Sukkot During World War I: Open Roofs and ‘Mysterious’ Ditches

Photo taken by an Austrian soldier provides a rare glimpse

Sukkot in Ivanovo, 1916. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: Verlag fur allgemeines Wissen)

Ditches at the entrances to all of the homes. Opened roofs. The year 1916 appears under the photograph featured on an aged postcard.

The setting: Seppl Alley, a Jewish street in Ivanovo – known as “Yanov” in Yiddish – a town then in the Russian Empire, near Pinsk in modern day Belarus.

The photo was taken during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, two years into the Great War.

Two elements stand out in particular: the houses’ opened roofs and rectangular ditches in front of every home.

Sukkot in Ivanovo, 1916. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Publisher: Verlag fur allgemeines Wissen)

The roofs can be rather clearly understood.

When the Jews of Ivanovo built their homes, they included a distinctly Jewish element found in many communities: roofs that opened up. When the holiday of Sukkot came every year, they would open up the roof, lay the traditional skhakh (covering for the sukkah made of natural materials) and live in their sukkah in accordance with Jewish law without having to fully leave the warmth and protection of their homes.

It was October in Russia, after all.

The ditches in front of the homes seem a bit more mysterious, though given the historical context it becomes clear that they are actually protective trenches, dug to safeguard the town’s residents from gunfire, a clear and present danger during this time of war.

The image is part of a series of photographs taken by the Austrians as they advanced into Russian-held territory during that particular stage of the war. It’s interesting to note that the photographer almost certainly had no idea what he was looking at and was likely confused by the locals opening their roofs in the middle of the chilly Eastern European autumn.

The postcard was published by “Verlag für allgemeines Wissen” (“Publisher of General Knowledge”), which distributed various images of the areas occupied by the Central Powers, particularly in Eastern Europe. It was part of the larger wartime propaganda effort.

This rare photo was captured by an anonymous Austrian soldier, perhaps providing the only surviving evidence of what Sukkot was like in Ivanovo in 1916.

Thousands of other soldiers on both sides carried private cameras into battle with them throughout the First World War. Some of the photos they took were kept in private hands, other were published in unit books or commemorative pamphlets. Some found their way onto the auction block or into public collections, while others – like this one – were featured on postcards, sold for pennies in markets and shops across Europe.

While the experiences of life during that cold Sukkot over a century ago will remain in the realm of the unknown, the residents of Seppl Alley certainly tried – despite the difficult circumstances – to fulfill the ancient commandment to “rejoice in your feasts” during the festival of Sukkot.

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.

A ‘High Holiday Prayer’ to the Czar

After he freed the serfs, Alexander II was virtually deified by one leading Jewish newspaper

As far as 19th century Russian autocrats went, Czar Alexander II did some decent things for the Jews. He abolished the cruel “Cantonist school” system, which ripped Jewish children away from their families and into decades of forced military service. He allowed some Jews to attend high school and even university. While the ultimate goal was certainly Russification, Alexander generally promoted a gentler form of it than others.

In 1861, the day before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States, a no less significant event took place across the world. On March 3 of that year, Czar Alexander II signed the Emancipation Manifesto, which, along with accompanying legislation, freed some 23 million serfs across the Russian Empire.

Liberty was not immediate even for those officially freed by the proclamation, and for the 2.5 million disenfranchised Jews living in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the Manifesto held little to no meaning.

The Jewish market in Minsk, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Pale of Settlement. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via NLI’s Digital Collection

Nonetheless, the editors of HaMelitz, a leading Jewish weekly published in Odessa, celebrated the Emancipation Manifesto and its signer as if it were the High Holidays and Alexander was the Almighty Himself.

HaMelitz generally championed values of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and played a critical role in the modern rebirth of the Hebrew language during the second half of the 19th century. It thus only seems natural that a modern take on traditional Jewish liturgy praising the Czar of Russia instead of the God of Abraham graced the publication’s cover shortly after the Emancipation Manifesto.

And it wasn’t subtle.

Following the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, worshippers traditionally say “Today, the world came into being, today [He] will stand in judgment…”, as they plead for God’s compassion and favor.

The difficult-to-translate Hebrew words “Hayom harat” begin this prayer, and they, along with other identical terms, open the ‘liturgy’ published by HaMelitz, as well: “Today the success of our Land came into being, today a KING [large font in the original] of justice and righteousness will stand…”

Perhaps the most well-known High Holiday refrain “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) also makes an appearance, as Alexander is referred to as “Avinu Malkeinu HaRachaman“, “Our Merciful Father and King”.

Alexander II in his coronation robes. From The Coronation of the Russian Monarch Beginning with Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich to the Emperor Alexander III, Hermann Hoppe Publishing, 1883 (Public Domain)

While other Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur tropes continue throughout, additional Jewish holidays make appearances as well.

The Hebrew term for “light and happiness”, which famously appears in the Book of Esther after the Jews are saved from the hands of  the evil Haman, is here employed to refer to the day the beneficent Russian monarch freed 23 million serfs, with the latter referenced in a manner clearly reminiscent of the wording used to recount the myriads of Jewish slaves miraculously redeemed from Egyptian servitude.

The “prayer” concludes with a call for all who “loyally love the land of our birth” to “Bless the one who has granted us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day” – the exact text of the well-known “Shehecheyanu” prayer, seemingly directed towards the King of Russia, as opposed to the King of the Universe.

Front cover of the HaMelitz newspaper, Thursday, March 28, 1861. The ‘prayer’ to Czar Alexander II is the lead item. Click image to browse the paper
The ‘prayer’ to Czar Alexander II, published in HaMelitz, Thursday, March 28, 1861. Click image to enlarge

Similar works were written in honor of Alexander II across the Empire. In fact, over the course of his reign, Hebrew texts were composed to mark other events as well, including his anniversary and his survival of an assassination attempt (at least one of them). Some of these texts were even intended to be read in synagogue. This phenomenon is not specific to the czar, however. Over the centuries, countless Hebrew prayers, songs and poems have been composed to fete leaders around the globe – sometimes written from a place of authentic appreciation and gratitude, while other times more out of fear or attempted groveling.

While Biblical phrases and wording generally reserved for God may have sometimes been utilized by anti-religious authors in order to denigrate tradition and sanctify secularism and modernity, that was certainly not always the intention, as prior to the broader development of modern Hebrew, the language’s lexicon and contexts were overwhelmingly religious in nature. Hamelitz  specifically served as a major force driving the modernization and secularization of Hebrew, helping enable it to be used more widely.

A contemporary illustration of Alexander II’s assassination (Public Domain)

On March 13, 1881, an assassin’s bomb tore Alexander II’s body apart. He bled to death in the same room in which he had signed the Emancipation Manifesto almost exactly two decades earlier.

Alexander’s son would immediately go on to rule with an iron fist and usher in an era of state-supported anti-Semitism. His grandson, present in the Winter Palace for the assassination’s aftermath, would be the last Czar of Russia.


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 Story of Daniel Hagège: Judeo-Arabic Author and Documenter of Tunisian Jewry

Hagège estimated that some 150 Tunisian authors wrote in Judeo-Arabic. This article is in memory of 100 years of Judeo-Arabic literature.

"Intishar al-ktayib al-yahudiyya al-berberiyya al-tunisiyya", by Daniel Hagège

The story of Judeo-Arabic literature in Tunisia is one of defeat; not only because the language in which this literature was written has disappeared due to the French and Hebrew prevailing it – but because it seems that this unique literature was never given a real chance to flourish.

Judeo-Arabic literature lasted in Tunisia for a mere 100 years. It began in 1862, when a partnership was formed among three Jewish writers: Mordekhai Tapia, Bishi Chemama, and Eliyahu Elmaleh. Their first book printed in Tunis was called Qanun al-dawla al-tunisiyya (“The Constitution of the Tunisian State”).

A year later, books containing folk literature began to be published. At first, they were copied by hand under the supervision of the author, storyteller, and tavern-owner, Hai Sarfati, and later at Uzan and Castro’s publishing house. In 1878, Abraham Tayyib founded the first newspaper in the country, called al-Amala al-tunisiyya (“Tunisia Province”).

Much of what we know about this literature we owe to the work of Daniel Hagège. Next to the French Eusèbe Vassel, Hagège (occasionally written as Ḥajjāj) is the greatest documenter of this rich literature, which consists of hundreds of original stories and translations. He was also one of the last authors to publish his works in Judeo-Arabic. In 1939, Hagège published a book titled Intishar al-ktayib al-yahudiyya al-berberiyya al-tunisiyya (“The Publication of Tunisian Judeo-Arabic Books”, translated into Hebrew by Joseph Tobi and Zivia Tobi, Wayne State University Press, 2014). Some of Hagège’s many books have vanished completely, with the only remaining traces being a few details mentioned in this text. Hagège listed the published works of the Judeo-Arabic authors alongside biographic information about their lives and literary and professional work. Intishar al-ktayib was published at Makhluf Najjar’s printing house.

Thanks to this detailed bio-bibliographic list compiled by the author, we know that Judeo-Arabic literature, which emerged in Tunisia during the mid-19th century, was influenced by different elements. Firstly, Arabic literature; Judeo-Arabic literature was written in Arabic, peppered with Hebrew, French and Italian. Many other books and stories were translated literary classics from around the world, primarily France. These included works such as The Mysteries of Paris, Robinson Crusoe, and adaptations of One Thousand and One Nights, which drew from Antoine Gallan’s French translation.

Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi, by Daniel Defoe

Before we read the work’s translation by scholars Joseph and Zivia Tobi, we assumed Hagège wrote his bio-bibliography because he wished to save this literature from vanishing into obscurity. In the book’s introduction, right after the acclaims – “Thanks must be given to the supreme God, the mighty and the terrible, creator of lands, with the perfection of wholeness, creator of man, and who places him above animals in understanding and language,” (translation: Joseph Tobi and Zivia Tobi, Wayne State University Press, 2014) Hagège clarified what drove him to write the book. It appears the author was quite confident that the language and its literature would last, and so he wrote: “After this, what will be set forth now is that the ‘Tunisian Arabic-Berber’ language, which our forefathers and even we ourselves have never ceased to speak to the present day, is a language like all the languages scattered all over the world. From the day of its creation until today it has been reinforced by a large number of learned writers, who were able to use this language, and they penned a great many literary compositions and love stories and weekly journals and even daily newspapers. We hope therefore that our historical essay will produce many benefits and will bestow esteem and honor upon our Jewish-Arabic language and renown to all the Tunisian Jewish master writers.” (Translation: Joseph Tobi and Zivia Tobi, Wayne State University Press, 2014)

Hagège estimated that some 150 Tunisian authors, all of them men, wrote in Judeo-Arabic. His compilation lists bio-bibliographic details of 17 of them, including the author himself. Hagège summarizes his work in a few self-praising sentences, followed by a list of the 30 books he published.

“The journalist Daniel Hagège, who has written for the journal al-Najma al-waḥīda since its revival, was born in our city of Tunis on July 15, 1892. After completing his schooling, a graduate of three grades in basic studies, he began working at the printing house with the revered writer the late Ya‘aqov Ha-Cohen on the weekly al-Shams and the daily al-Ṣabaḥ. This was in 1904. On October 21, 1910, this writer was appointed chief editor of the weekly Ḥayat al-janna, which lasted for several months. On August 1, 1913, he founded a magazine called al-Nuzha al-tunisiyya (“Tunisian Pastime”), which continued to appear until the end of 1915. It was revived in 1933 when seven issues were published. Thereafter it closed by order of the government. In 1914 he published an important book titled Anwar tunis (“Flowers of Tunis”), which contained the account Sabab takwin ḥarb uruppa (“Causes of the Development of the European War”) and the story al-‘Ishq wa-al-ḥubb ma fihim ṭibb (“There Is No Remedy in Lust and Love”) and several stirring Arabic articles and amusing tales.”

Bio-bibliographic details about Daniel Hagège, written by Hagège in Intishar al-ktayib

Like many Jewish authors and journalists in Tunisia, Hagège made a living outside of literary writing and had a completely separate profession. The most interesting part of Hagège’s biography is his “secondary” income, which was, in fact, his main income: “And from April 1924,” writes Hagège, “He began to work for one year as a mixer of medicines at the pharmacy of the Greek opposite Sinigalia on the square. From 1926 to 1930 he worked at the Suq al-Grana with the late Rabbi Eli‘ezer Farḥi, the pharmacist famous for his wisdom in plants and essences. Afterward he himself opened a shop at 4 Sidi al-Sridek Street in Tunis. This shop became well-known to everyone, as they came to learn of its great usefulness.” (Translation: Joseph Tobi and Zivia Tobi, Wayne State University Press, 2014)

Daniel Hagège belonged to the last generation of Jewish Tunisian authors. He ceased writing in Judeo-Arabic in the 1940s. In his bio-bibliography, he stressed that readers did not appreciate the hard work and high expenses of publishing Judeo-Arabic newspapers and books. They preferred to loan a copy rather than buying one. “Alshari wahid w’alkari asharh,” Hagège noted, meaning: “One buys, ten read.” (Translation: Joseph Tobi and Zivia Tobi, Wayne State University Press, 2014).

In 1959, Hagège immigrated to Paris. He died in 1976, and, in accordance with his last will and testament, the last Jewish author of Tunisia was buried in Jerusalem.

An assortment of the 30 books Hagège wrote, the National Library of Israel collections


The book Intishar al-ktayib al-yahudiyya al-barbariyya al-tunisiyya was translated into Hebrew and published in 2000 by Zivia and Joseph Tobi as part of their study of Judeo-Arabic Tunisian literature.

Dodging the Draft in the Old Country

Besides poverty and pogroms, forced conscription weighed heavily on European Jews

My great-grandfather, Meshulim (or Szulim) Nemeth, served in the Austro-Hungarian army for ten years, two months, and twenty days, plus another two years in the reserves. He completed his service in 1889, almost exactly a century after Jews first started serving in the Austrian military under Emperor Joseph II.

Meaning “farewell” in German, a document known as an Abschied was awarded to a soldier who had completed his required service in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Signed in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) in 1889, the Abschied for my great-grandfather, Meshulim, was printed in true Galician style – German on one half and Polish on the other – and was carefully preserved and passed down through our family.

Meshulim Nemeth’s Abschied, Stanislawow, 1889. (Courtesy: Sharon Taylor)

While many Jews like him served in the Empire’s military, others chose a different path.

In fact, evading the draft by any means available was commonplace, sometimes even elevated almost to an art form as documented in memoirs, Yizkor books, and even in a novel written by Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon.

For the son of a wealthy family, influence was commonly used to escape military service. With corruption rampant, military draft boards could often be bribed. By pulling strings and paying off officials, the sons of wealthy Jews and non-Jews were able to evade service altogether or to acquire desk jobs, serving as clerks in the military.

Well-to-do Austrian Jewish children, ca. 1900. From the Nirenstein Family Album, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

But even for the wealthy, bribery could only go so far. On occasion, word would spread that a particular draft board coming to town could not be bribed, creating a situation that required more drastic action. Young men of draft age who had the means would often travel, taking extended trips to evade conscription. Some chose to emigrate.

However, with poverty rampant, young men often lacked the funds to travel, emigrate, or bribe the draft board. Observant Jews feared that it would be impossible to adhere to a religious lifestyle while serving in the military, and others dreaded leaving their families and communities. Throughout Eastern Europe, these young men found ingenious ways to avoid military service. Repeatedly, Yizkor books (many of which are available via the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project) document both the desperation and creativity of these young men.

Austro-Hungarian cavaliers and Jewish boys in an unidentified early 20th century Eastern European town. Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Life in Jewish Tluste (today, Tovste, Ukraine) by Abraham Stupp, for example, describes some of the methods of evading conscription employed by the men in that Galician town. A few weeks before the draft board was due to arrive, eligible men would band together and stay up night after night, hoping to make themselves appear unfit for service when examined by the draft board. Known in the town as “sufferers,” they would spend their sleepless nights in groups, singing and shouting in an effort to stay awake. Trying desperately not to sleep, the sufferers often turned to mischief, deliberately waking their relatives in the middle of the night.

In Kalusz (now Kalush, Ukraine), young men would stay awake in the synagogue, hoping to make their eyes appear red and sickly for the medical examiners. As in other towns, by the early hours of the morning, these bored young men turned to pranks in order to keep themselves going. In the Jewish section of Kalusz, they would walk through the streets from house to house with a musician, waking the inhabitants with a serenade and requesting money. Those who refused their demands for payment became further victims of the pranksters. Returning later that night, the mischievous sufferers of Kalush would remove the wooden steps from the entrances to the attached shops of the residents who had refused to pay. In the morning, when those people tried to leave through their shop door, they would inevitably fall out of the house and onto the sidewalk.

The Landsmann Hotel in Kalusz, early 20th century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

In Tlumacz (present-day Tlumach, Ukraine), young men were known to drink vinegar to slow the heart, or to rub their eyes with weeds to make them appear red and unhealthy. They practiced abstinence, fasting during the day and eating only at night. Attempting to make themselves look unfit for service, they gathered in the synagogue to keep each other awake. They spent their nights wandering through the sleeping town, playing cards, moving wagons from one house to another, and switching piles of firewood from the rich to the poor. Sometimes they would leave a bleating goat tied beneath the window of a sleeping family.

Back in the synagogue, the men were known to drink the congregational whiskey and refill the bottles with water. On Friday nights, they would steal trays of gefilte fish that were left out to cool for the Sabbath. Tales of their pranks were handed down from year to year, with each new batch of potential conscripts trying to outdo the exploits of previous groups.

Draft age men in Chorostkow (today’s Khorostkiv, Ukraine) spent three to four months depriving themselves of sleep so that they would appear weak and unfit for military service. In the town, these young men were referred to as “plaagers”. It has been noted that their efforts to avoid conscription were rarely successful.

For those who wanted to eliminate all chances of being drafted, self-mutilation was the most drastic option. Desperate to stay in their communities, draft age men were known to make themselves unfit for service by cutting off fingers or even blinding themselves in one eye.

Parents and communities generally supported efforts to avoid conscription, and mothers often boasted of the creative methods their sons used to evade the draft board and trick its medical inspectors. Practicing abstinence to avoid the draft became almost a rite of passage and a bonding experience for young men in countless shtetls.

This practice was so prevalent that it even played a key role in the novel, A Simple Story by S.Y. Agnon (published in Hebrew in 1935 by Schocken Publishers; published in English most recently in 2014 by The Toby Press). A Simple Story is set in Szybusz, a fictitious version of Agnon’s hometown, Buczacz (now Buchach, Ukraine). Agnon brings Szybusz to life, with its small Jewish shops, dusty streets, and Dickensian cast of townspeople.

S.Y. Agnon as a young man, 1908. From the S.Y. Agnon Archive, National Library of Israel

Shortly after his marriage, the main character, Hirshl Hurvitz, finds himself lying in bed awake, night after night, thinking about his lost true love and about the draft board which is on its way to town. It’s rumored that this draft board can’t be bribed, unlike the ones in past years. As a result, Hirshl fears that he will certainly be drafted. With the draft board traveling toward Szybusz, Hirshl’s anxiety and his unhappiness with his marriage deepen, and he stops eating.

Hirshl’s doctor recommends daily walks to improve sleep and appetite, so after working all day, Hirshl spends his sleepless nights walking, sometimes staying out until dawn. He begins drinking strong coffee during the day to stay awake, and as time passes, his melancholy and anxiety, as well as his lack of food and sleep, take their toll. Eventually, Hirshl suffers a complete and embarrassing public breakdown. Humiliated, his parents fear that Hirshl’s madness will cause them to lose their standing in the town.

Buczacz in the early 20th century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

While Hirshl recovers at a mental asylum in Lemberg, his parents discover that all of Szybusz believes that Hirshl was simply practicing abstinence and that his breakdown was a performance aimed at evading the draft board and tricking its medical examiners. The townspeople even praise his ingenuity, noting that his methods were far preferable to cutting off a finger or blinding an eye to escape conscription. Since only his parents know the truth, once Hirshl recovers, he is able to return to his life in Szybusz without disgrace.

 A Simple Story is fiction, but this plot line is firmly based on practices that were widespread in Galicia at the time. After the fall of the Austrian Empire, the practice of abstinence and the tradition of draft evasion carried over into reborn Poland. Across the border in the Russian Pale of Settlement, draft evasion through emigration or “suffering” was also widely practiced.

As for my family, avoiding military service does not appear to have had any influence on my maternal grandfather’s decision to leave Europe. In February of 1911, just two years after he arrived in America, he enlisted in the U.S. Army serving for seven years and rising to the rank of sergeant. Because of his Austrian citizenship, he was honorably discharged a year after America entered the First World War.

Isidore Weisner at Eagle Pass, Texas,1917 (Courtesy: Sharon Taylor)

A version of this article first appeared as part of “Leaving Galicia – Poverty, Pogroms, and Draft Evasion” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly journal of Gesher Galicia. 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.