The Magnificent Polish Synagogue That Was Destroyed in World War I

In 1768, a unique wooden synagogue was constructed in the town of Sniadowo. These images are the last ones that were taken before the building burned to the ground.


Facade of the synagogue in Sniadowo

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5674 (September 30, 1913), Konrad Kłos, architect and historian of Polish architecture, arrived in Sniadowo to photograph the town’s historic, wooden synagogue. He captured the synagogue from many angles. He photographed the bima (main platform), the dome, the balcony, the two women’s sections, and the painted walls. He also captured the men and women of the Jewish community and a few cows grazing in the nearby meadow.

Situated on the banks of the Narbek River in Poland, the synagogue in Sniadowo was built in 1768 and its fame was spread far beyond its wooden walls. Klos photographed the synagogue as part of a project to document important architectural buildings throughout Poland, an initiative he created with fellow architect and friend, Oskar Sosnowski.

Facade of the synagogue from the north-west.

The synagogue in Sniadowo boasted a large organized Jewish community. It was part of a group of unusual synagogues built in northern Poland in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The walls were painted and decorated on the inside. This was unusual because of the Jewish prohibition of displaying pictures and sculptures as a part of the laws banning the practice of idolatry.

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During this time period, in certain Jewish communities – Germany, for example – decoration of the interior of synagogues was forbidden in order to avoid distraction from prayer. In Poland, however, there was a more forgiving attitude towards decorative flourishes. The sages and rabbis of Poland were asked about the issue and had a mixture of responses. Rabbi Avraham Avali ben Haim Gombiner, known as ‘Magen Avraham,’ suggested that painting on the walls of the synagogue should be permitted, but not at eye level of the congregants and in this way no one would actually be praying in front of the paintings. Others, like Rabbi Akiva Eiger of Pozna, were supportive only of paintings that depicted flora and other plant-life.

A photograph that focuses on the top of the bima. Here we see the wooden walls of the synagogue from the inside.
A photograph of that focuses on the interior of the dome that appears to have been photographed from the attic.

The Jews in Poland did not have their own tradition of building and therefore adopted models and techniques that were common in the area. Together with the contractors, they constructed buildings and then expanded them as necessary. The original synagogue in Sniadowo was built as a square (the inner space and prayer hall), and other sections were added on later. The synagogue featured a “broken” roof, causing it to look as if it were made of several levels. Along the outside edges were towers, and the building itself housed historical “galleries,” as well as carved balconies and handrails. The facades, dome, and balconies were all ornately decorated.

Details of the synagogue roof and the entrance to the women’s section.

In the center of the Sniadowo synagogue stood the bima, upon which the structure of the dome was erected as a kind of Hupa. Unfortunately, the names of the architects, builders, and artists who built and decorated the synagogue are unknown to us today, but one can still be impressed by the beauty of the synagogue through the spectacular photographs taken by Klos in 1913.

A photograph from the balcony on the second floor of the synagogue

At the end of the nineteenth century, there were approximately 1,300 Jews in Sniadowo. During the First World War, the synagogue was burned to the ground and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army ordered the expulsion of the Jewish inhabitants from the town. Jews emigrated to other cities and other countries. By 1921, only 386 Jews remained in Sniadowo. The population managed to recover somewhat and grew to 869 men, women and children leading up to the events of World War II.

The end of dwindling Jewish life in the town arrived with the German occupation in June 1941. Some of Sniadowo’s Jews were seized and executed on the spot. The rest were sent to the Lomza ghetto on the way to their final destination. They arrived in the Auschwitz extermination camp in January 1943.

The facade of the synagogue from the east and the fence surrounding the courtyard.

Almost all of the wooden synagogues in Poland were destroyed during the Holocaust. These photographs stand as rare documentation and a memory of the wooden synagogue which, just several months after these images were captured, was completely destroyed in the chaos of First World War. They are a glimpse into the Jewish center of Sniadowo at the height of its glory and a testament to hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland.

The photographs were found in the archives of Rabbi and researcher Shmuel Poznanski. 

Thank you very much to Dr. Gil Weisblei for your help in writing this article.

The Jewish Books That Were Plundered by the Nazis

Millions of books were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. These books were utilized by the Nazis to "investigate" the "Jewish problem."

ERR operatives arrange stolen books in Eastern Europe (Photo: Yad Vashem)

During World War II, the Nazi forces confiscated millions of books from institutions and archives across Europe from “enemies of the regime” which included Bolsheviks, Freemasons, Jews, and others. According to one estimate, approximately five million books were taken from Jewish libraries and Jewish collections over the course of the war. The stolen publications included books on Jewish studies, poetry, and Hebrew literature along with sacred books, manuscripts, and books on science and culture that were written in several languages including Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and German.

The Reich Institute for the History of New Germany (Reichinstituts für Geschichte des Neuen Deutschlands), was founded in 1935 and was one of the most significant destinations for stolen books – Jewish books in particular.  The director of the institute was the Nazi historian Walter Frank. Some of his writings published by the institute can be found in the National Library.


Walter Frank, Deutsche Wissenschaft und Judenfrage, Hamburg, 1937

The two main bodies that collected Jewish books were the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) and the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). The Reich Main Security Office was founded by Heinrich Himmler and was considered to be the strongest branch of the Third Reich as it included the Gestapo forces, the police, the Einsatzgruppen, and other departments. The ministry was responsible for identifying security threats to the country from its enemies within a jurisdiction that included all occupied countries. One of the departments of the institution, headed by Dr. Franz Alfred Six, worked to collect entire libraries from various parts of Europe for the purpose of investigating the ideological enemies of the Nazi regime.

In 1933, the same year that the Nazi party rose to power, the book confiscations began. The first stage focused on the Freemasons and later grew to include Jewish libraries. With the annexation of Austria, the Jewish collection of the Reich Main Security Office grew to eighty-five thousand volumes. Twenty-four thousand of these books eventually found their way to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, what later became the National Library of Israel. As more Eastern European countries were occupied, more public and private libraries were raided and their contents were sent to the central library in Berlin.

Books and treasures confiscated by the Nazis in Ratibor. Photo: Yad Vashem

Nearly two million books accumulated in the central depository of the ministry, but the Reich Main Security Office focused most of its attention on archival material including personal documents, community books, and other information – documents that could help them investigate, identify and annihilate their enemies including the Jews.

With the start of the American bombing of Berlin in 1943, much of the collection was transferred to Silesia and Bavaria for safekeeping. Some sixty thousand Jewish books were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto where they were cataloged and kept separately from the ghetto library. After the war, the Theresienstadt books were turned over to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The books that remained in the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin were discovered by the Soviet and American forces, respectively (there were two separate buildings for the library in Berlin).

In the end, most of the collection (including many Jewish books and archival documents) fell into the hands of the Soviet Army. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that these books were allowed to be examined by the Russian authorities. A relatively small amount of the materials were returned to previous owners and the fate of the majority of the material confiscated by the Russians is unknown.

The other entity that competed with the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany and the Reich Main Security Office in obtaining the books was the book confiscation unit established by Alfred Rosenberg called the ERR. Though, in terms of the quantity of material stolen, this organization had no real ability to compete with the Nazi security services.

In 1939, Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party, began laying the foundations for the establishment of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). This institution was set to become the center of Nazi academic studies. Hitler planned to open the school after Germany’s victory in the war and ordered Rosenberg to carry out the preparatory work with a focus on research and the establishment of a library.

Alfred Rosenberg at the ERR headquarters. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The Advanced School of the Nazi Party was meant to include eleven research institutes throughout Germany, specializing in the fields of religion, race, folklore, German studies and more. In reality, the only research institute that was ever established was the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (IEJ). This institute was opened in Frankfurt and, as every academic institution does, it needed a respectable library. When establishing a library of this sort, books are typically purchased by the institution or received as donations – but the Nazis had a different method.

Rosenberg established a special unit that he named after himself. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was tasked with touring the major libraries of occupied countries and organizing shipments of the important books back to Germany. The ERR focused mainly on France and the Netherlands at the start of the war, robbing many famous libraries and several Jewish collections including the Rosentiliana Collection, the Etz Chaim collection in Amsterdam, the Library of the Rabbinical Seminary and the Alliance organization in Paris.

When Germany invaded Russia and Rosenberg became responsible for the collection of publications in the occupied territories in the east, many additional Jewish libraries fell into his grasp. The ERR confiscated every collection that appeared significant to its operatives and the rest were sent off to be destroyed. Books destined for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem were sent to Frankfurt and books intended for the other institutes of the Nazi Party’s Advanced School (for a later time when the institute would be opened) as well as books with an unclear destination, were sent to the Central Library in Berlin. Books that arrived in Berlin and were deemed unnecessary for academic purposes were distributed to libraries of universities and other institutions in Germany. Some remain there to this today.

The books at the Institute in Frankfurt were found by the US military after the war. The military and, later, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization, actively returned books to their former owners and worked to find new homes for the “orphaned” books, like the National Library.

A map describing the ERR’s field of activity. Collection centers for stolen books were established in several cities in Europe.

The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem regularly published an academic journal called “Weltkampf.” Some of the researchers who published articles in the journal were assisted by the large library that had been accumulated there. In the summer issue of 1941, the list of authors includes Alfred Rosenberg himself who, in the same issue, published an article on the connection between Nazism and science. The issue also includes two articles published by the Institute’s director, Wilhelm Grau. Grau was director of the Department for the Study of the Jewish Problem at the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany until the director of the institute, Walter Frank, was dismissed and Grau took his place.

Weltkampf die judenfrage in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Frankfurt am Main 1941

A list of new books published on the subject appears at the end of each issue of this journal. It is quite astonishing to go over the list and see how many publications (books and articles) about Jews were written in the midst of the war and the Holocaust. In 1944, as the Germans suffered painful defeats in the east and as the Allies bombed German cities and prepared to invade the West, anti-Semitic academics continued to sit in the ivory tower, researching and publishing on the “Jewish problem.” It is even more astonishing to see that some of the books that came to the Institute in these years originated in the United States and England. How did they arrive in Germany from enemy states? Perhaps through a neutral state?

The Weltkampf periodicals came to the National Library after the Holocaust via Austria where many of the collections of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party were sent. They were kept at the monastery of Tenzenberg and found there after the war by British forces. Later, many other books were found and donated to the survivors of the Jewish community in Vienna. In turn, the community decided to donate these books to the National Library in Jerusalem. A few thousand books were sent to Israel in the late 1940s and about eighty thousand more books arrived in 1955. All of these books have been labeled to indicate their origins.


Some of the books that came from Austria to Jerusalem feature the stamp of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party – the institution that sponsored the “study of Jews without Jews” (Judenforschung ohne Juden) – alongside the stamp of the National Library of Israel.




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.”

The First Jewish Translation of the Book of Books into Spanish

As many conversos began to return to their heritage after the Inquisition, several Jewish cultural books were translated into Spanish for their use - including the Book of Books.

With the decree to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews chose to remain in the Spanish kingdom and live as Christians while others accepted the invitation of the King of Portugal, King Manuel I, to emigrate to the neighboring realm where they could live openly as Jews. When the King of Portugal married the Princess of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, he changed his policies and forced the conversion of the newly arrived Jews of Portugal.

Towards the end of the 16th-century and into the 17th-century, thousands of “New Christians” took advantage of the newly eased travel restrictions between the Iberian Peninsula and the countries beyond it and emigrated to Western Europe and the New World. Upon arrival in their new communities, many chose to openly return to Judaism and the tradition of their forefathers. Those who returned to the old faith dealt with many questions on their journey, including: How does one revive a once forbidden culture, relearn lost religious practices and revive a language that has been long forgotten?

With the return of many Spanish Jews to their heritage, there was a sudden demand for translation of Jewish texts.  A great number of Jewish texts, including Halakhic and ethical treatises, prayer books and even the “Book of Books,” the Hebrew Bible, were translated into Spanish and Portuguese over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. One major project of this sort was the first complete Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Spanish, printed in Ferrara in 1553.

Making the Books of Jewish Heritage Accessible 

“The Holy Bible in the Spanish tongue. Translated word for word from the true Hebrew by very excellent literati . . . with the privilege of the most illustrious Lord Duke of Ferrara.”

(Subtitle of the Ferrara Bible, the first complete Jewish translation of the Bible into Spanish, printed in 1553)

Safely ensconced in their new home in the Duchy of Ferrara in Italy, far from the reach of the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the translator Abraham ben Salomon Usque and the typographer Yom-Tob ben Levi Athias — themselves ex-conversos who had escaped from Spain and Portugal — labored together to translate and print twenty-seven titles of Jewish books in Spanish and Portuguese. The Ferrara Bible was their most important work. It was a new translation and revision of earlier, partial translations of the Bible into Spanish.

The original printed edition of the Ferrara Bible of 1553. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The revised and translated Bible became an important Judeo-Spanish text in Western Europe and the New World. It was first printed and distributed in Ferrara which, in the second half of the 16th century, was an important stop along the route for conversos emigrating from the Iberian Peninsula.


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The Ferrara Bible had multiple printings and editions including an edition published in Amsterdam in 1726 when the city became the preferred destination for conversos returning to Judaism in the 17th century.

Chapter One, Genesis, from the Ferrara Bible, printed in Amsterdam. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible filled a central need in the Spanish Catholic world as well. Researchers posit that the new translation influenced Catholic religious thought and many Christian authors quoted directly from the translated text. None the less, anyone caught by the Inquisition with a copy of the Ferrara Bible in his possession opened himself up to real danger.

Spanish translation of the Bible published in 1945 in Argentina, based mainly on the Ferrara Bible. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible – A Bridge across the Generations

This book became a bridge between the glorious culture of the Jews of Spain and Portugal prior to their expulsion and their descendants who, hundreds of years after they were torn from their country, preserved that precious culture in their new homes.

This article was written with the help of Dr. Aliza Moreno of the National Library of Israel.