the slightest Russian or arithmetic. When we moved, I was twelve, my brother Samuil was ten, and my brother Lazar only three. Mother found a teacher who was considered highly educated and therefore not quite trusted to be religious enough (a Jewish communal requirement for every melamed).”

Yakov launched his incredible career by joining his brothers in the railway business. They supervised the construction of the Kursk-Kharkov-Sevastopol and Voronezh-Rostov lines. In 1870, Yakov opened a trading house and established a coal mine on his estate. The mine, he claimed, ended Russia’s reliance on expensive English coal to power its steamships in the Black and Azov Seas.  The Polyakov brothers subsequently founded several banks including the Azov-Don commercial bank (in St. Petersburg), Donskoy Land Bank (in Taganrog), and the St. Petersburg-Azov Commercial Bank.

In the early 1890s, Yakov and Lazar branched out to Iran, building railways and investing in trade, industry, and banking under the aegis of the Russian government.

As the first general consul of Persia in St. Petersburg, Yakov was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Lion and the Sun for his services to the Shah. He tried parlaying this honor into a Russian baronial title (as the famous Günzburg family had with their German baronial rank), but without success.

Yakov’s diary testifies to his wealth as well as his philanthropic initiatives. In 1896 he bought his wife, Amalia, a villa in Biarritz (in the south of France, playground of Europe’s rich and famous) for 130,000 francs. Before investing in his own villa, he spearheaded the building of a synagogue in the resort, donating generously to bring the project to fruition. On Rosh Hashana eve of 1895, Yakov noted with satisfaction:

“All suited well for prayer and table. We invited Brodsky, but he arranged everything separately! Showed his wealth, what he is capable of. I donated two thousand francs for the construction of the synagogue in Biarritz. Lazar Solomonovich also donated two thousand, Brodsky three thousand, so the beginning is set. May God help finish it!”

The synagogue in Biarritz, built at Yakov’s initiative, postcard from 1910.

The synagogue was inaugurated in August 1904.

Persecuted Tycoons

Despite Yakov’s wealth, his actions were in some ways as limited as Russian Jewry’s as a whole. When his parents lost their sight and needed daily assistance, he couldn’t get permits for relatives to come live with them in Moscow:

“Unfortunately, the assistants for Father weren’t given permission [to reside with him]. It’s painful to see [my parents] disabled. Mother is completely blind. Father is partially blind. And they cannot have two of their kin look after them? It hurts, but what can be done?”

Five years earlier, all Jewish craftsmen were expelled from Moscow. That Passover, Yakov called the decree “[…] woeful for the Jews. All the newspapers are cruelly exaggerating, ridiculing, and defaming [them], happy to see [Jews] thrown out onto the streets.”

Yet there were bright spots too. In late 1897, despite rising anti-Semitism, Yakov and Lazar were awarded hereditary noble titles, making them one of Russia’s very few noble Jewish families. Their relatives in the countryside, however, still couldn’t leave the Pale of Settlement. Russian Jewish life was in constant flux, with changing regulations constantly making their lives more difficult until the revolution of February 1917. The provisional government that replaced the monarchy finally abolished all anti-Jewish laws making Jews equal citizens.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

On the Brink

Yakov’s business practices were criticized – perhaps sometimes deservedly – but there were also anti-Semitic outbursts. The following citation, from a note on Yakov Polyakov and the Jews of southern Russia received by the state comptroller’s office in the late 1880’s:

“The Jews of the Pryazovye district [straddling Ukraine and Russia’s Rostov Oblast], which has always been full of Greeks and Armenians, could never engage permanently in any trade but alcohol, until the Jew Ya. S. Polyakov arrived there to build the Kharkov-Azov and Voronezh-Rostov railroads.

Having constructed these railroads in ramshackle fashion using government-guaranteed bonds, this Polyakov remains the owner of the entire stock (also government-guaranteed) of both railroads, making him their true master […].

Along with Polyakov, his many relatives and masses of Jews came to the region and settled there, exploiting his protection for a variety of geschefts [funny business] and tricks at the locals’ expense, all while evading our every law restricting Jewish rights.”

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives fo the History of the Jewish People

Considering their modest background, the brothers Polyakov achieved a great deal. Samuil died young, leaving his family a substantial inheritance. Yakov and Lazar, however, lost most of their fortunes in Russia’s economic crisis at the turn of the 20th century. Yakov spent his final years in Biarritz until his death in 1909. His two daughters, who lived in his French residence after his death, perished in the Holocaust.

Special thanks to Olga Lempert for translating the diary entries from Russian to English. 

This post was originally published in Segula, The Jewish History Magazine, Issue 97, June 2018.