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History of the Jews in Speyer

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History of the Jews in Speyer


Basic Information

Location 49°19′10″N 8°25′52″E
Country Germany
City Speyer

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility no
Geographical Coordinates 49.31952,8.4308


The history of the Jews in Speyer, Germany, reaches back over 1,000 years.

In the Middle Ages the city of Speyer, Germany, was home to one of the most significant Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire. After many ups and downs throughout history the community was totally wiped out in 1940 in the Holocaust. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 Jews again chose to settle in Speyer and a first assembly took place in 1996.

History and time period

The beginnings in 1084

The earliest account of Jewish settlement along the Rhine is dated from the year 321 in Cologne. Thus, it is assumed that the first Jews also lived in Speyer in Late Antiquity. Yet, with the collapse of state and church administration in the Migration Period and the decline of the urban Roman lifestyle, it must also be assumed that the Jewish communities dispersed. Jews resettled in the Rhine area coming from Southern France where Roman life had more or less remained intact. Traveling Jewish merchants certainly would have had dependencies in Rhenish towns, even though the first branches are only mentioned in 906 for Mainz, 960 for Worms and later still for Speyer in 1070/80. With the construction of the cathedral, beginning in 1032, Speyer emerged as one of the major towns along the Rhine. The first records of Jews in Speyer appear in the 1070's. They were members of the renowned Kalonymos family of Mainz, which had migrated a century before from Italy. Other Jews from Mainz had possibly also settled in Speyer.

But the actual history of the Jews in Speyer started in 1084. Jews fleeing from pogroms in Mainz and Worms ignited by the crusades took refuge with their relatives in Speyer. They possibly came at the instigation of bishop Rüdiger Huzmann (1073–1090), who invited a larger number of Jews to live in his town with the expressed approval of emperor Henry IV. In his notes the bishop wrote:

In the name of the holy and undivided trinity, I, Rüdiger, with the surname of Huozmann, bishop of Speyer, in my endeavor to turn the village of Speyer into a city, believed to multiply its image a thousand times by also inviting Jews. I had them settle outside the quarters of the other inhabitants and as not to have them disquieted by the insolence of the lowly folk I had them surrounded by a wall. Now the place of their habitation which I acquired justly (for in the first place I obtained the hill partly with money and partly by exchange, while I received the valley by way of gift from some heirs) that place, I say, I transferred to them on condition that they pay annually 3 ½ pounds in silver for the use of the brethren. I have granted also to them within the district where they dwell, and from that district outside the town as far as the harbor, and within the harbor itself, full power to change gold and silver, and to buy and sell what they please. And I have also given them license to do this throughout the state. Besides this I have given them land of the church for a cemetery with rights of inheritance. This also I have added that if any Jew should at any time stay with them he shall pay no thelony. Then also just as the judge of the city hears cases between citizens, so the chief rabbi shall hear cases which arise between the Jews or against them. But if by chance he is unable to decide any of them they shall go to the bishop or his chamberlain. They shall maintain watches, guards, and fortifications about their district, the guards in common with our vassals. They may lawfully employ nurses and servants from among our people. Slaughtered meat which they may not eat according to their law they may lawfully sell to Christians, and Christians may lawfully buy it. Finally, to round out these concessions, I have granted that they may enjoy the same privileges as the Jews in any other city of Germany. Lest any of my successors diminish this gift and concession, or constrain them to pay greater taxes, alleging that they have usurped these privileges, and have no episcopal warrant for them, I have left this charter as a suitable testimony of the said grant. And that this may never be forgotten, I have signed it, and confirmed it with my seal as may be seen below. Given on September 15, 1084, etc.

The settlement mentioned in this privilege is the former suburb of Altspeyer in the area to the east of today's railway station. The "valley" refers either to a moat-like grove to the north of the Weidenberg (today Hirschgraben) or to the low areas around the stream of the Speyerbach. This walled settlement for Jews was well to the north outside the walls of the city proper and it is the first documented Ghetto. The Jews had to mend and guard the walls of Altspeyer themselves.

The charter granted by bishop Huzmann went well beyond contemporary practice anywhere else in the empire. The Jews of Speyer were allowed to carry out any kind of trade, exchange gold and money, own land, have their own laws, justice system and administration, employ non-Jews as servants, and were not required to pay tolls or duties at the city's borders. The reason for asking the Jews to come to Speyer was their important role in the money and trade businesses, especially with distant regions. Money lenders were needed on a large scale for the construction of the cathedral. The deliberate settlement of Jews was seen as a measure for business development. The Jews can also be regarded as pioneers of urban development in Germany. The prosecution of Jews and trade restrictions led to considerable economic disadvantages and loss of revenues, which is why bishops, lords and kings usually tried to restrain the anti-Semitic fervour of the lower clergy and the public. By granting privileges and protection to the Jews, they were merely lured into one's realm while at the same time safeguarding considerable revenues and protection fees.

With the aid of bishop Huzmann the Jews of Speyer had their rights and privileges confirmed and even expanded ("sub tuicionem nostram reciperemus et teneremus") by Henry IV as he departed on his third punitive expedition to Italy in 1090. The rights and privileges which had been especially granted to the Jews of Speyer, in particular to Judah ben Kalonymus, David ben Meshullam, and Moses ben Ghutiel (Jekuthiel), were extended to all the Jews of the empire. This Imperial Jews Charter was one of the first in Germany. The regulations concerned various political, legal, economical and religious aspects of life, most prominently free enterprise, the sale of goods to Christians and protection of property. A new regulation was that Jews who acquired stolen goods had to sell them back at the same price if the former owner wished to buy them. This constituted a major improvement because it greatly reduced the business risk for the Jews who had often been subject to accusations that they were dealing in stolen goods. In the event of disagreements between Jews and Christians from then on the "right of the concerned" was to be employed, which meant that Jews could also prove their case by oath or witness. Trials by ordeal were forbidden. Jews were also allowed to address the emperor or the imperial court directly in case of difficulties. Among each other they could use their own courts, which was to help avoid arbitrariness by Christian judges. Torture of any kind was strictly forbidden, and in the case of murder or injury the privilege stated that fines were to be paid to the emperor. The privilege also introduced strict rules for baptisms. Forced baptisms of children were totally outlawed. Jews voluntarily getting baptized were required to think it over for three days. Conversions were also made more difficult in that baptized Jews would lose their rights to inheritance. Basically, these regulations were meant to protect the size of the Jewish community and to ensure continued revenues. Jews were also allowed to employ Christian maids, wet nurses and labourers in their homes as long as it was ensured that they could observe the Christian Sundays and holidays. Neither the original charter granted by the bishop nor its re-enactment by the emperor proved sufficient to afford the Jews adequate protection.

The two charters of 1084 and 1090 marked the beginning of the "golden era" of the Jews in Speyer which, with limitations, was to last into the 13./14. century. They also called for a sound Jewish community in the town by that time. According to these documents, an "Archisynagogos", also called a "Jews bishop" (episcopus Iudeorum] presided the administration as well as the court of the community. He was elected by the community and confirmed by the bishop. Later, sources report of a "Jews council" of twelve presided by the Jews bishop who represented the community outside. In 1333 and 1344, the authority of the Jews council was expressly confirmed by the city council of Speyer.

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