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 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.

“It Could Never Happen Here”: Before the Bolsheviks Came

Most in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur had felt safe in one of Russia's most isolated corners

In the fall of 1919, rumors of approaching Bolshevik partisans circulated through the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur in the far eastern corner of  Siberia…

“We are not moving to Japan,” Ilya threw off the sheets and sat up, shrugging his wife off as if she were a snowflake on his collar. The tender mood of their morning tryst had evaporated.

“But…once the Amur freezes, there’ll be no getting out until May.” Luba pulled the cover back over herself. “It’s September and the river’s already covered with a layer of ice some mornings. Once the Amur freezes, we won’t be able to get out.” She swallowed hard. “My brother thinks it would be best if we move to Japan for the winter.”

Ilya sighed and shook his head. “What will I do in Hakodate? I have no business there. I barely speak the language.”

Luba knew he was right on one level, but their safety was more important to her. “Meyer’s offered for us to live with him. He has plenty of room in the house he rented. The two of you can work together.” With political tension on the rise, many of their friends talked of moving, but Ilya didn’t feel the need.

“I don’t want to be his lackey.” He scowled.

“What are you talking about? Meyer’s my brother.” Luba tugged on her husband’s shoulder. “And your closest friend.” She pressed her lips into a firm line. Why did Ilya always have to be in charge? His take-charge nature impressed her when they first married, but why couldn’t he at least consider her opinions?

Ilya pulled away. “Yes. When we’re here, on equal footing. But I don’t want to be beholden to him.” Confronted by his back, Luba grazed her fingertips lightly across it as she knew he liked. Ilya turned toward her.

Ilya Kaptzan just before the Nikolaevsk Massacre in 1920

“I know you’re used to being your own boss, Ilya moy.” She raked her hand through his chest hair and played with the brown tufts that sprouted in different directions. “But it would only be for the winter months. Until the trouble blows over.”

Luba hoped her touch would assuage her husband. Ilya leaned in and she thought he was capitulating; but then he pulled away, resisting the urge to soften. “The winter months make up more than half the year. And nobody else is moving away.”

“Nobody else has a place to go,” Luba pointed out.

Her husband rubbed his neck. “The trouble’s not here. It’s in the west. In St. Petersburg. Moscow.”

“Not anymore. You yourself told us the revolution was moving east.”

“A little. To Irkutsk…”

“You said Vladivostok. That’s about as far east as you can get.” She pictured the layout of the country on the globe in Ilya’s study.

“Vladivostok is 500 miles south of here. And Vladivostok is not Nikolaevsk.”

“Why is Meyer moving if there’s no cause for concern? Don’t you read your own newspaper?”

“Meyer and I have spoken. With his boys of high school age, he thinks they’ll get a better education abroad.”

Luba huffed in frustration.

“Stop being silly,” he whispered into her ear.

How she hated when he said that. She faced him squarely. “What if they take over, the Bolsheviks?”

Leon Trotsky and other members of the Bolshevik leadership, early 1920s. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: YIVO)

“What if, what if…!”

Luba’s blood pulsed like a volcano in her core. She took a deep breath. “Stop treating me like a child. I’m—”

Ilya lay back down and stared at the ceiling. “You sound like a child. You worry too much.”

Not another lecture. Why did they always have to argue lately? Once Ilya started, there was no stopping. The lawyer in him took over. She wished she could plug her ears.

“Haven’t I told you that our way of life here in Nikolaevsk represents what the revolutionaries are seeking? Freedom, business opportunities. Why would they want to cause trouble?”

Leaning on one elbow, Luba looked into her husband’s eyes. “Because we’re Jews?”

“The Jews hate the Tsar as much as the revolutionaries. Nobody’s going to take over our city.” Ilya threaded his fingers through his wife’s falling tresses, pushing some curls behind her ear. She could tell he wished she were still the adoring girl he married.

“How do you know?” Luba wanted him to convince her, to hush the whirring that rushed through her veins making her hum like a telegraph wire.

“We’re nestled way up here in the north. Like bears in a cave.” Ilya nudged his wife and tented the comforter over themselves. “Hibernating for the winter,” he joked as he nuzzled her neck.

Luba was tempted to succumb. “But what about the rumors? All the upheaval everywhere?” How could her husband be so blind?

“That’s been going on for years now. Up and down, up and down. In recent months, things have calmed considerably. Remember last year? It looked like the Reds were going to take over. And then, poof! We expelled them like that!” He snapped his fingers in Luba’s face. She flicked them away. He lay next to her on the pillows, and ran his finger softly down her arm.

Couldn’t he tell that she knew he was trying to distract her?

Luba with her five children after surviving the 1920 Nikolaevsk Massacre and the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Yokohama

Finally, he gave up. “If you’re so worried,” he said, “why don’t you take the children and move to Hakodate yourself?”

That caught her off guard. “Without you?”

“If it makes you happy.” Oh, was she tempted. She pictured the family living in surroundings akin to their dacha, but far from the reach of encroaching partisans. Could she live without Ilya for seven months? What would people say? And to leave him behind with his mother who surely would not desert her son like her? Luba would never hear the end of it.

Ilya got out of bed. “I have to get to work. You wouldn’t have me arrive late, would you?”

“Of course not,” she grumbled under her breath. She watched him dress and leave, then plunged into her feather pillow. She didn’t really want to move to Japan where none of them spoke the language and the only people they knew were her brother and his family. She just didn’t want to remain in Nikolaevsk.

Luba shook herself.  Was she being silly after all? Could Ilya be right that the threats would melt like snow in Spring? That nothing bad would ever happen here?


Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, ca. 1900

The account above is a fictionalized exchange between my grandparents, Ilya and Luba Kaptzan, in the midst of a violent and unpredictable time. It appears in Red Winter, a novel inspired by the true story of what happened to my grandmother Luba during the winter of 1920. Her family was living in Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, a thriving city on the far eastern coast of Siberia.

My grandfather Ilya was a businessman, lawyer and editor of the local newspaper, The Amursky Liman. He and Luba were born and raised in the city which was known for its natural resources—salmon, lumber, furs and mines—and also for its lack of religious persecution. The town had its own synagogue, mosque, church and cathedral and because it was frozen from the rest of the world for half of every year, all the occupants celebrated one another’s holidays together.

The residents were aware that trouble was brewing in the west since the Russian Revolution of 1917, but most felt safe in their remote location. Because my grandfather refused to leave, he ended up being one of the first to be imprisoned—and ultimately murdered—by the Bolshevik partisans who entered Nikolaevsk once the river froze, cutting the city off from all possible aid.

“Russians were murdered by the Bolsheviks in the thousands, their property plundered. Hundreds of human corpses were strewn outside the city, unburied.” From a description of the Nikolaevsk Massacre published in the Haaretz newspaper shortly afterwards. Click for the full article

Luba was left on her own with five young children, her mother-in-law and epileptic sister-in-law. At first, the family lived under house arrest when the Reds conscripted their home and relegated them to servant status. Later, they managed to escape, only to spend the winter months hiding in pigsties, warehouses and opium dens while the bloodthirsty intruders tried to track them down. By the end of the winter, ninety percent of Nikolaevsk’s population had been killed.


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.

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

180 Years of Australian Jewish Newspaper History Going Online

Some 200,000 pages of historic press will be fully searchable as part of new global initiative

(Courtesy: National Library of Australia)

A new initiative will digitise and open free digital access to 180 years of Australian Jewish newspapers, including over 200,000 pages from Jewish communities across the continent. The project is a collaboration between the National Library of Australia (NLA), the National Library of Israel (NLI) and the Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS).

The new digital collection will be openly accessible and fully searchable from anywhere in the world through Trove, Australia’s free online research portal and the Historical Jewish Press Project (JPress), the world’s leading digital collection of Jewish newspapers and journals. The new digital collection will offer scholars and the wider community the opportunity to understand centuries of Jewish life in Australia as never before.

According to Dr. Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, “The project continues the work being done by the National Library to connect culturally and linguistically diverse communities with their history. This global initiative supports international scholarship and enables those interested in the study of Jewry in Australia to freely access this wealth of information. The National Library’s unparalleled digitisation capabilities will once again unlock important sources for researchers and enable generations to connect with the treasured voices, stories and opinions of the people from their collective past.”

Jewish newspapers waiting to be digitised at the National Library of Australia (Courtesy: National Library of Australia)

“The National Library of Israel’s commitment to offer access to historic Jewish press from all communities and in all languages via its JPress platform receives a tremendous boost here with the massive digitisation of Australian Jewish press. We appreciate the close partnership with the National Library of Australia and the Australian Jewish Historical Society toward this shared mission,” said Oren Weinberg, Director of the National Library of Israel.

The history of Jewish press in Australia goes back to 1842, when, despite the very small Jewish population, a local edition of the London-based Voice of Jacob (what would later become The Jewish Chronicle) was published in Sydney. As the local communities grew and established themselves in the twentieth century, the number of publications and their variety grew immensely. Most of the publications were in English, but there were also some in Yiddish and Hebrew.

The Yiddish Australian newspaper “Australier Leben” is one of the titles being digitised as part of the initiative (Courtesy: National Library of Australia)

“Jewish people have been in Australia since 1788 and, while prominent members of our community such as Sir John Monash are well known, the history of those who came before him remains largely unknown. From a Jewish community standpoint, these newspapers represent a rich source of contemporary history and to have access to the information for historians, genealogists and interested members of the public is immense”, according to Peter Philippsohn OAM, President of the Australian Jewish Historical Society. “It’s not just about uncovering genealogical information and family history either, but revealing the arcane and the attitudes of society at a particular moment in time—the insights that can be gleaned from the community’s attitudes towards immigration, the Holocaust, and the World Wars.”

With permission from the Australian Jewish News and their publisher, Polaris Media, all issues of the Australian Jewish News will be digitised, as will all other Australian Jewish newspapers published up to the copyright date of 1954. According to David Redman, Chief Executive Officer of Polaris Media, “With a history that extends over 125 years, the Australian Jewish News has been an important part of not only the Jewish community but also the wider Australian community. Polaris Media, as the publisher of The Australian Jewish News, is very excited to be part of this project to preserve this history as well as make this unique record of our past available digitally to future generations.”

This joint initiative would not have been made possible without financial assistance from philanthropic supporters, including the David Lesnie Foundation, the Embassy of Israel in Australia, the Besen Family Foundation, and Eitan Neishlos and Lee Levi.


Project Partners

The National Library of Australia

The National Library is charged with preserving the nation’s memory for future generations. The NLA is committed to connecting with communities, and connecting communities with their national collections. While the Library’s mission has long been to collect, connect and collaborate, the ways in which we have carried out that mission have changed dramatically. The digital era has seen creative and research practices, knowledge production and community expectations being fundamentally reshaped through the opportunities, new technologies offer. The Library has responded to and anticipated these changes, building an astounding collection, developing world-leading digital platforms, connecting with more Australians than ever before, and collaborating with other agencies to develop digital research infrastructure on which the nation relies. We are committed to continuing this proud record of service to the Australian people.

Trove is a collaboration between the National Library of Australia and hundreds of partner organisations around Australia.


The National Library of Israel

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) serves as the vibrant institution of national memory for the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. NLI has recently embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal and is now opening access and encouraging meaningful engagement with the treasures of Jewish and Israeli culture as never before through a range of innovative educational, cultural and digital initiatives. Its iconic new home is currently under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem, on schedule to open its doors in 2022.

Alongside and in partnership with peer institutions across the globe, NLI is carrying out significant digital initiatives to open access, generate research, enhance user experience and exponentially expand the quantity and quality of materials available for user communities interested in its core subject areas. One such example is the Historical Jewish Press Project (JPress), the world’s leading initiative for preserving and opening digital access to Jewish newspapers and journals across centuries and continents, allowing users to search and browse nearly 3,000,000 pages from over 400 titles in a range of languages from the late 18th through the 20th centuries. JPress is an initiative of the National Library of Israel (NLI) and Tel Aviv University (TAU), in cooperation with institutions and collections around the globe.

JPress is a collaboration between the National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University.


The Australian Jewish Historical Society

Founded in August 1938 by Rabbi Leib Falk, Sydney Glass, Hirsch Munz and Percy Marks, the Australian Jewish Historical Society is dedicated to promoting the study of Jewry in Australia from 1788. Since its founding the Society has sought to compile and make available unique and authentic records relating to the Jewish people in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands via the acquisition and preservation of historically significant documents and materials. Equally, the Society has pursued the conservation of places of Jewish interest and continues to foster the interchange of information through lectures, discussions and exhibitions of historical interest or value.

The Society is now working to make a range of materials available online.