Judith Montefiore on How to Cook Like a Proper Jewish Lady

The name Judith Montefiore is probably not famous enough in Israel. A brief search of the National Library archives revealed that not only was she an equal partner in her husband’s charitable endeavors, but she was also likely the anonymous editor of the first Jewish cookbook published in England…

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A portrait of Judith Montefiore alongside the book she most likely edited...

It would be difficult to imagine a more chauvinist cliché than “behind every successful man is a woman.” However, in the case of Sir Moses Montefiore, it is entirely true. Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore’s joint charitable work preceded Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by some 200 years. And even though Sir Moses generally received most of the glory, Lady Judith was a full and equal partner in all his activities and decisions. In the mid-19th century, during her own lifetime, she received much more credit, not only from the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, but throughout the world.

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The Montefiore family crest, from the book Mizmor Shir Hanukat Bayit, the National Library of Israel

The recent renaming of the footbridge crossing the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv from Gesher Yehudit (“Judith Bridge”) to Gesher Yitzhak Navon (“Yitzhak Navon Bridge”) was a good reason to dig through the Library archives in search of one of Jewish history’s most important women. Judith Montefiore was not only the figure behind the most significant financial contributions to the Old Yishuv in the Land of Israel, but she also worked to promote Jewish life everywhere while even engaging in diplomatic missions.

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Portrait of Sir Moses Montefiore sitting opposite a portrait of Judith. This image is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Among the National Library of Israel’s holdings is a copy of the first-ever Jewish cookbook and housekeeping guide published in England. Released in 1846, The Jewish Manual: Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery (With a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette) lists only “A Lady” as its editor. Since its publication, the book has been attributed to Lady Judith Montefiore, although there is no documentation or concrete proof to support this hypothesis. Not many Jewish women in Victorian England held the title of Lady, but there were a few possible candidates.

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“Edited by A Lady.” Front page of the book The Jewish Manual: Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery. From a digital copy held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Beyond being a Jewish cookbook that—as the editor states in the introduction—instructs its readers on the art of preparing quality, delicious meals while following strict Jewish dietary laws, it is also a guide for the middle-class Jewish homemaker. The reader, of course, must have at least one maidservant to assist her in the management of the kitchen, household, and personal care—nothing out of the ordinary for any proper Jewish Lady. In the introduction, the anonymous editor notes that the book is written for young women as a guide to managing a rich and diverse table, the foundation for a happy family as well as successful social interactions.

The first part of the book is devoted to various Jewish recipes, or perhaps more correctly, the preparation of dishes in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. The book also includes recipes for specifically Jewish dishes, mainly of Spanish, Dutch and German origin, places that happened to characterize the food served at the Montefiore home. Anyone looking for recipes for Eastern European delicacies, such as gefilte fish, chopped liver, latkes or borscht, will be disappointed, as the massive Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to the West only began in the 1880s.

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No soy sauce and ketchup. The Jewish Manual, from a digital copy held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

In this section of the book, the editor not only includes recipes but also a few tips for the sophisticated hostess. For example, the anonymous editor recommends not cooking with soy sauce or ketchup, which “inferior cooks” tend to add to their stews. Rather, these sauces should be placed on the table, and each guest may add them to their own taste.

The last part of the book is devoted to personal hygiene. According to the editor, while a woman’s intelligence is the true source of her beauty, she should also nurture her body. Toward this end, the book includes quite a few recipes and tips for facial, lip and skin care, including advice on keeping hands white and smooth.

Renewed interest in the book led some amateur historians to connect The Jewish Manual to Judith Montefiore. More thorough research revealed that the book’s recipes correspond to the type of cuisine served in the Montefiore home, but the connection did not end there. Careful perusal of the book reveals that the “Lady” who edited it was a member of the upper class, in addition to being a world traveler who also visited Palestine, from where she brought a recipe for soup. Judith Montefiore visited the Land of Israel in the mid-nineteenth century no less than five times while accompanying her husband. She was captivated by the charm of the Holy Land and even learned Arabic, in addition to Hebrew and four or five other languages ​​she already knew.

 

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Here is the recipe for “Palestine Soup”, a classic local dish featuring Jerusalem artichokes, from Lady Judith Montefiore’s cookbook:

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Recipe for Palestine Soup. The Jewish Manual, from a digital copy held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

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There is no conclusive proof that Judith Montefiore is the mysterious “Lady” behind the book, but we believe her to be. The Montefiores donated the funds to renovate Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and after his beloved wife’s death in 1862, Sir Moses Montefiore built a tomb on their estate in Ramsgate, Kent, modeled on that very edifice. Upon his death, he was buried there alongside her.

“The Jews were in shock…” – A Nazi View of Kristallnacht

Reports and books written by senior members of the Nazi regime deposited in the National Library of Israel reveal chilling texts describing "The Night of Broken Glass" from the Nazi perspective...

The Frankfurt Borneplatz Synagogue in flames on Kristallnacht

On November 7, 1938, a young Jew carrying a pistol entered the German embassy in Paris. There, at 9:30 a.m., he shot German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, gravely wounding him. He said it was in revenge for the suffering the Nazis had inflicted on his family.

The shooter, Herschel Grynszpan, was only 17 years old. His family lived in Germany, but they were Polish citizens. Herschel had been sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Paris, but he kept in touch with his parents, brother and sister. After the Nazi regime expelled the family along with thousands of other Jews who were citizens of Poland, they found themselves without food, clothing or money in the no-man’s land that was the German-Polish border region.

Herschel Grynszpan
Ernst vom Rath

Adolf Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels were told of the assassination within half an hour of the incident. They realized that this event represented a valuable opportunity. Adolf Eichmann, then head of the Jewish Department of the SS in Austria, had already identified the most effective way of ridding Germany of its Jews while keeping their money and assets in the country. In his view, antisemitic laws were not enough to achieve the goal because many Jews were willing to tolerate them and to remain in Germany. Only a severe and extreme act of state-organized terrorism could cause them to flee while they were still able.

As propaganda minister, Goebbels was the right man to handle the fallout of the assassination incident in Paris. However, that morning he was hurrying to the train to Munich, as the Nazi movement’s memorial day celebrations were to take place two day later, on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch.

In his absence, Goebbels appointed Wolfgang Diewerge, an expert on antisemitic propaganda and a great believer in Jewish conspiracies, to run the campaign. Diewerge had extensive experience in the field of propaganda. In 1936, he led the propaganda campaign against the young Jew David Frankfurter, who had assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, the founder of the Nazi movement’s Swiss branch. Diewerge wrote two books about Frankfurter, published in 1936 and 1937 (Frankfurter would eventually make his way to Mandatory Palestine. He passed away in 1982 in Ramat-Gan, Israel, at the age of 73).

Ein Jude hat geschossen (“A Jew Fired”), Wolfgang Dierwerge’s 1937 pamphlet about the assassination perpetrated by David Frankfurter, the National Library of Israel collections

Goebbels expected Diewerge to market the story of the assassination of Vom Rath as a global Jewish conspiracy with the aim of undermining the peace between Germany and France, in which Grynszpan was only a pawn, Diewerge was called to serve as the Ministry of Propaganda’s media spokesperson and to ensure prominent newspaper headlines to that effect. Moreover, Goebbels wanted Diewerge to make sure that the media reported that if the injured Vom Rath should die, the German people would seek harsh retaliation. This paved the way for Goebbels to stir the flames and “suggest” a pogrom without calling for one explicitly.

Wolfgang Diewerge

On the night of that bitter day, November 7, the German News Agency (DNB) sent Diewerge’s detailed instructions to the German media. Among other things, news outlets were instructed not to criticize the authorities in France, and they were even advised to use Diewerge’s pamphlets as an effective source of propaganda.

Vom Rath died two days after the shooting. Within hours of his death, on the night of November 9, 1938, pogroms broke out, targeting the Jews of Germany and Austria, and continuing into the next day, November 10. Allegedly, these were spontaneous riots by the masses in response to the assassination, but in fact, the violence was a result of the well-oiled Nazi propaganda system, which inflamed the masses, inciting and encouraging the brutal riots.

The Nazis called the event “Kristallnacht”—a phrase that describes the shattered glass windows of thousands of Jewish shops and synagogues, but completely ignores the murder of 400 Jews (according to one estimate), and the 30,000 Jewish men who were captured and sent to concentration camps. More Jews were murdered or committed suicide in the days that followed.

Diewerge’s robust propaganda activity, however, did not end with his incitement of the crowds in the lead up to Kristallnacht. This was just the beginning. He became an “expert” on Grynszpan and the effects of Vom Rath’s assassination. A year after the event, Diewerge published a new book, Anschlag gegen den frieden: ein gelbbuch über Grünspan und seine helfershelfer (“The War Against Peace: A Yellow Book on Grynszpan and His Accomplices”). Diewerge enlisted the help of foreign representatives of the Nazi movement and the Gestapo in preparing the book, which was intended to emphasize the connection between Vom Rath’s assassination and world Jewry’s supposed desire to incite war. The book was translated into French by the German Foreign Office and disseminated in France with the aim of balancing public opinion in the face of the many anti-Nazi publications that were being issued by Jewish organizations.

Diewerge’s book Aschlag gegen den frieden: ein gelbbuch uber Grünspan und sein helfershelfer, the National Library of Israel collections

Diewerge’s book contains chapters on Jewish life in Germany, Jewish reactions to the assassination, and Kristallnacht. Much of the book is devoted to preparations for Grynszpan’s trial (which ultimately did not take place), the French legal system, as well as German claims of a Jewish conspiracy. Diewerge attempted to highlight the connection of world Jewry to the assassination, even writing of the price that, in his view, should have been extracted in retribution.

The National Library of Israel possesses several copies of the book. One of them is stamped with the seal of the SS-Verfügungstruppe, the military arm of the Nazi movement, which later became the Waffen-SS. In addition to the seal, there is a dedication to SS officer Gustav Adolf Pogalschnigg from Christmas, 1940.

Diewerge’s book, featuring the Nazi seal and a dedication to an SS officer, the National Library of Israel collections

The book itself has been uploaded to Wiki Commons and is accessible here.

Another fascinating glimpse into the events of Kristallnacht from a Nazi perspective, comes from the archive of the well-known Nazi hunter Tuvia Friedman (1922–2011). Friedman, who survived the Holocaust, joined the Polish police in 1945, where he served as a detective tasked with locating, capturing and interrogating Nazis. Later on he continued his work in Vienna, where he was instrumental in the arrest of many war criminals, and along the way, collected a great deal of archival material that helped in the location and prosecution of others.

Tuvia Friedman, 1950

One of the documents that Friedman donated to the National Library of Israel is a Stimmungsberichte, a report written in Vienna on November 10, 1938—that is, during or immediately after the events of Kristallnacht. The Gestapo and the SD composed these fairly objective reports, which described the feelings of the people and the atmosphere in the streets around events or government decisions, with the goal of allowing the Nazi authorities a realistic view of the actual situation on the ground. Herman Goering, one of the leaders of the Nazi regime, did not care for this approach and as early as 1936 ordered the Gestapo to stop writing them. Nevertheless, throughout World War II, the SD continued to research and publish reports on public sentiment.

The Stimmungsberichte in the Library’s collection describes what happened in Vienna on Kristallnacht. In the report, the district SD officer writes that the Jews were removed from their homes, with some also arrested. The goods of the Jewish-owned shops were collected. The Jews were in complete shock and did not even try to assert their rights. It is likely they were also angry with Grynszpan for what he had done. Members of the Nazi movement took part in the riots but did not wear Nazi uniforms or symbols to cover up the fact that they were indeed behind it. Surprisingly, most of the population opposed the riots against the Jews, and some raised their voices against the pogrom. The condemnation did not stem from the Viennese citizens’ love for the Jews, but from fear of violence and anarchy, and from respect for the law. According to the author of the report, the Viennese were softhearted and not fond of surprises of this kind. The officer also noted some conclusions from Kristallnacht—that more advance preparations should have been made, and that better propaganda could have improved the Viennese people’s willingness to participate in the riots against the Jews.

Detail of the Stimmungberichte written on Kristallnacht, the National Library of Israel collections

Grynszpan himself was imprisoned in France. With the outbreak of the war, he was transferred to the south of France, and was even given the opportunity to flee from the approaching German forces. He insisted, however, on remaining in French custody until in July 1940 he was transferred to the Gestapo by the Vichy regime.

Grynszpan was not executed. Hitler and Goebbels wanted to use the card that had fallen into their laps, planning a show trial for Grynszpan that would prove to the world the destructive intentions of world Jewry. Diewerge and a Nazi jurist named Friedrich Grimm were in charge of the preparations and propaganda for the trial. After many delays, the proceedings were postponed indefinitely in May 1942. Despite rumors to the contrary, Herschel Grynszpan was apparently murdered in the summer or fall of 1942.

Grynszpan regretted that his actions had led to the murder of hundreds as well as mass destruction of property on Kristallnacht. And yet, some consider him responsible for the rescue of some 80,000 Jews who, because of these events, realized that they were no longer safe in Germany and made heroic efforts to flee, while they still could.

The Bar Mitzvah Gift That Survived the Holocaust

A special dedication in a copy of the book "Mesilat Yasharim" sparked some fascinating detective work tracing the history of the Austrian Jewish community during the Holocaust, and the story of a young man and his family who were murdered by the Nazis...

In March 1938, the German army entered Vienna and the Jews of Austria realized that it was time to leave, and the sooner the better. The annexation of Austria to the Reich, the Anschluss, and the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws brought with them violence, looting and humiliation for Austria’s Jewish citizens.

Vienna before the Holocaust, photo: Yad Vashem

One of the sources of pride for the Jews of Vienna before the Holocaust was the large community library. The initial core of its collections arrived as early as 1814 with the donation of 133 volumes straight from the printing press. With the entry of the Nazis into Vienna, the library contained tens of thousands of books, including 21 incunabula (books produced during the first few years of the printing era) and 645 manuscripts, and was considered one of the most important Jewish libraries in Europe.

It was no wonder that the Nazis were happy to get their hands on it. They closed the library in July 1938 and moved it to Berlin a year later. Other Jewish libraries in Austria were also looted. Some belonged to Jewish organizations and others were private collections. When the Jews of Austria were deported to Eastern Europe, their property was taken to collection depots, including countless books.

In 1941, Austrian Jews were forced to don yellow badges. Soon Jews were being sent to Eastern Europe by transport. Most of Austria’s Jews managed to leave in time, but about 65,000 were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Jews in Vienna wearing yellow badges, photo: Yad Vashem

After the war, the community’s books gradually surfaced in various locations across Europe. Part of the Vienna community library had been hidden from the Nazis in the city’s Jewish cemetery. Another part, originally sent to Berlin, was eventually found in Czechoslovakia where it had been moved to escape the bombing raids targeting Germany.

Hundreds of thousands of books stolen throughout Europe by the Nazis were brought to Austria during the war and discovered at Tanzenberg Castle by the British army. Most were returned to the countries from which they were stolen but some remained in Austria. It was only thanks to the tireless work of the National Library of Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs that some 80,000 of the Vienna community’s books eventually made their way to the National Library in Jerusalem.

The National Library affixed a special label to these books attesting to their past.

The Hebrew text of the label reads: “A gift of from the Vienna Jewish community, in memory of the victims of the Holocaust

I recently came across one of these books. A copy of the work known as Mesilat Yasharim, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), a classic text on Jewish ethics.

The cover page features a handwritten Hebrew dedication that was unfortunately hidden under a sticker. I turned to the Library’s conservation and restoration lab and with great professionalism and care they were able to remove the sticker and reveal the fascinating story of the book’s original owner.

The dedication reads:

To the nice persistent and [God-fearing] young man [may his candle shine] David Dov in celebration of his Bar Mitzvah, a gift from the family of S. Schonfeld, Vienna, Thursday, [on the eve of the Holy Sabbath], Parashat [Ki] Tissa, 5696 [1936]

The hand-written dedication

David Dov’s last name did not appear, but the information in the dedication indicated that the Bar Mitzvah boy lived in Vienna. By calculating backwards from the Bar Mitzvah date, I realized that he was born in March, 1923. The next step was to locate him using Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. The database is based on information gathered over the decades at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, through pages of testimony filled out by family members and friends of the victims.

With the help of the database, I discovered that David Dov’s last name was Neuwirth and that he and his parents and two sisters were murdered in Minsk in 1942. I found more information in the Austrian Victims of the Holocaust database on the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) website. David Dov and his family left Vienna on September 14, 1942. Four days later they arrived in Minsk. The train continued to the Maly Trostenets estate not far away. When they finally got off, the Jews of Vienna were marched to the killing pits in the forest and shot to death.

The witness who filled out the testimony page was Ilse Deutsch, David Dov’s sister. It turned out that his older sister had managed to escape from Austria in time. According to the information on Ilse on the genealogy website Geni.com, she passed away in 2018 but was survived by her four children in London.

The testimony page filled out by Ilse Deutsch, David Dov’s sister, Yad Vashem

With some help from my own family in London, I was able to get in touch with some of the family members. Devorah, one of Ilse’s granddaughters who lives in Israel, shared a wealth of information about the family. She explained that her grandmother left Vienna with one of her mother’s sisters. They were in Germany during Kristallnacht but managed to reach England before the outbreak of World War II. There she worked as a kindergarten teacher, got married and raised a family. One of the Neuwirth family’s neighbors in Vienna kept some family photos and a Kiddush cup that David Dov received as a gift for his Bar Mitzvah. These items are in the hands of the family today.

This amazing story made its way within hours from Jerusalem to London to New York and back. Rabbi Shabtai Schonfeld’s granddaughter made contact and added even more information. It was Rabbi Schonfeld who gave the Mesilat Yesharim book to David Dov in 1936. The Schonfeld and Neuwirth families were good friends in Vienna. David Dov was the same age as Rabbi Schonfeld’s son who later became a well-known rabbi in Queens, New York.

The Schonfeld family left Vienna on their own immediately after the Anschluss. Before leaving the country, all Jews were required to fill out an immigration questionnaire that included family details, names, ages, occupations, immigration destination and vocational training. The Neuwirth family’s forms are in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. This is where a large part of the archives of the Vienna community is preserved today.

The immigration questionnaire, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Why then did the Neuwirth family fail to leave Austria in time?

Devorah provided the answer. David Dov was ill with polio. The family sought to immigrate to the U.S., but this depended on passing a medical examination. The U.S. Embassy in Austria apparently did not allow David Dov to immigrate and his family remained in Vienna. David Dov’s father, Rabbi Simcha Shmuel Neuwirth was a community rabbi and principal of a Jewish school in Vienna. He decided not to abandon his congregation and so most of the family died as martyrs al Kiddush Hashem.

The monument in Maly Trostenets, commemorating Austrian  victims of the Holocaust

The family story was preserved by David Dov’s sister Ilse in London, and now with the help of the Mesilat Yesharim book, it is being told and preserved by the National Library of Israel as well.

“Your rabbi was taken as a hostage”: Accounts of Russian Tactics in WWI

Hostage-taking and forced migration were just two methods used by Russian forces in Ukraine and Poland a century ago

Jewish burial near the Galician theater of war, 1915 (Public domain)

Following Russian advances into portions of Ukraine and Poland in 1914, stories of atrocities quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond. At first, the accounts from Jewish communities were almost too horrific to believe: Packs of Russian Cossack and Chechen soldiers stealing whatever they liked, raping women and girls in the streets in front of their families, cutting off limbs for sport, even crucifying men who dared to speak out against their beastly acts. Others were hung by their tefillin.

The veracity of the stories was sometimes questioned, especially, for example, when promulgated by Ukrainian nationalist elements, though the sheer number of reports and diversity of sources soon dispelled any doubt that war crimes were being committed.

“Wild Charge of The Most-Feared Troops in the Army of the Czar, The Cossacks” photo published in the Evening Public Ledger, March 1, 1915 (Library of Congress / Public domain). Click image to enlarge

In many cases, Russian authorities opted for hostage-taking instead of murder or forced expulsion. They would identify and detain prominent Jews from each community – rabbis, businessmen, civic leaders – and then warn the local community that the hostages would be killed should any acts deemed disloyal be committed.

“Your rabbi was taken as a hostage. If we hear again that Jews have talked to Germans the rabbi will be hanged,” a resident of the Polish town of Myszyniec (“Mishenitz” in Yiddish) recalled being told. Just two days later, the orders changed and all of the Jewish residents of the town were forcibly expelled, with only about half a dozen Jews, including a few over the age of 90, staying behind. In many cases such decisions were made at the field commander level, yet patterns and similar methods were certainly seen throughout the conflict zone.

When the Russians conquered Czernowitz (“Chernivtsi” in Ukrainian), the capital of Bukovina, they demanded that the Jewish mayor, Dr. Salo Weisselberger, hand over prominent citizens to be held hostage. Weisselberger reportedly refused, saying that he had no control over anyone but himself. He was subsequently sent to Siberia where he remained even after Austro-Hungarian forces recaptured the city, though he ultimately returned home following a prisoner exchange and was knighted by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

Main Street, Czernowitz, 1903. From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Czernowitz during the 1917 visit of Emperor Franz Joseph’s successor, Karl I (Austrian National Library / Public domain)

Bukovina and neighboring Galicia – multi-ethnic regions that straddle today’s Ukrainian, Polish and Romanian borderlands – saw especially fierce fighting during the war. Hotbeds of Ukrainian culture and education, Ukrainians in these areas were accused by the Austro-Hungarians of being pro-Russian, while the Russians cracked down on local Ukrainian nationalists by mean of imprisonment, expulsion and murder.

Meanwhile, deep-seeded antisemitism, mistrust and geopolitical interests, ensured that accusations of treason and disloyalty against Jews persisted across Europe. The realities of Jewish life and loyalties at the time, though, were far from clear or predictable. Jews, in fact, served and sacrificed on all sides, despite such allegations. The Russian, Austrian and American armies each had hundreds of thousands of Jews among their ranks, not to mention the numerous other nations engaged in the conflict.

German Jewish soldiers and their families, 1914. From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nevertheless, the Jewish civilian population suffered greatly, especially at the hands of Russian commanders who often expelled Jews from the towns and cities they called home simply because of their communal affiliation. They were generally forbidden from bringing their possessions with them into forced exile. With no truly comprehensive statistics available, scholars estimate that during the course of the war, between half a million and one million Jews in the Russian Empire were forcibly expelled from their homes. Scholar Jonathan Frankel has even estimated that some 1,000,000 Jews were already expelled by the end of 1915.

In an excerpted letter published early that year, one exile from the town of Skierniewice recalled his personal experience:

“We were not even permitted to leave behind us the sick and the women in childbirth. Only the Jewish bakers, blacksmiths and a few contractors were allowed to remain. But they did not care to stay and prepared to leave with the rest of us…

The Poles did not even wait for the Jews to leave town before they started plundering our homes and shops. They met with no resistance. The Jews, of course, were powerless…

It was the Sabbath, but the rabbis declared it lawful to set the children, the feeble old men and the women in childbirth on wagons, which we hired at unheard of prices. We took the scrolls of the law in our hands and, amid savage cries of the Poles and the soldiers, we left the town in silence and despair… Even the children cried with us…

The worst part of our experience was, however, that all along the way we were continually joined by ever new hosts of Jews who were even more destitute than we. The livelong day we dragged ourselves along the hard, rutty roads. Besides us moved long lines of Russian soldiers. They were coming to ‘redeem’ the land from the hands of the enemy and it was these redeemers who inflicted upon us the most excruciating woes. Wherever the Russian troops went they were accompanied by a crowd of Poles, men and women and children, who would point at us and shout: ‘There go the traitors!’… ‘Go to Palestine, you accursed Jews!’ the Poles and the soldiers would taunt us…”

A report published later in 1915 described forced expulsions deep into Russian territory as far as the Ural Mountains and Siberia as “an awful picture of the most abject misery”. Train cars packed mostly with Ukrainian Jews, Lithuanians and “other inhabitants of the war zone,” were “filled beyond their capacity… the people are heaped indiscriminately in piles, old men and women, children, sick people, all of them worn out and exhausted by a long journey lacking all human comfort… all of these people are in rags…”

The reporter further described the prisoners as “hav[ing] been shipped like merchandise or worse, like cattle. They are numbered and each one carries his bill of lading. They are not human beings they are treated like a shipment of freight.”

This heap of humanity had been traveling for weeks, having no idea where to go. “It matters little where we are sent to, as long as it only brings us nearer to death,” one of the prisoners bemoaned.

Jewish refugees from Poland head towards safety across the Austrian border, October 6, 1915 (Library of Congress / Public domain)

While many of their brethren were sent eastward, thousands of Jewish refugees descended upon major cities across Europe. Just a few months into the war, the Vienna Jewish community, for example, was already feeding kosher meals to some 8,000 refugees each day. In Warsaw, thousands arrived daily, packing communal institutions. Hundreds of people, mostly women and children, even slept in the Zamir literary club, founded and headed by legendary Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz, who cared for them personally. Wall-to-wall beds stuffed the club’s main hall, which looked like an “ant colony that had been destroyed,” according to S. Ansky, the famous scholar and author of The Dybbuk, in his book The Destruction of the Jews of Poland, Galicia and Bukovina. The refugees had come “mostly by foot, robbed, naked, starving, faded by fear and helplessness,” Ansky recalled.

According to historian Peter Gatrell, “for decades the only publication of note in Russian relating to population displacement in the era of the First World War was a brief and tantalising encyclopedia entry on ‘refugeedom’ by Abram Kirzhnits in the first edition of the Soviet historical encyclopedia.”

Kirzhnits termed concerted Russian efforts to massively displace diverse civilian populations a ‘bacchanalia of forced migration’. While “Jews in particular suffered from widespread antisemitism,” according to Gatrell, the forced migrations “ensnared Poles, Jews, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians… targeted on account of their presumed disloyalty to the empire.”

This “bacchanalia of forced migration” deeply impacted 20th century history, while its effects – and causes – continue to echo in Ukraine and well beyond its borders.

 

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.