When the ‘Jerusalem of Austria’ Burned to the Ground (on Lag B’Omer)

A look back at the disaster which befell the city of Brody in 1867, and how Europe's Jews came together to help the victims

“There is no way to estimate, no way to tell or describe the great catastrophe that occurred in our city that day…  All the houses were completely consumed by fire, all that people had worked for came to nothing, everyone’s faces became disconsolate from the flames, holy books flew into the air, utterly sparks of light. The new and old synagogues, the houses of study, and the hospital went up to heaven in fiery smoke.”

Brody was a commercial and intellectual center. Since at least the 1500s, it was home to a thriving Jewish community and notable figures from different streams of Jewish thought and life had called it home – Kabbalists, Hassidim, proponents of the Enlightenment, even famous writers and entertainers.

The Fortress Synagogue in Brody, late 19th century. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It was known as the “Jerusalem of Austria”.

By 1867, Brody’s population had reached about 20,000, some 75% of whom were Jewish. In March of that year, the Kaiser himself granted the Jews of Brody the exceptional right to hold up to half of the seats on the municipal council as opposed to the one-third generally permitted.

On Lag B’Omer, just two months later, the “great catastrophe” described above by newspaper editor Baruch Werber, destroyed much of Austria’s Jerusalem.

Brody had suffered fires in its history, even as recently as 1859. Just a generation before that, a massive blaze in the village inspired noted Hebrew scholar, poet and Brody native Marcus Strelisker, to publish “The Cup of Poison“, a raw lamentation on the destruction of his hometown, which included these words:

“Poor turbulent Brody! She almost turned into a wasteland
Soon a moon will have passed, and she is not yet consoled
The fury has not yet subsided, the wrath has not yet abated!”

From a copy of Marcus Stelisker’s “The Cup of Poison“, the National Library of Israel

The city had just a few poorly outfitted firemen. Nearly all of the homes and roofs were made of wood.

Besides the destruction of central institutions, two major synagogues and a hospital, according to one account no less than 32 batei midrash (Jewish houses of study) were destroyed in the 1867 blaze, alongside between  800 and 1300 homes (sources vary). The wooden homes served as ready kindling. Some roofs were made of zinc, which turned into molten streams running down the collapsing walls of what had once been homes, oozing into the streets.

“I saw  masses of people running and not getting tired, their eyes  turned to the heavens, towards clouds of smoke rising higher and higher. Before I knew it I was among the runners… I became one of the terrified ones lifting my legs to run towards home, and before I even got to my doorstep, ha! Fire stood over me, and every place I went there was a pillar of fire before me…” wrote Baruch Werber, the editor of local newspaper Jbri Anochi, a week after the blaze.

Baruch Werber’s son Jakob, pictured here as a young man, survived the fire as a child. He would follow in his father’s footsteps as editor of Jbri Anochi. From the National Library of Israel archives

Thousands like Werber fled, gathering their loved ones and most valued possessions and running to the fields.

Then something kind of beautiful happened.

As the flames continued dancing in the sky and the smoke billowed on, people began to arrive from the surrounding villages. Some had seen the fire and smoke, while others had heard the fast-spreading rumors of Brody’s fate. They came from places like Radyvyliv, Dubno, and Tarnopol, and brought with them clothes, blankets and bread.

As the fires retreated and the embers sizzled into ash over the coming days, many of those fortunate enough to still have a bit of roof over their homes invited the less  fortunate into their homes until the devastation could be better assessed, and the reconstruction could begin.

In the coming weeks, accounts of the carnage, accompanied by pleas for assistance, and words of gratitude to those who had already sent aid cluttered newspaper pages. Donations came in from near and far as simple peasants, synagogues and communities heard the plight of their neighbors and availed themselves to help. Donations were listed in Werber’s Jbri Anochi newspaper, even spurring complaints that he had not included them all.

Leon Ephrussi, one of the richest men in the world, a “King of Wheat” described in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, even spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for the decimated shtetl, where his wife Minna had grown up.

Headline in the Hamelitz newspaper on June 6, 1867 imploring its readership: “Turn your hearts to mercy!”
“Wake Up Call!” in the Hamagid newspaper on June 12, 1867, asking readers to help the victims of the Brody fire


According to a first-hand account from Adela Landau Misis, who was a child at the time, the fire prompted the creation of a well-equipped volunteer fire department. Wood shingles were banned.

All of the homes in Brody were re-built with better materials and iron roofs, and “The Jerusalem of Austria” never again saw a fire like the one kindled that Lag B’Omer.

Postcard showing a rebuilt Brody in the late 19th century. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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


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Why ‘Anti-Semitism’ Was Not in the Original Oxford English Dictionary

In a newly surfaced letter, the dictionary's founding editor wrote that it was not thought likely to be more than a "passing nonce-word…"

A recently surfaced letter penned by James Murray, the Oxford English Dictionary’s founding editor, sheds new light on “anti-Semitism” in the English language. The letter appears online here for the first time.

“Anti-Semitism” and related words do not have their own entries in the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the massive project which sought to publish a comprehensive lexicon of the entire English language. Murray became the founding editor of the OED in 1879, with the full edition taking 40 years to publish.

James Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

The reasons for the word’s exclusion are elaborated by Murray in the letter, which he wrote on July 5, 1900 to Claude Montefiore, a scholar, ardent anti-Zionist and scion of the renowned British Jewish family. Montefiore was a founder of Liberal Anglo-Judaism, and the great-nephew of Moses Montefiore, one of the most important early supporters of the modern Zionist movement.

Portrait of Claude Montefiore, by Christopher Williams, 1925

Besides the fact that “the material for anti- words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed” to get them all in, Murray noted the following:

Anti-semite and its family were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words, & hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article. Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make Anti-semite a main word, and add ‘hence Anti-semitic, Anti-semitism.’

You will see that Anti-slavery, which was, then at least, a much more important word, is also treated among the Anti– combinations (sense 4). Would that Anti-semitism had had no more than a fleeting interest! The closing years of the 19th c. have shown, alas! that much of Christianity is only a temporary whitewash over brutal savagery. It is unutterably sadding to one like myself who remembers ’48 and the high hopes we had in the fifties that we had left ignorance, superstition[?], and brute force behind us, and that the 19th c. was to usher in the reign of righteousness. How the devil must have chuckled at our fond & foolish dream!”

James Murray’s letter to Claude Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel

In a post-script, Murray also notes that according to his German assistant, a variety of “anti-” terms were “English newspaper coinages” – “hardly words” at all, but rather “condensed expressions”.  It was shorter to write “anti-imperialistic opinions”, for example “than ‘opinions opposed to the new imperialism’.”

Some prevalent “newspaper coinages” of this type at the time included “Anti-boer, anti-foreign, anti-Japan[?], anti-imperialistic, anti-expansion, anti-silver”. The term “Anti-semitic”, in his view, did not seem to fit into this category: “Anti-semitic has however a flavor of the professor about it, not of the penny-a-liner, & looks like the perpetration of some Viennese pundit. The man in the street would have said Anti-Jewish.”

The letter came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in NLI archival collections, which include personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of the 20th century’s most prominent cultural figures.

According to expert National Library archivist Rachel Misrati, who catalogued the letter as part of the initiative and has written extensively on NLI archival materials, “The Oxford University Press was unable to locate Montefiore’s original letter to Murray. Nonetheless, we can see from the context that Montefiore was apparently surprised by the fact that ‘anti-Semitism’ seemed to be conspicuously absent from the dictionary intended to be the English language’s definitive authority.”

Interestingly, the term “Semitism” did appear in the first edition of the dictionary, along with mention of the fact that “In recent use,” it had already come to be associated with “Jewish ideas or Jewish influence in policy and society”.

Special thanks to Rachel Misrati for her keen eye and expertise.

The Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

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


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A Tango in Auschwitz

"I'm still young, I want to live"; even in their darkest hour, the prisoners of the Nazi camps wrote songs of hope


In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill arrived at the Hotel Marseilles in New York, a gathering point for Jewish refugees who had arrived in the United States after World War II. He brought with him heavy recording equipment and placed it in the hotel lobby. Why would an American Jew of Polish descent who worked for a living installing linoleum, carpets and wallpaper haul heavy recording machinery and set it up in the hotel lobby? The purpose was to record the refugees singing songs they remembered from their homelands; folk songs their parents sang; holiday songs from synagogue; songs from school and youth movements; and also – the songs they sang in the concentration and extermination camps, in the ghettos and in the hiding places, where they had spent the long years of war.

The songs that Stonehill recorded were stored in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research dedicated to the documentation and preservation of a rich, pre-WWII Yiddish culture. The recordings eventually made their way to the National Sound Archive at the National Library of Israel. Among them are two songs that share a number of similarities. They provide a glimpse of moments of both despair and hope, conveyed through popular music of the 20th century’s first half.

The name of the first song essentially reveals the whole picture: Tango in Auschwitz. It is, indeed, quite a concise description. The song was written in Polish by a 12-year-old Polish girl named Irka Janowski. Unfortunately, we do not know much about her other than her name and age. We do know she was not Jewish and that she perished in one of the Auschwitz camps. The song she wrote was set to a well-known pre-war tango tune and had become popular among the prisoners of the camps in the extermination complex; many remembered it later as they were being recorded by Ben Stonehill’s equipment.


Janowski’s song and biography remind us of a facet that is usually neglected in the recollection of Auschwitz. The complex comprised several extermination camps and many labor camps, and among the prisoners were many non-Jews. Tens of thousands of Poles, Romanis and people of color, as well as French and Russian war prisoners were murdered at Auschwitz. Janowski’s lyrics (translated into Yiddish by survivors) speak of the Auschwitz prisoners, but, surprisingly, do not focus on Jews:

The black man soon takes up his mandolin,
and will soon start to strum his little tune here,
and the Englishman and Frenchman sing a melody,
so a trio will arise out of this sadness.

And also the Pole soon takes up his whistle
and he will emote to the world –
The song will light up the hearts
who are longing for the freedom they miss. 

The song’s chorus ignites hope in the hearts of the listeners:

Our slave tango – under the whip of the beater,
Our slave tango in the Auschwitz camp…

Oh, freedom and liberty call!

Tango in Auschwitz was not the only tango heard in the camps. Perhaps the musical genre, which grew extremely popular in Europe in the early 20th century, served as a reminder of pre-war life – a spark of hope that the war would eventually end, and life would return to normal. And so, in Stonehill’s collections another song was found, sharing many similarities with Janowski’s song, most notably – it, too, was a tango.

This song was probably written in Auschwitz, though its writer is unknown. This time the song was written in Yiddish, not Polish. The song’s name is “Oh I Used to Have a Father” (Oy gehat hob ikh eynmol eyn tatn) and it tells the story of an orphaned child whose parents were murdered in the notorious extermination camp. The soft, comforting melody of the tango rhythm soothes the pain of loss and lessens the sting of the harsh words that describe life in the camp. The end of the song, much like Tango in Auschwitz, maintains an optimistic note: The narrator declares that he is still young and therefore chooses life and will continue to live in spite of everything.


There are many similarities between these two recordings, which represent rare documentation of the extermination camp songs that gave the prisoners a bit of hope. Both songs were most likely written by young children. They both describe the harsh reality of life in the camp, yet they express true hope that the nightmare will soon end. They are the only two songs in the collection that explicitly mention the name ‘Auschwitz’. In both cases, pain and hope are accompanied by the tango rhythm, its origin far from the land of Poland. For those listening, the songs symbolize the hope that one day, everything might return to normal.


This article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Gila Flam, a scholar of music in the Holocaust and the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel.


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The Roots of the Passover Blood Libel

When did the libel of Jews using Christian blood on Passover make its first appearance?

The Church’s position toward the Jews in medieval times is well known and documented: the presence of the deniers of the Christian Gospel was to be tolerated, their skills and abilities utilized, damage to their bodies or property avoided and their degrading and humiliating status preserved. But if this was the case, how then was the blood of thousands of Jews still spilled across Europe throughout both the Middle Ages and the modern era?

In the year 1150, the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth, who resided at Norwich Cathedral Priory, began collecting documents and testimonies for a book. According to the chronicle he compiled, a boy named William from the English town of Norwich, an apprentice leatherworker, was persuaded to leave his home with the promise of work. He stayed for a few days at the home of a wealthy Jew. On orders of the homeowner, one of the leading bankers in the city, William was kidnapped, subjected to “all the tortures of Christ,” and finally murdered, the text claims. Then, the Jews carried his body to the nearby forest, where a crown of thorns was placed on his head, a rope was wound tightly around his neck and a gag placed in his mouth. He was left hanging from a tree for many days until his body was discovered. Thomas argued that because the murder was an exact imitation of Christ’s passion, 12-year-old William should be recognized as a saint. And so he was.

A depiction of the crucifixion of William of Norwich according to “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” Holy Trinity Church, Luddon, England

Thomas’ book, completed twenty years after the alleged event, which became known as “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” was published and distributed in England after which it was copied and sent to France and the rest of the continent. Assisting Thomas in his research was a converted Jew by the name of Theobald of Cambridge, who supposedly provided Thomas with insider knowledge of the secret activities of the Jews. Theobald told Thomas that every year a Jewish council would meet to select a country where a Christian child would be murdered around Easter, in the belief that this would hasten the coming of the Messiah. In 1144, the year of William’s death, England was chosen.  Thanks to this false testimony, Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative received something akin to a seal of approval and the blood libel about the ritual murder of Christian children perpetrated by the Jews became firmly rooted in the collective European psyche.

With the spread of the blood libel in medieval Europe, a pattern emerged: Every time the body of a Christian child was discovered, suspicion would fall on the local Jews. Generally, these accusations tended to surface during the week before Easter, as the Jews were celebrating Passover, and sometimes also around the festival of Purim. The British historian Cecil Roth linked this to the Jewish custom of “hanging” an effigy symbolizing Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Roth argued that this custom was interpreted by Christian observers to be a reenactment of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Other historians have explained the timing of the episodes by linking them to the thawing winter snows – dead bodies that had been hidden all winter would be uncovered and discovered around the beginning of spring time. Either way, the connection between Passover and the blood libel about the use of the blood of Christian children to make matzo can be traced back to the story of William of Norwich, even if it does not appear in Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative in its full form.

The “success” of the blood libel forced Jewish leaders throughout the ages to come up with ways to combat the phenomenon. One in particular that comes to mind is the precaution suggested by Rabbi David, one of the arbiters of the Shulchan Aruch, who argued that drinking red wine on Passover should be avoided “because of the libelous claims of our many transgressions.”

The 16th century legend of the first Jewish superhero developed from this blood libel – the Golem of Prague, conjured by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, to protect the Jews of the city from the yearly blood libel and mayhem that came with it.

The Golem and the Maharal, by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

The official position of the Church has generally been opposed to blood libels, and most popes objected to these false accusations. The majority of the blood libels were private initiatives, but they were often backed by local authorities. The last blood libel to receive the official backing of a European government emerged during “the Beilis affair”, an episode that began with the discovery of the body of a murdered 12-year-old, Andrei Yushchinsky, in a cave outside Kiev in April, 1911.

After a hasty investigation, the Kiev police arrested the manager of a brick factory located near the cave where Yushchinsky’s body was discovered. Although the evidence against Beilis was shaky and the boy’s real killers were found not long after Beilis’ arrest, the authorities refused to release him. Only at the end of October 1913 – after more than three years during which Beilis languished in the Tsar’s prison – did a jury acquit him of the charges.  In response, Jewish publishers in Warsaw rushed to publish The Album of the Beilis Trial.

The murdered boy Andrei Yushchinsky and the “cave” where his body was discovered, from  The Album of the Beilis Trial

Even in Nazi Germany – where blood libel allegations were once again raised in newspapers and children’s books – this poisonous accusation never materialized in an actual trial. The persecution of the Jews and their systematic murder in the Holocaust was explained in racial-biological terms.

“Haven’t you heard about the ritual murders of the Jews?” from the Nazi children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom (Der Giftpilz)

The blood libel about the Jews’ use of Christian blood for matzo on Passover has not completely disappeared and echoes of it are heard from time to time (today mainly in Arab countries), and will probably continue to reverberate for many more years to come. However, we can take some comfort from Gerd Mentgen’s assessment in his article on the subject, that, “in our time, only the most incorrigible antisemites believe in the fictitious truths of the blood libel.”


Further reading:

E.M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Gerd Mentgen, “The Origins of the Blood Libel”, Zion, The Historical Society of Israel, 1994, p. 343-349 (Hebrew).


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