Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Tishrei 5764 - October 8, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Tracing the Haunted Ruins of Europe -- A Journey from Italy to Holland

by E. Ehrentrau

Part I

HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, also known as the Ponevezher Rov, embarked on many journeys to strengthen Torah study in Eretz Hakodesh at his Yeshivas Ponevezh in Bnei Brak. The Ponevezher Rov often set out for various lands around the world, accompanied by his loyal companion, Dr. Moshe Rothschild, today director of Mayanei Hayeshua Hospital.

On one of these journeys they spent a period of time in Rome, where HaRav Kahaneman gave shiurim at Yeshivas Shearis Hapleitoh, founded after the Holocaust. One morning HaRav Kahaneman asked Dr. Rothschild to drive him to the famous Arch of Titus. Stepping out of the car the Ponevezher Rav stood opposite the gate eyeing it with contempt and spat at it. "Titus, Titus," he said. "You thought you would destroy the Beis Hamikdosh and defeat Am Yisroel! That you would take the holy implements to Rome and leave us, bnei Yisroel, with nothing. What remains of you, Titus? Not a single remnant. We were victorious. We can be found everywhere, sitting and learning Torah in every corner. Titus, Titus -- we won!"

Last summer, in the shadow of the days of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh by Titus, we set out on a journey in search of the past -- the Arch of Titus, Rashi's hometown of Worms and other destinations. We found a lot of water, but no Jews. From Venice to Amsterdam, a voyage into the past.


Rome -- The first Jewish kehilloh on the European continent, begun well before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions just around 2,000 years ago. To this day ancient Jewish cemeteries, among the oldest in all of Europe, have been preserved.

Rome -- A city mentioned in the Talmud many times. Many chachmei Yisroel passed through its gates.

Rome -- A reminder of the Destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish sovereignty. Titus' Arch of Triumph stands in the heart of the Old City, its walls depicting the captives of Judea carrying the menorah and the other holy vessels from the Beis Hamikdosh on their shoulders.

Rome -- The city where Jews have lived almost continuously for much more than 2,000 years, suffering varying types of persecution, decrees and calamities.

Rome -- The city where this voyage began, with a large load of luggage and a large load of history.

The first Jews in Rome settled on the right bank of the Tiber River, which flows through the center of the city.

The Jews of Rome suffered numerous hardships at the hands of the various Caesars and popes. Nor did the Nazis overlook them here. They surrounded the streets of Rome's Jewish Quarter, murdering 2,000 men, women and children in one day. All of them were loaded onto trucks and transported to an unknown location.

The historical record of the Jews of Rome was enriched in recent years after an archaeological dig uncovered an impressive, ancient beis knesses located in the Austia Quarter.

Austia was founded in Rome's earliest period and served as a port city for the Roman Empire's imports and exports. Until recent times it was unclear whether Austia ever had a Jewish community, but after repeated excavations archaeologists discovered the remnants of a beis knesses on the western edge of the city.

A walk among the antiquities of Austia is fascinating. In silence we walked among the remnants of the ancient city. One can discern streets, residences, amphitheaters, bathhouses, etc. After about an hour-and-a-half of hiking through the large city we arrived at the site of the beis knesses.

The few surviving remains show the beis knesses had a large main hall with columns on both sides of the aron hakodesh. Nearby are the remains of a baking oven, apparently used for preparing matzoh.

Once there were Jews here, and now they are no more. Only stone ruins remain, the ruins of a kehilloh. Jews who come upon the site from time to time after many long years see it and sigh. This, too, is a way of touching what was once here. Deeply moved, we left Austia and its antiquities.

The Infamous Coliseum

Upon arriving at the large square outside the Coliseum we wondered for a moment whether we had traveled back 2,000 years in time. Before us were several people dressed in ancient Roman attire: long red robes, sandals tied with leather straps twisting up to their knees, golden hats with feathers tucked in at a slant and of course drawn swords in hand. Only the postcard seller offering his wares to every passerby for 3 euros reminded us we were in the age of the euro and not Caesar.

To our left was the mound where the Coliseum once stood, a reminder of the atrocities of Roman "culture." Here in these box seats, thousands of citizens sat and watched horrific sights of the Judeans and other peoples disliked by the Romans fighting wild animals. Here, they leisurely watched lions and bears descend upon the Judean captives and tear their flesh to pieces. The earth is soaked with their blood. Although it has long since dried up, in the Jewish consciousness the victims continue to bleed.

For the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit every year, this is just another archaeological site. For us it is another museum of human iniquity, of Eisov's hatred for Yaakov.

From this dreadful place of cruelty we walked up the street to the victory arch built by Titus, who burned down the Beis Hamikdosh and took our brethren into captivity until a mosquito came and ate away at his brains. And now, 2,000 years later we stand before the gate built in honor of Titus the rosho, who vanquished and razed Yerushalayim - - testament to the piercing historical truth that after 2,000 years of golus, Am Yisroel lives on!

The Arch of Titus is built entirely of artistic engraved stone. The left side of the gate clearly shows a carving of the Judean captives on the march, carrying the menorah from the Temple. This artwork is so realistic that visitors with historical sensibilities can see our Jewish brethren being led toward the cruelty and wickedness of the Roman Exile. To the right the Caesar appears on horseback surrounded by his soldiers. The Arch of Titus depicts the mighty and the weak-side by side. The victory of the material over the spiritual.

The conclusion of our visit in Rome also left us with a strong impression of life in Rome today. We met the Chief Rabbi of Rome, HaRav Shmuel Medisseni, who received us graciously and proceeded to tell us about the small kehilloh in Rome today, about its educational institutions and about problems that arise on a daily basis.

Following our conversation we stepped into the magnificent beis knesses, which rises to a height of 25 feet! The aron kodesh is unique in its carvings and design. The walls bear illustrations in uniform shades of beige, gold and light green, and irregular patterns. There are three large women's galleries, unique lights and even the prayer benches are made of carved wood. The 99- year-old beis knesses has room for thousands of congregants. Today minyanim are held every Shabbos with a larger turnout for the chagim.

During the Holocaust the beis knesses was almost unharmed and it has been protected and repaired from water damage following several occasions when the nearby Tiber River overflowed its banks. Once there were thousands of Jews here who embroidered the paroches and carved the amudim and built the raised chazan's platform surrounded by railings (following the tradition of Italian Jewry). Where are they now? History seems to have swallowed them whole leaving only a handful of living survivors. Perhaps they can still return the place to its former glory. We left the beis knesses charged with a feeling of zeh Keili ve'anveihu, but our hearts were also sad at the thought this beis knesses is not packed from wall to wall all year long.

Behind the beis knesses is a remnant of the Jewish ghetto: a street with Jewish-owned stores selling kosher food and meat.


Before entering Florence (or Firenze) we stopped at an observation point overlooking the entire city and the Arno River that flows through it. The most conspicuous elements in the panorama we took in were the domes of the richest, most splendid beis knesses in all of Europe.

Florence has a small, reputable kehilloh that underwent the horrors of World War II, leaving few survivors. In recent years Jewish community life has diminished drastically and has been almost entirely forgotten. Only the tragic flooding that struck the city 40 years ago, harming the fabulous beis knesses, drew attention to the special status of this kehilloh.

The beis knesses was built in 1882. During the War, the Nazis-- may their names be blotted out--rounded up all the Jews inside the beis knesses before placing them on trains bound for the concentration camps. Seeking to wreak as much damage to the Jewish community as possible, the Germans planted a bomb that destroyed much of the interior, but the aron kodesh remained intact.

As we stepped inside we were struck by its beauty and it became immediately clear why the Nazis plotted to destroy it. The beis knesses makes a powerful impression with its wealth, vast dimensions and wall paintings. The ceiling reaches up three floors and is built in the shape of a dome filled with eye-catching ornamentation.

Every detail of the beis knesses is a work of art. Every column, every window, every wall lamp, every peripheral item. Everything was carefully fixed and renovated after the destruction the Nazis wrought. Not only was top artistic skill devoted to the task, but heart and soul are apparent in the work as well, beautifying Beis Elokeinu. All of the eight-and-a-half years spent rebuilding the place were to glorify and elevate this mikdosh me'at.

Next we went to the Jewish ghetto, from which 248 Florentine Jews were sent to the concentration camps. Today Florence has very few Jews and the few who do live here send their children to cities with proper Jewish schools. This, too, is an abandoned station for Diaspora Jewry.

Abandoned, but not quite empty, for its open passageways are filled with memories. They linger about, clinging to visitors, refusing to fade. We continued to walk through Florence's long, narrow streets and crossed many squares that symbolize the structure of the city. During our walking tour we stopped to hear explanations from the guide about the unique features of many of the buildings we saw.


Venice is a unique coastal city built on 811 small islands. The foundations of the houses are set deep into the seawater and the picturesque bridges arching over the canals connect the houses to one another. Gondolas are used to travel through the canals. While floating from one isle to the next the sight that meets the eye is water, water and more water.

One of the great baalei teshuvoh of the previous generation, the late Dr. Nosson Birnbaum, would recount how water set him on the path of return after he had already run the gambit of all of the political parties and the cursed Haskalah. While returning from a lecture tour in the US on a passenger ship bound for Europe, one day he stood on the deck, gazing at the endless clear blue sky above and the endless water surrounding the ship on all sides, when he was suddenly seized by a powerful feeling of how he was merely a little man alone on the deck of a little ship facing the endlessness of Creation. He began to feel exceedingly small compared to the greatness of HaKodosh Boruch Hu's Creation, instilling him with hirhurei teshuvoh that eventually brought him to the path of Torah.

Venice has a special place in Jewish history, for it was the first to close off the Jewish residents in a sequestered quarter that was called a ghetto in Italian. This was the first ghetto to be called by that name in 1516. The Jewish neighborhood was set up near a cannon foundry called Getto (pronounced JET-TO). At first the policy was not discriminatory, but rather a way for the authorities to separate various minority groups. Later the term assumed a more disparaging connotation when it was used to oppress Jews.

A narrow street called Via del Ghetto leads to Venice's ancient Jewish ghetto. Outside the entrance is a tiny bridge and, based on the writing on the wall we learn there is also a newer ghetto called Ghetto Nuovo. The damp smell of history wafts through the air here. This was discrimination in its extreme form. Here the Jews came to know suffering. In these narrow streets and at the central piazza, although their bodies are gone their spirits remained--the spirit of the past.

Via the narrow passageways we were walking down, some 100 Jews kept captive in a retirement home were sent to the quarantine camp outside the city of Modena and then on to Germany. Nobody knows what became of them. Only the Jewish retirement home, located in the ghetto's main square, remains. The walls of the building bear plaques memorializing Holocaust victims.

As we march along toward the main square the houses with their peeling plaster look like heaps of stone ready to collapse from old age. We have to strain our imaginations to picture a time when this place was brimming with rich, vibrant Jewish communal life.

Today there are just 30 families living in Europe's first Jewish ghetto. The rest of the city's Jewish population is scattered in other parts of the city and in new neighborhoods.

From the outside, the botei knesses appear commonplace, but once inside we saw their beauty and splendor. The Ashkenazi beis knesses is the oldest in Venice. Built five hundred years ago it is housed on the sixth floor of the building to the left of the Jewish museum. Over the years it has been renovated four times. The Italian beis knesses was built about fifty years later. Its congregants were not well-heeled, which is manifest in its simplicity.

The Sephardic beis knesses is located inside a four- story building in the middle of the Jewish Quarter. Inside, the ornamentation is very rich. Three large chandeliers hang down from the carved wooden ceiling, in addition to dozens of other smaller chandeliers once filled with oil and lit . . . until they were extinguished one day.

Another very old beis knesses, Scolla Cantoni, was attended by Western European Jews from Switzerland, Germany and France. Golden hues predominate here; the engravings are gilded with real gold that catches the eye. The shifting ground of Venice's islands caused the bimoh to sink, so when the beis knesses was rebuilt, the bimoh was moved to the back in accordance with the Italian custom, closer to the foundations. There the ground was more stable and could bear more weight.

The inspiring ornamentation in the botei knesses combines various different artistic styles. The aronos kodesh are very unique, resembling the aron kodesh at Yeshivas Ponovezh in Bnei Brak, which itself originally stood in Mantua, Italy. Yet despite all this splendor the prayer benches merely collect dust. Not a trace remains of those who donated the fabulous aronos, those who embroidered the paroches, those who painted the wall paintings and wrote the verses on the walls. Where is the shamosh who lit the ner tomid and the oil chandeliers? Where are the Jews who poured out their prayers at the ornamented omud? What remains is a hollow cavity, a display case of memories. The smell of history hangs in the air among the benches and wood carvings, dusty stairs and speaker's podium in Italy's botei knesses.

We took a gondola through the canals to the ancient Jewish cemetery on the island of Lido. The Sephardic gravestones bearing a family crest and the simple Ashkenazic gravestones are mute testimony to the large kehilloh that was once here. The graves of cohanim are easily discerned for the gravestones are marked, "Nesias Kapayim," while the gravestones of levi'im show the image of a hand pouring water from a vessel.

In this cemetery lies Rabbenu Azariyoh Figo, the rov of Venice, who was widely known in the Torah world for his book, Gidulei Terumoh. An outstanding talmid chochom, he was a pillar of halochoh and horo'oh in his generation and a giant among Jewish thinkers. His book, Binoh LeItim, represents one of the cornerstones of Jewish thought.

We gazed in silence at the stillness enveloping the cemetery. Some of the gravestones are leaning, some are broken, some lie flat and are almost illegible. The sea facing the cemetery remains silent, too. This quiet reminds us of the fabulous kehilloh that once was and is no more . . . The sea, lapping almost up to the entrance to the cemetery, is silent as well.

Afterwards we returned to the present-day life of Piazza San Marco, which is surrounded by the large buildings housing the immense municipal library, the Palace of Justice, the Museum of Archaeology and the courthouse. The square is filled with thousands of pigeons. We took out bags of seeds and tried to feed them. Alighting on us they ate one seed after another, finished quickly and flew away. Nimsholim Yisroel leyonim. The Jews of Venice also spread their wings and flew away.

While crossing the Ponte Rialto we were reminded that the Jews crossed here, never to return. For them this bridge was a one-way street. Now we were using it to reach Il Canal Grande, the Jews' point of departure for the unknown.

The narrow streets parallel to the large canal are filled with the tumult of nonstop commerce. Lace-work and fabric from the island of Burano are sold here. At the large Morrano glass factory we saw how beautiful glassware is formed from blazing hot glass. Prices are high, but tourists can be counted on to open their purse strings to purchase a unique memento. The King of Morocco buys much more than a few mementos from them, the factory owner tells us.

We left Venice at sunset. The giant orb descends into the sea much like Venetian Jewry descended deep, deep into the waters of history, a kehilloh that sank into the canals and vanished.


We made our way from Italy to Switzerland overland, driving on the roads that climb over the mountaintops. We traversed the snow-capped peaks of the San Bernardino mountains, catching views of snow-fed waterfalls of various sizes that fit perfectly Dovid Hamelech's description in Tehillim: "Hameshalei'ach ma'ayonim banecholim bein horim yehaleichun." Every waterfall was breathtaking.

There were also big, lovely lakes, various shades of verdant green vegetation, glimpses of small villages and even isolated houses tucked in among the mountains, grazing cows, calm and tranquility-- the wonders of the Creator in every color of the rainbow!

Precisely as the Rambam writes: "What is the path to love and fear of Hashem? When man contemplates His works and His wondrous creations he immediately loves and praises and glorifies the Great Name and as a result he recognizes 'He Who spoke and the world came to be . . . '"

Ever so often we passed through long tunnels through the mountainsides. The longest of these tunnels was 6.6 km (4 miles) long! After a long drive on roads and over bridges around noon we arrived in a town call Chur. The bus dropped us off at the train station, where we caught a mountain train toward the vacation town of Aruza.

The train ride, lasting less than an hour, was quite an experience. The train wound slowly through the mountains and towns, screeching on the bends in the tracks, and traversed tall bridges with tremendous drop-offs overlooking waterfalls and rivers. Occasionally we caught sight of little wooden cabins dotting the mountainsides, cows meandering through the meadows and every shade of green continuing endlessly. We could even make out the Alps, with misty clouds resting on the peaks. The countryside was absolutely breathtaking.

The beautiful ride ended with our arrival at the train station in Aruza. The train station lies opposite a large, pretty lake called Uvarza. Sailboats sail on the lake and the Alps surround it. A short ride on a local bus (which serves the public at no cost) brought us to a well-known Jewish hotel called the Metropol, where many admorim vacation during the summer. On the slope behind the hotel is Lake Unterza, a small body of water surrounded by forests, wooden cabins and the Alps.

The mountain air brought us a neshomoh yeseiroh. In such a place, even the regular neshomoh breathes in a certain something more elevated. And now, as the Shabbos Queen spread its wings over us, the neshomoh yeseiroh settled in on its own, raising us to a higher plane.

On Shabbos afternoon we set out for a walk in a forest full of squirrels, following a well-beaten path on Mount Weisshorn, which begins in a forest full of tall, erect fir trees. Little squirrels scamper about in search of promenaders to feed them. As we continued along the path leading up the mountainside, streams and little waterfalls appeared.

The more we ascended the more spectacular the view became. The houses of Aruza lay below, the Alps before us. The whole countryside was green and blooming. The lakes were full of water and the sun came out from time to time, warming our uplifted hearts, which had not finished praising Borei Olom for the world He made for us. As we had said that morning, " . . . Shekein chovas kol hayetzurim . . . lehodos, lehaleil, leshabei'ach, lefo'eir . . . "

As we continued our climb we saw scattered wooden cabins, some of them used as homes and others for vacationers, and cows ambling along in the endless pastures, bells ringing on their necks. Everything was so picturesque that one member of our group quoted Chazal's famous remark, "Ein tzayar ke'Elokeinu" ("No painter can match our G- d").

After Shabbos we began the second half of our trip with a cablecar ride up to the summit of Mount Weisshorn. We stepped into a large gondola and, in typical Swiss fashion, it set out at precisely the time indicated on the schedule. Halfway up the mountain we switched to a different gondola that took us up to the top.

During the ride we enjoyed a fabulous view encompassing the town of Aruza with the lakes, mountains and vegetation surrounding it. Seeing this picturesque panorama while hanging on a cable at such a height was spectacular, bringing to mind the verse, "Ki kegovah shomayim al ho'oretz govar chasdo al yerei'ov. (Tehillim 103:11)"

At the top of the 3,562-meter (11,686-foot) mountain the temperature was 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit). From the heights of Mount Weisshorn the spectacular Swiss mountains could be seen in almost every direction. The clouds were almost even with us and shades of green burst forth from every possible direction.

In the Alpine air one got a clear sense of Yeshayohu's words, "Se'u morom eineichem ure'u, Mi boro eileh. (Yeshayohu 4:26)" We were also reminded of Maran HaRav Shach's famous talk in which he said when seeing the beauty of Creation nobody can deny that HaKodosh Boruch Hu created it. "Se'u morom eineichem"--see the sun, the wonders of Creation. How could one not be a believer?

The train took us back through the mountains and boulders, through the vegetation and the waterfalls to the town of Chur. From there we traveled through Switzerland's beautiful countryside to the vacation and spa town of Bad-Ragetz, a big, beautiful city filled with gardens and small houses, huge lakes and a breathtaking view in all directions.

We traveled past large boulders with streams flowing beneath them until we reached a tourist site called Temina-Shlucht, an enormous high-vaulted cavern built of huge clefts where no sunlight penetrates. There are also a few smaller crevices that allow a bit of sunlight to enter. Inside the cave is a walking platform with a stream flowing among the rocks beneath the boards. The air inside the cave and the interior walls are both cool and damp. Walking among the crevices was an interesting experience, making us feel as if we were on another planet.

From the town of Bad-Ragetz we traveled to Lucerne, which is one of the prettiest cities in Switzerland. Along the way we saw numerous lakes, rivers and waterfalls, which typify the Swiss landscape in every part of the country. In Lucerne we stepped off the bus beside the large Lake Lucerne. The area is full of tourists with many rowboats floating on the lake and swans and ducks quacking away in the water. We crossed the lake on Chapel Bridge, a lovely wooden bridge decorated with flowerboxes along the sides and oil paintings on the ceiling overhead to add to Pedestrian's pleasure.

After a short walk in the streets of Lucerne we arrived at the area where the Jewish ghetto was once located, now lined with houses and stores. Afterwards we went to see the well- known statue of the Dying Lion. Our stay in Switzerland concluded with a stop in Zurich.

We crossed into Germany at a border town called Shpahouzen. The waterfalls of the mighty Rhine River symbolize the serenity of Switzerland on one side. The feeling of calmness created by the flowing water defies description. Yet the powerful flow of the water also resembles the country beyond the waterfalls, Germany, whose strength and mighty hand brought much suffering upon our Jewish brethren. The powerful flow of the water was a striking sight. We simply stood there and gazed at the wonders of nature!

End of Part I


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