The 13th Century Manuscript That Was Saved From the Nazis

The Worms Mahzor, written in the late 13th century, was spared the destruction of the Holocaust after it was smuggled away from the Gestapo and hidden in one of the city’s cathedral towers.

November 10, 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht.

Shattered glass glittered in the streets and the smoking remains of Jewish businesses and synagogues stood as witness to the violence and rampant destruction instigated by the Nazi mobs the previous evening. An eerie quiet fell on the streets of Germany that morning following the arrest and deportation of 30,000 Jews from their homes to the concentration camps where they would await their fate. Fear gripped the hearts of the Jewish community as its members surveyed the damage and questioned their safety and what the future held in store.

Dr. Freidrich M. Illert, the director of the local cultural institutions and the archivist of the city of Worms, immediately recognized that the extent of the damage was far beyond what most could perceive. It wasn’t just the physical businesses and places of worship that had been lost in the fires; the historical documents and archives of the Jewish community may very well have been included among the victims. The Great Synagogue of Worms had gone up in flames and he feared that, along with the building, the community’s archive which contained irreplaceable historical documents and books may have also been lost.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Included in the archive was the Worms Mahzor, a set of manuscripts consisting of two volumes, one that was written in 1272 and a second that was written in 1280. The two-volume set was used by the cantors of the community to lead the congregation of the Great Synagogue of Worms in the traditional holiday prayer services for centuries.

The two volumes were written by different scribes and it is not absolutely clear where they were written. The first volume was written by the scribe Simcha ben Yehuda and in the prayers for the seventh day of Passover, a marginal note reads: “This is said aloud on that day, such is the rite of Würzburg.” Based on this notation as well as the illustrations included in the manuscript which bare resemblance to other documents originating from that region, it is believed the volume originated from the area of Würzburg.


Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:


Written on parchment in decorative Ashkenazic calligraphy, the Mahzor features illustrations and embellishments drawn in colorful inks. Over the years, different cantors as late as the 14th century had added their own notations to the first volume showing that the Mahzor had been used in prayer services for centuries.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The 13th-century manuscript also contains the oldest known sample of written Yiddish. The scribe of the Mahzor wrote a blessing for the man who carried the weighty book to the synagogue for prayer services. Hidden in the letters of the prayer for dew traditionally recited on Passover, the blessing reads, “Let a good day shine for him, who will carry this Mahzor to the synagogue.”

The blessing for the carrier of the Mahzor hidden inside the letters, “B’daato.” From the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

During his desperate search for information, Dr. Illert discovered that the community archive had been spared the inferno that destroyed the Great Synagogue but the whereabouts of the archive and how it had survived remained a mystery. He sought the help of the Worms municipality and the Hesse State government in tracking down the archive but, despite his greatest efforts, his search proved futile.

Years later, in the summer of 1943, Dr. Illert was invited to the palace in Darmstadt by the local Gestapo officials to help decipher foreign manuscripts. He was led down the stairs of the palace to the basement to view the books. After just a cursory glance at what lay in front of him, Dr. Illert realized he was looking at the archives of the Jewish community of Worms. After a quick search, he discovered that buried deep in the pile of books and documents lay the two volumes of the precious Worms Mahzor.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Dr. Illert was determined to rescue the archives and the historical documents from likely destruction at the hands of the Nazis. At great personal risk, he began slowly and methodically removing items from the basement, transferring the archive to the towers of one of the city’s cathedrals for safekeeping, a decision that also spared the documents from destruction when the allied forces bombed the city.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The archive, along with the Mahzor, survived the horrors of the war and in 1956, legal negotiations began in the hopes of transferring the Worms archive to Israel. In June of 1957, the two-volume Mahzor was brought to the National Library of Israel for preservation and safekeeping and the rest of the archive of the Jewish community of Worms was transferred to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people.

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.

The Special Needs Educator Who was Murdered by the Nazis

Meet Sally and Rebeka Bein who ran an educational institution for Jewish children with special needs during the Holocaust, and were eventually killed along with the children by the Nazis.

Sally Bein (background) with some of the institution's children. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

In the early 20th century, in the heart of a pine forest in eastern Germany, a one of a kind institution was established – an educational facility for Jewish children with special needs. The director of this institution, set up in October 1908 near the town of Beelitz, was a 27-year-old Jewish man by the name of Sally (Samuel) Bein, who until then had worked as a teacher for deaf and mute children.

Sally Bein. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

The facility (known as the Israelitische Erziehungsanstalt Wilhelm-Auguste-Viktoria-Stiftung) accepted children ranging from preschool aged to adolescents, most of them with special needs of various types. Others were sent there because of domestic issues at home and an inability of their parents to take care of them, while later on more children arrived because of limitations on the number of Jews allowed at ordinary schools. Sally Bein sought to receive them all, and integrate the different groups, a view that was quite ahead of its time.

In the beginning Sally and his wife Rebeka were the only teachers at the facility, but as the years went by more staff members joined the team, including three additional teachers and a teaching assistant, a cook, a caretaker and a gardener, all of whom contributed to the children’s education in addition to their regular work. Pupils would spend about two years at the institution, during which they studied academic subjects like Hebrew, German, history, and arithmetic, but a heavy emphasis was also placed on more mundane life skills and practices, including proper codes of social conduct, guidelines on order and cleanliness, as well as various arts and crafts like carpentry, cooking, and gardening.

A carpentry class (Photo taken from an album belonging to Arthur Feiner, a teacher at the institution)

Studies took place in a Jewish atmosphere, with Bible classes, observation of the Sabbath and dietary laws of Kosher, as well as the celebration of Jewish holidays. Day trips and games would take place during free time with the participation of all children, and no separation by gender or age, nor any consideration for cognitive differences among them. Throughout the years nearly 400 children studied at the institution, with most of them able to eventually move on to ordinary high schools or to find work. Bein’s achievements gained him a worldwide reputation, with doctors and educators from across Europe and even pre-state Israel coming to visit and learn his work methods.


Rebeka Bein (Photographer unknown)

The skies over the school began to darken in 1933, with the coming to power of the Nazi party. Sally Bein was forced to contend with constant attempts by local authorities to disrupt the institution’s activity and shut it down. The main complaint was that the facility and its children were perceived as a stain on the local population – a supposed negative influence on tourists who visited the area. When the Nazis began their extermination programs, the institution’s fate was sealed. Under the Third Reich, Jewish special needs children had no right to exist.

In April of 1942, nearly 30 children and staff members were sent away to the Warsaw Ghetto. Sally could by then sense the direction the wind was blowing, yet decided to stay put, though he and his family held visas that would have allowed them to leave Germany. In the months that followed, the last hopes of survival were dashed. On the 13th of June, 1942, a “shipment to the East” left Berlin. On board the train were 748 Jews from Berlin, in addition to some 280 Jews from the Beelitz area, including all of the facility’s children and staff members, among them Sally Bein, his wife Rebeka and their daughter Lisa Carola. The train took them to the Sobibor death camp, where they were murdered. The institution, which for 34 years had been full of life and the sounds of children at play, was now silent.

The school building used by the institution’s children which now serves as the Sally Bein Gymnasium (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

A short time after the eviction, the facility was taken over by the League of German Girls, a Nazi youth movement. For the past few decades, it has been the sight of a high school, named after Sally Bein. The students take part in a number of commemorative activities in hopes of preserving the site’s history for the sake of future generations.

A memorial plaque at the front of the building (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

We were made aware of this story by Ronny Dotan, who first learned of it thanks to the Holocaust Railway Car Project, and later continued studying the subject along with Tatjana Ruge of Berlin. Their research collected information about hundreds of children and staff members, whose relatives have since been located. If you have further information about the institution or the children who studied there, you are welcome to contact Ronny Dotan: [email protected].

The Brothers Polyakov: From the Shtetls of Poland to Russian Nobility

Yakov Polyakov was a rare breed. Luckily for us, this fascinating figure also kept a diary.

Yakov Polyakov, The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the NLI

It could easily have been a Chekhov play or a novel by Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Polyakov. Their lives certainly provided enough drama.

Yakov, one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons, was the oldest of the three brothers Polyakov, all prominent Russian bankers and industrialists. His diary, preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, was recently published online, all made possible thanks to the hard work of the volunteers of the Russian-based project “Prozhito.” Spanning forty-three years and searchable by year, this chronicle reflects the daily anxieties and joys of a wealthy Jewish businessman in 19th-century Russia.

The Brothers Polyakov

The Polyakov family originated in the shtetl of Dubrovno (today’s Belarus), to which Yakov’s grandfather had moved from Poland in 1783. Hence the name “Polyakov”- the Russified version of the Jewish family name “Polyak,” meaning Pole. The three brothers spread throughout Russia: Samuil lived in St. Petersburg, Lazar in Moscow, and Yakov in distant Taganrog, where he represented the Polyakov’s interests in the south.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Yakov’s diary meticulously notes his trips, meetings, and family matters. Though his records are often short and sketchy, with many featuring no more than one line, they number more than four thousand entries. Polyakov’s Russian is somewhat clumsy and grammatically problematic. One of his jottings explains why:

“As soon as we moved from Dubrovna to Orsha, Mother set about organizing our schooling and education at home. This was quite unusual for the time, as there was nothing but heders and melamdim, and nobody had any thought or hope of learning even the slightest Russian or arithmetic. When we moved, I was twelve, my brother Samuil was ten, and my brother Lazar only three. Mother found a teacher who was considered highly educated and therefore not quite trusted to be religious enough (a Jewish communal requirement for every melamed).”

Yakov launched his incredible career by joining his brothers in the railway business. They supervised the construction of the Kursk-Kharkov-Sevastopol and Voronezh-Rostov lines. In 1870, Yakov opened a trading house and established a coal mine on his estate. The mine, he claimed, ended Russia’s reliance on expensive English coal to power its steamships in the Black and Azov Seas.  The Polyakov brothers subsequently founded several banks including the Azov-Don commercial bank (in St. Petersburg), Donskoy Land Bank (in Taganrog), and the St. Petersburg-Azov Commercial Bank.

In the early 1890s, Yakov and Lazar branched out to Iran, building railways and investing in trade, industry, and banking under the aegis of the Russian government.

As the first general consul of Persia in St. Petersburg, Yakov was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Lion and the Sun for his services to the Shah. He tried parlaying this honor into a Russian baronial title (as the famous Günzburg family had with their German baronial rank), but without success.

Yakov’s diary testifies to his wealth as well as his philanthropic initiatives. In 1896 he bought his wife, Amalia, a villa in Biarritz (in the south of France, playground of Europe’s rich and famous) for 130,000 francs. Before investing in his own villa, he spearheaded the building of a synagogue in the resort, donating generously to bring the project to fruition. On Rosh Hashana eve of 1895, Yakov noted with satisfaction:

“All suited well for prayer and table. We invited Brodsky, but he arranged everything separately! Showed his wealth, what he is capable of. I donated two thousand francs for the construction of the synagogue in Biarritz. Lazar Solomonovich also donated two thousand, Brodsky three thousand, so the beginning is set. May God help finish it!”

The synagogue in Biarritz, built at Yakov’s initiative, postcard from 1910.

The synagogue was inaugurated in August 1904.

Persecuted Tycoons

Despite Yakov’s wealth, his actions were in some ways as limited as Russian Jewry’s as a whole. When his parents lost their sight and needed daily assistance, he couldn’t get permits for relatives to come live with them in Moscow:

“Unfortunately, the assistants for Father weren’t given permission [to reside with him]. It’s painful to see [my parents] disabled. Mother is completely blind. Father is partially blind. And they cannot have two of their kin look after them? It hurts, but what can be done?”

Five years earlier, all Jewish craftsmen were expelled from Moscow. That Passover, Yakov called the decree “[…] woeful for the Jews. All the newspapers are cruelly exaggerating, ridiculing, and defaming [them], happy to see [Jews] thrown out onto the streets.”

Yet there were bright spots too. In late 1897, despite rising anti-Semitism, Yakov and Lazar were awarded hereditary noble titles, making them one of Russia’s very few noble Jewish families. Their relatives in the countryside, however, still couldn’t leave the Pale of Settlement. Russian Jewish life was in constant flux, with changing regulations constantly making their lives more difficult until the revolution of February 1917. The provisional government that replaced the monarchy finally abolished all anti-Jewish laws making Jews equal citizens.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

On the Brink

Yakov’s business practices were criticized – perhaps sometimes deservedly – but there were also anti-Semitic outbursts. The following citation, from a note on Yakov Polyakov and the Jews of southern Russia received by the state comptroller’s office in the late 1880’s:

“The Jews of the Pryazovye district [straddling Ukraine and Russia’s Rostov Oblast], which has always been full of Greeks and Armenians, could never engage permanently in any trade but alcohol, until the Jew Ya. S. Polyakov arrived there to build the Kharkov-Azov and Voronezh-Rostov railroads.

Having constructed these railroads in ramshackle fashion using government-guaranteed bonds, this Polyakov remains the owner of the entire stock (also government-guaranteed) of both railroads, making him their true master […].

Along with Polyakov, his many relatives and masses of Jews came to the region and settled there, exploiting his protection for a variety of geschefts [funny business] and tricks at the locals’ expense, all while evading our every law restricting Jewish rights.”

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives fo the History of the Jewish People

Considering their modest background, the brothers Polyakov achieved a great deal. Samuil died young, leaving his family a substantial inheritance. Yakov and Lazar, however, lost most of their fortunes in Russia’s economic crisis at the turn of the 20th century. Yakov spent his final years in Biarritz until his death in 1909. His two daughters, who lived in his French residence after his death, perished in the Holocaust.

Special thanks to Olga Lempert for translating the diary entries from Russian to English. 

This post was originally published in Segula, The Jewish History Magazine, Issue 97, June 2018.

Love Songs From a Poet Who Was Banned From Publication

The poet Dorian, a doctor by profession, devoted his entire collection to his daughter and published it as his first book under the name "Poems to Lelioara," in 1923.

Emil Dorian with his wife Paula (nee Fränkel) and their daughters towards the end of the 1920s

In the framework of the routine catalog activity of the National Library, a special item was recently unearthed from the Collection of Jewish Romanian Intellectuals’ Private Papers. This item sheds new light on the literary activity of one of Romania’s Jewish poets and writers. The 1920’s notebook was used for drafting the first book of poems by the poet and novelist Emil Lustig, who published his works under the pseudonym “Dorian,” which became later his official family name. This archival material contains most of the poems that were published in Dorian’s first book.

Often it catches me a moment of miss
As I still was floating in soft dreams
And you stretched your wing just
To get down in tranquility to us.
I’d like to feel the thrill then
Of those cruel hopes
To be crushed by sorrow again
And to struggle in remorse.
And picking up an armful of stars
To love you more than bold,
Entering into my songs
As into a cradle of gold.
(Translated from Romanian by Shaul Greenstein)


Ades mă prinde un dor de clipă
Când mai pluteam în visuri moi
Şi tu de-abea’ntindeai aripa
Ca să cobori senin la noi.
Aş vrea să simt atunci fiorul
Acelei crunte aşteptări
Să mă zdrobească iarăşi dorul
Şi să mă zbat în remuşcări.
Şi culegând un braţ de stele
Ca să te’ndrăgostesc mai viu,
Să intri’n cântecele mele
Ca într’un legăn auriu.
(The three stanzas of the poem “Longings” by Emil Dorian)

The poet Dorian, a doctor by profession, expressed his longing for the birth of his eldest daughter, Lilia, whom he called Lelioara through the medium of poetry. Dorian devoted the entire collection to his daughter and published it as his first book under the name “Poems to Lelioara,” in 1923.

The poem collection “Poems to Lelioara” published as a book in 1923
The draft-manuscript of 1920 that is to find at the National Library Archives and which is a part of Collection of Jewish Romanian Intellectuals’ Private Papers.

Along with corrections, deletions and additional poems that have not yet been published, this manuscript of poems contains illustrations and poems dedicated to the poet’s wife, Paula. Dorian bridged his tendency to artistic writing and his delivery as a physician and also wrote books in a popular vulgar style on medicine and sexuality.

The poem “Longings” (on the left) from the draft manuscript “Poems for Lelioara”.

Young Dorian was drafted into the Romanian army during the First World War, but it was during World War II, at the time of the fascist reign of Marshal Antonescu, that his works were marked as Jewish works and were banned.

A page dedicated to his wife Paula from the draft-manuscript “Poems to Lelioara”.

Pages from the draft-manuscript “Poems to Lelioara.”
The poem “The Bathing” (on the left) in its non-final version of the collection “Poems to Lelioara” 1920. This song was published separately in the Romanian National newspaper “Gândirea” around its founding in 1921 

 As a poet, Dorian was once again launched to fame two and a half decades after his death in 1973 when two of his diaries were published. These diaries brought to light the Romanian Jewry’s confrontation with rising anti-Semitism from the late 1930s until Dorian’s death in 1956.