An Inimitable Talent: The Qanun Player Yusuf Za’arur

Yusuf Za’arur was a talented musician and expert qanun player who served for many years as the musical director of the Radio Baghdad Orchestra. When he immigrated to Israel, he had to fight for recognition, but his great talent led him to renewed success in Israel as well

Yusuf Za’arur at the International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo, 1932

One day, during a rehearsal of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Iraqi Maqam Orchestra, the qanun player Yusuf Za’arur saw a fellow qanun player, Avraham Salman, sitting outside the door trying to imitate Za’arur’s wonderful technique. Za’arur approached Salman and said to him jokingly: “What are you doing, young man? Trying to imitate my playing? Copying from me?” The joke was an attempt to diffuse the inherent tension that is palpable whenever a student tries to outdo his master. After all, Za’arur knew Avraham Salman from their days back in Iraq, when Za’arur had been the musical director of the Radio Baghdad Orchestra. Za’arur would promote talented young musicians, mainly from among the Jewish community. Avraham Salman was one of them.

The Baghdad Radio Orchestra, 1936

Yusuf Za’arur was born in 1902 to a wealthy family in Baghdad. He displayed musical talent from a young age, and at 18 bought himself his first qanun. He also played the violin and cello. In 1932, he participated with other Iraqi musicians (all Jews) in the First International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. A rare recording from this event can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel. On track five, one can hear Za’arur’s virtuoso playing on the qanun. His talent earned him a medal and first place in the Congress.

Za’arur joined Radio Baghdad in 1936 and by 1941, he was appointed the station’s musical director. He held this position until his immigration to Israel in 1951. While working at Radio Baghdad, he promoted many Jewish musicians, among them the singer Salim Shuwat, Albert Elias, Avraham Daoud, Avraham Salman, Daoud Akram, Haki Ovadia, Shuweh Yehezkel, Elias Zebida, Sasson Abdu, Yosef Yaakov Shem Tov and the young singer Saleh Alshabli.

The Radio Baghdad Orchestra, 1938

Za’arur did not just promote Jewish singers. When the Iraqi singer Nazem Al-Ghazali came to audition for him, he sang a song in an Egyptian style. Za’arur then asked him to sing an Iraqi song and told him that the Iraqi maqam was better suited to his style of singing. After the audition, Za’arur told Ghazali that he was very talented and he predicted a great future for him, which indeed turned out to be true.

During the years he worked at Radio Baghdad, Za’arur composed many popular tunes and worked with the great Arab singers of the time, from the respected composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab to the great singer of the Arab world Umm Kulthum.

Although he was a much sought-after musician, as a civil servant he gave private performances only to a limited number of personalities, among them King Faisal of Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said.

The famous violinist Sami al-Shawwa performing in Baghdad in 1931, at the Cinema Royale, with Yusuf Za’arur on the qanun and Ezra Aharon Azouri on the oud

Immigrating to Israel inevitably brought a sharp decline in Za’arur’s status, and he went from managing singers and orchestras to playing private concerts for families from the Iraqi community in Israel. Although having fallen from his revered status in Iraq, he continued to try and include other musicians. His family says that when he was offered to play at a family celebration, he would ask the hosts if they were also interested in having a violin or oud player accompany him on the qanun. The hosts generally declined his offer because they only wanted to hear him play. However, out of appreciation for his great talent, they paid him as if he were an entire orchestra.

The 1932 International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. All the Iraqi musicians were Jewish with the exception of the singer Mohammad al-Gubenchi. Yusuf Za’arur was among the senior members of the orchestra and won first place in the qanun

His great talent brought him renewed recognition in Israel and he founded the Chalery Baghdad maqam orchestra which was part of the Arab Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Many of Yusuf’s recordings from his time with the Israel Broadcasting Authority can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel. However, he had to fight for his place among established musicians in Israel, some of whom he had promoted and cultivated in Iraq.

Yusuf Za’arur in his home in Israel, 1966

The story with which we began this article demonstrates the struggle for recognition between newer and older immigrants and Yusuf Za’arur’s unique and inimitable talent. Many musicians have tried to achieve his level of skill, including his great-grandson, the qanun player David Regev-Za’arur, who says that he tries to play like his great-grandfather, and hopes that he will one day succeed.

Many thanks to David Regev-Za’arur for the stories and photographs

Revealed: Immigration Documents Filled Out by Austrian Jews During the Nazi Occupation

A trove of documents from Vienna’s Jewish community during the Anschluss period has been revealed to the public for the first time thanks to a collaboration between MyHeritage and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. The collection contains 228,250 records, including scanned original documents submitted by Jews hoping to emigrate from Vienna. These documents, available on the Library’s website, provide extraordinary insights into the life of Vienna’s thriving Jewish community in the years 1938–1939

هجرة جماعية ليهود فيينا، تشرين الأول 1941 (تصوير: موقع بلدية فيينا)، على خلفية وثائق الهجرة المحفوظة في الأرشيف المركزي لتاريخ الشعب اليهودي في المكتبة الوطنية

A photograph showing Jews leaving Vienna, October 1941 (photo: Vienna Municipality website), against the background of immigration documents preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

On March 12, 1938, Nazi Germany invaded Austria, an event euphemistically known by the German term “Anschluss”—meaning a territorial annexation.

This was no ordinary invasion, and when Hitler arrived three days later for a triumphal march across Vienna, hundreds of thousands of Austrians gathered to cheer him along his route. According to various testimonies, there was not a single rose left in Austria that hadn’t been picked for the occasion.

The Austrian crowds at the Heldenplatz cheering Hitler’s arrival. Source: The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

For Austria’s roughly quarter of a million Jews however, it was not a cause for celebration. The abuse against the community’s leaders and rabbis began immediately after the Anschluss with many arrested and sent to the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The Nazis also closed the community’s offices in Vienna.

The Austrian crowd give the Nazi salute as Hitler passes by on route along the Ringstrasse. Source: The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Two months later, the offices re-opened, and now contained a new department: “The Vienna Jewish Community Welfare Department – Immigration Office.” Every Jew who wanted to emigrate from Vienna—meaning more or less all of the city’s Jews, from the Hasidic to the assimilated, had to fill out forms, in duplicate, which were submitted to the office.

The Vienna Jewish community archive is one of the largest and most important community archives in the CAHJP. The collection, which dates back to the 17th century, from the period before the expulsion of Vienna’s Jews, was sent to Jerusalem by the community in Vienna after the Holocaust. The immigration forms are part of this important archive.

The forms included the applicant’s first and last name, his or her exact address, date of birth, place of birth, personal status (married, single, etc.), personal information, citizenship, the date from when the applicant had resided in Vienna, where the applicant resided before arriving in Vienna; the applicant’s profession, occupational history, languages, financial situation and monthly income, as well as information regarding the desired immigration destination. The information regarding the immigration destination included the names of relatives and friends abroad (as well as their address and degree of kinship), and passport and immigrant visa information. The questionnaires included information not only about the applicant, but also about the applicant’s household members, mainly their spouse and children, but often also parents or in-laws.

The forms were submitted in duplicate with additional attachments inserted at various stages in the immigration process. Each form was assigned a serial number. At first, the forms were arranged only by serial number, but later, the immigration department separated the duplicate copies, keeping the numerical system for one, and arranging the other (incomplete) alphabetically by German surname. The immigration department maintained three indexes for the forms: numerical, alphabetical and one by profession, which was extremely pertinent for immigration applications. As early as 1938–1940, the community’s research department and international Jewish aid organizations such as HIAS prepared reports based on the important data gathered from the forms to optimize the emigration process.

However, in those first years of the Nazi occupation, the community was not working in a vacuum. The Gestapo was supervising its operation, with this effort led by Adolf Eichmann. In this first stage, as Eichmann had been tasked with emptying Vienna of its Jews through emigration, the Jews and the Nazis shared a common interest. In the later stages, when emigration was no longer allowed, the Gestapo used the information from the transmigration forms to optimize its euphemistically termed policy of “relocation to the East” of Vienna’s Jews, effectively sending them to concentration and extermination camps.

The two sets of immigration files kept by the Vienna Jewish community’s immigration office arrived in Jerusalem along with the rest of the community archives. Both sets have been preserved in their original order: the set according to serial number from 1-400, 401-800, etc. and the alphabetical set according to last name. Given this system, it was not possible to know whether a certain individual’s form was included in the alphabetical set without physically going to the archive and inspecting the relevant folder’s contents. Similarly, the numerical set was not easily searchable because it was impossible to guess the serial number of a particular individual.

To extract the information hidden in this historically important trove of documents, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People and the National Library teamed up with MyHeritage. As a leading commercial genealogy company, MyHeritage understood the value contained in these forms. Beyond comprehensive documentation of Vienna Jewry, one of the largest Jewish communities in the Jewish world on the eve of the Holocaust, the collection could also provide information about relatives living on other continents, a missing link that was not readily available in the databases generally used for researching family roots.

As part of the project, the Central Archives team separated the contents of the binders into the individual forms, which were then sent to the National Library of Israel’s state of the art digitization center for scanning. The scans were linked to entries in the archive’s catalog, which at this stage contained no information and were still inaccessible to the public. A digital copy of the hundreds of thousands of scanned pages was also sent to MyHeritage, which engaged a large international team that set to work developing a detailed key of the main data points contained in the forms. The result was a huge Excel file, with over three hundred thousand lines, spanning 129 columns. A copy was sent to the CAHJP, and the data was simultaneously processed and uploaded to MyHeritage’s systems.

The archive team processed the millions of data points into catalog records adapted to the archive’s own data structure. Great effort was invested in unifying various terms, such as the hundreds of different ways personal status or the nature of the kinship of family members and relatives abroad was recorded. We also had to correct quite a few errors, many of which were made on the original forms. We all make mistakes when we have to fill out endless forms like this. We enter our place of birth instead of our address, switch a date of birth with the date on which we are filling out the form, and we might even get confused about the century we were born in. For example, in 1938, some people wrote that they were born in 1988, when of course they meant 1888. It is easy for people in a terribly stressful situation to make mistakes like these, even more if you were an immigrant from regions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Galicia, Bohemia, Moravia, Bukovina, Hungary, etc.) and didn’t have a very good command of German. A great deal of work has taken place and the effort is still ongoing to unify and standardize the names of the applicants’ birthplaces and of places where their relatives lived. It is fascinating to see how Galician Jews in Vienna imagined the geography of the United States, and the dozens of different ways New York and its boroughs were written on the immigration applications.

After resolving the various data errors, we created coherent information from the fragments of details, according to computer algorithms, to produce the following sequences: applicant: last name, first name, date of birth (day/month/year), place of birth (geographical place) and personal status. We created other sequences for the family members listed on the application and for relatives listed as living abroad.

Sometimes the original form is missing, and a note was inserted indicating that the form had been removed for various administrative purposes and not been returned. In cases where these notes included useful information, such as the applicant’s name and the form’s serial number, we left the information to indicate that there was once a form here, even if it is not extant today.

The catalog information was uploaded to the (initially) hidden catalog entries created at the early stages of the project, and these were then made accessible to the public, along with the scans.

The collection is accessible on the Library and CAHJP’s website and it is accessible to MyHeritage users as well. The MyHeritage platform is also able to compare the information with that contained in other databases available on their website, yielding further insights from various sources about the individuals mentioned in the records.

In the weeks since the collection went online, many have managed to learn more about their family history and fill in unknown details. If your family resided in Vienna on the eve of World War II, there is a good chance that they also filled out a form, and you can find it on the National Library of Israel website, or at the following link.

If you are experiencing difficulty with the site, please contact us at [email protected]

Vienna Jewish Community Welfare Department- Immigration Bureau form, filled out by Siegmund (Zsigo) Wertheimer on August 11, 1938. Zsigo Wertheimer was a well-respected professional women’s swimming coach. He was married to swimmer Hedi (Hedwig) Bienenfeld who excelled at the breast and backstroke and who became famous in 1924 for winning first place in an “Across Vienna” open-water swim competition

This one-of-a-kind source contains more than personal information and family stories. From it, one can learn not only about those terrible days, but also about the richness of Jewish life in Vienna between the two world wars. You can discover the exact addresses of writers, playwrights, musicians, Rebbes and Torah scholars, or map out the streets and neighborhoods where Jews lived or the places from which they immigrated to Vienna, their occupations and the many languages they spoke.

But above all, the collection tells the story of how the Jews of Vienna woke up one morning to find themselves under Nazi rule. It tells of their desperate attempts to secure the sums that would enable them to leave and the bureaucratic nightmare of validating passports, obtaining an immigration visa as well as a “transit” permit to an intermediate country.

In her novel Transit, Anna Seghers, herself a Jewish refugee who attempted to leave Europe, tells a joke that circulated among the refugee community trying to emigrate via the port of Marseille, which was under the control of the French Vichy government:

A person gets to heaven and arrives in a waiting room where there are two doors, one to heaven and one to hell. For half a year, he is shuffled from one clerk to another in an endless pursuit of forms and signatures. At some point he turns to the clerk in charge and tells him that he can’t deal any longer with all this waiting. He is giving up his chance to go to heaven and prefers instead to be sent to Hell. ‘I’m sorry for having to tell you this,’ says the clerk, ‘but you are in Hell.’

“Vienna of the Sewers”: A School for Dictators

In 1907 a young man from a small provincial town in Austria arrived in Vienna, the European art capitol of the era, with hopes of enrolling in the art academy. His rejection led him to roam the streets of “the other Vienna,” which many historians viewed to be a “school for the future dictator.”

Adolf Hitler’s Party Membership Card. Though in Mein Kampf he claimed that he was the seventh member to join the Nazi party, this card proves that he was in fact the 555th

In 1907 a young man from a small provincial town in Austria arrived in Vienna, the European art capitol of the era, with hopes of enrolling in the art academy. His rejection led him roam the streets of “the other Vienna,” which many historians viewed to be a “school for the future dictator.”

The young Adolf Hitler

The Vienna Hitler met with was not the same Vienna familiar to art lovers. The neighborhood where the impoverished young man lived was not one of the glorious cultural districts that had produced cultural and artistic greats like Gustav Klimt, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler. The Vienna where Hitler lived was known as the Vienna of the sewers: a city where thousands of penniless young people wandered in search of a paltry income. It was a Vienna of poor men struggling to live in crumbling apartments or pay-by-the-day government subsidized public housing. This was a school for the future dictator: in Vienna, the multinational capitol of a mighty empire, Hitler encountered an array of cultures and “races.” He perfected the poisonous hatred of foreigners he had brought with him from his provincial upbringing. From his visit to the multilingual parliament he developed a hatred of democracy which he viewed as a nonfunctional system of government. He saw Vienna as a place where the glorious German race had deteriorated by mixing with inferior races, chief among them of course, the hated Jews.

Adolf Hitler, The Vienna State Opera House, first decade of the twentieth century

His failure to gain entry to the art academy and the general failure that characterized his life was a blow to his pride. From a deep loathing of the miserable situation in which he found himself, Hitler was drawn toward German nationalism, which enabled young Austrians like him to see themselves as part of something greater than just themselves. They were the superior German race that will once again have the upper hand and rule over others. During those days when he was barely eking out a living from selling postcards with his drawings to passersby, he entertained himself with fantasies of the restoration of Greater Germany (which included Austria) and the part he would play in it.

The outbreak of World War I (known as The Great War for that generation) offered the young man an escape from the suffocating capitol. A year earlier he had crossed the border to Munich and in 1914 joined the German army. For most of the war he was running along the French/German front, a post he dutifully fulfilled at great personal risk. Word of the German defeat reached him in a hospital where he was recovering from a gas attack.

Hitler celebrates with the crowds in Munich at the outbreak of the First World War

After the war, while looking for a job, he found his true calling: inspiring crowds to hatred and violence. As more and more crises plagued his new-old homeland Germany, the party he had founded rose higher and higher. In 1933, the man who declared himself Führer (the leader) of the Nazi party was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

Adolf Hitler’s Party Membership Card. Though in Mein Kampf he claimed that he was the seventh member to join the Nazi party, this card proves that he was in fact the 555th

The kind of popular politics that characterized Hitler was the politics of shrill and venomous attacks. They characterized his professional career as a dictator and led him on 1 September 1939 to form a temporary alliance with the Soviet Union and divide between the two powers neighboring Poland. After the West’s appeasement with Germany in Munich the previous year, Hitler believed that the occupation of Poland would also pass without much of a response. He was mistaken. The invasion of Poland, Britain and France’s close ally, sparked the most terrible war humanity had ever known. It was during this war that the most systematic and brutal genocide in the annals of history was perpetrated: the Holocaust of European and North African Jewry.

Adolf Hitler passed six directionless yet intense years in Vienna. In his autobiography from1924 he wrote, “Vienna was and still is for me the most difficult school but also the most profound I have attended.”

Historians have been grappling for generations with the question of whether history is created by great people or by great events? Either way, many historians, philosophers, and ordinary people believed that had a rather spoiled young man had been accepted to the academy of art in Vienna back in 1907, the world might have gained another mediocre painter but also would have avoided the most bloody and terrible war of all time.

A Kol Nidre Prayer on the German Warfront in 1870

Even on Yom Kippur, German Jews in the 19th century were ready to sacrifice themselves for their homeland

A Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz, 1870

The Franco-Prussian War broke out in the summer of 1870 and ended about six months later with the defeat of France. The war brought about the unification of the many German states and the establishment of the Second Reich.

These were not the first Jewish soldiers to fight for their country, far from it. Years before, Jews were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian and French armies. Jewish soldiers also took part in the American War of Independence, and the Russian army forcibly took Jewish children from their homes for military service as early as the 1820s, following the Cantonist Decree. In 1870, German Jews saw the war against France as an opportunity to show their gratitude for the equal rights they had been granted not long before. Against this background, about 4,700 Jews joined the German army to fight for their homeland.

On August 19th, 1870, the French Army of the Rhine retreated to the fortresses of the city of Metz and the Prussian army imposed a siege on the city.

One of the Metz fortresses after the war

The German Jews who were among the soldiers maintaining the siege must have hoped that it would end before the Jewish High Holidays. But Rosh Hashanah came, and the siege of Metz remained in place. The Jewish soldiers were allowed to hold prayers, but there were no chaplains to handle the preparations and lead the ceremonies. A young rabbi named Isaac Blumenstein took up the task, arriving at the military camp on September 30, just before Yom Kippur. The prayers were to take place at the First Army headquarters in the village of Sainte-Barbe, about eight kilometers from the battlefield.

The rabbi was offered to hold the Yom Kippur prayers in a local Catholic church. He refused and instead turned his and his neighbor’s personal quarters into a makeshift prayer space. Two candles were placed on a table that substituted as the bimah, and some 60 to 70 soldiers gathered there for the prayer.

Rabbi Blumenstein’s description of the event

Rabbi Blumenstein described the extraordinary event in an article that was published in the press after the holiday. A few days later, a soldier who had been there described it in a letter, adding that some officers and members of the command had also come. The soldier described Rabbi Blumenstein’s stirring sermon and how it even moved some to tears.

The German artist Hermann Junker (who was not Jewish) created two paintings commemorating the Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz in 1870. Not having been present at the event, the artist had to imagine both scenes, although the first painting is based on Rabbi Blumenstein’s description. The caption at the bottom of a postcard featuring the painting describes it as the Kol Nidre prayer on the eve of the Yom Kippur holiday. At prayers the next day, since there was no Torah scroll, Rabbi Blumenstein recited the Torah reading and Haftarah from memory.

Postcard based on Junker’s painting

The second painting documents the Yom Kippur-day prayers being held outdoors in an open field. The painting shows dozens of soldiers, most of them wrapped in their prayer shawls and holding prayer books, gathered around a rock that is being used as a bimah. At the center are three soldiers reading from the Torah scroll. Piles of weapons and even a cannon are shown at the ready. A number of civilians are also included in the picture.

This painting is based on a description written by an anonymous soldier before Yom Kippur that was published in the Jewish press after the holiday. His description noted that 1,174 Jewish soldiers from Silesia and Poznań were planning on attending the prayer. The soldier wrote that, with God’s grace and in the hopes that the French commander — that is, the enemy — would allow it, the prayer would take place in an open field. The soldiers would wear their Pickelhaubes (the typical Prussian spiked helmet) and wrap themselves in their prayer shawls. During the prayer, their non-Jewish comrades would keep watch from a distance to avoid any disruptions. However, things did not go as planned because shortly before the prayer service was to begin, most of the soldiers were called away on a mission.

Yom Kippur prayers in the field

Nevertheless, the painting of the prayer on the battlefield thrilled all who saw it. German Jews viewed it as conclusive proof of their loyalty, notwithstanding their religion and beliefs, to the German people and their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the homeland.

The importance of the German Jews’ military service in the war is also evident in a pamphlet published at the beginning of the war containing a sermon by Rabbi Rahmer of Magdeburg in German, which also included quotes in Hebrew from the scriptures.  The pamphlet is titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”).

The pamphlet was titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”)

In 1871, after the war was over, a memorial book was published for the Jewish soldiers who served in the Prussian army. The book describes the war’s events and includes a long roster of the names of all the Jewish soldiers who fought in it as well as special mention of the 70 or so Jewish soldiers who were awarded the “Iron Cross” for bravery in battle.

Unlike the painting commemorating the more modest service in Rabbi Blumenstein’s private quarters, Junker’s painting of the Yom Kippur prayers in the open field was copied, elaborated and distributed across Germany and beyond. It inspired other paintings of the same event, most of them more elaborate and detailed than Junker’s original, even replacing the natural rock bimah with a proper one as well as a Torah ark. In some of the paintings, non-Jewish soldiers are seen in the surrounding mountains guarding the Jews as they pray in the open field. One picture even shows Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Bismarck, Chief of Staff von Moltke and other high ranking officers in attendance.

The Prussian military leadership at the prayer

Another notable difference between Junker’s original image and the versions it inspired is that most of the later versions were colored, which made it possible to distinguish between the different military uniforms and units. Some of these versions also added poems and prayers in German and Hebrew.

An illustration inspired by Junker’s painting

Junker’s painting also inspired a version that was printed on red cloth and decorated with inscriptions, most notably the verse featured at the top from the book of Malachi (2:10): “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” In other words reflecting the notion that all German soldiers are equal, regardless of their religion.

Cloth banner with the quotation from Malachi

Forty-four years after the Franco Prussian-War, Germany was at war again. Many photographs document German Jewish soldiers praying at different locations on the various Jewish holidays throughout the First World War. But the German Jewish families who still had Junker’s famous picture hanging on their walls must have been happy to see a similar painting from the latest war. In the first year of the Great War, an artist by the name of Pusch painted a picture inspired by Junker’s from 1870. Although it records a different place and time, here too, a large group of Jewish soldiers is portrayed praying for their salvation and the success of their countrymen on the battlefield.

Jewish soldiers praying during the First World War, inspired by Junker’s 1870 painting