History of the Jews in Germany

German Jews
יהדות גרמניה‬ (Hebrew)
Deutsche Juden (German)
דייטשע יידן (Yiddish)
Total population
118,000[1] to 250,000[2]
Regions with significant populations
German, Russian, English, Hebrew, other immigrant languages, historically: Yiddish
Judaism, Agnosticism, Atheism or other religions
Related ethnic groups
other Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews

Jewish settlers founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community in the Early (5th to 10th centuries CE) and High Middle Ages (circa 1000–1299 CE). The community survived under Charlemagne, but suffered during the Crusades. Accusations of well poisoning during the Black Death (1346–53) led to mass slaughter of German Jews,[3] and they fled in large numbers to Poland. The Jewish communities of the cities of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms became the center of Jewish life during Medieval times. "This was a golden age as area bishops protected the Jews resulting in increased trade and prosperity."[4] The First Crusade began an era of persecution of Jews in Germany.[5] Entire communities, like those of Trier, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, were murdered. The war upon the Hussite heretics became the signal for renewed persecution of Jews. The end of the 15th century was a period of religious hatred that ascribed to Jews all possible evils. The atrocities during the Khmelnytsky Uprising committed by Khmelnytskyi's Cossacks (1648, in the Ukrainian part of southeastern Poland) drove the Polish Jews back into western Germany. With Napoleon's fall in 1815, growing nationalism resulted in increasing repression. From August to October 1819, pogroms that came to be known as the Hep-Hep riots took place throughout Germany. During this time, many German states stripped Jews of their civil rights. As a result, many German Jews began to emigrate.

From the time of Moses Mendelssohn until the 20th century, the community gradually achieved emancipation, and then prospered.[6] In January 1933, some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. After the Nazis took power and implemented their antisemitic ideology and policies, the Jewish community was increasingly persecuted. About 60% (numbering around 304,000) emigrated during the first six years of the Nazi dictatorship. In 1933, persecution of the Jews became an official Nazi policy. In 1935 and 1936, the pace of antisemitic persecution increased. In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them from participating in education, politics, higher education, and industry. The SS ordered the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) the night of November 9–10, 1938. The storefronts of Jewish shops and offices were smashed and vandalized, and many synagogues were destroyed by fire. This prompted a wave of Jewish mass emigration from Germany throughout the 1930s. Only roughly 214,000 Jews were left in Germany proper (1937 borders) on the eve of World War II.

Beginning in late 1941, the remaining community was subjected to systematic deportations to ghettos, and ultimately, to death camps in Eastern Europe.[7] In May 1943, Germany was declared judenrein (clean of Jews; also judenfrei: free of Jews).[7] By the end of the war, an estimated 160,000 to 180,000 German Jews had been killed by the Nazi regime, by the Germans and their collaborators.[7] A total of about 6 million European Jews were murdered under the direction of the Nazis, in the genocide that later came to be known as the Holocaust.

After the war, the Jewish community in Germany started to slowly grow again. Beginning around 1990, a spurt of growth was fueled by immigration from the former Soviet Union, so that at the turn of the 21st century, Germany had the only growing Jewish community in Europe,[8] and the majority of German Jews were Russian-speaking. By 2014, the Jewish population of Germany had leveled off at 118,000, not including non-Jewish members of households; the total estimated 'enlarged' population of Jews living in Germany, including non-Jewish household members, is close to 250,000. [9]

Currently in Germany, denial of the Holocaust or that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust (§ 130 StGB) is a criminal act; violations can be punished with up to five years of prison.[10] In 2006, on the occasion of the World Cup held in Germany, the then Interior Minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble, urged vigilism against far-right extremism, saying: "We will not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia, or anti-Semitism."[11] In spite of Germany's measures against these groups and anti-Semites, a number of incidents have occurred in recent years.

From Rome to the Crusades

Jews of Germany, 13th century

Jewish migration from Roman Italy is considered the most likely source of the first Jews on German territory. While the date of the first settlement of Jews in the regions which the Romans called Germania Superior, Germania Inferior, and Magna Germania is not known, the first authentic document relating to a large and well-organized Jewish community in these regions dates from 321[12][13][14][15] and refers to Cologne on the Rhine[16][17][18] (Jewish immigrants began settling in Rome itself as early as 139 BC[19]). It indicates that the legal status of the Jews there was the same as elsewhere in the Roman Empire. They enjoyed some civil liberties, but were restricted regarding the dissemination of their culture, the keeping of non-Jewish slaves, and the holding of office under the government.

Jews were otherwise free to follow any occupation open to indigenous Germans and were engaged in agriculture, trade, industry, and gradually money-lending. These conditions at first continued in the subsequently established Germanic kingdoms under the Burgundians and Franks, for ecclesiasticism took root slowly. The Merovingian rulers who succeeded to the Burgundian empire were devoid of fanaticism and gave scant support to the efforts of the Church to restrict the civic and social status of the Jews.

Charlemagne (800–814) readily made use of the Church for the purpose of infusing coherence into the loosely joined parts of his extensive empire, by any means a blind tool of the canonical law. He employed Jews for diplomatic purposes, sending, for instance, a Jew as interpreter and guide with his embassy to Harun al-Rashid. Yet, even then, a gradual change occurred in the lives of the Jews. The Church forbade Christians to be usurers, so the Jews secured the remunerative monopoly of money-lending. This decree caused a mixed reaction of people in general in the Frankish empire (including Germany) to the Jews: Jewish people were sought everywhere, as well as avoided. This ambivalence about Jews occurred because their capital was indispensable, while their business was viewed as disreputable. This curious combination of circumstances increased Jewish influence and Jews went about the country freely, settling also in the eastern portions (Old Saxony and Duchy of Thuringia). Aside from Cologne, the earliest communities were established in Mainz, Worms, Speyer, and Regensburg.[20]

The status of the German Jews remained unchanged under Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious. Jews were unrestricted in their commerce; however, they paid somewhat higher taxes into the state treasury than did the non-Jews. A special officer, the Judenmeister, was appointed by the government to protect Jewish privileges. The later Carolingians, however, followed the demands of the Church more and more. The bishops continually argued at the synods for including and enforcing decrees of the canonical law, with the consequence that the majority Christian populace mistrusted the Jewish unbelievers. This feeling, among both princes and people, was further stimulated by the attacks on the civic equality of the Jews. Beginning with the 10th century, Holy Week became more and more a period of antisemitic activities, yet the Saxon emperors did not treat the Jews badly, exacting from them merely the taxes levied upon all other merchants. Although the Jews in Germany were as ignorant as their contemporaries in secular studies, they could read and understand the Hebrew prayers and the Bible in the original text. Halakhic studies began to flourish about 1000.

At that time, Rav Gershom ben Judah was teaching at Metz and Mainz, gathering about him pupils from far and near. He is described in Jewish historiography as a model of wisdom, humility, and piety, and became known to succeeding generations as the "Light of the Exile".[21] In highlighting his role in the religious development of Jews in the German lands, the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906) draws a direct connection to the great spiritual fortitude later shown by the Jewish communities in the era of the Crusades:

He first stimulated the German Jews to study the treasures of their religious literature. This continuous study of the Torah and the Talmud produced such a devotion to Judaism that the Jews considered life without their religion not worth living; but they did not realize this clearly until the time of the Crusades, when they were often compelled to choose between life and faith.[22]

Cultural and religious centre of European Jewry

The Jewish communities of the cities of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms formed the league of ShUM-cities which became the center of Jewish life during Medieval times (after the first letters of the Hebrew names: Shin for Schpira (Spira), Waw for Warmaisa and Mem for Mainz). The Takkanot Shum (Hebrew: תקנות שו"ם‎ "Enactments of ShU"M") were a set of decrees formulated and agreed upon over a period of decades by their Jewish community leaders. The official website for the city of Mainz states:

One of the most glorious epochs in Mainz's long history was the period from the beginning of the 900s and evidently much earlier. Following the barbaric Dark Ages, a relatively safe and enlightened Carolingian period brought peace and prosperity to Mainz and much of central–western Europe.

For the next 400 years, Mainz attracted many Jews as trade flourished. The greatest Jewish teachers and rabbis flocked to the Rhine. Their teachings, dialogues, decisions, and influence propelled Mainz and neighboring towns along the Rhine into world-wide prominence. Their fame spread, rivaling that of other post-Diaspora cities such as Baghdad. Western European – Ashkenazic or Germanic – Judaism became centered in Mainz, breaking free of the Babylonian traditions. A Yeshiva was founded in the 10th century by Gershom ben Judah.[4]

Historian John Man describes Mainz as "the capital of European Jewry", noting that Gershom ben Judah "was the first to bring copies of the Talmud to Western Europe" and that his directives "helped Jews adapt to European practices."[23]:27–28 Gershom's school attracted Jews from all over Europe, including the famous biblical scholar Rashi;[24] and "in the mid-14th century, it had the largest Jewish community in Europe: some 6,000."[25] "In essence," states the City of Mainz web site, "this was a golden age as area bishops protected the Jews resulting in increased trade and prosperity."[4]