File record from Theodor Harburger's collection of photographs for a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) from Munich, Germany, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.
By the end of the 19th-century, many of the smaller Jewish communities in rural Germany had begun to shrink. Many young people were leaving home for the big cities or for America in search of higher education and employment. Several smaller Jewish communities were completely dismantled, their synagogues abandoned, and objects of religious, cultural and artistic value were lost or sold off.
In the Bavaria region, the Jewish communities, fearing their cultural heritage may be lost to time, took initiative and established an association for the documentation of Jewish art and culture. They brought an art historian named Theodor Harburger on board to begin documenting the unique culture that existed in the rural Jewish Bavarian communities at the time. Harburger took on the project gladly and set his own goal of providing his Jewish contemporaries an awareness of their own heritage and local culture.
Between 1926 and 1932, Theodor Harbuger photographed and documented Jewish ritual objects and synagogues dating as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. Harburger was acutely aware of the importance of his work and took the assignment very seriously, working in an organized manner, documenting every step of the way, preserving for the future those items which characterized Jewish life.
Over the course of six years in the field, Harburger managed to take over 800 photographs in 213 communities in Bavaria. In addition to thoroughly cataloging each subject by including the name and material of the item, its measurements, and the name of the artist, he also included handwritten notes for each place he visited.
Synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects all underwent the intensive documentation process set up by Harburger to ensure he was preserving the community in the best way possible. While he did not photograph every object he came across, he highlighted the most interesting items and took notes on others that were not to be included in the images.
Harburger set about his work with the hope that his intensive study of the rich and vast history of Jewish communities of Bavaria might bring about a renewal of modern Jewish life in the area and that perhaps even the local Christian communities could benefit from the rich cultural heritage the Jews had to offer. Little did he know that, just a few years after completing his work, those Jewish communities would be no more.
With the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, Harburger immigrated to the Land of Israel with more than 1,000 glass negatives and hundreds of pages of drawings. That was all that remained of his six-year project when the reality he so painstakingly documented disappeared just five years later, in November 1938, during the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The sites he had photographed were destroyed and many of the objects he documented were stolen while others were vandalized or destroyed.
Harburger’s photographs, many of which were unique, bear witness to all that was there before the Holocaust, to the communities that once thrived and contributed to Bavaria’s rich cultural tapestry. Not much is known about his activities in Germany or in Israel following this project but his work has had a lasting impact. Approximately twenty percent of the items he photographed have since been rehoused in museums around the world. It was his work that provided accurate geographical and technical information to those institutions.
Theodor Harburger died on October 15, 1949. In 1957, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) acquired his collection of glass negatives, slides, contact photos, notes and booklets from his widow, Meta Harburger. Hundreds of photographs from Harburger collection were published in a three-volume catalog, edited by Bernhard Purin, following an exhibition in Fuerth, Germany. The photographs are being used today in various studies in the field of provenance research.
Thanks to Hadassah Assouline from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) for her help in writing this article. Parts of this article first appeared in an issue of Segula Magazine in December 2010.
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.
Hate in Nazi Germany as Photographed from the Back of a Motorcycle
In 1935, a photojournalist was sent by a Jewish news agency to document the growing anti-Semitism under the rule of Nazi Germany.
Reading articles and announcements at stand of the Nazi newspaper, "Der Stürmer."
In January of 1936, a photo album arrived at the National and University Library. The album was sent to Jerusalem by the head office of the Jewish News Agency in Amsterdam. It was not a large album and contained just twenty-two photographs. Each image in the album documented a sign that was hung in condemnation of the Jews, a public declaration of anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in Germany, providing a simple snapshot of life under Nazi rule as documented in the autumn of 1935.
The photographer’s name did not appear in the album and seemingly was not preserved through the upheavals of history. The photographer, a Dutchman who rode his motorcycle from the county of Bentheim on the Dutch-German border, through Hamburg, all the way to Berlin, covering a distance of 500 kilometers, was sent by two Jewish journalists from Holland named Hans Reichmann and Alfred Wiener.
The pair established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam in 1929 with one goal in mind: to document the true nature of Nazi Germany as it was revealed and to make evident the Nazi treatment of the Jews to the world. The staff of the Jewish Central Information Office hoped that disseminating the pictures would rally public opinion and remove any doubts regarding the nature of the racist regime that had successfully come to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.
But it seems that they failed at their mission. The photos were indeed publicized throughout the world with a copy of the album successfully reaching even the far off Land of Israel, but the hoped-for resonance was not achieved and the world paid no mind. It was surely a naïve hope on the part of Reichmann and Wiener that these images would have their intended effect.
In 1939 Reichmann and Wiener were forced to halt their activities, and consequently, they emigrated from Amsterdam to London. It was there that Alfred Wiener donated his collections to an institution that later became the Wiener Library, now one of the most important documentation centers in the world for the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Another copy of the album now resides at the Wiener Library, testifying to the courageous attempt of a group of brave German Jews to alert the world and arouse public opinion against the crimes of the Nazis three years before the outbreak of the war.
Homegrown German Anti-Semitism
When delving deeper into the background of the seemingly simple photographs showing roadside signs and other posters from the entrances to small and large localities alike, we learned that the photographer did not document official Nazi policy. What becomes apparent from the photographs is that the residents of Germany themselves prepared the signs and placed them in their own environments as a way of expressing their personal sentiments towards the Jewish minority.
“We do not want to see Jews, Jews are the source of our trouble, they feed off of our bodies.”
“Jews are not wanted here.”
“The local community wants no contact with Jews.”
Recommendations for where the Jews should go instead were also posted:
“The road to Palestine does not pass through here.”
“Jews: Immigrate to your land – in our land, we already know you.”
Not one such sign was required by law. All of them were posted as an expression of authentic local and national sentiment – stated clearly in block letters without any reservation or apology. These signs which espoused a genuine hatred of Jews, the perspective that the Jew is a foreigner from another land, and complete rejection of the Jews, gave a clear indication as to the dark future ahead.
As a Jewish history buff, I spend a lot of time on JPress (the Historical Jewish Press website), and every day I stumble upon another pearl.
A few days ago, I found in the December 31, 1916 issue of the New York Yiddish newspaper Die Wahrheit, what seemed like one of the craziest start-ups I had ever come across in my life: the National Umbrella Service Inc. Not only did the service look innovative, the advertisement was also pretty creative.
Let’s begin with the comic strip at the top. A Jew leaves his house in the morning (you can see that he’s Jewish, right?) holding a weather report that says “Rain Today,” while outside the sun is shining! “Hah. Another prophet!” says the Jews to himself holding up his umbrella. In the next frame, the smiling sun beats down on the fellow, who says: “Good God! How can I get rid of this umbrella!”
In the next picture, it’s pouring outside, and the forlorn Jew says, “I left my umbrella at home!” And in the last illustration, he cries, “Gevalt! Someone stole my umbrella!”
So, how did this start-up work? For those Yiddish-challenged readers among us, the ad says that: across Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn over 1000 umbrella rental stations have been opened. All one had to do was pay the two dollar per year subscription fee and you could borrow, return, fix or exchange a broken umbrella on the spot at no extra cost!
What a concept! This surely promised an end to shmutzicke umbrellas! (The proper Yiddish word for umbrella, by the way is shirem.) While we’re at it, here’s a funny little Yiddish curse: Zol er aropshlingen a shirem un s’zol zikh im efenen in boykh! – “May he swallow an umbrella and have it open up in his belly!”
So what became of this revolutionary idea? To find out, I consulted the American historical newspaper website Chronicling America, where I found more ads for the National Umbrella Service, such as this rather dry one (for such a wet business, and without even a bit of Jewish humor) in the New York Tribune from December 14, 1916.
The fact that the ads ran for just two weeks—from mid-December until the beginning of January—is more than enough proof that the business never really took off. Indeed, the “Business Troubles” section of the June 14, 1917 issue of TheSun, includes an item about the National Umbrella Service filing for bankruptcy.
But why did this umbrella business collapse? Did others succeed where it failed? If a bike-sharing service can make it, why not an umbrella-sharing one? It seems that the people of China don’t read the Yiddish press, and perhaps that’s why a recent venture of theirs failed in similar fashion: In 2017, the Chinese entrepreneur Zhou Shu Ping from the city of Shenzhen launched an umbrella sharing service in Shenzhen and 11 other cities, but within a few months almost all of the project’s 300,000 umbrellas had been stolen.
Another, more modest, umbrella-sharing service called UMBRACITY, is operating for the time being in Vancouver, Canada, with dozens of smart umbrella rental stations scattered in stores across the city. How does it work? There’s an app: push a button on your smartphone and the umbrella is yours.
There are more—in the city of Aarhus in Denmark, the DripDrop service has over 25 umbrella stations throughout the city. The rather unimaginative slogan is: “Happiness is having an umbrella when it rains”
And there are some somewhat less sophisticated services like this one which opened up a few days ago in the Pasir Ris neighborhood in Singapore, dedicated to the memory of Grandma Sylvia.
In any case, whether you’re renting or you’ve decided to buy, we urge you to always have an umbrella at hand during this rainy season. As they say: Men antloyft fun regn, bagegnt men hogl! – “Run away from rain and you get hail!”
Wolf Durmashkin with the Ghetto Symphonic Orchestra, Vilna Ghetto, September 5th, 1942 (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, the National Library of Israel).
The wanderings of the Jewish People, especially during the last century, have brought some incredible life stories to the National Library in Jerusalem packaged in very unusual ways. One example is this suitcase, donated to the National Library of Israel in May 1994, by the famous Yiddish poet, Avraham Sutzkever.
A closer look at this suitcase reveals that it is not a typical piece of luggage. It was not manufactured in a factory or even a proper workshop and it certainly wasn’t purchased in a fancy department store. The suitcase has a rather crude appearance, but the story behind it makes up for it all.
This suitcase was made in the Naroch forest in Belarus, not far from the border of Lithuania, exactly 50 years before it was deposited in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. It was made of tin fragments from the wings of a crashed airplane and contained, among other archival materials, a small but astonishing collection of photographs saved from the Vilna Ghetto.
The failure of the German “Blitzkrieg” against the Soviet Union and the creation of a permanent state of war created a serious problem for the Nazi economy, including a deficit in manpower. The thousands of Jews who lived in the Vilna Ghetto and in other ghettos in Lithuania, were an important source of labor for the German occupiers. The Nazi regime elected not to murder the remaining Jews in the area and to instead use them as slaves to bolster the dwindling work force. This is how the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto gained some semblance of stability and peace from the start of 1942 into the spring of 1943. During this time there were no mass killings, though numerous murders did take place. Most of the Jews worked in various factories and workshops in and around the ghetto. The internal organization of the ghetto became very developed as cultural, educational, health, and welfare institutions were established.
Avraham Sutzkever, then a 28-year-old poet, had an important role in the cultural activity of the ghetto. “As long as I live a poet’s life in this valley of death,” he wrote later, “I shall be redeemed from my misery.”
Sutzkever became the artistic director of the ghetto theater, translating and adapting various pieces for the stage, and his poetry, written in the ghetto, was a central part of the popular reading evenings which took place there. Cultural activity flourished among the residents of the Vilna Ghetto, with the establishment of schools, a theatre, Yiddish and Hebrew choirs, an orchestra, opera, ballet, a children’s puppet theatre, an active library, a newspaper, and even sports competitions. Lectures and literary events were also a common occurrence. “The Jerusalem of Lithuania,” one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe, was revived under the shadow of death.
Sutzkever wasn’t just creating culture in the Ghetto; he was actively saving significant cultural treasures from the Nazis. Along with his close friend, the poet Shmerke Kachergionski, he joined the “Paper Brigade,” headed by Zelig Kalmanowitz, Dr. Hermann Kruk and the famous librarian Chaikel Lunski. The story of this group dedicated to the preservation of local Jewish culture was wonderfully described by David Fishman in his research, “The Book Smugglers.”
Within the various materials Sutzkever managed to gather, the photographs are especially interesting. Only a few dozen survived and reached us at the Library, but they all wonderfully reflect the spirit of the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto during that time. Surprisingly, some of the residents of the Vilna Ghetto managed to dabble in photography. Based on the photographs, we can assume that none of them were professional photographers and that these images were likely developed in difficult conditions.
There are not many known photographs of the Vilna Ghetto. Holding a camera or dealing with photography was, of course, strictly forbidden by the Nazis. The photographs from the Sutzkever Collection are, therefore, a rare documentation of everyday life in the ghetto as shown by some of its inmates, who were likely amateur photographers. Most of these pictures are anonymous. We have found Sutzkever’s inscription, with the photographer’s name – B. Kaczerginsky – on the back of only one of the photos. The inscription likely referred to Berl Kaczerginsky, one of the Jewish policemen of the ghetto, who owned a camera. Many of the pictures were likely taken by the same policemen, as a relatively large number of photos feature the Ghetto Police and the Head of the Ghetto, Jacob Gens.
Some of those photographs were staged, and it is quite clear that the subjects of the photos were very much aware of the camera in front of them. In some pictures, they even look directly into the camera lens. A parade of the Ghetto Gate Guard, a group photograph of the guards and photographs of their commander, Moishe Levas, give us a glimpse of one of the most hated institutions among the ghetto inmates. On the other hand, the ghetto guards were those who enabled Sutzkever and his colleagues in the “Paper Brigade” to smuggle books, archival materials and various works of art into the ghetto. Moishe Levas was very much aware of the activity of Sutzkever and his friends, and he assisted them in smuggling those materials into the ghetto in various ways.
Sutzkever managed to collect photographs which reflected the daily life in the ghetto from various aspects: simple street scenes, various advertisements on the walls, and pictures of cultural and educational institutions.
Without knowing the circumstances in which the photographs were taken, one could think they were created in a typical European city during peaceful, normal times. The clock on the ghetto’s main street, the morning advertisements hung up on the ghetto walls, and of course, the cultural activities of the Jewish community, all stir up a feeling of amazement at the simplicity and banality of the images, considering all that is happening around them.
The most incredible photograph in the bunch is that of the Ghetto Orchestra with its conductor, Wolf Durmashkin. This renowned musician, who before the War was the conductor of the Vilna Symphonic Orchestra, is seen standing strong and dignified wearing tuxedo tails, as the other musicians around him smile for the camera. The shining shoes of the first violinist leave no doubt as to the mood these people were in. This photograph proves the strength of the human spirit, even in the most difficult of times. The orchestra’s piano, though not included in the photographs, was smuggled into the Ghetto piece by piece and then rebuilt by a specialist. It is important to recognize that, just as Sutzkever never stopped writing poetry, Durmashkin and his musicians always continued playing and creating music, dedicated to preserving their art and their human dignity.
To paraphrase Hanna Arendt’s controversial concept, “the banality of evil,” these photographs reflect how the ghetto inmates desperately tried to hold on to the “banality of life under evil,” and to pretend they could keep living normally despite the death and misery that surrounded them. The photographers were full partners in creating this illusion. Since there was a need for cooperation between the photographer and the subjects, it can be assumed that the maker of the images also sought to transmit a banal and normal picture of life, by creating a visual image using the most ordinary of methods.
Unlike photographs from other ghettos, and even from ghettos in Lithuania itself, none of the true horrors that were experienced are captured in the photographs in the Sutzkever Collection from Vilna. There are no photographs of children dying in the streets, starving people or the many other miseries faced by the ghetto inmates. The terrible reality of the ghetto, as Sutzkever described in detail in his testimonial book, was not reflected at all in the photographs he had collected during his stay there. It seems that, in real time, the ghetto inmates wanted to stay as far as possible from the abnormal circumstances in which they lived, and tried to reflect a stabilized, ordinary way of life, which was, of course, just an illusion. Sutzkever’s photographs therefore, do not document the life of the ghetto as it really was, but rather life as its inmates wanted it to be. By the power of their spirit, these Lithuanian Jews miraculously escaped from reality and created an alternate universe for themselves.