Despite medieval crusades and a thousand vicissitudes, there remained in 1564 substantial Jewish settlements in Germany, above all in Frankfurt-am-Main, Hamburg, and Worms. But the Reformation had intensified rather than moderated the Christian hatred of the strange people that could not accept Christ as the Son of God. At Frankfurt the Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto except on urgent business, and could not receive out-of-town guests without the knowledge of the magistrates; their clothing had to have a special mark or color; their houses were to bear distinctive emblems, often grotesque. Bribery of town officials sometimes bought exemptions from these humiliations, but the hostility of simple folk was a perpetual menace to Jewish life and property. So in September, 1614, while most Frankfurt Jews were at prayer, a Christian crowd forced an entry into the ghetto; after enjoying a night of plunder and destruction, it compelled 1,380 Jews to leave the city with no other belongings than the clothes on their backs. Several Christian families sheltered and fed the fugitives; and the Archbishop of Mainz compelled the municipality of Frankfurt to restore them to their homes, to indemnify them for their losses, and to hang the leader of the mob. 37 A year later, at Worms, a similar uprising drove the Jews from the city and desecrated their synagogues and cemeteries; but the Archbishop of Worms and the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt gave refuge to the exiles, and the Elector Palatine protected their return. In general the higher clergy and classes were inclined to toleration, but the lower clergy and the masses were easily stirred to the ecstasy of hate. Old disabilities, even when relaxed, always hung over Jewish heads, and insult and injury were the possibilities of any day. Some ardent Christians snatched Jewish infants from their mothers’ breasts and forcibly baptized them. 38 If there were no ignorance there would be no history.

The Thirty Years’ War left the Jews of Germany relatively unharmed. Protestants and Catholics were so engrossed in mutual murder that they almost forgot to kill Jews, even when these had lent them money. The Emperor Ferdinand I had imposed burdensome regulations upon the Jews of Austria, and had expelled them from Bohemia (1559); but Ferdinand II protected them, allowed them, in Catholic Vienna, to build a synagogue and discard the badge, and permitted the return of Jews to Bohemia. The Bohemian Jews pledged forty thousand gulden yearly to the Imperial cause in the great war. To soothe Christians who complained of his tolerant policy, Ferdinand II (1630) ruled that the Jews of Prague should listen every Sunday to Christian sermons, and fines were levied for truancy or sleeping.

After the Peace of Westphalia the Hebrew settlements in Germany expanded rapidly. The excesses of the war had in some measure discredited bigotry and persecution; hundreds of Jews came in from Poland after the pogroms that followed the Cossack revolt of 1648. Between 1675 and 1720 an annual average of 648 Jewish merchants attended the Leipzig fairs. German princes found uses for Jewish skill in the management of finances and the organization of supplies for armies and courts. So Samuel Oppenheimer superintended the Imperial fisc during the campaigns that closed the seventeenth century, and Samson Wertheimer supervised the Imperial commissariat in the War of the Spanish Succession. The influence of the Spanish-born and Jesuit-inspired Empress Margaret Theresa upon her husband Leopold I resulted in the banishment of the Jews from Austria, but the Great Elector Frederick William welcomed many of the exiles into Brandenburg, and the Jewish community in Berlin grew into one of the largest in Europe.

Ever since the twelfth century the Jews of Central Europe had been developing their own Yiddish (Jüdisch) dialect, composed mostly of German words with Hebrew and Slavic additions, and written in Hebrew characters. Literate Jews continued to study Hebrew, but the secular publications of the Ashkenazim became predominantly Yiddish. A Yiddish literature arose, rich in wry humor and domestic sentiment, in folk tales transmitted across centuries and frontiers, in Purimspiele, or playlets for the gay spring festival, and in proverbs of homely wisdom (“One father supports ten children, but ten children do not support one father”). 39 Before 1715 this literature could boast of only one notable author, Elijah Bochur, a scholar in Hebrew and a poet in Yiddish, who wrote fantastic romances in ottava rima, and rendered the Psalms into popular speech. A Yiddish version of the Pentateuch appeared in 1544, only fifteen years after Luther’s German Bible, and a Yiddish translation of the entire Old Testament was published at Amsterdam in 1676–79. The German Jews were on their way to the cultural leadership of their people.

Jews had entered Poland from Germany in the tenth century. Despite an occasional massacre they prospered and increased under the protection of the government. In 1501 there were some fifty thousand Jews in Poland; in 1648, half a million. 40 The gentry (szlachta) controlling the Sejm supported the Jews, because landlords found them especially competent in collecting rents and taxes, and managing estates. With some exceptions, the rulers of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were among the most liberal monarchs of their time. Stephen Báthory issued two edicts confirming the commercial rights of the Jews, and branding ritual-murder charges as cruel “calumnies” not to be admitted in Polish courts (1576). 41 But popular animosity remained. Only a year after these edicts a mob attacked the Jewish quarter in Poznan, pillaged homes, and killed many Jews. Báthory imposed a fine upon the city officials for having failed to stop the riot. Sigismund III continued royal toleration.

Two factors contributed to end this era of governmental good will. German merchants in Poland resented Jewish competition; they fomented popular outbreaks in Poznań and Wilno, where a synagogue was demolished and the houses of Jews were sacked (1592); and they submitted to the King a petition de non tolerandis Judaeis (1619). The Jesuits, brought in by Báthory, and soon taking intellectual lead of the Catholics in Poland, joined in the campaign to discontinue toleration. Accusations of ritual murder now won governmental recognition. In 1598, at Lublin, the corpse of a boy having been found in a swamp, three Jews were forced by torture to confess that they had slain him; they were hanged, drawn, and quartered; and the body, preserved in a Catholic church, became an object of religious veneration. Anti-Semitic literature grew in ferocity.

In 1618 Sebastian Michiński of Cracow published A Mirror of the Polish Crown, in which he charged the Jews with child murder, witchcraft, robbery, swindling, and treason, and called upon the Sejm to expel all Jews from Poland. The pamphlet aroused such public feeling that Sigismund ordered its suppression. A Polish physician accused Jewish doctors of systematically poisoning Catholics (1623). King Ladislas IV directed municipal authorities to protect the Jews against popular uprisings, and tried to lessen Christian hostility by forbidding Jews to take homes in Christian neighborhoods, or to build new synagogues, or open new cemeteries, without royal license. The Sejm of 1643 required all merchants to limit themselves to a maximum profit of seven per cent if they were Christians, three per cent if they were Jews; the result was that Christians bought from the Jews, who prospered and incurred more hate.

Despite hatred, restrictions, tribulations, and poverty, the Polish Jews multiplied. They built temples and schools, transmitted their stabilizing traditions, morals, and laws, and cherished their comforting faith. Elementary schools were organized by private teachers paid by the parents per pupil and term; for pupils who could not pay, most Jewish communities maintained a school from public funds. Attendance at elementary school was compulsory for boys from their sixth to their thirteenth year. Higher education was provided in a college (yeshibah) under rabbinical control. A contemporary rabbi describes the system (1653):

Every Jewish community supported bahurs (college students), giving them a certain amount of money per week. . . . Every one of these bahurs was made to instruct at least two boys. . . . A community of fifty Jewish families would support no less than thirty of these young men and boys, one family supplying board for one college student and his two pupils, the former sitting at the family table like one of the sons. . . . There was scarcely a house . . . where the Torah was not studied, and where either the head of the family or his son or his son-in-law, or the yeshibah student boarding with him, was not an expert in Jewish learning. 42

From our later and secular standpoint the education and literature of Polish Jewry was narrowly rabbinical, being almost confined to the Talmud, the Bible, the Cabala, and Hebrew. But since the Talmud contained Jewish law as well as Jewish religion and history, it served as a severe and deepening discipline of the mind; and the harassed communities doubtless felt that only an intense religious faith, and a study rooted in the traditions and mores of the tribe, could generate the strength to bear persistent contumely, persecution, hardship, and insecurity. The Polish Jews remained medieval until modernity became modern enough to give them liberty—or death.

The year 1648 brought them a terrible reminder of their precarious status in Christendom. In the revolt that then flared up among the Cossacks against their Polish or Lithuanian landlords, the Jews who had served as stewards and taxgatherers for the estates bore the brunt of the rebellion. In Pereyaslav, Piryatin, Lubny, and other towns thousands of Jews were massacred, whether or not they had served the nobility. Some survived by accepting conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith, some by taking refuge among the Tatars, who sold them as slaves. The pent-up resentment of the Cossacks ran mad in incredible ferocity. Says a Russian historian:

Killing was accompanied by barbarous tortures: the victims were flayed alive, split asunder, clubbed to death, roasted on coals, or scalded with boiling water. . . . The most terrible cruelty, however, was shown to the Jews. They were destined to utter annihilation, and the slightest pity shown to them was looked upon as treason. Scrolls of the Law were taken out of the synagogues by Cossacks, who danced on them while drinking whiskey. After this Jews were laid upon them and butchered without mercy. Thousands of Jewish infants were thrown into wells, or buried alive. 43

In one city alone, Niemirov, 6,000 Jews were said to have perished in this revolt. At Tulchyn 1,500 Jews were rounded up in a park, and were offered a choice between conversion and death; if one may believe the Jewish chronicler 1,500 chose death. In the town of Polonnoye, we are told, 10,000(?) Jews were killed by Cossacks or taken prisoner by Tatars. Lesser pogroms raged in other Ukrainian towns. When the Cossacks, faced by the Polish army, allied themselves with Russia (1654), Muscovite troops joined Cossacks in killing or expelling the Jews of Moghilev, Vitebsk, Wilno, and other cities taken from the Lithuanians or the Poles.

In 1655 the invasion of Poland by Charles X of Sweden created another problem for the Jews. Like many Poles, they accepted the Swedish conqueror without resistance, as a savior from the dreaded Russians. When a new Polish army rose and drove out the Swedes, it massacred the Jews throughout the provinces of Poznań, Kalisz, Cracow, and Piotrków, excepting the city of Poznań itself. Altogether, these disasters of 1648–58 in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia were, till our own time, the bloodiest in the history of the European Jews, exceeding in terror and mortality the massacres of the Crusades and the Black Death. A conservative estimate has reckoned 34,719 Jewish lives lost, and 531 Jewish communities wiped out. 44 It was this tragic decade that began the mass migration of Jews from Slavic lands into Western Europe and North America, resulting in a complete redistribution of Jewish population on the globe.

In Poland the surviving Jews returned to their homes and patiently rebuilt their devastated communities. King John Casimir declared his resolve to compensate his Jewish subjects, so far as he could, for the calamaties they had borne; he gave them new charters of rights and protection, and temporary exemption from taxes in those centers that had suffered most. But popular and theological hostility remained, graced now and then with Christian commiseration. In 1660 two rabbis were executed on the old charge, so repeatedly repudiated by the popes, of ritual murder; and in 1663 a Jewish apothecary at Cracow, on the unproved accusation that he had written a diatribe against worship of the Virgin Mary, suffered death in the barbarous sequence ordered by the court: his lips were cut off, his hand was burned, his tongue was cut out, and his body was burned at the stake. 45 The general of the Dominican order sent from Rome (February 9, 1664) a letter urging the Dominican monks of Cracow “to defend the hapless Jews from every calumny invented against them.” 46 At Lvov the pupils of a Jesuit academy invaded the Jewish quarter, killed a hundred Jews, demolished houses, and desecrated synagogues (1664); but at Wilno Jesuit students protected Jews from riotous mobs (1682). 47 The generous Sobieski (1674–96) labored to comfort the Jews of Poland: he reaffirmed their violated rights, freed them from the jurisdiction of municipal authorities subject to popular passions, and gave sympathetic audience to the syndics who presented the petitions of the Jews to his court. By the end of his reign the Polish Jews had recovered, in number, from the bitter decade, but the horror of it remained for generations in Hebrew memory.

Legally there were no Jews in Russia before 1772. Ivan the Terrible gave his view of them in answering a request from Sigismund II that Lithuanian Jews be admitted to Russia for business purposes (1550):

It is not convenient to allow Jews to come with their goods to Russia, since many evils result from them. For they import poisonous herbs into our realm, and lead astray the Russians from Christianity. Therefore he, the King, should no more write about these Jews. 48

When Russian troops occupied the Polish border city of Polotsk (1565), Ivan sent orders to have all local Jews converted or drowned. In the war of 1654 with Poland the Russians were astonished to find many cities in Lithuania and the Ukraine with entire sections populated by Jews. They murdered some of these “dangerous heretics,” and took others prisoner to Moscow, where these became the nucleus of a small and illegal Jewish colony. In 1698 Peter the Great, in Holland, received through the burgomaster of Amsterdam a petition from some Jews to allow them to enter Russia. He replied:

My dear Witsen, you know the Jews, and you know their character and habits; you also know the Russians. I know both; and believe me, the time has not yet come to unite the two nationalities. Tell the Jews that I am obliged to them for their proposal, and that I realize how advantageous their services would be to me, but I should have pity on them were they to live in the midst of the Russians. 49

This Russian policy of Jewish exclusion continued till the first partition of Poland (1772).

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!