For most contemporary Jews, the image of a Memory Book (Yizker-bikher or Memorbuch), is of the type compiled in recent decades following the destruction of Jewish Communities in the Shoah. Survivors and descendants of hundreds of cities, towns and villages have pooled their memories, family photos, and resources to compile and publish accounts of their lost loved ones, and the world in which they lived. This tradition has been especially important for Jewish communities wishing to memorialize their dead after pogroms and persecutions, at times when bodies could not be properly recovered, buried and marked, or when Jews were expelled from communities and were forced to leave their cemeteries behind, untended and unrecorded. One aspect of modern Jewish genealogy – the recording of names in cemeteries, has its origins in this tradition.
The compilation of memorial books goes back at least until the Middle Ages, when the custom of reading names developed after the massacres of the Rhine communities during the First Crusade; to this were added the names of the victims of other catastrophes. During the persecution the followed the Black Death (1348-49) mostly place names were included, as the numbers and names of individuals killed were to numerous and uncertain to be listed fully. As a record of Jewish tribulation the memorbuch constitutes of special type of Jewish history writing. In the words of historian Yosif Hayim Yerushalmi "Yet although memorbücher may contain important historical information, they cannot be regarded as historiography. Typically, their major purpose was to preserve the names of those for whose souls communal prayers were to be offered in the house of worship." (Zakhor, p. 46). It became customary to read off the list of names in a ceremony on the sabbath before Shavuot (when the first Crusade massacres took place). The reading from the memorbuch was considered obligatory in many German Jewish communities. Over time additional catastrophes were included in memorbücher, and local variants developed – including lists of local personages. For this reason perhaps, memorbücher were kept in manuscript form – not as printed books.
In 1998, one of the most complete Jewish memorial books was rediscovered by a second-hand book dealer when clearing the apartment of a couple who moved into a home for older people. The book dealer is located in the Bavarian (Germany) town of Fürth, once a thriving Jewish center (among the contemporary Jewish notables who trace their ancestry to the town are former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the father of the popular singer-songwriter Billy Joel). This book, brought to Fürth from Vienna in 1670 was updated until 1932. When the synagogue of Fürth was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 the manuscript was thought to have been destroyed. Now, it will reside in the Jüdisches Museum Franken in Fürth.
In 1624, The Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II ordered the creation of a ghetto in Vienna, the so-called "Judenstadt am unteren Werd" (Jewish town by the Lower Werd). Several years later the Memorial Book of the Klaus Synagogue of Fürth was begun at one of the synagogues in the ghetto. It contains the prayers that are read from the pulpit and continuous entries dedicated to deceased members of the congregation. When Emperor Leopold I ordered the expulsion of the Jews form Vienna in 1670 the Fränkel family brought the manuscript with them to Fürth.
Bärmann Fränkel (born before 1670) served as the Chief Rabbi of the principality of Ansbach and officiated at the synagogues of Schnaittach (now a museum) and Fürth, where he founded the Klaus Synagogue in 1708 and where he deposited the memorial book.
The book can now be seen on view at the Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Wien (Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna) until March 7, 1999 in an exhibition organized by the Jewish Museums of Fürth and Schnaittach. The exhibition, with the manuscript at it center, provides a look at the 365 year history of the book and the historical circumstances in which it was created, used, lost and recovered. On July 15, 1999, it will be on display at the Jewish Museum Franconia in Fürth (after its inauguration on July 15, 1999.
The Jüdisches Museum Franken has published an illustrated 60-page catalogue (Bernhard Purin, ed.: Buch der Erinnerung. Das Wiener Memorbuch der Fürther Klaus-Synagoge, Fürth 1999) which is available in their Museum (Nürnberger Straße 3, D-90762 Fürth).
The Jüdisches Museum der Stadt
Wien is loated at Dorotheergasse 11, Wien 1, Austria (display until March 7,
1999). For more information call 43/1/535 04 31 or fax 43/1/535/ 04 24/
International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA
tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347