“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.

“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.

In the Shadow of War: When Stan Lee and Dr. Seuss Battled Fascism

After serving together in the US Army's Training Film Division during World War II, the two parted ways: Stan Lee went on to create immortal superheroes, and Dr. Seuss used his talents to try to atone for his anti-Japanese propaganda through a new and compassionate children’s book

Stan Lee (left) and Dr. Seuss (right) during their WWII army service

With the world at war in the early 1940s, Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics fame, wound up in the US Army’s Training Film Division almost by chance, after the military found out that he could both  draw comics and write scripts. When Lee showed up at the unit, he encountered the beloved children’s author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, though he wasn’t actually a medical doctor at all. We will tell you all about this World War II-era story, but let’s begin a few years earlier…

Stan Lee (1922–2018), who would come to personify the American comic book industry, started out in the field in 1939 at Timely Comics. His initial connection with the company was through his cousin, who was married to the firm’s publisher. Throughout his life, Lee testified repeatedly that he never really wanted to work there in the first place. This Jewish-American comic book icon had dreams of writing the next “Great American Novel” that would immortalize his name in the pantheon of world literature. In fact, Stan had given himself the penname “Stan Lee”, reserving his real name, Stanley Lieber, for that great and elusive masterpiece he would one day write, when he was finally able to give up his tedious work creating comic books. Ultimately, Lee’s name did enter the global pantheon, but in a slightly different category than he had anticipated.

The Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

On his first day at Timely Comics, Lee met two other giants of the American comic book world: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. His first credit under his new penname Stan Lee appeared in issue #3 of Captain America. When Kirby and Simon left in 1941, the 19-year-old Lee was appointed “temporary” editor, a position he would continue to fill (“temporarily”, of course) for decades to come, that is, until his promotion to publisher. The Marvel Comics brand was established in the early 1960s as part of his decision to remain in the field and at last give up his literary dream.

Just as Lee’s career in the world of comics was taking off in New York, war was raging in Europe. In 1942, Lee was drafted into the US Army. At first, he was slated to serve overseas in the Signal Corps, but the Army very quickly recognized the new soldier’s writing talents and assigned him to the rare position of screenwriter. Lee would later claim that he and only eight others were assigned to this coveted position during the war. He was sent to the army’s Training Film Division unit, where Lee met some great talents, among them the director Frank Capra and the illustrator Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

In his new role, Lee was tasked with writing scripts for films intended to raise the morale of combat troops, propaganda posters for the American public, and from time to time even propaganda comics. It was at this stage that Lee’s commitment, both to the comic book profession that was almost foisted on him as well as to the position he was appointed to at such a young age, was seriously challenged for the first time. Despite being far away from the Timely Comics office in New York, he kept up a weekly correspondence with the staff, suggesting ideas for comics, and reviewing and correcting scripts. His commitment stood the test.

After the war, Lee returned to his job as a comic book editor. In the 1950s, he experienced a professional crisis, becoming dissatisfied with his own work and the traditional limitations of the genre. But in the 1960s, with the encouragement of his wife, Lee decided on a radical change – he would finally make the comic books he had always wanted to make, as a last ditch effort, with nothing to lose, before handing in his letter of resignation. He envisioned a different kind of superhero – imperfect, troubled, human.

The comic book he created, together with illustrator Jack Kirby, was “The Fantastic Four.” Together, Kirby and Lee created the great pantheon of Marvel Comics superheroes: the Hulk, X-Men, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and more. Oh, and of course their most familiar and beloved character, the amazing Spider-Man. When Lee passed away in 2018 at the age of 95, the US Army was among those who paid tribute to this great American artist, for his contributions during wartime and later on in life.

We turn now to Dr. Seuss, Lee’s cohort in the Training Film Division, who underwent a profound change of conscience following World War II.

Like Stan Lee, the writer and illustrator Theodor Geisel (1904–1991) adopted a penname under which he published his stories for children, with the intention of one day writing a great adult literary work under his real name. The alias combined his mother’s maiden name, Seuss, with the title of Doctor – a reference to his doctoral studies at Oxford, which he left in order to focus on writing. Throughout the 1920s, he worked for various magazines, before shifting to writing books of children’s poems and accompanying them with illustrations. It was at this point that history knocked on the door, and Dr. Seuss answered.

After publishing his first successful children’s book, Horton Hatches the Egg in 1940, he took a forced break from writing for children. This pause lasted for seven years, during which time he created hundreds of caricatures depicting the brutality of Hitler and Mussolini. He lent his pen to the struggle against fascism while also criticizing isolationist political tendencies within American society. He did not preach war, but sensed its coming and believed that America had a duty to protect and save the world from murderous fascism.

With the United States’ entry into World War II, the American military sought to exploit these talents for its own needs. In the service of the war effort, Dr. Seuss moved to Los Angeles. There, Hollywood film director Frank Capra teamed up Dr. Seuss with animator Chuck Jones—the legendary creator of Bugs Bunny and Duffy Duck—and the two composed a series of animated propaganda films for American soldiers. Among other things, the two produced a series of animated shorts about “Private Snafu”, a soldier who does just about everything wrong. Later on, Dr. Suess came under sharp criticism for the anti-Japanese propaganda posters he created during the war.

A racist wartime propaganda poster illustrated by Dr. Seuss, showing Japanese Americans as a fifth column trying to destroy America from within

Looking at the books today, it is difficult to connect the racist posters with the compassionate children’s book author. During the war, Dr. Seuss rejected any personal criticism, claiming at the time – “If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs”. After the war, he had a complete change of heart, and this led to the creation of one of his most beloved books.

In 1953, Life Magazine invited Dr. Seuss to visit Japan in order to write about the effects of the war on Japanese children. Accompanied by the Dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto, the beloved children’s illustrator and author traveled around Japan and met with the country’s children. He asked the children to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. These drawings made a great impact on him and when he returned to the U.S., he expressed his deep regret for the biased image of the Japanese he had helped to instill during the war.

He chose to express this remorse in the best way he knew: an illustrated book titled Horton Hears a Who!, which tells the story of Horton the elephant, who attempts to save the tiny town of Whoville, which rests on a speck of dust. As in his previous book on Horton, the elephant’s efforts encounter slander and giggles from his animal friends. When some of them attempt to harm Whoville, Horton and the mayor band together to rescue it. The book contains subtle hints and references to World War II.  The most notable example is the black-bottomed eagle that drops the tiny of town of Whoville from the sky —a clear allusion to the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan.

The original cover of Horton Hears a Who!


Dr. Seuss’s humanistic spirit is expressed in the most famous sentence from the book: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

The book was adapted for the cinema a number of times and is still considered one of Dr. Seuss’s most loved and well-known books. Dr. Seuss himself is still one of the most beloved and popular children’s authors in the world. His books offer a combination of humor, intelligence, and love for humankind. At a time when artists and creators are (rightly) judged for their ideas and actions, the case of Dr. Seuss and his treatment of the Japanese reminds us that – a person’s a person — and a writer’s character is sometimes more complex than that which is portrayed to their readers through their books. So, the next time you read Dr. Seuss, remember that change can happen only when we want it to. While fear can lead to hatred, the way to overcome it is through love, compassion, and understanding of those who are different from you.

The Pope and Haman in Renaissance Italy

The only known manuscript of The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV is at the National Library in Jerusalem...

Like the traditional Purim story, The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV recounts a terrible period in Jewish Italian history, as well as an ultimate redemption from tyranny.

Purim is undoubtedly a time of joy. It is the time set to celebrate Queen Esther and the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from the hands of the evil Haman. People wear costumes, give food and drink to friends and neighbors, eat the traditional hamantaschen. People attend comical Purimshpil performances and raucous Adloyada parades.

However, Purim is much more than that: it is a time to defy evil and pursue social justice. In addition to donating charity to the poor, Jews observe the commandment of reading the Scroll of Esther (the “megillah“) aloud, so that everyone will know about Haman’s downfall, when he was hanged with his sons on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai the Jew.

Puppets representing Haman and his ten sons on the gallows near the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, 2021 (Photo: Martina Mampieri)

The image of Haman has been one of the most common epithets used to identify the contemporary enemies of the Jews over the centuries, including Pope Gregory I, Tsar Alexander III, Adolf Hitler, and Yasser Arafat.

The Hebrew chronicle Divre ha-yamim shel ha-apifior Paolo ha-revi’i ha-niqra Teatino (The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the Theatine) also features Haman. The work is contained in a nineteenth-century manuscript in Italian cursive script, today held at the National Library of Israel. No other examples of the work, including the original, are known.

The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the Theatine was formerly owned by German collector Sigmund Nauheim of Frankfurt (1874-1935), who bequeathed his collection of manuscripts and books to the Jewish National and University Library, today’s National Library of Israel. From the National Library of Israel collection (Ms. Heb. 8°984)

The author of this remarkable work was the moneylender Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan (also known in Italian as Guglielmo di Diodato), whose family had settled down in the city of Civitanova in the March of Ancona, after the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdom of Naples in 1540-41.

The chronicle retraces the four years of Pope Paul IV’s pontificate (1555-59), which caused a radical change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jews. Soon after rising to power, the pope, whose given name was Gian Pietro Carafa, unleashed a number of cruel impositions and restrictions. They were published in the July 1555 papal bull known as Cum nimis absurdum, and included the establishment of ghettos and the requirement that Jews wear yellow badges.

Painting by Palma il Giovane of Paul IV handing down a statute, ca. 1587 (Public domain)

Under the rule of Paul IV – the former cardinal-inquisitor, who, among other things, played a fundamental role in the burning of the Talmud in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome in 1553 – the Roman Inquisition was substantially expanded and strengthened.

In 1556, one of the darkest chapters in the history of Italy Jewry was written when twenty-six Portuguese Jews, who had been baptized in Portugal in the late fifteenth century and who then returned to Judaism after moving to Italy, were declared heretics and burned at the stake in Ancona.

In 1559, the same Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan, his brother Samuel, and four other Jews from Civitanova were arrested by the Roman Inquisition, accused of having tried to convert a Franciscan friar to Judaism and having thrown stones at certain sacred Christian images. The chronicler recounts that a number of slanderers were behind the accusations, including Aharon ben Menaḥem, a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity and became known as Giovan Battista Buonamici.

Benjamin compares this apostate to the evil Haman, because like the latter, he used his eloquent manner of speaking to destroy the Jews. According to the account:

“…in the first days of his conversion, he made himself seem like a man who loved the people of Israel […] but his heart was full of abominations, then he became an enemy of the Jews and injured them with his speech. He was an evil man and an enemy like Haman who used his speech in a deceitful manner.”

This is not Benjamin’s only mention of Haman. Indeed, Benjamin associates Haman with the pope’s nephew and counsellor, Cardinal Carlo Carafa, who, in another passage of the chronicle, is accused of committing murders, raping virgins, steeling goods and perpetrating other shameful deeds.

Portrait of Cardinal Carlo Carafa in Receuil d’Arras, a 16th century collection of portraits copied by Jacques de Boucq (Public domain)

In the chronicle, Benjamin recounts the cardinal arriving at his dead uncle’s bedside, and curses the two evil men with clear reference to the death of Haman and his sons on the gallows: “Both of their burning bodies may be hung on a tree and their souls roasted in the fire!”

Echoing the story of Haman’s downfall, following Paul IV’s death, his successor arrested Carlo Carafa and dragged him through the streets of the Vatican. Moreover, there was a custom to free prisoners following the death of a pope, and so Benjamin and other Jews were released from the Inquisition prisons. According to his own account, Benjamin and his compatriots went to meet the Duke of Civitanova to ask for his permission return home. He granted their request and before they returned to Civitanova, they witnessed the destruction of the previous pope’s statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The manuscript generally depicts Paul IV as evil, and even something of a devil, with the author often cursing him and including him “in the company of the evil”, along with Balaam – the non-Israelite prophet who cursed the people of Israel (Numbers 22-24). Benjamin also links Paul IV to Amalek, the eternal enemies of the Israelites who were first encountered during the forty-year trek in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt, and who, according to tradition, were among Haman’s ancestors. In the biblical account, Amalek’s attack was the first war Israel experienced, and the victory marked a shift in the history of the Jewish people. God ordered Moses to “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14).

In this sense, the writing of a detailed chronicle on the “evil pope” and his reign was perceived by Benjamin as a moral commandment. Like the Scroll of Esther, The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV narrates the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from the evil plots of their enemies, who are ultimately defeated.


Martina Mampieri is the author of Living Under the Evil Pope: The Hebrew Chronicle of Pope Paul IV by Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan from Civitanova Marche (16th cent.), published in 2020 by Brill.

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.