Death In Venice - seeking the Katzenellenbogen tombstones

Death In Venice - seeking the Katzenellenbogen tombstones

(Chaim Freedman, July 2008.)

Having recently discovered my descent from the Katzenellenbogen family, I decided to trace the graves of members of the early generations while I was in Italy (May 2008).

My wife and I were staying in Venice for a week in a conveniently located Pension in the Ghetto Nuovo, the oldest part of the Ghetto which was founded in 1516. We visited the adjacent Jewish museum and I asked one of the curators, Daniela, whether she knew of Katzenellenbogens who might be buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Venice located on the Lido Island. Daniela looked up several books which were in the museum library and which included lists of the burials in the Lido cemetery. There were no Katzenellenbogens, neither listed under that surname, nor were any of the deceased who were listed without surname, of suitable personal names.

I was aware that the two Katzenellenbogens who had held the official position of Rabbi of Venice were buried in Padua, but it was not clear where the wife of one of them was buried and so I suspected that she might be buried in Venice. It turned out that I was wrong.

The earliest member of the family to be known by the surname Katzenellenbogen was Rabbi Meir the son of Yitskhak. His family apparently came from the small village overlooking the Rhine called Katzenellenbogen. Meir’s father Yitskhak moved to Padua in Italy, a rich centre of Jewish and secular scholarship. Yitskhak wife was believed by many rabbinic genealogists to have been a daughter of Yekhiel Luria (died 1470), whose family held a tradition of descent from Rashi (1040-1105), himself a reputed descendant of King David.

Meir Katzenellenbogen was born in Germany in 1482 and was known by an acrostic of his name as the “Maharam Padua”. His wife Khanah was a daughter of Rabbi Avraham Mintz, a son of Rabbi Yehudah ben Eliezer Halevy Mintz (c.1405-1508). The Mintz family came from Maintz, Germany and Rabbi Yehudah established the Yeshiva in Padua which was attended by prominent scholars. On his death his son Rabbi Avraham succeeded as Head of the Yeshivah and Rabbi of Padua. On Avraham’s death in about 1535[1] his son-in-law Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen became rabbi both of Padua and Venice. He lived in Padua and only visited Venice periodically.

On the death of the Maharam Padua in 1565, his son Rabbi Shmuel-Yehudah became Rabbi of Venice where he resided. His wife’s name was Avigayil (her father’s name is not known) and she died in 1594 in Venice, followed by Rabbi Shmuel-Yehudah in 1597, also in Venice. However Rabbi Shmuel-Yehudah was taken to Padua for burial next to his father and mother.

According to Rosenstein[2] “Over the centuries, the tombstone of the Maharam began to crumble being made of soft stone, and its inscription was becoming illegible, so that in 1966, four hundred years after his death, the community of Padua replaced the tombstone with a new one in the original site. The old stone now stands in the new cemetery of Padua. This was witnessed by the present writer on a visit to Padua in 1968.” *

During my vacation in Italy I was anxious to visit the Katzenellenbogen graves, both out of sentiment for my ancient ancestors (I am an 18th generation descendant of the Maharam Padua through the Vilna Gaon) but also to ascertain the burial place of Avigayil and perhaps her father’s name which I expected to appear on the inscription on her tombstone.

Padua has several old cemeteries and I consulted the Jewishgen’s International Cemetery project to determine which housed the Katzenellenbogen tombstones. This indicated that there were two ancient cemeteries. So I consulted a site for Jewish Padua

which stated that “The Jewish cemeteries in the city make a separate itinerary: there are seven in all, and some can be visited by arrangement with the community offices.The first cemetery is at San Leonardo and dates from before 1348. Among the tombs is that of the famous Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen (1482-1565) with its carving of a cat (Katze in German).”

I posted on the Jewishgen forum a request for information about the accessibility of the cemetery. I received several replies including one from Israeli genealogist Schelly Talalay-Dardashti who referred me to an expert on Italian Jewry, Nardo Bonomi who lives in Florence and is the coordinator of the site . He very kindly phoned the Jewish Community Centre in Padua and made enquiries for me. Likewise I was informed by Elieser Rosenfield of Jerusalem that he had visited the cemetery and he gave me the contact details of the person who guided him, an official of the Padua Jewish Community Raffaele D'Angeli.

I emailed the latter and we set a date for my visit as the cemetery is not readily open to the public other than by prior arrangement.

Meanwhile in Venice we arranged to visit the cemetery on the Lido in the hope of perhaps finding the grave of Avigayil Katzenellenbogen. There was only one weekly tour available, led by Daniela of the Jewish museum. However this was cancelled due to heavy rain.

So on the day before we were due to leave Italy we set off by train on a short thirty minute journey to Padua. We met Rafi as arranged outside the Plaza Hotel. A twenty minute walk through the old cobbled streets of Padua led us to the locked gate set in the high brick wall surrounding the cemetery. Rafi unlocked the gate to let us in and took us the back row of the cemetery. The grounds are well looked after and there is an ongoing project to restore and identify the tombstones.

The Katzenellenbogen tombstones stand in a row against the rear wall of the cemetery. According to Rafi this was their original site. It was a very moving moment to be confronted by the tombstones of my ancestors of 450 years ago.

There are five stones from left to right:

Rabbi Shmuel Yehudah, 1521-1597 son of Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen.

Rabbi Meir the “Maharam Padua”, 1482-1565.

Khanah, died 1564, the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Halevy Mintz
and wife of Meir Katzenellenbogen.

The bottom fragment of a tombstone, most of the inscription being illegible.

Avigayil, the wife of Shmuel Yehudah, died 1594.

This last stone cleared up the mystery as to where Avigayil was buried. Like her husband who also died in Venice, her body must have been taken to Padua for burial. Her father’s name does not appear on her tombstone, so that remains a mystery. Had I read Edelman’s book “Gedulat Shaul”[3] thoroughly I would have noted that his copies of the inscriptions of the Katzenellenbogen tombstones in Padua included Avigyail. Apparently Pinkhas Katzenellenbogen, the author of “Yesh Mankhilin” (1758) had no access to the Padua cemetery as not only does he omit the tombstone incriptions, but he confuses the names of the wives[4] . The manuscript of Yesh Mankhilin was published in 1986 and the editor likewise appears to have been unaware of the inscriptions published by Edelman in “Gedulat Shaul” (1854).

Set on the wall over the fragmented stone is an architrave bearing the figure of a cat. This also appears at the top of the other stones and indicates the source of the surname from the town Katzenellenbogen “cat’s elbow”.

As to the fragmented stone between Khanah and Avigayil, I believe it can be identified from the wording on Khanah’s tombstone which states that she was buried to the right of her father, Avraham Mintz. That indeed is the location in relation to the fragmented stone.

A personal note: our daughter’s name is Avigayil Khanah, like the two female Katzenellenbogens, a coincidence I only realized when standing by the tombstones.

I was interested in seeing the tombstone of Rabbi Yehudah Mintz, the grandfather of the Maharam’s wife, but Rafi informed me that he had been buried in another cemetery next to Rabbi Yitskhak Abarbanel and the stone had been destroyed. This is confirmed in “Elef Margaliot”[5] which states that the stone was destroyed during a war a year after the burial, in 1509.

The Hebrew inscriptions on the tombstones match those cited by Endelman[6] (see copies above) and the English translation can be found in Rosenstein[7], with the exception of that of Avigayil.

* It appears to me that the stone which was restored was that of Shmuel Yehudah and not of his father the Maharam. Shmuel-Yehudah’s stone is white with a clearly etched inscription. The adjacent stones of his relatives are of uniform condition and apparent age. I have asked Rafi for clarification.

I am also awaiting the arrival of Rosenstein’s new book on Shaul Wahl, a son of Shmuel Yehudah Katzenelenbogen to ascertain whether he has included an updated reference to the tombstones.

“Yesh Mankhilin”, Pinkhas Katzenellenbogen, manuscript from 1758 , published Jerusalem 1986.
“Gedulat Shaul”, Tzvi Hersh Edelman, London 1854.
“The Unbroken Chain”, Neil Rosenstein, CIS Publishers, New Jersey, U.S.A. 1990.
“Elef Margaliot”, Meir Wunder, Jerusalem, 1993.
“Saul Wahl : Polish King for a Night, Or, Lithuanian Knight for a Lifetime”, Neil Rosenstein, 2006.
“The Venetian Ghetto”, Sullam and Calimani, Milan 2005
“The Ghetto On the Lagoon:, Unberto Fortis, Venice 1995.
“Ancestry of the Gaon of Vilna – Descent from King David”, Chaim Freedman, Petah Tikvah, Israel, September 2005, published in "Avotaynu" Volume XXI, Number 3, Fall 2005.

Chaim Freedman’s blog

Photos of trip to Italy:

Information about the Katzenellenbogen family.
Wikepedia links have been used for convenience of access, but the information is not necessarily accurate.,_Germany

[1] “ Elef Margaliot”, Meir Wunder, Jerusalem 1993, p.186
[2] “The Unbroken Chain”, Neil Rosenstein, 1990, Volume I page 3.
[3] “Gedulat Shaul”, Tzvi Hirsh Edelman, London 1854, introduction pp.xii,-xiv
[4] “ Yesh Mankhilin”, Pinkhas Katzenellenbogen, manuscript from 1758 , published Jerusalem 1986, page 59.
[5] “ Elef Margaliot”, Meir Wunder, Jerusalem 1993, p.190.
[6] “ Gedulat Shaul”, Tzvi Hirsh Edelman, London 1854, introduction pp.xii,-xiv
[7] “The Unbroken Chain”, Neil Rosenstein, 1990, Volume I, pp2-4.