The Black Suitcase of Magical Amulets with a Mysterious History

No one knows the exact origins of the little black suitcase filled with hand-written scrolls now kept at the National Library of Israel.

Very little is known about Dr. Max Leopold Brodny’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1959, a trip from which he returned to Chicago with one more suitcase than he had when he left.  The suitcase was small, black, and tattered, but Brodny understood he had received something special and he cared for it and kept in a closet in his home where it stayed until his death in 1979. When dividing Brodny ‘s estate, the suitcase was passed on to his daughter, Eleanor. Like her father before her, she kept the suitcase hidden in her home.

Dr. Max Leopold Brodny, photo courtesy of the family.

Twice Eleanor turned to Judaica researchers in Chicago but they did not have any insights to provide on the suitcase. It was only when Eleanor approached biographer and writer, Stacy Derby, for help in putting the history of the Brodny family down on paper, that the suitcase again played a part in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor showed Stacy the suitcase and told her the story of how it came into her possession.

Eleanor, daughter of Dr. Brodny. Photo courtesy of the family.

The Story of the Suitcase

Let’s return to Dr. Max Brodny’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1959.

During his stay in Moscow, Max visited a synagogue. The local rabbi pulled him into a side room and pushed a black leather suitcase into his hands. “It has no future here – take it away and preserve it,” he begged of the doctor from Chicago, “but be careful – we’re being followed.”

Max listened to the request of the rabbi and took the suitcase with him from the Soviet Union. The contents and the back story of the suitcase intrigued Stacy. She turned to a former professor of hers who in turn put her in touch with the National Library of Israel in the hopes that someone could give her a better idea as to what was hiding within it.

The suitcase Eleanor donated to the National Library of Israel.


The contents of the suitcase and its story also managed to intrigue Dr. Zvi Leshem who received the inquiry. Leshem is the head of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, which specializes in Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. He, in turn, told the story to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the Judaica Curator at the library.

The library’s staff discovered 85 different items in the suitcase, the majority of them (76 to be exact) being small amulets made of parchment or paper, designed for magical purposes. Almost all of them had been hand-written in North Africa at the end of the 19th-century or the early 20th-century, with a few of them written in the Land of Israel or elsewhere. This was determined based on the writing style, or on the names written on the amulet scrolls like Salem ibn Gedaal or Sultana Bat Istariliya. In one or two cases, the location of origin was clearly written upon the page (“Here in the Land of Israel”).

All of the scrolls were written to summon angels and other heavenly forces to protect against natural and supernatural dangers. Some were written for health, some to protect a pregnant woman and her child, others to defend the home against danger.

Seventy-six of the scrolls were written on paper or parchment of different sizes – the longest of which reaches close to a meter in length. The scrolls were rolled up tightly (a few were folded) making them easy to carry in a pocket or wallet or amulet. Eleven of them were dyed pink, while others were dyed in darker colors.

Seven of the scrolls were written in greater detail, indicating a higher level of skill, especially those that describe the Sephirotic tree – the map of the divine structure according to the Kabbalah.

Another fascinating item from the suitcase, dating back to 19th century North Africa, is a manuscript containing various magical recipes describing how to prepare different kinds of scrolls for a myriad of purposes. It is one of the most damaged items in this extraordinary collection, likely because it was used regularly.

Several pages from the magical recipe book.

As it is unlikely that we will find any additional information about this mysterious suitcase, there is no way of knowing how this rich collection arrived into the hands on the rabbi in Moscow. The lack of European scrolls of this type suggests that the author of the scrolls was probably not a Russian or Eastern European mystic. It is possible that the collection belonged to a researcher or collector who lived in Moscow, and that it was then left to the synagogue following his/her death.  Still, as they say, your guess is as good as ours.

Even if we never find out who put this collection together, the great distances it traveled (from North Africa and the Middle East, through Russia, then to the United States and ultimately Jerusalem), are evidence of what is today increasingly clear to scholars: Jewish magic is not a trivial or marginal pursuit. Though the story we have shared here has many holes, it shows that Jewish magical practices have a day-to-day nature, both historically and contemporarily.

“Throughout history, Jewish communities have busied themselves with magic and demons,” explained Dr. Yoel Finkelman.

After much deliberation and with the generous help of Judaica scholar David Wachtel of New-York, Eleanor decided to donate the collection to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, along with the little suitcase in which it was kept. Two weeks after the suitcase left for Israel, a pipe burst in Eleanor’s home just where the scrolls had been kept for years. Dr. Finkelman joked that perhaps this is a coincidence, but then again, “maybe not.”

It’s not every day that such a significant donation arrives in the manuscript collection of the National Library. The collection is currently being cataloged, after which it will be scanned and put online, making it accessible to the general public and to researchers of Jewish magic and mysticism – a field that is currently flourishing.

“In donating the collection to the National Library of Israel,” said Eleanor, “we have fulfilled the request of the rabbi from Moscow.”

A Shattered Childhood: Memories of Kristallnacht

When the Gestapo knocked on 12-year-old Lilli Tauber’s door in November of 1938, her life was forever changed.


Lilli Tauber in 1938, courtesy of Centropa

Lilli Tauber woke up to a typical cloudy November morning in 1938, in Wiener Neustadt, a town located just south of Vienna. She went about her routine, ate breakfast, brushed her teeth, kissed her mother goodbye and headed out on her walk to Hebrew school as usual, not knowing that in a few hours, everything would change.

Early in the day, during morning lessons, someone entered the classroom where 12-year-old Lilli and her classmates studied. The visitor whispered urgently in the teacher’s ear. The teacher in turn immediately dismissed the children and told them to rush home – something was happening and they needed to go home immediately. At once, Lilli understood that something wasn’t right.

The town of Wiener Neustadt, Austria. The Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.

As it turned out, Kristallnacht had found its way to Lilli’s hometown.

Soon after she arrived home, the doorbell rang at the Tauber home. Gestapo personnel in full uniform entered the house and arrested Lilli’s father with no explanation served to his astonished family. The Gestapo vandalized the Tauber home, smashing the front gates and ransacking the front porch and the rooms inside the house. It was only later in the day that they found out that other Jewish men in the neighborhood had also been arrested in the round up and sent to prison.

The Jewish men from Wiener Neustadt were taken to a prison holding cell that was so small that there was no room to sit. There they stayed until the Nazis divided the group, deciding who would be sent to the Dachau work camp and who would be allowed to return home.

German citizens walk past ransacked Jewish shops in Berlin on the day after Kristallnacht

After the men were removed from the area, the remaining women and children were rounded up and stripped of their belongings. The women were forced to sign over the deeds to their houses on threat of violence and Lilli witnessed her friend’s mother, Mrs. Gerstl, get physically beaten by the Gestapo forces until she agreed to sign over her home.

As evening fell over the ransacked neighborhood, the women and children were led to the community synagogue and forced inside where they were locked in for the night. The floors were covered in hay to serve as beds for the prisoners who were given the curtains from the Aron Kodesh (the place where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the covers from the Torahs to use as blankets.


The synagogue of Wiener Neustadt before its destruction during Kristallnacht in 1938 ,courtest of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

Lilli and the rest of the prisoners were forced to remain inside the synagogue for three days, unsure of what had become of their fathers, sons and brothers, and unsure of what the future held. At one point, Lilli glanced through the windows of the synagogue and saw a crowd gathered just outside the iron gates of the building. The crowd of people peered through the bars on the gates to watch the imprisoned Jews with a look of amusement on their faces.

Within the three days of forced imprisonment inside the stuffy synagogue, there was an outbreak of scarlet fever. Lilli was among the sick and was allowed to leave the house of prayer for the hospital along with her mother. They were accompanied by a Nazi officer to ensure they didn’t escape. The doctors at the hospital treated the Jews with the same level of care as they did their non-Jewish patients and the nuns working the hospital floors snuck some food to Lilli and her mother.

The women and children in the synagogue were eventually released and taken by bus to the Jewish community in Vienna. Lilli was allowed to leave the hospital after six weeks and was brought by her father who had been released from prison to join her family in Vienna. They never returned to their home and never retrieved their stolen possessions.

After the horrific events of Kristallnacht and the difficulties that befell the Tauber family, the focus quickly shifted to a plan of escape. For Lilli’s parents, it meant making the choice to send their child away in order to protect her.

Lilli Tauber’s parents Johanna and Wilhelm Schischa, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.


Certificate stating Lilli Tauber’s father Wilhelm Schischa’s right of domecile in Wiener Neuastadt, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

In June of 1939, Lilli’s parents took her to the Vienna train station. Among the crowds were many people wearing uniforms with swastikas on their sleeves. Soldiers in German uniforms crowded the station, a sure sign that Vienna was no longer the free city it once was.

Boys and girls wearing red tags around their necks and identification numbers boarded the Kindertransport heading for England. Lilli, number 39, leaned out the windows and waved a final farewell to her parents. Despite her troubles acclimating to a new language and culture and the difficulties of life without her parents, Lilli survived the war in England. Her parents, unfortunately did not.


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The Cooking Accident that Destroyed a Jewish Greek Community

The inferno that decimated Thessalonica left 70,000 people, including 52,000 Jews, homeless and penniless.

Salonika homeless

A Jewish family left homeless by the fire that was relocated to a temporary tent camp. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The fire started on a Saturday afternoon.

What began with a small spark quickly became a massive inferno that, in just a few hours, managed to destroy a large section of the city. While Thessalonica had suffered fires in the past, local officials did nothing to prepare the residents for the colossal damage this fire would cause.

According to official reports, the cause was completely accidental. A woman was roasting eggplants in her home at 3 Olympiados Street on August 18, 1917, when a spark from the flame caught on the walls of the house and quickly grew to a full-fledged blaze. A small cooking accident quickly evolved into a widespread fire that lasted for 32 hours. Strong winds spread the flames through the cramped and narrow alleyways, igniting the wooden homes that served as kindle for the growing fire that engulfed the Jewish quarter of the second largest metropolis in Greece.

The destroyed Jewish quarter of Thessalonica after the fire of 1917. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The local firefighters did their best to quell the flames but found themselves hindered by a shortage of water. The city had suffered a severe drought the previous summer and the consumption of water had gone up considerably due to the allied forces taking up residence around Thessalonica and its harbor. With no water to come to its defense, the city burned as the fire continued to spread freely from the poor neighborhoods on its fringes, down to the city center, turning building after building to piles of ash.

Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes and hoisery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Salonika. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes, and hosiery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Thessalonica. The name of the store is written on the building in Hebrew lettering. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

On the evening of August 19, 1917, the flames were finally brought under control but the damage had been done. Forty-five percent of the population of Thessalonica (also known by the name Salonika), approximately 70,000 people, were left homeless with nothing left to show for the lives they had built other than the smoking embers of the 9,500 homes that had found themselves in the destructive path of the insatiable blaze.

For the Jews of Thessalonica, the majority population in the city, the devastating rampage of the fire proved catastrophic. Before the fire, the city was considered to be the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” with a rich, thriving and educated melting pot of Jews from different countries and cultures who came together to build a new life. Along with the local post offices, banks and newspaper offices, the local Jewish schools, community centers, the Jewish college, and thirty-two synagogues were completely destroyed along with the entirety of the archives of the community which held records of a centuries-long history of Jewish presence in Thessalonica.

A group of Jews from Salonika left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A group of Jews from Thessalonica left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The 70,000 newly homeless people were forced to find quick solutions to their predicaments. With the help of the Greek, British and French authorities, a portion of the homeless were given temporary housing. Parts of the Jewish community were rehomed in temporary tent encampments which provided little more than a roof over their heads and basic protection from the elements. With over 20,000 still without even temporary shelter, many Jews were forced to emigrate and left their home for Athens, the United States, France and the Land of Israel in the hopes of starting over.

With the destruction of the community archives and registry, the Jewish community had to start from scratch. The Jews who remained in the city following the wave of emigration had to build a new community register in order to properly obtain their civil status and file their claims to receive compensation and their land following the fire.

A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Families and individuals registered their personal information and provided a photograph of each family member for the records. Click to enlarge.

One by one the community members came forward to register themselves and their families and one by one their registration forms were filled out in handwritten Hebrew and Ladino. Each registration was accompanied by small photos of each family member to match the new records that made up the recreated community registry.

Salonika community registry
A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge.

After previous fires in the city the government had allowed for people to simply rebuild, but after the great fire of 1917, the government decided to use this as an opportunity to take the newly conquered territory and build a fully modernized, Hellenized city from the ashes. As part of the planning process, the government revoked the old rights and deeds to the land and the old owners were given an opportunity to bid on their plots of land at auction.  Using this methodology, the government seriously hindered the ability of the Jewish community to reestablish itself.

Despite the government’s best efforts and the rising air of anti-Semitism across the country, the Jews fought against the odds and worked to rebuild what had been lost. The community succeeded in rebuilding several synagogues, hospitals, and community centers, though many of the institutions were moved to the outskirts of the city due to the new building plans. The community also rebuilt a successful Jewish press which had three different newspapers in circulation written in Judeo-Spanish, and in French with a daily distribution rate of 25,000 copies.

A Jewish hospital in Salonika that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A Jewish hospital in Thessalonica that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish community, once a majority, made up just 40% of the city. When the Germans occupied Thessalonica in the early 1940s they systematically destroyed the Jewish cemetery and more than 50,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka where over 90% of the once thriving community perished at the hands of the Nazis. Following the war, a handful of survivors returned to their homes and tried to once again reestablish the Jewish community.

The Jewish Cemetery of Salonika
The Jewish cemetery of Thessalonica in the early 20th century. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A large portion of the remaining archives of the Jewish community of Thessalonica is now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, a priceless remnant of a nearly lost culture.



The Disappearing Headstones from the Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara

Were the ancient headstones sold or stolen and who was responsible for their disappearance?

The Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara, Photo by Lungoleno

The Pinkas of the Spanish Levantine School is one of fourteen community registers produced by the Jewish Community of Ferrara in Italy which have been preserved to this day. The manuscript, now housed in the National Library of Israel, holds the protocols and deliberations of the town’s committee meetings from April 23, 1715, to February 18, 1811.

When studying the manuscript, the word “cimiterio” (cemetery in Italian), makes multiple appearances. These occurrences provide interesting new information regarding the cause of the almost total disappearance of the ancient matṣevot (Jewish headstones) from the Sephardic cemetery of Ferrara, currently located on Via Arianuova. The sepulchral ground used by the Spanish and Levantine community is mentioned in 35 acts of the Pinkas, of which 13 are centered on the renewal of the appointments of the caretaker assigned to it.

It is highly unlikely that the considerable number of tombstones presumably present in the two Sephardic cemeteries of Ferrara, the old and the new, went missing by chance. The transcript of the council meeting on April 8, 1717, features the defense of a person accused of stealing and selling sepulchral stones from the Sephardic Community of Ferrara to the local municipal authorities of the time.

Page from the Farrera Pinkas, April 8, 1717. Click image to enlarge.

The Community Council offered a defense for Isacco Lampronti against unjust accusations of the theft and sale of cemetery gravestones. His accusers alleged that he committed these crimes on his own initiative, but the council claimed that the marble stones were sold by the same congregation in 1705 and 1706, in order to make a financial profit.

The first name that appears among the buyers of the missing headstones is that of Scipion Sagrati, who held the high office of Judge of the Savi, and who purchased the marble in order “to repair the floods of the water.” In 1705, Ferrara was damaged by a disastrous flood, called “the highest of all,” caused by the flooding of the Po and Panaro Rivers. Judge of the Savi, the Marquis Scipione Sacrati Giraldi, took preventative measures to avoid damages both before and during the flooding.

In order to prevent the ruinous entry of water into the city, the Sacrati walled the Porta degli Angeli, one of the main city gates sparing Ferrara the fury of the flood. It is very probable that the Marquis Sacrati had an urgent need to acquire some material to wall up the ancient city gate and he therefore lawfully purchased the Jewish burial stones for this purpose. Another possible hypothesis is that the Judge of the Savi may have instead obtained and used the Sephardic tombstones after the long flood to “close the routes, and repair the river banks.” Moreover, it is attested that on 28th June 1706, about a year after the violent flood, the same Scipione Sacrati Giraldi generously donated two octagonal wells to the city of Ferrara made at his own expense with the marble reused from the gravestones of the Jews.

Map of the Porta degli Angeli.

The second name that appears in the Pinkas testimony is that of Cardinal Del Verme. This is the Cardinal Bishop Protempore Taddeo Luigi Dal Verme, Bishop of Ferrara from 1701 until 1717, the year of his death. His relationship with the Jews of Ferrara was slightly ambiguous, so much so that, during his episcopate, his edicts forbade honoring the dead with tombstones. From the lines written by Abbot Girolamo Baruffaldi, we learn of an episode related to the construction of the extravagant Archiepiscopal Palace commissioned by Tommaso Ruffo, former Cardinal Legate and future first Archbishop of the city. According to the Pinkas, the Archiepiscopal stable was paved with tombstones stolen under the cover of darkness from the gardens where Jews were buried.

While Baruffaldi, who was alive at the time of these events but who was often outspoken against Jews, writes of a theft, the minutes of the council meeting of the Spanish Levantine School of April 1717 testify instead of an explicit sale of the headstones made by the Jewish community to the Bishop of Ferrara. What is certain is that Dal Verme, having obtained the Jewish tombstones, gave them to Cardinal Legate Ruffo who then used them to pave the stables of his many horses.


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The shortlist of well-known buyers ends with Emigliano Travaglioni, who purchased the headstones “for the purpose of the fortress in the year of the blockade.” Abbot Emiliano Travaglini was the Commissioner of the Apostolic Chamber of Ferrara during the year 1708, which was emblematically defined “the year of the blockade” as the city was besieged and blocked for many months by the Austrian imperial troops. Despite the fact that the city of Ferrara had been isolated, there was still a large armory inside the Pontifical Fortress, the imposing pentagonal headquarters of barracks, powder magazines and deposits of papal arms. During the imperial siege, while awaiting the arrival of troops and materials from Rome, it was only possible for the people of Ferrara to strengthen the fortifications with that which was available in the city. It is precisely in this particular context that the purchase of Jewish sepulchral stones was carried out by Abbot Travaglini. The headstones were likely to be used to reinforce the defenses against the enemy at the gates.

There are only three people mentioned as buyers of the marble stones of the Spanish cemeteries but the list should certainly be longer. In fact, the list as mentioned in the Pinkas ends with “and others,” making clear reference to other incalculable and unknown buyers.

The root or reason for such a serious accusation – the theft of Jewish headstones – aimed at a well-known and influential character of Ferrara of the time (Isacco Lampronti) remains unknown. It is possible that it was personal resentment that led Isach Saralvo and his sons to make such an accusation against the famous doctor, but the framework of the story and its origins are still very blurred. Even the date of this “criminal accusation” may not have been by chance. In fact, due to a strange and not accidental conjunction of years, there is a theory that this controversy is connected to the reconstruction of the Borso d’Este column.

In 1472, a column supporting the statue of an enthroned Duke Borso was placed on the left side of the entrance of the ducal court of Ferrara, in front of the Cathedral and next to the column with the equestrian monument of Duke Nicolò III. On December 23, 1716, a fire broke out in the surrounding shops and the column suffered serious damage. In 1718, sources attest that, in order to restore it, the city authorities ordered many marble burial headstones to be removed from the Jewish cemeteries, and provided payment to the Ghetto’s caretaker.

The Borso d’Este column containing Jewish headstones. Photo credit: Lungoleno

The story of the reuse of Jewish gravestones for the column, soon abandoned by historians, was lost to time. It was only in 1960, during a restoration of the Borso column, that a photographer successfully captured fragments of Hebrew writing embedded in the structure. The photographs show 36 fragments of tombstones in which Hebrew characters, noble coats of arms and elegant floral decorations are visible. The dating of the stone material shows they come from a chronological period between 1557 and 1680. It is very difficult, especially due to the loss of the auditing book of 1707 and the often conflicting documentary sources, to establish with certainty if the tombstones were indeed deliberately sold by the Jewish community or if, as was often known to happen, they were forcibly removed or taken under special municipal injunctions.

The data contained in this precious documentary source has made it possible to clarify an unusual aspect of the history of the Sephardic Jewish cemeteries of Ferrara, cemeteries that are almost totally void of ancient sepulchral stones, which appear to have been reused in various manners over the long history of the city of Este.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.