The cover of the Hebrew version of the book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", published by Miskal, Books in the Attic
In 1407, an underground passageway was built next to a large mass grave in Paris’ central burial ground, known as “The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery” (Cimetière des Saints-Innocents). The upper section of the new passageway was decorated with a group of statues featuring the typical Christian iconography of the time.
The statues depicted Jesus, surrounded by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, as well as by the couple who donated the underground passageway: Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel. Under these figures are several plates portraying traditional early 15th century Christian symbols.
Very little is known about Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel. Were it not for the group of statues in the Parisian cemetery, Nicolas Flamel would undoubtably have been forgotten by the residents of the city within a few decades of his death. The statues were destroyed towards the end of the 18th century, but Nicolas Flamel’s name outlived that destruction as well.
During the Renaissance period, many people attempted to decipher the deeper meanings of the Middle Age Christian symbolism displayed in the statues, among them several alchemists. One of these, Robert Duval, immediately identified two dragons featured on one of the plates placed below the statues as an alchemist symbol for the creation of metals.
From this point forward, the plate drew a great deal of attention from those familiar with various secret teachings, and the cemetery became a site of pilgrimage for alchemists and other dabblers in the occult and the hidden sciences.
As early as the late 16th century, a legend spread that Flamel owned an old and mystical book from which he studied occult teachings. The esoteric information in the book’s pages helped Flamel to crack the secret of the creation of gold and silver by means of a “philosopher’s stone”. The legend was recorded in a French text known as Le Sommaire Philosophique (“The Philosophical Summary”), which includes a description of pictures similar to the figures displayed in the cemetery statues.
It seems that turning Nicolas Flamel into a mystical sage was not sufficient and an autobiography attributed to Flamel himself was suddenly discovered in the early 17th century. This book was given the mysterious name “Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures”(Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques) and relates a classic tale in the field of alchemy: one day, while working as a registrar of estates of the deceased, Flamel encountered a book bound in a gilded copper binding whose 21 pages were made of tree bark.
The book was written in what appear to be Greek letters, which Flamel did not know how to read, and was replete with unusual illustrations. According to the title page it was authored by “Abraham the Jew”, a prince, Levite, astrologist and philosopher. Flamel bought the book and managed to decipher its contents but was unable to understand the hidden symbols in the illustrations. Flamel, therefore, traveled to Spain, where he hoped to find a scholar able to explain the true meaning behind the images.
According to the tale, in Spain, the Parisian scholar found a Christian doctor with Jewish origins named Canche, who managed to decipher the message hidden in Abraham the Jew’s mysterious book. The doctor claimed that the illustrations contained the secrets behind the creation of metals. Canche died on their journey back to Paris, but after his return, Flamel managed to create high-quality strands of silver and gold in alchemical experiments based on Canche’s interpretations of the images. This discovery, the autobiography tells us, improved Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel’s financial standing to such an extent that they could make large donations to welfare institutions in Paris.
The autobiography also notes that the mystical drawings in Abraham the Jew’s book were evemtually reproduced in the aforementioned underground passageway in the Paris cemetery.
It is important to note that the original manuscript of Flamel’s book was never discovered. Abraham the Jew’s book was also never found. Historical research has proven that the book “Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures” was written by a 17th century author and alchemist. The autobiography contains language typical of that time, and mentions people not yet born during the lifetime of the historical Nicolas Flamel.
The qualms about the background and history of the supposed autobiography did not prevent it from enjoying a long and fruitful shelf life. After its publication in French in 1612, the text was translated into other languages (English in 1624, and German in 1681). One of the enthusiastic readers of the autobiography was none other than Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the father of modern physics. Newton summarized the book by hand and even copied out the picture depicting the group of statues in the Paris cemetery, including the mysterious plates which have been referred to as hieroglyphics. This manuscript can be found, together with Newton’s other alchemistic writings, in the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.
Copies of the fantastic autobiography attributed to Flamel can still be found today. The last edition we are aware of was printed in 1996 in Spain under the name El libro de las figuras jeroglificas. The figure of the supposed author, Nicolas Flamel, was also brought back to life in contemporary literature. In J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published in the U.S. under the name Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), Flamel is described as a man who is hundreds of years old, a friend of Albus Dumbledore the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the owner of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Flamel also makes an appearance in Dan Brown’s popular book TheDa Vinci Code, and the Irish author Michael Scott even dedicated an entire six-book series to the imaginary Flamel: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicolas Flamel. Needless to say, all these literary works are unconnected to the historical Nicolas Flamel.
So who was the historical Nicolas Flamel?
To the best of our knowledge, Nicolas Flamel was born around the year 1330, not far from the French capital. In 1370 he married a widow named Perenelle and spent most of his life as a transcriber of manuscripts, an author and low-ranking legal clerk – positions from which he made a living. He later became a manuscript merchant in the service of the University of Paris.
The funds which helped him and his wife become patrons of a series of small churches, hospitals and other welfare institutions should be attributed to his wife – she appears to have been in possession of significant financial wealth when she was married to Nicolas, which she inherited from her two previous deceased husbands.
All the above information can be found on a 600 year old tombstone currently found in a museum in Paris (Musee de Cluny) which, together with several of the couples’ original documents, tell the story of the man immortalized both among lovers of secret teachings and readers of modern fantasy literature.
For many of the residents of the displaced persons camp in Munich in April, 1946, the upcoming Passover Seder symbolized more than the Jewish people’s historical redemption; it was the reality unfolding before their eyes. Many of the survivors clustered together in the displaced persons camp had hoped that they would celebrate Passover of 1947 far from the land where their loved ones had been slaughtered, far from the land in which the Nazis and their collaborators aimed to destroy them and the entire Jewish nation. Those in the know spoke about that Passover night as the “Seder of the exodus from Europe”.
Yosef Dov Sheinson, a resident of the camp, wanted to express this sentiment in a Haggadah which he wrote for the Seder in the displaced persons camp. The excerpts in Hebrew and Yiddish which Sheinson added to the traditional haggadah are accompanied by woodcuts by the Jewish-Hungarian artist Zvi Miklos Adler, who signed his name in the Haggadah as “Ben Binyamin”.
Depicting the horrors of the Holocaust which he himself experienced during the war years, Adler’s harsh drawings complement the text of the Haggadah. In an illustration corresponding with the well-known sentence “for not only one has risen against us to destroy us” we see a soldier shooting several wretched looking prisoners, while another soldier leads a group of stooped prisoners toward an unknown destination. The picture gradually fades away as the prisoners move away from the center of the event.
The intertwining of traditional text and modern pictures illustrates the way the creators of the Haggadah grasped the historical moment in which they lived: in each and every generation a person must see himself as if he left Egypt, but it is not in every generation that a person undergoes horrors which darken his world and dwarf the suffering experienced by his ancestors.
The need to talk about and deal with the terrible topic is tangibly and explicitly expressed in the Haggadah in an illustration which is hard to look at, and under which is written, “Therefore we are obligated…”
While this excerpt in the Haggadah is usually dedicated towards praise and thanksgiving to God for redeeming us from Egypt, the expression on the face of the survivor at the bottom of the picture shows quite the opposite.
Passover Seder in the U.S. Army
A copy of this haggadah reached Rabbi Avraham Klausner, an American army chaplain who was in the midst of preparing for a Seder of the U.S. Army forces stationed in Munich. He decided to conduct the Seder according to this haggadah, making a single change – he added an introduction addressed to soldiers in General Eisenhower’s army (whom Klausner compared in his introduction to a modern-day Moses).
Rabbi Klausner’s introduction is in the same vein as Sheinson and Adler’s work, equating Hitler with Pharaoh and the suffering the Jews endured in Egypt with what the Jews went through in the concentration and death camps.
The invite list to the Seder conducted by Rabbi Klausner in the Munich Theatre, held on the same night as the Seder of the displaced persons camp in Munich, is preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The list shows that only a few of the five hundred participants of the Passover Seder conducted by Rabbi Klausner were Holocaust survivors. The majority were soldiers in the U.S. armed forces.
The letter A was stamped on the title page of Rabbi Klausner’s private copy, indicating it belonged to the U.S. Army. On the same title page is the date and the location of the Seder at which the Haggadah was used: Munich, Germany, April 15-16, 1946″.
Rabbi Klausner’s personal copy is currently stored in the Haggadah Collection of Aviram Paz. It was lent to the National Library for its “Next Year We Will Be Free Men” exhibition – an exhibition of unconventional Passover Haggadot from the years leading up to the founding of the state.
“Next year in Jerusalem!” cry the multiple voices of Jews around the world when they finally reach the end of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover. It is during this never ending meal that Jews recount the road out of slavery towards liberty. This is when parents tell their children that in every generation, every Jew, must consider themselves as though they had been freed from the bondage of Egypt.
Except in Soviet Russia, where a special Haggadah was written and distributed in which the cry for revolution, not Jerusalem, was brought to the table. “This year a revolution here; next year – a world revolution!”
The communist Jews of the early Soviet Union put together special propaganda Haggadot in which the old Jewish traditions were decried and the new communist ideas were embraced. One of them was the Komsomolishe Haggadah, published in Moscow in 1922 by Moshe Altshuler.
One way in which Altshuler portrayed these new ideas was in using the language of Passover to show how communist ideals have and will continue to spread throughout the world. For example, one of the traditions prior to the celebration of Passover is the removal of leavened bread and products made of wheat in general from the home.
They are then gathered in a pile and set on fire so that they can be destroyed. This is called in Yiddish bdikes-khomets, literally meaning, “checking for chametz “, the remnants of bread and wheat products in the home. Altshuler interprets this bdikes-khomets in this way:
“Five years before the first Komsomol Pesach all Russian proletariat and peasants performed bdikes-khomets in the land. They removed all remnants of the rule of the bourgeoisie and landowners, gained power in their hands and defeated the enemy on all fronts.
In the fire of Great Socialistic Revolution they burned kolchaks, yudeniches, vrangels, denikins, pilsudsskis, petlurs, chernovs, gotzs, dans, martovs, abramoviches and said the brokhe: “All landowners, bourgeois and their minions – Mensheviks, SRs, CaDets, Bundists, Zionists, Poale Zions, Tsaire Zions and all other counter-revolutionists, nuisances, ne’er-do-wells and parasites should be burned in the fire of the Revolution. Those who were already burned, shall never rise again, and as to those who will remain, we will sacrifice them and hand them over to the State Political Directorate.”
What else is there to say?
Altshuler wanted to show the younger generation that the old bourgeois ideas were as bad as khometz during Passover. By using the colloquial language, Yiddish, and the older traditional form of the Haggadah, he made the Soviet revolution accessible to every Jew living in Moscow and beyond.
The Haggadah is chock-full of examples where Altshuler appropriated the religious activities and made them communist for the proliferation of communism. Like the splitting of the matzah (Yechatz – יחץ) in which the revolutionary Proletariat split the control of the means of production from the capitalist bourgeois, the wrapping (Korech – כורך) in which the revolution consumes the bosses and oppressors of the working class, and the sacrifice itself, (Korban Pesach – קרבן פסח), which looks shockingly traditional.
Through all of the above the communist ideals of the Soviet revolution were realized.
This article was written with the help of Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Judaica Collection of the National Library of Israel.