frankfurt’s judengasse -- 11/10/20

Today's selection -- from The House of Rothschild, Volume 1: Money's Prophets, 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson. The prejudices and hostilities toward Jews during and after the Middle Ages were severe. Even those cities that allowed Jews to reside in their jurisdiction imposed harsh restrictions and limitation. One example was Frankfurt, Germany, and its “Judengasse”:
"There were … worldly reasons why both the Holy Roman Emperor­ who declared the Jews 'servi nostri et servi camerae nostri' in 1236 -- and the municipal authorities were inclined to encourage Jewish settlement. The Jews were a source of tax revenue and credit (given their exemption from the laws prohibiting usury) who could be offered 'protection' and restricted privileges in return for hard cash. But protection and restriction went hand in hand. In 1458, at the order of the Emperor Frederick III, the Jews were confined to a ghetto (from the Italian borghetto or suburb): a single, narrow street on the north-eastern edge of [Frankfurt] at both ends of which gates were erected. To the 110 Jews living in the town, this captivity in what became known as the Judengasse (Jews' Lane) suggested a 'New Egypt.' On the other hand, the persistent risk of popular violence could give the ghetto the character of a sanctuary. Allegations of ritual murder in 1504 and an attempt to declare the Jews heretics five years later provided a reminder of the vulnerability of the community's position, as did the conversion of the majority of the town's population to Lutheranism in 1537, given the avowed hostility of Luther towards the Jews. The Judengasse provided sanctuary of sorts in a perilous world; and between 1542 and 1610 its population grew from around 400 to 1,380 (an increase which was paralleled by Huguenot migration to Frankfurt from the Netherlands). The eco­nomic and social tensions which coincided with -- or were caused by -- these influxes culminated in yet another outbreak of popular violence against the Jewish commu­nity: the 'Fettmilch riots,' named after their shopkeeper leader Vincenz Fettmilch. However, wholesale looting of the Judengasse was this time not accompanied by mass murder (the Jews were expelled from the town) and, after a brief period of papular rule, imperial troops quashed the insurrection. Fettmilch and the other leaders of the revolt were hanged and the Jews marched back into the ghetto, their status as proteges of the Emperor reaffirmed.

"In practice, as before, 'protection' meant extraordinarily tight regulation, the details of which were set out by the Council in the Stättigkeit, a statute which was read out each year in the main synagogue. Under its terms, which remained in force until the very end of the eighteenth century, the Jewish population was restricted to just 500 families; the number of weddings was rationed to just twelve a year and the age of marriage fixed at twenty-five. No more than two Jews from outside were allowed to settle in the ghetto each year. Jews were prohibited from farming, or from dealing in weapons, spices, wine and grain. They were forbidden to live outside the Judengasse and, until 1726, were obliged to wear distinctive insignia (two concen­tric yellow rings for men and a striped veil for women) at all times. They were con­fined to the ghetto every night, on Sundays and during Christian festivals; at other times, they were forbidden to walk in the town more than two abreast. They were barred from entering parks, inns, coffee houses and the promenades around the town's picturesque walls; they were not even allowed near the town's ancient cathe­dral; and had to enter the town hall by a back door. They were permitted to visit the town market, but only during set hours, and were forbidden to touch vegetables and fruit there. If he appeared in court, a Jew had to swear a special oath which reminded all present of 'the penalties and maledictions which God imposed on the cursed Jews.' If he heard the words 'Jud, mach mores!' ('Jew, do your duty!') in the street, he was obliged -- even if they were uttered by a mere boy -- to doff his hat and step to one side. And if he had occasion to go outside Frankfurt -- for which a spe­cial pass was required -- he paid double the amount of toll paid by a Gentile when entering the town. In return for this supposed 'protection,' every Jew also paid a poll (or 'body') tax.
"All this meant that the Frankfurt Jews spent most of their lives within the high walls and gates of the Judengasse. Today virtually nothing remains of this prison­-cum-street. All but a couple of houses were demolished by the Frankfurt authorities in the course of the nineteenth century, and what little remained was flattened by American bombers in May 1944. However, the foundations of a part of the old street have recently been excavated, and these give at least a rough idea of the inor­dinately cramped conditions of life in the ghetto. Curving from the Bornheimer Gate in the north towards the Jewish cemetery in the south, it was just a quarter of a mile long and no more than twelve feet wide -- in places less than ten. Having orig­inally been designated a ghetto at a time when the Jewish population was little more than a hundred, the lane was horribly overcrowded: by 1711 there were no fewer than 3,024 people living there. Accommodating them all in such a small area required a high degree of architectural ingenuity: houses were just eight feet wide and had up to four storeys, and behind each row an additional row was constructed. Fire was an inevitable hazard -- indeed, all or part of the Judengasse was destroyed by major conflagrations in 1711, 1721 and 1774. This meant that life there was both dear and cheap: dear because the demand for housing far outstripped the supply, so that a four-room house in the north of the Judengasse cost as much as Goethe's father paid for his twenty-room mansion in the Grosse Hirschgraben; cheap because lack of sanitation, light and fresh air reduced life expectancy. In the 1780s it was estimated that average mortality among Jews was 58 per cent higher than among Gentiles. A traveller in 1795 observed how 'most of the people among the Frank­furt Jews, even those who are in the blooming years of their life, look like the walk­ing dead ... Their deathly pale appearance sets them apart from all the other inhabitants in the most depressing way.' …
"As [the poet Ludwig] Börne commented, even at a time of supposed 'enlightenment,' when other German cities were relaxing the restrictions imposed on Jews, Frankfurt held out, refusing to implement the Emperor Joseph II's Edict of Toleration (1782) and con­fiscating copies of Ephraim Lessing's philo-Semitic play Nathan the Wise.

"When the Jewish community petitioned in 1769 and again in 1784 to be allowed to leave the ghetto on Sundays, the request was rejected as an attempt 'to put themselves on an equal footing with the Christian residents.' As in the past, this policy was to some extent forced upon the Council by the majority of the Gentile townspeople. Typi­cally, when a Jewish mathematics teacher was granted permission to live and teach outside the ghetto in 1788, there was such a popular outcry that the licence had to be revoked; and a similar request by a Jewish doctor in 1795 was turned down flat. For much the same reason -- as a letter of complaint signed by seven leading Jewish merchants makes clear -- the rules governing travel outside the Judengasse on holi­days and Sundays were made more rather than less restrictive in 1787."



Niall Ferguson


The House of Rothschild, Volume 1: Money's Prophets, 1798-1848


Penguin Books


Copyright Niall Ferguson 1998


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