Saturday, January 23, 2021 -
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Sukkot in WW I-era Russia

By Chen Malul, National Library of Israel

Ditches at the entrances to all of the homes. Opened roofs. The year 1916 appears under the photograph featured on an aged postcard.

The setting: Seppl Alley, a Jewish street in Ivanovo — known as “Yanov” in Yiddish — a town then in the Russian Empire, near Pinsk in modern day Belarus.

Sukkot in Ivanovo in 1916. (Folklore Research Center/Hebrew U/National Library of Israel

The photo was taken during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, two years into the Great War.

Two elements stand out in particular: the houses’ opened roofs and rectangular ditches in front of every home.

The roofs can be rather clearly understood.

When the Jews of Ivanovo built their homes, they included a distinctly Jewish element found in many communities: roofs that opened up. When the holiday of Sukkot came every year, they would open up the roof, lay the traditional s’chach (covering for the sukkah made of natural materials) and live in their sukkah in accordance with Jewish law without having to leave the warmth and protection of their homes.

It was October in Russia, after all.

The ditches in front of the homes seem a bit more mysterious, though given the historical context it becomes clear that they are actually protective trenches, dug to safeguard the town’s residents from gunfire, a danger during this time of war.

The image is part of a series of photographs — one of which is pictured above — taken by the Austrians as they advanced into Russian-held territory during that particular stage of the war.

The photographer almost certainly had no idea what he was looking at and was likely confused by the locals opening their roofs in the middle of the chilly Eastern European autumn.

The postcard was published by “Verlag für allgemeines Wissen” (“Publisher of General Knowledge”), which distributed various images of the areas occupied by the Central Powers, particularly in Eastern Europe.

It was part of the larger wartime propaganda effort.

The rare photo was captured by an unknown Austrian soldier, perhaps providing the only surviving evidence of what Sukkot was like in Ivanovo in 1916.

Thousands of other soldiers on both sides carried private cameras into battle with them throughout WW I. Some of the photos they took were kept in private hands, and others were published in unit books or commemorative pamphlets.

Some found their way onto the auction block or into public collections, while others were featured on postcards, sold for pennies in markets and shops across Europe.

While the experiences of life during that cold Sukkot over a century ago will remain in the realm of the unknown, the residents of Seppl Alley certainly tried — despite the circumstances — to fulfill the ancient commandment to “rejoice in your feasts” during the festival of Sukkot.

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