Lisbon’s Lost Jewish Library
In very modern Lisbon is an aging lost library. An unclaimed artifact from a fading era of persecution, chaos, sanctuary and, for the fortunate, freedom. This historical gem is safeguarded by Portugal’s only Ashkenazi synagogue, Ohel Jacob.
Like many orphans the Lisbon library is a child of accidental provenance. The consequence of the juggernauting vicissitudes of a Europe teetering on the edge of – and then plunging headlong into, the cataclysm that was World War II. Within this slender collection are mute witnesses forever welded to the mid-point of one of Europe’s most savagely destructive centuries.
The Setting: World War II & Lisbon – Espionage, Scheming & Freedom
Lisbon, late ’30’s to mid ’40’s ….a city inundated with beleaguered, traumatized refugees fleeing persecution amid the pall of conflicts blighting their homelands. They came to neutral Portugal. (Below photos are generics, and not Portugal)
To help set the mood, think of the film classic Casablanca. Yes? Lisbon was Casablanca, only all grown up and way past prom-night. Had Hollywood a finer grasp of world affairs that ‘Bogie’/Bergman classic might have been called …..’Lisbon’. Lisbon was Casablanca …on steroids, and aswarm with A-team shadowy intrigue. (Rumor holds that Ian Fleming had Lisbon in mind when creating ‘Bond, ….James Bond’). See FASCINATING SPIES side-bar, below.
Lured to Lisbon: As a neutral with a free open port, Lisbon was Intrigue-Central – a Republic of the Desperate awash with espionage – spies of double or triple stripes operating freely, alongside that peculiar assemblage who always seem present at the nexus of tragedy, fear, money and mayhem: the loosely-moraled and ethically-flexible…as in: con-artists, schemers, charlatans, adventurers, you get the idea. Add to this a swathe of (ex?) Euro-Royalty, plus the artistic clique, all packed couture-shoulder to threadbare sweater with untold scrambling refugees. At the cafes, fingering frozen coffees, looking and planning. In endless queues waiting for that clerks’ priceless 37-centavo stamp to somewhere else. All lured to Lisbon for a shot at freedom. All jockeying for that Holy Grail ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ visa to safer climes. And remember, as Ilsa boards that mist-shrouded plane*, it is to Lisbon and freedom that she bounds. *The ‘plane’ in what is arguably filmdom’s most watched airplane scene ever, was apparently a studio scaled-down replica of a Lockheed Electra 12A (or close to) with lots of obfuscating fog, among other Hollywood legerdemain, to shroud its ID. (We digress…).
“In 1940 Lisbon, happiness was staged so that God could believe it still existed,” “…wrote famous French writer (and future fighter pilot) Antoine de Saint-Exupery. ”
Sanctuary from the Spreading Plague. One of the few safe havens during WWII, Lisbon (Portugal) remained neutral for its duration, a reality that for untold desperate thousands offered glittering hope of freedom via its open European Atlantic port. (One estimate puts the number of refugees that fled Nazi Germany alone through neutral Lisbon at 100,000). Untold other foreign nationals also vied for escape.(There seems debate over the exact number of Jews who escaped at this time via Portugal. So, let’s side-bar that for now). Personally, I’m with NYU’s Marion Kaplan. Watch her great lecture “Lives in Limbo: Jewish Refugees in Portugal, 1940 – 45”
Back to Our Library
It is easy to imagine that, as many Jews fled, they packed what mattered most and whatever was easily transported. For many this meant books. People generally cherish books. And, in Judaism books enjoy a particular status, having been seen as precious and offering a link with the past while being a source of comfort, guidance and inspiration.
The quality of the Lisbon library books vary. Some are elaborately designed volumes with, in one case, gold trimmed pages or elaborately decorated interiors and covers.
Others are simple unadorned affairs, dog-eared, ….basic. Prized objects or not, its easy to see how so many were lost in the whirlwind quests of hunting for visas, passports, ship berths, plus the dozens of unknowns. Over time with refuges coming and fleeing the number of abandoned books grew steadily until, suddenly, there was a library! A library within the congregation of Ohel Jacob, a synagogue visited by untold numbers of those refugees arriving in, and then departing, Lisbon.
Ohel Jacob in Lisbon – Origins
That this library wasn’t lost amid the war’s turbulence is thanks to a community of Ashkenazi Jews*, mostly from Poland, who gathered, kept and preserved the collection. That small Lisbon Ashkenazi community eventually became Ohel Jacob.
*Initially this community was quite large (for Portuguese standards) with several hundreds of families.
Very briefly, following the Russian Revolution many Jews arrived in Portugal, and then later, fleeing Nazism, even more arrived. Some of this group created a youth organization (Hehaver, 1925) and then their own synagogue, Ohel Jacob (the ‘Tent of Jacob’) in 1934. The idea being to feel at home in an Ashkenazi synagogue.
It is claimed legendary Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of Chabad visited the synagogue in 1941 while in Lisbon.
The goal of Ohel Jacob was and remains to offer the kind of support and help the members of the community needed. That goal survives and motivates the activities of the congregation still. And, as Portugal’s only Ashkenazi synagogue, Ohel Jacob fosters an open, progressive environment where Jews of all origins (and even non Jews who share spiritual values) are welcome without distinction or qualification, especially Marranos (b’nei Anusim) the ‘sons of the forced.’
I learned of Ohel Jacobs’ amazing library while prepping for a trip to Lisbon. Something about it was inescapably mesmerizing. Where did these books come from? Who left them and what fates befell them? Did they find safe passage to Israel, or Brazil, or New York? Or, fade into the historical margins? A hopelessly inveterate news-type, the library pinged on my story radar like glints in a riverbed for an aging prospector. Hooked I quickly contacted Andre (Israel) Falcao who is president of the Ohel Jacob board.
Despite an unforgiving work schedule (he is both professor of computer science and chair of its department) and being an indefatigable congregation volunteer/proponent, Israel is generous with his time and energy. We made plans for a tour.
On a Quiet Lisbon Street
If you’re in Lisbon and visit Ohel Jacob you won’t be disappointed. But, don’t expect plaques at the door. None exist. It lives quietly on a nondescript urban street. A low-key affair atop a 3rd floor walk-up, operated on a shoe-string budget so anemic its DNA strains are visible. That said, the synagogue is a well-appointed, tranquil apartment bathed in muted grays and blues. Within are found the usual synagogue accouterments – the ark (Aron Kodesh) with Torahs. Even these are unique, with specimens easily the envy of any museum.
One, a blue Ashkenazi Torah, is 250 years old and finely decorated with mother of pearl and ivory engraving. Another is over 500 years old, and of Mizrahi origin, most probably from Iraq. They are wonders to behold.
The ark is in a room that can easily handle a minyan or two. (More if its raining). Further down a hallway, you wade into a soft pool of sunlight flooding a spacious meeting space, which itself abuts a kitchen whose aura and walls whisper of meals and minglings and Seders past.
Ohel Jacob is a perfectly normal synagogue catering to Lisbon’s small’ish progressive Jewish community. It is also one of the newest members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. So far all impressive and well, normal. But then you enter a place which belies the normalcy: A time capsule of a room whose back wall holds a 600-odd collection of old books (and sadly, book remnants) strangely at peace in very modern IKEA style bookcases.
A Scent of Time and History….
Open the mini-library doors and your first impact is olfactory. Nothing compares to the heady scent of old leathery books. It is a magical fragrance laced with intrigue and heritage and the earthy mustiness of history, and of the lives of others. Yet, barring some massive injection of TLC by a kind-hearted book restorer, government or benevolent university archives, some may soon….fade… away. Others seem in decent condition. For now.
They are mostly prayer books, with some history and Hebrew language primers. A songbok. They are from Germany, Poland, Russia, and Austria, and are in German and Hebrew with a sprinkling of Yiddish and Polish.
The collection is both a symbolic and tangible artifact of a transient slice of fading Lisbon history. A link to when those in flight left a part of their lives, their identities, behind. Deliberately or otherwise.
A Library of Marvels
Choosing one book allows us to glimpse at least one captivating identity: that of Annie Krieger. One of her set of books is the first ever (European?) prayer book edited by a woman, one Fann(y) Neuda! (9th edition, 1874) My trusty Samsung translation app says this book is for ‘young women and virgins‘?…)
From Annie Krieger to then US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a.k.a. ‘FDR’, here on the cover, and which may say (in Yiddish?), ‘The Paralyzed President’
Another book, a Chumash* is extraordinary simply by virtue of being printed in Changhai, China in 1939, by the Jewish Book Shop.The WWII-era Jewish presence in Changhai is a fascinating by-road of Jewish history and worth exploring. (See Sidebar Story, below). *(A Torah in printed & bound form – as opposed to a hand-written scroll form which is a Sefer Torah. Or, to use the Latinised Greek term, the Pentateuch
Other Books from the Lost Tribe Library
There are other volumes whose histories are mysteries. One book commemorates the 1937 bar-mitvah of Paul Max Hechinger, in a Munich synagogue.
Some years back a scholar who flew from Germany to study the library, researched Hechinger. (See below). She learned the synagogue was destroyed in 1938. Paul Max, she found, was arrested….yet somehow appears on a list of arriving ship passengers in New York City in 1941. There’s a related address: ‘121 East 52nd Street’. There, the trail ends. (I find myself wondering…’Did you make it, Paul Max? Have kids who’s own may some day find and cherish this’)?
There are many book-inscribed names…R. Rabinowitz (Optician), ‘Babette’ Koch, Ludwig Rapp, Hedwig Goldschnidt, Jacob Landau, Leo Frank, A. Kahn, Rabbiner Samuel Hager…Julius Rothstern (Ruthstern?) and on and on. Did they fare well?
Back to Ohel Jacob! In time Ohel Jacob found itself the steward of a very particular library. Israel says it was only recently (around 2017) that members recognized the unique nature of the library and began preservation efforts to care for and catalog the collection.
More Challenges: Beyond caring for the books Ohel Jacob also faces the task of trying to establish its early history – the identities of early members, records, documentation, perhaps even the names of past book owners.
The obstacle here is that over time many of those early members made aliyah (moved to Israel), taking congregation historical research with them! Today, apparently much of that material sits in boxes in Israel’s National Library. One can only imagine what access to this archival data – the historical gems, unknown tales or keys to forgotten intrigues, might reveal.
Some years back German scholar Anette Boeckler visited Lisbon to research the Lisbon library. A You Tube video documenting her meticulous efforts and results can be seen here. Boeckler’s efforts are a moving, highly emotive walk back in time to shed light on a few of those involved, and their probable fates. Go watch!
Beyond the Books
Beyond the books Ohel Jacob possesses a riveting cornucopia of historical curiosities.
One sombre example is a rare, burnt yet somehow saved Torah (above) a witness to the horrors of Kristallnacht. Its so real, so present, you’re tempted to lean over and smell for any traces of smoke. (You can’t …and I didn’t).
For anyone interested in Jewish or Portuguese history, adding Ohel Jacob to your Lisbon itinerary is a must-do and will prove rewarding. Slipping a few Euros or Shekels in the Tzedakah box while you’re there won’t hurt. Maybe help prevent those books from disappearing forever.
Enthralling Sidebar Stories
The Ship that Ferried Thousands – The Serpa Pinto
The Tale of Shanghai Jews
1 The Serpa Pinto (originally RMS Ebro) did journeymen duty during WWII ferrying huge numbers of refugees (probably more than any other vessel) to freedom.
Among its many Jewish passengers: Marcel Duchamp, Simone Weil, Pierre Dreyfus (son of Alfred!), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (a story in itself) Marc Rich among many others…
It Was a Dark & Stormy Sea” – The Serpa Pinto’s voyages were not without hair-raising incidents: Often stopped by both Allied and Axis power ships for inspections, in May 1944 she was stopped mid-ocean by a U-Boat (U-541) and the crew and passengers told to abandon ship.
In what may seem an oddly polite event, our U-Boat captain radioed Germany for permission to torpedo her, but after waiting all night for an answer, (spent with everyone bobbing about in lifeboats) Kriegsmarine admiral Karl Dönitz refused the request. Spared, the ship sailed on — minus 3 who drowned overnight and, add conspiracy theory…. here, not before two ‘US military-aged’ passengers were unceremoniously dragged from the ship, stuffed into the U-boat and.. disappeared. As is said in Cheese & War … “C’est la Guerre/Gruyère”….
2 The Extraordinary Tale of Shanghai Jews: In the ’30’s as the rest of the world turned a blind eye to the plight of WW-era Jewish and basically all refugees, and closed borders, China bucked the trend. It was one of the very very few places that became an oasis for Jews, allowing in refugees, no visa needed! This is an absolutely fascinating chapter of history, general or Jewish. And needs cinematic treatment, no? (E-mail if you want to co-write the screenplay. We’ll talk).
With no visa requirements and thanks to the presence of a supposed comfortable class of Iraqi Jews (with British citizenship and apparently long extant in China?), a support system of sorts existed to help the arriving Jewish refugees. One alumni of that era (1939) was a 13-year old W. Michael Blumenthal, later to be US President Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury. Interested? Have a click to see the Brooklyn Museum’s Jewish Refugees in Shanghai exhibition.
Fascinating Footnotes: Spies, Double, Triple…
Both Ian Fleming and Graham Green were British spies who lived for a time in wartime Lisbon and then penned novels about those experiences. Fleming gave us ‘Casino Royale’ whose main character (some ‘Bond’ guy) is purportedly based on the very real, very daring sangfroid exploits of Yugoslav spy Dusko Popov (a.k.a. “Tricycle” ….he ran a network of triple agents).
Not to be outdone, Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana’ features ‘Wormold’, …a character supposedly based on famous Uber-double agent ‘Garbo’ – he of ‘fake allied (D-day) Normandy invasion plans’ fobbed to the Germans’ fame, etc). Garbo’s real name was Juan Pujol García. Just HOW good was Garbo? Well, on Hitler’s say-so Garcia (as the German spy ‘Alaric‘) won an Iron Cross (a rather unique feat as the medal was usually only given to front-line fighters). Then, in 1944, Britain’s King George VI bestowed an MBE on Garbo. (….Still think your resume is hot stuff)?
Select Great Reads on WWII Lisbon
The Night in Lisbon (Erich Maria Remarque)
Spy/Counterspy” – Dusko Popov
A Small Death in Lisbon (R. Wilson) – Gives all the scintillating wartime details, history and even the Nazi-gold-for-Tungsten story via compelling crime novel.
Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45 – N. Lochery
Estoril – Dejan Tiago-Stankovic
That’s all I got. If you’ve read this far, a huge vote of thanks from me. And feel free to send this to those you think might appreciate it!
Your feedback – and or story ideas, are more than welcomed!
Finally, Ohel Jacob: For those interested in Jewish or Portuguese history, war or history generally, adding Ohel Jacob to your Lisbon itinerary is a must-do. Maybe slip a few Euros or shekels in the Tzedakah box while you’re there. Maybe help keep those books from disappearing altogether.
Ohel Jacob, here.
To learn more about the history of Lisbon’s Ohel Jacob, see below.
Further Research – Ohel Jacob https://hehaver-oheljacob.org/en/welcome-to-ohel-jacob-synagogue/
FILM: Jews & Marranos in Belmont -The fascinating history and tale! http://www.jewishwikipedia.info/belmonte.html
The Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe (Lisbon.Portugal)
Some years back German scholar Anette Boeckler flew to Lisbon to research and investigate the Lisbon Library. The video documenting her meticulous efforts can be seen BELOW. It is a moving, highly emotive walk back in time that sheds light on a few of those involved, and their probably fates. Go watch! Lost library