Kosher Pork Chops and Crypto-Jewish Identity

In Genie Milgrom's family, hidden Jewish identity was preserved for generations in the food they ate

For centuries, food connected Crypto-Jews in Europe and the New World to their hidden heritage (Map: "Regnorum Hispaniae et Portugalliae", ca. 1769; from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel)

One of the saddest chapters in Jewish history is also one of the more interesting on a gastronomic level. Following the forced conversions in 15th-century Spain, the Inquisition and subsequent Expulsion, many so-called New Christians secretly maintained Jewish beliefs. Practicing in secret to avoid arrest and torturous execution, they are now known as Crypto-Jews.

Foods that were considered “Jewish” could mean a death sentence when Crypto-Jews ate certain telltale dishes. Inquisition court documents repeatedly make this connection clear.

Inquisition document regarding the confiscation of “New Christian” property,  Cordoba, Spain, May 1487. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Ms. NH 63; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Many Crypto-Jews conspicuously ate pork to “prove” their Christian faith, while others devised tricks to avoid such transgressions while not giving away their secret.

Nonetheless, clearly not everything Crypto-Jews ate was necessarily related to their true or assumed identity – most foods were probably neutral in this regard.

So what did Crypto-Jews eat? And how have those foods developed over the past 500 years?

The recent book Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers by Genie Milgrom offers a fascinating personal window into the lives and foodways of the descendants of Crypto-Jews across the centuries.

Twenty-Two Generations

Milgrom’s story is a big part of what makes the book as interesting as it is. Born Catholic in Havana, Cuba, she felt Jewish from a young age. Finally, in her 30s, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. It was tough for a single mother of two, largely disconnected from her old life and still struggling to integrate into a new community.

A Cuban ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), ca. 1900. From the National Library of Israel collections

In time, she began to conduct intensive genealogical research, eventually uncovering “an unbroken maternal lineage going back twenty-two generations to 1405 pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal.” It turned out that she had actually been Jewish all along!

Still, while names and cold biographical facts drawn from archival records may be significant, what Milgrom really yearned to discover were the more personal details. Turning to her mother, she asked for anything that might have been handed down from previous generations.

Her mom denied having anything. And then fate stepped in.

“Finally, the sad day came when my mom could no longer live in her home, and it was at that moment that I found many old books full of pages of handwritten recipes and scraps of paper with small writing and tiny notes written in light pencil. All of these pages were done in different handwritings, some with more flourishes than others, but always written by the women. With this, I found the recipes of the grandmothers.”


Culinary Connections

Depiction of Jews fleeing Spain, from a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

While Milgrom had already written and spoken a lot about her genealogy and her research, this discovery led her to edit and compile the recipes into the cookbook.

Though an experienced home cook, Milgrom was neither a professional chef nor cookbook writer.

She recruited a cadre of friends and colleagues to help her test-cook the recipes, and throughout the book she repeatedly mentions that she had not even tasted all of its recipes herself.

While on the culinary level this might not hold up alongside other contemporary cookbook favorites, there are certainly unique and delicious recipes to be found within. But beyond that, the book is a great exploration of a certain blank spot in Jewish culinary history.

I know of one other book that looks at the subject. Husband and wife professors David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson published the fascinating (and award-winning) A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, culling food facts from Inquisition archives and reconstructing the original dishes.

But their recipes, enlightening as they may be, were largely their own approximations and guesses. Milgrom’s book works as a perfect companion — personal recipes to pair with the broader archival research.

Kosher Pork Chops

Milgrom writes that she was surprised to find no recipes in the entire collection that mixed milk and meat. When I asked her about pork (a major ingredient in Spanish cuisine) she told me, “As a matter of fact, my family recipes only started having pork in Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s.”

Thus, one of the most surprising recipes she uncovered among the collection of hand-bound books and paper scraps was one for chuletas — pork chops.

She could barely bring herself to read the recipe, but when she finally did, she was greatly amused. Though they are called “pork chops”, the recipe is actually a sort of French toast that is disguised to resemble pork chops! Perhaps a more suitable name would be “imitación de chuletas”.

Milgrom’s kosher pork chops (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Milgrom claims that they are “the best look-alike to a pork chop that I have ever seen,” and speculates this dish was designed to throw off suspicious neighbors.

I have not made these, nor do I know what pork chops should really look like, but I must admit that I find it hard to believe anyone could be truly convinced for more than just a passing glance. Smell and consistency would be dead giveaways. Still, whether or not this was actually their origin, there is undoubtedly an intriguing history cooked into this imitación.


Preserving Hidden Identity

Perhaps the most oft-repeated aspect of Crypto-Jewish life is the persistence of Jewish practices that generations performed, without even necessarily knowing why. Famous examples include lighting candles in a hidden place on Friday night, circumcision and sweeping towards the center of the room (rather than out the door, so suspicious neighbors wouldn’t know they are preparing for Shabbat).

Throughout the book, Milgrom mentions a number of food-related customs that her grandmother passed on to her, all of them quite clearly having Jewish origins. Examples include checking eggs for blood spots, strictly washing and checking lettuce leaves to avoid all insects, burning a small wrapped piece of dough in the back of the oven (“taking challah”) or even just describing a pareve cake as something that “could be eaten after any meal” with no further explanation.

Most of these were described to Milgrom simply as “family traditions” or things that would bring good luck.

From great grandmother to granddaughter (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

She explains that her grandmother only taught these recipes and techniques to her, though there were four other grandchildren. This makes one wonder how much her grandmother knew about her Crypto-Jewish background. Reading through the grandmothers’ recipes we must ask whether she too pieced together the truth of their Jewish background, or whether something more subconscious was at play.

Unfortunately, we will never know.


For the Holidays and Beyond

On a broader level, there are many other crossovers between the recipes in this book and Jewish food in general. As Milgrom has pointed out, it is worth noting that her family’s recipes are distinct from Sephardic cuisine, as that community blended its Spanish roots with the influences of the areas in which they lived — Turkey, Italy, the Balkans and the Levant, largely. Primarily, her grandmothers’ food is typically Spanish, with adjustments and developments over time.

Hornazo, a festive pastry with assorted meats inside (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Many dishes were things that Milgrom sees as more or less connected with Jewish holidays.

Cocido madrileño is a clear stand-in for a Shabbat hamin or chulent – the traditional lunch dish left on the fire throughout the night to avoid the prohibited cooking on the Sabbath. Other recipes appear perfect for various holidays as well, such as the dark fruit cake for Rosh Hashanah and orejuelas y pestiños (“ears and pastries”) for Purim. Sweets shaped like ears and other body parts are prepared for the holiday in many Jewish cultures, with the Hebrew term for hamantaschen being “oznei Haman” or “Haman’s ears”.  Pestiños are a common Spanish pastry often associated with the period preceding Easter, roughly the same season as Purim.

Dulces en almibar are like donut holes covered in a special kind of flavored syrup. Whether intentional or not, they certainly seem Hanukkah-appropriate.

Dulces en Almiba (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Milgrom also points out how many dishes there are that surprisingly contain no wheat flour, making them appropriate for Passover.

Finally, though distinct from Sephardic cooking, as mentioned above, there are a number of dishes represented that are indeed Sephardic classics. She highlights her grandmothers’ “Decorated Rice” (saffron rice with raisins, almonds and cinnamon) and the pareve flan-like Tocino del Ciello as Sephardic classics. Bollas and rosquillas are other common Sephardic pastries that appear in these pages, too.

While the descendants of Crypto-Jews may now be free to cook whatever they like, their recipes offer a window into generations of kitchens and lives, providing a tangible and tasty link to the past.

A version of this article first appeared on “The Taste of Jewish Culture“. 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.

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.

The Kaiser’s Favorite “Carmen”? A Jewish Star from Budapest

After years in the Berlin Royal Opera, an aging Teréz Rothauser was sent to Theresienstadt

A few months ago, I came across a beautiful portrait photograph on the website of an online auction house.

I decided to try my luck and bid a small amount of money for the photo. Fortunately, it seemed that no one else was interested, so I got it for a good price and a few days later the photograph was in my hands.

On the back of the portrait, which was taken at the Lovag Mertens és Társa photography studio in Budapest in 1888, I managed to decipher a name: “Teréz Rothauser”.

After a bit of research, I found out that Teréz Rothauser was a world famous opera singer. She was 23 years old in 1888 when the photograph was taken, 55 years before she was murdered in the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

Born in Budapest to a Jewish family, her father was a trader who encouraged his three children to become artists. She gave her first concert in 1886 in Budapest and performed the same year in Vienna and Berlin. She then spent two years in Leipzig where – among other roles – she played Inez in the premiere of the comic opera “The Three Pintos”, originally composed by Carl Maria von Weber and finished 65 years later by Gustav Mahler.

She later moved to Berlin where she joined the Royal Opera House.

Berlin Royal Opera House, 19th century

With her first name Germanized to “Therese”, the public enjoyed her Mezzo-Soprano voice and she quickly became very popular, even playing the female title role in Berlin’s first production of nineteenth-century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”.

Richard Strauss liked her voice and Kaiser Wilhelm II told her in 1892 that she “was the best Carmen I have ever seen”. Five years later, the Kaiser personally gave her a sapphire brooch “with diamonds, a small crown and the monograms of the Kaiser”.

Teréz retired from the stage in 1914, staying in Berlin where she gave private lessons.

Over the course of her career, she came back to Budapest a number of times, performing in front of adoring crowds, yet since most of her career was in Germany, the majority of sources about her life and performances are in German, with only a handful in Hungarian and little in English.

Nonetheless, during her lifetime, Hungarian newspapers regularly wrote about Teréz’s performances, revering her as a local hero of sorts. A number of examples of these can be found via the Historical Jewish Press (JPress) project, part of the National Library of Israel’s Digital Collection.

One such article – published a year after the photograph was taken under the headline “Success of a Hungarian Singer Abroad” – provides a summary of Rothauser’s farewell concert in Leipzig before she moved on to Berlin. According to the article, the public loved her so much that “flowers were raining on her” at the end of the concert.

“Success of a Hungarian Singer Abroad” article about Teréz Rothauser, published in the newspaper Egyenlöség on June 9, 1889

After 1933, her life became more and more difficult, but she stayed in Berlin. Her brother Eduard, who had been a famous actor there, emigrated to Spain with his wife.

Teréz apparently didn’t have enough money to follow him there and shortly before her deportation to Theresienstadt, she sent a letter to Hermann Göring asking him to save her by adding her to his list of “protected Jews”. A terse response assured her that there was no reason for someone her age to fear.

Teréz Rothauser was murdered in Theresienstadt in 1943 at the age of 79, followed by her 80 year-old sister Katalin the next year.

Stolpersteine (“stumbling stone” memorial plaques) located in front of their apartment at 11, Konstanzer Straße in Berlin keep their memories alive.

As Teréz was taken away, the Kaiser reportedly gazed down upon the events from a prominently placed portrait on her wall.

Kaiser Wilhelm II. From the National Library of Israel archives

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.