Four Fateful Weeks in the Life of Sigmund Becker

From medical school to the battlefield, he wound up in Siberia and China before America

Taken as a POW to Siberia, Becker would settle in China before ultimately moving with his family to the United States. Image: Becker's Chinese ID, 1922

I never met my paternal grandfather, Sigmund Becker, who died a few years before I was born, never having fulfilled the great promise of a bright medical career that slipped through his fingers during three fateful weeks in 1914.

In his memoir, Making Do (Z4 Editions, 2017), my father, Johnny Becker (born Meyer John Becker), described my grandfather as “vocationally and intellectually dislocated.” He said that my grandfather was the “’Wunderkind’ of his European village,” who “would pay dearly for the rest of his life” for enlisting in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I.

This description of my grandfather had always intrigued me. Over the years, I have been able to fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle that defined my grandfather’s life and to better understand his aspirations and frustrations, as well as the calamitous world events he miraculously navigated.


Uszer, Zisha and Sigmund

The oldest of six children, my grandfather was born on December 30, 1890, as Uszer (a Yiddish variant of Asher) Zusie Becker. His family called him by the more endearing Yiddish diminutive Zisha, and later in life, he adopted the name Sigmund. He grew up under relatively comfortable conditions in the small village of Kopyczyńce (present-day Kopychintsy, Ukraine), outside Tarnopol (now Ternopil, Ukraine).

Tarnopol, early 19th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

His father, Meyer, a sought-after estate overseer, managed the large agricultural estates of wealthy noblemen and resided with his family on whatever estate he was managing at the time. Depending on the contract, he could manage an estate for up to 10 years or more.

My grandfather was an excellent student. He attended gymnasium in Lemberg, followed by medical school at the University of Lemberg, where he studied from about 1908 to 1914. While two of his younger siblings immigrated to America in 1913, my grandfather was nearing the end of his medical studies at that time, with a very promising future just around the corner.

The Jewish hospital in Lemberg, ca. 1917. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

My grandfather interrupted his studies in order to enlist in the military as a medical officer. By volunteering, he would have only had to serve for one year, rather than be conscripted for three—he had no idea, of course, that that one year was about to turn into four catastrophic years.

The Becker family had enjoyed a relatively idyllic life in a liberal, multi-ethnic Austrian society.

However, all this would change dramatically in early August 1914. On July 28, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war, one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne.

All existing military units were immediately mobilized. Although my grandfather’s unit had probably not even completed training yet, they were likely shipped out to a garrison town near the Russian border.


Becoming Refugees

Never expecting the new war to be literally at their doorstep, the Becker family woke up one morning during the first week of August 1914 to find soldiers hiding behind bundles of wheat and shooting at one another.

Both armies had infiltrated in the middle of the night and had taken up their respective positions.

An Austrian soldier warned the family to go into the cellar as it was dangerous to stay in the house. According to a cousin who described the scene to me 61 years later, as they were heading into the cellar, a shell exploded on the steps, tearing off their clothes and leaving most of the women deaf for a week.

Fighting continued during the day, but not at night. After three days, an officer advised the family to leave the estate because it was going to be a long and bloody battle. Before leaving, they encountered a Cossack who demanded to know where they hid their gold and silver. When my great-grandfather, Meyer, refused to answer, one of the Cossacks struck him in the stomach with a shovel.

Given the ensuing dislocation and chaos of the war, his injury was never properly treated and likely festered, ultimately contributing to his death in 1922.

With only a few hours to pack, the family abandoned their house and their possessions. In a matter of hours, they had become refugees, escaping along with the retreating Austro-Hungarian army. Moving on foot, by horse, and by wagon, the family passed many dead bodies on the side of the road.

Refugees in Brassó, Austria-Hungary, August 1916 (Public Domain)

Each time my great-grandmother, Clara, saw a corpse, she frantically ran up to it, crying and swearing it was her son Zisha.

The Beckers didn’t know that the Russian avalanche had begun to thunder down onto the plains of Galicia, first taking small farms, estates, and surrounding villages. On August 16th, Russian soldiers led by General Brusilov entered Tarnopol, which was the first city to be captured by Russia during the Great War. From Tarnopol, Russian troops led by General Russky kept steamrolling westward toward Lemberg, eventually crushing the Austro-Hungarian army and capturing the capital city of Galicia on September 11th.

Week after week, the Beckers retreated with the Austro-Hungarian army, suffering from hunger, thirst, and lice along the way. During their trek, my great-grandmother had a stroke, resulting in partial paralysis and causing her to be disabled for the rest of her life.

The family eventually made it to a refugee camp in Kapuvár, a small town in Hungary. They remained there for the next four years, until November 1918. Since the camps tended to be ethnically homogeneous, their camp in Kapuvár housed Jewish refugees. Overall, two million Austro-Hungarian civilians were displaced during the war. Although the camps were strictly segregated from the civilian population, refugees were still able to earn money.

The refugee camp in Kapuvár was an overnight’s drive from Vienna, where my great-grandmother’s nephews lived, including a lawyer and an accountant. As the war progressed, there were severe food shortages in Vienna.

In an ironic twist, some of the Becker refugees would smuggle in flour and chicken to their more well-to-do relatives. For example, my grandfather’s youngest sister, Rosa, who was only 15 at the time, would wear a corset with food hidden inside as she traveled by train to Vienna. She would then return to the camp with items from our relatives.


From Officer to POW

While his family was escaping the Russian onslaught, my grandfather was thrust into a living hell in a world of gruesome battle, death and destruction.

As a medical officer, he would have been assigned to the battlefield dressing station, which was still in the line of fire. Stretcher bearers would bravely run to the wounded, load them onto a stretcher, and race to the closest dressing station. The stations were divided into two sections, one for the slightly wounded and the other for the severely wounded.

A World War I field hospital. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

My grandfather’s military medical training likely did not prepare him for the sheer magnitude of industrial killing taking place all around him. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian army, which was high on spirit and bravado, but short on modern weapons, the Russians were well armed, with machine guns that could mow down advancing soldiers in a matter of minutes.

Destroyed and disfigured bodies were everywhere, and the overwhelmed dressing stations were not prepared to properly treat the ghastly physical wounds that could only be inflicted on a body by machine guns.

Injured soldiers during World War I. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

After four weeks of combat my grandfather’s regiment surrendered in Rzeszow.

During the critical first three and half weeks of the war, Austria-Hungary lost one- third of its army. Total Austrian losses were 220,000 wounded, 100,000 captured, and 100,000 killed.

The Austrian army ceased for the moment to be an effective fighting force.

Sigmund’s world and his future was irreparably shattered. However, by being captured, he was at least taken off the battlefield and out of harm’s way.

His new life as a POW then began.

It took more than a month to transport his unit over a thousand miles from the Russian border to the Kostroma POW camp, which was three hundred miles north of Moscow. POWs had to walk for days to arrive at the closest rail line, where they were loaded into cattle cars with no more than a hot stove in the middle of each car.

The stench of the sweaty, unwashed soldiers, with no proper bathroom facilities, must have been unbearable.

By mid-October, my grandfather arrived in Kostroma, which was a holding facility from where prisoners were sent out to other, more remote locations. During the prisoner intake, my grandfather was deemed useful to the Russians for his medical background, at a time when Russian doctors were in short supply because of the war.

Kostroma train station, early 20th century

After successfully saving the leg of a young Russian soldier, my grandfather so impressed a Russian doctor that he was removed from the camp and permitted to stay temporarily in the doctor’s home, while tending to the medical needs of the local villages.

As the war progressed and more and more Austro-Hungarian POWs were captured, Russia decided to ship them to various parts of Siberia until the war ended. My grandfather was sent over 5,000 miles (ca. 8,000 kilometers) away by train to a newly constructed POW camp in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky, a growing town specializing in agricultural products, located about 60 miles north of Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.

After the October Revolution of 1917, the town experienced rapid growth. It was at this time that the Gourevitch family from Cherkassy, Russia, moved to town after having escaped the revolution. My grandfather met the family, including 17-year-old Vera, while he was handling the medical needs in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky.

After Russia decided to withdraw from the war in 1918, my grandfather and Vera quickly became engaged. Normal military authority broke down, and my grandfather simply walked away and stayed with the Gourevitch family.

Joint Distribution Committee Siberian Jewish prisoner’s card for Sigmund Ascher Becker, indicating that he was captured on September 13th, 1914 in Rzeszow

Two years later, in 1920, Sigmund and Vera — my grandparents — were married in Vladivostok.

My grandmother’s father, Samuel, was a combination businessman/inventor and a violin player. He had developed innovative ways to extract oil from plants and served as an adviser in the agricultural industry. His oldest son, David, was an entrepreneur, and together, they moved the family to Harbin, China.

Harbin had a large Russian Jewish population at the time, in part because it offered refuge from the war and the revolution. My grandfather joined my grandmother’s family in the grain business in Harbin, even though he still hoped to one day return to medicine.


Different Routes to America

Since the war was officially over in November 1918, the Becker family’s four years in the Kapuvár refugee camp came to an end. The Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed, and Austria began sending Russian POWs back to Russia in boxcars.

With Galicia being returned to Poland, the Beckers were no longer considered Austrian citizens and were transported back to their village of Kopyczyńce in the same boxcars as the Russian prisoners.

Still suffering from his stomach wound and no longer able to resume his career as an overseer, my great-grandfather, Meyer, could barely make ends meet for his family, even with the support of Jewish charity.

In addition, living a few miles from the Russian border, the Beckers became caught up in the tide of advancing and retreating armies again for nearly three years as a result of two more back-to-back wars.

From 1918 to 1919, Poland fought the West Ukrainian National Republic, and from 1919 to 1921, Poland fought Bolshevik Russia. In 1920, after the retreat of the Bolsheviks, units of the Ukrainian Peltura army raided Kopyczyńce and tormented the Jews. Women were raped, 14 Jews were wounded, and a few Jews were murdered.

The Beckers feared for their lives and sought to leave as soon as possible.

Desperate to immigrate to America, they finally received the necessary visa documents in late 1921, and their family in America sent an agent to Warsaw to bring them to the US.

Meyer died en route, but the others continued on to Warsaw, where, after three weeks, passports were purchased. From there, the family traveled to Cherbourg, France, and then sailed in third class on the ship Emperata, arriving at the immigration processing center at Ellis Island in New York in 1922. My great-grandmother, Clara, died that same year.

Back in Harbin, in June 1922, my grandparents welcomed their first-born son, my father, Meyer. At the same time, the family in America offered to provide financial help for my grandfather to complete his medical studies if he would move to the US.

Sigmund Ascher Becker’s Chinese identification document, 1922

As much as he enjoyed his new life in China— married, away from war, and no longer a POW— he was tempted by the offer. In August 1923, my grandparents and their young son left China for Japan and then sailed from Yokohama on the SS President Jackson, arriving in Seattle, Washington, on September 1st, 1923. From there, they took the train to New York.

Their arrival at this time was significant because the following year, the US passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted restrictive immigration quotas. Although my grandfather never got to see his parents again, he was finally reunited with most of his family after nine years of being apart.

Needing to support his wife and son, he went to work for an insurance company. Since he was multilingual, he was able to serve German, Polish, and Russian clients. After several years, he opened his own insurance company.

His plan was to save enough money to continue his medical studies, but circumstances forced him to delay and then, ultimately abandon that plan. In 1932, he suffered his first heart attack, causing him to lose his business and limiting his ability to support his family. He never fully recovered, and he experienced ill health for the rest of his life. With his dream of becoming a doctor irretrievably lost, my grandfather suffered periodic bouts of despondency until his early death in 1946.

From left: Sigmund, Charlie, Vera, and Meyer John Becker, with Vera’s brother, David Gourevitch (standing), who was visiting New York from China, 1930

However, this final sad chapter of his life paved the way for future generations, for had he been forced to return to Kopyczyńce, he would have ultimately been rounded up and exterminated by the Nazis, along with anyother family members who were there with him. Firsthand accounts indicate that there were only 20 Jewish survivors left in Kopyczyńce after the Holocaust.

Certainly, I would not be here to record his memory, but thankfully, from generation to generation, his family legacy lives on.


A version of this article first appeared as “My Grandfather’s Rendezvous with History” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly journal of Gesher Galicia. It is the culmination of countless hours of detective work spanning more than 40 years of research, including taped interviews in 1972, obtaining scraps of family photos, letters, documents, reading countless WWI related books, and using the GesherGalicia and JewishGen’s archives.

It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more “Jewish Journeys”, check out our online exhibition launched in collaboration with AEPJ as part of European Days of Jewish Culture 2020.

Mythical Dwarfs and Garden Gnomes – the Jewish Connection

Is there a connection between the pointed hat worn by mythical dwarfs and gnomes and the hats once worn by the Jews of Europe?


Once upon a time, there were dwarfs. Their popular image crystallized in the middle of the 13th century in European, and particularly German folklore. They were described as small creatures that were known to be greedy tricksters and treasure hunters. One of their prominent features was their ability to distort or impair vision: they could vanish and appear as they wished and could temporarily or permanently blind anyone who saw them.

Some legends added various details which described dwarfs as a people originating from Asia or some unknown distant land. In some of the stories, they sang songs in an unfamiliar language to the hero who chanced upon them. In the folktales, dwarfs traded in costly fabrics, gold and precious stones, which they brought with them from the East. They often had a mystical connection to these valuable treasures, from which they drew magical powers — a fact that also made them vulnerable. In some legends, the dwarfs told of how they were expelled from their land by humans, or how their treasures were looted or lost.

Illustration for the Hebrew children’s song Utsu Rutsu Gamadim (“Run, Dwarfs, Run” by Miriam Yalan-Shteklis. Illustrator: Tsila Binder. From Shir Hagdi – Shirim Usippurim (“Song of the Goat – Songs and Stories”), Vol. 1, Dvir, 1957

In the 13th and 14th centuries, artists began to depict dwarfs wearing a pointed cap. The pointed hat originated in the East, but over time, it became more closely associated with dwarfs and was believed to be the most dangerous weapon in their possession. They used it to trick the viewer, to disappear from sight or impair the vision of whoever happened to see them.

Although there were stories that described the dwarfs as creatures who had been maltreated and as close allies of folk legend heroes, the character of the dwarf was often pictured as unreliable, unfaithful, vengeful and deceitful.

From Tristan and Isolde – Melot the dwarf is a scheming figure at the king’s court who attempts to thwart the love affair between Tristan and Isolde; fresco, 1410, Runkelstein Castle, South Tyrol, Italy

Those familiar with European Jewish history can perhaps draw some similarities between the tales of the dwarfs and the everyday lives of Jews in medieval Germany. The Jews of Ashkenaz were a people with origins in the Levant who had been dispossessed of their land, and they too often appeared as merchants laden with all kind of expensive goods, reputedly brought from distant lands such as the deserts of Arabia or the Caucasus. Due to the occupational restrictions imposed on them in many places, they were forced to earn a living by moneylending at interest and soon their neighbors accused them of “hoarding treasures,” greed and deception. Some attribute these beliefs to the French King Philip IV, and his decision to expel the Jews from his land in 1306, in the hope that he could seize their abandoned treasures. Indeed, “Philip the Fair” greatly enriched his coffers with property left behind by the Jews.

In the middle of the 13th century (around the same time the image of the mythical dwarf became prominent in European culture), the first decrees came into force that required Jews to wear a special hat that would distinguish them from the Christian populace. Coincidentally, it was usually a pointed hat—a style of hat identified with the ancient East. In Chen Malul’s article, here, we examined the incarnations of the hat and how it ended up atop the heads of Europe’s Jews. What was the purpose of the decrees? Why was it important to differentiate Jews from their Christian neighbors?

The Jew Efraim wearing the infamous Jewish hat, at the foot of the bed of the ailing Saint Basil, from a 15th-century German text

Like the dwarfs, the Jews were accused of distorting reality because they did not see the truth that was before them. In Gothic cathedrals one can often find the blindfolded figure of Synagoga, which represented the Jewish faith. The image represented a Christian claim that Jews were only able to see the physical reality around them, and that they were unable to “see” the spiritual world beyond the temporal. This supposedly distorted vision of the Jews threatened to mislead innocent Christian believers, and therefore, to prevent their assimilation into society, Jews were required to wear special clothing, including the infamous hat.

A poster promoting the play “Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput” (translated into Hebrew as Eretz HaGamadim – “the Land of the Dwarfs”) by the Children’s Theater, from the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is possible, of course, that the theoretical connection between the pointed hats and their real and imaginary wearers is just a fluke. It is difficult to trace the exact transmutations of such cultural representations, and pointed hats did not characterize only Jews: as early as the 12th-century, the pointed hat appeared in works of art as an identifying mark of non-Christians and those opposing Christianity. During the 14th-century, the pointed hat was also a required article of clothing for non-Jewish moneylenders in some places, or Christian women accused of having relations with Jews. From there the cultural connection between the pointed hat and more general dubious figures spread to include infidels, criminals, sorcerers, and other people accused of “non-Christian” activities. Thus, the pointed hat came to depict witches and wizards such as the legendary sorcerer Merlin from the stories of King Arthur. Herein too is woven the notion of the deceptive and misleading abilities of the wearers of the pointed hat.

The figure of Merlin in a pointed hat. Illustrator: Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493

Over the years, legends and folk tales became a means of entertainment for children, and the image of the dwarf was significantly refined. The blatant greed and rudeness disappeared, and in many works they became cute and kind-hearted creatures that helped human beings, or at least maintained friendly relations with them. An example of this can be seen in the little bearded gnomes who adorn many a garden. On the other hand, the pointed hat on their heads – its Jewish connection all but forgotten—remains the identifying feature of dwarfs and gnomes in collective Western consciousness to this day.

Cover of the Hebrew book Tov Tov Hagamad, (a translation of “David the Gnome”): Shafrira Zakai, Modan, 1988

This article is based on  Naomi Lubrich’s paper:

Naomi Lubrich, The Wandering Hat: Iterations of the Medieval Jewish Pointed Cap, Jewish History, Vol. 29, No 3/4 (December 2015), pp. 203-244

Bloodsucking Pelicans, a Dutch Jewish Symbol?

Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish community adopted a seemingly strange image from Medieval Christian art

Illustration from a mid-15th century manuscript depicting a Pelican piercing its own breast so that its young may drink from its blood (Courtesy: Museum Meermanno, The Haag, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r)

A bleeding pelican who wounds its breast and feeds its three young birds with its own blood is an unusual type of decoration in a synagogue.

In church art, on the contrary, this very image appears not infrequently. The source of the iconography is in all probability the Physiologus, a collection of moralized beast tales from Late Antiquity.

Originally written in Greek (though none of the original versions have survived) and translated into Latin, it was later introduced into most European languages, and is also known as Bestiary.

Pelican feeding her own blood to her young, as depicted in a late 13th century French manuscript. From the Getty Center (Public Domain)

Despite its name, it was not a book of natural history, but rather one which intended to illustrate the metaphorical meanings – and more specifically the Christian allegorical meanings – which the writers believed to have been embedded in nature.

The book became extremely popular in various editions during the Middle Ages and was often illustrated. The pelican does not appear in all versions of the book, but it appears that the basic concept of the ‘behavior’ of the pelican was already established in the early Middle Ages.

In the 7th century, Isidor of Seville wrote in Etymologies (Book 12, 7:26):

“The pelican is an Egyptian bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. It is said […] that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons.”

Of all possible images, the Jewish Portuguese community in Amsterdam chose none other than the bleeding Pelican as its symbol.

What is the reason for this peculiar choice?

In Christian art the pelican is symbolic and metaphoric, with a specific reference both to the self-sacrifice of Jesus and to the idea of resurrection.

A medieval depiction of this scene appears in a 12th century capital decoration in the so-called ‘Room of the Last Supper’ on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The capital dates to the time of the crusades and shows elements characteristic of the Romanesque style. The choice to use a symbol of self-sacrifice to decorate the room which the crusaders believed to be the site of the last supper is not surprising.

Decorative capital in “David’s Tomb” on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem (Photo: Diklah Zohar)

It is sometimes difficult to identify the bird as a pelican, yet most of the pelican depictions in medieval Christian art do not actually resemble the bird at all.

It seems as though the artists were not aware of the actual appearance of the pelican or that the natural appearance of the bird did not matter, as long as it expressed the theological message.

In some manuscripts, the pelican appears as a bird of prey. In other examples, such as the pelican decorating the dress of Queen Victoria I in a 1575 portrait now at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, however, it much more resembles a swan:

Nicholas Hilliard’s “Pelican Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1575. Click image to enlarge

The clear Christian message of the image makes it quite surprising to find the image in Jewish art. The history of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam may clarify the reason for this choice.

The Sephardic-Portuguese community arrived in the Netherlands after the signing of the Union of Utrecht (1579), a declaration of religious tolerance which created an inviting set of circumstances for Jews to settle in the Netherlands and particularly in Amsterdam.

The earliest Sephardic community in Amsterdam was ‘Beth Jacob’ (named after Jacob Tirado, also known as Guimes Lopez da Costa, whose house the community used as a synagogue). The second was ‘Neve Shalom’, founded in 1608. Ten years later, ‘Beth Jacob’ was split, and a third community, ‘Beth Israel’, was founded. In 1639, these three communities merged together under the name ‘Kahal Kodesh Talmud Torah’.

Painting of the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte, ca. 1680. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Before the unification, the symbol of the Neve Shalom community was the phoenix, which continued to be used afterwards as well, appearing on ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts) in Amsterdam throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Phoenix appearing on a ketubbah from Amsterdam, 1808. From the Rosenthaliana Collections – Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

This legendary bird, which appears in Greek mythology and in the Talmud, also found its way into the medieval beast books and Christian iconography. According to the myth, the phoenix has an extremely long life, but dies into flames from which it is reborn.

Both the phoenix and the self-sacrificing pelican appear in the frontispiece of this 1749 edition of Musaeum Hermeticum, a compendium of alchemical texts. From the National Library of Israel collections, click image to enlarge

The idea of regeneration from the flames probably appealed to the Sephardic-Portuguese Jews, who recognized the parallels in their own history, as their ancestors suffered greatly at the hands of the Inquisition, including the ‘auto da fe’ – execution by burning alive. The symbol of rebirth from the ashes – which can be seen as an allegory for building a new Jewish life in Amsterdam free of the fears that tormented Jews in Spain and Portugal – undoubtedly had its historic appeal.

Phoenix appearing as a decorative element at the bottom of an 18th century portrait. From the Sidney Edelstein Collection, National Library of Israel
Phoenix appearing on the frontispiece of an 18th century Italian edition of the works of Galileo. From the National Library of Israel collection

Moreover, the symbol was probably not seen as foreign or alien, as the phoenix appears in ancient Jewish sources, as well.

A 16th century Italian printed edition of the Kabbalistic work The Zohar, which includes mention of the phoenix. From the National Library of Israel

This cannot be said about the pelican, however, which does not appear as a mythological bird in Jewish sources. Though it has clearly been used as a symbol of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for a few centuries – as evidenced by its appearance on letters, books and documents – it is not known with certainty when, exactly, the community adopted the bleeding pelican as its symbol.

It has been suggested that this occurred after the three communities merged into one. If so, it becomes a visual allegory for the unification of the three communities, with the focus on the three young birds rather than on the adult pelican and its sacrifice: each of the young birds representing one of the Sephardic communities now unified and drinking from one source of tradition.

Woodcarving of a self-sacrificing pelican and its young at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, ca. 18th or 19th century. From the Center for Jewish Art Collection, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Photo: Vladimir Levin)

This seems to present a logical explanation as to why this image, which is very unusual in Jewish art, became the symbol for the newly-forged community.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Last Bar Mitzvah Before Kristallnacht

At Berlin's Rykestrasse Synagogue, Fredi chanted Moses' song of darkness and redemption

Fredi Bachner and the Rykestrasse Synagogue, the site of his 1938 Bar Mitzvah

At the time of my father’s Bar Mitzvah in Berlin, Hitler had been in power for five years.  It was October 1938 and Jews were prohibited from participating in nearly all facets of German life.  The Bachners desperately wanted to leave Germany, but their attempts to get visas were unsuccessful.

As bad as things were, they could not have imagined that only a few weeks after Fredi Bachner’s Bar Mitzvah, synagogues throughout Austria and Germany would be destroyed on Kristallnacht, including the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where Fredi was Bar Mitzvahed.

The Rykestrasse Synagogue, Berlin. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His Bar Mitzvah would be the last held at the Rykestrasse Synagogue for many years.

My father was born in Berlin on September 28th, 1925, the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Yom Kippur.  It was always meaningful to him that he was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, for reasons I now understand.

Berlin, early 20th century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Antisemitism permeated Fredi’s childhood. In 1935, ten-year-old Fredi was stripped of his German citizenship and as a Jew was prohibited from going to public school.  The Bachners continued practicing their religion as observant Jews and Fredi went to school at the Rykestrasse Synagogue.

He joined youth groups, such as Bar Kochba and Makkabi, and participated in their outings, sporting events, and meetings.  Fredi credits the Jewish community with  “being the glue that held us together.  They kept the youth happy and busy.”

Makkabi Berlin event, 1937 (Nadav Mann, Bitmuna). From the Collection of the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah took place on the 13th of Tishrei. The Torah portion was “Haazinu”, which he read along with the Haftarah as a small group of friends and loved ones still in Berlin looked on.

“Haazinu” is the Hebrew word for “listen”, and the Torah portion features the famous love poem sung by Moses to God. It is the prophet’s last song before dying. In it, he reminds the people of Israel that at times God punished them for their transgressions, yet he also renewed his covenant, forgave and redeemed them.

My father distinctly remembered the rabbi’s foreboding words to the congregation. Warning them that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better, he said, “It doesn’t become daytime before it literally becomes night.”

As the Bachners posed for the family portrait at Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah, they did not know that this would be their last photo taken as a family.

Bachner family portrait taken at Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah, 1938 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

In the days and weeks immediately after Fredi’s Bar Mitzvah, nighttime was beginning to fall.  The situation escalated dramatically on October 28th when 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship living in Germany, including his father, were arrested and forced across the border into Poland.

Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass” – took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938. It was a violent, destructive, and coordinated attack on Jewish homes and shops and on synagogues.

The following day it was quiet outside and Fredi went to school. He later recalled:

 “The curtains were ripped off the windows and the synagogue in back of the school was in ruins.  The ark was open, the Torahs and books were thrown on the floor and had been set on fire.”

Kristallnacht was a turning point for Jews throughout Austria and Germany.

“A Black Day for Germany” was how The Times of London characterized the events of Kristallnacht, as reported in the Palestine Post a few days after the events. Click image for the full article

Darkness continued to fall.

Fredi and his mother, “Mutti”, were alone in Berlin and were rightfully concerned how they would sustain themselves. They vacated their apartment, sold the family’s belongings, and rented a small room in a neighbor’s apartment. After several months, they were given permission to join Fredi’s father in his hometown, Chrzanow, Poland, a town ten kilometers from Oswiecim, later known as Auschwitz.

As was required, they worked for the Germans until February 1943 when the Nazis rounded them up for deportation. Fredi’s father was sent to concentration camps, Mutti was transported to Auschwitz where she went directly to the gas chamber, and Fredi spent the next 27 months at five concentration camps beginning with Gratiz and then Annaberg.

On September 30th, 1944 Fredi’s transport from Annaberg arrived at Auschwitz.  It was the 13th day of the month of Tishrei.  On that day six years earlier, Fredi had stood on the bima chanting Parashat Haazinu at his Bar Mitzvah in the Rykestrasse Synagogue.  Now he stood at the gates of Auschwitz awaiting his fate.

The main gate to Auschwitz. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Photo: St. Mucha, Publisher: State Museum in Auschwitz)

Would he be sent immediately to the gas chambers with no chance of living or would he be allowed to work as a slave laborer, enabling at least a slim chance to survive?

The rabbi’s ominous words were still fresh in his mind.  It was dark and Fredi prayed it would not get darker.

“I knew I was one step closer to death and I prayed to God to guide me,” Fredi recalled.

Would God save him, as promised to the Jewish people in Parshat Haazinu?

Fredi’s life was spared that day, as it was every day at Auschwitz, during the long death march which followed, and finally at Gross-Rosen and Dachau.

When the war ended in May 1945, my father said, “After what I had been through, I questioned God and did not know if I wanted to practice Judaism.  By the time Yom Kippur came, I was back at synagogue.”  Even though Fredi had been through the unimaginable, he was ultimately grateful to God for sparing his life.

Fred Bachner’s identity card, 1946 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

Fredi immigrated to the United States in 1947.  He married and raised a family in New York, where religion was an integral part of his life.

Every year he would chant the Haazinu Haftarah as he did at his Bar Mitzvah, and each Yom Kippur he would lead the afternoon services as cantor.

I now understand that he did these things as a testament that both he and Jewish life had survived.

Fred and Ellen Bachner, 1958 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

It certainly also brought back fond memories of his Jewish upbringing and connected him with his youth and the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where he had found a semblance of normalcy during an abnormal time.

My father passed away on December 9th, 2008.  The last time he was at the Rykestrasse Synagogue was the morning after Kristallnacht when it had been vandalized, its Torah scrolls and books set on fire.  The building was apparently not burned to the ground simply because the Germans were concerned about damage to the adjacent buildings. In a further act of desecration, the German military later confiscated the synagogue, using it as a warehouse.

In 2005, 67 years after Kristallnacht, the Rykestrasse Synagogue was rededicated after a $7 million renovation to the interior, which returned the synagogue to its prewar glory. In front of it is a school, just like when my father was a child.

Exterior of the renovated Rykestrasse Synagogue. From the Center for Jewish Art Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In photos, the synagogue looks beautiful, showing no signs of Kristallnacht or the dark years of Nazi occupation. My father would have been thrilled that the restoration brought it back to the time of his Bar Mitzvah.

The rebuilt Rykestrasse Synagogue (Photo: Michael Hunter Ochs)

I am in awe of the synagogue’s splendor and at the same time I am reminded of Holocaust survivors and the irreparable damage they suffered.

Like the synagogue, they had been brutalized, tortured, and desecrated by the Germans and emerged from the ashes in various states of disrepair. While the numbers branded on their arms and the physical scars were visible, the damage to their psyche was often never as apparent. Many appeared okay on the outside, but it was often a veneer that could not cover up the destruction deep within.

Unlike the synagogue, they could not be made whole again.

My father’s birthday this year fell on Yom Kippur, only the third time since his birth in 1925. I planned to go to Berlin and be at the Rykestrasse Synagogue for Parshat Haazinu and my father’s birthday, Yom Kippur. I wanted to be in the synagogue where my father was Bar Mitzvahed and envision him standing proudly on the bima with his impish smile.

I wanted to feel his presence.

Ruth and Fred Bachner, 2005 (Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg)

With COVID-19 restrictions, travel from the United States to Germany was not permitted so I was unable to go.  Ironically, I cannot get into the country my father and his family tried desperately to get out of in the 1930s.

Hopefully I will be able to travel to Berlin next year for Yom Kippur to honor and remember my beloved father, stand in the place he became a Jewish man and listened as his rabbi spoke of unforeseeable darkness – and redemption.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.