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Rescuing History: The Journey of Wurzburg’s Illuminated Machzorim

Discover the harrowing tale behind two treasured prayer books from medieval Germany

By The National Library of Israel

Published Apr 26, 2023

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Collection

This Curation is part of Combating Antisemitism.

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When the Jewish community of Wurzburg, Germany was destroyed by a mob massacre in 1298, Jewish refugees fled with two enormous handwritten parchment machzorim (High Holiday prayer books). They contained not only the texts of the prayers but also boldly colored illuminations and dramatic images.

The first volume contains the earliest known example of written Yiddish. In one of the handwritten Yiddish notes inside the machzor, the scribe offers a simple blessing, “Gut taq im betage se vaer dis mahsor in beith hakenses trage” (Let a good day shine for he who carries this machzor to the synagogue).

Some of the Wurzburg refugees settled in the city of Worms, and the eponymous “Worms Mahzor” became a symbol of the community’s identity and a source for its liturgy for hundreds of years. After centuries of continual use, the machzorim were almost stolen during Kristallnacht in November 1938. The city archivist, Dr. Friedrich Illert, at great risk to his own life, smuggled the books out of the Gestapo offices and hid them in the local cathedral, where they remained safe until after the war.

In 1957, the city agreed to return them to the Jewish people and have them preserved at the National Library of Israel.

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Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) holds the collective memory of Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths and the Jewish people worldwide. While continuing to serve as Israel's preeminent research library, over the past decade NLI has embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal to encourage...

Reflections

Click here to visit the exhibition resource page to learn more and to browse accompanying lesson plans, webinars, and videos, about the treasures in this exhibition.

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