One Picture, No Words

The story behind one black-and-white picture, glued to a yellowing piece of cardboard

Was it torn from an old family album? The scalloped fringe must have been cut in a photo shop, as was customary at the time, when even a tiny photograph like this one, was given a lot of thought. Yet unlike family photos, which capture moments of happiness, we can’t see the faces of the men photographed here: their heads are lowered, their eyes focused on the straw brooms they’re holding. What are they doing? Who are they? Street cleaners? God-fearing Orthodox Jews (they are, after all, wearing hats!) industriously sweeping the streets before Passover? Then there are the arm bands – the white bands wrapped around their right arms raise suspicions. Is there anything drawn on those bands? Are those Stars of David?

The Holocaust Comes to Rzeszów in Galicia

Contrary to the well-known saying, not every picture is worth a thousand words. There are events so horrific that even a thousand pictures and thousands upon thousands of words cannot express their true essence, not even the brief caption scribbled in a hurry, on the back of the photo: Ghetto Rzeszów.

When our glance returns to the photograph, its contents are now clearer: these are Jews in Rzeszów, in the early days of the German occupation of the city in central Galicia. “In the first two days, the Germans did not hurt anyone,” said one Holocaust survivor about the horrors that took place there, “and on the third day, they recruited the Jews to clean the streets…” This must have been September, 1939, and at first the Germans’ disposition toward the Jewish population didn’t seem all that threatening: some bullying perhaps, search warrants and various restrictions, but nothing beyond the typical abuse the local Jews had grown accustomed to over centuries of wars and pogroms.

Perhaps taking pictures of this forced labor was part of a program of collective humiliation, an attempt to trample human dignity. Or maybe it was just an innocent photograph? Moreover, who was the photographer? Was it a German officer who was looking to commemorate brief moments of pleasure he derived from the grotesque spectacle, or perhaps a random passerby holding a camera? Could someone have taken the photograph secretly, from a second story window? The high angle may support such a possibility. One can imagine a fairly simple backstory: perhaps the photographer was a Pole, who was horrified by the incident and wanted to document the event. He could have developed the image in the local photography store, where an acquaintance of his worked. As always, he carefully cut the margins of the photo so that it would match the rest of the album. When the photographer gave the photo to his friend in the store, he may have told a little joke at the expense of the Jews – “They’re finally getting some work done!” or perhaps he suggested – “We should sweep them away like dirt!” Or maybe he remained silent, his lips pressed into a thin line, the look of a man witnessing the torment of innocents, soon be led to their brutal deaths. Perhaps he stared for a moment at the movement of those sweeping brooms in the hands of the victims, frozen in the camera eye. Their bodies, obviously sentenced to death, seemed still and motionless.


A Pair of Legs in the Left-Hand Corner

These are apparently the legs of an innocent Polish bystander who randomly walked by. It is certainly not a Nazi soldier overseeing the forced labor, since he isn’t wearing the typical high boots. We can’t find fault with the innocent Pole, who witnessed what was transpiring as he walked down the street, any more than we can blame the photographer who captured the moment through the window; they couldn’t predict future events! Even one of Rzeszów’s own Jewish sons, the Zionist leader Meir Ya’ari, then living in Kibbutz Merhavia in Mandatory Palestine, could not comprehend the extent of the horror. Ya’ari stated before his comrades at a meeting of the executive committee of the Kibbutz Artzi movement in 1943, “How can it be that a city like Rzeszów, that entire cities, are put on trains, burned in incinerators, […] within a few hours? Can our minds conceive such a thing, can our souls contain it?”


How Did the Picture End Up at the National Library?

Every piece of documentation must be collected. Every photo, every letter, every document. That was what writers, intellectuals and ordinary people all over Europe thought, during and after the Holocaust. If not, the next generations wouldn’t be able to comprehend what transpired in such a short time. One of those diligent collectors was Shimon Kantz, a Yiddish author, who during the Holocaust managed to escape to the Soviet territories, and after the war ended, returned to his devastated Poland. With endless dedication, he painstakingly collected every scrap of information relating to the acts of mass-murder and widespread abuse, editing the raw material and filing it away. This photograph is one of those collected scraps of information kept in his archives, which were later given to the National Library of Israel. The photo, along with the other items Katz kept in his archive, wouldn’t give him peace. Katz wrote and edited more than fifteen memorial books for various Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. When he immigrated to Israel, in 1957, he brought those silent testimonies with him, and despite his extensive literary endeavors, the photo continued to torment him. Therefore, when we look at this photograph, perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect on the silent horror that it contains.


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A nostalgic celebration with the Jews of Saloniki

Jewish dancers and musicians in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Albert Nissim). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

“Saloniki’s Jews… eagerly awaited the arrival of the Shavuot holiday… They especially loved and cherished it as the holiday of spring, of the verdant fields, of the flowers and of the ripe fruits, and anyone who got to enjoy the greenery and the fruits where they grew in the fields outside the city, in the forests, in the gardens and in the meadow – it is sublime…”

Jewish fruit vendors in Saloniki showing off citrus and seeds, early 20th century (Publisher: David M. Assaël). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The excitement in the Aegean air was palpable as Shavuot – the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah and the ancient wheat harvest – drew near. The community’s homemakers would get wide pots ready for preparing the traditional sutlach, a dairy, sugary rice pudding dusted with cinnamon; as well as special vessels for fresh yogurt and soft cheeses prepared just for the holiday.

Knowing the season, the itinerant tinsmith would appear, announcing his arrival and his purpose: “Istañador para istañar!” Collecting dented pots and returning them “like new” a few days later, he would bless the ladies and their rice pudding, too: ¡Para sutlachiko bueno!” – “May your sutlach be good!”

Three generations of Jewish women in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: H. Grimaud). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Of course the festive meal was not just sutlach, yogurt and cheese.

There were the injaminados – colorful hardboiled eggs – and pastil ­– cheese cake that came in all shapes and sizes with its two main ingredients, cheese and eggs, seemingly the only thing any of them actually had in common.

And to drink?

Raki, of course! Though not just any raki. The kind that can only be procured from the humble home of Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel, rich in taste and full of good luck for the holiday and season to come.

With pots clanging and the smells of sutlach and raki wafting, festive clothes certainly had to be prepared for the holy day as well. A folk adage prohibited wearing white suits and dresses prior to Shavuot, but now they could finally be readied as the holiday and summer neared.

Upper class Salonikan Jews in fine traditional dress, early 20th century (Publisher: Hananel Naar). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Then, the sun set and the time finally came.

Some went to synagogue, likely struggling to focus on the prayers in anticipation of what they knew awaited them at home.

With the fruits of the housewives’ labor (and Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel’s raki) heartily enjoyed, as the festive meal wound down and dessert was served, the Book of Ruth was read in Hebrew and Ladino, its words sung to traditional melodies. Then some would go back to synagogue for “Nochada de sevo” – traditional all night Torah study – where men and children would sit on cushioned sofas, trying not to nod off as they waited for a boost of refreshment  from the finjan.

Saloniki’s Italian synagogue was first built in 1423; the synagogue pictured here was rebuilt in 1896 following a fire. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

While study, prayer and song celebrating the giving of the Torah in Hebrew and Ladino may have provided spiritual sustenance to complement the physical nourishment of the sutlach and pastil, for many, the highlight of Shavuot largely took place outside the city walls.

Bustling street corner in Saloniki, early 20th century (Editeurs: M.S.R). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The streets became packed by the thousands – young and old – picnic baskets and mats on which to sit in hand, bouquets of flowers coloring the landscape, excited chatter filling the air as they set out: some towards the Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes, others towards the Five Oaks or the Sheikh’s Spring, while youth groups and the more intrepid ventured as far as the surrounding mountains and villages.

The Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes outside Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Imp. B&G). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection


More festive holiday food would be eaten under the fruit trees. Young and old would sing songs – some traditional and some recently introduced Zionist tunes. Albert Molcho would entertain the crowd, “speaking” English, Russian and Hebrew, without actually knowing any of them. Laughter filled the air – the joy of festival, family and the impending summer.

Then as the sun began to set, children – sun-kissed and tired – would roll up into their parents’ arms and everyone would slowly make their way home, savoring every last moment of Shavuot in Saloniki.

The White Tower of Saloniki today

For much of the past millennium, the majority of the population of Saloniki – now Greece’s second largest city more commonly known as Thessaloniki – was Jewish. Most of the account above came from the personal recollections of David Benvenisti, published in “Saloniki /Ir V’Em B’Yisrael“, as well as from an article which appeared in the weekly “Hed Ha-Mizrach” on the eve of Shavuot in 1946, three years after the city’s Jews were sent to the death camps. Though dedicated to “Sarah and Leah, victims of the evil one”, the article was much less lamentation than it was a poetic celebration of Shavuot in Saloniki, reflecting perhaps the core essence of a holiday centered around the transcendent and binding power of words to preserve communal memory and tradition.

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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Water vs. Corona? Don’t Try This at Home!

Curing diseases, restoring organs, revitalizing the body and even resurrecting the dead! Rare caricatures from 19th-century England prove that strange folk remedies have been with us for a while…

A common theme: A patient sits naked in the bath, receiving a shower of hot or cold water, "The Sure Water Cure", the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Has anyone tried to sell you an anti-coronavirus machine recently? We suggest you pause for a moment before you hit that “Buy Now!” button…This isn’t the first time that our society has been inundated with promises of miracle cures of one type or another. Perhaps you’ve heard of something known as “Hydropathy”? Well, a series of lithograph postcards preserved in the National Library of Israel’s Sidney M. Edelstein Collection, which were printed in the satirical book, The Sure Water Cure, (Messrs Fores, London, 1843) tells us of a series of weird and cruel attempts at healing, alongside a thriving and criminal water-treatment industry. Perhaps the logic used here was something along the lines of, “If these methods don’t kill you, congratulations – no silly virus will stand a chance…”

Nowadays, we’re familiar with modern water-based therapies and their great contribution to the field of orthopedics, the development of motor skills, as well as emotional development. This modern method of treatment is known as ‘hydrotherapy’. In the past, more than a century ago, water medicine was referred to as ‘hydropathy’ or ‘water cure’. This school of thought gained momentum and became extremely popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It even spawned an entire field of alternative medical literature.

Doctors estimated that water might have healing properties that could be harnessed, for example, by manipulating water temperature or water pressure, or transferring water through an assortment of odd contraptions. In general, their observation was correct: water can indeed be used effectively in certain situations for healing purposes. For example, water treatments were found to be successful in reducing fevers and high blood pressure, and scientists hurriedly assumed that they had found the new miracle cure. It wasn’t long before charlatans caught wind of the startling revelation, and “holy” and “miraculous” solutions to various ailments began appearing by the dozen.

Among promises made to anyone willing to listen, were the far-fetched assurances that various methods of water treatment were capable of rejuvenating one’s youth and restoring missing limbs. There were even claims that special, secret treatments could bring a person back from the dead. The postcard here displays a real advertisement, with the head of a water pump shaped as a cross, alluding to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The advertisement declares:

The Sure Water Cure – Amputations restored the dead revived and age hydropathicalized into youth.”

The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the late 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see amputees and elderly people standing in line for ridiculous, unreasonable treatments. Gradually, and in order to increase revenue, the practitioners promised that water therapy could cure mental and spiritual illnesses, such as insomnia, suicidal tendencies, manic-depressive disorders, as well as severe physical illnesses such as paralysis or arthritis. Toward the end of the 19th-century, the phenomenon was so popular and widespread, that a series of medical caricatures were printed in England, warning the public of the false “miracle cure” and poking fun at the trend.

Hydropathy was based on external and internal water treatments. One of the treatments the public was warned about came to be known as “The Mummy State”. The below illustration shows a patient lying in his bed (probably suffering from the flu, a fever, or some other malaise), tightly wrapped up in blankets like a mummy, as a machine pumps generous quantities of water into his body through a tube.

“…those who thus expect to be cured, will suck in any thing, any quantity, and at any price!” – The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

The process is described on the back of the caricature, in words that serve as biting criticism of a gullible public:

“The Mummy State

The patient […] is tightly enveloped in blankets to perspire, if he lives long enough he is usually made a Mummy of or cured, the chances are equal. The hands being confined. Water is given plentifully through a tube, obviously those who thus expect to be cured, will suck in any thing, any quantity, and at any price!”

Or in other words: When in a panic, you’ll buy whatever you’re told works.

Many of the caricatures show a patient sitting naked in a bathtub receiving a shower of hot or cold water (depending on the treatment) in the hopes of curing some mental illness. The skeptics continued to cast doubt, and instead of recommending the treatment to the public – suggested it be used on members of the British Parliament. The back of the postcard reads: “…a Douche is in preparation expressly adapted for the use of M.Ps. as it will be found extremely efficacious in clearing the intellectual depository and in supplying the said vacuum!”

“…extremely efficacious in clearing the intellectual depository…” – The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

The mentally-ill population suffered in particular from these aquatic “miracle cures,” which were especially prevalent in London’s horrific 19th-century psychiatric institutions. In order to extract the disease from one’s head, treatment methods sometimes included plunging the patient’s head into a bucket of water, while he or she was held upside down, using ropes and pulleys. The torturous method, which harkens back to medieval times, proved itself ineffective in treating diseases of the mind. However, over the years, various intelligence agencies have controversially used similar methods, involving the simulation of a sensation of drowning, while attempting to extract secrets from people who weren’t interested in disclosing them.

Dunking the head of the patient in water: not so useful in treating mental illness; similar methods would be used in interrogations, The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Water therapy treatments were a hit more than a century ago. At the beginning of the 20th century and with the establishment of modern medicine, the cruel treatments were abandoned. But if anything can be learned from the past, it’s that people will always take advantage of humankind’s desire for health, and sell all kinds of tricks, instruments, and concoctions, which will “guarantee” quick cures or a miracle. So the next time you hear about an anti-corona device or an all-curing wonder-bath which fits in your own living room, don’t be quick to order that special delivery – go to a doctor. Stay safe.


Many thanks to Chaya Meier Herr of  the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine for her assistance in preparing this article.


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Contagious Books: Epidemics in Literary Masterpieces

Coronavirus? We've seen it all before… A look at several plagues (both real and fictional) that were commemorated in literature over the years

In these tumultuous days of corona, as we all endure the weighty rules of social distancing, allow me to recommend that you keep the four following books close by – at best they will provide comfort; at worst, they’ll remain sealed on your book shelf, because this article will tell you all you need to know (spoiler alert!).

Let’s start with The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a common folk tale which dates back to the Middle Ages, and which has been told and retold in many different versions. The story takes place in the year 1248, in the city of Hamelin, Germany, during the outbreak of a disease among the city’s rats.

Just when the residents of Hamelin despaired of their unsuccessful struggle against the pestilence, a mysterious piper appeared and offered to remove all the rats from the city for a fee. After facing the ridicule of the city’s residents, the city council approved the pact with the odd visitor. The piper took his pipe and started playing a tune as he strode along the streets of the city. As he played, the rats were lured out of their hiding places, to the great surprise of the locals.

A painting of the Pied Piper on stained glass, 1592

When all the rats were gathered, the piper left the city and walked down to the Weser River. When he reached the water, he walked into it, while still playing his pipe. The rats followed him in and drowned. The city of Hamelin was saved from the rats, and the city council immediately declared a holiday and held a festive ball.

When the piper came to demand his fee, he was met with derision, and to his surprise, the locals even demanded that he be thrown out of the city. When the residents were exposed as ungrateful villains, the piper once again took up his pipe and began to play. This time, he played another magical tune – yet it wasn’t the rats that ran after him bewitched, but the children of the city! Once all the children had gathered around him, the piper made his way into a large mountain, from which no child ever returned. And so, the city of Hamelin lost all its children, as a result of the evil deeds of its people.

The story was rewritten again and again over the course of history; including by the Brothers Grimm. The moral of the story teaches us that the punishment of a corrupt, rotten society is annihilation – just like the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and the following literary plagues.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Hebrew edition, Guy Publishers, 1990

Unlike the previous story, the next book isn’t based on an actual historical plague.  However, just like the tale of the Pied Piper, it also makes use of the theme of disease to hint at a process of decay in society (and rats are again at the center of it all! Is someone trying to give us a hint…?)

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus, a French Algerian author, and a Nobel laureate in Literature.

The novel is divided into five parts: in the first, we are told of an outbreak of plague in the city of Oran, in Algeria. The locals grow anxious as the city is filled with dying rats and before long people begin to succumb to the disease as well, at an ever-growing rate. Preventive measures are taken and a special department is opened in order to treat the patients and isolate them. Due to the sharp increase in the number of people infected and the lack of proper equipment to take care of them, the city is sealed off and a state of emergency is declared.

In the second part, all resources are severely limited and the city is completely cut off – communication with the outside world is impossible, apart from phone calls in cases of emergency. The narrator emphasizes the separation of family members, friends, and couples. The separation and lockdown affect daily activity in the city and crush the peoples’ spirit, despite their attempts to continue to behave normally.

(Don’t panic, it’s only a book…)

The remainder of the book reads like the script of your typical post-apocalyptic thriller, as the atmosphere in the city descends into chaos, and attempts to revolt and escape are violently suppressed. Just as people begin to despair, the disease miraculously abates and the rats return to the city.

The book, perceived as an allegory of the maladies of human society, was published in 1947 after World War II. Some also consider it a metaphor for the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.

The Plague, Albert Camus, a Hebrew edition, Am Oved Publishers, 2001

And now let’s head down the Atlantic coast from France to Portugal…

Blindness is a novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago, published in 1995.

The story begins with a driver who suddenly goes blind. However, this is no ordinary blindness – the only thing the driver sees before his eyes is the color white! A passerby volunteers to bring the driver home, but exploits his blindness and steals his vehicle. The blind man contacts an eye doctor, who is unable to find anything wrong with his eyes.

Gradually, the blindness becomes contagious, spreading from person to person: when a blind person looks at someone, that person also becomes blind. This is how the car thief is afflicted with blindness, the people in the doctor’s waiting room, and the doctor himself. The only person who remains immune to the blindness is the doctor’s wife. As the epidemic of blindness continues to spread, the authorities declare a state of emergency, placing all the blind people in isolation in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, in order to prevent the spreading of the blindness, which becomes known as “the white sickness.”

The patients suffer hardships until they manage to escape the asylum and return to the city. There, they discover that all of the city’s residents have gone blind and that chaos rules. The group tries to establish a measure of structure and order in what has become a lawless world, and is confronted with the difficulties of this strange new life and the necessity to search for food and water (and, I assume, toilet paper, as well).

At the end of the book, the blindness is lifted, and all the residents of the city get their sight back in the same order in which they were infected – starting with Patient Zero and so on. The cause of the strange blindness isn’t explained in the book, and remains a mystery.

Blindness, Jose José Saramago, a Hebrew edition, Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, 2000

And now, an abrupt transition, from the white plague to the black plague, in a literary masterpiece which narrates a fictional plot against a backdrop of historical reality. Here, too, we see an attempt to preserve normal social order amidst instability and social disintegration, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s great work – The Decameron.

Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the 14th century, as the bubonic plague (“The Black Death”) ravaged Florence.  In his story, ten young noble Florentines flee from the plague to an unaffected rural area. Quarantined with their servants in a luxurious villa, they spend ten days telling each other stories. We won’t dwell on these fascinating tales, but rather on the introduction describing the situation in the city during the epidemic.

A painting by Sandro Botticelli, Decamaron, 1487

Instead of explaining and expanding, I’ll just let the text speak for itself.

“Thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had passed since the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God, when there came into the noble city of Florence, the most beautiful of all Italian cities, a deadly pestilence, which… several years earlier had originated in the Orient, where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward its strength grew monstrously. No human wisdom or foresight had any value: enormous amounts of refuse and manure were removed from the city by appointed officials, the sick were barred from entering the city, and many instructions were given to preserve health… at the beginning of the spring of that year, that horrible plague began with its dolorous effects in a most awe-inspiring manner, as I will tell you.

…But what gave this pestilence particularly severe force was that whenever the diseased mixed with healthy people, like a fire through dry grass or oil it would rush upon the healthy. And this wasn’t the worst of the evil: for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or mixed with the sick, but also touching bread or any other object which had been handled or worn by the sick would transport the sickness from the victim to the one touching the object.

…Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health.”

The Decamaron, Giovanni Boccaccio, a Hebrew edition, Carmel Publishing, 2000

It’s true that the social distancing that’s been forced upon us isn’t easy to cope with, but let’s stay optimistic (and adhere to the rules), and remember that things are gradually getting better (and warmer). Let’s hope we get a few good books out of this pandemic too!


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