The history of Judaism is, in general, one of the richest and longest stories of endurance throughout history. The Jewish people have survived thousands of years of enslavement, migration, success, and persecution. While Judaism is not bound by any specific region of the world, one of the oldest populations of Jewish people in Europe is that of Alsace, France. Jews probably first settled in Alsace in the late 11th or early 12th century and have been living in the region ever since. There has been both oppression and freedom on varying scales throughout the history of Judaism in Alsace, which has left its mark on the region and its people. In this article, we will explore the history of Judaism in Alsace and how it has evolved.
The Beginnings of Judaism in Alsace
Historians disagree on the exact time of Jewish settlement in Alsace. Some claim that Jews lived in Cologne as early as the fourth century, while others claim they were established in Mayence at the end of the eighth century. It may also be possible that Judaism existed in the kingdoms of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties. In any case, the written evidence suggests that Jewish people were settled and had built a prosperous community in Strasbourg by 1170 CE. Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish traveler who wrote about his journeys during the late 12th century, wrote about a community of Jews in the city.
Benjamin of Tudela wrote that he encountered many educated and wealthy Jews in Strasbourg, as well as various other towns throughout the region. This evidence suggests the arrival of Judaism before the 12th century, as the communities were established and thriving by the time the traveler passed through. The earliest archaeological evidence, tombstones in Strasbourg, suggests that Jewish people lived and died there during this time, even as early as 1223.
The second code of laws from the prince-bishop of Strasbourg includes language regarding Jews in the area in the year 1200, and in 1233, a Jewish quarter existed in the city. Jews were recognized in many ways, and even those of Jewish ancestry were sometimes colloquially labeled as Jews based on their converted family members. Unfortunately, as Judaism appeared in Alsace, persecution cropped up not long after, beginning a period of oppression as the Middle Ages began as well.
The Middle Ages in Alsace
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Through medieval art, we can glean what many Alsatians thought of Jewish people in the region. The depictions, often displayed in churches, focused on ridiculing and disparaging Jews. This art, likely commissioned by intolerant clergymen and rulers, shows the overall theme of Jewish existence in the Middle Ages: oppression.
In 1290, the first revolt against Jewish people began in Mülhausen, most likely based on debts owed to Jews of the town. Many were killed, and in the wake of the violence, King Rudolph I proclaimed an annulment of all debts over 200 silver marks ($20,000 today) owed to Jews. This sparked a chain reaction in Alsace; Jewish communities were subsequently accused of ritual murder in Colmar and theft in Sulzmatt and were generally the target of intolerance in medieval Alsace. Though there were times of less persecution in the region, it continued consistently throughout the era.
Lending their power to the cause were many noblemen and clergymen who saw fit to persecute and expel Jewish communities as they saw fit. Between 1337 and 1338, the peasantry, led by a few noblemen, went on a rampage through the towns of Mülhausen, Ensisheim, Rufach, and many more. The mobs massacred local Jewish populations throughout the region, whether in retaliation for loans or, as a new rumor insisted, that they were poisoning Christians.
After the massacres of the 1330s, Strasbourg had become a refuge for Jewish people. As a free imperial city under the Holy Roman Emperor, there was more autonomy exercised by its noble class, which benefited its inhabitants as well. Jews peacefully occupied a quarter of the city until the rumor mill caught up with Strasbourg. The Jews of the city had confessed (under torture) that they had poisoned the wells with the Black Death, which would kill Christians and not themselves.
This, of course, was not true, but it caught on due to the weight given to hearsay and envy of wealth. In February of 1349, the Jews of Strasbourg were rounded up and murdered en masse. In the Jewish cemetery, about 2,000 Jews were burned at the stake. Massacres like the one in Strasbourg continued throughout the 1300s in several other Alsatian cities. It was a great source of profit for the rulers of the region, who collected on the debts once owed to the murdered Jews.
This ongoing persecution, however, did not eliminate Jews from Alsace. At the dawn of the Renaissance, they were occasionally given legal rights and protections in cities like Colmar and Hagenau.
The Renaissance & Jews Under French Rule
The 15th and 16th centuries saw the development of Jewish culture in Alsace, despite the occasional persecution that Jews still faced. This was based mostly on the fact that Jews were moneylenders by trade, which made them highly unpopular. This resulted in restrictions on the Alsatian Jewish communities, whether through dress, marriage, taxes, or land ownership. Throughout the Renaissance, the Jews were tolerated by the ruling class, but only in practice as a form of profit.
Despite the persecution they faced throughout the region, Judaism in Alsace took on a distinct character from the basis of their Ashkenazi traditions. Unique Alsatian rituals and rites came into practice, and learned Rabbis were influenced greatly by the Christian traditions of Alsace.
They were forced into being second-class citizens by the government, but their culture was rich, with distinct traditions brought on by the culture that they lived in, such as their language, which was a mix of traditional Alsatian and Jewish words. In this way, Alsatian Jews varied from but still maintained important relationships with other Western European Jews.
Jewish families were scattered throughout Alsace throughout the reign of the French monarchy, and they were still restricted yet tolerated. Rabbis were appointed as heads of Jewish communities and served as religious and administrative liaisons to the region’s government. Their economic activities were kept to a small scale, and many served as hawkers of livestock and crops, as well as butchers.
The bigger cities of Alsace still placed residential restrictions on Jewish communities and also highly regulated their marriages and emigration to the region. However, the population of Jews remained relatively stable in the region until the late 1700s, when spiteful crimes against Jews once again served as a re-evaluation of their status in the region.
The French Revolution & the 19th Century
Until the fall of the Bastille, the Jews of Alsace were, by and large, subjected to harsh segregation and restrictions. Jewish communities were insular and under the governance of their rabbis for the most part, and they were unable to live in many cities in Alsace, so they settled in several hundred villages across the region. Their ability to work was also restricted, which is why many Jewish people worked in trade, sales, and moneylending.
Several French Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, looked down upon the “German” Jews of Alsace and afforded them very little respect, mainly due to their professions and their (forced) separation from society. When the French Revolution arrived, it first wreaked havoc on Jewish populations. Riots of peasants destroyed Jewish settlements, but when the first wave of revolts calmed down and the National Assembly was established, the government quickly turned to support tolerance for Jews. The National Assembly afforded rights to protestants to make all citizens equal, and most of the Assembly supported this action for Jews as well. However, representatives from Alsace opposed such measures, claiming that making Jews equal citizens would incite riots and massacres in the region.
The issue of Jewish equality was tabled until the autumn of 1791, when on September 27, Jews were granted the rights of full citizens from the National Assembly. The people of Alsace were slow to accept this, and while a sharp uptick in anti-Semitic violence did happen, eventually, Jewish populations began using their newfound rights. The Jewish inhabitants of Strasbourg, for instance, grew from a group of less than 100 to over 1,000 in ten years.
During the Reign of Terror, Jews were persecuted, but it is believed that only one Jewish execution was carried out. Once Napoleon’s forces took over, the emperor attempted to force Jewish integration through the formation of the Grand Sanhedrin in 1806, which convened a Jewish High Court in an attempt to iron out sanctions for the Jewish population based upon Jewish principles.
Despite his attempt to involve rabbis in the legal processes of integrating their people, Napoleon took their trepidation rather poorly and imposed strict sanctions on their activities. The emperor capped interest on Jewish loans at five percent, nullified all debts owed to Jewish lenders, and refused to allow Jewish exemption from the military draft. While these sanctions were supposed to take effect throughout France, they were only imposed in practice in Alsace. However, the regulations were not renewed in 1818, which allowed Jews the opportunity to more fully modernize and integrate into French society.
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, several measures were taken to further deconstruct legal and religious sanctions against Jews. In 1831, Judaism was recognized as one of three state religions that were paid for by the government. While anti-semitism remained, it was only occasional and no longer institutional in France as a whole, as well as Alsace. Jewish culture and religion prospered during this era and only continued to do so after the Franco-Prussian War.
After the German takeover of 1871, many Jews emigrated to the Third Republic of France, and while some remained in Alsace, they often distrusted the German Empire. Despite this, the integration of the region into Germany facilitated a large influx of Jews from the east of the Rhine, and the Jewish populations in both France and Germany enjoyed relative freedom.
The World Wars
During the First World War, both France and Germany used Alsace as a propagandistic pawn. Many Jewish people welcomed the return of the French in 1918, and their lives remained relatively unchanged. Judaism was still considered a state religion, with officially appointed rabbis paid by the government. This situation remained stable until the dawn of World War II.
As with all territories they conquered, the Nazi regime commenced judenrein in Alsace in an attempt to rid the region of any Jewish people and culture. Many Jewish people from Alsace were involved in underground movements to resist the Nazis, including the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, René Hirschler. However, many Jews in Alsace who were not evacuated to the French interior were detained, deported, and killed in concentration camps. After the war and the re-establishment of French governance, Jewish populations once again grew quickly in cities, especially Strasbourg.
Jewish People in Alsace Today
The population of Jewish people in Alsace in 1970 was 50,000. Several thousand Jews still remain in Alsace, though the particular culture has been in decline. For many modern Jews, preserving their religion and culture is not as important as integrating into modern culture. However, several museums across the region celebrate Alsatian Judaism and the history of Judaism in general. In addition, the European Day of Jewish Culture was developed in Alsace in conjunction with the Agency for Development of Tourism. The day is now celebrated annually on the first Sunday of September in 27 European countries and has helped restore interest and access in several synagogues of the region.