Revealed: Immigration Documents Filled Out by Austrian Jews During the Nazi Occupation

A trove of documents from Vienna’s Jewish community during the Anschluss period has been revealed to the public for the first time thanks to a collaboration between MyHeritage and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. The collection contains 228,250 records, including scanned original documents submitted by Jews hoping to emigrate from Vienna. These documents, available on the Library’s website, provide extraordinary insights into the life of Vienna’s thriving Jewish community in the years 1938–1939

هجرة جماعية ليهود فيينا، تشرين الأول 1941 (تصوير: موقع بلدية فيينا)، على خلفية وثائق الهجرة المحفوظة في الأرشيف المركزي لتاريخ الشعب اليهودي في المكتبة الوطنية

A photograph showing Jews leaving Vienna, October 1941 (photo: Vienna Municipality website), against the background of immigration documents preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

On March 12, 1938, Nazi Germany invaded Austria, an event euphemistically known by the German term “Anschluss”—meaning a territorial annexation.

This was no ordinary invasion, and when Hitler arrived three days later for a triumphal march across Vienna, hundreds of thousands of Austrians gathered to cheer him along his route. According to various testimonies, there was not a single rose left in Austria that hadn’t been picked for the occasion.

The Austrian crowds at the Heldenplatz cheering Hitler’s arrival. Source: The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

For Austria’s roughly quarter of a million Jews however, it was not a cause for celebration. The abuse against the community’s leaders and rabbis began immediately after the Anschluss with many arrested and sent to the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The Nazis also closed the community’s offices in Vienna.

The Austrian crowd give the Nazi salute as Hitler passes by on route along the Ringstrasse. Source: The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Two months later, the offices re-opened, and now contained a new department: “The Vienna Jewish Community Welfare Department – Immigration Office.” Every Jew who wanted to emigrate from Vienna—meaning more or less all of the city’s Jews, from the Hasidic to the assimilated, had to fill out forms, in duplicate, which were submitted to the office.

The Vienna Jewish community archive is one of the largest and most important community archives in the CAHJP. The collection, which dates back to the 17th century, from the period before the expulsion of Vienna’s Jews, was sent to Jerusalem by the community in Vienna after the Holocaust. The immigration forms are part of this important archive.

The forms included the applicant’s first and last name, his or her exact address, date of birth, place of birth, personal status (married, single, etc.), personal information, citizenship, the date from when the applicant had resided in Vienna, where the applicant resided before arriving in Vienna; the applicant’s profession, occupational history, languages, financial situation and monthly income, as well as information regarding the desired immigration destination. The information regarding the immigration destination included the names of relatives and friends abroad (as well as their address and degree of kinship), and passport and immigrant visa information. The questionnaires included information not only about the applicant, but also about the applicant’s household members, mainly their spouse and children, but often also parents or in-laws.

The forms were submitted in duplicate with additional attachments inserted at various stages in the immigration process. Each form was assigned a serial number. At first, the forms were arranged only by serial number, but later, the immigration department separated the duplicate copies, keeping the numerical system for one, and arranging the other (incomplete) alphabetically by German surname. The immigration department maintained three indexes for the forms: numerical, alphabetical and one by profession, which was extremely pertinent for immigration applications. As early as 1938–1940, the community’s research department and international Jewish aid organizations such as HIAS prepared reports based on the important data gathered from the forms to optimize the emigration process.

However, in those first years of the Nazi occupation, the community was not working in a vacuum. The Gestapo was supervising its operation, with this effort led by Adolf Eichmann. In this first stage, as Eichmann had been tasked with emptying Vienna of its Jews through emigration, the Jews and the Nazis shared a common interest. In the later stages, when emigration was no longer allowed, the Gestapo used the information from the transmigration forms to optimize its euphemistically termed policy of “relocation to the East” of Vienna’s Jews, effectively sending them to concentration and extermination camps.

The two sets of immigration files kept by the Vienna Jewish community’s immigration office arrived in Jerusalem along with the rest of the community archives. Both sets have been preserved in their original order: the set according to serial number from 1-400, 401-800, etc. and the alphabetical set according to last name. Given this system, it was not possible to know whether a certain individual’s form was included in the alphabetical set without physically going to the archive and inspecting the relevant folder’s contents. Similarly, the numerical set was not easily searchable because it was impossible to guess the serial number of a particular individual.

To extract the information hidden in this historically important trove of documents, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People and the National Library teamed up with MyHeritage. As a leading commercial genealogy company, MyHeritage understood the value contained in these forms. Beyond comprehensive documentation of Vienna Jewry, one of the largest Jewish communities in the Jewish world on the eve of the Holocaust, the collection could also provide information about relatives living on other continents, a missing link that was not readily available in the databases generally used for researching family roots.

As part of the project, the Central Archives team separated the contents of the binders into the individual forms, which were then sent to the National Library of Israel’s state of the art digitization center for scanning. The scans were linked to entries in the archive’s catalog, which at this stage contained no information and were still inaccessible to the public. A digital copy of the hundreds of thousands of scanned pages was also sent to MyHeritage, which engaged a large international team that set to work developing a detailed key of the main data points contained in the forms. The result was a huge Excel file, with over three hundred thousand lines, spanning 129 columns. A copy was sent to the CAHJP, and the data was simultaneously processed and uploaded to MyHeritage’s systems.

The archive team processed the millions of data points into catalog records adapted to the archive’s own data structure. Great effort was invested in unifying various terms, such as the hundreds of different ways personal status or the nature of the kinship of family members and relatives abroad was recorded. We also had to correct quite a few errors, many of which were made on the original forms. We all make mistakes when we have to fill out endless forms like this. We enter our place of birth instead of our address, switch a date of birth with the date on which we are filling out the form, and we might even get confused about the century we were born in. For example, in 1938, some people wrote that they were born in 1988, when of course they meant 1888. It is easy for people in a terribly stressful situation to make mistakes like these, even more if you were an immigrant from regions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Galicia, Bohemia, Moravia, Bukovina, Hungary, etc.) and didn’t have a very good command of German. A great deal of work has taken place and the effort is still ongoing to unify and standardize the names of the applicants’ birthplaces and of places where their relatives lived. It is fascinating to see how Galician Jews in Vienna imagined the geography of the United States, and the dozens of different ways New York and its boroughs were written on the immigration applications.

After resolving the various data errors, we created coherent information from the fragments of details, according to computer algorithms, to produce the following sequences: applicant: last name, first name, date of birth (day/month/year), place of birth (geographical place) and personal status. We created other sequences for the family members listed on the application and for relatives listed as living abroad.

Sometimes the original form is missing, and a note was inserted indicating that the form had been removed for various administrative purposes and not been returned. In cases where these notes included useful information, such as the applicant’s name and the form’s serial number, we left the information to indicate that there was once a form here, even if it is not extant today.

The catalog information was uploaded to the (initially) hidden catalog entries created at the early stages of the project, and these were then made accessible to the public, along with the scans.

The collection is accessible on the Library and CAHJP’s website and it is accessible to MyHeritage users as well. The MyHeritage platform is also able to compare the information with that contained in other databases available on their website, yielding further insights from various sources about the individuals mentioned in the records.

In the weeks since the collection went online, many have managed to learn more about their family history and fill in unknown details. If your family resided in Vienna on the eve of World War II, there is a good chance that they also filled out a form, and you can find it on the National Library of Israel website, or at the following link.

If you are experiencing difficulty with the site, please contact us at cahjp@nli.org.il

Vienna Jewish Community Welfare Department- Immigration Bureau form, filled out by Siegmund (Zsigo) Wertheimer on August 11, 1938. Zsigo Wertheimer was a well-respected professional women’s swimming coach. He was married to swimmer Hedi (Hedwig) Bienenfeld who excelled at the breast and backstroke and who became famous in 1924 for winning first place in an “Across Vienna” open-water swim competition

This one-of-a-kind source contains more than personal information and family stories. From it, one can learn not only about those terrible days, but also about the richness of Jewish life in Vienna between the two world wars. You can discover the exact addresses of writers, playwrights, musicians, Rebbes and Torah scholars, or map out the streets and neighborhoods where Jews lived or the places from which they immigrated to Vienna, their occupations and the many languages they spoke.

But above all, the collection tells the story of how the Jews of Vienna woke up one morning to find themselves under Nazi rule. It tells of their desperate attempts to secure the sums that would enable them to leave and the bureaucratic nightmare of validating passports, obtaining an immigration visa as well as a “transit” permit to an intermediate country.

In her novel Transit, Anna Seghers, herself a Jewish refugee who attempted to leave Europe, tells a joke that circulated among the refugee community trying to emigrate via the port of Marseille, which was under the control of the French Vichy government:

A person gets to heaven and arrives in a waiting room where there are two doors, one to heaven and one to hell. For half a year, he is shuffled from one clerk to another in an endless pursuit of forms and signatures. At some point he turns to the clerk in charge and tells him that he can’t deal any longer with all this waiting. He is giving up his chance to go to heaven and prefers instead to be sent to Hell. ‘I’m sorry for having to tell you this,’ says the clerk, ‘but you are in Hell.’

A Kol Nidre Prayer on the German Warfront in 1870

Even on Yom Kippur, German Jews in the 19th century were ready to sacrifice themselves for their homeland

A Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz, 1870

The Franco-Prussian War broke out in the summer of 1870 and ended about six months later with the defeat of France. The war brought about the unification of the many German states and the establishment of the Second Reich.

These were not the first Jewish soldiers to fight for their country, far from it. Years before, Jews were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian and French armies. Jewish soldiers also took part in the American War of Independence, and the Russian army forcibly took Jewish children from their homes for military service as early as the 1820s, following the Cantonist Decree. In 1870, German Jews saw the war against France as an opportunity to show their gratitude for the equal rights they had been granted not long before. Against this background, about 4,700 Jews joined the German army to fight for their homeland.

On August 19th, 1870, the French Army of the Rhine retreated to the fortresses of the city of Metz and the Prussian army imposed a siege on the city.

One of the Metz fortresses after the war

The German Jews who were among the soldiers maintaining the siege must have hoped that it would end before the Jewish High Holidays. But Rosh Hashanah came, and the siege of Metz remained in place. The Jewish soldiers were allowed to hold prayers, but there were no chaplains to handle the preparations and lead the ceremonies. A young rabbi named Isaac Blumenstein took up the task, arriving at the military camp on September 30, just before Yom Kippur. The prayers were to take place at the First Army headquarters in the village of Sainte-Barbe, about eight kilometers from the battlefield.

The rabbi was offered to hold the Yom Kippur prayers in a local Catholic church. He refused and instead turned his and his neighbor’s personal quarters into a makeshift prayer space. Two candles were placed on a table that substituted as the bimah, and some 60 to 70 soldiers gathered there for the prayer.

Rabbi Blumenstein’s description of the event

Rabbi Blumenstein described the extraordinary event in an article that was published in the press after the holiday. A few days later, a soldier who had been there described it in a letter, adding that some officers and members of the command had also come. The soldier described Rabbi Blumenstein’s stirring sermon and how it even moved some to tears.

The German artist Hermann Junker (who was not Jewish) created two paintings commemorating the Yom Kippur prayer during the siege of the city of Metz in 1870. Not having been present at the event, the artist had to imagine both scenes, although the first painting is based on Rabbi Blumenstein’s description. The caption at the bottom of a postcard featuring the painting describes it as the Kol Nidre prayer on the eve of the Yom Kippur holiday. At prayers the next day, since there was no Torah scroll, Rabbi Blumenstein recited the Torah reading and Haftarah from memory.

Postcard based on Junker’s painting

The second painting documents the Yom Kippur-day prayers being held outdoors in an open field. The painting shows dozens of soldiers, most of them wrapped in their prayer shawls and holding prayer books, gathered around a rock that is being used as a bimah. At the center are three soldiers reading from the Torah scroll. Piles of weapons and even a cannon are shown at the ready. A number of civilians are also included in the picture.

This painting is based on a description written by an anonymous soldier before Yom Kippur that was published in the Jewish press after the holiday. His description noted that 1,174 Jewish soldiers from Silesia and Poznań were planning on attending the prayer. The soldier wrote that, with God’s grace and in the hopes that the French commander — that is, the enemy — would allow it, the prayer would take place in an open field. The soldiers would wear their Pickelhaubes (the typical Prussian spiked helmet) and wrap themselves in their prayer shawls. During the prayer, their non-Jewish comrades would keep watch from a distance to avoid any disruptions. However, things did not go as planned because shortly before the prayer service was to begin, most of the soldiers were called away on a mission.

Yom Kippur prayers in the field

Nevertheless, the painting of the prayer on the battlefield thrilled all who saw it. German Jews viewed it as conclusive proof of their loyalty, notwithstanding their religion and beliefs, to the German people and their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the homeland.

The importance of the German Jews’ military service in the war is also evident in a pamphlet published at the beginning of the war containing a sermon by Rabbi Rahmer of Magdeburg in German, which also included quotes in Hebrew from the scriptures.  The pamphlet is titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”).

The pamphlet was titled Milkhemet Khovah in Hebrew (“Compulsory War”, a halakhic term) and Der hielige krieg in German (“The Holy War”)

In 1871, after the war was over, a memorial book was published for the Jewish soldiers who served in the Prussian army. The book describes the war’s events and includes a long roster of the names of all the Jewish soldiers who fought in it as well as special mention of the 70 or so Jewish soldiers who were awarded the “Iron Cross” for bravery in battle.

Unlike the painting commemorating the more modest service in Rabbi Blumenstein’s private quarters, Junker’s painting of the Yom Kippur prayers in the open field was copied, elaborated and distributed across Germany and beyond. It inspired other paintings of the same event, most of them more elaborate and detailed than Junker’s original, even replacing the natural rock bimah with a proper one as well as a Torah ark. In some of the paintings, non-Jewish soldiers are seen in the surrounding mountains guarding the Jews as they pray in the open field. One picture even shows Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Bismarck, Chief of Staff von Moltke and other high ranking officers in attendance.

The Prussian military leadership at the prayer

Another notable difference between Junker’s original image and the versions it inspired is that most of the later versions were colored, which made it possible to distinguish between the different military uniforms and units. Some of these versions also added poems and prayers in German and Hebrew.

An illustration inspired by Junker’s painting

Junker’s painting also inspired a version that was printed on red cloth and decorated with inscriptions, most notably the verse featured at the top from the book of Malachi (2:10): “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” In other words reflecting the notion that all German soldiers are equal, regardless of their religion.

Cloth banner with the quotation from Malachi

Forty-four years after the Franco Prussian-War, Germany was at war again. Many photographs document German Jewish soldiers praying at different locations on the various Jewish holidays throughout the First World War. But the German Jewish families who still had Junker’s famous picture hanging on their walls must have been happy to see a similar painting from the latest war. In the first year of the Great War, an artist by the name of Pusch painted a picture inspired by Junker’s from 1870. Although it records a different place and time, here too, a large group of Jewish soldiers is portrayed praying for their salvation and the success of their countrymen on the battlefield.

Jewish soldiers praying during the First World War, inspired by Junker’s 1870 painting

Stolen by the Nazis: A Book’s Rediscovery in Jerusalem

The long journey of a book of Leviticus that was hidden in a Vienna basement during the Nazi era, before eventually making its way to the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Lab…

We recently came across a unique copy of the book Mesilat Yesharim in the collections of the National Library of Israel. The book had been given as a gift to a bar mitzvah boy in 1936. Tragically, the gift’s recipient and his family perished in the Holocaust some years later. The Nazis looted many Jewish libraries in Austria on Kristallnacht and in the period that followed. Among them were the Jewish Community Library in Vienna (the IKG library), and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library (ITLA), private libraries, bookstores, and publishing houses.

Most of the books were sent to Berlin to the huge library of looted books in the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA). Part of this library was destroyed in the bombing of the German capital, other parts were discovered after the war. We do not know the exact route this bar mitzvah book took, but in the 1950s, thanks to the persistent efforts of the National Library, and with the assistance of the Ministry of Religions and the consent of Vienna’s remaining Jewish community, many books, including this one, were brought to the National Library of Israel. A label affixed by the Library informs that the book was donated by the Jews of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

“Donated by the Jewish Community of Vienna in memory of the victims of the Holocaust” – a label affixed to books stolen during the Holocaust and later discovered in Vienna

Some weeks later, we discovered another interesting book that had once had a Jewish owner in pre-Holocaust Vienna. According to old Library records from 1956, the book, The Pentateuch: Book of Leviticus – With Onkelos Translation & Commentary by Rashi, was sent to the Library as part of the work of the “Diaspora Treasures” project—an enterprise that brought books from Europe to Israel after the Holocaust.

We couldn’t see any label on the book at first, so it wasn’t clear that this copy had, in fact, been looted by the Nazis.

Pentateuch, Leviticus, 1797/98, inside front cover, with a barely visible label underneath the paper

Suspecting that this was indeed a book that had survived the Holocaust, I brought it to Hagar Millman, a conservator at the National Library of Israel’s Conservation and Restoration Laboratory. “As soon as the book arrived at the lab, and in light of the possibility that it had survived the Holocaust, I immediately put our special equipment to work to determine what was underneath the inside cover page” Millman says. “It’s hard to describe my excitement when I discovered the label hidden underneath the page. I knew immediately that this was a special item that had undergone a tortuous journey before finally reaching the National Library, and that it must have come with a fascinating story”.

The label is revealed

Before treating the book, a written report on its condition was prepared and the item was also photographed so that we could compare it before and after restoration. The removal of the paper covering the label and all the adhesive residue was an extremely delicate process that took several hours and required special tools—a thin spatula, tweezers and a scalpel, controlled humidity and reversible adhesives.

Hagar Millman revealing the hidden label

On the book’s back cover we found another important label that had also been partially hidden by a white sticker and a fabric binding on the spine (the book had been rebound at some point so that a fabric binding partially covered the label).

The partially hidden label of the Institute of Oriental Studies on the back cover, prior to the restoration work

“Here too, very delicate work was required, until I was able to uncover the entire label, which made it possible to trace the item’s history” says Millman.

The label emerges from under a striped cloth cover, the remains of which are seen on the left
The outside cover of the book with the label of the Institute of Oriental Studies, once covered by a sticker and a later rebinding

The “donation” label of the Vienna Jewish community that had been partially covered shows definitively that the book had been sent to Israel from Austria. But this was only half the story.

During the war, many books were transferred to Austria from the central library of the Advanced School of the NSDAP, established by the main ideologist of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg. The books were looted from all over Europe, not only from the Austrian Jewish community. A signature and stamp on the front pages of the book and the label glued to the back cover and recently revealed in the lab led us to the book’s origins.

According to the frontispiece, the book was printed in Vienna in 1798. The signature at the top of this page belonged to a man named Sheftel Bientz who was probably one of the book’s first owners. On the same page there was also a stamp of the Viennese branch of Agudath Israel. This was an interesting twist, as the secretary of that organization in Vienna was the person who gifted the copy of Mesilat Yesharim to the bar mitzvah boy back in 1936, writing the dedication contained within as well. It is possible that both books passed through his hands.

The book’s frontispiece with the signature at the top of the page and the stamp of the Vienna branch of Agudath Israel

The label on the back of the book reads: Orientalisches Institut – Universität Wien (“Institute of Oriental Studies – University of Vienna”) and below it appears the word Leihgabe, meaning loan, indicating that the book was not originally part of the university library.

How did a book belonging to an ultra-orthodox organization find its way to the University of Vienna?

Kurt Schubert was an Austrian student who opposed the Nazis and their actions, but for obvious reasons he wasn’t able to voice his opinion publicly. Due to his asthma, he had been released from military service and used the war years to pursue academic studies. Schubert enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied under Professor Viktor Christian, an Assyriologist, who was also a member of the SS and among whose research activities was the exhuming of skeletons of Jews for the purpose of racial and hereditary testing.

As part of the effort to spread Nazi ideology among German academics, SS commander Heinrich Himmler founded the Ahnenerbe organization in 1935. University researchers serving in the organization were tasked with discovering the roots of the German people and scientifically proving the superiority of the Aryan race. Ahnenerbe transferred books looted from Jewish and other libraries to Professor Christian and asked him to catalog them in the hope that they would help researchers in their study of the soon-to-be extinct Jewish race. As more books continued to arrive from Austria, Germany, and Poland, Schubert and other students assisted their professor in his work.

In lieu of military service, Schubert was made an air raid warden. While on duty, he discovered a basement in the Jewish Center of Vienna where many books from the community libraries were stored. Arguing that they were a fire hazard, he obtained Professor Christian’s consent to transfer the books to the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna. Thus Schubert saved about 20,000 books and when the war ended he returned them to what remained of Vienna’s Jewish community. These and others books eventually made their way to Israel, accompanied by Schubert himself who was invited to visit the new state.

The Pentateuch we discovered was probably kept in that very basement in Vienna. It was transferred to the University of Vienna, affixed with a university label and used for antisemitic academic research. Thanks to Schubert and the Vienna Jewish community, today it is available for viewing and research at the National Library of Israel.

Who Are You Calling a “Shluh”?!

In modern-day Israel, the word "shluh" is sometimes used as an offensive term to describe a person of disheveled or messy appearance. The word in fact hails from Morocco, where it referred negatively to a certain ethnic group, and was used disparagingly by city dwellers to describe uncultured village folk...

Members of a local tribe in the Atlas Mountains, 1955. Source: Tropenmuseum

The idea for this article originated several years ago when I asked my grandmother how many languages ​​she spoke. The exact number was hard to pin down since she spoke several Arabic dialects, along with French and Spanish, but I was interested in one in particular—Shluhit in Hebrew, or Shilha in English—or as it was originally called, Tashelhit. Grandmother Ladisia told me that she had learned it in order to communicate with her mother-in-law who only spoke Shilha. The name of the language immediately brought to mind the derogatory word shluh, used in Israel to describe someone of disheveled or messy appearance.

In a previous article, we dealt with the insulting and false characterization applied to residents of the city of Chelm in Poland. In this article we will delve into the story of the Shilha people, and the origins of the offensive term shluh. The word was originally imported from Morocco, where it was often used to malign an entire community, in similar fashion to what happened to the people of Chelm in Poland and also the Ḥourani in Syria.

Jews from the Atlas Mountain region in the early 20th century, Jewish Encyclopedia

Shilha or Tashelhit is just one of several Berber languages spoken in Morocco. The Shilha people (Shluhim in Hebrew), a Berber subgroup, live in the southwest of Morocco, where they are scattered across approximately one thousand villages that are connected through trade relations. This area also had the largest number of Jews in Morocco living in proximity to the Berbers.

The earliest record of Jews and Berbers living in proximity in Morocco dates back to the 3rd century CE, but according to the Jewish oral tradition of southern Morocco, Jews arrived in the area as early as the First Temple period, some 3000 years ago. This tradition apparently is an attempt to dispel the theory that the region’s Jews are descended from Berbers who converted to Judaism sometime in the first centuries of the Common Era. The region’s Jews instead see themselves as descendants of King David’s soldiers, who pursued the Philistines as far as North Africa, according to the local tradition, under the command of David’s general Yoav (Joab) ben Zeruiah.

As a result of the geographical proximity, the Jews and the Shilha developed informal yet close relations. It is thus no coincidence that the local Jews learned to speak Tashelhit. To this day, the Jews who lived in these communities can remember many of the proverbs, songs and customs of their Berber neighbors. The vast majority of these Jews would end up immigrating to Israel in the great immigration wave of the early 1950s, before Morocco gained its independence.

The mostly rural Shilha made a living from agriculture. The Jews, on the other hand, were considered dhimmi according to Islamic Sharia law, meaning a protected class that was barred from owning land. Therefore Jews primarily worked as merchants who would travel in small groups from their village to the surrounding areas, selling their wares and offering services. Some also financed the small farming initiatives of their Berber neighbors by buying them seeds. At harvest time, the Jewish investors were entitled to three quarters of the agricultural yield.

For over forty years, Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Chetrit conducted countless interviews with Moroccan Jews and their Berber neighbors. In an article on the simultaneously intimate yet distant relationship between the two communities, he writes that even after many decades, the Jews’ Shilha neighbors remember dozens of Hebrew expressions, such as prutim (money) and the beverage known as Mahia – a Jewish-Moroccan brandy. During the long period when they lived in proximity to each other, the Jews were commemorated as shrewd merchants in a number of Berber sayings, such as: “Jews in the market are like salt in the dough”.

An outdoor market in Morocco, the Bitmuna Collection

 

A female member of the Shilha, from southern Morocco. Source: Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

But the Jews and their Shilha neighbors shared more than just economic relations. The Berbers visited the same Jewish gravesites the Jews flocked to during traditional hilulah celebrations commemorating the passing of Jewish holy figures. Jewish healers frequently received their Shilha neighbors who were not afraid to make use of their mystical charms, amulets and potions.

The Jews and Shilha also shared common customs and would dance and sing together at public ceremonies. While the Jews of the region avoided taking part in Berber customs related to the Muslim faith, both groups were well acquainted with each other’s calendars. Besides greeting their Jewish neighbors with the words “happy holiday” (hag sameah) or “easy fast” (tsom kal), the multitude of holidays and festivals created many economic opportunities. Before the Sabbath and ahead of Jewish holidays, the Shilha would sell agricultural products to Jews as well as the reeds needed to build the sukkah, while the Jewish women marketed their seamstress skills to their Muslim neighbors as they prepared for their own festivals.

Cooperation between Jews and Muslims was especially noticeable in the days leading up to the Mimouna celebration. During the Passover holiday, Jews would bring offerings to their Muslim acquaintances; including matzoh, pies, and sometimes a meat stew, and in return, the Muslims brought the Jews milk, butter, honey, eggs and flour, the ingredients necessary for the preparation of the Mimouna delicacies.

Photograph of a young Jewish woman from the Atlas Mountain region on the cover of the newspaper L’Avenir Illustré, with the headline: “Our Research of the Malaḥim,” March 19, 1931. Click here to read the article

So how did a group as diverse and productive as the Shilha come to be associated with a disparaging epithet meaning a disheveled person who cannot be trusted? This offensive term that referred to rural Muslims and Jews alike was brought to Israel by immigrants from Morocco.

In 1931, the French-language Jewish newspaper L’Avenir Illustré (“The Illustrated Future”) published an article by Charles Abehsera of the city of Rabat in its Jeune Israel (“Young Israel”) section. Abehsera wrote about the rural Jewish migrants flooding his city, referring to one of them as a “shluh.” In the article, Abehsera described the individual as an old Jewish man making a living from handouts and tourists who paid him a small sum to take his picture. Another thing that bothered Abehsera was the fact that this “shluh” accepted alms on Shabbat, in violation of Jewish religious law.

Abehsera, a young representative of the Western Moroccan Jews, distanced himself from the “shluh”, whom he viewed as a dirty and undesirable individual who spoke neither Arabic nor French, but only the Berber language. The “Young Israel” section of L’Avenir Illustré was read by the Jewish youth in Morocco who typically received a French education in the Jewish Alliance schools. These young boys and girls spoke French and identified with European Western values more than with traditional Moroccan values​.

Abehsera certainly did not invent the term “shluh,” but he used it to differentiate himself and his community from the newcomers who were moving into the city from the rural areas. Incidentally, the word “Berber” also stems from a pejorative term. The Berbers call themselves “Amaziye’im” (“Imaziye’in” meaning “freemen”). However, the word Berber derives from the ancient Greek word Barbaros (βάρβαρος), which the Greeks used to refer to anyone who did not speak Greek.

 

“The Tourists in the Mellah of Rabat,” click on the image to read the article

Regardless of the young Abehsera’s views and the desire of many of Morocco’s urban Jews to differentiate themselves from the Berber-speaking Jews, it is important to understand that until the Jews left Morocco, half of the country’s population (Muslim and Jewish) spoke Berber as a first or second language. After Morocco’s independence and the introduction of a state education system, this number dropped to about 30 percent. Most of the Berber-speaking Jews spoke the Tashelhit dialect, and for some (for example the people of Tifnit in the Souss Valley region) Tashelhit was their mother tongue at least until the French occupation. The French protectorate’s road-building efforts connected the villages to the larger cities, which led to the migration of rural populations to urban centers. The slanderous label was an outcome of the city folk’s encounter with the villagers.

The complex relationship between the Jews and their Shilha neighbors is an important part of the story of Moroccan immigration to Israel, just as it is part of Morocco’s history. The two groups not only lived side by side in the same villages for perhaps thousands of years, but also shared beliefs and customs, such as veneration of local saints, folk medicine and a whole repertoire of Berber song, dance, folk tales and sayings. Therefore, the dismissal of Shilha culture and the disdain towards it — which began already in Morocco — serve to undermine a significant element of North African Jewish culture.

Despite the complex and delicate relations that existed between the neighboring populations, the Jews and Berbers have come to embrace their common past. The Jews’ departure from Morocco severely impacted the Berber and Shilha rural economy for years. Before the establishment of formal relations between Israel and Morocco, nostalgia for these bygone relations led to the idealization of Jewish life in the villages and towns in Morocco in the past. Today, with travel to Morocco now possible, Israelis of Moroccan origin can see for themselves the living conditions in the villages and renew the ties forged over the generations between their ancestors and the Amaziye’in.

 

Thanks to Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Chetrit and Dr. David Guedj for their help in preparing this article.

 

Further Reading:

Joseph Yossi Chetrit, Intimacy, Cooperation and Ambivalence: Social, Economic and Cultural Interaction between Jews and Berbers in Morocco, European Judaism, Volume 52, No. 2, 2019: pp. 18-30

Joseph Yossi Chetrit, “Judeo-Berber in Morocco” in: Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, Edited by Benjamin Hary & Sarah Bunin Benor (De Gruyter, 2018)

David Guedj, “‘Jeune Israel’: Multiple Modernities of Jewish Childhood and Youth in Morocco in the First Half of the Twentieth Century”, Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 112, Number 2, 2022, pp. 316-343

דוד גדג’, דיוקנאות, ארץ־ישראל והקהילות היהודיות במרוקו: המסרים החזותיים בעיתון

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