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Jewish life in Germany

Jewish life in Germany has a long history. The first written record dates back to the year 321. The 1700th anniversary will be celebrated throughout Germany with a festival year in 2021. Saxony has also experienced a very far-reaching upswing due to Jewish people. For example, as merchants, freedom fighters, women’s rights activists, revolutionaries, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs, they have left their mark on the past and present.

The earliest evidence of Jewish life in Saxony is found in Meissen and Altzella and dates back to the 11th century . In Leipzig, the presence of a Jewish population is attested in the first half of the 13th century; around 1250, a settlement called “Judenburg” existed outside the city walls . After their expulsion, a new settlement formed in the middle of the 13th century . There is evidence of at least three Jewish families living in Leipzig in 1364. They did not form a community of their own. Consequently, they did not possess any of the important social facilities of such a community, such as a Jewish cemetery .

Until a central water supply system was built in the towns and communities, Jewish housewives had similar difficulties as their Christian neighbours. They had to carry water from their own or one of the public wells into their homes, laboriously wash their laundry, keep clean water ready for drinking or cooking, bathe their children and clean the living rooms. The effort was greater in Jewish families than in Christian ones because of the very detailed religious regulations – e.g. the exact observance of rituals, prayer times, as well as food regulations. Jewish women had to pay close attention to where they bought meat, how they cleaned poultry, which vegetables they chose, and what food they were not allowed to cook together. Dishes for Shabbat had to be pre-cooked and preserved, as (domestic) work was forbidden from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. The observance of food and living rules was/is an important aspect of Jewish life, which were often difficult to implement due to exclusionary regulations of the (Christian) sovereigns.

It was not uncommon for the Jewish population in medieval cities to be subjected to discrimination, which sometimes led to violent attacks. In addition to accusations of usury, after the first occurrence of the plague in Central Europe in 1348/49 accusations were made against members of Jewish communities that they were poisoning wells in order to spread the plague in this way. This led to severe pogroms against the Jewish population in Leipzig in 1350. So it says in the Leipzig annals of Johann Jacob Vogel:

In this year a terrible and cruel pestilence /which has already lasted for three years/ has been rampant everywhere/that many people have died (…) And because the Jews were suspected/of having poisoned the wells/they have been persecuted/killed and killed in great numbers.

Time and again there were violent attacks on and expulsions of the Jewish population (motivated by religious anti-Jewish | Christian and socio-economic factors) – especially in times of crisis – so that from the middle of the 15th century there were no longer any settled Jewish people in Leipzig. Municipal privileges de non tolerandis judaeis were issued to expel the Jewish population from the cities, above all to eliminate them as economic competitors in urban trade. Consequently, in the 16th and 17th centuries Jewish merchants, traders and pedlars were only allowed to stay in Leipzig three times a year during the trade fairs.

This situation preveiled until the end of the 17th century. With the beginning of the 18th century, Jewish merchants were now allowed to settle on Leipzig’s Brühl during the trade fair period. Many Jewish merchants from Brody (northern Galicia), Russia, Hungary and the former Polish republic came to trade in the fair city over many decades.

An increasing equality of rights developed for the Jewish population in Saxony. From the 1830s onwards, the Jewish community in Leipzig grew. More and more Jewish people were drawn to Leipzig, a cosmopolitan city of trade and fairs. Many Jewish residents settled in the Waldstraßenviertel. The Waldstraßenviertel – like other Wilhelminian quarters in this city – was built up with modern, representative middle-class houses for the first time at this time. For a long time, Jewish and non-Jewish residents lived together in good neighbourliness.

On 2 June 1847, the founding process of the Jewish Religious Community of Leipzig came to an end. After only one year of planning and construction, the main synagogue on Gottschedstraße was consecrated for its intended purpose on 10 September 1855 by a representative of Reform Judaism and Jewish scholar Rabbi Adolf (Aron) Jellinek.

The Jewish community had many opportunities to come together for prayer in synagogues, prayer rooms and private homes; and there were several rabbis, each catering for the Orthodox, Reform or other Jewish affiliations.

One of those best-known in the community was teacher and preacher Rabbi Dr Abraham Mayer Goldschmidt, who moved from Warsaw to Leipzig with his wife Henriette Goldschmidt (née Benas) and his three sons from his first marriage three years after the dedication of the large synagogue.

Particularly the activities of Jewish women continue to have an impact on Leipzig’s cityscape to this day, e.g. the Ariowitsch House or the Eitingon Hospital. The Association for Family and National Education, initiated and led by Henriette Goldschmidt, was interdenominational and not a pure women’s association. Like other civic women’s associations, the Leipzig associations of the local branch of the JFB, the Jewish Women’s Federation, primarily performed voluntary social work, which could be supplemented by the use of paid professionals for certain tasks. The associations were open to socially committed women. Multiple memberships were common, as was simultaneous involvement in other charitable associations in the community.

In 1910, the Leipzig local group of the JFB and the related women’s associations were founded, which were active until the National Socialists seized power. These included the Israelite Women’s Association, the Women’s Association “Ruth”, the Israelite Kindergarten, Tagesheim e. V. and the Sisters’ Association of Leipzig Lodge XXXXIII No. 496 of the Independent Order Bnai Brith (U.O.B.B.) as well as the Israelite Savings and Insurance Association for girls who had left school, to which men also belonged.

Women from religiously or economically influential families predominantly cooperated in the management of the associations. Until the First World War, the associations carried out self-help work that was autonomous from the majority society, which also served to secure livelihoods and strengthen the Jewish community against internal and external development risks.

In 1925, 12,594 people of Jewish denomination lived in Leipzig. In 1931, there were 17 synagogues of various orientations and prayer houses in the city – from liberal to reform Jewish to orthodox Judaism – as well as 8 Jewish charitable institutions.

Two more synagogues were located directly in the Waldstrasse quarter in Färberstrasse. In 1912/13, the Higher Israelite School was founded in Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 7 by Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach. In 1929, the Israelite hospital was opened in Eitingonstraße – it treated people regardless of their religious affiliation. In 1931, the Jewish old people’s home in Auenstraße, donated by the Ariowitsch family, was opened. There had been a Jewish kindergarten since 1915. In 1929/30, the Jewish banker Hans Kroch built a housing estate in Neugohlis, which today would be counted as social housing.

Through the activities of völkisch anti-Semitic groups, hostility towards Jewish people was able to spread increasingly in the 19th century. A national, racial contrast was constructed between “the Germans” and the Jewish population, which was also German. From then on, Jews were no longer discriminated against solely on the basis of their religious affiliation, but it was claimed that “Jewish” characteristics were genetically determined. In 1897, there had already been four publishing houses in Leipzig that published anti-Semitic literature, as well as the journal “Antisemitische Korrespondenz”.

After the National Socialists came to power by election on 30 January 1933, the growing anti-Semitic agitation and the first anti-Jewish laws led to a visible change in the public coexistence of citizens.

Non-Jewish citizens were less and less allowed to consult Jewish doctors and lawyers. Jewish shops were boycotted. “Aryan customers” of Jewish wholesalers and catalogue selling companies no longer paid for the goods delivered, so that bankruptcies and liquidations increased. Jewish civil servants, teachers, scientists, and artists were dismissed from the civil service. The racial laws passed at the Reich Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1935 discriminated against the Jewish population. This anti-Semitic exclusion became an essential feature of Nazi state policy towards the Jewish population.

From July 1935, Jewish people were no longer allowed to use municipal baths. Staying in parks was restricted to a small area, even visiting forests was no longer allowed. A little later, Jewish people were finally barred from visiting public institutions (cinemas, theatres, restaurants,…). By mid-1938, about 70% of the existing Jewish businesses were no longer Jewish-owned.

More and more Jewish people saw their only option in life as leaving Germany, but this was fraught with bureaucratic hurdles as well as the necessary financial means. Some families tried to bring their children to safety in England or Denmark with “Kindertransports – organised by the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland.

In October 1938, the short-term deportation of around 17,000 Jewish people with Polish citizenship was arranged throughout Germany: the so-called “Polenaktion. The Eitingon Hospital in Leipzig took in about 200 Polish Jews as patients to save them from the deportations.

On the night of the pogroms on 9/10 November 1938, synagogues and Jewish institutions were also set on fire in Leipzig. Jewish people were mistreated and deported, their homes and businesses destroyed and looted. The large synagogues in Gottschedstraße and Otto-Schill-Straße were burnt down; the smaller synagogues and prayer rooms were smashed. Only the synagogue in Keilstraße which was located between two residential buildings was not set on fire, but it was completely looted inside, desecrated and finally misused as a warehouse. The police and fire brigade were officially instructed not to intervene in the riots and to immediately shoot Jewish people who resisted.

On the evening of 9 November 1938, the Gestapo rounded up hundreds of Jewish people at the Parthebrücke in Pfaffendorfer Straße and deported them to the concentration camps Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen on 10 November 1938.

By the end of 1938, Jews in Germany had largely been deprived of their economic livelihood and their structural social isolation was far advanced. They were largely or completely ousted from many professional fields. Due to the ordinance on “Closed Labour Deployment”, many Jewish people were obliged to perform forced labour. Leipzig was the first major city in Germany to introduce compulsory work for Jewish people in the spring of 1940.

The Jewish population was also forced out of their flats when the legal protection of tenants for the Jewish population was abolished in April 1939. Landlords were able to terminate a tenancy without further ado by “observing the time limits”. In future, Jews were to be housed in pre-determined residential quarters and apartment buildings, so-called “Juden-Häusern” (“Jew Houses”). In the early 1940s, the Carlebach School became the largest “Judenhaus” in Leipzig. Jewish property was confiscated. In Leipzig, the auction company Klemm, among others, was commissioned to collect and auction off the remaining inventory. The auctioned items ended up in flats and houses of non-Jewish Germans. The proceeds were appropriated by the Nazi state.

In 1942, the deportations of Jewish people to Riga began in Leipzig. With the first deportation train on 21 January, 563 people from Leipzig were transported to Riga. With the fourth deportation from Leipzig, the Auenstraße old people’s home was “emptied”; afterwards it served as Gestapo headquarters. The last transport from Leipzig to the concentration camp Theresienstadt took place on 14 February 1945. A total of about 2000 Jewish people from Leipzig were deported in nine deportation trains, of whom only 220 survived.

When Leipzig was liberated on 18 April 1945, 19 members of the Jewish community were still living in Leipzig/were still alive.

After 1945, around 250 Holocaust survivors returned to Leipzig.

The diverse Jewish life and its infrastructure had been destroyed; families torn apart and driven away by persecution and emigration all over the world or murdered in concentration camps.

The few Jewish people in Leipzig re-founded the Jewish Religious Community of Leipzig. Soon they found support from returning and new Jewish survivors. In 1949, the congregation numbered 340 people.

Due to the partly openly anti-Semitic policies of the GDR government, also in the wake of the Slansky trials, many Jewish citizens again left Leipzig. As a result of this bloodletting, only 29 people were registered in the Jewish Religious Community of Leipzig in 1989.

The influx of contingent refugees from the former states of the Soviet Union enabled the revival of Jewish life in the city since the 1990s. Today, the congregation is the largest Jewish community in Saxony with around 1,300 members.

With the Lehrhaus Beth Etz Chaim under the leadership of Rabbi Esther Jonas-Märtin, there is now also a liberal community in Leipzig again, which revives the former Jewish polyphony in the trade fair city.

Several associations and foundations are dedicated in many ways to the commemoration and remembrance of Jewish life in Leipzig – among other things with the Jewish Weeks that take place every two years.